Sunday Mailbag

December 6th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: My question is about the application of color. I’ve already seen your tutorials about coloring, but I’d like to know how to use the right color for each kind of illustration you make. How do you make your color selections? How do you know what’s the right color to use? Do you do it intuitively or is it pre-meditated?

A: I am definitely the wrong guy to ask this question. In my opinion my color use skills are not very good, and certainly not very thought out. What (very) little I know about color I picked up on my own and never studied any color theory or application anywhere.

People that know what they are doing with color understand that “pure” or “primary” color is bad. In real life, the colors we see are never pure colors, but are always influenced by the colors and light about them. A red ball sitting on a blue floor will have elements of each other on their surfaces because of the light that reflects off each and onto the other, and the shadows that are cast also cause color shifts. Color is caused by objects reflecting different wavelengths of light off their surfaces, and that light can get changed by the various objects it comes into contact with. Therefore an environment tends to have an overall color cast, where the colors are pushed towards a common color. “Monochromatic” is a term that means something that is all in shades of one color… I don’t mean that. I mean having all colors incorporate a hint of a single overall color that creates a cohesive feel.

Painters can create this effect in several ways, one of which is to simply incorporate the colors of surrounding objects into the colors of that which they surround. Another method is to use a “limited palette”, where they might have only two or three colors of pigment and force themselves to paint their image with only combination of those colors. MAD Magazine genius Harvey Kurtzman used a variation of an old painter’s trick called an “underpainting”, where he would paint the entire area he was coloring with a layer of color… say yellow… then would paint on top of that color. The end result was an image with an overall warm, yellow feel but not monochromatic. Not paying attention to this concept (which I rarely do) is called using “local” color… meaning the natural color of an object unmodified by the light, shadow or any other influence from around it. I use a lot of local color in my illustrations…. I like the bright look and it works well with my cartoony style.

Color has a lot of complexities to it, but I take a very simple approach. I think of color in terms of depth and perspective. The more saturated the color, the more it “comes forward” in the image, and the less saturated the father back it seems. Likewise with warm versus cool colors. Warm colors advance while cool colors recede. Here’s an example from last years “Who’s thinking What at the Obama Inauguration”. I added increasing levels of blue casting to the colors the farther back the crowd goes. The colors at the bottom of this image are more saturated and less blue than those at the top:

Obama Inauguration Colors

Those are really the only rules I keep in mind when doing color, otherwise I select colors based on the subject matter and environments I am coloring. Sometimes what you are coloring dictates the type of color you should use. For example, some years ago I did a parody of the film “Van Helsing” for MAD. If you are unfortunate enough to watch the movie (yeah, it’s that bad) you might notice that there is very little color in it. They went for a drab and gray color palette to match the sullen Transylvania countryside in winter. I therefore leached much of the color out of even the skin tones in my art to give it the same effect:

Van Helsing Color

At other times I might punch up the color to be more garish than usual, if I am doing something that demands it, like my MAD parody of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”… lots of color in this show with their decorating makeovers and clothes:

Queer Eye Color

Mostly, though, I just pick colors to make things pop out that I want to pop out and to make things recede that are less important. Simplistic, I know, but I’m no painter.

Well, I managed to type a lot of words about something I don’t know much about. I’d seek knowledge about use of color from books or resources on painting. Color theory applies to any medium.

Thanks to Angel Flores from Mexico City for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Kannard says:

    One thing I think you glossed over a little is value of color. I think it is almost more important to pick the correct value of a color over the exact pigment of color. You can pick the correct pigment but wrong value and you end up with a muddy mess. however you can pick the wrong pigment and correct value and most likely will have some form of limited success even though it won’t be perfect. Otherwise I think you did good with the article especially mentioning the playing warm vs cool. To this day I still have 2 color wheels in front of my drawing board. One of them shows some tint, tone, and shades, while the other shows a more of a chromatic mixing One would think I’d have it all memorized after the what felt like million of friggin color wheels I had to render in school, but it still provides me a quick reference when planning out my color schemes.

    Some color resources that I’ve used – Color Harmony Books, these are meant for interior design however it is a good studio reference when you have a color brain fart. One of them even comes with a handy little palette picker that I’ve never used.

    Another thing you can do is go to a paint store or paint display in the hardware section of a store and collect the sample paint strips, they are also pretty handy for planning out a color scheme. Just don’t take all of hte lsips at once otherwise you’ll get strange looks or barked at.

    • Tom says:

      I agree about the tremendous importance of the value of a color. I didn’t bring up values because that is really another topic entirely and the question wasn’t about selecting values or even painting, but specifically about selection of color i.e. pigment.

  2. K McNutt says:

    There’s a book that I think discusses color theory rather nicely (although it starts to go a little over the top when it begins to delve into iridescence and other spectral effects), “Principles of Color” by Faber Birren.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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