How to Pick the Perfect Color Palette
Drum roll, please!!! Today I introduce to you, Corinna Ren! This woman is a mama, blogger, painter, and surface pattern designer. I discovered her from a Spoonflowers Design Challenge, we collaborated to bring you a juicy blog post on how to pick the perfect color palette. Be sure to check her out on her social platforms listed below! Now, I’ll let Corinna take it away.
Let’s talk about color. Honestly, probably one of the most important aspects of designing. Color conveys emotion and sets up the whole feeling of a design, whether it’s a print or a pattern. So, how do I decide on the colors for my designs? How do I pick my palette? Let me explain how to pick the perfect color palette.
Well, let’s start with understanding that color is always a journey. As you grow familiar with your palettes, you discover that you have preferences and colors you are more drawn to. That could change over time or maybe you face an assignment that requires colors you don’t normally work with.
Paint vs Digital
Personally, I come from a painting background. Acrylic paints as well which makes a big difference. Mixing paint and capturing an image from life or from my mind felt very different to what I do know which is mostly digital illustration and surface design. I’ve only been doing the design game for about a year but I quickly learned that color is on a whole other playing field when you are creating a pattern vs. a landscape or portrait. Color is just as important in both but applied rather differently.
In a painting, you often capture the colors that exist. Some artists might be stylized and have their own way of adding a mood with different shades, but you still have something to work off of. In pattern-design, you have to conjure a harmony that is pleasing to the eye almost out of thin air.
One big thing I’ve learned as I’ve had to self-teach myself how to build color palettes is that a refresher course on color theory is not a bad thing, in fact it’s highly beneficial. I won’t break down color theory for you here but there are some great classes on Skillshare.
Or if you just need that first step without having to search, this youtube video is incredibly produced and breaks down all the essentials for a beginner using colors: Beginning Graphic Design: Color
My First Colored Pattern
When I first started designing, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. My first pattern with color was this one…
Most of those colors are just pulled from the palettes pre-picked from the AdobeDraw app. They have some great “community-themes” to start from and kind of get your bearings a little bit.
Illustration vs. Pattern
Moving on from those days, my understanding of digital color has grown. It really depends on what I’m working on, the theme, the medium, the feel, how I pick my color palette. If I am creating more of a scene, I work with less of a palette and intuitively navigate my way through to the colors that feel right. A great example would be this illustration…
I did not have a set palette, but instead worked with each piece of the image, building with the colors as I went. There’s a time-lapse below were you see me work as if I’m painting, with an underpainting slowly building to the details at the end that adds the depth and sense of light in the image.
When it comes to a simpler design like a pattern, I find it’s best to find your palette first. It’s also best, although not 100% required, to keep it simple, limit your palette to 2-7 colors.
As you can see, having a concise and cohesive palette before you dive into your design makes for a strong and eye-catching pattern.
While it’s not always a bad thing, finding the colors for your palette as you go, can let your design get too messy and possibly be too difficult to find the right corresponding color. This is especially true if you are not familiar with the digital color wheel, values, and saturation.
Here is an example of a “pick as you go” pattern I made. I’m fairly happy with how these colors turned out, but it is definitely more complex for a pattern and might not be as appealing to a general audience.
One thing I find if I don’t pick my colors beforehand, and that makes a big difference, is that I always end up with more colors as I try to find the right ones. It also takes me longer to make the pattern work well. This sushis turned out well color-wise, but you can see I had a few extra shades as I journeyed to find the colors I felt would work.
The Tools I Use Now
When I first started designing digitally, I was very intimidated by that color wheel that offered me SO MANY options. How was I going to find just the right green to go with the browns I was working with? I spent a lot of time trying to do just that while still winding up with a weak color scheme in the end.
Since then, I have found some amazing tools to help you learn and beat that difficult digital color wheel.
There is a very wide variety of tools that I have used. Some of them still take more practice for me than others. While they make it fairly easy, how you apply the palette is also important (which I will come back to).
Let me first take you through some of these programs
One very cool one is an app called Coolors which is also available as a website. You can sign up to save your palettes or simply continue to find palettes at will. The app has a very comprehensive and user-friendly way to find the perfect color palette. It also has a gorgeous user interface!
Another cool generator is called ColorSpace and what I like about this one is that you plug in one color value and it gives you many different color schemes at once. Whether it’s a monochromatic palette, an analogous one, or a complementary one, it has many different options!
If you are a designer, you might be using Canva for your Pinterest posts or other social media by chance. Well, they have a phenomenal color palette generator that finds a cohesive collection of colors from a photo!
I have two more great tools for color palettes and one is the app Pantone, which not only has a similar tool to Canva, allows you to pull a color scheme from a photo (and lets you edit which colors come from it)… but it’s full of useful info as well.
Lastly, all those tools make it fairly easy to find a pallet. However, if you still need a slightly more organic approach where you have more manual input while still able to access a strong palette building tool, then the AdobeDraw is where you need to look next.
Not only is it a great vector app (AdobeSketch is the raster version with different brush abilities) where you can create beautiful illustrations, but its wonderful for helping you find the perfect palette. As I’ve mentioned before, they do have “community-themes” where they’ve already built cohesive palettes for you to work from. However, if you click on some of their other tools, they make it very accessible for you to build your own.
When you open the app, it looks like this
Click on the Color option and you get the wheel…
From here you have some great ways to find your palette¨either change it from the wheel to RGB and change those values…
Or click on the top right icon from the wheel and be given these options for what kind of palette you want to work on…
This first image is the collection of points for “Analogous” colors. So they will all fall on the same side of the color wheel. When you move one point, it moves the others accordingly.
Here is a video to show what the movements look like…
Start with one tool, get comfortable, create some designs and then slowly spend some time finding which one works best for you! What inspires you most?
Applying the Palette
One good reason to take a refresher course on color theory is to understand how to read the sort of emotion or message you are conveying with your color scheme. Maybe you’ve picked the colors you want to use… how you use them will still majorly impact what you say about your design.
A great example of this is a color palette from a recent Spoonflower contest.
The image on the left was my original design, with the orchid pink as the background. I felt that amount of pink in my image was overwhelming and really took away from the white which was meant to contrast. So, I painstakingly filled each leaf with the orchid and changed the background to the navy. Now, here’s much more appropriate contrast and definitely makes the pattern a little easier on the eyes.
After that, just to break free from the assigned palette altogether and give the pattern a more personal feel, I changed the colors entirely to this…
Now it has an earthier, more forest feel than the iridescent mystical fairy design it was before.
Am I Now a Master?
I am nowhere near mastering the color palette, in-fact, I often still find it the most challenging part of designing. However, I am now MUCH more comfortable with the digital color wheel and even ignore all those tools on occasion, feeling my way through the colors as I go. The only reason I can do that now more easily is that I’ve learned which colors I prefer, and save my favorite palettes to work off of.
My most recent pattern was made entirely on previous palettes, simply pulling my favorite greens and then matching the right contrasting colors to go with it.
This is a screenshot from Procreate, which is an app I use more for illustrations, hence the larger color palettes. Still, using what I already knew were some of my favorite shades that went well together, I managed a fairly color-cohesive design.
As with anything else, it takes practice and familiarity. What’s great is that color is fun. Communicating through the different shades provides a lot of enjoyment, so explore and enjoy. What are some of your favorite colors to work with? How do you find a color palette for your designs?