Five Tips for Upping Your Color Game
When Deena suggested that I write about how I choose colors for my illustrations, because, and I quote, “You have great color palettes!” frankly, I was super flattered. As she mentioned in that initial conversation, color can be a really hard thing to master when you’re just starting out.
And the beautiful thing about continuing to work through all the impostor syndrome, inexperience, and general creative block that will hound your career (and yes, most of that will never go away in my experience, sorry, just embrace it) is that sometimes, out of the blue, somebody will compliment you on the very thing that you’ve been struggling with. When that happens, you’re forced to take a step away from the screen, look at your collective work, and actually see the progress that you’ve made. So, what I’m trying to say, is that somewhere along the way, even as I doubted my color choices, I’ve picked up a few tips – and I’d love to share them with you.
Firstly though, who am I to tell you about color choice?
Well, hello design world! I’m Raizel Shurpin, a graphic designer/illustrator, born and bred in the heart of Brooklyn before it was cool. I began studying graphic design back in 2009 at Touro College and have been working in this industry ever since. I love color. My favorite season is the fall when I sometimes literally stop in my tracks and gasp in admiration at G-d’s masterpiece of gold and fire against the bluest blue.
When I graduated college, it was the height of what I like to call the pastel era. If you don’t know what I mean, think pale corals, vintage creams, muted mint greens, soft colors arranged in sharp geometric shapes. I loved it. But I couldn’t replicate it. I’d look at my peers’ work in admiration, but somehow, if I tried to copy their styles (yes, I know! But I was young and trying to learn) it never matched up. Instead of a soft, peaceful vibe, the work just looked dull, boring, and most importantly, not like me.
I quickly abandoned my attempts at the pastel trend and began to use much brighter colors in my design, incorporating some of my favorite purples and teals into my work. It looked more me, but it was still meh. Impostor syndrome, our trusty pal, kicked in, and the little voice in my head told me that my work was too juvenile, too old-school, too much, too simple… Sometimes this little voice has an impressive knack for getting us to believe two oppositely disheartening things at once.
I’d love to say that this made me actively research the best uses of color. It didn’t. But it did make me aware that I needed color help and I started absorbing certain rules and tricks as I worked.
And, after that very long introduction, here are my top five:
Number One: Learn the Basics
Like many in the graphic design/illustration game, I grew up painting and drawing. Back in my first art classes as a kid I was introduced to color theory, the color wheel, and the concept of complementary colors, concepts that we revisited in Foundations of Design 101 in College. If you haven’t read up on color theory, it’s invaluable knowledge for design and illustration. Stop reading this and go read up on that.
Complementary colors are the magic behind the greatest Impressionists like Monet and Van Gogh. Remember how I said that every fall I can’t get over the contrast of the trees against the sky? Look at the wheel and you’ll see why. Orange and blue are complementary.
Of course, there’s a subtlety to each shade and different ways of pairing the colors. Overlapping a pair of complementary colors can give the viewer a headache (seriously, look it up) and you have to be careful in color use, so even if you are familiar with the various versions of the color wheel, it can get pretty intimidating.
However, fear not! There are many online resources to help you out including a pretty decent one from Adobe. Adobe even has a slimmed-down version of their color scheme generator (Kuler) built into its programs that works pretty well.
With these sorts of color scheme generators, once you’ve got that one base color to work off of, you can play around with all sorts of pairings, from monochromatic to complementary and beyond. The results aren’t always perfect and as you progress, you may find yourself tweaking the different shades more and more. But as a base for getting comfortable with color choice and really developing an eye and a feel for good color combinations, color theory and theme generators really can’t be beat.
And that brings us smoothly into my second tip:
Number Two: Keep it Simple
Notice how most of these online scheme generators keep it to only five colors per theme? Choices can be overwhelming. (No, duh, Raizel, that’s why I’m reading your long rambling post about choosing colors.) When we pare our choices down, things really start to get interesting.
Say you’ve picked a theme of analogous colors and they’re all on the violet-to-red side of the wheel, but the theme that you’re illustrating has a clear sky, maybe some water, sunshine, etc. By limiting your choices, you force yourself to think outside the blue sky/green grass box and give yourself the chance to come up with something original and fantastic. There are so many artists and illustrators on the scene these days who do a fantastic job at this.
Tom Haugomat consistently puts out very lovely hand-painted illustrations using between three and seven colors at most. It’s amazing how much depth and feeling he conveys with such a limited palette.
Popular hand-lettering artist, Lauren Hom, also does a great job both with limited schemes and subtly using complementary shades.
