From Student Palette to Zorn Palette

Student Palette Portrait

Student Palette Portrait

As described in my last post, I’ve been working with something called the student pallette. This is a severely restricted palette using only earth colors, white, and black. I’ve been working on that some more, as you can see from the pics I’ve posted here. The color palette of the painting at top uses: Rublev’s Raw Sienna and Venetian Red; Da Vinci’s Magnetite Genuine; and Winsor & Newton’s Flake White #1. The color palette of the second painting is: Rublev’s Blue Ridge Yellow Ocher and Ercolano Red; Da Vinci’s Magnetite Genuine; and Winsor & Newton’s Cremnitz White (a blend of lead and zinc whites). So all natural earths, plus white.

Student Palette Portrait

Student Palette Portrait

It’s rather difficult to work this way. I wrote something to the effect that it is like doing calisthenics. You’re fighting to get as much saturation as possible out of earth pigments, while at the same time maintaining your valued structure. At the end of a couple of hours it can feel like you’ve been in a battle.

One of the more difficult things about using this palette is maintaining temperature contrast. Even the slightest amount of blending – intentional or not – and the colors just disappear into each other, making something that looks like a monochromatic painting. This may be partly psychological as well: when you’re fighting for saturation, the last thing you think about doing is deliberately de-saturating some tones to get that temperature contrast. However, as my instructors have pointed out, desaturating some tones is the best way to get other tones look more saturated – in other words, if you want one note to look more saturated, place a less saturated color next to it.

Mulling Vermilion Oil Paint

Mulling Vermilion Oil Paint

Despite these difficulties – or, I should say, because of them – I highly recommend working with this palette. I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit about painting just from the half dozen or so paintings that I’ve done this way. I’d like to include a third painting here, one that was done with a different palette. This one was done in the Zorn palette, wherein the red earth in the student palette is replaced with vermilion. And for the first time, I’ve gotten some genuine vermilion to work with.

Zorn Palette Portrait

Zorn Palette Portrait

I purchased the pigment from Kama Pigments (which was a good deal less expensive than purchasing a tube of real vermilion paint). Because the jury is still out on the toxicity of vermilion, I took a few more precautions than I normally do when mulling paint: I took everything out to the garage, left the door open, and wore a mask and gloves. (I still managed to get a bunch of vermilion paint on me. Of course.) This pigment makes the most incredible vibrant red imaginable. And it’s got pretty high tinting strength in mixes; however, it doesn’t paint at all like cadmium red. You have to fight cad red a bit to get it to behave itself in skin tones – but mixing skin tones using vermilion and yellow ochre was a breeze. I’m not sure I can explain exactly what makes it so different from cadmium red. I guess I’d say that Vermillion wants to mix into skin tones – whereas cadmium red has no such desire.

One sketch, and I already love this paint. I know I’ll be using it more. In my last post, I wrote that the Student Palette is great for study, but probably not robust enough for most professional work. Vermilion is for the professional stuff.


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9 Responses to “From Student Palette to Zorn Palette”

  1. Chrissy Says:

    you know, I have been using a limited palette for several months now. it wasn’t entirely intentional, but rather something i discovered that i was doing. i’m using yellow ochre, dutch brown + cobalt to create a range of warm and cool neutrals, white, and a tiny amount of cad. red. sometimes i use the cobalt for something other than a neutral, and once in a blue moon i add a little bit of cad. yellow if i need a green that the yellow ochre can’t make – but as rarely as i use it, it probably shouldn’t be mentioned as part of my palette…

    but what you said about fighting with the cad. red struck home for me. i know just exactly what you mean. half the time I have to cut a small amount of it with yellow ochre before I even add it to a skin tone. and of course now i’m dying to try the vermillion… especially as I’ve just undertaken a master study of a Singer Sargent painting of Lady Agnew. i’m headed out to paint today in a group studio model session, and have a strong feeling that i’ll be returning home with some vermillion.

