Monday, September 17, 2018

Limited Palette—Unlimited Storytelling Potential by Sarah LuAnn Perkins -- Plus a PRIZE!

Sarah Luann Perkins is one of the wonderful people who have devoted their time to help with Smart Dummies. She has given lots of great ideas, so some of the changes I've made over the past few years are thanks to her! I absolutely love Sarah's work. Recently she's been doing gorgeous images but by using an extremely limited palette. I thought that she might be able to give us all a little bit of wisdom from her experiences!


Limited Palette—Unlimited Storytelling Potential

So often when we think of products, books, and art for kids, we think of a fully saturated rainbow of colors. And there is nothing wrong with that—unless you’re using it as a default. Is that bright, “kid-friendly” color scheme really serving your story? Maybe it is, but maybe your story needs something different.

Wait a second, you say. We’re just making a dummy right now. A dummy is sketches, not fully colored art.

Well… you have a point. But color is an amazing tool for visual storytelling, and thinking about it early in the game—even if it’s just to write little notes to yourself on your sketches—can only improve your ability to communicate your story.

To see great examples of color in storytelling, I automatically think of film—which isn’t to say that there aren’t many examples of great color in picture books, but inspiration across mediums is always a good thing.

I love this short video which shows the basics of how filmmakers use colors to give different moods to different types of films/scenes.

To me, color in picture books is like a soundtrack for a film. We can’t use real music or sound to emphasize a moment or convey a mood—color is the tool we have available for that job.

But color is a tricky thing. It can mean different things to different people. In one story, red might represent love, while in another it might represent anger. Another artist may just use red to bring your attention to what is important in the illustration. None of them are wrong. But choosing color with intention is the key—if you are deliberate in how you use your color, viewers of your art will respond.

There aren’t any rules about how you have to use color to tell your story, but here are a list of questions you can think through to make sure to use color in your storytelling to its greatest potential:

Did I choose this color by default (i.e. getting out your “grass green” crayon to color the grass) or because it makes sense for my story?

Do I need a full range of colors for my story, or can I choose just a couple to get my ideas across?

What is the overall theme of my story? What colors would emphasize that theme? Are there any that would contradict or dilute that theme?

What is my conflict—are there two sides that could each have a color? Is it an inner conflict that could be reflected in surrounding colors?

Are there different places, important groups of things or characters, times or day, or seasons which could be emphasized through specific colors?

What are the important transitions in my story—location, mood, character? Could I use color to emphasize those transitions?

Could color be used to heighten my climax in any way?

Can I use color to direct the eye to the important parts of the illustration? Where do I want readers to look first?

What colors could I leave out to better emphasize the overall mood and theme of my story?

And, last but not least:

Do I like the colors I’ve chosen?

I hope that having these questions in your mind as you create your dummy will help you use color to your advantage.

What picture books do you think use color particularly well in their storytelling? Is that something you’ve ever paid attention to before? Tell us in the comments!

Happy sketching!

Sarah LuAnn


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  1. Thank you for reminding us about the importance of color. We should all spend more time thinking about it's impact.

    1. Thank you! It’s true that we can sometimes lose sight of its importance among all the other things we’re thinking about in an illustration.

  2. These questions regarding color will be so helpful to consider even before you visualize the scene of your drawing. Thanks so much!

    1. That’s what I was hoping! And, you are very welcome 😁

  3. This was thought provoking! We don't realize what an important and helpful tool color is in storytelling. Thanks!

    1. You’re welcome! I hoped it provoked thoughts that will make your stories even better! 😉

  4. Wonderful post! I am looking at colors in a new way. Thank you.

    1. I struggle with color, so it was great to hear how others plan for it!

    2. Thanks! I’m glad to have given you a new perspective. ☺️

  5. Late to the commenting party - love that the limited palette is a specific design choice!

  6. Great suggestions. Thanks for making me thinking about color in a different way.

  7. Whoa, learn something new everyday! great video thanks for sharing

  8. Interesting video! Interesting post! Interesting questions to ask oneself when choosing colors! Thank you! :-)

  9. Great post Sarah! I love your work. Thanks for the tips on choosing color intentionally.