Illustration Basics
Jun 2023
Inna Cherkashina

Lighting and Color: Basic Guidelines

Creating high-quality visual content is not only about rendering a mesh. If you already know how to make a 3D model and integrate it into the scene, you can take another step and think about visual tools that can highly contribute to the quality of your work: lighting and color.

Both of them are commonly used by filmmakers who want to shoot more visually appealing films with greater impact.

Read this article to learn how you can turn lightning and color into a powerful tool to code a story and add more depth or highlight and define certain objects and characters.

How to work with a color palette

Tinting your light with different colors can set the mood of the scene or the whole movie.

First, you need to look at the color wheel. As you well remember, the color wheel is a visual representation of colors that shows the relationship between primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors.

In order to deliver a perfect artwork, choose two or three key colors on the color wheel based on one of the following schemes.

Complementary color scheme

Colors from the opposite sides of the color wheel look especially dynamic together because they play up each other's intensity while appearing balanced since they equally stimulate different parts of the eye. It's a natural illusion that adds energy and draws the eye.

Many film directors play on this contrast. For example, if you’ve watched Amelie, you may have noticed its vibrant colors.

Triadic color scheme

This color scheme is formed by three colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. For example, draw a triangle on the color wheel and use only these three colors. Typically, one color acts as the dominant color, while the other two work as accents.

Analogous color scheme

Analogous colors are a group of three colors next to each other on a color wheel, such as blue, blue-green, and green. This color scheme is usually pleasant and comfortable to look at. The colors in an analogous color scheme are harmonious and never clash with one other.

You can see this scheme in many movies, for example, in the Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.

There are a few more principles that you should bear in mind:

The background affects your perception

The background behind an object may make its color appear differently. You can use this trick and arrange your background color in the way that it creates a story. For example, the cinematography of the Fight Club is quite eloquent here as two different doorways behind the main hero show the deceptive enlightenment through self-destruction which is one of the key ideas of this film.

Lighting and color are good partners

Light is in tandem with your color scheme. It can either saturate or muffle your colors. For example, when viewed for a long time, a cold color may be perceived as warm. To avoid confusion, keep balance and don’t overuse the elements.

In the Mind Hunter, the overall tone of the scene is complemented by some small details such as an advert in the parking lot, so that the viewer correctly perceives the mood. Thanks to such details, the color perception doesn’t waver.

Avoid a pitch-black color

It has no shades, and therefore it doesn’t trigger any emotions. If you look at a classical painting, you won’t see any black shadows because you can hardly find them in real life. Light is always reflected and refracted and forms different shades.

In cinematography, even when you have the night or space scenes, darkness is created due to shades of blue, gray, and other colors. If you look at Alien or Invasion, you can see that even the most fantastic design seems realistic, because it avoids black color and consists of shades, highlights, and other elements that make it look three-dimensional.

How to work with lighting

You need to figure out the lighting scheme in order to combine lighting and color in your work properly:

  1. Drawing Light is, as a rule, located on top or in front and forms the main spot of light, as well as shadows cast by the object
  2. Fill Light washes out shadows and dark areas
  1. Contre-Jour Light produces backlighting of the silhouette
  1. Modeling Light is a side light that is much more often used in the studio than on a film set.

These four general types of lighting are good for photos, videos, and 3D modeling. If you are making a film, you need to use 7–40 light sources. However, there are such cameramen as Roger Deakins, who sometimes worked with only three light sources on the set of the most famous films by Denis Villeneuve, the Coen brothers, and Sam Mendes.

Another important thing is the geometry of different types of light sources. There is always a key light that creates the contrast, and an additional one. If you look at the films from the John Wick franchise, you can see how the combined light sources in action scenes help to keep the viewer's attention.

The principles of visual storytelling are universal for all types of art: with the help of color and light, you can improve your storytelling, create a unique atmosphere, highlight an important detail, and direct the viewer's gaze.

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