Making Colour Selection Seem Less Random

Going Back to Pre-Digital Limitations is the Secret to Using Colour More Confidently in Our Art

In addition to my book about the creative process, I am also working out my next Skillshare class: this one will be about colour.

I’ve been thinking about a colour class for years now; until now, nothing had materialized. I kept hitting the same wall—the fact that I don’t really have a sophisticated approach to colour in my own work. I simply know what I like, and have slowly worked out which handful of colours I tend to use most often over time. That’s it. One day, I realized there were six or so colours that I liked most, and I decided that I was just going to stick to those from now on, unless the creative direction asked for something different. That’s just what I’ve done, and it’s worked for me.

So with that as my background in using colour, what can I really deliver in a class on the subject? Is it how to identify which colours you use most, and then an exhortation to use those colours alone forever more? That doesn’t seem like much of a class to me.

Not Another Class about Colour Theory

Something I have been avoiding is anything approaching traditional colour theory. Colour theory is very cut and dried, and I don’t think I have anything new to add to that. I would like to assume that students coming into the class have some background in colour theory already.

In a way, colour theory kind of bores me. I don’t want to teach it precisely because I can’t add anything to it. In all my classes, what I enjoy most is teaching my own unique insights and discoveries that work around my lack of skill or knowledge in more classical artistic techniques. What makes my classes interesting and approachable is how they buck traditional wisdom on creativity. For instance, my class, Odd Bodies, is all about how to draw people less anatomically correct or proportionally. In Drawing Toward Illustration, I proclaim that it’s not how you can draw, but how you can’t, that makes your work more unique and interesting. In The Style Class, I take on a topic that many artists and designers (especially classroom teachers) turn their noses up at. The bigger picture here is that what makes my classes successful is that I take an established idea and turn it on its head. That’s a classic go-to move for book writers and public speakers.

Image by Tom Froese for Re:Porter Magazine (Porter Airlines)

The logical conclusion of course is that my colour class needs to take traditional colour theory and turn it on its head. I need to show how I work with colour in spite of not really applying colour theory in a deep sense. What are my contrarian ideas on using colour, which are actually helpful for me, and which can be relevant to others? I think that last bit is the challenge. My approach to colour works for me, but I don’t know if it’s something I would encourage everyone to do. If everyone approached colour the way I do, that would be sad and boring. So, another huge challenge is to teach an approach to using colour that helps others use colour in their own way, not just mine. That’s hard because I can only teach from what I know. I cannot teach colour for painters or people who wish to work in more objective colours.

Finding Common Pain Points: What Do Illustrators Struggle With the Most?

What I can do: figure out what other illustrators’ pain points are when working with colour. That’s how I start thinking about all my classes. What are the things people struggle the most with, especially beginners? In my very brief research, I have learned that illustrators struggle in these ways:

  • Using a consistent colour palette across their work
  • Choosing just a few colours out of the infinite options available
  • Generally speaking, confidence in their ability to choose and use colour — their colour sense.

These pain points are exactly the ones I encountered early on in my development as a designer and illustrator. The most glaring negative experience for me was not feeling I had any understanding of how to choose and use colour in a given design, especially when there was no natural or logical colour choice. It’s one thing to need to choose colours for a tree, for instance: leaves are green, trunk is brown. If it has apples, they are red. Easy. It’s a whole other thing to have to choose colours for something more abstract, such as a logo or a typographic layout. Why would I choose orange rather than blue? And which orange should I choose? If I need another colour in the palette, how do I know which one?

In those early days, I assumed I needed some kind of external, more objective system to guide me. I looked to books about colour geared toward designers. A lot of these glossed over colour theory, showing the classic colour wheel, bandying about terms like “complementary” and “analogous”, and then offering readymade palettes for various uses and demographics, like “kids’ palettes”. Of course, it was interesting and helpful to understand how colour works at the physiological, psychological and cultural levels: what read means to humans at the instinctual level, how it activates chemicals in our bodies, and how we understand and use it in our cultures. Red is an alerting, attention-grabbing colour. It is the colour of blood and anger. That’s why red is a good colour for stop signs and fire trucks. While learning external systems of how colour works and what it means is essential to building up one’s confidence in using colour, it doesn’t solve a more practical problem for illustrators, which is how to choose one narrow set of colours out of the millions available.

Letterpress print using 2 inks and a gold foil. Image by Tom Froese for The Canadianist.

Infinite Choice: Digital Hurts More than Helps

This problem of virtually infinite choice is likely a problem unique to the digital age. Digital illustration tools like illustrator and photoshop offer us every possible colour in the RGB colour space—that’s 256 values of red x 256 values of green x 256 values of blue = over 16.7 million in all. This is great for watching movies in HD, but even then, it’s too much for the human eye, which can only perceive about 10 million colours. For illustrators and designers looking to choose just 6 colours, it’s about 16,777,210 too many.

You can read all the books on colour theory and psychology in the world but still not feel confident about which ones to choose for your picture book or your client’s new brand. The solution many arrive at, and you can see this at play especially in design (versus illustration), is to just stick with pure spectrum colours and black and white. Actually this isn’t a bad way to go, but what about times when you need more nuance?

If we only ever made work for ourselves, or if our clients always permitted us to use the colours we want, sticking with a basic palette could definitely work. But often, we must bring in more nuanced colours or work with client-prescribed palettes, and that’s when we lose our confidence. We become overwhelmed with infinite options or can’t navigate colour outside our highly limited comfort zone.

