Color in Practice: Getting Personal with Palettes

Color in Practice: Getting Personal with Palettes

For this final installment of my Color in Practice blog series, I’ll take a closer look at how to go beyond the rainbow and how to apply color theory concepts into your design work.

Color in Practice: Getting Personal with Palettes

While everyone’s personal aesthetic and favorite colors to use are different, learning why certain palettes work—and how to improve upon them—can lead to new opportunities for experimentation, evolution, and improvement.

Covered in This Post:
  1. Other Types of Color
  2. Using Color More Adventurously
  3. Homework

Other Types of Color

If rainbow-bright hues aren’t your thing, don’t worry! Color theory isn’t confined to the twelve hues on our training wheel. In fact, some of the concepts don’t require a wheel at all.

Warm and Cool Colors

The warm and cool hues on the color wheel are usually broken down as following:

Warm: Red, orange, yellow

Cool: Green, blue, purple

This is a great rule of thumb, and is technically correct. But, within each of the colors listed above, there are warm and cool variations. Did you know there’s such a thing as a cool red, a warm green, or hot purples and chilly pinks? Yep. Everything you knew up to this point has been a lie.

Graphic features two palettes of six colors in rainbow order; red, brown, yellow, green, blue, and purple. The upper palette features examples of warm colors, the lower examples are cool colors. Designed by @ElzaKinde. Learn more at"
Pro Tip! Cool colors are generally closer to the blue side of the spectrum. Warm colors are located closer to red. Of course, the perceived temperature of a color will change depending on the other colors you’re using! More on that later, though.

Think about how you can combine the color schemes from last week’s blog post with the concept of using warmer or cooler shades of the selected colors. Understanding these nuances will help you create better, more harmonious palettes.

Metallic Mayhem

If you’re using color theory in your home styling or fashion photos, you’re probably wondering where the shimmery-glimmery-shiny things land on the spectrum. The color wheel (sadly) does not contain much in the way of metallics, holographics, and glitter.

Here are a few tricks for creating a palette that includes metallic accents:

  • Don’t be fooled by the razzle-dazzle of reflective light. Most shiny items do contain color (copper without the shine is generally an orangey color; rhinestones refract blue, pink, purple, and yellow hues). You can incorporate these colors into a palette or work to enhance those natural undertones through contrast.
  • Reflective surfaces can pick up the colors around them. Use this to your advantage by bouncing off colors that bring out that natural glitz and glamor. For example: gold jewelry is often showcased on a dark blue background because it’s a contrasting color.
  • A highly-reflective item can easily get muddied and lose its impact if there’s too much being bounced off its surface. Sometimes you need to pare back or pick neutrals and allow the shiny do its thing instead of the colors.
Pro Tip! While inspired by shiny items (rhinestones and copper, in this case), these palettes are composed of flat colors. To evoke a lustrous effect without the help of light, attention to detail is key. For rhinestones, allude to the excitement and sparkle with a generous sprinkling of color that draws your eye to all the right details. While copper might seem like it’s all one color, it’s not always best to go monochrome. Remember, metallic surfaces like to reflect their surroundings. Some variation may add to the sheen of your final result.

Perceived Color

Just when you think you understand how color works, the eyedropper tool in your photo editing software will betray you. That soft pink color you wanted to nab from a photo reference turns out to be a brownish-gray. How???

Our eyes play tricks like this all the time. We interpret colors differently based on the surroundings, lighting, and elements we see. So, sometimes gray is pink, or brown is green. I know. It’s weird.

You can create magical masterpieces and mind-boggling color palettes by studying the difference between what you think you see, and what’s truly there. It takes us beyond ‘the sky is blue’ and ‘grass is green’ and gives us an opportunity to see the world in the amazingly-abstract way it naturally is.

Imagination vs. Reference. Graphic features two palettes of six colors. The upper palette features a selection of greens, ranging from dark pine, olive, army, and pickle. The lower palette features shades of dark slate blue, teal, army green, kelly green, and soft blue. Designed by @ElzaKinde. Learn more at"
Pro Tip! Break the habit of defaulting to the colors you expect to find by using references. In this example, I guessed what colors I would use for painting a grassy background. Lots of bright green, right? But when I looked at some photographs online, there was more variety than I imagined. My second palette looks more natural and way more interesting to paint with in comparison.

More Colors to Explore

  • Jewel Tones
  • Pastels
  • Earthy / Natural Colors
  • Grayscale
  • Sepia / Vintage Colors
  • Neon / Day-Glo

Using Color More Adventurously

I find the best way to learn something is to start putting new information into practice. Remember, color theory is a tool to understand concepts, not the instruction manual. Here are a few exercises you can try if you need help venturing from your comfort zone.

Reverse Psychology

Purposeful experimentation can help you grow more comfortable with using unfamiliar colors. Play against your strongest associations and preferences in order to generate creative interpretations and exciting new options.

  • Challenge yourself to use a color you find difficult. Find ways to make it more palatable or interesting within your own personal style.
  • Do the opposite of your first impression. If your go-to idea is blue, try pink. You may surprise yourself and like the unexpected choice better than the traditional one.
  • Create several samples and compare. Is your first idea better, or are the variations more inventive?
  • Create a palette and name the colors. Push yourself to create new associations with those colors.
  • Do a swap. Halloween colors on a Christmas card, or pastels for horror-inspired fan art. Does this change how you perceive those colors or combinations?

Color First, Design Follows

If color is something that intimidates you or slows down your creative process, it can be helpful to make several palettes or color samples as part of your prep work. You can trial different options in a snap, and even get feedback before committing to a final scheme.

This is an awesome thing to do with clients, too. Sending a few color options for a hired project allows them to be part of the process, assuring satisfactory results. Sending an out-of-the-box scheme alongside something more expected gives them a chance to consider their options without risking that designer-client trust you’re trying to build.

Now You Try!

Download the worksheet and put your newfound knowledge to use! Feel free to share your results in the comments section.

Thanks for reading! If you’ve enjoyed this blog series, be sure to follow my blog for regular updates, and find me on social media to see all the colorful content.

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