20 Amazing Techniques For Using Colour in Your Art

Use colour better in your artworks with these illustration tips from the likes of Owen Davey, Maria Munn, Dave Bain, Ana Galvan and more.


I play a lot with my colour palettes. They're never totally set. I often start with a one but completely change it half way through, when I realise that a certain colour helps the piece more, or brighten it all or something.

The thing that amazes me with colour is that it is very dependant on the other colours around it. Changing one colour's properties, can completely shift how the rest of the piece reacts with it, and you can end up with a totally different feeling to your illustration.

Owen Davey (UK)

When working with colour, I often play with using feature colours to draw the eye. I may have a piece that is constructed with an almost entirely blue palette, but then use a pink or yellow or something to jump out of the piece and drag the eye to various important elements within the image and provide a balance to the overall illustration.

Owen Davey (UK)


Taking an old piece of work (or sometimes somebody else's work) and selecting each of the colours used – then replacing them with new colours – is a fun way to create a new palette.

The colours in the original piece are irrelevant really. What I'm playing with is the relationship between the colours, which is much easier to do when you give them a context, rather than as abstract blobs. I then construct a palette using these pieces and work from there.

Owen Davey (UK)

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Sometimes I use a grey palette on the background and saturated colours on the characters, so that they are more eye-catching. I like to use limited colour palettes, using desaturated colours on the big shapes and saturated ones on the small details, like lips or nails. I’m always looking for a balanced colour scheme.

Ana Galvañ (ES)


My use of colour is not always organised, and sometimes I let my emotions take over. But from time to time, I have a clear idea of the colour palette in my head, mostly when it is a limited colour palette, so I create a customised palette with these colours.

Occasionally, when I have the colour done, I might have doubts about it, so I change it several times until it works for me. That’s why I always separate the colours on different layers.

Ana Galvañ (ES)


Anohter useful tip is to start with a background colour and that will help you to create the rest.

Look for inspiration in images from the Internet, books, comics, graphic design, photography... Another option is to create customised colour palettes with online tools like Kuler or Color Hunter.

Ana Galvañ (ES)

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Colour is important for me to communicate feelings and emotions. For example, last year I had to do an illustration for an article about David Lynch.

His fictional world inspired me to use mainly yellows and blacks – maybe because of the influence of the Lost Highway titles – so I decided that the outline would be black.

However, all the dreamlike characters would be in different saturated colours. The idea was to intentionally separate reality from fiction.

Ana Galvañ (ES)


Consider how different colours contrast or create harmony with each other. An artwork with a harmony tends to feel calmer and unified, while one with contrasting colours can generate excitement or discord.

Traditionally, darker colours – blue and purple in particular – may denote somber emotions while lighter orange and yellow colours might hint at a happier outlook. These are, by no means, hard and fast rules and sometimes a stronger message might be to switch these colour notions around to evoke an ironic contrast, ie a sad situation with traditionally happy colour palette.

Dave Bain (UK)


I tend to stick with a limited colour palette for my illustrations, giving careful consideration to which colours suit the theme and what emotions they evoke. It’s interesting to experiment with diverting away from using realistic colours for people and objects.

Limiting the palette pushes me to explore this idea and work out combinations that can lend value and help re-enforce the message of the artwork.

Dave Bain (UK)

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I often trawl through image libraries looking for interesting colour palettes in vintage adverts and packaging. Sometimes it might be just a corner of an old cereal packet that will spark an idea or a colour-way that I can save and come back to on a future project.

Dave Bain (UK)


Photoshop is a powerful tool for quick experiments with layering of colour and switching between different colour-ways and palettes. Play and being open to discovery is so important, and I recommend taking a more hands-on approach by using colouring pencils and paint to experiment with different colour blocks and textures – as working with traditional mediums often results in the unexpected.

Dave Bain (UK)


I was commissioned to produce a series of artworks along a long stretch of corridor in Bristol Children’s Hospital. The corridor passed through very different wards and so it was important to communicate to visitors where they were on their journey, as well as be sympathetic to the type of wards they were visiting.

One ward treats patients with burn injuries for example, so I had to be careful with colour choice - creating artwork that featured colours that were cool and calming.

