Head Studies with the Zorn Palette

In the last week or so, I've been trying out a couple of new things -- using water mixable oils, and using the Zorn palette for portrait painting. I've always wanted to try out water mixable oils after hearing about them from other artists, and when it came time to order more titanium white oil paints, I decided to get a water soluble oil version, plus a limited palette for trying it out.


The paints I got were from the Cobra brand by Royal Talens, but other manufacturers make them also, like Winsor Newton and Daniel Smith.

I decided to get the colors in the Zorn palette, since it's a classic limited palette for painting portraits. The Zorn palette. Named after the Swedish artist Anders Zorn, the colors are traditionally lead white, vermillion, yellow ochre, and ivory black. I used Titanium White, Pyrrole Red, Yellow Ochre, and Ivory Black. Lead white and vermillion (a mercury based pigment) are toxic, and aren't readily available, so I replaced them with safer, modern pigments.

Limited palettes are really useful to force a certain color harmony by limiting your color gamut -- that is, the range of colors that you can make. Since the Zorn palette has no blue, you can't really make greens; the best you can do is a greenish gray by mixing the black and yellow ochre. You can also only get some muted purples. So essentially you can only get colors with intense chroma in the red family. Here's a sense of the range of colors you can mix:


It turns out that limiting the colors was quite helpful to me, because I didn't have to think too much about color mixing, and instead got to focus more on values and drawing accuracy for my head studies. I used reference images from New Master's Academy, where I am taking a drawing course. Here's the results:

The water mixable oils feel just like oil paints when straight out of the tube, but they do feel less and less like oils as you add water to them. You can get mediums specifically made for water mixable oils as well, to keep the experience more consistent. Also, I believe you can mix regular oil paints and mediums with water soluble oils, except you will lose the water soluble properties of the paint. 

Since I can use water for thinning the paint, I don't have to use solvents, even to do those washy under paintings that a lot of artists like to do. Cleanup is a breeze, I can quickly clean the brushes with just soap and water. I really like this medium, I think I'm basically going to replace my oil paints with water mixable oils over time, as the old tubes run out.

 

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