On Illustrating with a Consistent Colour Palette

As an illustrator who works in a very limited, consistent colour palette, I take the notion of “how to work with colour” rather for granted. I don’t typically have to make colour decisions, because I made one a long time ago and decided to stick with it. But it hasn’t always been so.

How did I choose colours at that point? What made me so sure that these were the colours I would want to stick with for the rest of my life?

Today, my colour palette is a key component of my style. I use the same colours everywhere, at every opportunity. I quite like them too. They’re distinctive, and for me, hit all the right notes. And I often receive compliments on how I use colour. Even my mom likes my colours. It may come as a surprise, then, that I don’t consider myself to be very good with colours. While over time I have developed an understanding of colour theory and found certain ways of using colours that I would consider tasteful, colour has always presented to me one of the most difficult challenges: infinite possibility. Some artists love limitlessness, but I am not one of those. I need constraints. I need some way of narrowing down to one small set of options, lest I succumb to total paralysis.

My ultimate motivation today is to at least start to put into words how I approach colour. What I do know for certain is that how you use colour is a key component of your illustration style.

Now, honestly, there is no secret to how I came up with my current colour palette: I can point back to one image I found on Pinterest when searching for some inspiration for a project at the time (a New York travel guide for Herb Lester Associates). Then I used the eyedropper in Photoshop to pick these out and add them to my swatches. This was earlier in my development as an illustrator, but not as early on as you might think (it was maybe 5 years ago).

The 2016 Illustration for Herb Lester Associates (right) and the image that directly inspired my colour palette (left).

Now, the colours I fell in love with then are not quite the same today: I’d say they have drifted (especially my darkest tone, which has shifted from an almost purple-black to a deep navy). But the overall approach borrowed from this inspiration image, including the kinds of colours, how many, and the quality of colours and how they are all combined, these haven’t changed at all. In my case, I use a very small set of colours, and I combine these in various ways to make additional colours, which creates instant colour harmony. The red in my the New York illustration above is created by combining the pink and the yellow. The brown is created by combining the green, pink and yellow.)

If a client comes with their own colour palette, provided it’s well-considered, I am relieved of the paralyzing task of choosing a set of colours from the millions of possibilities.

Something really clicked when I made the New York guide. From that moment forward, I started using colours in this way more often. It wasn’t like I decided there and then that I would only use these colours, but there was something about this set that really worked for me, and so I found myself, always in a pinch, turning to this set in some way or another. And then, there was a point where I realized that every time I set out to choose colours, I was more or less choosing this one limited palette. It was upon this realization that I made the call to formally adopt these as my own. The colour palette you might recognize in my work today are a formalization of the kinds of colours I had always been using: deep navy, red-orange, pink, yellow, green and cyan.

My current logo, which uses my go-to colours: deep navy, red-orange, yellow and pink.

Of course, as a commercial illustrator, I don’t always get full say on the colours I use. Sometimes I have to work in an entirely different palette, perhaps as established in brand guidelines or by an art director for a campaign. In such cases, I am more than happy to go along. Just because I have a very specific range of go-to colours, that doesn’t mean I am against other colours. It’s just that I have colours that I consider my home. What I don’t like is having to choose colours in an arbitrary fashion. If brand colours exist, there is no such arbitrariness, and I don’t have to go out and figure out a “correct” colour palette. Since colours really are subjective, this process of choosing a palette everyone agrees on can become a tiresome task. If a client comes with their own colour palette, provided it’s well-considered, I am relieved of the paralyzing task of choosing a set of colours from the millions of possibilities.

Illustration for Adirondack Life Magazine (2021)

When which colours to use are up to me, when the client does not have a brand palette of their own, I use my own brand colours. As mentioned, my go-to palette is just a formalization of the colours I tend to use: if I always circle around the same kinds of colours, I might as well name them, decide on consistent values for each, and stick with them.

