Coloring With a Limited Palette

By Alex Whisman

Choosing to colour with a small selection of colors can be a challenge.   It is a good way to test your skills when you are colouring.  You can use a challenge like this to help break out of a rut or to re-energise you if you feel your coloring mojo is trying to go into hiding.

Using your limited palette starts with choosing your picture and how many colors you want to use.  You can use as little as 1 pencil.  I have seen some stunning pictures colored with 1 pencil.  These truly showcase the colorists’ skills when you see them!

You can choose as many colors as you like.  I think that 4 to 6 colors provide a nice level of challenge, yet offers enough color options to do most pictures.

How do you choose your palette? Do you choose colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel to create interest and contrast in your picture? Do you use all pastel colours for a softer look, or all bright colors for a more solid look?  Do you choose colors that are in the same shade to create a mono-chromatic completed picture?

Regardless of how many colors you choose or the palette you use, something  important to consider is whether to include black and white as part of the colors you are allowed, or to supplement your palette in addition to them.  Some people consider both of these as separate colors.  Other people consider them a ‘base’, almost like a staple. If you are doing a limited-colour challenge for an official contest it is important to find out what the rules are before you pick your colors.  You want to plan and start your picture as soon as possible, but you don’t want to ruin it and have to start again if the rules treat these as separate color choices.  Some rules will not allow you to blend colors together to get a different color, and this is also important to know if you are doing a contest.  If you are challenging yourself, decide these things early on in your picture.

The picture I colored was “Tranqulity” by Shelah Dow and was part of a 6-color challenge she set for her Shelah Dow Art – Official Fan Coloring Group on Facebook.   I chose the following colors: Sanguine, Light-Yellow Ochre, Permanent Green Olive, Pine Green, Helioblue-Reddish and Cobalt Blue-Greenish.  I wanted to choose colors that complimented each other and that seemed to go with the themes in Shelah’s picture

Once you have your picture and your colors, it is time to get started!  Look at your picture and plan where you want to put each one.  Think about what techniques you want to use.  If you are like me and can forget what ideas you had, or if it is a long time between your coloring sessions, it helps if you put a light color pencil mark in the areas where you plan to use them.  If it is a light enough mark you can color over it with a different choice if you change your mind.  This won’t work with pens, unfortunately, so you may prefer to make a rough list of what you want to put in the larger elements of the picture.  Both of these techniques give you an idea of how the colors work together.

Sometimes you get to a place in the picture where you want to use the same color next to itself or a similar shade.  You want the separate areas to stand out and sometimes regular shading won’t work to give them enough unique definition.  Consider using lines or cross-hatches to show texture and colour. You can completely fill a section with lines or use them sparingly.   In the image below, you can see how I have used lines throughout the fairy’s hair, head band and wing edges.  I also used one of the blues sparingly by making wave marks in the water.  This has created the hint of color and movement without overwhelming the picture with blue.  I knew I wanted to color the fairy blue and didn’t want to have a picture with mostly blue images that blended together.

In addition to using single-color lines to create texture and difference in your picture, you can use 2 colors together, without blending.  You can do this by making lines with one color, then lines with a 2nd color going in the same direction or a different direction.  You can also outline a section with 1 color and color in with a 2nd color.  In the picture below you can see both techniques.  In the dragon’s wings I used green and blue hatching marks.  In the circles I used sanguine orange to outline the circles and used light yellow ochre lightly inside the circles.

 Another example of the 2-color lines technique is in my fairy wing below.  I liked the look I had achieved with the blue and green lines in the dragon wings above and wanted to achieve the same look and to tie the two sets of wings together in the image.  I also used the terracotta and light yellow ochre in the lotus flowers in the below picture.  The light yellow ochre was more subtle than the sanguine, and added a kind of “inner glow” where it was used.

The last technique I used to help expand my tool box, despite having a limited palette, was using Vaseline when coloring the frame of my picture.  I have used Vaseline in some of my colored pictures before and wrote an article for Color On in the February 2016 issue.  I find that my Faber Castel Albrecht Durer water color pencils lend themselves very well to working with Vaseline.  I use very little at a time and wipe off the excess as I go with a cotton bud.  While I have never had problems with the Vaseline bleeding to the back of my pictures, I do always recommend doing a small test on the title page of any book you consider doing this with.  I recommend the same test on a scrap of your regular paper if you print your pictures out.  Not all pencils react the same to Vaseline blending, so I recommend some small test-patches on another piece of paper.  Apply it very sparingly to the tip of your pencil, wipe excess off your pencil and where you colored.

Using Vaseline smooths your pencil strokes and brings out the color stronger in an image, without having to press too hard.  You can do some blending with it, but put down both colors before you put the Vaseline on your pencil and color it, once you have the Vaseline layer colored in you can’t usually color over it easily.

Completing a picture with a limited palette is refreshing.  I feel accomplished when I challenge myself, for doing something more difficult than my usual daily coloring and for turning out a picture that looks good.  Using some of these extra techniques let me make the most of my limited color range by giving me different tools to make the different elements of my pictures stand out.

My completed “Tranquility” by Shelah Dow, showing the techniques I used to stretch my 6-color palette.

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