This was originally going to be a full portraiting tutorial, but the paletting part was the only part I finished.
The palette always the first thing I start with when I’m making a portrait.
You have 16 colors to work with, including the mandatory outline and transparent background color. 99% of portraits also use 5 skin shades. This leaves you with 9 shades to do whatever else you want with.
Make sure these colors are not darker than the outline color. The outline color should be your darkest color.
Using 3 colors with 3 shades each is a fairly safe option with some fair flexibility, while also being easy to recolor.
However, you can get pretty creative with your palettes through different techniques.
Palette Techniques and Color Theory
This is a fairly recent palette of mine. On the left, it appears to have far more than 16 colors. However, on the right, shows the ramps of each of the colors, and how they intersect and share shades, saving colors. On top of the 3 sets of 3, I have another set of 4.
This ramping works because of another color technique called hue shifting.
This green palette has one consistent hue throughout. It looks fine and is certainly functional. However, what if we shifted the hue?
Here is that same green palette with hue shifting (and some edits to saturation and brightness for the sake of value consistency, which I’ll touch on later.)
It looks much more vibrant and natural, and ultimately more interesting to look at.
This is achieved by pushing your darker shades’ hues closer to purple and your brighter shades being farther away from it. This results in your darker shades appearing “cooler”, as shadows would. This color bar shows the dynamic range of the hues in the second palette.
This is a crude diagram, but these are essential how you want to shift your hues. If it is yellow or anything clockwise from it, shift to purple through orange and red. If it is green or anything counter-clockwise, shift to purple through teal and blue. Either way, you want to always shift your darker shades to purple.
Looking back to the palette I used to explain ramping, the green and blue meet at and share the 3rd shade. Both of them ramp down to it because their hues shifted in the same direction, albeit, the green shifted much more. In regards to the brown I used for the skin, I needed to shift the darkest skin shades pretty extremely to make room for red hair. Fortunately, because skin is orange in hue, it shifts naturally through red to purple, which worked perfectly for sharing shades to make the red hair.
Value is one more bit of color theory that is helpful in creating balanced palettes. Value is how bright or dark a color appears. This is not the same thing as brightness, though it is affected by it, along with hue and saturation. Unfortunately, many programs don’t support a proper way to view the value of your colors, mine included, so this is a bit of a crash course based on my personal experience and knowledge.
The more saturated the color, the darker the value is and vice versa.
The lower the brightness of the color, the darker value is and vice versa.
Blue, purple, magenta, and red have darker values.
Orange, yellow, green, and teal have lighter values.
These diagrams help visualize this a bit.
These diagrams are from this video, which explores this topic in depth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJ2HOj22gDo
Some helpful general tips for colors:
Yellows used for blonde hair or for golden trims can often use skin colors for the darker shades to save colors, especially because many yellow unique yellow shades may be too similar to the skin shades and make anti-aliasing, especially around the bangs, very messy and difficult to work with.
Bright colors can make use of an extra shade if you have room in your palette. I often make 5 shade white-to-black palettes in my portraits to get extra detail in things like armor. Hair is often very detailed, and can make great use of a fourth shade for extra detail.
5 shades is realistically the most you will need for a single color from top to bottom. If you have more room in your palette or you want to challenge yourself, feel free to do more if you’re comfortable with it, but don’t feel pressured to do so. Most of the time, 3 shades works perfectly fine.
If you are trying to make something very dark, like black hair or clothes, using 2 shades and then outline as a third shade still gives you enough shades for detailing and can save you a whole color to allocate somewhere else.
Thank you for reading, and best of luck! Hope this helped!