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Color Fundamentals

Lesson 7 of 22

Color Palette

Mary Jane Begin

Color Fundamentals

Mary Jane Begin

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Lesson Info

7. Color Palette

Lesson Info

Color Palette

Color palette, the range of the colors used by an artist to create a work of art. The palette, you know people say, well I don't know what colors to use. The best fallback is to think about what's the mood or the theme that I'm trying to express and what palette will get us there? That's key. The other part is style. You want to think about, like the style of this particular book, the Dragons on Dazzle Island, the My Little Pony book that world is really vibrant. The Pony world, if you've ever seen the animation, it's like (explosion) high key color so I wanted to incorporate that into the way I work which is dimensional and it's supposed to have some level of realism to it, so I sort of had to marry those two things. But I really thought about the environment of the space, the level of intensity of the color, and I kicked it up several notches because I knew that stylistically that was a critical key. So that can help a person decide what am I trying to go for? What message am I sendi...

ng? Is this a moody piece? Is it dark and brooding? Is it happy? What colors do I associate with happiness? I think that's the most important way to decide a palette and then you can choose which three limbs of colors or what ground will I use to explore that? And that's actually a question that had come in from Darren Redmond, which was, do you start a color palette scheme with a theme or inspirational photo in mind for any given project? I do, yeah. Sometimes what I do for photos is I will use a reference, I go to Pinterest, or I have books, or it could be other illustrators and I create what I call an inspiration or mood board and in my studio space I have a big corkboard and I tack all those pictures up and then I just look at them and I study them and I feed my head with, that's the palette I'm trying to create. Okay, what colors will get me there? Because that mood feels right. So I definitely start with what's my idea? What's my theme, what am I trying to get at? What images get me there? What sources can I pull from? And now I'll start making. And it helps, and then you're not alone in the room. (laughs) You know, you've got friends helping you out. And are you analyzing all these different elements that we're talking about to help you get there as well, in those reference images? Those values and tones and... Maybe, maybe not. Because when I'm using references, I'm trying to pull from the general mood or general palette. I'm not assessing necessarily how well did that person do these things in this piece. If I'm accessing an individual work of art for myself or a students, I am looking at how are they utilizing and designing with each of these elements. And some works may not have opacity transparency or it might not have light. It might only have two of the things we've talked about. But it's gonna have at least one thing, it may have more. So yeah, for the inspiration board, it's dream space. What do I feel, what's good, what's working? And then when I know I've hit that note and I can see it in front of me, then I have something to draw from. Literally to draw from, and to intellectually draw from and make it happen in front of me so, yeah. Thank you. You're welcome. And so here's sort of the wrap up of what we've talked about. These are images that former students made. You can see in full color and in black and white. These were done with acrylics in all cases. So we started with value, then we talked about contrast, because contrast is where the eye goes, it's a really critical piece. We talked about hierarchy, which is to get your eye to move around an image we want to think about where is it going first, second, third, and fourth. Highest level of contrast first and then next level of contrast, and so on all the way down the line. We talked about temperature, which is basically your relative warmth or coolness of a color and how that can also be used as an element of contrast. We talked about the importance of light and how that can be used for emotional expression or used to direct your eye in a piece. Saturation and neutralization, the intensity or lack thereof of a color and how that's also scalable and how we can use that to get your eye to move around something. And the focal point, which is probably one of the most important things. Where do you want us to look in the piece? What's the most important piece of information? Where is the story starting in your image? The opacity and transparency is the relative amount of color, for course. Can we see through the color or is it completely blocking out what's underneath? The compliment, those beautiful colors on the opposite side of the color scale that they fight when they're next to each other, or they cancel each other out. We have the ground, which is the wonderful color that's the underpinning of most of the work I do and a wonderful unifier and harmonizer. And then of course harmony which is when the whole palette works together really well and one color speaks to another and makes the piece feel complete. And then of course palette, which is the particular colors you choose and why you choose those colors. To send a message or tell a story for an image that you make. And I think it's really interesting, thank you for explaining, in terms of maybe just starting out by choosing those primaries and the secondaries, and then just creating from that group itself, that palette itself. Yeah. Based on the choices for starters. And that's a great way to go. It's an easy way, with people who are really frightened of color I say, "Just choose three primaries." and everything comes from there. And then instantly their pieces are more harmonized because you're not adding too many voices shouting at each other. And the biggest issue with that is, also, getting the colors to, you make your secondaries, your oranges, from that red and that yellow. Make your purples from that blue and that red. Don't just pull from the, you know, out of the tube or a preexisting color. Again, it's like, you're making a family. That color family in the piece, whether they get along or don't get along, you know, that makes it interesting too, but that's what makes the whole thing feel whole. It's really important. And we have three parents. (laughs) In this instance, yes. We do have some questions coming in -- Okay, cool. Before we go to our break. Okay. So first question is from Dawn Friday, who's joining us from Saudi Arabia, and Dawn says, "My medium is textiles, is it possible to make a color chart with fabrics?" Oh wow, what in interesting question. I've actually had textile majors in my, the class I call Color Works, and the way that they have done it is they actually use some traditional materials to plot out color combinations and them make it, in terms of weaving, with thread or making it with fabric because it's a really complicated thing to try, obviously, to make it, it's time consuming to make it with the material that you might be using. He could do it digitally, or he could do it in terms of just traditional media to say, what can I do with... And with threads you can create opacity and transparency, I'm sure he knows this, with threads. So you can play with opaque transparent color, temperature, you might be able to play with light, but you can play with all these elements. But my thinking would be to test it in a separate materiel and then apply it, almost like a study, to the final textile work. Right, right. Yeah, yeah. Color charts are really good, the textile majors love the color charts. Okay. (laughs) Because they can also use brushes to mimic the thread strands and that's a really fun exercise because when you see the strands of the thread of color, because the brushes might be stiff and the bristles are creating that, it mimics, in a sense, what a fabric can do. So yeah, yes. Really interesting. Okay, this question came from Julie Crismar who says, "Are your grounds one single hue normally, or do you use a variety of color within the same monochromatic theme?" Typically what I do when I lay a ground down is I either mix the color, lets say it's a blue-green. I might mix a little green, a little blue, on the palette, I wet my surface and lay that whole color down. If I look at it and I see it's not quite there yet, I might layer something on top of it. I typically like my grounds to be consistent in value across the whole shape of that composition. So I don't have any light spots popping out because that's going to interfere with how I think about my value system. So the value of the color is usually consistent throughout the whole thing, but I may choose to layer not just it's pure blue or a pure red, I'll layer colors to make more interesting or complex color or even a brown, I might layer compliments one on top of each other. Again value is really consistent throughout the whole thing to create the ground. But I don't have multicolored grounds, because that, I think that confuses the purpose of the ground. It's meant to harmonize, not to separate out the piece. Okay, and we were just talking about primaries and so Sunrise asks, So how do you choose which of those primaries that you're going to start with to create that color family? Or maybe what are the considerations of which red, which blue? Right, and we will be talking about that. Excellent. I hope this person sticks around, you say Sunrise? Yup. Awesome name, I hope that Sunrise sticks around for the demo because I actually show how that works. Perfect. But basically just to express it if something is a super warm, kind of orange, reds, things in the warm zone I know I have to choose a warm, not a cool red to make those colors. So, in real time for me with paint, cadmium red is a very orangy red. I'm gonna go to that to make warm tones. The permanent rose, which is really pink, it's probably what was used here, that's not gonna make super warm oranges, or anything in the warm zone so I'm not gonna choose that color if my palette is shifting to the warm and I need a red. I go to what's logically the warm red. Probably a cadmium, or something that has the warmth it it. So I choose it based, often times, on temperature. Okay, this question came from PG, who said, "I've read that any color can be described by hue, value, and intensity. Considering all of your other descriptions and different elements, is hue, value, intensity an incomplete description of any color?" and then there's a secondary question too. I'll answer that first. In some ways it is an incomplete, it's a good start, because value we've talked about yes we can describe a color by value. What was the other one? Intensity? Hue, value, and intensity. Okay, and intensity of course, saturation or lack thereof. Intensity is just another word for that. And hue is the specific color itself. Is it blue, purple, orange? What is the color? So those are three descriptors that can start you off for knowing what a color is, but in addition to that are these other things that can add to, how do you describe a color? Because a color can also be, in addition to those three things, opaque. Or it might be a complimentary color, which adds a level of information that can help you in understanding what you're looking at. But it is a good start.

