Painting Eggs – using the Zorn Palette


Students often ask how they can practice their portrait skills when away at home and if they should work from photographs. I firmly believe, that although photography has its place, the best use of your time, if a model is unavailable to you, is to paint eggs from life. We may want to go into the details of the eyes, but we should wait until the planes of the head are understood and the modelling of the large form is captured. This is why painting eggs is such an amazing resource.

I was asked by Artists & Illustrator to write a series of articles on practices for painting using the Zorn palette.  

In the 4 articles, we looked at the Zorn palette: seeing how we can use it in our paintings and how it can benefit our working practice.


Here is the transcript from my first article, though of course, the formatting by Artists & Illustrator was much more attractive than my attempts at WordPress.


We looked at the Zorn palette in detail: colour, colour relationships through a colour chart and its advantages with portraiture.


What is the Zorn Palette?

The Zorn palette is also known as the limited palette. The colours are limited to 4 basic colours: Black, White, Red, and Yellow.

I consider these the primary colours with the addition of white (where Black is the substitute of Blue). Some also regard the Zorn palette as two colours: yellow & red, where black and white serve to control the chroma and the value. Either way, the colours are definitely limited.


Why is it called the Zorn palette?

The limited palette has been ascribed to Anders Zorn (1860-1920), a Swedish painter, who predominantly used a limited palette. He was not the first to use it, and nor did he use it exclusively, however, he is an artist who greatly excelled at it.

Many artists throughout the history of art used a limited palette, including Titian, Rembrandt and Velazquez, though most artists would use other colours when needed and vary their pigments. During the 19th century, many more pigments and colours became available to artists, so the use of a limited a palette became less prevalent. Yet many artists remained loyal to their limited palette and continue to do so today.


There is much debate about whether Zorn truly did use such a limited palette. In Zorn’s self-portrait, he holds a palette with the four colours, laid out from dark to light, proud of his bravura. I think he is showing us how his skill as a painter is in the fact he can create such ambience through his brush handling, despite his limited colours. But of course, there are times when he did use other colours.

1.Image of Zorn and Self-portrait


The Zorn palette is really used more in portraiture and figure painting, not in landscape painting (apparently we see more variety of greens than any other colours). Zorn would also use blues and greens and other colours when landscape painting and when painting with watercolours.

There is also evidence from his studio of a very varied selection of paints, but my studio also includes many colours that I would not usually use: as a painter I am often gifted tubes of paint and I like to experiment with different colours. After all no artist should be completely formulaic, as where would the space be left for creativity?


Teaching colour

There are many schools of thought when it comes to teaching colour and colour theory for painters.

An abundance of Colour

There are those who believe that all that we see is colour and therefor we should have access to the most amounts of tubes of colours as possible. This is not what I subscribe to. I think this presumes that as students we understand colour completely. I think we understand hue, but colour, with all its varying temperatures and values, is a much more complex and subjective topic.

Furthermore we can rarely get exactly the right colour from a tube. Painting colour involves relationships, and mixing colour. The colour we see is only in relationship to its neighbour. If we have an abundance of colours to mix from then we have thousands of options and combinations of colours available to us. How could we keep track of which colour combinations give us which colours?


A Limitation of Colours

By limiting the colours available to us we have to be much more disciplined and scientific about colour combinations and colour mixing and relationships. Of course as we learn we can add more colours to our palette. There is an expression we use when teaching that “values do all the work but colour gets all the credit”. How true this is. People often look at my paintings and say, “oh I love your colours’ and yet the colour is nothing without the design of shapes and values.


John Singer Sargent said that there is no point putting a brush stroke down unless it is the correct brush stroke in terms of colour, shape, value, and direction. This is very true, but we believe that learning every step all at once is much harder than breaking down the learning practice: from drawing shapes to proportions, values and then colour. A well-proportioned monochrome image is still representational even if devoid of colour. So it is best to introduce colour gradually.


The irony is that limiting our colours is in actual fact so liberating and can teach us so much. And we will see in article 2 just how many colours can be created despite the limitation of only having four pigments.



Painting an Egg

For the first exercise I have chosen to paint an egg. An egg is a fantastic teaching tool. Before we hire a model, an egg is a much cheaper and reliable alternative! The colour of an egg is so flesh like, and the shape of an egg is so similar to a portrait. It really is an amazing tool.


