By Artists For Artists

Working with Color Palette: Advice for Beginner Artists and Photographers

Color or hue plays an integral role in art and photography. When used effectively, it draws the eye to key elements, creates an emotive mood, and of course, adds to the overall aesthetic of a piece. Our brains are hardwired to respond emotionally to color, which pays dividends to the fact it has been used successfully for centuries, to aid in storytelling through art. Let’s talk a bit about the science behind color and the brain.

Our brains rely heavily on external stimuli to perceive the world around us, from sights to sounds. A mix of instinct, personal experience, and culture contribute to our emotional response to color. Blues and greens have been proven to create a sense of calm, alertness, and prosperity as they give the illusion of daylight and are reminiscent of nature; vibrant yellows and oranges evoke energy, creativity, and vitality. Red has always been a symbol of emotional intensity and has often been used to represent danger, passion, and desire. 

Now that you know the nitty-gritty, let’s talk about using color in your work. Grab a color wheel and let’s get down to business.

“Street Palm” by Anna Roberts


Less Is More

When selecting a color palette for a piece, try to limit the number of colors you use. Keep the piece cohesive and draw the eye to the right parts. A wide variety of color can distract and drown out the detail and meaning of an artwork, so, unless you are going for a striking, surrealistic effect, less is more.

For paintings, limit the range of paint tubes that you use. Instead of using black and white for shadow and highlight, mix colors on your existing palette to create a complementary range of mid-tones. Many artists strongly advise not to use black and white at all, and to look for colors within your palette to create the desired effect.


Photograph by Nhu Xuan Hua


Turn Up The Heat

When we discuss the temperature of a piece we are focusing on whether the colors are warm or cold. Cold colors (blues and greys) can give a sense of calm, melancholy, or earnestness, whereas warm colors (reds and yellows) can feel comforting, joyful, and optimistic. You can play with the temperature of a piece on editing software using the adjustments section. 

For analog work, consider the theme of your piece before adding color. Does this theme feel warm or cold? Do you want to evoke a sense of comfort or melancholy? The closer you move to red on the color wheel, the warmer the color. Don’t be afraid to mix both warm and cold colors; this works particularly well on coastal and sunset scenes. 


Still Life photography by Joon Lee, minus37 (16)

“Self Refraction” by Joon Lee — BUY PRINT


Contrast, Baby!

Whilst faded and ethereal visuals can be perfect for the right piece, a striking contrast will draw the eye to key parts and make the piece stand out. To achieve a popping contrast you will need dark and light values to stand out from one another. Consider using a fusion of dark and light when creating illusions of light, shadow, and shape. With digital art, turn up the contrast and play with the visual effects that different contrasting levels produce.


“Cleon and Thucydides” by Juliette Mahieux Bartoli


Hard and Soft 

Hard color captures the viewers’ attention and can be used to create bold, contrasting effects and intense emotional allegory. Soft colors such as pastels evoke a sense of calm and often create pretty mystical aesthetics. Selecting the appropriate color intensity can help to supplement the tone of your piece. Color can be softened by diluting paint and inks with lighter colors before applying to canvas, whereas hard color can be used straight from the tube. Photographs can be softened or hardened by using the sharpening and saturation editing tools on software such as Photoshop.


“Winne” by Obi Wolf


The most important thing to remember whilst using color in art is that there are unlimited possibilities. The more you play with hue, temperature, softness, and contrast, the more you will find your unique sense of style. So… experiment and play until you find a palette and style that suits you. Ask your friends and family their opinion on your use of color, and remember, every piece moves you further towards where you want to be on your artistic journey. 

Featured art by Emily Quandahl
Article written by Kate Smith


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