Class Description

This class will give you an overview of color principles and demonstrate how to apply them. Instructor Mary Jane Begin is an award-winning illustrator and author of children’s picture books, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and professor in the Illustration Department. 

In this class she covers: 
  • The elements of color, including value, temperature, saturation, hierarchy, complements, light, harmony, and contrast 
  • The use of color complements in image making 
  • The relationship of color to the medium and expression 

Through a series of demonstrations, you’ll learn how to work with color and ultimately make better color decisions. This class covers color theory foundations that applies to all image making, in design, art, illustration, photography, and beyond.


Anna Kotzè

I really liked the informal demonstrations and I also liked the way she set out her pallet with warm and cold colors. This was not only an informative class but inspiring. The casual and relaxed working style, encourage playfulness. Thank you for an awesome class.


I’ve had foundations in many of the color instruction that was presented here so the information was a very good revisit. I also think it was explained better in this presentation than in the other training I’ve had. I enjoyed listening to the lecture, thankfully they weren’t drawn out until you want to stop listening. The demonstration was best after we moved off the charcoal drawing (although that was interesting to watch) because using the paints really brought home to me the application some of the lessons learned. I wish that part would have been more robust so that all of the elements in the lecture could have been directly called out in the demonstration. The instructor was most effective when not trying to multitask too much. Overall, I recommend this course.

Robin B.

I had previously learned basic color theory, but this instructor took my knowledge beyond with layered instruction about value-contrast-complements-hierarchy, etc., and she does it in such a fun way with her own examples of work and great stories! I like her poise and confidence and think this series is a terrific value.