Part 3 – Exercise 5: Abstract Cities

Create a series of 10 abstract designs in which you balance blocks of subordinate,
dominant and accent colours. These designs are going to be used as covers for guidebooks to the following cities:

Madrid Malmo Managua Manchester Manhattan Marrakech Marseilles Melbourne Montreal Mumbai

The books are going to be A5 landscape (210mm x148mm) size. You can use as many colours as you like and need to include the name of the city – where you place this and its colour are also important decisions to make. You may want to find out more about each city to help you develop your colour palette and also the size, shape and positioning of the colour blocks.

Design Ideas

I started this exercise exploring ways in which I could give the abstract designs some meaning or association with each city. My thoughts on this were as follows:

  • Is there a colour associated with the city that I could use as a basis of the colour palette, for example  the colour of the dominant stone used for the buildings? After reading a very tedious paper on colmenar stone used extensively in the buildings in Madrid, I decided this was going to take a lot of work to determine the stone used for each city and the variation in colours would not be enough to make the designs sufficiently distinct from each other, so I rejected this idea.


  • Could the  colours of the country’s flag be combined with some abstract motif associated with the city, such as an iconic building? I decided using the colours of the flags was an obvious solution so I rejected this as an idea for the colour palettes. I did like the idea of an abstract representation of an iconic city building, however.


  • Given all the cities start with the letter ‘M’, could I assume that there would be guides for all letters of the alphabet and assign a base colour to each letter, so M would be dark red, for example. Could all the designs then be variations of a colour palette based on dark red? I didn’t think I could vary the palette enough for 10 cities (but this would have been an interesting exercise 🙂


  • Could I create a linear spectrum of colours ranging from coolest (blues) to warmest (reds) and map each city onto the spectrum based on their latitude, with cities nearest the equator being near red and further away from the equator, blue? Designs for each city would then use their ‘latitude colour’ as the basis for the design.


  • Could the colour palettes for each city be based on well known, traditional or indigenous art for the country, with the design incorporating a silhouette of the main art gallery in the city (making them art guides to the city)?  I liked the art idea as a basis for the colours but research on the art gallery buildings made me think that the building outlines would not be varied enough.


  • Could I incorporate an outline of a  silhouette of the city’s skyline into my abstract design, where the skyline is made up of iconic buildings of the city? I started researching iconic buildings in each city but after a while felt that constructing skylines like this for each city was going to be too much work.


  • I decided instead, to work with a colour palette of the art of the country and an abstract silhouette of a single iconic building of each city.

Thumbnail Designs

I first did a quick check to make sure that each country did have some form of art that I could use as the basis for the colour palette. I then started by researching the outline shapes for iconic buildings associated with each city.

My idea was to have an outline of a building embedded in a series of background blocks or bars with the building standing out in one colour and the background blocks in another.

Initial Test Mockups

I decided to try out my ideas for the designs with the first city, Madrid, using a colour palette inspired by Miro. The mockups are here:

These designs were just not working for me. My main issue was that my abstract building didn’t make sense – it wasn’t obvious what the large block of red was representing and I felt it was just distracting. I was putting too much effort into trying to work out which colours would make the building stand out and was not thinking about how the blocks of colour were working together.

I reviewed the designs with my husband, who agreed that he could not tell that the large block of red was meant to be a building. We decided that it was too difficult to create a design that was both abstract and yet representative of a building.

After a lot of thought, I decided to drop the idea of including the building silhouette and instead would just focus on a truly abstract design using my chosen colours.

It was back to the drawing board, this time researching abstract artists such as Kandinski, Miro, Ben Nicholson, Mondrian and Malevitch for inspiration.

Revised Test Mockups

I decided to try two abstract layouts, the first was based on Mondrian’s paintings. I thought that this layout also I had a feel of a street map, which would fit quite well as a city guide, I tried to make my ‘Mondrian’ layout look a bit like a street map.

I also tried a layout based on an abstract painting by Malevitch. I liked the tumbling shapes as they gave a sense of movement, fun and energy, which for me also worked well for a city:

These mockups where working much better for me. However, I wanted to check that these two abstract designs weren’t just working because the colour palette is one that is associated with abstract paintings, so I tried with my colour palette for Managua.

