Color is the final stage in traditional design that leaves an open door to the final look and feel of our animation. Even though I encourage you to experiment with color and texture in 3D, your designs should be fairly concrete in shape, proportion, and color before we get into the modeling process.
Once we get into 3D modeling, it’s going to be challenging enough to capture the unique character and proportion of our designs, so let’s make all the big design decisions now and save the little tweaks in 3D for later. At this stage, gather reference material to be used to form an approach toward color.
What should you gather? Depending upon your research material, any kind of color, pattern, or texture you feel accurately represents your inspiration. In my case, I’ve collected color image s of Chinese art, architecture, and sculpture to form an idea of what colors I think will be of best use to my project. The process of gathering and applying color for your designs varies from person to person, but I’m going to teach you my way.
I think it’s a fairly efficient approach and will not only help to establish a color palette for use during your project, but will keep you very organized. I used to work on paper with markers, colored chalk, and colored pencils, but that process can take a long time and with no Undo button, if you screw up, you might spend a half hour trying to repair a mistake. So, with the advent of digital paint programs like Photoshop, Aura, and Alias Sketch, the Undo button was included along with the tools for creating layers, transparencies, soft edges, masks, and textures. With these programs the user has a powerful suite of tools that far outweigh anything you could do on paper in the same amount of time. It’s always nice to break out the markers every once in a while to help refine some design issues, but all in all I choose to work digital because of its efficiency. Note: If you don’t have a digital paint program, go get one. If you still can’t get one, then follow the lessons using color markers or color pencils.
Color Phase 1: Gather Color Reference Material
The first thing to do is to gather all your reference material into a digital format. Whether you scan it in from books or magazines, or it exists as a digital file already, gather it into a folder that we will call “Color Reference.”
Color Phase 2: Determine a Few Colors of Interest
Sort through your files and start to determine the colors that are the most commonly used within the context of your reference material. When I mean colors, I don’t mean black and white; black and white are a given. I mean look through your reference material and choose a few colors that stand out as being the most applicable to your project. I have chosen four colors: red, green, gold, and brown. These four colors were the ones most commonly used during the ancient Chinese era. Perhaps it was their love for nature and living off the land complemented by the use of highly detailed pieces of craftsmanship like golden dragons, giant green vases, red calligraphy on rice paper, and wooden sailing ships striped with red and green from bow to stern. I believe their choice of color was to complement their natural landscape, not to compete with it.
Color Phase 3: Create Your Color Palette
I’ve created a new document in Photoshop and, using my reference material, I can use the eyedropper to sample color or I can use my design eye to do the same job. I prefer using my design eye, because it further enhances my ability to mix and match color without the aid of a digital program. I then created four bars of color: red, green, gold, and brown. Each bar has a dark, medium, and light section to give me a good range of values to choose from. If I were to put the middle range value of gold up against my dark value of red, it would create an incredible amount of contrast. This is a good indication that I’m on the right path, because the Chinese often use high contrast to create focal points within their architecture and art.
Color Phase 4: Apply Your Color Palette
The goal of this phase is to apply our color palette to our designs. This gives us an idea of how our colors will work together to create a high amount of visual interest as well as give our compositions dynamic focal points and good contrast. Not only will value play a huge role, but the correct contrast of color is crucial to keeping our focal points clear and engaging. Once we’ve colored a few of our designs we can examine how they look as a unit. Since we only want to create a quick color reference, or a color key, it’s not important that we render our designs to a very high degree. I leave it up to you to choose to what level of detail you want to illustrate your designs. But don’t get too caught up in illustration and spend less time thinking about overall color for the entire project. Whatever level of illustration you choose, utilize this phase to make crucial color decisions before jumping into 3D.