How to Choose a Color Palette
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
This is a subject that honestly could be covered across dozens of posts and it’s something I’m excited to delve into with you all! I personally am more observant of color than I am to shapes. Rather than seeing shapes filled in with color, I see the way color is structured to create the forms we end up seeing. The first step to painting or drawing more convincing objects is to first stop seeing them as objects. I’ll be going over this concept in an upcoming post! For today, I am sticking to color palettes and couple of tips on how to choose the right one to implement into your artwork.
Color theory is something I have always understood, but have had trouble deciding which palette would be best to use for my piece. This caused me to pick and choose from a multitude of palettes and ended up creating something I wasn’t quite anticipating. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, art experiments bring out some of our best works. But, when working towards an idea of what you want your piece to look like, this can become quite frustrating. The colors determine the mood, lighting, and 3D dimensions of an artwork. There is a crazy amount of color combinations out there, and none of them are necessarily wrong. It’s all about what tone and feel you are going for.
Something that would have helped me immensely is just sitting for a moment and thinking about what I want the mood of the piece to be instead of immediately relying on the internet. I’ve spent hours before sifting through photos and color palettes on Pinterest looking for that perfect color choice. Do I want to depict the feel of a warm sunny day at the beach? Or perhaps a cozy night under the stars? There’s an incredible number of photos on the web and it can be overwhelming. It’s much more effective to have an idea of mood to start with, and then go from there.
This tip is something I learned while creating my final assignment for my college degree, which was taking a color palette from a time in history and applying it to a piece in whatever way we wanted. I extracted a neon color palette from the 80’s and applied it to the following illustration:
I wanted the piece to have a night club sort of vibe, or something you would see a singer wear on MTV. The interjection of new technology and explosive new music scene became the icon of the era, bringing these brilliant colors along with them. Once I established this idea, it was much easier to complete my illustration since I already prefaced an idea for what I wanted it to represent. Now lets say I wanted the drawing of this girl to have a morning-like feel to it, like someone taking a glimpse of the sun rising over the mountains. Then I would choose an immensely different palette, and here’s what I would end up with:
Instead of a poppy night life piece, we have a girl outside during the sunrise. My main tip here is think about it. What do you want your piece to feel like? What time of day is it? Where does it take place? We get so caught up in getting a piece done quickly that we rely on the internet for help and end up getting sucked into the mass void of information, spending more time than we originally intended on figuring out what exactly we are trying to do. Really put some thought into what you’re trying to make, what you want to evoke. Then head over to good ol’ Pinterest or Instagram or your own photo gallery and get some solid color ideas!
On the contrary, if you don’t know what to draw, maybe search for a color selection first that stands out to you and use that as inspiration to flush out your idea. I keep a Pinterest board on hand for this very reason! Check out and follow my color theory board here! Another extremely useful tool I learned of recently is Adobe Color. You just import an image and select the colors you want to use. For instance, if I wanted to make a painting that captures the feeling of the Colorado Rockies, I could take a photo from my gallery I took on a hike to Quandary Peak:
and plug it into Adobe Color:
BOOM! Now I have an awesome color palette I could apply to virtually any piece of artwork!
Before you start scrolling through your social media feed looking for inspiration to color your art, take a seat and determine what mood you are trying to evoke through your piece. How are you feeling? How would you like to feel? Is there a moment in time you want to recapture? Do you have a beautiful photo that inspires you? If you’re motivated and unsure what to make an illustration of, simply take a look at some color palettes through your photo gallery or Pinterest and create something based on one of those!
So, what am I getting at here? Color determines the direction of your piece, and the difficulty of the choice is daunting. The versatility of color is astounding and something I will continue writing about in the future.