Leanne Barrett: Choosing and Mixing Colours for Illustrations

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Choosing and Mixing Colours for Illustrations

How do you choose the colours for your illustrations?
Do you make choices at random or from photos?
Where does your inspiration come from?

In September 2017 I attended the SCBWI ACT - Level Up Conference where author and illustrator, Tania McCartney, revealed that she liked the colours in the TV show 'Bewitched' and these colours are featured in one of her books.

Tania also spoke about colour sequence in picture books, choosing colours from reference images and paint swatches. She suggested that we use a limited palette for each book, creating a combination of mixed colours to give the illustrations in the book a consistent look.


This reminded me of a previous conversation where Tania implored me to not use colours straight from my watercolour set. After that conversation I began to work on mixing my watercolours which included watching the YouTube video Mixing colours for watercolour painting -with Alek Krylow

The information about colour from the Level Up Conference buried itself in my subconscious, until I received an email from the National Library of Australia, notifying the public that a magazine in their collection, The Australian Woman's Mirror, was now digitised and available online. The colours of the magazine's front cover, 10 November 1954, piqued my interest.

I thought, 'Maybe the illustrations that I am creating for a SCBWI ACT illustrators exhibition could use the palette from this magazine's 1950s issues.'

Upon viewing the digitised magazine I decided instead to use the colours from the 1936 issues to develop my palette;


  • yellow/orange - 19 May 
  • red - 16 June
  • orange - 30 June
  • light green - 7 July 
  • brown - 1 September
  • bright green - 22 September 
  • blue and yellow - 3 November 


So how was I going to create the colours that I needed for this pallet?

Using my colour swatches from Alex's video I began to mix colours to match the 1936 colours, creating my new palette. I found when using the watercolour half pans that I needed to keep remixing colours because I couldn't easily make the quantity I needed. I was concerned about the colour consistency for each illustration, especially when I needed to remix colours regularly.

The next influence for my palette came from a recent meeting with the Canberra Members of the 52-Week Illustration Challenge. Tania McCartney was telling the group that she was going go back to tubes of watercolours rather than watercolour pans. Why? To have large amounts of each mixed watercolour ready to paint illustrations for one of her upcoming books.

I didn't give Tania's comment any further thought. I went to a two day Children's Writing Bootcamp, spent my early week writing book reviews, attending events and taking photos. Then Tania's comment hit me like a lightening strike.

Yes! I could mix my chosen colours in a big batch. This would allow me to paint all of my illustrations using the same colours. Each of the colours used would make the illustrations colours consistent.

Step 1
Locate my existing Winsor and Newton Cotman (WNC) 1936 colour swatch (created using half pan watercolours).

Step 2
Match my 20+ year old Art Spectrum (AS) watercolour paint tubes to the colours I used to create my initial swatches - thankfully the AS paint hadn't dried up. I didn't have all of the same colours that I used to create my initial palette so I substituted some colours for the closest colours that I owned. This meant not needing to buy new paint.

Step 3:
Numbered an existing mixing palette.

Step 4
Mixed the AS watercolours to match my WNC palette.

Step 5
Created a new swatch of my 1936 colours and allocated each colour a number, for easy reference.

Step 6
Paint illustrations with the knowledge that I won't run out of the colours I want
AND know that my colours will be consistent.

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