The palette set-up

I would suggest you do not work from a white palette. It is very hard to gauge the values and colours; everything we mix seems deeper against the white. In the same way that we should tone the canvas or panel, we should also work from a mid-tone palette: a wooden palette, a grey tear-off palette, or a piece of glass with grey paper laid underneath.  Some people like to put theirs on a table so a glass palette is good and it is much easier to keep clean. I am using my wooden palette, as I really like to hold my palette and I tend to walk back and forth from my easel and I can easily tilt it if there is glare.

Lay the colours out far apart from light to dark just as in Zorn’s self-portrait. Black, Red, Yellow and White, more specifically I use ivory black, cadmium red, yellow ochre and titanium white. I will go into more details of colours in the second article. I am always reminding students that the palette is limited in size, so we don’t want any of the palette to go on holiday, we need to access all of it.  I would suggest laying your colours far apart from each other and near the edge to give you the greatest area to mix in.

2. Image of the Palette and colours

Toning the canvas

With the Zorn palette you have black and white, which gives you values, light and dark. As a canvas panel is white we can tone it with a little black so it appears a mid-tone grey. It is always best to start from a mid-tone. Traditionally we often add a little red to the black. This is for two reasons, a) black is a very weak pigment and the red can add strength to it so that cracking is less likely and b) adding a little warmth to the original tone can really help when painting flesh tones.

3  Image Toned canvas

The Light set-up

When using a limited palette we are most likely prioritising light effect, drawing and values are going to be the anchor as opposed to colour. Therefore make sure you have a strong light set-up. Can you place your subject near a window (preferable north lit so that the light stays constant), or use a desk lamp to beam a strong light onto the subject. In this was you would have a clear and defined value pattern of light and dark. Don’t put your subject against the light or your back to the light. Ideally you want light on your canvas and a nice balance of light and dark on the subject.

4 Image of set up

Placement of shapes

After toning the canvas, start by mapping out the shapes with exactly the same mix you used for the wash, just a little darker. Black and red are also both transparent colours. Don’t use ochre or white at this stage. They are opaque colours and will make your painting milky. As a little analogy, if we have a cup of tea and want to make the tea darker we can always add another teabag. If the tea gets too dark we can add more water. But when we add the milk we have lost the transparency, which adds such a wonderful quality to a painting. When painting we want to try to achieve a variety of transparent and opaque paint.


Map out your shapes and then add your shadow lines. This is the edge or the transition between the light and the dark. Try to keep your painting very simple and just look for 2 values at first, a light and a dark mass. Be careful with the red, it is a very strong pigment so we don’t want it to overtake the drawing; it is just being used to slightly strengthen the black. We now have the shapes and value pattern established with just two pigments.

2 Images of egg on mid-tone background, lines with shadow lines, 2 mass

For the lights mix the other two colours, the ochre and the white. The light appears a little too yellow. Add a little red to warm it up. Does it appear a little too chromatic (saturated in colour)? A little touch of black will soften the colour.

6aSimple egg drawing with lights added

6b dipping into ochre

Modelling the paint.

It is very hard, but try not to soften the transition between the values. In painting we always say you should paint the transition. It is very tempting and seems like a quicker solution to take our brush and soften the paint between the transitions, but this can make your painting look muddy. If you work with a loaded brush (lots of paint on the brush) and paint the correct transition (shift in value), then the brushstroke will do all the work of the modelling. The painting will also look crisper and cleaner. I then added the simple light background which really helped the egg jump out

7 More transitions in the lights

The Background

In the first painting I used a white background, which helps bring out the warms of the egg. In this second exercise I placed the eggs on piece of wood and in front of a hessian background. The composition is more interesting because you have a relationship between the two objects.  The background was more fun to paly with as its colours and values depended on the colour and values of the egg; the value pattern and the colours belongs as much to the subject as to the background. I had to look more at relationships of colour than just the local colour.

8a Stages

8b 2 Eggs




My students always ask me how they can practice at home and can they paint a portrait from photographs. I think you will learn so much more by painting an egg with a strong light source than copying a photograph. In a photograph, the work of translating the 3d onto a 2d picture plane has already been done for you. By painting an egg, you are learning about how the shadows on a portrait work and how the mass relates to the background. Ideally set your egg against a mid-tone background so that the play of light and dark of the background relates to the light and dark on the egg. You can change the colour and value of the background and the position of the egg to create hours of practice and experimentation.


In this figure painting, the flesh is so beautiful, but each area is really just like another painting of a beautifully painted egg. The value shifts are so clear but not hard. There are no unnecessary brushstrokes and the design of the background in itself is quite abstract but beautifully balanced both with values and such limited accents of colour.

9 Figures


I will post my article on looking at the large range of colours we can create using the Zorn palette. We will be making a colour chart and discussing the break down of colour to values, temperature and chroma.








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