Color and Light Summary

Research and Artistry

These are some of my summarised notes from the Schoolism course on Designing with Color and Light by Nathan Fowkes. We should try and keep these in mind when planning our color script. These were wrote with 2D concepts in mind but applies to 3D also.

  • Use Photoshop layers/groups for editing depth from foreground to background – 3 to 8 layers (from my own experience of working in Photoshop)
  • Consider atmospheric depth – values.
  • Consider atmospheric depth – color temperature.
  • Use depth of field blur
  • Use repeating shapes in z-space to create depth.
  • Consider the light source, where it hits local color, and where it is blocked.
  • Consider shadow color. Is it affected by bounced light from sky, or bounced light from light source?
  • Vary each of hue, value and saturation. Consider the key of the light (the levels distribution). Consider variety across the color script sequences and how they lead into each other. 
  • Does the light and color design (hsv) reflect the mood of the story?
  • Use variety in color temperature harmonies to create visual interest.
  • Use local colors for visual interest.
  • Use optical mixing to create greys (etc.) that are more alive e.g. dots of grey-yellow beside dots of grey-magenta.
  • Contrast should be reserved for the focal point. Draw the eye with sharp edges, contrast in value and light and contrast in hue temperature.
  • Group your values for readability. Adjust photo textures to the same value groupings.
  • Use weather to build atmosphere and mood.
  • Check perspective for every part of the painting – sky, ground, characters, textures, effects etc.

I went into more detail on the course in earlier blog posts:

Schoolism Color and Light with Nathan Fowkes Week 5

Schoolism Classmate Feedback Week 05

Schoolism Week 06 Light and Atmosphere

Schoolism Week 06 Feedback: Atmosphere and Light

Schoolism Week 07 Designing with Light


Schoolism Week 07 Designing with Light

In week 07 of Designing with Color and Light, my biggest take-away was the power of contrast when telling a story within a frame. Contrast in the wrong places will draw the eye away from the flow of the story. This could be contrast in value structure which is designed with local values, the effects of atmospheric perspective and placement of light and shadow. Also consider edge softness and depth of field. Fowkes also talks about creating more interesting greys.

My notes:

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Schoolism Week 06 Light and Atmosphere

Week 06 in Designing With Color and Light on Schoolism talked about the use of light and atmosphere when designing frames within a sequence. My biggest take away from this week so far is the power of being able to quickly thumbnail the colors of a scene to see what works best. The homework for this week is not just about choosing a warm and cool palette. This week is about trying to push further to use light and atmosphere to bring out the emotional beat of the story e.g. discovering or travelling through a mysterious city or town.

My notes:

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Schoolism Classmate Feedback Week 05

Week 05 on Schoolism Designing With Color and Light focused on creating a concept illustration using the principles so far. Fowkes encourages over and over again that the value keys should be experimented with for a wide range of contrasts e.g. high contrast, low contrast, light shapes on dark sky, vice versa and so on depending on the mood and story. He also drills the importance of considering and being clear with the type of light source and how the color of the light affects the local material color. These are all areas that I could understand more and push more.

The following are my notes from critiques on other people’s work.

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Schoolism Color and Light with Nathan Fowkes Week 5

Week 5 goes through demonstrations of painting quick thumbnails. An emphasis is put on using the fundamentals of combining warm versus cold/hue, value variations and saturation variations to create abstracts of emotional beats.

Focus on principles over tools and techniques. Tools quickly become outdated but the principles will stay the same. Create your own process for working quickly. Photoshop tool presets and actions can speed up your workflow.

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Nathan Fowkes process

Fowkes knows that he’ll have cool light filtering in so he starts with a warm background.

A neutral on a warm feels very cool.

Paint abstractions with the feel of real light and an interesting color palette.

Everything is kept very neutral apart from some select areas of contrast.

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Nathan Fowkes thumbnail painting.

Pay attention to the flow of lines in your painting.

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Nathan Fowkes thumbnail painting.

Look at your scenes in relation to each other. Your painting might not be as bright and vibrant as you thought it was. Use adjustments to correct contrast and vibrancy and to create more variety in the context of the color script.

Week 05 Homework

Create a finished painting to this level:

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Start by roughing out an idea in simple values.

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Think of the relationships between cool and warm. Where are your light sources? Paint with lost and found edges.Screen Shot 05-20-17 at 11.52 AM

James Gurney Gamut Masking

Gamut Masking (2011) James Gurney

I haven’t fully understood the use of a gamut mask before beyond simply choosing a palette. The same color scheme, as perceived by our eyes, can be cast into warm or cool light depending on the gamut mask which is chosen. The gamut mask will shift the colors within the frame towards less/more saturated depending on how warm/cold they are. E.g. an intensely saturated yellow will become quite grey under colder/bluer light.

I have potentially a lot of illustrations to paint over the coming weeks so this basic concept will be helpful.

Schoolism: Nathan Fowkes Color and Light Week 04

Week 04 focused on creating images that feel emotionally different in both greyscale and color. You should change the lighting, the atmosphere, the local colors and value arrangements. When you’re working on skies, think of structure and perspective.

“Don’t miss your opportunity to practice. The river of life will rush you forward so stop and revise now!! Practice now!” – Nathan Fowkes

Color is scripted with emotion.


