Colour is Context
Creating a colour palette for your character is most difficult when you are focusing only on that one isolated image. To create a palette that brings together the cast and story harmoniously, you've got to think about the context in which the colours will be perceived.

Here, I'd like to take a moment to cover what colour is, and some interesting circumstances that cause colour to behave in weird ways. So let's start off by asking... 

What is Colour?

A colour can be described as a combination of the following attributes: hue (the dominant wavelength grouping that we would describe and catergorise the colour as, eg. red, green, blue etc), value (how light or dark the colour is), saturation (the purity of the colour), and chroma (the perceived strength of a colour in relation to white).

 Quick Tip! 

Often if you're working with colour and you use a photoshop hue/saturation adjustment layer to desaturate your painting (in order to check the values), you will find each hue will reach their peak saturation at different values - as shown above. This is particularly important to keep in mind if you are trying to retain your values, as shifting hues to explore multiple colour possibilities will cause the perceived value of hues to skew.

How we perceive colour

If you find your colour choices are jarring or not sitting well together and you're not sure why, a likely culprit of this is an over reliance on Local Colours. A local colour of an object is the base colour before any additional lighting influence is applied to it. The sky is blue, the grass is green - this is a naive stumbling block a lot of us need to overcome as we get to grips with using colour. The sky is not always blue, and grass and other objects will change colour depending on a variety of external factors. Relying on local colours as final colours too much can make environments and characters look artificial, rather than deepening the believably of your world.

What's more, adding an over abundance of local colours for subjects in a given scene means they will start to compete with one another since they exist outside of their context or environment. 

These clashing elements will compete for visual dominance and create a lot of visual noise in the process.

Bold saturated colours as seen in Superman's design on the left will pop against one another and create a visual impact. This clashing principle can often be found in advertising to grab your attention. 

Compare this to the supermen on the left, where the hues have been nudged over into the warmer lit environment that the characters are in. 

In order to solve this conundrum let's talk a little bit about perceived colour! Our perception of a colour is due to where and how it is seen.

Observational paintings and plein air painting is an amazing way to shake things up and really see colour interactions out there in the wild. Sometimes the pigment used to describe a colour is not actually the colour itself at all. I know, it's crazy but that's how colour is tricksy. Matt Wilson describes this phenomon as 'Red Ain't Always Red' 

Colours can be perceived to change depending on the context in which they are viewed. There's a lot of factors to consider when adjusting your colours to fit together, this puzzle is part of the charm and the challenge of a colour arrangement which sings.

What is Context? 

When I think of the context for colours, I mean a whole bundle of things rolled together. These include and are not limited to the adjacent colours in the palette of the design or scene/painting, the lighting/environment, the story moment in which the colours are communicating, history of the material that the colour is describing and in the case of character design, other characters can influence the colour choices of the other cast.

Let's have a look at adjacent colours as they'll effect everything we talk about going forward.

Adjacent Forms

The literal context / placement of colours next to one another plays a large role in how we interpret them, and the effect they have on us.

The grey squares in the above image appear darker in value than their lower counterparts because of the vibrant colours surrounding them, even though they are all identical.

We naturally perceive the world additively, through the light receiving Red Green Blue sensors in our eyes. The combination of two of these properties will trend toward grey, and eventually white.

What is important to learn from this is that we begin to interpret an adjacent colour as a warm or cool complementary of that hue. This still applies even if the hue itself is nearer a desaturated (grey).

I use this a lot in painting when I want to suggest a cooler colour in a warm context, instead of using a saturated blue which feels too harsh and jarring, I'll use a less saturated blue and the warm colours will handle the rest for me.

There are two main methods for mixing colour. Additive (RGB) for monitors/screens and Subtractive (CMYK) for print media. 

In traditional media like paints and inks (CMYK), colours blend in a system of subtractive mixing which means that the resulting saturation and intensity of the mixture is reduced as any additional colour is added to it.

Think of it like this, if you add 5 red marbles to 5 blue marbles, then you now have 5/10 or 1/2 red, and so your red is at half strength when being perceived.

The term muddy colours is applied to colours which trend toward the brown / purple middle colour as a result of too much haphazard mixing. Each new successive pigment of paint mixed together results in a further dilution in saturation and intensity of the resulting pigment. 

However, this photograph of a setting sun over ocean waves shows that you can still paint emotionally resonant or dramatic paintings/pieces with muted/muddy colours as they are being placed in the same adjacent context to one another, and therefore the value/saturation is perceived in direct contrast to the darker / desaturated values, and feels brighter by relative comparison.


Lighting can override the local colours of a scene and pull all of them toward a cohesive whole. 

I love how Jordie Bellaire utilises a muted palette here to pull the whole piece into subdued overall blue, while maintaining the vibrancy without the visual noise.

Even the lineart here has a colour hold (where the lines have been given a colour) of dark blue to subdue the contrast and create a low value key throughout.


The story is going to offer a heap ton of information and provide a context for your characters to exist in.

