How Illustrators Cheat at Color (And Get Away With It)

One of the biggest challenges for illustrators is picking colors that look good together.

There are two traps:

  1. The colors you pick look bad next to each other.
  2. You muddy the colors (desaturate them) so they go together, and you end up with an illustration that looks boring.

My process in illustration is quick, totally cheating, and amazing.

First make yourself a color pallet.

The super-cheating way I make color pallets that look good, is to pull up illustrations you really like, like this scene from Winnie the Pooh and this one from The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors:

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt (Paperback) | Scholastic  Book Clubs

Then use the eyedropper tool to grab color from the painting

With a program like photoshop or procreate, along with a paintbrush tool, grab colors and brush them on a blank paper (almost like you were using the paper as a painters pallet).

Just lather the colors on there to become textured swatches.

  • Swirl them on top of each other while keeping them slightly separate.
  • Move from dark to light… loosely.
  • Keep them in chunky groups according to base color.

The more illustrations you pull from, the richer your swatches.

You end up with something like this:

Something I like about this method is that right from the start, when I go to paint onto my illustrations, I have rich, textured paint swatches to work with.

Now Apply This to Your Illustration

First the drawing.

This is where you’re figuring out composition. Just play up the drama of the scene as you decide:

  • Where you put your camera
  • What you show, what you don’t show
  • What your characters look like
That_Was_Then 4.jpg

Second, the greyscale.

This is where you decide

  • where light is hitting the objects that are the primary focus
  • which parts of the foreground and background are lit vs which are dark
  • this will help you nail the mood of your scene before you add color
That_Was_Then 3.jpg

Third, let’s color.

Now you start using your color swatches to color your illustration.

Here’s an example of how I’ll do it sometimes (picture using the blue swatch):

  • I drop the swatch in under the ink layer.
  • Then I Morph it to fit my characters that are blue.
  • Then I Use the rub tool to smush it around how I like.

I told you, this is quick and cheating.

That_Was_Then 5.jpg

Here are some rules of thumb:

  • Almost always your characters need to be stark, well lit, clearly distinct.
  • The more something is in the foreground, the starker the image.
  • The more something is in the background the softer the image and color.

Here are a few more examples of my process:

And here are a bunch more examples:

(I hate dumb newsletters)


Get a FREE Dinosaur House Kids Book in your inbox every single month.


A Virtual Event for Tired, Busy Parents

Thursday September 7th 9am-6pm

This is going to be awesome

Are you in? It's going to be awesome.

Let’s ENCOURAGE each other as we influence the next generation.