While sticking to a singular palette is convenient for me, is it fair to clients? Am I giving enough consideration to colour on their behalf? Shouldn’t I set colours based on the mood or to set the scene? For certain kinds of illustrators, these may be more imporant. For my work, which tends to be more symbolic and stylized, the colours I choose and how I use them are a part of the package. I rely less on colour to establish mood, and the idea of ambient or atmosphere-influenced lighting is almost absent from my work. My style is my brand, and colour is a keystone element of my style. If a business can set up a set of colours they like and then direct everyone who works with their brand to use them, why can’t I do the same with my own brand? Either way, since clients who choose to work with me will already be into my style, they’ll probably also be into how I use colour. Interestingly, when colour is up to me, most of the time, clients don’t even mention it. Only in rare instances do clients have specific requirements that challenge how I naturally work with colour.

Image for Harry Rosen (2019).

On a more personal level, am I limiting myself too much? Is sticking with one set of colours for all time painting me in a corner? Am I stunting my own growth as an artist? I don’t think so. Rather, I am a stronger artist for it, since I have identified a very important part of my visual toolkit, something that for some, unexplained reason, is a part of me. I can’t tell you why I like the colours I like, but I can tell you which ones I am drawn to and which seem to work best in my commercial work. I am always happy to work with different colours when the opportunity presents, but I’m also happy to have a home base to return to, a default mode that I can rely on as I make other important decisions in my work.

My style is my brand, and colour is a keystone element of my style. If a business can set up a set of colours they like and then direct everyone who works with their brand to use them, why can’t I do the same with my own brand?

Ultimately, I use the colours I use because I like them. The real secret to choosing and using colours is in starting with what you know you like. Emphasis on what you know. So if you are looking for more help using colour, or perhaps in establishing a go-to palette you can rely on every time, start with what you know. Which colour or colours do you consistently go back to in your work? What colours and palettes are you attracted to in the work of others? As you work toward developing your overall style, including your palette, routinely lay out a selection of your work and try to identify a pattern of how you tend to work with colour. Then take intentional steps to formalize these into a palette.

Image from The Castle The King Built (2020)

To summarize, here are some things you can take away from this article:

  1. Colour is a key element of your style. By using the same colours consistently, your body of work automatically holds together more cohesively.
  2. Start with what you like. Regardless of your confidence in choosing and using colour, you definitely have at least a couple favourite hues. Start with these and try to build off them.
  3. When looking for colour palettes that work, do not be shy about picking ones you love from reference images. Whether you end up using these exact colours forever or evolving them over time, you’ll learn a lot about how to work with colour just by working with someone else’s for a while.
  4. You don’t have to always use the same colours, but you should always use a similar approach. Maybe you always use really bright colours, or never use more than 2 at a time. Maybe you vary the colours a lot but always make sure to sneak in your signature hue.
  5. Colour doesn’t always have to set the mood. When you use colour consistently in your work, the question of which colours to use in a given job become less important. There is more focus on other aspects, such as concept, content and composition, in the art to evoke mood and message. Colour can set the tone of a piece, but if your entire body of work uses one palette all the time, as far as mood is concerned, colour becomes irrelevant. Instead, colour signifies your identity as an illustrator, and this can help you stand out in the marketplace.

Colour is a topic I have always struggled with, but I increasingly feel more confident in using it in my work. It actually wasn’t until fairly recently (within the last 2 years) that I really felt I had a strong, specific, limited set of colours to work with. It wasn’t until recently that I felt permitted to go ahead and just use these same colours all the time, as much as possible.

Colour is also a topic I have always struggled to teach and talk about, because of how unscientific and subjectively my own way of using colour has come about. Honestly, I use certain colours because I like them. I have developed an understanding of how they work that is mostly personal and intuitive. At the same time, it’s something I have always wanted to get better at talking about — perhaps even producing an entire Skillshare class around.

My ultimate motivation today is to at least start to put into words how I approach colour. What I do know for certain is that how you use colour is a key component of your illustration style. Every well-established illustrator has a very specific, strongly identifiable way of using colour. For illustrators, colour doesn’t so much set the mood of a given image—it sets the tone of your style. If you want to have a consistent, unique style, then you must have a consistent way of using colour. Aim to find your specific colours, and then fly with them.

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

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