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5 Color Palette Mistakes to Avoid


By Samuel Berry

Web: https://sambf.artstation.com/ (will open in new window)

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Date Added: 5th April 2018
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Freelance illustrator Samuel Berry demonstrates common color palette mistakes and what you can do to avoid them...


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Welcome back! Been a while, I know. So today we're going to go over five common mistakes people make when picking a color palette. Keep in mind that these apply both to traditional and digital painting. I try to address both, but there's a clear focus on digital painting since it's what most use for professional work today. Without further a-do, let's get to it.

1. Too Many Colors

A common mistake is to use too many colors of different hues in your illustration. Most of the time people do this because they want realism. A classic example is using green and brown for trees. It ends up standing out like a sore thumb and if you do this for every element it creates an extremely busy image. Every individual color calls attention to itself and leads the audience's eye away from the main subject or message you're trying to convey.

To avoid this you have to limit your color palette. While it sounds boring it definitely isn't. There are a lot of ways to do this. For example, Anders Zorn is well known for using a limited palette for most of his paintings; most notably, black, white, vermillion, yellow ochre and French ultramarine with a touch of black for blues. He mixed his colors so that they looked right relative to each other rather than what was realistic. Limiting your palette like this automatically harmonizes your colors while still giving you a wide variety of colors. Unity with variety is key when picking a color palette.

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I almost made a new wheel and bar but then I realized I didn't have to because it's still good.

2. Too Saturated

Saturation refers to the purity of the color used. Most of the time people confuse saturation with value and it turns their painting into a garish clashing of colors, each of them fighting for the viewer's attention. The more saturation a color has the more energy it has and the more attention it draws, which is why it's very good to use saturation for highlights or points of focus rather than whole shapes so use it sparingly and with purpose. Usually, if you use the "unity with variety” principle you avoid such pitfalls and can have vibrant colors without being garish.

3. No Value Control

So speaking of value, we come to the third big mistake people make. I admit this doesn't seem related to color palette, but if your value structure is solid and you respect it then your colors will be almost guaranteed to be just as solid. Especially today, when most commercial work is done digitally and a lot of people pick their colors as they go rather than mixing them on the side. Which is amazing, for sure, but it makes it even easier to lose track of our value structure and ruin our color palette. Generally speaking, if you consider the value and temperature of the color you're picking then you'll pick the right one.

4. No Consideration of Context

I hinted lightly at this so far, but it's worth having its own section with its own slide. The properties of color change according to their environment. When picking a color you have to consider the context in which it will be placed. It's what makes a limited palette, saturation and controlled values work. Everything in your image depends on the elements around it to work. It's a huge bunch of relationships that you have to manage to convey the message you want to. For example, reds look redder next to greens so you would have to keep that in mind when picking what kind of red you want to use.

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Organic shapes tend to make the most of these two types of lighting.

5. Using Reference Incorrectly

Now with all of that in mind let's talk about using reference. There's nothing wrong with it and I highly encourage everyone to use references. It isn't cheating nor does it make you less of an artist for doing so. The problem, however, is often how people use it. When it comes to color, a lot of people "eyedrop” reference for their palette, which is ok, but only if you take into consideration the parameters of your painting. The reference you're using is not the same context as your image so the color you just picked will most likely look out of place once you put it down. A good way to do it is to use the reference as a guideline, picking out colors and adjusting them to fit in the context of your image.

And with that, we've gone through the most common mistakes. It's quite a lot of things to think about, but like I said before; a painting is a bunch of relationships that you manage to tell your story. Like color itself, every decision you make plays off the previous one and makes a whole. But it's important to remember, you can always "make” these mistakes on purpose if they serve your concept/idea. It's just a matter of understanding how to break the rules and not simply doing so because it's easier.

Related links

Follow Samuel Berry Instagram and fill your feed with arty goodness
Check out Samuel's tumblr blog to see his awesome artwork
Samuel's portfolio can be found here
If you want to know more about art theory then try Art Fundamentals, it's a great resources for beginners and advanced artists alike

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