"Self-Portrait in Red” by Anders Zorn

Anders Zorn's adeptness at creating vivid, lifelike portraits is a testament not just to his skill but also to his meticulous selection of materials. This is particularly evident in his self-portraits Self-Portrait in Red and Self-Portrait in a Wolfskin Coat. Through a detailed examination of his pigments, we gain insights into the deliberate choices that underpin his masterpieces.

At the end of Anders Zorn's career, these two self-portraits emerged as profound expressions of his artistic evolution: Self-Portrait in Red and Self-Portrait in a Wolfskin Coat. Crafted in 1915, these pieces not only mark the culmination of Zorn's exploration of self-representation but also stand as a testament to his enduring legacy, showcased side by side in exhibitions leading up to his passing in 1920—including the 1916 Charlottenborg exhibition in Copenhagen and retrospectives at Liljevalchs Konsthall in Stockholm.

Despite their concurrent creation and joint exhibition, the portraits diverge significantly in their approach to paint application. Self-Portrait in a Wolfskin Coat is characterized by a remarkable fineness and thin paint layers in its execution, reflecting a technique Zorn had been refining since the turn of the century. Conversely, Self-Portrait in Red harks back to the robust, vigorous application of his earlier years, employing dense layers of paint to sculpt the flesh, attire, and backdrop. This contrast underscores Zorn's refusal to be tethered to a singular method, instead showcasing his adaptability and nuanced understanding of paint's potential to convey depth and emotion uniquely across his works.

Anders Zorn, “Self-Portrait in a Wolfskin Coat (Självporträtt i vargskinnspäls),” 1915, Oil on canvas, 90 x 58.5 cm, The Zorn Museum, Mora

Anders Zorn, Self-Portrait in a Wolfskin Coat (Självporträtt i vargskinnspäls), 1915, oil on canvas, 90 cm x 58.5 cm, Zorn Collections (Zornsamlingarna), Mora

The Harmony of Complexity and Simplicity

Zorn's palette, though seemingly simple, belied a complex understanding of color and medium. His approach, as revealed through the layered construction of Self-Portrait in Red, demonstrates a profound mastery over the interplay of pigments.

Depth through Layers

A close analysis of Zorn's pigment layers unveils a symphony of colors artfully veiled beneath the surface:

  • Foundation Layers: The initial layers comprise a mix of zinc white, chalk, cobalt blue, viridian, and vermilion, setting a nuanced base that interacts subtly with overlying colors.

  • Chromatic Progression: Subsequent layers feature varying concentrations of cobalt blue, lead white, and vermilion, creating a rich depth and complexity that belie the apparent simplicity of the final hues.

  • Final Accents: The uppermost layers, dominated by vermilion and lead white, culminate in the vibrant reds and delicate flesh tones that define Zorn's portraits.

This layering technique demonstrates not only Zorn's strategic pigment use but also his understanding of how different materials interact to produce desired effects.

X-radiograph imaging and analysis of a paint sample taken from above Zorn's right shoulder in the Self-Portrait in Red shows a possible alteration to the painting by the artist. The X-radiograph of the self-portrait reveals a painting like the one on a painted screen in the Zorn Museum.

The painted screen depicted in the original background in Self-Portrait in Red.

Left: The painted screen as depicted in the original background in Self-Portrait in Red. Right: X-radiograph detail showing the background that was later painted out by Zorn.

Anders Zorn self portrait paint sample

A paint sample taken from the area behind Zorn’s right shoulder shows the application of a brown paint layer on top of a green paint layer. The latter is believed to represent a painted screen currently housed at the Zorn Museum.

The table shows the layers and pigments identified in the sample of Self-Portrait in Red.

Layer No. Layer Description Pigments
1 Single layer of white ground Lead white and chalk
2 Beige paint layer Lead white and zinc white with some chalk and aluminosilicates
3 Green paint layer Viridian with lead white and trace amounts of aluminosilicates and zinc white
4 Reddish brown paint Vermilion, bone black, some lead white and an earth pigment with aluminosilicate


Anders Zorn, Midnatt, 1891

Anders Zorn, Midnight (Swedish: Midnatt), 1891, oil on canvas, 69 cm x 103 cm (27.1 in x 40.5 in), Zorn Collections (Zornsamlingarna), Mora     

Ander Zorn, Midnatt, 1891, sample paint layer

This photograph shows a paint layer from the damaged area in the pale blue water on the right-hand side of the painting Midnight.

The table shows the layers and pigments identified in the sample from the painting Midnight.

Layer No. Layer Description Pigments
1 Pale blue/beige paint layer Zinc white with chalk, cobalt blue, viridian, vermilion
2 Blue paint layer Cobalt blue, lead white, small amount of vermilion
3 White paint layer Lead white with trace amounts of cobalt blue and vermilion
4 White/beige paint layer Lead white, vermilion, and cobalt blue particle
5 Pale red paint layer Vermilion, lead white, and scattered cobalt blue particles
6 Red paint layer Vermilion and lead white
7 White paint layer Lead white with scattered vermilion particles
8 UV fluorescing layer Organic media
9 Restoration layer? Lead white with chalk

A Study in Contrast and Cohesion

The contrast in techniques between Self-Portrait in Red and Self-Portrait in a Wolfskin Coat is marked. The former employs a robust, layered approach, while the latter showcases a thinner application, reflecting Zorn's versatility and adaptability. This duality underscores the artist's ability to manipulate his medium to suit his expressive needs, achieving varied textural and atmospheric effects within the same palette constraints.

Implications for Contemporary Practice

Zorn's work provides valuable lessons for modern artists on the use of materials:

  • Strategic Layering: Understanding how different pigments interact across layers can enhance depth and luminosity.

  • Economy of Palette: A limited selection of pigments does not limit creativity; rather, it challenges the artist to explore the full potential of each color.

  • Adaptability: Varying application techniques can significantly alter the mood and impact of a piece, demonstrating the importance of flexibility in artistic practice.

Zorn's self-portraits, rich in technique and pigment choice, serve as compelling studies for artists and historians alike. By dissecting his approach to materials, contemporary artists can glean insights into the power of strategic pigment use and layering to convey depth, emotion, and vitality.

Zorn's Limited Palette

These are the colors from Zorn's limited palette from the top left clockwise: yellow ochre, lead white, bone black, and vermilion. Currently, this palette is unavailable.

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The colors above are the same on the original Zorn palette, substituting cadmium red light for vermilion. 


Emma Jansson (2023). Zorn's Studio—The Artist's Materials and Techniques. Zornmuseet, 2023, ISBN 978-91-983701-5-7

This book focuses on Zorn's technique, colors, and work process for the first time in a scientific investigation. Emma Jansson's research on Zorn was conducted at the Institute for Culture and Aesthetics, Stockholm University. The work resulted in the doctoral dissertation Making in Context: Reconsidering Anders Zorn's Oil Painting Practice (2022), from which this book emerged.

The book is available from Zornmuseet.