Hand with each fingertip painted white, cyan, magenta, yellow and black.During the Covid lockdown times, my personal artwork got a little stale. This was just one more thing to deal with during an already tough time. It seemed like the restrictions brought out new creativity for lots of people, whether it was baking or sewing or starting a new business. I just wanted to express myself in a new way, to push my art ahead somehow. I knew I was ready for change but I didn’t know how to achieve it!

Then in autumn 2021 I noticed artists on Instagram starting challenges that anyone could follow and participate in. I became intrigued with Este Macleod‘s Coloricombo challenge which was a whole month of creative colour prompts. What’s a creative prompt? It’s a suggestion you could use to solve a visual problem. As an illustrator, I’ve been solving visual problems for my whole career, figuring out the best way to interpret a text. So I decided to take a chance and participate in Coloricombo.

Este posted two evocatively named and carefully chosen colours for each prompt. I got to work painting and collaging a series of fantastical ladies inspired by Victorian fashion illustrations. Suddenly my creative mojo was back! But WHY was it so exciting?

It was because Este’s prompts created a constraint, a restriction on how I made my images. That was the challenge. I could only use those two colours on each image… and it was very freeing! You might think it would be hard but the opposite was true. My colours were chosen for me so I could really play with making the characters and textures. Little did I know that some of these ladies would go on to become Limited Edition Prints in my new online shop or that this art challenge would radically change the way I approach my paintings.

It also happened that I was writing a children’s non-fiction book about colour and pigments. My brain was busy thinking about colour mixing, how paints work together and how people have made pigments throughout history. I became more and more interested in new ways to use colour.

I eventually stumbled upon a free online workshop by painter Gabriel Lipper, who promotes the magic of using limited colour palettes. He demonstrated ways to create beautifully harmonious paintings using only three primary colours (blue, red and yellow) plus white and black paint. Gabriel suggested choosing one colour to be the ‘hero’ such as a primary red but using two ‘off-primaries’ such as a greenish-blue and a yellow ochre instead of blue and yellow. This adds a bit of variation to the process. Like the Coloricombo challenge, I embraced the limited palette constraint in my new paintings. And I haven’t stopped! I’ve found this approach so exciting and fulfilling, it has informed all my paintings since. During my Saltaire Art Trail exhibition in 2023, I had many lively conversations with visitors who picked up on something in the colours I’m using. I believe that quality is harmony because all the colours are mixed from each of the primary colours plus white (I made a choice to avoid black).

I’m now an art challenge evangelist! If you’re stuck in your art making, have a look for art challenges on Instagram and other social media platforms. By showing up regularly to play with new approaches and constraints, you might just strike a vein of creative gold.