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Smithereens, Post No. 5: Color Palette

Posted on by Rebecca Green


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Smithereens: [smith -uh-reenz] Plural Noun. 1. Small pieces, bits.
Smithereens are tiny pieces, fragments of a larger thing. In this series of blog posts, I share small slivers of my process, thoughts on materials, and insights into the larger world of illustration. 

Blue will be the death of me. Green, green I can do. (Not just because it's my last name!) What about grays and ochres and peaches? Yes. But blue, it confounds me every time. I just double checked the portfolio page on my site and sure enough, you'll be hard pressed to find a sufficient amount of blues. It's my goal to conquer it - perhaps I should just do a painting of all blue fruit! What a lovely challenge that would be. 

There are a myriad of ways artists can choose color palettes. Because it'd take me hours to dig into the world of color theory, I'm going to stick to what I know and use on a daily basis when choosing colors. It all comes down to one word, which I learned from Vyanna Slattery, my Design Drawing teacher in college: Matrix

This Matrix was his way of explaining the hue that encapsulates a piece, or that's how I understood it anyway. It's the lighting, environment, and overall atmosphere of the world you're creating. It's what really ties the whole image together. This is the very first thing I consider when starting a piece and it simply reflects the time of day, location, and the intended mood.

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While I like to experiment using a strict limited palette, what I'm sharing today is an overview of illustrations** with multiple colors - but how I narrowed them down to specifically capture a mood. Generally, the color scheme is the first thing I plan - and by plan, I mean I just concoct a dreamy image in my head. I then dig through all my art supplies to find the colors that feel right for the project. This narrows my choices but still gives me range to explore the palette without having a strict limited number of colors. For instance, in the above illustrations - I would pull out all my purples, grays, peaches, etc. and intuitively use those as I move around the piece. As you can see in all of them, they have a secondary warm or bright color that shows up in 2-3 places. I use these spots of color to balance out the illustrations and create movement. 

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Same for the the lighter, more golden toned pieces. These older paintings would sometimes get a golden/umber glaze in oil over the entire piece to pull them together into the same lighting and atmosphere. Now that I'm working with water based mediums and can't rely on a coating to filter everything through the same lens, it's more imperative than ever to think about the atmosphere from the beginning. Because I don't entirely pre-plan or map the colors, I have to sometimes redo paintings, or change and layer different colors a couple of times until everything is balanced out. This is just part of the learning process and the more I paint, the more I find what colors work earlier in the process. If you are nervous about color, placing your drawing in a digital format might help you map out colors. This does not work for me because I'm terrible at digital coloring! 

Once I became a little more comfortable with color, I could start to add interest to projects, like the illustrations in A Little Princess. I created 19 interiors for the book and each illustration had a main thematic color, either to accentuate the environment, or create variation among the pieces. 

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So what do you do once you have your colors all picked out and ready to go? I like to fill in larger areas first - just get the big colors down. Then you can start to add in patterns and texture, and decide where your accent colors will go. Balance out your shadows/dark areas and take advantage of your highlights - those can really make an illustration sing. And don't be afraid to mess up - you might have to do a painting 3 times before you've really found your groove with the color. 

What sort of process have you implemented when choosing color palettes? What is a color you just can't seem to wrap your brain around? Whatever it is, I think the most important aspect of creating a palette is choosing the colors that really speak to you - when you use those, your intention is sure to come out in the final. 

Cheers and Happy Coloring!

**A lot of these illustrations are very old, so please excuse the fact that they were all basically self portraits, thus the lack of diversity. I'm happily working on newer illustrations that incorporate humans of all kinds, and I strive to be more inclusive with every piece of art I make. xo.