Using a limited colour palette
Matt Gaser shows how keeping a tight rein on colour can result in a more satisfying painting experience
Matt Gaser keeps a tight rein on his colours.
For this workshop I’ll be guiding you through methods I’ve used on how to control colour and light while applying a limited colour palette.
Finding the perfect inspiration that leads to a great idea, that later becomes a layout is a natural process in creating a painting. Yet finding the right colours or mood to anchor the world you’ve drawn can sometimes be hard to pin down, and at times very frustrating.
If all else fails, keep your colours, values and tones close together. Squint your eyes and picture an image where everything is coloured from a similar place in the rainbow. Painting this way can be useful in setting the tone for your main subject matter to pop. Finding the right mood early on will help identify a family of hues to work from, setting up boundaries within a range of intermediate colours for you to use throughout the painting process.
A technique I sometimes use begins with abandoned or unfinished paintings of my own, integrating this material over a nice layout or sketch. This can set the painting on the right course in unexpected ways. Reference material is your next best option if you want to experiment in this way.
So, let your brain relax from the rainbow of choices out there and let’s get creative with a limited colour palette that puts you firmly in the driving seat.
1 Creating the layout
Before I begin I generally have a simple idea in mind. This can be from a sketch I’ve done already or an image in my head. In this case I’m working from a drawing I created using pencil. After I’ve scanned it and imported it to Photoshop, I widen the canvas size to landscape format. This painting is for a book cover and will need to be wider on the right side for the flaps.
2 Starting with good reference
Because my layout already has a castle in the background I decide to use an unfinished colour sketch of mine that had a mountain palace high above in the clouds. When I saw this image from my library I knew I had found the right mood and colour to start my new illustration. The same technique can be applied to stock photography or any other image from your photo reference archive.
3 Laying down colour
I begin by multiplying (Layers> Multiply) my reference image into my layout, then use other textures and Photoshop brushes to fill in blank areas. Because my reference image is mostly warm tones, I transition other areas into soft purples and greens. I need to make the main character stand out, so I shift his costume to more cyan, blues and metallic armour.
4 Layering Channel selections
By selecting the Channels mode (bottom left tab on the tool bar) I’m able to paint in my selection in red. Then I press the tab again, which turns it into a selection that I can save (Select> Save Selection). I’ll do this process for every major area in the painting, saving my selections as I go. This way I can easily paint behind or in front of areas quickly.
5 Light source
The tones need work and I shift the overall palette to more red/purples. Then I work on the direction of light. By studying the source as it comes from behind the castle I drop in stronger highlights while darkening my mid-tones for more contrast. I add a lake behind the main character, to help separate him from the background and add trees and foliage in the mid-ground.
6 Focusing on detail
I like to work all over the place as I paint, building up details, moving on to another part. Here I focus on the main character’s face. The sun is behind him and he’s got larger ears, so I’m pushing the skin’s translucency, and striking highlights in areas where the sun’s on his face. This gives me a value to base the mid-tones on his face, which is mostly in shadow.
7 Balancing the composition
The left side of the image needs more focus, so I add more trees and fill in the sky with tones that are from the rest of the clouds. However, I don’t want too much brightness in these areas because the castle location should be the strongest in terms of contrast to my characters. So I keep things soft and mid-tone in value on the right side. I also keep the colours purplish in tone.
8 Adding the bridge
I notice the left side seems too baron. So I introduce a strange bridge into the background. This will also lead the eye to the main character and castle. I chose colours that are similar to other areas in the scene, such as reds and purples. I don’t want make the bridge a totally difference hue because it would pull the eye away from the main subject matter.
9 Knocking back values
After adding the bridge I see that the values are getting a bit too close to the foreground elements. So I decide to add a fog layer. This will help with atmospheric perspective and push the main character forward in the scene.
10 Castle details
Now I move on to the castle. I use a round Hard brush and draw as I paint the outline and inner details of the palace. I want these values to be very close together and so I squint my eyes as I work, comparing the hues with each other. Most of this area is in complete shadow. Only subtle areas along the edge are hit by the sunlight that’s shining through the clouds.
11 Final main character detail
I move back to the foreground character. I work on the feather in his hat, fine-tune the values in his face and around the eyes. I spend time on his costume and brighten the middle areas, while leaving more contrast on the edges of his silhouette. This will help turn the form and reduce any flattening. I also brighten the scene directly behind him, to push his values forward.
12 Detailing the other character
I’m now ready to finish the details on the side character. Because he’s so small I start a new file and paint on him at a much higher resolution. Then I drop this layer into the final painting and scale him back down to fit. Even though his resolution is smaller in the final image, because I painted him separately at a hi res, those details will come through.
13 Fine-tuning the scene
As I scan through the image I return to the trees on the right side, indicating leaves and branches. I also add birds and little details throughout, while making sure my values all group and don’t compete with the rest of the image.
14 Final highlights and detail
As the image comes to a finish I drop in little details such as the floating boats in the background or rim light on the characters. I also colour shift areas so that they match more closely. As I look over the image and find it harder to see things that need attention, I realise it’s complete and am happy to call this painting done!