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Exploring Color and Composition

Lesson 6 of 9

Creating Harmony and Color Hierarchy in a Limited Palette


Exploring Color and Composition

Lesson 6 of 9

Creating Harmony and Color Hierarchy in a Limited Palette


Lesson Info

Creating Harmony and Color Hierarchy in a Limited Palette

Now the next thing I wanna talk about is color harmony and hierarchy in a limited palette. When you're trying to get these colors to come together, that's harmony, as you're trying to get them to work together a single voice. There are a couple of ways to do that. Now, I've talked about the ground, because I love them, and that's how I do my work, but not everyone works that way, and you don't necessarily have to work dimensionally. Plenty of artists and illustrators work in flat shapes of colors, so I wanna explore that a little bit with some of the next pieces that I show. So this is a student's work, and this is a part of a series I'll show you, and basically, the style is really really flat, and very, very simple. It's for a children's book, so the linework is simplified, the overall design is simplified, but she still had to use some of the conventions that help to make a piece like this hang together. So she used, we talked about should you use a ground with different materials? ...

Was it Eva asked that question? So this underpinning tone is very light, it's yellow ochre, it's super thin. Because her color palette is high key, she's not doing heavy rendering or volume. It's not shapes, so she kept it, almost like using a tinted piece of paper, and then everything landed on top of that was unified by that ground. But the second thing she did, which is really smart, is she limited the palette, and what I mean by that is she used a cadmium red, you see it here on the dress, she used a, I believe it was an antwerp blue, which is this blue-green blue, you can see it kind of purely right here, and she used one other color. She used the yellow, which is yellow ochre. Three colors. So what I wanna express here is that you can make an entire painting, you can do it out of two colors, but if you have three, a blue, a red, and a yellow, any blue, any red, any yellow, those are what I call the parent colors. Now, normally, you have two parents. Well, in color, you can have three parents. Every color that comes from those three parent colors, the purples, the oranges, the greens, the browns, the grays, the dark colors, the light colors, every variation is connected to those three, because they're primaries: a red, a blue, and a yellow, they're primaries. So by doing that, she's not taken 12 colors in front of us, or 50 and used every single one. She's created a relationship, and what this is is a color family. Everything is related. It's related by the ground, and this red relates to her hair, because some of that cadmium red is in the hair. What's in here is the red with a little bit of the blue that she used to make this kind of plummy tone. The brown is a combination of the blue, the red and the yellow. The yellow back here is pretty pure. This is mostly blue with a little bit of yellow in it. So even this green is made from yellow ochre, and the blue that she used. Everything relates to everything else. She kept it all so thin, transparent, so that her linework, her underpinning linework would show through. So I thought this was, it wasn't complex, but in a sense, it is. She also uses this big, beautiful value to break up the overall image, but we know we're supposed to keep our eye on the red dot, which is the girls, and we follow up in this way, so it's a very, very smart composition. It keeps you viewing the image. Now this is the same story, same three little girls, different scene, but the palette is actually all the same colors. So she did a pink underpinning, very thin, very light, and on top of it, she has opaque colors. This blue is sort of blocking out the pink underneath, and here, very thin washes that you can still see the ground on. She still uses the red, as a kind of focal point, or focal color, and is letting her pencil mark making show through to create texture. So it's the same kind of thinking, but it's just a different palette, a different variation on that palette of colors. And this was the final piece, and I really felt like this was one of the strongest pieces, and I wanna ask kind of, when you look at this, tell me, what do you think you look at first, second and third, and maybe why? So first I look at the red dress that she's wearing. Well, yes. That popped out first. Okay. And then my eye goes to the lighter color, in the sky, the white, and then I get drawn into the greens, and then back around the green up in the corner, which kind of then follows through, and contains her in those. Perfect. That's exactly, you know, I don't know that the student analyzed it when she was constructing it, but she was trusting her intuition of what she was learning to do exactly what you just described. There's a couple reasons why you would look here. One is that red. It's the most vibrant color. It's the warm against a field of greenish cool colors. The second thing is the value of that hair is the darkest value in the whole picture. It frames a face. What do we look at in scenes, or want to look at? Faces. We're drawn to faces, we're humans. So she has controlled us to look at the girl, then there are two ways that you might look across. One is you follow this textural color that's leading your eye here. Also, she's looking in that direction. So for two reasons, we're following this to the second darkest value, which is this. It literally points us north, the clouds are sending us back in this direction, 'cause it's a horizontal band. This, as you said, it frames this. If this wasn't here? We might leave the picture, but this sort of points us to go back down, and do that same loop again. So this is really smart, hierarchical, or color hierarchy, thinking about what's the brightest thing, what's the darkest thing, and how to control it in a scene. And can I ask question? 'Cause it relates this now. This had come from photo maker earlier, when you were showing us one of the student images that had the red block in the corner that kind of took you out of the picture. So the photo maker's question was, to get balance in the image, then should we use that same color elsewhere in the same picture, or can other colors have equal weight to balance that out, so we don't leave the frame? So with that red, do you need another red, or can you use something else to keep you in? You can use a counterbalancing color that's just as vibrant, but the problem is, then they fight for you, they compete, like two children, the bright blue and the bright red. They're like, look at me, look at me. So the first idea is actually the better idea. You have that red in the corner, he started to do it with a little bit of red in the background, but if you take in that vibrant red, and pulled it into other areas to draw your eye back into the scene, that would've helped, and I don't mean just pure red. It could be red with a neutralizing color, or something that's not quite as vibrant. You could even take that red and mix it with blue to make a purple, and it would relate to that red, and that would pull your eye around, but you are building a relationship, and so you can't just leave that dominant, loud, bright color in the corner of the room. It's gonna call everybody's attention to it, and everything else will be missed. I think of colors very much like people at a party, as you can probably tell, so if you think about it that way, you can start to organize based on if I were throwing a party, how would I want to balance things out? And you don't want just one loud character in the corner. Typically.