For STORY, Colour scripts are an art director's invaluable tool to deliver and explore an overview of the the whole story and map out how a colour palette changes over time, and where the palettes match to the emotional beats of the story. I'd like to cover more about colour scripts in a future post once I understand them a little better.

Below is a fantastic excerpt of Michael Kurinsky's colour script for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which has a masterful use of colour throughout, and I'd thoroughly recommend watching/rewatching the movie with a colour mindset activated.

Character Palettes

Phew, so how do we take all of that and roll what we've learned into memorable and iconic character design / colour choices?

When you're designing a character, you'll going to want to split the character in an uneven way, (to add interest) giving priority to 20% of surface area of your character to your Primary Colour.  Your secondary colours can then be a Complement of your Primary Colour or a Split Complement combination. 

Character studies from Steven Universe!

Garnet! - Example of a Triadic Colour Scheme

Garnet's colour choices are fairly equally distanced from one another on the colour wheel. The distance I mean in this case is the rotation around the Hue until you reach that hue.

Pearl - Example of a Split Complementary Schema

Pearl by comparison offers us a look at a Split Complementary colour scheme - with a light blue primary, and a pink / peach split complementary combo for her secondary colours. Her accent colours are evident in her yellow shorts / star.

There's very little contrast in value between Pearls colour choices, giving her an iridescent quality, informed a lot by the nature of pearls themselves. 

Night in the Woods Main Characters

A strong or memorable palette is a difficult balancing act, and the characters don't exist in a vacuum. They will need to be both identifiable individually as well as within the group/cast of the story they appear in.

Can you identify these characters by their palettes alone? 

If you were thinking Katara, Sokka, and Aang from that there Avatar: The Last Airbender show then you're spot on.

Note the analogous use of primary and secondary colours that comprise the majority of Aang's design, this context cultivates a context where the unique and exotic element of his design (and heritage) set Aang apart from everyone in the story.

 This is vital, and key to the title of what Avatar is about, and who our hero / protagonist is. Aang is the last airbender, and his arrow tattoos are synonymous with the Air Nomads. Therefore it makes sense and adds weight to his complementary accent colour to be dedicated to those markings alone, making them more noticeable / eye catching in the design. Among the trio, Aang's colour design sets him apart from the rest of the group.

Sokka and Katara on the flipside have very similar colour arrangements when they're introduced to us, and we instinctively group them together (in part also because their clothing designs are similar.) Their acting and behaviour toward one another further cement their close sibling relationship.

Aang's introduction to us occurs when he's in his powerful Avatar State,  showcasing his ability to override all of the colour in the scene into one harmonious blue monochromatic palette demonstrates just how powerful he is. 

A monochromatic palette feels more harmonious as all of the hues weave together into a balanced whole, with no outsider hues compete with the rest for dominance. Compositions here are based primarily on their values  dark/light & light/dark relationships. 

Transitional Colours can be used in proceeding scenes to create an anticipation for a forthcoming palette. Here we see the creatures share the same colour palettes as Zuko and the fire nation, and they bridge the gap to the upcoming scenes for us without there being a harsh cut to them.

We also see here that they can be used to show an internal change occurring in the character - here we see Zuko's internal conflict with his search for the Avatar, and he's momentarily caught off guard, his sense of wonder flashes across his face as he's illuminated by the blue light. Asthe blue light recedes, his old anger flares up and we land on Zuko's palette. 

When Aang's Avatar state subsides, the local colours return and rush back into the scene and he's now revealed to be a complementery alien in this cold blue world. Aang is immediately unfamliar and strange to Sokka and Katara.

Associative Colours can be used to identify characters and link them to an idea / emotion / event. Often it is the costume / clothing of the character that is used as the common denominator for theme colour. As we'll see later, yellow is associated with danger or things which could cause harm.

Aang's yellow signifies danger threat to the group and so it is not accidental that the entire scene in which there is a discussion about whether Aang should stay or leave the village in order to protect it, the scene is bathed /(or drowned) in a yellow glow. 

The environment / lighting can be tweaked and honed to support that colours' theme where appropriate.  Here, we as creators can bend the natural laws and create moments which provide an Emotional Context for our story moments that don't need to be accurate or realistic but are heightened emotional states for our characters to feel, and emote and share their inner struggles in their external environment.

I've touched on a lot of broad topics in this post that I hope spark some ideas, and get you thinking about colour in a new light. I'd like to dig a little deeper into the concepts I've introduced here in future posts, so if there's something that didn't make sense, or that you would like to know more about, we can figure it out together.

Remember, colours shift and change depending on how we perceive them, and there's no best colour. They all have value after all... ho ho ho.

Coda #1 Release!

Coda #1 released yesterday and is now available from your local comic bookstores. It still doesn't feel real yet that I'm working on this broken fantasy with Matias Bergara, Si Spurrier and Colin Bell.

I'm currently finishing up work on issue #2 and super excited to see what people make of the books/series. 

Next Time

We're going to explore developing characters for animation and the art of caricature with Swift's development work on M. Bulteau's The Grumps Variations project.

Until next time...

~Stay Adventuresome

Doig & Swift

Tier Benefits
Recent Posts