I created imagery that featured water with three artworks depicting characters in boats, some singing and others on an adventure.

Dave Bain (UK)

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A quick tip for harmonising the overall colours in an illustration is to create a solid colour layer overlaying it onto the whole image. This can act almost as colour wash and can even out some more stark colours in the image setting an overall mood and slightly washed out look.

Play around with the opacity here to find the right balance. 

Marina Munn (UK)


My approach to selecting a palette for a piece is usually roughly a combination of 80% intuition and 20% experimentation. Here are some things I do when experimenting. 


Sometimes I will take a lot of seemingly random swatches and just throw them in and try to balance them out.

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Other times I will select just use one or two basic colours and create a visual hierarchy by using different tones on the spectrum.


Sometimes it helps to approach the colour treatment of a piece the way you would a screenprint – just playing with two or three basic colours overlaying them to expand the palette. This is usually a safe and easy way to make sure the colours go together and saves a lot of time when working on a tight deadline.

Using a limited palette also helps to achieve a level of visual clarity and readability in an image.

Marina Munn (UK)


I collect all kinds of materials all the time and keep an archive of them: posters, packaging, photography ceramics, textiles – pretty much anything that catches my eye. Sometimes I would go to them for colour inspiration but not too often. I like for the colours to emerge organically in my mind. 

Marina Munn (UK)

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In my work rarely use transparencies; I mostly stick to solid colours so it’s just a matter of finding the right balance.

Juxtaposing cold and warm tones is something that I always seem to unintentionally look for when choosing colours. I think it’s really key to achieving harmony and balance of the shape and size of elements and their proximity to each other.

Marina Munn (UK)


I think about what the image is trying to say, is it supposed to convey tension, sadness (shown here) tranquility or be more playful?  Sometimes I like to use more unusual colours for the theme at hand. This can create a different kind of tension within the image.

Marina Munn (UK)


If it’s a more playful topic I might spread the colour around creating more of a tapestry of varying colours.

Marina Munn (UK)

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If there’s something that requires specific attention within the image I will direct the viewer’s eye to it by using a contrasting or unusual colour. My approach is never really set in stone – I go by what’s best for that particular image.

Marina Munn (UK)


Strive to achieve the right feeling in your illustration, instead of going for the accurate natural reflection for the elements in it. This will lead to far more surprising colour combinations.

Start by wondering what it is you’re trying to say and how you want your illustration to be interpreted. If for instance, if you start in just black and white, you are free from distractions and you can have more interesting associations.

Aron Vellekoop Leon (NL)


For me, the beauty of colour comes out most when there are imposed limitations.

I take a lot of inspiration from screenprinting. Narrowing it down to just a few colours and then looking for enrichment by mixing and overlapping for the right contrast, that for me is the strongest way of working with colour.

Aron Vellekoop Leon (NL)

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It comes down to simplification – simplifying my process and really giving good thought too which colour a specific illustration really needs and why.

It’s not about how many colours you use but how you combine them.

Aron Vellekoop Leon (NL)


The best decisions on colours are usually made when you look at it another time with a fresh set of eyes.

Aron Vellekoop Leon (NL)


I often use my mobile phone to collect colour references on the go. Quite often when walking in the street, something will catch my eye and I see colours that attract me. It can be a few different buildings overlapping, or maybe signs, posters or simple objects that were placed next to each other randomly.

Jose Mendez (ES/UK)

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Fashion magazines can be quite interesting for example, clothing, set design and lighting are all a great source of colour inspiration. Visual used at music gigs can be stimulating and inspiring too.

Jose Mendez (ES/UK)


Experimentation is key. I normally start working with one or two colours I feel comfortable with and some new colours I would love to try. If this doesn’t work, I start again. When it comes to digital it is easy to change swatches any time you want. When I’m painting or colouring by hand, I do some tests in advance on other sketches to make sure that the new combinations will work in the artwork. 

Jose Mendez (ES/UK)


Colours add another layer of meaning to an image, yet they also set the mood and help to tell the story. Sometimes a drawing may not be particularly engaging, but adding the right tone and palette succeeds to elevate it and deliver surprising results

Jose Mendez (ES/UK)

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