Class Description

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. Mary Jane will guide viewers through useful exercises and practices that help to solve both understanding the color they see and want to recreate, as well as exploring the art of inventing palettes that resonate with expression.

The course will be taught through showing concrete examples and a demonstration that deconstructs the “how to’s” for creating a palette that expresses a mood.

Mary Jane will cover the following topics:

  • Color as meaning: subjective, regional and universal
  • The power and illusion of light
  • Creating color studies
  • Choosing the right medium for color expression
  • Deciding on the palette that works best
  • Harmonizing a color palette
  • Expressing meaning with color focus
  • Pulling it all together to finalize an image
  • Experimenting with color through media and materials

The best way to observe color is from life, but analyzing and recreating an image from a photograph can be a very practical way to learn how to effectively interpret color. Please join this class to continue developing your understanding of color, composition, meaning, mood, and expression.



I have to say, this class and the companion class were very humbling. I assume I am not like most people who would watch this class in that I have no such artistic talent. I cannot draw at all (limited to "Spike" from TED Talks), but I had no idea such thought, imagination or ideology went into creating these designs. Professor Begin has an amazing presentation style, she is clear, concise and thoughtful. The subject matter was amazing and I can only see it helping me in evaluating my own work and taking a whole new perspective on art, light and evaluation. I highly recommend this class whatever no matter your creative bent. Thank you Creative Live for hosting this wonderful speaker.

Cassandra Bailey

Outstanding course from an engaging, skilled instructor. Mary Jane explains color and composition in a very clear, accessible way. She also puts theory into practice by analyzing a wide variety of illustrations and pointing out what works, what doesn't, the reasons why, and -- for the critique portion at the end -- ways to fix it. Highly recommend!


What an honor to be able to study anything Begin teaches. The depth and breath of knowledge she shares is astonishing, and she puts it in terms easily understood without diminishing it. How refreshing to be able to watch a brilliant professional, especially after seeing so many who show quick easy ways to fake art.