by Caleb Goellner

Three Steps to a Confident Color Strategy

Having taught the Wacom Community to both sketch awesomely and get inky in Photoshop, Dave Habben has returned to talk color -- specifically how to choose the right look for your illustrations.  An Intuos Pro and Adobe Photoshop CS6 user, Habben's an expert when it comes to adding and -- most importantly -- changing the color in his illustrations. Today, he breaks down his approach to making his coloring decisions. Take it away, Dave:

For this post, I’m going to use my cover for Daniel Hope’s The Inevitable as an example. The book tells the story of an android’s life, challenges, and adventures in the distant future. Daniel and I worked to together to find just the right feel for the cover. We wanted to show the android as a weathered and introspective character, so the illustration showed him battle damaged and facing left, as if he’s looking into the past. Maybe in another post we can talk about composition, but for this one, let’s jump into the color options.

Color theory has been discussed, written about, and argued ever since art has been created. What I’d like to do here, rather than give you specific commandments for color, is to explain why I chose to use these specific colors on the cover using established color theory. Certainly, a wide variety of colors would have worked, but the author and I made our choice based on some basic fundamental factors:

1. Characters and Setting

2. Story Atmosphere/Mood

3. Method of Distribution

1. Finding Contrast in Characters and Setting

Story starts with contrast. The contrast can begin with characters in conflict with their setting, or characters in conflict with themselves. Find the contrast within the characters and their setting to start the color selection process.

The Inevitable takes place within spaceships in the future. These places all seem very cold and dark to me, which would lead us toward the cool side of the color spectrum. Think blues and greens, maybe tints of some gray as well. On the other hand, the main character, though an android, is battling with some very human emotions. To show this side of him, I added some warm tones, i.e. reds, oranges, yellows, to show the contrast in character. This way, there was a metal robot-like character (cold and dark) with emotions and feelings (warm and light). As a result my first colors looked like this:

I had taken the cold robot and clothed him in warm tones. I’d even added a wood texture to the shirt to further push him into more organic territory. While this made sense in my mind, it didn’t quite hit the mark. So, we took another look at it through the lens of the story’s atmosphere and mood.

2.  Atmosphere and Mood: Use Color to Add Depth to Emotions

Adding and removing color can enhance a mood. Once you have your foundational colors, start removing or adding elements so the mood of the story permeates each page.

Now that we had a basis for the color and had tried a couple things out, the author and I were able to identify some aspects of the general mood that we wanted to push forward.  The first goal was to cool the whole thing down. The orange shirt with the wood texture pushed us too far out of the future/space environment of the story. It was too much, so we got rid of it.  So often we want to try just the right color, when what can really benefit the work is to just leave the color out. Learning what color or absence of color fits your work best will always be a process. Experimenting with your style is a great way to figure out what best fits the atmosphere you’re creating.

One we knew the shirt was gone, we could see more clearly where we did want color and that was in the body of the android itself. So much of the story revolves around the condition of his body, that we new it needed more focus. However, we wanted to stick with our cool color scheme. The warm skin tones of a human wouldn’t convey the character’s condition correctly.

You can see that I wasn’t fully ready to give up on the texture just yet, but when we looked at where the book cover would be seen, we thought it best to make a couple more changes.

3. Method of Distribution: How Your Readers Read Matters

An ebook has different color requirements than a t-shirt. How your audience sees your work is critical to coloring with confidence.

When creating work for commercial use, it’s always helpful to consider where the work will be seen. You’ll have different color needs for your children’s book than you will for your t-shirt, etc. Choosing your colors wisely makes all the difference. We wanted Daniel’s book to really pop off the screen, so the colors would have to be bold, but not overbearing in a way that could misrepresent the story.  The book would be released exclusively as an eBook as well, so the small details couldn’t compete with the legibility. We had to examine our color choice carefully.

As I’ve pointed out, we felt good about the green of the android, but as you can see in the progress images, we also added a bold, warm, yellow to his backpack and the circle/planet shape his head was peeking into. We chose this color to provide contrast to the main character and highlight each of the shapes where you’d find the yellow. The backpack conveys a journey with baggage, which is exactly what the story is. Then, by having the character looking into the sun-like figure, we were able to show progress, vision, and change. This character is moving out of the cold white space into an inviting yellow sun. By simplifying the color palette and carefully placing warm and cool colors, the viewer’s attention is grabbed, but they are also invited to decipher a great message in the work. We also added type that would be heavy and overbearing, just as the character sees his "inevitable" future. The final result looks like this:

Stay tuned for more illustration expertise from Dave Habben.