The 3 Pain Points of Colour for Illustrators

What Gets Us Most Stuck When Using Colour?

Colour seems to come easy for some illustrators. For everyone else, it’s one of the stickiest sticking points in our process! While each experiences colour in their own way, I find that illustrators struggle in three key areas:choice, consistency, and confidence. I call these the 3 Pain Points of Colour.

There are millions of colours in the physical world. While I don’t know if they have been quantified, I have learned that the human eye is capable of seeing around 10 million of them. Our digital devices, on the other hand, offer us 16.7 million. That’s about 7 million more than we need—just in case, I suppose.

All of this to say: we have a lot of possibilities to sort through. Most of the time, we need only a handful of colours in our art. How to choose from the many?

We can overcome our struggle with infinite choice by setting constraints in our work.

Easy, you might say. Just use the colour wheel and pick from these. That leaves us 12 on the traditional model, with the three primaries of red, yellow and blue; the three secondaries of orange, green and violet, and then those in between (red-orange, blue-green, etc.).

Okay, we’ve narrowed things down to 12. That’s a start. But if you look at illustration (or art in general), not every artist chooses from these pure hues. There’s always some subtlety. One artist works in soft palettes, another in neons that can’t even be found on the colour wheel. It’s in these infinite in-betweens and exceptions that many illustrators will get lost.

We struggle in choosing colours because there are so many variables at play: which colours are best to use given the subject? Which ones will be most appealing to the viewer? Which ones will please our client most? What is the mood we hope to set? What do the colours mean or suggest in the prevalent culture where our work will be seen? How do the colours affect us psychologically or even physiologically? We struggle in choosing because we feel there are so many ways to get it wrong.

We can overcome our struggle with infinite choice by setting constraints in our work. Constraints can be set for us, such as by technical limitations of our chosen media. We can also set our own constraints intentionally. One way of doing this is to pretend we have such technical limitations, even though when working digitally we do not. We can also relieve the pain point of choice by applying our understanding of the other two pain points (Consistency and Confidence).

What works for us once might not work again. We find that colours work brilliantly in one illustration, but when it comes to the next, given all the above-named variables, they seem to fall flat. Even when the colours might work again, we tend to get bored of the same old palette and want to try something new. We have a hard time committing to a certain set of colours in our work because we don’t feel any one palette works for every situation.

Becoming more familiar with one’s chosen technique and how it interacts with colour is a huge part of building up colour consistency.

While mixing it up is a natural tendency, where it comes to having a unique, repeatable style, colour consistency does matter. We may not necessarily need to use the exact same colours in every piece, but there should be some common thread running through all our palettes. You might disagree, but I find that when an artist’s work is seen as a whole, the more consistency between the work, the stronger the impression they’ll make on potential clients. While most illustrations an artist makes are seen in isolation rather than as a set, it does need to look good as a set. That’s because our work not only serves a purpose for the client, it also serves to showcase what we do to future clients. I’m talking about our portfolio. One of the hallmarks of a strong portfolio is consistency, not only in style, but also in colour. In fact, colour can give an otherwise inconsistent portfolio (where there is a lot of varied styles) a sense of cohesion. People look to artists and illustrators for a strong perspective, a unique voice. When our colours are consistent, we make a stronger, more confident impression on our audience.

How do we learn to use colour more consistently? How do we do this in a way that feels true to us and not forced? How do we find a consistent way of using colour that works for us in many different situations, without having to start from scratch every time?

Colour consistency starts with stylistic consistency; or rather, it’s interwoven with it. You might have a few different styles you work in; or you might have just one. Your consistency with colour will largely mirror your stylistic consistency. I have found that the kinds of colours you will end up using can be traced back to your chosen tools and techniques (media), just as the style you work in is largely shaped by the same. In order to achieve a certain style, you have to use certain media (take watercolour as an obvious example). Your chosen media, in turn, determines both the quantity and quality (properties) of the colours that are available to you. The kinds of colours you will find when using watercolours will be quite different than those you will find in the Swatches Panel in Adobe Illustrator. Colour is more than just what comes out of tubes and appears in swatch boxes; it takes on certain qualities of the chosen media and style of the artist.

Becoming more familiar with one’s chosen technique and how it interacts with colour is a huge part of building up colour consistency. And like all these points, growing in confidence and learning how to limit narrow your choices, all help to bring consistency to how you use colour in your work.

What is confidence? Confidence is the feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something. It’s a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.* These are both different types of confidence, but the main difference is externality vs. internality. In one case you are confident on someone or something besides yourself. This type of confidence is dependent on others/other things. In the other, you are confident in yourself, independent of others.

Colour confidence comes from finding external systems that guide us more objectively, and developing a stronger sense of what drives us internally.

Why all the philosophizing? What does this have to do with colour? I think our confidence in using colours relies on both external and internal things. Externally, we can rely on things like colour theory and inspiration to show us clues about how colour can work. Colour theory, while it doesn’t necessarily give us the second kind of confidence, it gives us a system for naming colours and defining relationships between them. Colour theory can itself become a Pandora’s box depending on how deep you want to go. Personally, I find just knowing the essential colour names and harmonies is enough to get started. Aside from colour theory, we can find confidence in using colours by using colours in ways we observe in art and design that inspires us. Another place we can outsource colour confidence is in using pre-set palettes that are given to us by our clients. When their brand or art direction requires specific colours, that’s one less decision we have to make on our own. Basically, any system of naming and relating colours, or any prepackaged set of colours can give us some external confidence.

Where it comes to building up internal confidence in using colour, that is easier said than done. To complicate things, I think it takes some internal confidence to trust the external sources. I mean, how do you know who to trust? This all comes down to trusting your gut. This takes some getting to know yourself a bit. For starters, what colours do you like? You don’t even need to know why, at first. Just name the colour. Then, you can go deeper and ask why: what do you think the colour reminds you of? How long have you liked the colour? Has it changed over time? Where do you find your colour inspiration? What palettes (sets of colours) are you drawn to? Where do these colours show up in your life, consciously or subconsciously? Think about what colours you paint your walls, what art you have hanging, what colours you choose for your home furnishings and accessories (such as couches and duvet covers), and of course, what does your wardrobe say about your colour sense?

At the heart of confidence in choosing and using colour in your art is simply acknowledging that it starts with what you like. It’s completely subjective. There are no rights or wrongs here. It really is up to you. You may think that professional illustrators are great at selecting colours that are widely approved, by client and audience alike, and somehow more objective. Our dirty little secret is that we’re just good at knowing what we like and infusing that into our palettes.

We not only have a favourite colour or two, we also have favourite ways of using those colours. We may prefer reds and blues, but certain kinds of red and blue, maybe ones that remind us of a certain period of history, or our favourite pastime, or those found in nature.

Colour confidence comes from finding external systems that guide us more objectively, and developing a stronger sense of what drives us internally. We lack confidence in using colour when these external and internal guides are absent. We gain colour confidence with experience, especially as we find the most suitable ways of using colour for our chosen media and style.

If you want to get better at using colour as an illustrator, you must find ways of overcoming these three pain points in your work. You must find ways of navigating the infinite possibilities of colour. You must also find ways of being more disciplined in which colours you use and how you use them across your body of work. Finally, you must find your sources of confidence, both external and internal, and always look to these as your compass.

*Definition from the Apple Dictionary app

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