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Colour Chat

Lee May Foster-Wilson / May 26, 2022

Hello! I hope all is as well as can be where you are? There is so much turmoil in the world right now, recent events reported on the news are utterly heartbreaking. I have been trying to find comfort by focusing on what I have to be grateful for at the moment, and there is a lot: My little family and our safety, a roof over our heads, a job I love, everything starting to bloom in my garden and the sun shining…there is much to hold onto for now when feelings of helplessness creep in. I hope you are able to find these moments too.

One of those things I’m holding on to is creating…my sketchbook has been in heavy use recently and it’s been great to lose myself there, head down trying to interpret the world I know. I have turned a corner and am reviving my fine art practise alongside my illustration which is really exciting for me. It's been fun exploring my materials in a new way. I will share some soon!

Lee's pens in their racks in the studio

So, I wanted to chat about colour palettes and how to use them, and though I have a mix of about 50/50 working with 'analogue' materials and digitally, I'm going to talk mostly about how to use them with Procreate and digital drawing in mind. Obviously this is just my interpretation and how I use colour and work with it digitally, if you have any other tips please leave them in the comments!

Also, if you don’t work digitally that’s fine too, I will start with some general observations about using colour, though I won’t go into colour theory, it’s a big subject with whole courses dedicated to it! I can talk about how I use colour and my analogue materials a bit more another time if anyone is interested, please let me know.

Illustrated text: Using Colour

So first of all, I don’t think there is a right or a wrong way to use colour. It’s very much about taste. What I perceive to be a beautiful colour palette may just be quite offensive to your eyes, but at the same time I do think our perceptions of colour can change over time. For example, colours that I would never use in my work, or that I found difficulty in using I now use all the time. Purple is a prime example of that…it was only a few years ago that I just wouldn’t go near it, and if I did try I generally really didn't like the outcomes. But these days you’ll be hard pressed to find one of my palettes without it in some shade or other, it was just a case of finding the right colours to go with it that worked for me. So if there are colours that you feel like you don’t like then try to stay open minded, it might be that you just haven’t found the right bedfellows for them yet to make them work for you!

Personally I like to limit the colours I use in my work. In the past I have set myself challenges of using only 3 or 4 colours (does anyone remember #lees100daysofthreecolours on Instagram or my random colour challenge?) and at the time I didn’t realise but it was a good way of learning about composition and balance in a work. I can highly recommend doing the same or practising working with a very limited palette from time to time, you will learn a lot!

Images of Lee's sketchbook demonstrating limited colour palettes

Sketches from Lee's 100 Days of Three Colours

So with that in mind I will more often than not start with a palette. Sometimes the subject matter dictates the palette, but mostly I will pick out my colours before I even have a subject matter in mind. Doing this can present it’s own challenges but can open up really great new ideas too, and you definitely become less afraid of using the ‘wrong’ colour for something. However, even if I am meant to be drawing something in more accurate colours I will still choose a fairly limited palette and stick to it.

There is a reason for this and that is that I find a restrained palette can lead to a more sophisticated looking work. It’s absolutely fine to use all of the colours if you want to of course, some of my favourite works use every hue of the rainbow and still feel sophisticated! But again it’s all about balance. If you do use a whole rainbow in your palette, try not to use each colour in equal measure, make some the star of the show and others the supporting cast.

My palettes can range from about 6 colours to around 20 for more detailed works. The palettes with more colours in them tend to be larger because I will have different shades and tints (dark and light) of the same colour hue which gives me a little bit more freedom but still keeps a similar cohesive feel to that of a more restricted palette.

Two different images showing how the same colour pallette can be used for different purposes

These two pieces are made with the same palette which was quite a large one of 20 colours, but there are lots of variations around similar colours, keeping it quite muted and restrained.

Illustrated text reading: Colour Chat

Choosing colours is absolutely, totally subjective. Maybe you’ll have a colour that you really want to use in mind or a favourite, or a new art material to try. In that case start with that and build from there! Or perhaps you have a mood you want to convey, in which case consider which colours would work for that and build a palette around the central colours that come to mind first. It’s not an exact science, but in building palettes I try to have a range of dark and light colours with some somewhere in the middle too. Within that there will be some brights and some muted to add contrast and depth.

If I am working with my analogue materials, in my case it usually starts with my pens so I will select the colours and line them up to get a feel for the palette and see if I like the way they work together which is again, completely subjective. Then I will choose different materials in the same shades. So if I have a cadmium red pen in the palette, then I will also add the cadmium red pencil to the pile of materials I am allowed to use in this palette.

Pens lined up with colour swatches

Then I make little swatches to see if they really do look good together, and if they work on the background I’ve chosen. If I’m working on a coloured background this can distort the way colours look and work together so it’s something to bare in mind, though I’m not too precious about layering and each colour interacting with one other…a blue over a yellow making a green will just add another element to to drawing for example. Sometimes unexpected elements can make a piece all the better!