I felt happy that both of these abstract designs would work, so I had another review with my husband, and we both agreed that the ‘Mondrian’ inspired design, which had the feel of a street map, would work best, so I decided to move forward this idea.

Building the Colour Palettes

I had decided to base my colour palettes on art work associated with the country, either indigenous art, an art movement or works of an artist associated with that country.

I did have some concerns that doing this meant I wasn’t really putting my own colour palette together, but it was still quite a lot of work. Sampling colours from images of artworks found on the internet, gives quite a variable result, so I used sampled colours as a starting point and then refined them (with the help of Adobe Colour) to try to identify complimentary colours, triad colours etc. to put together what felt like a comprehensive palette which resembled the artworks I had based them on.


The colour palette was based on some iconic works by Spanish abstract artist, Miro


Miró: The Experience of Seeing


This was quite a difficult colour palette to put together as I struggled to find examples of typical Swedish art. Eventually I did a Google search for ‘Traditional Swedish Art’ images and found quite a lot similar to that below, which I have based my colour palette on.


The colour palette was based on the Nicaraguan Primitivista painting movement which originated from a community of artists founded in the 1970’s on the islands of Solentiname in Lake Nicaragua. This style of painting is influenced by the Haitian paintings of the late 40’s and 50’s and shows idealised scenes of community life and lush natural environments in bright colours.  Noted artists are Alejandro Benito Cabrera, Victor Santiago Crespin, José Ignacio Fletes Cruz and Rosa Delia Lopez Garcia.


I based this colour palette on paintings of British countryside by John Constable.


This colour palette is based on American pop art. I decided to use one of Andy Warhol’s images of Marilyn Monroe.



This colour palette was based on a design for Moroccan border found on shutterstock


I based this colour palette on paintings of the Cote D’Azur by Van Gogh as these were based on countryside near Marseilles.


This colour palette was based on colours typically used in aborigional art. I particularly focused on the image of Uluru by Danny Eastwood (the image with kangeroos below).


This colour palette is based on the artworks of Willie Seaweed, a First Nation wood carver and artist from Canada.


This colour palatte was based on traditional indian ‘Rajput’ paintings.

Final Designs

Adobe Illustrator vs Adobe Photoshop

I created most of these designs using Adobe Illustrator with the exception of Manhattan and Marrakech, which I created using Photoshop. I found Illustrator the easier tool for these designs as is it easier to manipulate shapes and manage colour palettes. In hindsight, I’m not sure it was a good idea to create 8 designs on 8 different art boards in one Illustrator document as it made managing the layers in the document very difficult. I also had a lot of problems exporting the individual designs, with components being missed off an export or ‘extra’ components from other artboards getting included in an export. it took a long time to unravel!

It was perfectly feasible to create these designs in Photoshop, but because you can’t ‘click’ on objects to select them, I needed to be very disciplined in naming and managing my layers so that I could find objects within the design, which was quite time consuming.

Also in both tools, I had trouble with the colours in the designs changing when I created the final files. I think this was due to issues with the colour profiles used by the files. I had created the designs in CMYK mode but in exporting the files as JPEGs for display on my digital blog, the colours changed. I fixed this by exporting the files as PNGs from Illustrator and by saving the files as JPEGs from Photoshop but manually changing the colour profile in the JPEG from ‘US Web Coated (SWOP) v2’ to ‘sRBG IEC61966-2.1’. This seemed to do the trick!


Thoughts on this Exercise

This exercise was a lot of work – it has quite literally taken me weeks to complete!! The research took me a long time, first reading about types of stone, then endless research into iconic buildings and then different types of art associated with each country.

I also realised that what seems like an inspired idea in my head often looks anything but when I actually mock it up. I should test the design with mockups sooner before doing a lot of research (I wouldn’t have needed to spend so long researching iconic buildings as I decided against this design as soon as I saw the mockup).

I did most of my research using Google Search which is quite a dangerous way to do research given the amount of irrelevant junk that gets thrown up! Searching for ‘iconic buildings in Managua’ for example, returned buildings from all around Nicaragua so I then spent more time trying to cross check to see if buildings really were in Managua.  I need to find some more reliable sources for my research. The internet was useful, however, in helping to discover more general concepts like the typical style of art in Nicaragua.

