A guide to creating your ideal colour palette

It’s Elizabeth here with a stack of magazines, a bin full of paint, and a silent prayer that my youngest babe continues to nap while I walk you through creating your ideal color palette.

I’ve got two options for you.  Option A might take you four years (likely longer).  Option B might take you an hour (possibly less).

  • Option A: Read and study any and everything you can get your hands on pertaining to color theory, color relativity, and so on.  I’ll included a list of recommended reading below, should you choose this option.
  • Option B: Skip the research (for now… you’re never too old to learn #duh) and guess work and draw inspiration from pleasing photographs, layouts and images whose color palettes you find inspiring, exciting, etc.

If you’re on board for Option B, let’s roll.

Creating Your Ideal Color Palette

create palette

Recommended supplies:

  • Your art journal or several sheets of mixed media paper
  • Found images that you really love and find inspiring (magazine tear-outs, postcards, landscape photographs, postcards, editorial layouts, N*SYNC posters from your childhood bedroom… we don’t judge)
  • Paint (I recommend acrylic or gouache for this exercise, but you could also work in watercolor)
  • Brushes
  • Two water jars (one for cool colors, one for warm)
  • Surface for mixing paint (I’m using an old plate that is dedicated for paint only)
  • Rag or paper towel
  • Pen or pencil (to note which colors you’ve identified, as well as those you used/mixed)

create palette

You may choose an image that has a familiar color palette, or perhaps one you haven’t worked with before.  Either way, someone has already done the work for you, choosing colors that are complementary and harmonious. Shout out to those people.

A few trustworthy sources:

  • Nature imagery (Mother Nature is the ultimate when it comes to creating harmonious color palettes… I mean, have you ever seen an ugly sunset?  A displeasing desert scene?  An unbalanced mountain vista?)
  • Interior decor shots (When someone has spent days choosing the perfect textiles and wall color, you can likely bet on a balanced — and often unexpected or fun — color palette)
  • Magazine covers (Consider text color here, too — these choices are both intentional and important to the overall look and feel… and it’s the cover that sells the magazine, right?)

create palette

You can work with either the entire image, or a smaller section. I like setting up a few samples at a time, so I can draw inspiration from a few different sources while the paint dries.  I used a peach washi tape to secure my images today (I was drawn to that color in each source), but clear tape or glue is likely the best choice, as it won’t interfere with or influence your color study.

create palette

As you can likely tell from my Instagram feed (where 90% of my photos are from the beach), I tend to gravitate toward the ocean and ocean imagery, so I’ve chosen an interior scene to work with in an effort to work outside my comfort zone a bit.  The palette is still fairly neutral and organic, but with a few bright pops.

Spend some time looking at the color composition of your selected image.  On the most basic level (we’re talking primary and secondary colors), what can you identify? Take notes, getting more specific and complex as you spend more time with your image.  Don’t worry about getting too technical (or using actual color names), just write down what you see.

Dig through your paint for any colors that might align with your notes and observations.

create palette

Now comes the most fun part:  Experiment and play with your paint until you’re satisfied with your replication of your chosen color palette.  This might take a few minutes (especially if you have an extensive paint collection) or it may take hours.  Enjoy the process.  Let go of the need for perfection.  Make room for the opportunity to experiment and go off course a bit.

create palette

How can you make your blue just a tiny bit darker?  Or a whole lot lighter? What would happen if you added a little gold to this pink?  What if you add a bit of water?  

As you mix your paint, feel free to keep notes on your process.  This will be so helpful if you’d like to recreate these colors in the future.

create palette

And for those of you taking Option A (or anyone looking to increase their color IQ), here’s that list I promised.

Recommended reading on color theory + creating color palettes:

Action Steps


Use the color palette you’ve created (and any notes you’ve kept) for the beginnings of a new art journal spread.Or, repeat this exercise using different media, for example blendable markers, scrap paper, or other ephemera.Be sure to tag me if you share your work (@elizabethev or @elizabethevart) — I’d love to see your creations!


Elizabeth lives in Boston with her husband, two young children and not-so-young French bulldog.  She is passionate about encouraging others in their creative pursuits and building peaceful communities. She almost always laughs at her own jokes.


  1. Clare Davis Etheridge

    Another stellar tutorial! I can’t wait to have a go at this, thanks Elizabeth

    • Elizabeth D.

      Thank you, Clare! <3

  2. Gilly Welch

    This is so interesting, I’m definitely going to do some research before starting, thanks Elizabeth

    • Elizabeth D.

      Thanks, Gilly! I hope you enjoy that research <3

  3. Sasha Zinevych

    Seriously, Elizabeth! You should be a magazine writer! You have such a talent for writing engaging pieces – I love it! <3

    • Elizabeth D.

      Thank you so much, Sasha! You’re too kind!

  4. Romana

    Great way to build our colour skills. This is solid gold. Thanks!

    • Elizabeth D.

      Thank you so much, Romana! Thrilled you enjoyed this!

  5. Nancy Frisch

    Really enjoyed this tutorial!!!! I think seeing color can be a challenge. This was a great way to really see color and the fun part of mixing colors to match the photos was just the best quick activity when you need to just grab a little art time during a busy day! Thank you for this activity!
    Best to you, Nan

    • Elizabeth D.

      Thank you so much, Nan! I am glad you enjoyed it — and yes, aren’t those quick, low pressure art moments the best?! <3