As mentioned, the problem of choice with colour is a very modern one, emerging from the sheer limitlessness of digital colour. My intuition has always been that we need to give ourselves constraints in order to move forward in creative work. Needless to say, we need to constrain ourselves to just a few colours and then stick with them. And needless to say, setting this constraint when there are no limits to begin with is the big challenge. It just seems so arbitrary. The solution must be somewhere in making this decision seem less arbitrary. Hence looking out to external systems for guidance. And here is the real problem: if we are always looking for outside guidance with colour, how will we ever have inner colour confidence? Will there ever come a time when we feel more comfortable using colour, just from our intuition? This is a similar problem to drawing from references versus from imagination. We hope that at some point we can just work from heart, both in what we draw and how we use colour.

As a thought experiment, take away the possibility of 16.7 million colours in the digital space. Imagine you only had 16 colours to work with, and no ability to blend them. Between you and any other artist using these same limited colours, your work will have a common colour quality. Now go and look at some computer games from the 1980s, which used the CGA colour (Color Graphics Array) space. With a hard limit on available colours, all CGA-based graphics have a similar look to them. While this may seem like an extreme example, this idea of having hard, physical limits is exactly what most artists from most of time have had to start with.

Typical CGA graphics palette.

In painting, for example, even as there are thousands of available ready-mixed colours in tubes and tins, most painters work in one small subset of colours, and usually only those of a certain brand. In Betty Edwards’ book, Color, she lists only 9 colours needed by most painters: titanium white, ivory black, cadmium yellow pale, cadmium orange, cadmium red medium, alizarin crimson, cobalt violet, ultramarine blue, and permanent green. While in her book she offers much more instruction around colour theory and how to mix and use these colours in physical media, this insight of having a very restricted foundational palette is important. While there are still thousands of possibilities for how to mix and combine these colours, having these 9 as a starting point relieves artists from the burden of having to choose from the thousands. This external guidance comes to save us from a certain amount of anxiety around making the right or wrong choice, and from feeling somehow incapable of working with colour.

My usual palette. Image by Tom Froese for Magazine Georges.

How Physical Technique Informs Digital Colour

And here’s my big, counterintuitive insight: digital promised us liberation from the limitations of physical media, but we must start by emulating these very limitations in order to move forward at all. In The Style Class, I touched on how all digital techniques in some way simulates physical media. Photoshop and Procreate simulates Painting and Drawing media. Illustrator simulates Printmaking. Photoshop can also simulate a mixed media, or collage, workflow. All art, whether illustration, painting, or otherwise, however far digital has helped develop it, has its roots in some physical process. All the digital tools we now use in most ways reference the older physical tools. In digital illustration, anachronistic physical media metaphors abound: brushes, eyedropper, and even canvas and palette are all references to physical objects many of us have even touched in real life. Where it comes to colour, few of us have ever squeezed a tube of paint. It’s no wonder we look at the Swatches panel or the Colour Picker tool in puzzlement. We see the colours but don’t understand their physical roots. We don’t understand the model, because we don’t understand what it is modelling.

Just as I encourage my students to understand which physical media underlies the style they hope to work in (in The Style Class), in my colour class, I will be encouraging students to consider what physical limitations might apply to the colours they choose and they way they use them. This will end up wrapping the idea of choosing colours inside the bigger idea of style and technique. When you understand the physical technique your digital style is emulating, you will have more powerful insights about how colour works into the equation. For example, my work is inspired by printmaking techniques such as letterpress and silk screen. In these settings, colour is strictly limited to about 6 inks, and usually more like two or three. Here I am justified in eliminating 16,777,213 of the available RGB colours. Although I must still theoretically choose from the millions, choosing and working with 3 colours is much easier than, say, painting from a palette of 16 paint colours. Once I choose my “inks”, the limitations of printmaking further influence how I use them. In letterpress, for instance, there can be no blending of colours and, generally speaking, no halftones or variations of opacity. It’s binary: colour on or colour off. So this results in my colours being solid, always at 100% opacity. Other wonderful possibilities emerge from printmaking constraints: printing one colour over another results in a combined colour, known as an overprint. With two bright primaries, a secondary colour emerges. I could go on about my own techniques and how this influences how I work with colour, but, again, the big takeaway is that the root physical technique of any digital tool can and should inform which colours you use and, even more so, how you use them.

Simple two colour palette for a silk screen poster. Image by Tom Froese for Polaris Music Prize.

By tracing our chosen style back to its roots, we can overcome all three pain points in working with colour: provided we have a consistent style or technique, we will more naturally have a more consistent way of using colour in our work. We will also more easily be able to choose a few colours from the millions. Finally, having a stronger understanding of how our digital techniques emulate physical media, we will have more confidence in our colour choices; knowing how physical colour and technique influence one another gives us an external system to rely on; it makes our decisions feel less arbitrary.

The question that remains unanswered (for now) is how we choose those limited colours. How can we arrive at a palette that works, whether in one piece or across our body of work? Outside of simulating the constraints of physical media, what else can inform our colour sense? I’ve explored this topic before, but I will be building on these ideas more as I plan out my upcoming class about colour.

Illustrator. Creatively Empowering Teacher/Speaker. Represented by Making Pictures/UK & Dot Array/USA. Top Teacher on @skillshare.