I am conscious that I also needed to do more research to ensure that I haven’t committed any cultural faux pas! Would the residents of Mumbai be offended that I based the colour palette for their city on  Rajput art? I have no idea.

I was a little concerned that using colour palettes taken from existing art works was not quite in the spirit of this exercise, as I was not defining those palettes myself from scratch. However, it was very interesting analysing the colour palettes from existing artworks and trying to decide how to use and lay those colours out in my abstract designs.

Finally, thinking of a design concept AND colour scheme AND layout together is very difficult!


Part 3 – Exercise 4: Understanding Colour

Draw two grids of squares, filling one with colours that you like and the other with colours you dislike. Then put the two grids side by side and ask the question ‘which one looks better?’

Next try experimenting with placing colours together as Itten did.

Try and find different combinations of two colours to illustrate each of these ideas:
Angry Brave Creative Dangerous Energetic Familiar Gregarious
Hopeful Independent Jumpy Kinetic Luxurious Masculine New
Open Precious Quiet Reasonable Sociable Tasteful Unhappy
Vital Wonderful Extra special Youthful Zany

Colours I Like:

Colours I Don’t Like:

The theory is that I should find the mix of colours I like, more jarring than those I don’t like, but actually, I still prefer the colours that I like. The colours that I don’t like feature a lot of salmon pink, brown and orange (which I don’t like!). The colours I like don’t particularly all go well all together but the coloured squares remind me of a patchwork quilt.

Colour Experiments based on Itten’s Colour Theory

Colours interact and are influenced by the colours around them. Colours on a white background appear less luminous than against black. The white reduces their brilliance. However colours appear lighter against black. This is particularly apparent in the blue and red examples below when the blue and red squares look darker against white.


Yellow has been placed against a background of blue and red primary colours.  Primary colours are completely distinct from each other, creating quite high contrast in these combinations.


Yellow is now placed against backgrounds of secondary colours orange, violet and green. Yellow is a component of orange and also a component of green and consequently the contrast between these colour combinations is reduced. Yellow and violet are, however, opposite (complementary) colours on (Itten’s) colour wheel – a combination considered to be high contrast.


The combinations above show complimentary (opposite) colours. These are considered the greatest contrast.


Contrast is diminished as hues are further removed from the primary colours, for example green on red has significant contrast, green on orange is less intense.

A bold primary colour next to black can give the black the effect of a tinge of the primary’s complimentary colour (In this case – green). I’m not sure I am seeing this effect.

Grey on an Ice Blue background has a slight has warm (red?) tinge. Grey on red/orange looks slightly blue. They grey colour appears to take on a slight tinge of the complimentary colour. (An effect Itten describes as simultaneous contrast).

The warmth of a colour is effected by the colours around it – violet appears warmer against blue than against red.

Contrast can be achieved using the same hue with different levels of saturation.

Colour Combinations that Represent Words:

ANGRY – This pure red and orange do not sit comfortably together but seem agitated. The combination is hot and irritable, like skin that has been stung by a wasp.

BRAVE – To be brave you need to be calm, level headed, mature and rational. This dark tone of blue feels calm and authoritative. The dark and light blue sit well together, cooperating with each other. There is no conflict here – this colour combination has a focused intent.

CREATIVE – To be creative you need to be energetic, lively, vibrant and a bit whacky. This magenta and lime green combination is fun and the colours feel like they are dancing together. These colours are effectively opposite each other on the colour wheel producing a combination with a lot of energy.

DANGEROUS – This highly saturated red combined with a very dark red black feels moody and sulky. The bright red seems to pulse against the very dark red background.

ENERGETIC – The warm yellow and magenta colours feel warm and active. The yellow and magenta are two parts of a TRIAD and work well together.

GREGARIOUS – The highly saturated hot pink is loud, brash and fun. It is tempered by the blue-green tone giving a lively but not too over-the-top result. Again, green and red are opposites on the colour wheel creating energy. The slightly darker shades mute the effect.

FAMILIAR – Two tones of green, the colour of nature. Green is a cool and calming colour and the addition of black gives the green a soothing and quiet feel. The two colours cooperate with each other to give a sense of calm.

