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Exploring Color and Composition

Lesson 7 of 9

How to Choose a Palette


Exploring Color and Composition

Lesson 7 of 9

How to Choose a Palette


Lesson Info

How to Choose a Palette

Now how to choose a palette, this is a common question. Like a student will have a piece, and they're like, I have no idea what colors I should use. I just don't know. I don't even know how to choose, so we'll walk through why people choose what they choose and how it helps to tell a story, or communicate an idea. So this is one of my very favorite illustrators, Edmond Dulac. He's a Golden Age illustrator, who was really illustrating during the heyday of illustrated books, at the turn of the century, and his methodology is just exquisite. He did ink drawings, and washes of watercolor on top of those ink drawings. He did start with a ground of color, and you can see what it is here. It's this cool tonality that runs through the whole piece. What he would do, though, is he would literally mask out or save with a material these areas that are highly lit in contrast, so he wouldn't have too much blue, or any blue in those zones, so they could be more pure, and that's a technique that you c...

an use. It's literally saving out sections of a piece with, there's Frisket, there's all kinds of materials to block out, and you can paint right over, and then remove the kind of material, so you have the white of the page. But what he did was he started to understand what is this piece about? Why would I choose this palette? Why, twilight, like this time of day? Well, if you look at it, you can start to see, he looks like he's probably wise, because look at what this guy's doing over here. He's listening in. Everybody's listening. You know, what's he gonna say? And this girl is holding up a lantern. The lantern symbolizes light, and light might mean wisdom. So you see there are three little points of lit areas in this scene that have light. It's this man's face, his fan, and that light, so the eye goes first, probably to here, looks at his face, and then creates this triangle, and then moves around the rest of the scene. But the choice of that time of day, it's not midnight. It's not about that. It's about wisdom, but it's at that right in between time of the day, so there's a kind of more gentle expression of light, without it being stark and harsh, that I think is a brilliant choice for expressing what the narrative is here in the scene, and the secondary helpers are really, with this cool scene, but the warmth of the hat, his outfit, and the bridge also direct your eye to the main character, who is the wise one, that we're supposed to be listening to, and everyone else, as well. Now this is also Edmond Dulac. Completely opposite palette. It's a super warm wash of orange and yellow, and using the contrasting blues to get your eye to focus on the key characters here. And what would you say, Kenna, is your impression of this moment? And it doesn't matter that you don't know the story. Like what's your first thought? Well, it's warm, but it's also mischievous, and maybe that's because of the characters, but it also that fire aspect to it. So mischief and fire, and heat. So are they up to good deeds? No, no. Probably not. (both laughing) So there are associations that we have, just intuitive, universal associations with what that red might mean. We see smoke, too, so we think, oh, there's a fire somewhere. And the pointed shapes of the fingers. Look at the character's face. This is giving you so much information, in combination with the color. It's about mischief, it's about heat and fire, and something's gonna happen here. This is not a quiet moment. So if this palette were all neutral, it would not have that same feeling of mischief. So the orange dials up the sort of passion and the heat and maybe even actually fire. So it's really important when you think about those color choices. I love this scene. It looks great. So this is my other illustration hero. His name is Arthur Rackham, and Arthur Rackham was a contemporary of Edmond Dulac. These guys, they didn't compete with each other, but they both were illustrating illustrated books at the time, and what he did was a similar technique to Edmond Dulac, but Arthur Rackham relied more heavily on line, and you can see here the construction of his line really creates the architecture of the picture, and it especially creates the value structure of this picture, from The Wind in the willows. This is Alice in Wonderland. But The Wind in the Willows picture, even without the color, is a pretty strong construction of a picture, because it's a lot of value contrast built up by layers of line, so Arthur Rackham dialed back his color, because the line did a fair amount of the work. And this is also, I think a really teachable moment, something that I deal with all the time with my students. If your linework is creating a really strong value system, you can use less color, more limited palettes, and literally less saturation and value of color, because if you try to throw it all on, heavy duty color, lots of value line, you'll bury your line, and it becomes too heavy and weighted, and you can't even see that image underneath. So he kept his color, what