Student work on Schoolism:


The common feedback was that the values and local colors weren’t pushed far enough.

Week 04 Feedback 03

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For doing an overpainting on top of a value scale, first bring your levels into the mid-range so that the colour will be picked up (in the color blending mode).

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Start by painting as if it’s an overcast day and then bring in light variations from there. Think in terms of local color first. If you’re working from grayscale to color, then a color overlay layer will work better over mid-range values. Be conscious of how atmosphere might cool colors in the distance. Then add a value adjustment on top of this to bring the values back.

Once the overlay is laid down, then start opaque painting. Think what the color, halftone, highlight and shadow would be. Think of how the light is bouncing from the sky and adjacent surfaces.

Starting with an overcast lighting setup, create a direct sunlight, sky light and bounced light versions for masking.

Direct sunlight:

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Sky light:

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Bounced light:

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Our generic scene to reveal layers upon.

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Week 04 Classmate 06

Think of the sky as a gradation of colors. The sky behind you might be a different color versus what is in front of you, e.g. the sky might be warmer near the sunset and cooler behind. The color of the shadows facing the sky will take on the color of the sky. Shadow color can enhance the other colors of the painting.

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Schoolism: Nathan Fowkes Color and Light Week 03

If you want to use a palette which spans across the color wheel then you need to have a unifying element.

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A painting might appear to have a lot of variation but when the colors are put in a different context then they will take on different properties. All the colors are mixed with one unifying color e.g. a warm yellow ochre.

Consider how your main character will stand out from the others. E.g. Sinbad is red clothed. However, the color should also represent the character’s personality. The strong saturated colors seen in animated movies result from a highly organised palette.

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Create a scene and then rework it with different color palettes. Spend at least 5 hours a week on these homework assignments. Make these paintings as tight as you can. Start afresh or use a grey render from last week to paint over.

Consider all hue, saturation, value and temperature.

Week 03 Feedback 01 Pay closer attention to where translucency might be occurring in your image. If an object is producing light, follow it to where it will be caught on other surfaces. Think of the light color, direction, source and quality.

Week 03 Feedback 03 Experiment more with the arrangement of your values and not just your hue, e.g. light against dark versus dark against light. (Note, I have a tendency to create dark foregrounds receding into light into the distance to make the characters stand out. I need to try out different approaches to lighting.) Beware of light sources appearing as a local color on a surface instead of a light.

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Student work on schoolism

Think about the storytelling within the scene and how a poorly placed highlight might direct the viewer’s attention to the wrong place within the frame.

Week 03 Feedback 03 For doing studies, it is simpler to paint a scene without characters so that you can just focus on the color and light. You can use value in the same sense that you can use color to create a mood with palette. Use the presence of extreme darks of an abundance of light values to your advantage.

There are more variations than just warm and cool.

Week 03 Feedback 04

Experiment more with the arrangements of value. E.g. try light foreground and dark middle ground and vice versa.


Think in terms of varying the degrees of black and white also.


Note to self: Try a simplified version of this assignment with spheres. Try creating simple value arrangements with spheres/simple objects. Vary the type of light sources and vary the subject slightly so as to create different local colours if need be e.g. a grassy sphere versus a colder rock/paved sphere.  Try a narrow versus a broad value range. Try a narrow versus a broad palette of colours. You could narrow the value range and then choose one area of subtle highlight.

Schoolism: Nathan Fowkes Color and Light Week 01 – 02

Week 01 Notes

Use a noise reduction filter to find the underlying simplified forms. What is the minimum amount of information that you can put into your study and still make it feel like the original?

Do a minimum of one study daily besides the work that you have to do. Keep them under an hour and try to get the essence of the image.

Homework: Do a minimum of 2 a day over the next 6 days.

Feedback 02

If you get your values right then your colours will follow. Study Jamie Jones. The edges and big shapes are important for the readability of the image. Jamie Jones’ painting has subtle value shifts but the readability of the edges is still very clear. Bear in mind that hard edges create an area of contrast. Use a surface blur filter to see the big colour and light compositions simplified. Also use the noise reduction filter. How far can you simplify and still hold on to the purpose of the image? You need to consciously consider what the underlying purpose of the image is. Work on your fundamental skills so that they are usable across all media, not just Photoshop tricks. Learn through the restrictions of traditional media so that your painting is more organised and designed. This will then follow through to digital media also.

Week 02 09/Jan/2017

Take grey scale renders and create believable, theatrical lighting with them. Where are your light sources coming from? How does scale affect the spread of the light? Think of warms and cools in your lights.

Push the theatrics of the image with atmospheric perspective and perspective.

Think of the relationship between your colors. Two complimentary colors, desaturated, will look vivid next to each other. A warm brown next to neutralised purple i.e. neutralised complimentary colors by mixing them with each other. You want a balance of sameness/repetition and difference/variety.  Unity and variety is the same as saturation and desaturation of colors in a relationship. See the paintings of James Reynolds.

Fowkes found a benefit in creating quick roughs of every image in Reynolds’ book.

You need to brush up your skills so that when the time comes you will be able to take on the tasks given to you and show that your skills can be trusted for more important jobs.