Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Color Theory 3 - neutral or natural colors

not to be confused with pee and poo colors

Many cartoon artists think there are only 7 colors:
PINK stinkies

And if you only looked at modern cartoons and video box covers it would be understandable why.
There is a whole huge family of colors that I encourage my painters to add to their palettes.
The neutral or natural colors. There are an infinite variety of these. They are made up of differing amounts of greys, browns and tiny amounts of the primary and secondary colors.

These kinds of colors are hard to name. Maybe that's why they are seldom used. Good artists can paint them, but there are no words to describe them, so execs can't say yes to something that doesn't have a simple word.

Now, for those of you who think only pink and purple are pretty colors, do you think these are ugly colors?
These colors are all covered by the one inadequate description: "Flesh Color". There are a zillion "flesh colors" and most people I know really like them.
Would your naked friends be prettier if they were these colors?:
Natural colors are rich and deep. They make things feel more real-even when used in an abstract way. I think this is what the "serious" cartoons are trying to acheive when they use "pee and poo" colors, but as you can see, natural colors don't have to look dingy and dirty. They can be quite beautiful.

Here, Frank Frazetta's main color is a tan-but if you look close you will see it is made up of many shades and hues.
Here is a similar color scheme only simplified, from Slumber Party Smarty-a Yogi Bear cartoon, I think painted by Monteleagre in 1958. The browns on the wall are made up of different tints of brown-some yellowish brown, some reddish brown, some purplish brown.

The bright red door really pops from the BG without breaking up the image. If the red was next to another equally bright primary or secondary, it would clash and be garish and would break up the image.

This is a very unusual and striking limited palette of black/grey and light peach with a bit of yellow. Who would think of a color scheme like that? Nature would. Steal it!

Here's a very limited palette of warm greys from FLCLY
In this Art Lozzi BG, the yellowish tan color is painted on the entire canvas and then the brown of the tree and fence, and the green grass are painted on top- in different degrees of opacity. This instantly brings all the colors into a harmonious family-and it is striking because it is an unexpected color scheme that you don't expect to see in cartoons.

Sokol manages to use shades of subdued yellow and greyed browns to make a warm soft scene, without making it look depressing.

If you use natural colors as your main scheme, you can then paint small details in brighter colors as in this scene of rocks and flowers.
Look at all the interesting tints within the rocks-they aren't simply grey.
The whole little waterfall scene is framed by the green foliage.

Here is a similar color scheme-dark, greyed yet rich and full of life and beauty. Look at the two main tints in the rocks-the faces are deep reddish brown, the tops are warm grey.
Notice that the water isn't blue. Even the rainbow is not your typical My Little Pony rainbow. Here's what Frazetta can do with the same basic color scheme. Again, look close-nothing is made up of a single color, yet everything looks more like the substances they represent than the actual substances themselves.

Grey and very light greyed-pink.

Dirt can be beautiful-it doesn't have to look dirty or muddy.

Neutrals with spots of bright colors.

Here is a basic natural color scheme with spots of bright color. The bright colors really stand out against the neutrals.
Here's Mary Blair using that theory.

Her layouts and paintings are so well organized.
Many artists look at her stuff and glean that the secret to her style is to draw flat shapes, and then they proceed to draw an unorganized assembly of unrelated broken up flat shapes and then paint them pink, purple and green.

She uses an extremely thought-out hierarchy of shapes within shapes and levels of color shades and contrasts.

Everything ends up looking unique and readable and pretty-and cartoony.Art Lozzi is using a simple color palette that is also well organized. The color and value contrasts of the cabin, snow and sky are less then the contrast of the inside of the cabin.
That makes the inside stand out more and grab your attention.

If this scene was painted today, it would be unreadable.

Something like this:

There are an infinite amount of greys. You put any color against grey and it will pop-like this flower.
Tortoise Wins By a Hair is painted by Johnny Johnston, who tends to use rich dark, subdued color schemes. Within his deep tones are many subtle color and value blends which makes the paintings and scenes really rich. Bugs' cool grey really reads against the warm greys on the wall and floor. Johnny painted his BGs in oil-a very rare and inconvenient medium for cartoons.

He also painted The Hep Cat (which has been totally ruined on the Looney Tunes DVD set-they actually removed color for once and most of the cartoon looks black and white now. It looks way better on the Laser Disks and VHS tapes).
He later worked for Tex Avery at MGM and painted such wonderful cartoons as King Size Canary. Take a look at how rich the colors are-especially in the back yard with the alley cats.

See the hierarchy of colors? The BG is mostly grey tones - blueish purple grey sky and craters, then brownish grey rocks. The centaur is darker grey and blends from warm brownish greys to cooler greys up towards the man chest and head.

Even the girl's flesh is greyed, yet it is so much lighter that she pops out and appears more delicate.
Her red cape really pops.

