Colour choices can make or break an otherwise outstanding piece of work, and many artists spend time experimenting with different colour ways before finding a palette that fits the theme and mood they’re after. With this in mind, we asked a group of talented designers and illustrators with varying styles to tell us their go-to techniques for creating cohesive colour palettes. Here are some of their tried and tested methods.
1. Learn about colour theory
“I really enjoy collecting colour palettes and usually start by getting inspired by one specific colour. For example, I am still riding the wave of mustard and honey yellow. From there, I search for fitting partner colours guided by the basics of colour theory (e.g. complementary/analogous).”
If you’re not too familiar with colour theory, a colour wheel is a good place to start. Looking at a colour wheel will help you understand how colours opposite each other such as blue and orange, or next to each other, like blue, green and yellow, will work together and interact with other colours in your scheme. What you put next to a colour is just as important as the initial colour choice itself—a light yellow will look completely different when used next to a dark red than a light orange, for example.
Check out the first article in our ‘Colour Series’ Colour Theory 1: Basic concepts to learn more about the fundamentals of colour theory.
2. Consider the psychology of colour
“I analyse the vibe the illustration is giving me or the vibe I want to send out and work on combinations from there.”
Colour is all-important in conveying a non-verbal message. Start by taking a step back to consider the emotion or overall vibe your piece needs to express. This will give you a better idea of the colours you should be aiming towards. For example, if you want to create a sense of calm, using cool colours such as green, blue and purple should be a safe bet. To evoke a feeling of energy or positivity, you might want to choose warmer colours like red, yellow and orange. If your work is moody, you may want to focus on a darker palette. Or, if your design is cute, a pastel palette could work best.
To learn more about colour messaging from a design perspective, check out the second article in our ‘Colour Series’, Colour Theory 2: Colour in branding and design.
3. Look for inspiration in everyday life
“I have a huge photo library of pictures I take on the street of houses, plants, etc., and sometimes I use those as references. I’m from Mexico, so everything here is very colourful.”
No matter where you live, inspiration can be found just around the corner—in nature, on the streets, in a shop window display. So next time you go for a walk, travel somewhere, go shopping or run an errand, look out for colour combinations that inspire you and document them by taking a photo. Before you know it, you’ll have your very own library of reference pictures to sample colours from.
4. Search for real-world sources
When drawing subjects for a design or illustration, it’s always a good idea to look at real-world sources to ensure you get the proportions, lighting and details right; the same goes for colour. If you’re working on a piece that has to represent a specific place or decade, it’s a good idea to search for photos or art created in that location or era. This will help you get a feel for the colours that will evoke the right sense of place. Screenshot your favourites and put them on an artboard (if you’re using Affinity Designer) to collate your inspiration.
5. Create colour chords
A colour chord is a spread of harmonious colours which can be used in conjunction with each other to produce appealing designs.
You can create colour chords in Affinity Designer, Photo and Publisher by first choosing a base colour and then picking a chord type. A spread of colours is then populated and stored in the current palette in the Swatches panel, so you can select from these colours as you work.
Chord types are based on the HSL colour wheel and include:
- Complementary—the base colour and its opposite on the colour wheel.
- Split Complementary—the base colour and the colours adjacent to its opposite on the colour wheel.
- Analogous—the base colour and the colours adjacent to it on the colour wheel.
- Accented Analogic—the same as Analogous but, like Complementary, also includes the base colour’s opposite.
- Triadic—three colours spaced equally around the colour wheel starting from the base colour.
- Tetradic—four colours arranged around the colour wheel in two complementary colour pairs, starting from the base colour. Otherwise known as ‘Rectangle’.
- Square—four colours spaced equally around the colour wheel starting from the base colour.
- Tints—colours which vary in lightness from the base colour to white.
- Shades—colours which vary in lightness from the base colour to black.
- Tones—colours which vary in saturation from the base colour to grey.
6. Use a colour palette generator
“I use the Coolors app on my iPad to create palettes. I usually put it in a floating window with the illustration in Affinity Designer in the background. What I have previously vectorised in greyscale shapes indicates which colours will be lighter and which will be darker. Then I look at the illustration and put together a palette that fits me.”
A colour palette generator is an app or site that provides colour inspiration to help you choose an effective palette for your artwork or designs.
Typically you can search for palettes by either selecting a base colour; a topic (like Spring, Halloween, Kids, Nature or Happy); a style (such as the number of colours, Monochromatic, Warm or Cold); a popular or trending colour scheme or by inputting a particular hex code.
7. Search on Pinterest or Instagram
“I usually search for colour references on Pinterest or Instagram. I try to match colour combinations with my illustrations and imagine how they will look in the illustration itself and whether they will match the mood.”
Pinterest and Instagram are both great sources of colour palette inspiration. On Pinterest, search terms such as ‘Colour Palette’ or ‘Colour Inspiration’ or something more specific to your design like ‘Spring Colour Palette’ if you’re creating a spring-time promotion, and you’ll be presented with hundreds of results. Simply scroll through and the pick ones you like or pin your favourites to a new board for future inspiration.
To find beautiful colour combinations on Instagram, try searching for accounts dedicated to colour such as @colours.cafe, @the.colour.lab or @ui.colour, artists who inspire you with great colour combinations or colour-related hashtags like #colourinspiration, #colourpalette, #colourscheme, #colourlover or #dailydoseofcolor and then save any posts that catch your eye.
8. Study the work of famous painters
Entire movements in art history have been dedicated to the study and application of colour, and there is much to be learnt from visiting a gallery or looking at paintings online.
Artists such as Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and many others are well known for their experimentation with colour. Research how they created a sense of balance, expressed a mood or communicated a story through their choice and placement of colour. Learning how great painters use colour will level up this vital skill in your own work.
9. Get inspiration from interior design
When it comes to choosing colour schemes, other artistic disciplines, such as interior design, are faced with the same challenges when trying to convey a particular mood or atmosphere. Try looking at home décor resources like Houzz, Design Sponge, IdealHome and Dwell to browse room colours and trends and start collating schemes you feel are successful.
10. Keep experimenting
“I used to look up colour palettes that I could work with. Nowadays, I colour most of my works based on intuition and my mood on that day, the more vibrant and contrasting, the better! I’ve been also been trying to experiment with some softer, pastel-like colours lately.”
Ask a seasoned artist about their style, and they’ll say it is something that is constantly evolving. The same goes for an artist’s relationship with colour.
Freelance graphic designer and illustrator Melinda Magyar’s work has a vibrant and colour contrasting aesthetic, but in the early days, she only worked in black and white. “Not using colour was sort of a safe zone for me, but thanks to one of my teachers, I managed to get out of that phase, and since then, colour has played a huge role in my works,” she explains.
Colour is something that can be used in an infinite number of ways, so experiment, have fun and push the boundaries. Even if you discover combinations that don’t work, you’ll be learning something about colour that you didn’t already know and can avoid in the future.
11. Look for patterns in your work
“Earlier this year, I looked through the illustrations I made in the past and easily noticed some particular colours and colour combinations that I use every once in a while. So I picked out my 10 most used colours to make new palettes in Affinity Designer. Since then, I’ve stuck to these palettes and added a few more colours gradually.”
It’s always a good idea to look back at your previous work to see what you feel has worked and what hasn’t. You can learn a lot by doing this with colour.
Go back through your portfolio and note any particular colours or colour combinations you have been drawn to in the past or which you think worked well. Then take those tried and tested palettes and freshen them up. Partner them with extra colours or swap some colours out for new ones. Even tweaking the saturation, brightness and values of an existing palette can make a big difference.