10 colour secrets from leading illustrators

For this illustration for a limited edition box of olive oils, Mar Hernandez used a warm colour range to reflect Spain’s warm and sunny climate

10 of our favourite illustrators reveal the secrets of how they decide on the tones for their artworks

Mar Hernández (SP)

“When I start working on an assignment, I think of the proper colour range that allows me to convey the feeling I’m looking for. In this case, a warm colour range was more appropriate, since it was to represent my vision of Spain, related to olive oil, which is produced mainly in the south where it’s warm and sunny most of the year.

“When I have already defined the range, I think about the hierarchy of elements in the image and use colour to enhance the importance of some of them. The protagonist element here is the flamenco dancer, so I’ve used stronger contrasting colours – red and black – for her dress.

“It’s also interesting the role that complementary colours play. When they are close to each other, it promotes a kind of ‘visual vibration’. Here you can see that in the green of the leaves when placed close to the orange-red of the roses.”

Jack Hughes piece for Agent Provocateur has a limited colour palette

Jack Hughes (UK)

“Colour is tremendously important to me. I love limiting my palette, normally to a maximum of three primary colours. For me, it helps tighten the illustration and draws the attention of the viewer to the details and composition. 

“I’d say my ‘signature’ style lies within the grey/blue hue I choose for my subject’s skin colour. In a sense, it limits what I can do with an illustration, but allows me to explore other areas of the image to create a balance of colour.”  

Chrissie Abbott employs colour to evoke happy, trippy feelings. This artwork is called Transitions

Chrissie Abbott (UK)

“I tend to use tones of colours that aim to evoke happy, trippy feelings. I work with the same palette in both my handmade and digital work, experimenting with mixing acrylic paint and layering in Photoshop.

“I’m a big fan of a spectrum and a fade, and I tend to veer towards pinks, oranges and teals – and the tones in between. I see these as being shades of joy.”

Eleanor Taylor used the contrasting colours of orange and blue in Fish’s Garden

Eleanor Taylor (UK)

“I like to collage and use a lot of handmade textures in my illustration, so I try and approach colour in a similar way. I scan in textures like spray paint or charcoal washes, and turn them into colour transparencies, which I then layer up to whatever effect I desire.  

“For Fish’s Garden, I decided to limit my palette to just orange and blue. They contrast beautifully and the blue could be used for more subtle areas, while the orange for areas that I wanted to bring forward to create some depth to the image.”

Sac Magique changed the dog’s colour from brown to green to make the image more playful

Sac Magique (UK)

“My background is in printmaking, so when I first started to work in illustration I would approach a piece much like a would a screenprint. Not only are the results of a limited palette often more striking, but they have the advantage of cutting down the time I spend making colour decisions – which is useful when producing commercial work.

“While planning and sketching the image, I’ll think about the illustration’s key colour. This might not necessarily be the most prominent colour in the final image, but is in some way essential to its function: for example, a rich dark blue for a nocturnal scene or crimson for blood. Then I’ll add other colours. These might have a specific function like the key colour or simply contrast nicely. 

“The dog in the example [top left] was originally a realistic brown, which got changed to green as it made the image more playful and pop. I’ll then try to keep the number of colours to a minimum, so that the image retains clarity, using my initial colours as much as possible and only adding another colour if necessary.”

Patrick Leary uses contrasting light and dark colours, much like he would a black and white photo. This piece is called Hundred Dollar Cigar

Patrick O’Leary (UK)

“I approach an illustration much like I would a black and white photograph, often using contrasting light and dark colours to guide the eye of the viewer. I rarely use lines, instead using the difference in tone to define shapes and objects. The contrast between light and dark shades can be used to frame certain areas of the illustration that I feel are more important. I choose colours based on the emotional content of the image, but also because of their tonal difference, which can create some very dynamic illustrations. I check that there’s enough contrast in my combinations by desaturating the illustration on Photoshop whilst I’m working.”

Ryan Bubnis prefers to use a limited colour palette

Ryan Bubnis (USA)

“Whether I’m working digitally or with traditional media, I prefer to use a limited colour palette. It forces me to focus on composition and tests my design skills. I intuitively choose about four colours, and then use a variety of tones and values based on these choices.”

Scott Balmer believes you should trust your instincts when choosing colours

Scott Balmer (UK)

“When it comes to selecting colour in my work, I start off by having a general idea of what pigments I want to use on the final piece. But I don’t set my choices in stone as I tend to pick an the initial colour [for part of an image] and then decide on what its nearest neighbour’s hue should be. It sounds mad, but it’s down to trusting what your instincts tell you about whether both colours feel like a right fit together and work well in harmony. It’s something I’ve been doing ever since I picked up block printing at art school.” 

Nick Sheehy favours a ‘less is more’ approach to colour. This artwork is called Brave New World

Showchicken (aka Nick Sheehy) (UK) 

“I tend to favour the ‘less is more’ approach to colour. I use dense textures – and a colour that’s too strong will overpower an image, throwing off the context of a scene. If you’re going for an atmosphere of slightly odd and eerie, you can get a lot of mileage by using a limited palette, focusing on the technique of layering to build up interest.”

Using a darker background to frame your work can intensify the colours, argues Simon Wild. This piece is called You Are The Music While The Music Lasts

Simon Wild (UK) 

“Framing your palette with a darker background can sometimes intensify the colours in your work. I wanted to capture the vibrancy of a jukebox for this piece [left], so I decided to frame it by using an almost black background. This is particularly useful for identifying shape and directing focus on a particular area.

“A limited palette with repeating colours is a useful technique to unify all the elements of your image.”

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