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A Relationship with Colour.

Please note this is a basic summary and maybe sometime in the future I will go more in-depth into the tacking the knowledge of colour if people would like.

Daphne Skinner a fellow talented artist asked me “Was there a book or course you followed? How did you decide which five colours and were they always the same five?”

The three images at the top are the result of over a year I’ve been limiting my colours. Last few pieces I have started to allow myself more freedom and relax again with colour palettes. Due to the limitations and restrictions, I put in place by limited colours I felt that there is a new core knowledge and very strong foundations. I thought for a while how I could and should reply to Daphne, as the answer was not something I could word and it isn’t a simple sentence as it is a complex journey and balance of a few things. I also didn’t want to brush off an artist asking a question or hoard knowledge. I love talking about things I learnt, so I felt a blog would be perfect to just give an overview of this process and share some resources. I am coming to the end of my degree in illustration. I cannot say that this is what taught me colour, as it has been the self-directed study that I have personality chosen to embed into my degree. So, no degree is needed to learn colour. What I have gained from the degree is a blog for another day. what the degree has given me is a blog for another day.

It is useful to see colour as a relationship you need to build and work on.

There is no right or wrong way and it is vastly important that you learn colour from many sources. Your relationship with colour is as unique as your identity as a creative. The way I see it even if it is just one thing I learn from a course or book then it has been worth my time and money.

I can only start my advice is based on my own lived experience with building relationship and point you in the direction of my sources.

1. Improve your understanding of colour.

A relationship works well when you understand each other.

A. Chuck out the colour wheel.

Ok maybe don’t, it is like stabilisers for a bike… The sooner you pass this stage the better.

It is useful to understand the basics, knowing when a colour complements each other (useful for the important colour pop I will keep talking about)

B. Get to know colours, some of my best colour combinations have been happy accidents.

C. Get physical with colours – If you don’t it is like learning to drive by only studying for the theory. The more you spend time with colour the faster the knowledge will grow.

D. Don’t trust your eyes. This is the main reason I do not rely on any colour schemes, colour wheels or set rules. What our eyes see is not always true, a bright colour does not have to be neon, it could be quite muted… It depends on the other colours. (Think about what "colour the dress debate") Our eyes see colour differently, there is a lot of science behind colour and some things are a trick of the light.

So, it is important to test how colour behaves with each other. I found colour easier when I changed my mindset regarding this and I now create mood boards myself. (right and above is a sample of my colour testing.)

It is important don’t test the colours equally with each other – as I don’t use the colour equally (A colour pop will be small) so need to be eye-catching against the other colours. D. Have a surreal relationship with colour, just because something is “blue” does not mean you have to paint it blue. 2. Know the meaning and history of colour.

A. Colours have meaning, understanding this goes a long way in influencing the audience.

This is one of the biggest things that influence the colour I pick, recently I illustrated a zine called Clement. The Zine bried was to be a visual healing project, so I looked into colours that were;





and tied this together with earthy grounding tones. (Sample of the outcome is on the left) 3. Know how to create colours.

A. Stop buying colours – This is Hard advice for me to give anyone, I love colours and obsessed with buying loads of colours in all the different mediums. But if you rely too much on all the wonderful colours you do miss a key step in building the relationship with colour.

Stick to basic sets (travel sets are ideal) - you do not NEED more (but I fully understand wanting more!)

B. Understand cold and warm colours.

Those with knowledge already of colours may think I am meaning the following;

Warm colours

Red, Orange, Yellow.

Cold colours

Blue, purple and dark greens.

This is true! But what if I told you the colours themselves are warm/cold? Such What colour would you pass me if I asked for a cold red?

Ever mixed your paint and ended up with a muddy colour? Using purple as an example, mixing Red and Blue should be easy enough, however, the results turn out muddy and not a bright purple. This is most likely the result if you have mixed the wrong colour temperate together Cold vs Warm. The best colour mixing results for bright colours is mixing colours of the same temperate together, such as a Cold Blue with a Cold Red. This goes a long way when picking your limited colour palette, do you want the colours to fight (this isn’t always a bad thing) or to work as a partnership?

Colour fighting can be something that is used as a tool for storytelling in an illustration and can help you influence the mood, such an example could be a cold snowy/wet day and your inside all snug, In order for an image to feel extra snug, may be worth also showing a hint of the cold. (window shot or around a fire outdoors)

Highly recommend the Colour Bible for this information.

This shows the result of colour mixing across traditional mediums, It will also make it easier (less expensive) when picking paint combinations to mix. Looking at colours it is easy to miss some gems that do not stand out next to their colourful counterparts. Some come from this book, others during the course and happy accidents. In watercolours buy Davy's Grey Green Gold Quinacridone Gold Mixing these with other paints can create magic! Talking of mixing colours to create magic another little tip - for the earthy colours in the watercolour mix in a little walnut ink crystal (creates a more natural woody hue) 4. Limiting colours

A. Five colours

1,2,3 colours. tend to personally pick a dark, medium and light tone, normally around the same hue. This is where the colour wheel background knowledge is useful – as I tend to have these three as harmonious or analogous schemes. Not always, just most of the time I start with this in mind.

