The colour palettes of the Obama official painted portraits

Francis Gagnon
February 13, 2018

The portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled this week and one of their most striking features is their colour palettes. The one from the President especially is a radical break from previous portraits and the one from the First Lady is captivatingly elegant.

One way to learn about colour is to learn from the best and the two painters of these portraits, Kehinde Wiley (more) and Amy Sherald (more), have much to teach. This is why it seemed like a good opportunity to test various colour extracting tools. I’ll be using three online tools, plus Photoshop. Many tools offered more than five colours so I made my own choices among the suggested colors. I provide the colour codes in all the formats provided by each tool.


This tool may have the best balance of the three online tools for the portrait of Barack, although it seems to have missed entirely the dark blue of the garment in favour of a dark purple that’s probably more red than it needs to be. I like the compromise made in brown for the skin tone. For Michelle, the green of the skin tone seems especially well captured. It’s interesting that from the vivid colors of the Milly dress, it’s a beige that comes out.

On ColorExplorer, I set the “Color refinement analysis” to “rough” because it returns more diverse colours and other settings would return a subtle but similar palette. I set it to 10 colors for the same reason. You can upload your own picture but it has to be 250k and less.

 ColorExplorer interface ColorExplorer interface  ColorExplorer interface ColorExplorer interface


Canva captured a light brown for the skin tone of Barack and the dark brown of the chair separately. The accent colors of the flowers are completely left out, perhaps because they are small. For Michelle, there is a reddish brown whose origin is unclear. Perhaps some average based on the bright red found on the dress.

Canva has a beautiful interface that puts the colours in the context of the original image. Initially, it gave me the impression that it provided the best result of the three online tools. You can upload your own image.

 Canva interface Canva interface  Canva interface Canva interface


Another tool that overlooked the accent colours in Barack’s portraits. The brown of the chair is also missing despite its size. The purple of the suit appears with a better balance than with the other online tools. The bright pink of Michelle’s dress appears in a very muted shade but at least it’s there. The green of the skin on the other hand it completely missing, while its one of the most interesting and visible colours of the painting.

DeGraeve offers two palettes of 5 colors each: dull and vibrant. I selected the dull in both cases because it seemed closer to the original image. One challenge is that you have to provide a link to the image and cannot simply upload yours.

 DeGraeve interface DeGraeve interface  DeGraeve interface DeGraeve interface


Photoshop allows complete control, but whether that’s a good thing is unclear. My palette is closer to the original, but also seems less harmonious than those extracted by the online tools. Barack’s skin struck me as very bright and so I chose an copper-toned brown. My dark green is taken brown the background of the foliage. I picked the most striking accent colour — lilac — and the dark blue of the suit, which came out without much red if any. For Michelle, I chose to extract the bright pink because is seems like an important colour in the painting despite its small size. In Photoshop, selecting various black parts of the painting made it clear that the underlying colors varied greatly, from yellow, to green, to blue.

 Photoshop interface Photoshop interface  Photoshop interface Photoshop interface

None of the tools aced nor fumbled it. It is a case of trying out each tool to make a combination that suits you. It seems as if the online tools make an effort to extract a harmonious colour palette that may not be accurate, but at least pleasant. They capture the spirit if not the letter of the image. This might be what we have to learn from the masters.

Bonus: You can download the palettes in Adobe Suite format here.

Francis Gagnon

Francis Gagnon

Francis Gagnon is the founder of Voilà: (2013), an information design company specializing in sustainable development.

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