HOPEFUL – The yellow and orange colours are analagous and work well together, supporting each other. Yellow is the colour of the sun and summer. The combination has an optimistic and positive feel.

INDEPENDENT – The indigo blue and violet sit close together on the colour wheel and cooperate well as a pair. The combination is not particularly warm or cool. The blue colour feels formal and level-headed. These colours are bold and stand together well on their own.

JUMPY – A garish, highly saturated orange red and shade of green together seem to clash. They are complimentary colours and feel agitated together. The colours appear to jump around when you look at them.

KINETIC – suggests ordered motion, machine parts working smoothly together. A cool shade of blue tempered with a little black together with a complimentary yellow / orange suggests opposing parts working together.

LUXURIOUS – A warm, deep brown suggests leather or suede together with rich gold gives an opulant feel. This combination could also represent the colours of a smooth chocolate filled with golden caramel suggesting indulgence.

MASCULINE – A dark slate blue / grey and slate blue. These colours are serious and understated. The colours of a business suit. The dark shades are sober and no-nonsense.

NEW – two shades of a muted baby pink. These colours are delicate and fragile. The colours of a (white!) baby’s skin or a kitten’s nose.

OPEN – A bright, light green and cheery saturated yellow. These colours are analagous and work well together. Like spring they are bright and welcoming.

PRECIOUS – A tint of dusty pink and pale cyan hint at the colours of an opal. The pink and cyan are two colours of a triad.

QUIET – Two shades of blue green. The colours of cool, still water. They combination is calm and subtle. The colours recede as though they don’t want to be disturbed.

REASONABLE – Sensible grey (with a hint of blue) and a lighter blue grey. Diplomatic, neutral colours ready to negotiate.

SOCIABLE – A slightly muted tone of lime green and light shade of yellow. The colours are analagous and get along well together. They are harmonious and not too loud.

TASTEFUL – A muted and subtle green grey combined with a lighter, slightly more yellow tint. The green and yellow tones are analogous and sit well together, the muted grey tones are understated and sophisticated.

UNHAPPY – A very dark purple – almost black mixed with a green-grey. The green and purple tones are complimentary and feel uncomfortable together. The dark shades feel sulky and uncooperative.

VITAL – Blue and green, the colours of nature and water. These colours are analagous and work together. They are calm and serious.

WONDERFUL – Cyan and white, the colours of a spring sky, or ice and snow. Light, bright and sparkling – the colours of wonder.

EXTRA SPECIAL – Royal blue and gold. These colours are complimentary and have a sense of formality. The colours of royalty. The gold colour leans towards orange, making these colours complimentary.

YOUTHFUL – A warm and vibrant yellow/orange tempered by a magenta that leans towards blue. These colours are fun and energetic but tempered with a little seriousness.

ZANY – Hot pink and dark orange.  The colours are fully saturated and full of life and vibrancy. They are analogous but together are so brightly coloured that the colours seem to dance together.

Thoughts on This Exercise

I had always known that certain colours represented specific moods or feelings such as yellow for warm sunny optimism or blue for cool formality. I also knew that some colours just went better together although was not particularly conscious of why.  This exercise has really shed some light on why certain colour combinations seem to work, as well as how colours work together to convey certain moods.

Some common themes seemed to emerge for me in this exercise:

Fully saturated, pure hues feel bright, fun, youthful and energetic.

Adding black and creating shades of colours made the colour feel more serious and sober, having a calming and subduing effect.

Colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel (complimentary colours)  seem to jangle against each other, giving a sense of energy and agitation. For me these often seemed to fight with each other and were not relaxing to look at.

Colours which are different shades of the same hue are much calmer and relaxing to look at. There is no conflict between them.


Exhibitions – World Illustration Awards 2017

This was the first time I had seem an exhibition of illustrations and I was quite bowled over by it! The range of styles and techniques, the riot of colour, the humour and wit was all amazing! I was struck by how, in daily life, I am surrounded by these incredible illustrations and I barely notice – there were images on display that had been created as editorial work for newspapers which probably would have been glanced at by most people before the paper was tossed into the recycling.  I now have a whole new appreciation for illustrative work!

