Family History Scrapbooking Colour Schemes

Let’s talk about colour schemes for family history scrapbooking. When scrapbooking with heritage photographs and memorabilia I think it’s particularly important to use colour to give your album a consistent feel and character. If you keep to four or five key colours, you will avoid any sudden jarring changes which might distract the reader from the content. It puts the focus on the photographs and text, rather than the surrounding graphics, and helps the reader to be gently drawn in. It also gives your work a sense of professionalism and style. There is a clear trend in colour palettes for family history scrapbooking. It’s all about the parchment and sepia tones, with the occasional shot of grey!

A sepia colour palette.

A quick look at Pinterest will show you that I’m right about this! Now a lot of these pages do look great, and this palette may be right up your street, but personally I find it a little dull. You’ll also notice that the photos don’t really pop out on these pages. They blend in instead.

Screenshot of Pinterest captured 14th Feb 2020

I think the problem is that we are so used to visualising history through black and white, or sepia images, that we forget what a broad range of colours were used in the past. Don’t be fooled! I love this vintage paint chart. It reminds us just how wide the selection of house paint colours were one hundred years ago.

Vintage Paint Chart (source unknown)

And that’s just paints! The colour choices for wallpapers and fabrics were much wider. There was even a trend in Victorian cabinet cards for mounting photographs on shades like pink, yellow, and pale blue.

Before you pick your base colour, take a broad look at the images you are working with. Consider how many are grey toned, and how many are sepia toned. Will you want to edit this tone, or leave them original? How many are strong clear images, how many are portraits and how many are places? Are most of the photographs formal or are they casual? All of these questions may influence your colour choice.

A collection of photographs.

Some scrapbookers make a point of using what they think of as ‘heritage’ colours for their family history albums. Black, brown, sepia, inky blues, dark greens, rusty oranges, and deep burgundy reds are common choices. Oh, how dark! (And dare I say, potentially dull!) If I used one of these colours, I’d be tempted to add a few lighter complementary shades to brighten up the pages.

Typical heritage colours

A ‘sensible’ option is to pick just one fairly neutral tone for the base colour of your scheme. It could be a shade of grey, rust, brown, or black, but there are many other possibilities which are muted, but provide a bit more character. Remember, the base colour does not have to be dark.

Some examples of muted base colours.

If you have a favourite colour in mind for the base colour of your album, hold a card of that colour behind a range of photos and see how they look against it. How does the colour affect the photograph? Do you still feel the same way about it?

Notice how the background colours change this photo of my Dad.

Once you’ve decided on your base colour, you can add to your palette with complementary or contrasting colours. Let’s start with the muted green in centre of the palette above. You might choose to add striking greens or yellows.

A green and yellow theme, based on a muted green.

Or you might take a completely different approach by adding pastel colours.

Here’s the same muted green with pastel pinks and greens.

There is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t use strong, rich colours in your scheme, but by careful not to overpower your images. You may decide to stick to one strong colour, but keep the rest of the tones as pale or muted versions of the same colour. The world is your oyster. There are so many possibilities!

A strong purplish blue with a range of soft powder blues.

Pastel shades and pale colours do look wonderful with heritage photos and have the advantage that they will never overpower your photographs. They also work well paired with greys.

Pinks and lilacs with greys.

There is absolutely nothing to stop you from using a truly vibrant palette. The choice is unlimited! Bear in mind though, that you may want to keep one of the colours as a shade of brown or grey to use as a neutral base for all that craziness. You might also want to avoid mixing too many colours where the photograph is more delicate, or more sensitive in nature.

A vibrant palette with a brown base colour.

A rather exciting option is to vary the colour palettes throughout your albums according to the fashions of the decade. Here’s a wacky colour palette that reminds me of the 1960s!

1960s colour palette

Another interesting idea is to colour code your photograph mounts. There are lots of ways to do this. You could use particular colours for your mother’s and father’s side of the family, or for each last name, or for a family’s location, or any combination of these. For example, you could choose three neutral tones which are common to all your pages and provide a consistent feel to the album, but add a fourth tone to represent your mother’s or father’s side of the family, and a fifth to represent where the family lived.

Three muted colours, pink for the mother’s side, blue for a family that lived by the sea.

Still stuck for inspiration? Check out vintage book illustration on Pinterest or in antiquarian bookshops. Look at old maps. Explore old postcard collections. Look at vintage fashion websites. Raid your attic. You’re not looking for a complete design brief, just a mix of colours which speak to you. For example, the photographs below show a detail from the curtains hanging in my nursery bedroom as a child in the 1960s, and an old jigsaw I played with as a child. Both of these could be used to suggest colour schemes, and both include tan shades which would tone in well with a collection of sepia images.

A detail from my curtains.
My old jigsaw

Don’t forget the metallics. Metallic accents look amazing in a heritage album. You’ll probably get the best effect if you stick to one range of colours, for example golds, silvers, pewters, or coppers.

You could even mimic metallics in the colour palette itself. By complete coincidence the colours below are very similar to the ones in the jigsaw above!

A metallic colour palette.

The tool I used to generate the schemes on this page is a website called Coolors. It’s free to play around and export your colour schemes on the web, and the mobile iOS app is a bargain (I wish there was an Android app too!)

Coolors website home page, screenshot captured 14th Feb 2020.

Coolors is super easy to use and rather addictive. All you have to do is hit the spacebar, and you get new inspiration on each click. If you spot a colour you like but it needs a little tweaking, you can click a button to adjust the shade. Once you’re happy with a colour you can lock it, then keep clicking the spacebar to generate new schemes for the remaining colours. You can drag the colour blocks to the left and right to rearrange them. When you’re done, you can export your colour schemes with a number of options including png files like the ones on this page, or pdfs.

Choose boldly

If I’ve achieved one thing in this article, hopefully it will be to encourage you to choose a colour palette that works for your family, your photographs and your memorabilia. A palette with PERSONALITY! Your album needs to say something about you, and your relationship with your personal heritage. I’d love to see some of your colour schemes! Let’s finish up with a rosy colour scheme as it’s Valentine’s day today!

Rose colour palette.

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