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Designing with Color and Light for Emotional Impact

The great contemporary animated film artist Nathan Fowkes describes how, in his movie design
art with DreamWorks Animation, he employs the power of different color combinations to elicit
various responses from the audience. He believes that "the visual storytelling process can be
designed to powerfully affect viewers' emotions through the subtle use of color, light, shape and
Fowkes' preliminary illustration studies often focus virtually entirely on color and light. He
delineates only big shapes, with smaller details reduced to the point of abstraction:

Fowkes states that, for example, an image using bright yellow lighting usually looks cheerful
and uplifting. If one takes the same image, however, and begins to desaturate the yellows, a
dry and desolate effect is achieved. Even further desaturation of yellows in the same image can
actually create a dank and moldy appearance. Blue lighting in the ultramarine range tends to
look peaceful, while blue lighting in the cyan range tends to look creepy, and so forth.
In his wonderful recent book Color and Light, fantasy and science fiction artist James
Gurney also discusses the emotional impact of various color and lighting combinations. Gurney
recommends a study technique called "serial painting". This is the creation of multiple versions
of the same subject under different lighting conditions. One of the most famous examples of a
serial painting study is Monet's 1890s series of over 30 paintings depicting the Rouen
Cathedral under various light and weather conditions:

Testing these Ideas

I recently decided to study the emotional effect of various light and color combinations in my
own work with the following quick serial painting exercise. I penciled in the same invented
scene six times - each image just a small 2.5" x 3" in size to help me keep my design focus on
big shapes only. I then proceeded to watercolor each scene with a different combination of
color and lighting to see how the emotional impact of the image would be transformed:

I attempted to focus on variations of mood as I explored each lighting and color

combination. Here are the results:

Variation 1:
Mood: Cheerful yet stately.
Lighting: Full warm daylight from the front, upper left. Crisp shadows cast toward the
right. Cool ambient light from the bright blue sky. Warm reflected light from the ground plane.
Values: Dark trees, medium tone sky, light focal building with dark accents.
Colors: The full color wheel is represented - blue and yellow in the sky, orange in the pathways,
green and red in the trees, violet in the shadows. Colors are generally subdued slightly through
blending and wet-on-wet mixing to avoid too many overly pure hues which could become


Variation 2:
Mood: Somber and autumnal.
Lighting: Warm subdued orange back light from the left. Slightly cooler ambient light to provide
a subtle contrast of color temperatures across forms. Reflected light is almost entirely absent to
help give an impression of a low intensity lighting from the setting sun.
Values: Dark trees, light sky, medium value focal building with subdued details.
Colors: Colors are various saturations within the red-orange range. Complementary contrast is
introduced with a touch of ultramarine blue which was used to mute the foreground trees into
the appearance of a foggy mist.

Variation 3:
Mood: Romantic and earnest.
Lighting: Warm direct sunlight from the front low right. Cool violet ambient light to tone the
shadows. As in the previous example, reflected light is almost entirely absent to help give an
impression of a low intensity lighting from the sun.
Values: A subdued value range with darker trees, medium toned sky, and lighter value focal
building with crisp dark accents.

Colors: A muted blue-orange complementary contrast is employed. Colors are tinted with a
subtle warm rose hue to introduce a romantic note. Saturations are kept fairly low to avoid
tipping the emotional impact into the saccharine.

Variation 4:
Mood: Enchanting.
Lighting: Warm light from within the building. Very muted violet ambient light from the
sky. Strong reflected light from the ground plane. Up-lighting of trees and architecture.
Values: Light windows, darkly silhouetted building forms and trees, medium value sky.
Colors: A muted violet-yellow complementary contrast is employed. As in the previous
example, colors are tinted with a subtle warm rose hue to introduce a magical, romantic note.

Variation 5:
Mood: Mysterious.
Lighting: Warm light from a point source on the ground in front of the building. Low key
ultramarine ambient light from the sky. Strong reflected light from the ground plane. Uplighting of trees and architecture similar to the previous example.
Values: Light architecture, dark trees, medium value sky. Crisp shadows to indicate a strong
primary light source. The building's windows are almost identical in value to the building facade

creating a "facelessness" that lends a sense of mystery. (If the windows had instead been
rendered strongly visible, this color and light combination would likely have taken on a grand
and perhaps even triumphant appearance).
Colors: A fairly full spectrum of hues with blues, violets, reds, yellows, and greens, but almost
all greatly muted with intermixing to create harmony.

Variation 6:
Mood: Serene and ethereal.
Lighting: Cool direct light from the front upper right - perhaps moonlight. Low key ultramarinecyan ambient light from the sky. Very weak reflected light from the ground plane to help
indicate a subdued primary light source.
Values: Light architecture, dark trees, medium value sky. Soft shadows to indicate a subdued
primary light source. Darkened windows introduce a feeling of peaceful slumber, but also a
slightly mysterious air.
Colors: The entire image is in the ultramarine-cyan blue range. Ultramarine tends to look
peaceful, while the slight cyan cast perhaps lends a bit of a mysterious feel to the scene.

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