Another great example of illustrators who really challenge themselves with color are Dan Kuhlken and Nathan Goldman of DKNG Studios. When I first discovered this pair I fell in love with the way that they manipulate vector art in Adobe Illustrator. I took a course of theirs on Skillshare titled Illustrating an Icon Set: Design a Cohesive Series and in it they summarize their theory behind how limiting your palette levels up your illustration and how to go about choosing what kinds of colors to include. An important tip I learned from DKNG is to include two colors with high contrast to each other and a good accent color so that your illustration work is cohesive and stands out. If you’ve got the time, I highly recommend the course!
Limiting your palette also keeps your design/illustration bold and fresh without it overwhelming the viewer. Look at the work of Temi Coker, for example.
There is nothing quiet about this artist’s work, but when you actually count the colors in one of his pieces, he doesn’t use all that many. As with many things in life, art, and design, less is more.
And while we’re already studying these fantastic illustrators, here’s the third thing I’ve picked up in my design travels.
Number Three: Be Consistent
Observing the different artists that I’ve linked so far you may have noticed that they tend to use a lot of the same colors over and over again.
Analog illustrator Thomas Danthony’s and digital illustrator Malika Favre’s work are both excellent examples of how using very few colors (alongside deceptively simple lines) leads to memorable work that stands out from the crowd. But another thing that they each have going for them is that while scrolling through your feed, you immediately recognize the artist’s work because the colors that they choose are an integral part of their style. (Pro tip: if you’re still chasing your elusive “style” this will help.)
Danthony’s collective work is full of shades of cobalt and dark blues accented with reds and soft pinks. Favre’s work is distinguished by her use of dramatic reds, black, white, and blues.
This can also come in handy when you’re facing creative block. Having a well-honed and consistent pool of colors to choose from can give you a head-start when starting on a new project as it cuts down the number of decisions you have to make.
And that leads me on to the next tip.
Number Four: Embrace Your Favorites
Remember how I said that I started incorporating my favorite purples and teals into my illustrations early on? I felt self-conscious doing this at first. I thought it showed immaturity or lack of thought. I remember I even researched and back-tracked to find a color-theory-approved reason for making my logo purple. I couldn’t just stand there and say, “It’s purple because I love the color,” could I? However, I’ve come to realize that my favorite colors have a time and place and will go a long way to making the work more me.
If you’re drawn to a color, use it! But – and this is an important thing – be sure you use it with intention.
Do you love gold? Try using it as the central standout color in a scheme made up of blues or pair it with shades of brown for a more subtle analogous theme. Don’t be afraid of using color; it doesn’t make your work juvenile just because it has the same shade of pink that you’ve loved since you were seven.
Using your favorites in your work can be a great way to come up with a consistent color style, and the best part is, you may not even realize that’s what you’ve done until you look at your work as a whole. Aside from my old favorites I tend to have colors du jour – favorites of the moment or season, colors I’m drawn to and don’t know why. These change very slightly over time, which means that my work, when laid out on a timeline, can sometimes look like a rainbow in the way each piece shifts in hue. Personally, this helps me keep my colors consistent (see #3) without boring me to tears.
But what if you don’t have a favorite color or can’t come up with a starting point to get to that fantastic color scheme?
Number Five: Steal
And by that, I really mean collect and save for a rainy day. I currently have 180 pins on my color scheme Pinterest board. Lots of them are pre-made schemes I found on Pinterest itself, but a good number are just random photographs and illustrations.
A great way to become familiar with effective color combinations is to save them when you see them. Is there a flower whose colors you love? Whip out your phone and snap a picture. Come across a website with excellent use of color? Screenshot it. See a photograph or illustration that you love based on color alone? Pin it.
Having a good stockpile of color schemes helps you become aware of color combinations that work and it can be a great starting point for your next illustration or design project.
As always, remember that other people’s work should serve as an inspiration, not an instant soup mix. Combine two color schemes together to come up with an entirely new one, or base a stylized illustration’s colors on a photograph you’ve saved, changing the medium. Follow artist, follow illustrators, follow photographers. Repurpose the colors that you see in their work for your own projects. But always be sure that the end-result has your personal stamp on it.
If you’ve read this far, I hope that you’ve found new ways to work with color and find your own unique color style. Most of all, I hope something here helps you out. If you use any of these tips in a design/illustration project or if they make your life easier in any way, tag me @raizeldesign to let me know! That would totally make my day!
*Editor's Note: The next step after studying the color wheel is understanding how colors work together. The Interaction of Color, by Josef Albers, is the definitive work on understanding color and its perception relative to its surroundings.