Establishing a colour palette.


Hi guys, I would like ask you for some help, tips, tutorials that discous or help to figure out how to establish a colour palette on your piece. My problem is that even when I have an idea for a painting, I do a basic sketch and… then what? It seems like all the colour theory, contrasts, colour relations that I’ve read/heard about means nothing when I actually try to start of and it really feels like the most limiting thing for me right now, as if I would actually be able do somewhat decent stuff if I just had the right colours layed out. Thanks in advance.:slight_smile:


Hehe I had the same problems when I started. There is so much ‘colour theory’ around but I have yet to encounter any real practical theory on how to start out a painting in colour.

Here’s my recommendation:

  1. Find a photo with the sort of colour palette you are looking for. If you can find one with similar lighting conditions that’s even more helpful. Screenshots from movies also work well.
  2. Start with a quick b&w value sketch over your drawing to establish overall lighting and values. Having a clear distinction between light and dark will help you out in the next step.
  3. Paint over your b&w sketch referencing the colours in the dark and light areas of each material in the photo. I personally just colour pick with the eyedropper but some people like to manually select the colour from the colour wheel.

This will give you a good starting point to start painting. It’s probably not going to be perfect but you’ll at least have some colours on the canvas to start making decisions against.
From there you can start choosing any colours you want for details or even larger areas the painting, as long as they are within the temperature range of your colour palette (that’s where your colour theory actually kicks in).
As long as the values in your painting work well, chances are the image will come out looking pretty good regardless of the colours you’re using anyway.

Hope that helps!


This is going to be a quick and unedited reply because I have to go to work soon (I might come back and finish my thoughts later if there’s interest), but here’s my practical color theory that I’ve taught my students.

On the whole, color theory is taught incorrectly in probably most art schools. Compliment, split compliment, tetrad, and so on, those are just names for every single possible combination of colors out there. I don’t even consider them as guidelines to create color in a scene. The only useful one is compliment if I really want to make the colors in a scene pop, but that’s it. There’s even competing color wheels out there (all of which are valid), some based on RYB, RGB, CMY, and each will shift the position of colors on the wheel. So again, those different color harmonies are not useful for trying to decide on a color to tell a story.

Anyway, rant over. Here’s the theory.

Color theory is an umbrella term for these specific fields of color: color psychology, lighting physics, and pigment physics.

Pigment physics is what your color wheel should be used for. It’s the “slide rule” of color mixing so you can have a pretty good idea of what will happen when you mix two colors together.

Color psychology is knowing how colors make you feel. This is pretty much all intuitive and based on culture and the world your illustrations/concept art live in. This is split up into two parts: what colors should each character wears, and what color of light sources will light the scene. For costume design you have to think like a costume designer. The other part is lighting design, thinking like the lighting director for a stage show. I treat these as two completely separate tasks, because what a character wears will have nothing to do with what scene they are in and how they are lit.

After that it is all about understanding lighting physics. That’s what you paint. Don’t worry about the colors one character wears clashing with another. If you look at Toy Story (the later movies that had better lighting), all of the characters have colors all over the map. None of the local colors harmonize with other characters. But if you put them in one scene with a warm light source, or a cool light source, all of those wild color choices will suddenly harmonize. Your color harmony is the result of the lighting in your scene.

Knowing how light works, and painting the right color that is the result of “burgundy shirt + warm yellow light source” is the hard part. It’s actually really easy to teach but it’ll take some time to explain. In short, think like a 3D renderer.

I don’t think it’s too difficult deciding what color someone’s pants is vs their shirt color. The only hard rule is to not have two colors of clothing be the same value so they REALLY clash, and the lighting won’t help. Same goes for your final painting, having two colors of the same value next to each other, but that is just tweaking the position, angle, and brightness of the lighting in your scene. If you use layers, the good ol’ dodge and burn tool is a good way to tweak the values in parts of your scene where the values of overlapping objects are the same so you don’t create those kinds of clashes.

In short, think of color theory as those independent problems instead of putting them into one huge umbrella term, and the final result will look a lot better.


Besides the tips already posted by others, I’ll also add that you need to think about colors together with lighting/values because they go hand-in-hand.

For example, if you want an image to have a pastel color palette because you’re doing an illustration for a greeting card that congratulates someone who just had his/her first baby. You will need to understand that pastel colors are lighter in value, and you’ll need to make sure there’s enough light values in your illustration.

If you want to paint a scene that looks opulent and lush, such as a royal celebration for the king’s birthday, you’ll probably want rich and vibrant colors as well as deep colors and glamorous glows. This means the average value of your entire image will be much lower compared to the previous example.

Understanding chroma is also very important if you want to be able to use color with total confidence and control. The level of chroma works with the value of the color to create exactly the look you want.

In the workshop I teach here at CGSociety (linked in my signature below), the week on color is often one of the students’ favorites, because the subject of colors is demystified and deconstructed to totally logical elements that turns them from what’s often perceived as mysterious black magic to powerful creative arsenal that can be wielded with total control.


Thank you, I saw this method used but to be honest I try to keep away from working in b&w because it always ends up looking awful, I can get good values when working purerly in colour(I check it with b&w layer later in the piece) but going from b&w to colour never worked out for me.:confused:


@glenmoyes Thank you, I always try to think about lighting, mood and such but the hardest part is starting out, laying something to work with and as you said figuring out what colour will the X object have in the Y type of light is also difficult. It is also pretty random sometimes it just works out by accident and other time its like trying to break a wall with your head.:confused:

@Lunatique Thank you, that’s also one of my problems, stickig to the chosen theme and using colours that don’t look out of place, as for the chroma I saw so many different tutorials that sometimes said the opposite things that it really became quite confusing so often I just do it by trial and error until it works out.


Something that I’ve found very helpful, although I can’t claim to have come even close to having mastered color, is to work with real colors and observe what happens when they mix. Especially working with a limited palette.

For example, seeing how the hue and saturation shift when you mix.

Personally I practice by limiting the palette as much as possible and try to make it look good. I love limited palettes because when you manage to handle them, the colors work really well together. Plus you sort of have to really decide on the mood and look of the picture.

Another thing I’ve tried is using gradient maps on photos to make them match a certain palette. Or picking a limited amount of colors from a photograph. Also trying to make really quick studies with simple geometric objects.

Now, I don’t know if this is the best way to go, but at least I feel my own understanding of color has grown. I still feel very much like a novice, but whatever makes you grow as an artist… right rights? :slight_smile:


Another thing I like to add is really looking at colors in real life.

I remember some DVD by Richard Schmidt (I think) painting a landscape from a photo, basically saying “I don’t recommend this, but after painting X amounts of landscapes I know what colors really are there”.

If you’ve done photography and actually looked at the colors in the scene, you’ll know how much subtle detail and variation is missing.

Also you might notice that if you look for a specific color, like blue or violet in the shadows, you are more likely to see it. Sometimes that’ll work well for you, while other times it’s not what you want.

Color is an absolutely wonderful subject by the way… There’s always more to learn about it. :slight_smile: