Where to start with color...

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  02 February 2009
Question Where to start with color...

This has always been a personal weakness of mine. I know the mechanics of color--cool colors recede into the background and warm colors come forward. But how do you know how to choose colors? You're inventing something, and you can't look at a picture of it. Even if it exists in real life, using the color picker doesn't work--photographs tend to give you dull colors that... well, make the finished image look like a photograph instead of an illustration or a painting.

That said, what do you study from to start developing a better grasp on color? Which old masters? What books? I haven't had much luck with color theory books. They tend to be pages and pages of prose on emotions evoked by color... which, isn't too helpful. (Anyway, the ones I've come across.)

Thanks, folks.
  02 February 2009
I'm actually in the middle of writing the material for a CG Workshop I'll be teaching, which one of the topics covered is color choices and the reasons behind them.

Essentially, one can fabricate unusual but creative color choices that are very artistic, but do not reflect reality (stylized approach), or one can approach with common sense and learn the scientific reasons behind why colors appear the way they do and how lighting interacts with colors, and arrive at the logical choices through scientific thinking (realistic approach).

It sounds to me you are asking about the former--where one makes creative choices that do not necessarily involve realism?
  02 February 2009
Yes, in this case I'm curious to learn more about the former... which is a complete mystery to me. Thank you.
  02 February 2009
One thing to realize is that colors are relative. How a color appears greatly depends on what colors are next to it. The same color placed next to two very different colors will look like an entirely different color from one to another. One can use blue colors to depict flesh and it'll look fine IF you pick the right colors to use in the rest of the image. Also, the lighting in the scene will greatly influence your color choices. A tungsten lamp in a scene will be of a certain color range (usually amber) as that's how all lamps typically look. You can deviate and use some odd color for the light cast by the lamp, but then you risk confusing your audience. This is why the science behind how color and light interacts is very important knowledge, as even stylized color choices still need to draw from that knowledge.

Those pages and pages of prose about color emotions aren't going to help much unless you sit down and do some experiments of your own. Take an image and try different color schemes and see how they look. Try warm foreground colors with cool background colors and vice versa. Put to use the theories behind complimentary and tertiary colors--apply them to the scene and observe their effects. Play with the chroma levels and look at how saturation effects the look of the scene.

A lot of color choices are instinctual--especially those of stylized approaches. But even then they are usually based on a foundation of science (unless it's a totally surreal or abstract image).

You really should take a look at Steven Stahlberg's paintover thread (linked in a sticky thread here) and see how he fixes or improves the lighting and colors of other people's images. You will notice a common theme after you've seen a fair number of his paintovers. Of course, that's the approach of one artist, and other artists of similar caliber as Steven might take different approaches, but it's a great reference nonetheless.

I'm sure you understand that there's no way I can write an entire course material in a reply--most full books on the subject can't even answer the question. The best advice I can give is to study and experiment. Learn the science behind lighting and color theory, study the works of artists you admire, and experiment a lot. Don't just settle for one color scheme when you work on an image--try several different approaches and pick one that resonates with you the most. Color choices is partly instinctual, so you must develop your instinct by practicing and experimenting.
  02 February 2009
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