Using paints is a different beast altogether and one I am a little bit rusty with at the moment since it has been years since I last welded a paintbrush, but I am hoping to re-familiarise myself with the process at some point soon. It’s essential to know a bit about colour theory to mix colours well, I can talk about this another time if you’d like? Although it’s been a while since I last mixed colours I did get a good feel for it when I was screen printing, when one teeny tiny drop of blue pigment could turn a kilo of binder intended to be a light mauve an impressive sky blue..again, another story!

Another method I use for picking colours comes from creating a moodboard of images I like. These could be paintings, photographs, drawings etc that have a certain feel to them that I’d like to reflect in my own work. Then I will study it and digitally swatch out about 10-15 overriding colours that catch my eye either using Photoshop or Procreate. I’ll fiddle around with these until I have the right balance of colours and keep them aside to refer to, either importing a screen shot into Procreate or vice versa into Photoshop so I have them wherever I may need to use them.

Sometimes I will use that whole palette in a piece or I may just take a handful of them. It’s a really handy way of making a cohesive body of work as all of the colours in the main palette work well together or as mini palettes, so whatever you use from piece to piece, they should sit well alongside each other. That’s my theory anyway!

Lee's seasons artwork with the colour swatch

This is one of the recent palettes I have been working from and the seasons pieces I made from them. As you can see, they all have a different feel for each season but work together because there is not only the common theme of composition and similar subject matter but also a colour thread running through them.

Illustrated text reading: Using a digital palette

If you are working with analogue materials, making the work is traditional, layering the colours in a piece on the paper or canvas. You can do the same digitally, working on one plane but this will restrict the benefits and conveniences that working digitally allows such as the ability to move elements around, the ability to undo and delete sections (SO useful!) and also the ability to be able to change the colours of elements if the balance is off or something isn’t quite working.

In Procreate you can layer files like you can in Photoshop which is super handy so if I am able (meaning, if my file can support a lot of layers) I try to put each colour in a different layer. I have worked like this for a while now, since I used to draw digitally in Photoshop and now for the last 4 years in Procreate (perhaps a process that stems from my screen printing days when all of the colours had to be on separate screens?!) Working like this means that if I need to change colours then they can be done on a layer by layer basis…it’s a bit time consuming but the freedom this affords to make different colour versions of pieces or even to be non committal with a colour early on is really valuable.

Examples of colour usage in Procreate

Layers with a different colour on each one and my preferred way of choosing just the right colour in procreate, the disc...

I like to set up my palette underneath the colour disc which means I can add or adjust colours easily. There are a few options for choosing colour in Procreate with fancy wheels and sliders etc but the disc feels most intuitive to me as you can easily adjust the shade and tint as well as the hue.

One thing to remember, especially if you are working with a coloured background is to put a white swatch into the palette from the default white of the background before it is coloured. I use white as a colour a lot when I am working on a coloured background as I find it brings a really nice vibrancy to strongly coloured work. It doesn’t have to be a lot but I just like how it helps to up the contrast of a palette.

To change the colours in a layer you just need to drag the colour from the top right hand corner and drop it directly onto the layer. Still with the tip of the pencil on the screen you can slide it left or right to choose how much of the layer is filled which I think Procreate chooses based on individual pixel colour.

Example of colour change in Procreate

Procreate is quite powerful when it comes to changing colour on textures as the colour drop will allow you to change colour without flattening the appearance of the brush strokes, something I don’t find as intuitive in Photoshop. You can see how these are the same fronds but just a different colour and the texture has been really well preserved. (Amazing brushy paintbrush is from Super Nice Letters!)

A little tip I have for working like this is to group the layers of each element together as working like this can build up quite a lot of layers and remember to name them too…sometimes I seem to spend as long looking for layers that I haven’t named than I do actually drawing! (I realise I haven’t actually done this in the example of layers image above…but it’s a smaller file and only a handful of layers so not a disaster!)

The best thing to do is just get stuck in and play and if something isn’t working try removing colours, or adding a different one. Even changing an existing colour just a tiny but can really lift a composition. Most of all, I think when working with colour, either with analogue materials or digitally remember to just to enjoy the colours and have fun!

Lee Foster-Wilson drawing featuring a Gertrude Jekyll quote about gardening

This piece uses 8 colours plus white!

Anyway, I hope this has explained a little of the mysterious alchemy of choosing colours and also about working with them digitally. As I said at the beginning, choosing colours really is a lot to do with preference, though it’s what you do with them, whether you have two or twenty that can really make a piece sing or come off a little flat. I really do recommend experimenting with a really reduced palette as a good exercise in getting creative with colour and learning about balance, a daily practise I am considering reviving for myself after writing this!

As always, if you have any comments or questions please do let me know and I will do my best to answer them for you.

Lee X

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