I would call more high key, lighter in value, so we could see the linework, and you can see that here as well. No value of color ever gets too dark, and even the saturated, vibrant color, that's not really a vibrant red. That's like, in this world, in context, it looks vibrant, but it's really not that vibrant. So he understood how to balance those equations, and I just think the work is really brilliant. This is also Arthur Rackham. Now, another thing, when you're trying to evoke like fantasy illustration, sometimes the common go to is like, oh, it's fantasy, so I should use wild fantasy colors, and vibrant complementary contrast, and purples and turquoise. What Arthur Rackham did, which was so smart, is he wanted the viewer to believe the fantasy world, so he shifted it in the direction of natural colors, like we might actually, this looks like a natural place, we might, when we're walking along in winter, come upon one of these creatures, so I think that that was a really smart use of combining what we expect, that reality that we recognize, with something that's tied to fantasy. It's the same technique, all of the underpinning color here is a blue tone, because it's meant to be winter, and I can see it everywhere in the piece, and it's all transparent color with the line and washes. I think it's smart. The warmth is not really hot. It's neutral, but in this world, in this context, it pops. Now this is also Arthur Rackham, and again, this is really relying on the linework to tell much of the story, and you might look at it and say, "Oh, there's almost no color there." There's some color. There's the cool gray against this barely warm, raw umber tone. It's dialed to the neutral zone, which sounds like Star Trek. It's dialed in that direction, but it's like that landscape that I did, where I tweaked it back to you know, raw umber, and pais gray. It's actually a similar palette to this. I was probably influenced by this piece, but dialing that back makes this feel very sophisticated, very believable. It's a really, I think, a lovely translation of fairies that you might imagine you could actually see them launching on flower, as these birds are very realistically done, so this world becomes more believable, because of that color choice, and I wanted you to see that. Now this is a student that I currently have who is a person who draws lines and does linework exquisitely. She draws like a dream. She's amazing, but she has an issue with color. She's terrified of color, absolutely petrified, and I have her this semester for my color class, but this class that I worked with her in, I suggested that she reduce the choices of color to a very limited palette, so that she could let her linework do most of the work, like what we were just talking about. So she chose to do black and white with red. It's about Little Red Riding Hood, so what she did is she used red in the brightest form, and then desaturated, so it's the focal color in the eye, then reduced the amount of color to be more desaturated for the ground and the pants. By creating a hierarchy of that red, in combination with the linework, what do you think, Kenna, when you look at that eyeball? What comes to mind? It looks scary. 'Cause it's red and fierce, and dark, and fire. You can imagine his intent with those teeth. It's not particularly good. It also creates a color connection, that there's a relationship between them, so when you use a color here, and a color there, different characters, if there's a relationship, then, if you see that, if it's the same color, we're gonna start to connect them, and so I start to think, there's something gonna happen between these two characters, and you can see that, even here, that little bit of red. This is a really smart use of limited palette color, and if you're a person who has black and white work, you're terrified of color, you can reprint an image on a surface, and test using just one other color, in varying amounts. Very saturated, all the way down to a really light version of that color. And that can be a nice way to sort of step into using limited color. Finally, I wanna talk about palette generators, because a lot of people who work digitally, they're just not sure how to start a palette, and using a palette generator can really be an effective way to get yourself started. Palette generators allow you to put a photograph or an illustration into the generator, and then it shows you all the colors that are making that image, and that gives you a range, and then you can pull that right into your Photoshop file. So these are just a bunch of different ones. There's plenty of them. I think it's a good go to place to start. I think you have to learn eventually to really start to develop an understanding about you're using these colors. Why are you using these colors, how are you connecting that to your content? 'Cause color should match the content, and what you're trying to convey, but this is a really smart way, if you look at a piece, and you're like, I love the heat of that painting, or I love the sense of that photograph and the time of day. If I pull from those colors, I'm gonna capture that same thing in my piece. So it's a really nice place to start.

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.