This kind of coloring takes a lot of skill and a keen eye and TASTE. Even if you know all the theories behind it, it doesn't mean everyone can combine subtle colors and make them beautiful. It takes a rare and special painter. Many painters try it and end up with mud.

It's too bad taste can't be learned. However if you are gifted with a tasteful eye, and you learn the theories and the ways great colorists combine and mix their colors maybe you can be another Mary Blair, Frazetta, Sokol, Wray or Dedini.

Here's a link to some great neutral background paintings from Woody Woodpecker cartoons:



Patrick said...

Frazetta is amazing...I've seen all his paintings in person " incredible".
Did you know he had a stroke a few years back?..he cant use his right (painting) hand..he's been painting with his left hand since then...still looks amazing!

Billy Bob said...

OK, you really sold me on this one Mr. K. The examples of neutral color were excellent and REALLY helped me put the misuse and bad choice of "pee and poo" colors in context. (although i dont think 101 dalmations was QUITE as bad as bellview or robin hood, yech.) It really helps that you gave the more sensible alternatve choice in a very detailed fashion.

S.G.A said...

I am going to apply a few of these tonite. , I get back you you with the results.

Thank you !

Andrew Moore said...

Great series! (I'd love to see your evaluation of The Nightmare Before Christmas!)

Rod said...

What do you think of these (none by me):
I like them all, but for different reasons.

David DeGrand said...

WOW!! Best art lesson I've ever read in my life, THANK YOU!!

Jennifer said...

Very informative post, John, although the pics of the scantily-clad girls don't have the same effect on me as it does a straight male or lesbian...maybe you can give us some "equal time" in your next post on color theory... I'm just busting on you, ducky! :D

Seriously - what I find interesting in your color theory posts is although it appears that the information applies to art and animation, this information can also apply to other fields that use color for effect, like web and software design. These posts give a constructive explanation on why to choose a certain color scheme and why to avoid another scheme.

These color posts would translate very well to an educational program about color and art.

Shawn said...

Hey John,
This post is great! I love all the photos!

What do you think of Kurtzman's and Elder's Little Annie Fanny? Will Elder painted some great colors on those.

Trevour said...

You can't learn this stuff in art school, people. Seriously! My color theory classes in the past taught me NOTHING like this. I want my several thousand dollars back!

Honestly, John, you should publish a little book on all this stuff. Sell it through LuLu.com! I love that place.

The Butcher said...

Thank you kindly for the generous helping of eye treats.

Kitty said...

I STILL like pinks and purples. I think all art needs its bright scenes. the waterfall scenes are beautiful.

Anonymous said...

you should do cartoons in infrared and ultraviolet ranges, those colours are mindblowing

queefy said...

I'm color blind so most of this don't make any sense.


Ryan Wood said...

Thanks for the informative post and all of the examples you used. It seems like alot of artists will ape Frazetta's subject matter and overlook his fantastic colors. I appreciate you taking the time to break it all down, Thanks!

Desiree said...

Brilliant Stuff, John!! Really good examples to boot.
ALso, Classico Is one whole minute of Brilliance!! Absoultely amazing. Great drawings and the whole intro acting bit that jackblack does is quite amazing. love Kyle on the guitar. beautifully painted backgrounds and colors (the olivebrownypinky one where the duck is fucked is my fave). And last but not least great music timing. A real Joyride KAPOWPOW!!!!

Crumpled Up John! said...

When painting do you find it's better to use the primary colors and just mix them to get other colors or is it better to use the other colors straight out of the tube?

Anonymous said...

Very distinctive pieces there, can't be bothered to analyse em though. Happy 4th July weekend man!

Anonymous said...

Wow... when you put it like that- in bikinis- I'm sold! The photos of the beaches too. I mean, when you see those pink-n-purple nightmare landscapes and compare them to some Tahitian sunset, which environment would be more enjoyable to spend time in?

Especially if a variety of those wonderful "flesh tones" are sharing it with you.

More exciting examples of how color design should be done, rather than limiting it to the generic, eye-abusing junk crowding the dvd section at Target stores across North America.

I really hope some of your professional peers are reading these and thinking, "Damn, when John Kricfalusi is right, he's right. Let's try this stuff out and see what happens!"

Eric said...

This is very informative, John. Thanks for for watering my budding artist brain. Who needs art school when we've got you?

Anonymous said...

I agree with you in this instance, but I'm confused. Didn't you say in a certain post (http://johnkstuff.blogspot.com/2006/10/
color-theory-pee-and-poo-colors-versus.html) that these were "pee-and-poo" colors?

JohnK said...

>>Didn't you say in a certain post (http://johnkstuff.blogspot.com/2006/10/
color-theory-pee-and-poo-colors-versus.html) that these were "pee-and-poo" colors?>>

Read the post and look a little more carefully.

Ian S. said...

Thanks so much for celebrating color in your last posts. I've really been enjoying your examples! Keep it up, and if you feel the need to, go on forever about it.

heidi said...

