How to Choose a Colour Palette

Among the many aspects artists must consider when making a piece (or contemplating starting one) colour is one of the most complex and subjective.  This article deals with the idea of a 'palette' in the context of the mood/ vibe/ style/ feel of a piece.  There is much to discuss when it comes to palettes in terms of the best colours for mixing, and the actual piece of studio equipment that is a palette, but more on those topics later...

Colours have an emotional impact on people. When an artist is creating a painting, they often start with an idea of the mood they want to express, and colour can help create that mood. So, whether the artist wants to create a warm and inviting landscape or a dark and mysterious scene, or a piece that feels light and airy, that initial mood will guide the artist in choosing an appropriate colour palette for their artwork.

But understanding how colours work together to create a mood is key to achieving the best results.

To learn how to pick the right colour for your artwork, let’s start with the basics!

Colour Terminology* 

  • Pigment is the raw material responsible for any given colour
  • Saturation is the intensity or 'concentration' of a colour
  • Value is how dark or light a colour is
  • The Tone is created by combining gray with a pure colour
  • Shade is made by mixing black to a pure colour
  • A Tint is created by adding white to a colour
  • 'Warm' colours include reds, oranges and some purples.  They are thought to convey a sense of warmth and tend to advance or 'come forward' in a piece.
  • 'Cool' colours include blues, greens and some purples.  They are thought to convey a sense of coolness or tranquility, and tend to recede more in a composition.

*Colour terminology varies, and sometimes there is more than one word for the same thing, and sometimes the same word can mean two opposite things!  For example, the word 'hue' is sometimes used to refer to a 'pure' colour, but is also used on paint labels to indicate a substitute (or 'unpure') colour or mixture.  So it's best not to get too hung up on specifics, but rather build an understanding of colour relationships, and the many ways colour can be mixed, adjusted and used.

The Colour Wheel

The Colour Wheel is a circle graph that represents the various Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary colours and their complementary tints, tones, and shades and is useful for visualizing how they all relate to one another.

There are three basic Primary colours in the Colour Wheel: Red, Yellow, and Blue. Primary colours are those that cannot be mixed by combining two or more other colours; it’s easiest to think of Primary colours as the parent colours for all other colours.

Secondary colours are those which are formed when you combine 2 Primary colours. There are three Secondary colours:

Red + Blue = Purple
Blue + Yellow = Green
Yellow + Red = Orange

And Tertiary colours are the colours created by mixing a Primary colour with the nearest Secondary colour, for example:

Yellow + Green = Yellow-Green
Red + Orange = Red-Orange

Understanding the basics of the Colour Wheel and simple colour mixtures can help you choose a palette by showing how each relates to the other colours on the wheel.  Remember, all of the colours in the world can be generally catergorized (red, yellow, purple etc.) but they are really all on a continuum, and there are innumerable subtle differences between the thousands of colours we can perceive.  They are all 'on the spectrum' so to speak.

Now, let’s dive into four types of colour palettes.

1. Monochromatic

A Monochromatic colour palette includes different tones, shades, tints (values) of a single colour. Because of this, it can be the simplest colour scheme to create, giving a sense of harmony to the artwork, however, artists need to have a delicate touch as a monochromatic palette can get overwhelming if not done carefully.  The simplest example is a piece done entirely in grey scale, with white as the lightest value, and black as the darkest.  In fact, many painters will paint a 'value study' prior to beginning the actual painting, or make an 'underpainting' (first layer) in grey scale to help establish values before adding colour.

2. Triadic

Triadic are three colours from equidistant points on the colour wheel: red, yellow, and blue (primaries) or purple, green, and orange (secondaries) for example. The triadic approach is a more dynamic and distinct colour palette. Achieving this palette typically takes a little more planning and experimentation. To avoid having your artwork looking unbalanced use one colour as the base, and accent with the others.  

3. Complementary

Complementary colours are those that are opposite from each other on the colour wheel and have no common ingredients, like purple and yellow, blue and orange, green and red. Complementary colour palettes are excellent for expressing a sense of energy and adding contrast to art.  Keep in mind that using  complementary colours together can create a lot of 'impact' and the effect can get a little intense!

4. Analogous

An analogous colour palette is a combination of colours that reside next to each other on the colour wheel and typically consist of a Primary colour, a Secondary colour and a Tertiary colour, for example: blue, green and blue-green.  Unlike complimentary colours, which have nothing in common, analogous colours are close relatives and share common elements. 

Analogous palettes typically do an exceptional job of representing compatibility and harmony within the design. Analogous colour palettes are also easy to work with because there is not a significant differentiation in the warmth or feel. In using an analogous colour scheme, have one dominant colour as a base, a second colour as an accent and the third as a pop of colour will help ensure balance.

Now that we have gone over the basics of the Colour Wheel you’re ready to start experimenting!

Once you’ve chosen a starting colour for your artwork, take a sheet of paper (or any available un-precious material) and add a few dollops of that colour to it. Next add other colours, or black, or white, to create various tones, shades and tints. By doing this you will learn:

  • The subtle properties of each colour
  • How they associate with other colours / shades on the paper
  • How the colours mix with each other.

Once an artist masters this concept of colour, they are ready to introduce different colours and through this experimentation and learning, choosing a colour palette will become instinctive!

The team at Wyndham Art Supplies can help you find the best colour palette for your project. Visit us instore or check out our website today for Colour Wheels, painting supplies and other quality art-related products.

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