For me, it was also a great privilege to be able to read a little about how the artists created their work and the techniques they used. It was particularly noticeable how much of the work was wholly or partially digital.  I particularly enjoyed watching a timelapse video of a digital illustration being created, starting with a hand drawn pencil sketch that was scanned in and then coloured in using Photoshop. Something I am going to have to try myself!

These were the stand out pieces for me:

Tony Rodriguez – Bill Murray: Mark Twain Prize

I particularly like the pen and ink style of this illustration, in particular the creation of texture on the skin using fine pen lines. I also like the ‘busy’ background. There are more details about the image are artist here.

Richard Allen – Wave

This image was created as a cover image for Sunday Telegraph Money section. It took me a little while to understand what I was looking at but when I realised it was  Trump’s hair taking the place of Hokusai’s Great Wave – I thought it was genius! Given how Trump’s bellicose rhetoric  is threatening the stability of the Korean peninsula at the moment I thought this was an incredibly clever and witty image.

Oivind Hovland – Skaanevik Fjord Hotel

I really liked this child-like illustration of life around the hotel. I liked it’s ‘busy’ nature with  lots going on and lots to look at. I also really liked how there is so much detail packed into the image but it is using simple shapes and a simple colour palette. More details here.

Alice Yu Deng – Tashirojima: The Cat Island

I have to confess that I probably really like this because I like cats and I like Japan 🙂 That said, I do like images where there is quite a lot going on and I enjoyed looking at the sunbathing cats in their different poses. I also thought this was a very clever way to depict the Japanese ‘cat island’ where cats and people live in harmony. More details here.

Sam Pierpoint – Visit Bristol Christmas Campaign

This model wasn’t actually on display at the exhibition but I saw it on the website and thought it was beautiful. More details here.


Exhibitions – Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave

The Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum (seen August 2017) displayed works from the last 30 years of Hokusai’s life when he is considered to have produced some of his most memorable works. Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is widely regarded as one of Japan’s most famous and influential artists, producing works right up until his death at the age of 90.

About Hokusai

At the age of 18, Hokusai was accepted into the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō. Shunshō was an artist of ukiyo-e, a style of wood block prints and paintings. Shunshō, focused on images of the courtesans and Kabuki actors who were popular in Japan’s cities at the time.

Upon the death of Shunshō in 1793, Hokusai began exploring other styles of art, including European styles he was exposed to through French and Dutch copper engravings he was able to acquire. Hokusai also changed the subjects of his works, moving away from the images of courtesans and actors that were the traditional subjects of ukiyo-e. Instead, his work became focused on landscapes and images of the daily life of Japanese people from a variety of social levels. This change of subject marked a significant change in the ukiyo-e style and in Hokusai’s career.

Hokusai was known by at least 30 names during his lifetime. Although the use of multiple names was a common practice of Japanese artists of the time, the numbers of names he used far exceeds that of any other major Japanese artist. In 1820, Hokusai changed his name to “Iitsu. It was during the 1820s that Hokusai reached the peak of his career. His most famous work, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, including the famous Great Wave off Kanagawa, dated from this period. Among the other popular series of prints he published during this time are A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces and Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces. He also began producing a number of detailed individual images of flowers and birds.

Hokusai had a long career, but he produced most of his important work after age 60. His most popular work is the ukiyo-e series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which was created between 1826 and 1833. His ukiyo-e transformed the art form from a style of portraiture focused on the courtesans and actors popular during the Edo Period in Japan’s cities into a much broader style of art that focused on landscapes, plants, and animals.

My thoughts on the Exhibition

It was wonderful to see Hokusai’s beautiful prints ‘in person’, especially the very famous ‘Mount Fuji Seen Below a Wave at Kanagawa’ (smaller than I thought it would be!).

However, for me the stars of the show where the pieces that Hokusai created at the end of his life, particularly the ‘Old Tiger in the Snow’ and the dragon emerging from storm clouds. Although there is some speculation that his daughter Oi may have assisted in creating these works, they are incredibly delicate and detailed. His tiger seems to be full of joy, bouncing through the snow, and his dragon, emerging from storm clouds, with it’s almost human face, is full of life and movement.

