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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Color Theory
Design

Using Color Palettes to Create Identity in Artwork

Artists set themselves apart from each other and seek to stand out in a variety of ways. One way that you can accomplish this is by using a recognizable color palette throughout your work. 

In this article we'll explore ways to find inspiration for palettes, how to create, save, and easily use palettes in your vector work, what these colors may convey to the viewer, and how something as simple as a color palette can define you as an artist.

Finding Inspiration

You've heard this a billion times: inspiration is all around you! But when you're looking for a color palette that defines you, “all around you” is an unhelpful answer and an incredibly wide scope. I think it's important to narrow an idea like this down to what you really enjoy, as a person and an artist, and to bring that to your creative work.

Whether you're an illustrator or designer of some sort, or aspiring to become one professionally, the color palette you choose as an identity should communicate something about you. This can be a good place to start your hunt for inspiration: Who are you and what do you want to say?

Consider this color palette and what it may communicate to the viewer. It's brightly colored and contains a variety of hues, rather than multiple shades or tones of a single hue. Its vibrancy can be construed as being playful and fun to a viewer or client.

An example of a vivid and bright color palette
An example of a vivid and bright color palette.

Now consider this palette. The use of natural tones with a more vivid hue can be seen as being more serious than the last palette and more conservative. While the design itself could be quite dynamic or playful, seeing the colors isolated already provides the viewer with an idea about the messages being conveyed or allows an artist's work to speak to the viewer in a different manner than the colorful palette above.

An example of a natural and conservative color palette
An example of a natural and conservative color palette.

There are a wide variety of resources in book, web, and app form ready for creatives to establish palettes or find inspiration from others. A few of my favorites can be found in the list below and are a great starting point to spark ideas for your own palettes.

Creating Color Palettes 

With the assumption you're working in Adobe Illustrator, there are a couple of places you can create, save, and edit color palettes. 

Firstly, you have the Swatches panel, which allows you to access the default swatches for new documents as well as an assortment of color books created by Adobe. Additionally, however, you can customize this to your own preferences, creating a swatch library that's unique to your own document.

The swatches panel in action
The Swatches panel in action.

If you open the Swatches panel within a working document, such as the one seen below, you'll notice you can hit Select All Unused in the panel's option as well as Add Used Colors. Doing both of these gives you a palette of colors that you've used within a design. If you've already created a vector piece whose palette you want to use in later pieces, this gives you the quick and easy option of doing so and referencing it at any time. 

To save the palette, go into the Swatches panel options again and either Save Swatch Library as ASE or Save Swatch Library as AI and you'll be able to load, edit, and save this palette any time within Adobe Illustrator on your machine.

Using the libraries panel within an image
Using the Libraries panel within an image.

Secondly, if you want to access your swatch libraries through other Adobe applications or an alternative device, you'll find the Libraries panel to be the perfect place to save your content. Simply hit Add Fill Color in the panel to add each selected color to a newly created Library, and your content will be tied to your Adobe account.

Creating a color palette with Adobe Color CC from a photograph
Creating a color palette with Adobe Color CC from a photograph.

A third and final method makes use of Adobe Color CC. You can use the mobile app or the website to upload images, take photos, or create color palettes from scratch. Any palette you create will be saved to your Adobe account and easily accessed through the Libraries panel for use within your vector work in Adobe Illustrator CC.

Establishing Identity and Style

So we've discussed inspiration and creating color palettes, but what does this mean for your identity and style and how to establish that within your work? For starters we have the methods through which we can create the colors that will define who we are as artists, or at least who we are throughout a series of designs.

I'm going to use some of my own artwork as an example. The three illustrations below have become a set for a few reasons: they're drawn in a similar style, they contain some repeated imagery, and they draw from the same color palette. 

Most notably this set uses the same dark brown as line work in each. Immediately, a viewer can see that these pieces may be from the same source or are meant to be together, as they look similar from a glance. How your work is perceived at a glance is often important when establishing your identity, and when that identity is your color palette, you want it to be noticeable through a variety of illustrations.

Similar color palettes create a cohesive set of designs
Similar color palettes create a cohesive set of designs.

Check out another example in the two images below. Again, they use the same dark brown for all of the line work, and based on the drawing style are more recognizably a part of a series of designs. 

Additionally, however, they use the same color palette and gradients within each piece. Every time I wanted to use teal or pink, I grabbed the same color so that when people saw each of these elements, most of which were made into jewelry, stickers, and other products, they knew that they were from the same brand.

Using the same colors in multiple pieces establishes an identity
Using the same colors in multiple pieces establishes an identity.

While the two examples above are solving the issues of branding and identity in the same manner, I'd like to explore another set of images that does so for a different reason: tones and temperature.

Changing colors can change ideas about your art
Changing colors can change ideas about your art.

Take a look at the images above, and note how warm the image on the left is and how cool the image on the right is. They share a lot of colors in common, but the main difference is the use of reds, blues, and pinks between the two images. 

The image on the left is a bit nostalgic, harkening back to childhood and real-life gumball machines, many of which tend to be a bright, shiny red. The image on the right is a bit more updated, taking on a vibrant, whimsical feel. While bright pink gumball machines exist, they surely weren't as common and aren't considered "classic". Additionally, each image has an associated era in my mind: 1950s America and 1980s America.

I feel this is entirely due to my own experiences and media I've been exposed to over the years, but color palettes can do this for a viewer and are important to keep in mind while you establish your own identity or brand as an artist and what sort of style you're aiming to produce.

Cool colors can convey sadness, warm colors can convey happiness, and neutral colors can convey a tone of authority or be considered conservative (of course these are all subjective ideas). The colors you choose can establish a mood for the viewer or allow you to aim your work at a particular demographic. Think about how many children's illustrations contain bright, colorful rainbows, or how inappropriate a client may find rainbows and assorted bright colors on a memorial pamphlet created for a funeral.

Conclusion

Colors and color palettes have a lot to communicate to a viewer. When you use certain colors throughout a series of designs or illustrations, you're able to establish an identity for yourself through abstract means. Color palettes find themselves inserted into style guides for designers to refer to all the time. Consider a university or sports team's official colors and how important it is for a designer to use the correct color when creating products or a logotype for that entity.

The colors you choose to use as a means of expressing yourself or your artistic brand help establish who your demographic is and what the tone of your artwork is, and give viewers a bit of information about you or whatever it is your artwork is trying to convey to them.

Consider some of the tools discussed above to help you find inspiration for your own unique color palettes, the ways in which you can save and reuse said palettes, and simple techniques in which to establish said identity throughout your work (reusing palettes, eliminating certain colors as a rule, and using colors to convey messages).

I hope you found this article interesting, informative, and inspirational. What colors do you find you use a lot in your work? What do you think they convey to a viewer? What would you like to be your color palette legacy within your artwork? Let's discuss color in the comment section below, and don't be afraid to show your colors in your future design pieces.

For more articles on color here on Tuts+, check out the following links:

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