How to Find Unique Color Schemes

By Nicole Heymer | Jul 24 2014
The surrealist fashion of Mary Katrantzou and Erik Madigan Heck
The surrealist fashion of Mary Katrantzou and Erik Madigan Heck

We’re all in constant danger of falling into a color scheme rut.

I, for example, have a thing for periwinkle. But this isn’t Periwinkle Electro (…where all websites are mostly periwinkle!), so I have to look outside of myself for inspiration. Fortunately there’s a specific method for finding it.

I’m a web designer, which means the last places I should look for unique color schemes would be…other websites.

Keep things interesting by looking to other forms of art and design. This could mean photography, painting, fashion illustration, sculpture, or comic books. It doesn’t matter, as long as it sparks something.

The key is to look outside of your own field. That’s where the new ideas live.

In other words, if you’re an interior designer you could get fresh color inspiration from, let’s say, the surrealist fashion of Mary Katrantzou and Erik Madigan Heck.

The surrealist fashion of Mary Katrantzou and Erik Madigan Heck

If you’re a surrealist fashion designer (please let a surrealist fashion designer be reading this so we can eventually be friends), maybe you’re getting bolts of inspiration from the color schemes that were created by comic book artist Jim Steranko.

Comic Book Artist: Jim Steranko
Comic Book Artist: Jim Steranko

And if you’re a comic book artist, maybe something subtle like The Kabalistic Stations Outside the House by Y[u]G : Y[o]G : Y[i]G will help you start to think out of the typical comic book box.

 The Kabalistic Stations Outside the House Y[u]G : Y[o]G : Y[i]G
The Kabalistic Stations Outside the House Y[u]G : Y[o]G : Y[i]G

Where can you collect these images?

If there is a perfect use for Pinterest, this is it. I have a color scheme board where I snap up any image with a color scheme that grabs my attention. This is an image from a listing on Etsy for heirloom carrot seeds:

Rainbow Carrot Mix on Etsy

I know. It’s amazing. If you garden, go buy the seeds here.

Fabulous. Then what?

There is a second step to this process. A painting or photograph has hundreds (thousands? millions?) of colors and you’ll need to pull from those to create an actual, working color scheme. Your method will depend on your preferences and field of design, but here are some options:

Using Photoshop, Illustrator or Gimp (basically a free, open source version of Photoshop)
Import the image into a new document and then draw four or five little rectangles next to it. Use the eyedropper tool to start pulling the colors that most appeal to you from the image and dropping them into the rectangles. Look for contrast. Try including the very lightest and the very darkest shades in your collection. Also try including two variations on one color in the collection. See how that looks. Experiment until your little collection looks good all on its own — whether the image is there or not.

Using paint chips
Start pulling colors from the image using corresponding paint chips from a hardware store or, if you’re an interior designer, the ones you have in your office. Begin with the most prominent color, the lightest, the darkest, your favorite, etc. And keep experimenting until you have four or five that look amazing together in your hand.

Using a web-based eye-dropper tool
To work directly from an image on the web, use a color picker extension for your browser. It will allow you to select any color from the screen using an eyedropper tool, then get the specific color value (usually in a six digit hex number) so you can reproduce it elsewhere. There are a ton of options for color picking extensions. I like Rainbow Color Tools for Firefox, but I’ve also used Eye Dropper for Chrome.

And here’s an example of a finished color scheme:

Color scheme based on the work of Mary Katrantzou and Erick Madigan Heck
This was created from the image at the top of the page. You don’t have to be so formal about laying it out. I clearly can’t help myself.
So do you have a particular source of inspiration for your color schemes? It’s an interesting topic and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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