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All About Colour Palettes

How to Choose Colour Schemes for Your Art

Colour! It’s such an extensive topic – there’s so much to cover that it can be hard to decide where to start. More often than not, artists will start by covering how to arrange hues (also known as colours) in their artwork, and that’s by learning all about colour palettes and colour schemes! But what are colour palettes? In this short read, we’ll talk all about an introduction to colour, and how you can go about using it in your artwork!

Not too big on reading? No worries – we have a YouTube playlist all about colour and colour theory, explaining what’s in this blog and more!

What is a Colour Palette/Colour Scheme?

Before we get into the different colour palettes, what are they? A colour palette is a range of colours used within an art piece, traditionally held on a board for painters. For instance, take Picasso’s rose period. There, he used primarily oranges, yellows, pinks and reds for his art, which made a very warm colour palette.

Combining hues in certain ways creates different kinds of colour schemes. There are a few basic ones that artists should know when starting out, which are:

  • Monochromatic

  • Analogous

  • Complementary

  • Triadic

…so let’s go over some of these together!

Monochromatic Colour Palettes

A monochromatic colour palette/scheme is made using only one hue, but with lighter and darker versions of itself. For instance, say we took the colour red. Adding white or black to that red to make different shades would also make our colour palette! The lights and darks are called our values, and lighter colours (or tints) have a lighter value, whereas darker colours (or shades) have a darker value.

Famous Paintings with Monochromatic colour palettes

Some famous artwork that have used monochromatic colour palettes include many pieces from Pablo Picasso’s blue period, and Homage to the Square by Josef Albers. During his blue period, Picasso painted with nothing but, well, the colour blue! This was also a period of time before his cubism, so his artwork looked a little more realistic. Josef Albers, being a minimalist painter, often works with very little amounts of colour and shapes within his work. Thus, a lot of his palettes tend to be monochromatic or analogous. But let’s go over what an analogous palette is first before I get too ahead of myself!

Analogous Colour Palettes

An analogous colour palette takes three or more hues on the colour wheel that are all next to each other. For example, if we started from red again, adding red-orange, orange, yellow-orange and yellow to our palette would make it an analogous colour scheme. These colour schemes have a tendency to always look good, since they are naturally placed together anyway.

Famous Paintings with Analogous Colour Palettes

The Olive Trees by Vincent van Gogh and Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red by Mark Rothko are two examples of analogous colour palettes. While Rothko’s example uses the same colours explained earlier, van Gogh’s The Olive Trees instead uses cooler colours. It starts within the greens, and continues into the blues to create this very cool and calming piece. It’s simple to create an analogous colour palette, so let’s talk about a palette that might not be as simple!

Complementary Colour Palettes

A complementary colour palette uses two hues that are across from each other on the colour wheel. For example, if we took the colour blue, orange would be across from it on the colour wheel – and that would make a complementary palette. Generally, when working with complementary colours, you don’t want them at the same brightness or saturation or else they’ll clash with one another. Learn more about brightness, saturation, and the things that affect colour in our blog about The Element of Art - Colour.

Famous Paintings with Complementary Colour Palettes

Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Francis Bacon, Portrait of Oscar Wilde by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Mother and Child by Mary Cassatt are all examples of complementary colour palettes within art. The artworks by Bacon and Cassatt follow the rule I mentioned before – in Bacon’s piece, the purples are desaturated and washed out, whereas the yellow stands out bright and minimal. At the same time, Cassatt’s blues are dark and desaturated, whereas her oranges are kept brighter and in the front. However, Toulouse-Lautrec’s piece keeps his blue and orange both very saturated and bright. This is because technically you don’t have to follow this rule – it’s more a suggestion than anything! Colour is meant to be experimented with, so you don’t necessarily have to stick with traditional rules as you work more with it.

Triadic Colour Palettes

A triadic colour palette will form an equilateral triangle on the colour wheel. For instance, if we placed this triangle down with one of the points on red, the other two points would be on blue and yellow. If we placed one of the points down on green, the other two points would be on orange and purple. These palettes tend to always be vibrant and exciting, and are often used in kid’s movies and toys.

Famous Paintings with Triadic Colour Palettes

Claude and Paloma Playing by Pablo Picasso and Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian are two examples of triadic colour palettes. Especially with more “modern” art, triadic schemes became more popular because of their vibrancy and breakaway from traditional colour palettes used in the past. Both of these paintings use the primary colours very brightly and unapologetically, however in Picasso’s case he also used blue as a desaturated background to set his artwork on.

There you have it! There are actually a good seven or so colour palettes that artists use regularly, but the other types of colour schemes can be more challenging to work with if you’re a beginner at colour. It’s always good to start small, and experiment with limiting your colours for a more stylized and sophisticated look. These four colour schemes are the most popular, so try them out and soon enough you’ll grow more confident with colour theory in no time at all!

Teacher Resources:

If you’re a teacher that’s looking for classroom content centered around colour theory, visit these quick and easy resources:

If you’d like more worksheets related to the elements and principles of art, check out our teachers pay teachers page, where you can get worksheets and lesson plans for your classroom!

More classroom resources like this one can be found on our art resources for teachers page.

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