4. The next colour is my colour pop. This is a contrasting colour that draws the eye (in master paintings this is normally red)

5. final colour normally is something that sets the mood and something I can play with, my wildcard.

B. This is an important step in my personal process, I eliminate a colour.

An example could be I am during a piece mainly in blue/purple and greens, my colour pop is yellow hue. I would try to completely avoid red and orange, if I have to add I do in a way it is muted so does not rock my colour balance. I think I came across this tip when was looking into abstract art, it is a good reason to look beyond your own genre of art to learn from other disciplines. (Knowledge can cross)

C. Seeing in black and white.

Try some black and white photography. I don’t mean take pictures and add a filter, I honestly mean change your viewfinder and view the images you are taking in black and white.

Then go out into the world with new and fresher eyes, ask yourself how you can create visual interest, how can you make it dynamic, tell a story, and lead the eyes of the audience.

During my degree studies, I really enjoyed black-and-white photography a lot. (below)

D. If I was told I could only use five colours for the rest of my life, after crying these would be the five colours I pick. (Watercolours)

These are 1. Payne Grey (if only could use one paint for the rest of my life it would be this one) 2. Cobalt Turquoise (I love this colour) 3. Quinacridone red (which works so nicely with the above) like a colour clash in the nicest way. 4 While the image shows Winsor Orange there is a couple of oranges I would pick from (not settled on which I prefer yet) this is my colour pop. 5. Then Davy's grey. I am not picking this as a colour to stand alone with, this mixed with blue, pink and orange creates magic. It makes all of these have a lovely muted colour that is not muddy or faded. This means from these five paintings I can create different moods... Dark, muted, bright, colourful, soft. it is also perfect for the season (here colour hierarchy comes into play)

5. Colour magpie.

Following on from my learn from many sources this applies here as well.

A. Master studies.

B. Inspired by what others do

C. Collect.

It is important to surround ourselves with colour.




*Digital files.

* Swatchos **

*Coloured / pattern paper / Wrapping paper

*Interior design


(Honestly this list could go on, leave a comment with your own visual magpies)


I love the master studies of Turner and Waterhouse (Think you can see the influence in my studies)

Disney master Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle. In fact, Disney themselves (whatever you think of the company and ethics) are masters of colour. I have the Art of Pixar book that showcases the colour strips for the movies and I love this. In terms of colour, I recommend the classic UP (pay attention to see of sadness in the story) SOUL and the colourful Encanto. I could list more Disney movies (Lucas) or the older classics (Sleeping beauty) – this list could go on forever.

There are also a million other movies (Klus, Wolfwalker) that are masters of colour and lighting.

In the pictures, I have included a few of my core influences.

Leave a comment about who influences you with their use of colour.

6. Hierarchy of the illustration

Pay attention to hierarchy, one type of hierarchy can be colour. (Above I touched upon this when referring to not using all colours equally.)

*Such as (if using five colours)

First colour - this is the colour that sets the tone. – This is the colour you use the most.

Second – This is the mid-colour. – Colour used the second most.

Third and fourth – colours fall around here. Use a little less than the 1st and 2nd colours but have freedom with the balance of these.

Fifth colour – normally the colour pop – I will use the least – yet if used correctly will be the most impactful.

Within the hierarchy of the overall illustration, the colour importance can find itself quite low… An image should be able to stand alone without colour. – Colour is a novelty, an image can work without colour. It cannot work without contrast.

So, think about the other elements… Contrast, line, texture, lighting. 7. Light and shadows.

I could get into this section in great depth, the reality I can sum it down to study how light and shadow work around you, this can influence the mood of picture more than colour.

The way the light hits can change an image and its emotions. (Study silent black and white movies)

In fact, studying movies overall is a great way to understand colour, composition and lighting. Watch a scene and see if used lighting/colour or angle to influence your mood. An example of this is below.

8. Use colour responsibly.

A. As creatives we have a responsibility to at least keep in mind the bigger picture and think about what access to the arts means for our audience. We can create a lovely harmonious painting that relays solely on colour to make sense, by doing so we deny people with colour-blindness access to art and equally overwhelming the senses with too much colour can also affect neurodiverse people.

B. Contrast and solid shapes is a way to tackle this, making contrasting element between elements more important than the actual colours.

Finally, courses I recommend. At the moment I am not on skillshare there are about 5/6 courses on there that started me exploring colour in great depth. I do recommend Skillshare, it does have some courses that are hit-and-miss. There are some serious gems. To the left is me exploring colour via skillshare in 2020. I left as I wasn't watching the classes and was enjoying the more global (European) influences I were finding on Domeskita, as a deaf person I rely on subtitles anyway so was no issue that not all the course have English Auto. Check out this Domeskika course.

I end this by answering the questions. Was there a book or course you followed? Yes, many and it is still an ongoing process. How did you decide which five colours? I need to pick a dark, mid and light colour as well as a colour pop. The last choice is a wild card and depends on the mood I want to reflect to my audience and the message. were they always the same five? No, my message was not always the same and the requirements of the brief. I do however have the same five colours I am drawn to in my personal work as it is my favourite combo of colours in watercolour. Thank you for reading, if any questions drop me a comment or get in touch.

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