Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Story Palettes

My guy and I are midway through renovating the college kid's old room to make it over for his sister. We've moved out most of the furniture and last weekend painted over the light blue walls with our daughter's choice of color. Or, rather, no color, as she chose pure white.

Why white? Her favorite color palette is like the old joke: what's black and white and red all over? Everything the kid owns. Her linens are scarlet and snow white, her room accents are onyx and everything else echoes that stark trio, even her vaguely Asian/Gothpunk wardrobe.

We're not sure where this comes from, as her father likes browns and neutrals, and I'm more into sea and sky colors for living spaces, but we're going along with it. We like to let the kids express themselves as much as possible in their personal spaces, even when we don't find their choices especially appealing. To me her palette resembles the inside of a diner from the fifties (or a Steak & Shake now), and all that red makes the medic in me nervous. Still, I look at it this way: I don't have to live in it. And whenever my guy starts shaking his head I remind him she could have decided on something more exciting for her walls, like traffic accident crimson, or moonless midnight sky.

I began deliberately using color palettes for stories back when I began writing the Darkyn books. Paletting was something I did all the time as a quilter, and I wanted to see how it would work with story. At first I centered on one color for thematic purposes, but as I studied nature, art and architecture for world-building purposes my story palettes began to grow and become more complex. In the visuals section of my novel notebooks I started adding pages of color swatches, first from my own fabric stash and then from raids on magazines, photos I'd taken and chips cut from paint charts.

It seemed inevitable that I would end up creating specific palettes for my characters, too. Jayr's palette (bronze, tangerine and deep amethyst) was one of my favorites, as was Byrne's (indigo, garnet and steel.) I used them in normal details, like wardrobe choices and room decor, but also in physical attributes like Byrne's facial tattoos and how Jayr's hair looks in firelight.

For one of the novels I'm working on now I wanted to use some of the colors of Provence: dusty lavenders, autumn oranges, old ambers, slate blues. My guy had already brought home a stack of paint chip charts from the home improvement store for my daughter to look through (in case she changed her mind about the white), so I went to sort through them and see if I could find some chips that matched the palette in my head. Among them I found this lovely little pamphlet from Olympic Paint's Audubon Collection titled "Brilliance" which featured eight colors that would look completely at home in Provence (and no icky yellow, which surely had to be a sign.)

Already details from the story in my head are rearranging themselves around the palette; the colors of a particular sunset, a slinky dress, the walls of an old church, a bricked path. Now I can clearly see the exact colors of my female protagonist's eyes, the carved stone cross she wears and the overalls she puts on when she works in the garden. The story palette is placing certain gems in the hilt of my male protagonist's sword, sifting light through his hair and shading the hide of a horse he rides. When in doubt, all I need do is glance at this palette and let it guide my choices.

Don't limit yourself to fabrics and paint chips for the story palettes you create. You can use photographs, scrapbooking papers, found objects -- if you can print, paint, sketch or glue it on paper, it will work. If you find an image online with colors that you'd like to use in a story palette, feed the URL to's Color Palette Generator. Along with html codes it will give you two rows of color swatches which you can print out and use for a palette page.

For those of you who enjoy crafting and/or making art, take the colors from your story palette and create a project with them: a painting of a character or setting, a themed scrapbook or even a digital mock-up of your dream cover art. I've used story palettes to make several quilts, and working with the colors even in something unrelated to my writing helps deepen and broaden my understanding of them. Every color provokes a range of feelings, and spending time with that away from the story can lead to new discoveries that will go right back into the work.

There are all kinds of rules involved in palette-making, and I think you should break each and every one of them. Color, like any other inspiration, is quite personal, and should not be dictated to you by the Thought Police. If you love dark chartreuse paired with electric hot pink and baby blue, go for it. To me the strongest -- and most memorable -- palettes are always the rule-breakers.


  1. This is such an inspiring and original post.

    Though I have thought of my characters in terms of colors before, never have I given them palettes. I will, now.

    Thank you :)

  2. I like this idea. I already use a specific music CD when writing about a particular character, and it works to help me stay true to the essence of that character. But now I can't wait to add this color-palette dimension. Thanks so much for the inspiration & links.

  3. I love this idea. I would have never thought about using color for deepening a novel this way. I already do collages for each ms, and I intuitively choose colors that "match" my story, but now I'm going to take it further and incorporate the palette purposefully into story.

  4. Ahhhhhhh! I just wrote in my blog a couple days ago about adding texture to my story world. A color palette is exactly what I need to finish things off!!

    Thank you for this very timely recommendation!

  5. Anonymous4:44 PM

    What a great idea! Just thinking over the books I've been working on, the colors that belong to each one immediately jump out at me. I may just have to try and put some palettes together. Thanks!

  6. Wow, thank you for another wonderful creative process post. I never even thought of delving into colour as you've done. This is a brilliant post and I think the same outlook/attitude could be applied to many other traits and properties besides colour.

  7. You are dangerous! I haven't finished my tumbling blocks scrap quilt and now you have me thinking of a geometric art quilt that starts in deep jungle greens and browns and eases into grain browns and desert yellows for my SF novel which is a clash between two sapient species, one in the forest and one who is agricultural but in a slash and burn technique so leaves a wasteland behind them. Sigh. It would be fun too :).

    No one much likes my room either, but it's an orangey yellow that transforms to a banana yellow depending on what lighting it has. Keeps me happy on the dreary winter days.

  8. We love the Audubon Collection! So many serene colors to choose from. Did you know that Olympic Paint also has a color selection tool that can provide a custom color palette for you based on any color you want? Simply select the color from anywhere on your computer (a photo, your desktop background, even a video) and watch your palette come alive! Best of all, the tool is FREE! You can download the application right from Let us know how you like it... you can leave feedback on our Facebook page, just look us up at Olympic Paint and Stain!
    Good luck!

  9. I think I'm falling in love with your blog...this is an awesome idea.:)

  10. I love this idea! Making pallettes is something I learned when I did weaving, and I took the same idea to my knitting and quilting.

    Have you seen Adobe's Kuler site? I sometimes use it to jumpstart my art (especially if I have a yarn color that I need to match and am feeling in a rut with it).

    I decided to try using a random palette to use as a writing prompt and saw this one and just *had* to write a scene with that as a theme:
    It's called "friends and foes". Worked great for the action scene I was writing.


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