I will never get enough of your art education! I am treating your posts like it is my class and doing the homework. In my paintings I try to apply the neutral, subdued tones while adding a bright color to pop! Sometimes I will do a painting all in grey scale and add one color in small amounts. Anyway, rad stuff.

stiff said...

DAMMIT! I hate being physically incapable of becoming a good color stylist. At least I can blame any other deficiency on myself. I could barely even see the red flowers in that last waterfall picture! I suppose I have an accurate measurement, though: if I can see ALL of the colors in a picture, it probably sucks. I guess I've got that goin' for me.

Anonymous said...

you go all on about colour theory but If you look at Ren and Stimpy 95% of the colours are just different shades of neon green/orange. Whats the deal?

JohnK said...

Why do you think I'm going to so much trouble here to beg artists to give me colors I like?

Anonymous said...

I think you should do cartoons black and white style only varying shades of red to symbolize contrasting degrees of passion and integrity

Ollie said...

Hey John, Another great post. What are those Katie designed characters from?

Anonymous said...

this applies well to most animated shows that try to be uplifting and express the beauty of life etc.

But if you are doing a cartoon about suffering and death, and are trying to create a mood of severe depression and hopelessness wouldnt some of the garish color schemes work for that?

I mean if Im trying to draw a man whos brain is slowly rotting being driven mad by visions of walking corpses and his soul seeping away, crying hystericaly as his horrified children scream and tug at his clothes desperately trying to bring their father back to reality, you might not want to use the most appealing colour schemes

JohnK said...

You might not want to animate that in the first place. But all the schemes in this post would work for dark scary stuff.

Nate Birch said...

Ah, I love Frazetta. Always have, although I never payed too much attention to his use of colour. Guess I was distracted by *ahem* some of his other strengths.

David Germain said...

In that '80's Flintstones picture it looks like the house is made out of Fruity Pebbles (the worst cereal on earth by the way, they overdo it with the dye).

Oh, I rented Curious George last weekend (out of curiosity, what else?). John, if you thought some of the backgrounds in Sven Hoek were "Candycane Lane" then this movie was "Diabetes Junction".

Jorge Garrido said...

Wow, I'm gonna use these theories in my Chirstmas Card painting! Did Mike do that WB Bugs merchandise?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I dunno... that brain would be EXTREEEEEME... [mind aplodes]

:: smo :: said...

it's astounding how many cartoonists don't own a color wheel or didn't study basic color theory...

how would you recommend dealing with the color of a character in relation to the pallet of the backgrounds? in many cartoons a character is a fixed hue and value, his own color scheme in a sense. is it too glaring to change the hue of a character to fit the mood better? i'm a fan of characters that fit in their environments as opposed to a glaring blob on the screen...

Kyle said...

What do you think of this artists gallery? http://monk-art.deviantart.com/gallery/
I enjoy his use of color and tone

Kali Fontecchio said...

With all these colors and all there possiblities- why would people do anything but? Everyone who saw this post has no excuse now! Including me!

Mr. Semaj said...

I'm guessing John's favorite color is gray. ;)

Art Lozzi makes it sound simple, but it's a lot to absorb. I'm currently working on an acrylic painting, where I'm trying to create a jutaxposition of a neutrally-colored structure placed in a mostly natural setting. This is something I've discussed with my art teacher, who's very experienced btw. It's hell getting the colors I want, because the palette for this particular project is all from my memory.

Corey said...

These color posts of yours are extremely informative, thanks for taking the time to do this.

Color is extremely difficult stuff! I'm just getting my feet wet.

papa smurf said...

vinyl designer toys are also a good source for color concepts. they have a strong asian influence in design and color theory

Anonymous said...

Ren and Stimpy went right along with the rest of the cultural revolution of the early 1990's. Fuck, I sound like a boomer now about the 60's.

Anyway. the first couple seasons of Ren and Stimpy influenced me as a photojournnalist with color and what not. Here is something I shot two weeks ago that reminded me of a background from a Ren and Stimpy cartoon. I am sure it harkened back to those days of enjoyment.

Devin Miller


william wray said...

Hey John.

Thanks for including me in your color theory manifesto, quite an honor. One small thing I have to point out is sometimes what your seeing as a subtle additional color is video color bleed. That Flintstones door doesn't have that subtle red in the wall, it's bleed from the bright red door. The artists your citing are great, but there is something wonderful I don't think you have touched on. The camera is very forgiving, often the original background I have seen over the years don't look nearly as good as film or video capturer. They are downright crude looking at times. There is also a pretty good argument for the idea that there is no such thing as a neutral color, all color is either warm or cool, but that’s really hair splitting, but technically true.

Anonymous said...

great post, i couldnt agree with you more on this. i try my best to put this into practice all the time.

by the way, i was blown away when i found out style guides actually have "recommended color schemes" in them! how insulting.

Tony C. said...

Great examples using the photos next to a piece with the same tones and values. The do a beautiful job illustrating your point.