    I was taken by surprise by your writing about fighting to get saturation out of earth tones, especially where you’ve struggled with contrasting them against less saturated areas. this is one of my very favorite things to do with paint. when I see earth tones, I see nothing but color. there are a lot of subtle differences in color to be had with a neutral palette, and i think it’s those subtle differences that i’m really in love with. you might try starting with one of your earth colors, and adding its complementary color to get a gray tone, then add just a bit more of the complement to push the gray very slightly toward the complement – then place it next to your original earth tone on your canvas. this should get the earth tone to read as quite saturated. Kind of like how the less saturated tones in the girl in the top painting are making the yellow in the background read as quite bright by comparison. I’m betting that if you toned down the yellow, the subtle variations in color in the girl herself would stand out quite a bit more.

    • llawrence Says:

      Good comment, Chrissy, thanks. You’re quite right, of course – though I don’t have a complement to work with in this palette – the key to gaining saturation is to desaturate! Must be a psychological block that I’m not doing it well with this particular palette; Or, as I’ve so often discovered, some things just take me a long time to learn all the way through. (In the case of the painting with the yellow background, part of that was simply my constant eagerness to show off the lovely glazing qualities of natural raw sienna. I should have restrained myself.)

      I’m with you on the yellow ochre – along with raw sienna, it’s nearly the only yellow I use any longer.

      • Chrissy Says:

        I have not used raw sienna much recently – but you’re on a roll with pigment recommendations. I’ll have to dig it out and play with it soon.

        try mixing the venetian red with the magnetite to get an approximate complement for the yellow ochre.

        I agree with you – so much of painting just takes experience to really fully become familiar with. As many different techniques and pigment characteristics as I read about, it doesn’t sink in and become real to me until I’ve worked with it enough for it to become second nature.

        color theory was one of the first things I worked with formally, and is very second nature for me now. I love the totally subjective nature of how we perceive color. It’s a complicated beast, but one that I’m in love with. (I declare my love for color quite a bit, don’t I?) 🙂

  2. Chrissy Says:

    having now used (and now in love with) vermilion, i think it has to do with the transparency of the pigment, compared to cad. red being more opaque.

    • llawrence Says:

      That was quick! Beautiful stuff, isn’t it? The paint I made did seem pretty opaque – but I didn’t do a side-by-side comparison against cad red, which I will at some point.

      • Chrissy Says:

        I didn’t either, though I should have yesterday! I had a palette that had been prepared some time ago, before I learned the model had canceled the group studio session… and I had already laid out cad. red. I just added the vermilion to that palette, and then didn’t bother with the cad red once I discovered the wonder of vermilion. it acted more transparent than I am used to with the cad red, but it did depend on exactly what I was doing with it. this gives me a great new research project. you know I love a good pigment mystery! 🙂

  3. llawrence Says:

    Chrissy – regarding the vermilion, check my comment on your Facebook post.

    I have been fascinated with color theory in the past, but I’ve decided I’m not really a lover of color. I am a lover of paint, however. I can stand at the palette mixing and swirling paint all day, never getting around to the painting, happy as a clam.

    • Chrissy Says:

      I saw it this morning – and was just about to spend my planning period at work researching the pigment (and if I get to it, the gorgeous and expensive hue i’ve acquired) 🙂 …I’ve gotten as far as finding that you’re absolutely correct, the real thing should be opaque… Which of course makes me that much more interested in trying it. If (I should say when, because I’m sure it’s inevitable) I buy the pigment, will you walk me through grinding it into oil? So far I’ve been satisfied with just attempting to make pigments, but have not yet turned any of them into paint – and I’d hate to do it incorrectly with such a great pigment.

      Interesting, isn’t it, the reasons we have behind our common interest in pigment making? Mine stems from a love of color that made me want to know their history.

  4. Hand-mulling Paint, Part I « Sunsikell Says:

    […] pigment happens with the muller.) Some pigments take longer and require more work, some less. The vermilion that I ground up recently was very quick and easy. Eggshell White on the […]

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