Working With Color: A Practical Basic Palette

Color palette selection is a conundrum for many emerging illustrators and designers. Color theory courses are a must for understanding color perception, color interaction, and color mixing. But standard color theory courses — including mine — don’t get into the specifics about palette selection for illustrators and artists. They can’t get into them: there’s not enough time in a course to cover the basics, apply the basics, and explore all the options for different palette formations.
 
If you’re just starting to work with color, learning about color palettes and color schemes early in your journey has distinct benefits. One of those advantages is that you become comfortable with the concept of palette selection, and build skill and confidence to explore color relationships and their effects.
 
This article is the first in a series about color palette selection.
 
 

Color Schemes and Color Palettes

Color schemes and color palettes are not the same thing, but they’re closely related. Palettes are based on schemes.
 
To differentiate: a color scheme is a structure — a chord — of hues. Hues are families of colors. As an example, the blue hue family includes ultramarine blue, pthalo blue, myosotis blue, Prussian blue, navy blue, cyan blue, etc. The red hue family includes crimson, scarlet, burgundy, pink, rose, among many others.
 
A color palette is a selection of colors within the color schemes. For example, if you choose to use a complementary color scheme of blue (hue) and orange (hue), you might use navy blue, sky blue, burnt orange, and peach as your palette.
 
The particular colors you choose, and how you modulate them, depend on your purpose.
 
 
In the Itten 12-hue color system there are a variety of harmonious color schemes, each created by imposing geometric shapes onto the circle (also a geometric shape). Since there are 12 hues, by dividing 12 by 2, 4, or 6, we end up with monochromatic, analogous, complementary, triadic, tetradic, and hexadic harmonious color schemes. Among those there are partials and splits. I won’t go into that here. But if you want to know, you can buy my color course here.
 
For those who aren’t experienced with palette selection, one basic and practical color palette is the double primary palette. 
 

Color Schemes and Color Palettes

The Double Primary Color Palette

The double primary utilizes two different hues within each primary family: two yellows, two reds, two blues. The difference between the hues is one of temperature. Relative color temperature is one of the seven color contrasts explained by Itten, and is based on our human visual perception of warmth and coolness. The 12-hue color circle is divided in half between warm hues and cool hues:
 
Warm hues: Yellow, Yellow-Orange, Orange, Red-Orange, Red, and Red-Violet.
 
Cool hues: Violet, Blue-Violet, Blue, Blue-Green, Green, and Yellow-Green.
 
 
Diagram of warm and cool color temperatures
But there are differences in color temperature within a hue family. In other words, the red hue family includes magenta and cadmium red. Magenta is cool. It’s close to red-violet on the 12-hue circle. It has some blue influence.  Cadmium red is closer to red-orange. It’s warmer, with some yellow influence. They’re both red. They’re both primaries.
 
The double primary palette includes two hues from each primary hue family — one warm, and one cool. This makes an expanded palette allows for “purer” pigment mixing because it’s easier to avoid muddying (neutralizing) the colors. 
 
A double complementary palette using Winsor & Newton gouache:
A double complementary palette using standard acrylic pigments:

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A double primary palette allows you to create a wide range of hues at maximum purity. And when modulating colors by tinting, shading, toning your color choices are endless.
 
Something to keep in mind: Adding white to a hue (tinting) will automatically cool down the resulting color. This is most noticeable with yellows. To maintain the desired warmth when modulating, add a bit more more of the warm pure primary. This principle applies to all tints in all hue families.
 
Another thing to keep in mind: To create shadows, don’t add black — especially when creating skin tones. Instead, add the complement. Adding black will “dirty” the color. Adding the complement is more true to life.
 
If you want a color to appear truly black, surround it with lighter colors. Our perception of color lightness and darkness is relative. No black pigment absorbs all light waves (with the exception of vanta® black), so by surrounding black and dark colors with lighter colors, they appear darker in our perception.
 
The double primary palette can also work with digital media by affording you a broader color palette to work with. Although color mixing in the digital space isn’t the same as mixing pigment colors, you can form palettes consisting of cooler colors in warm hues (magenta and hansa yellow, for example, along with warm colors in cool hues (cyan blue and kelly green), and vice versa.
 
A pro tip for applying color palettes is to use the 60-30-10 Rule. Proportion your colors so that the dominant color is 60% of the whole space, the secondary (meaning second in amount) is used in 30% of the design space, and a third color is used over 10% of the space. You can use this rule with hue families or for colors within or across hue families.
 
©Alvalyn Lundgren. All rights reserved.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.