Limited colour palettes are your number one solution to your colour problems.
Colour can make or break a piece of art, which makes using a limited colour palette even more poignant. This method forces you to carefully select the right colours for your work, as colour can turn people away from your work or make them sit up and take notice.
Colour has powerful affects on the human brain, with different colours communicating different messages. Red communicates stop, fire or danger, whilst blue can be represent cold, winter or even have a negative connotation. Whilst a good drawing is viewed on form and tone, a painting or digital artwork is viewed on its colour and composition. A piece of art with poor colour choice can leave a negative first impression – and we all know how important first impressions are!
As I’ve grown as an illustrator over the years, one core element I’m constantly improving and refining is my colour (much like this detail shot above where I use a limited colour palette). It’s central to my illustrations, and I’ve placed great value over the subject. Using a limited colour palette has transformed my use of colour, and guarantees good colour selection consistently (which I will explain later on).
Within this article you will learn why I recommend limited colour palettes, and how it can transform your art and illustrations. I’ll be discussing gamuts, warm and cool colours, colour wheel basics, and I’ll also discuss different colour combinations that you can use within your work. If you’re struggling with your colour, then check out this article!
Why Do I Recommend A Limited Colour Palette?
“Colour is very much like a bank account. If you dip into it too much soon you will have none“ – Andrew Loomis.
This quote perfectly illustrates the importance of using a limited colour palette. Beginners often use every colour under the sun, which delivers disappointing results.
Using a limited colour palette is the ideal solution to improve your colour. It forces you to think more about the colour you’re using, without selecting colours at random. This method harmonises and complements your colours as you restrict the colours you’re using.
I recommend a limited colour palette for your illustrations and art, because it improves your work and makes colour selection easier. A limited colour palette removes confusion as you only use the colours that are within your colour gamut. For example, if you’re using a limited colour palette of blue, white and red, you only have these three colours to choose from – making it simpler.
Famous Examples Of Artists Who Use A Limited Colour Palette
If you’re still not convinced that using a limited colour palette is for you, hopefully these artistic masterpieces will make you think differently. These examples have all used a limited colour palette (alongside a strong composition), with extraordinary results!
‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’ by Johannes Vermeer uses blue, cream and a hint of red. ‘Wheatstacks (End of Summer)’ by Claude Monet uses red, brown, yellow and green. Whilst ‘The Splash’ by David Hockney uses blue, brown / red, green and yellow. All of these examples use a limited colour palette and a selected colour gamut.
These colour choices have not been chosen at random and were carefully considered. Hopefully you can see that if these artistic geniuses are using limited colour palettes, then we should learn from them and also do the same.
The Colour Wheel
Understanding the colour wheel should be your first point of call to improve your use of colour. I’ve shared the complete guide to the colour wheel in a previous blog post, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but it’s worth mentioning again.
The colour wheel is made up of primary and secondary colours. Primary colours consist of red, yellow and blue (you remember the song growing up). Secondary colours are colours that are mixed from primary colours: purple, green, and orange for example. Tertiary colours are those mixed by one primary and one secondary colour, like blue-purple for example.
From here, you can select gamuts (selected areas of your colour wheel), to choose a limited colour palette. This can be complementary colours like blue and red (colours that sit on opposite ends of the colour wheel), analogous colours (colours that are adjacent to one another on the colour wheel), or triadic colours (three colours equally spaced around the colour wheel).
I’ve talked about this in detail on a previous article which I recommend you check out.
Limited Colour Combinations You Can Use
If you’re new to using limited colour palettes, I would recommend you use an analogous colour palette first. Not only is this colour scheme quite simple to grasp, it’s also going to be rewarding in the first instant. Analogous colours are those that are adjacent to one another on the colour wheel. Often one colour is used as a dominant colour, while the other colours within the gamut can be used as an adjacent to enrich a piece.
Going back to the colour wheel, selecting an analogous colour palette is quite simple. Below you can see a few analogous colour gamuts that I’ve selected. Using a limited colour palette forces you to stay within your gamut, making it easier to work from. (Do note that my analogous colour palettes below do not indicate hue, chroma or value – which are very important to consider when creating your art).
There are also different colour combinations within a limited palette spectrum that you can use, which are shown below. You can use warm colours against cold colours, use a complementary colour palette or a triadic colour palette. The whole idea with these colour combinations is limiting your use of colour, so you don’t use every colour in the colour spectrum.
Some colour combinations are more difficult than others; analogous is easier than a complementary colour scheme, and each offer different results. If you become frustrated with these colour combinations, use a maximum of 2-3 colours, and try and stay away from saturated (bright or intense) colours. As an addition to this blog post, I highly recommend checking out James Gurney’s blog, where he shares his expert knowledge of colour.
Essential Tips To Remember When Using A Limited Colour Palette
Even though a limited colour palette often results in satisfying outcomes, unfortunately it’s not always the case (even though I wish it was). However there are things you can do to minimise these mistakes by being smart about your colour choices.
Use grey / unsaturated colours freely, but limit your use of saturated colours: a picture more often fails when artists use intense or saturated colours rather than grey. Grey is often treated as dull and bland, however it should be treated as a great friend to the artist. Instead of mixing grey from pure black and white, use the colours within your limited colour palette to create grey. For example, if you’re using a limited colour palette of red and green, mix these two colours together with white and a touch of brown. You can then place your dominant or accent colours next to the grey section and they will harmonise.
Colour and composition come hand in hand: you can use brilliant colour combinations but if your composition is lacking, then your result will be disappointing. Composition is crucial to lead the eye and keep viewers engaged. I’ve recently created an entire blog post on the rule of thirds and the golden ratio to help you master composition.
Think about how you want your colour to communicate: If you want to create a dramatic illustration, then you might choose strong contrasting colours. Blue and green might be perfect for a cold and wintery scene, however a dangerous scene might include red, orange and a burst of blue. Different colours have different meanings – use them to your advantage!
No colour sits alone: when selecting your colours, remember that a colour always sits against another. For example, a dark blue would look different if it was placed against a dark yellow to a light yellow. The perception of the same colour changes when placed against different colours.
How Have You Used This Colour Method Within Your Work?
I love using limited colour palettes within my work. I love the simplicity of it, and some of the best artistic creations have been formed from limited colour palettes.
It’s a never-ending discovery for me, and I know there’s still a whole lot to learn, which I’m excited to share with you in the future.
I’ll love to know how you have used limited colour palettes, and if this article has been useful to you. Please comment me below with your comments and feedback, I’ll love to hear what you think about this article.
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I’m a UK freelance illustrator, designer and artist, and specialise in editorial and publishing illustration. Check out my illustration portfolio, or have a look around my blog – filled with tips and tricks to help you with creativity, art and illustration – amongst my new illustration work and what I’m up to!
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