I also particularly liked all of his images of birds and animals as they were full of life and personality.  For example, in the image ‘Weeping Cherry and Bull Finch’ the finch is not sitting passively on the cherry branch but is hanging almost upside down.

What really stood out for me with a lot of the works on display, was the sense of fun and joy in the images. I was quite surprised to see images of laughing ghosts and cartoon-like ‘manga’ figures. The images were all beautiful, delicate and a joy to see.

Some Notes on the Colour Wheel

The colour wheel arranges different colour hues around a circle. Three primary colours are placed at equally spaced points around the circle. When two primary colours are mixed, they create a secondary colour. Mixing a primary and secondary colours creates tertiary colours.

There are two important colour models, which have different primary colours and therefore different colour wheels:

Additive Colour:

Additive colour is based on how coloured light behaves and combines to form different colours. It is important in digital media or stage lighting. Primary additive colours will combine to form white.

The primary colours in the additive colour model are red, green and blue (RGB). Secondary colours are cyan, magenta and yellow.

Subtractive Colour:

Subtractive colour is based on how coloured pigments, such as paint behave. Artists typically use a traditional subtractive colour model, such as Itten’s colour wheel, where the subtractive primary colours are red, yellow and blue. Primary subtractive colours will combine to form black.

Printers use a more accurate CMYK colour model where the primary colours are cyan, magenta and yellow.

Complimentary colours are those positioned opposite each other in the colour wheel (which colour model??) These colours effectively cancel each other out so are said to have the most contrast.

My own experiments with colour mixing using watercolour paints (subtractive colour). Alchemy!


Itten’s Colour Theory

Some notes on Itten’s Colour Theory..

Johannes Itten (1888 – 1967) was a Swiss expressionist painter, teacher, designer and theorist,  associated with the Bauhaus school. He worked extensively in exploring the use and composition of colour.

A synopsis of his book ‘The Art of Colour’, published in 1961, is below:


Itten developed a number of theories regarding the use of colour and how colours are perceived, including:

Colour Effect

How a colour is perceived depends on how it interacts with the colours around it. colours effectively influence each other.

Subjective Timbre

How a colour is perceived depends to some extent on how the viewer interprets it..

7 Types of Colour Contrast

Contrast of Hue: The contrast between colours where hues are clearly differentiated from each other. This is most prominent between the primary colours. As colours start to be mixed, their hues move closer to each other and this contrast is diminished.

Contrast of Light and Dark: The constrast between how light and dark colours are. Black and white have the greatest contrast here.

Contrast of Warm and Cold: The contrast between warmer reds, oranges and yellows and cooler blues, purples  and greens. How warm or cool a colour appears also depends on how it is affected by the colours around it. (A violet next to blue may seem warm but next to red may seem cooler).

Complementary Contrast: Contrast between colours which are opposite each other on the colour wheel.

Simultaneous Contrast: The effect that a colour can have on its neighbours whereby the eye perceives the neighbouring colour to have a hint of the complimentary colour of the initial colour. This effect can make a black placed next to a red look slightly green.

Contrast of Saturation: contract between pure, intense colours and ‘diluted’ colours created by adding white, black, grey or a complimentary colour.

Contrast of Extension: The extent to which a colour a used. much of it is present. Balance is achieved when the brilliance of a colour is matched with the extent to which it is used. For example, yellow has more brilliance than purple. Using less yellow and more purple will create balance.

Colour Harmony

Colour harmony refers to creating colour themes by using colours that are related to each other on the colour wheel.:

Dyads: Two colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel.

Triads: Three colours selected from equidistant points on the colour wheel.

Tetrads: Two pairs of complimentary colours on the colour wheel whose connecting diameters are perpendicular to each other.

Spatial Effects of Colours

Certain colours placed together give the impression of some colours advancing and some retreating, The background on which colours are viewed also contributed to this effect. For eaxample light tones on a dark background advance forward. Warm colours often advance next to cool colours which sem to retreat.

Colour Expression Theory

The mental and emotional effect that a colour may have when paired with other colours, e.g. yellow and orange denotes warmth and the sun, yellow and red is a very vibrant and loud combination, yellow and white is more subdued.