Many years ago I listened to Shaun Tan speaking to a small group of illustration students about how he uses colour. He showed us one of his pictures where he’d deliberately chosen a green colour for the sky. He explained that it was used by many painters and helped evoke a surreal, dreamlike effect. It made me realise that colour choices in illustration are deliberate. Some illustrators really use colour brilliantly.
Below are paintings by Van Gogh and John Martin and two examples of Shaun Tan’s brilliant use of colour.
Children’s Book Illustrators
Illustrators often use colour in abundance but very skilfully. Stephen Michael King‘s work has a joyful and celebratory feel because of his use of colour. In The Duck and the Darklings he uses spot colour against black and white and themes the pages with different coloured backgrounds. It compliments the quirky text, which is perhaps a bit too odd. My children didn’t enjoy it, but you can’t help but love the illustrations. Amelia Ellicott’s Garden and Emily Loves to Bounce were always our favourites.
Polly Dunbar also has a gloriously chaotic approach to colour. Mixed with the brilliant use of texture, pattern and collage there’s so much in her books to love. My favourites are ‘Down the Back of the Chair’ by Margaret Mahy and ‘Fly Away Katie’
Russel Ayto also uses a riot of colour in his work to great effect. As a family we have enjoyed many of his books, especially as they often feature pirate dinosaurs. Our favourite has to be The Witches Children. Read beautifully here, it shows the use of that spooky green again.
Tone it down
Some illustrators choose to be more subtle in their approach. Helen Oxenbury does this beautifully and deliberately in Farmer Duck. The book shifts from a sombre palette in the beginning and brightens up as the happy ending is revealed
Freya Blackwood also uses muted tones that evoke an intriguing atmosphere. Paired with beautiful scribbly lines and interesting compositions her illustrations are captivating. In My Two Blankets she deliberately uses orange and red tones to great effect.