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Colour theory for character design

Colour theory for character design
The potential for visually communicating ideas through character appearance increases exponentially when we introduce colour. There are many publications on colour theory, and this represents an excellent resource for character designers and researchers alike. In this video, we will discuss some of the fundamentals of colour and how we might apply this to game character design. Firstly, it should be noted there are several systems for understanding colour that have been used across artistic and scientific disciplines. From the perspective of visual design, the artist’s colour wheel is arguably the best known system for organising colour.
Breaking down the spectrum into 12 general colours and into three categories, the artist’s colour wheel identifies red, yellow, and blue as the primary colours, green, orange, and purple as the secondary colours, and blue purple, blue green, yellow green, yellow orange, red orange, and red purple as the tertiary colours. This is a relatively solid system for analysis of colour with respect to perception, as it reflects how humans see colour rather than colour actually exists in nature. In reality, the spectrum from yellow to orange in the artist’s colour wheel is exaggerated, as there are more subtle variations of purples, blues, and greens than there are of yellows and oranges. This can make the artist’s colour wheel quite problematic.
Many artists have turned to other systems that provide a more accurate representation of colour in nature. Furthermore, digital artists are far more likely to work with a colour system that operates with a different set of primaries. Red, green, and blue for screen images, or cyan, magenta, and yellow for print. As such, a universal colour wheel that combines these primaries as the one that most designers will use daily, placing six primaries around a wheel in the following in order, red, yellow, green, cyan, blue, and magenta.
Although there is a degree of flexibility in the use of colour systems, for the purposes of analysis I’m going to stick with the artist’s or traditional colour wheel, as shown here, which uses the conceptual primaries of red, blue, and yellow. While inaccurate when it comes to reflecting the real colour spectrum, this wheel does provide a closer representation of how we tend to see and understand colour, in particular when it comes to considerations such as colour opposites. With this in mind, let us now consider the basic colour components before looking at colour relationships. So firstly, when we say colour, what many of us actually mean is the hue. Hues are the general ranges of colour, as seen on any colour wheel.
All colour can be considered in terms of just eight hues, red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue, purple, and magenta. This list contains the six hues of the combined RGB and CMY colour systems, plus orange and purple. This categorisation might seem quite simplistic, but it aligns with our natural ability to perceive and discriminate between colours. Furthermore, hues are often associated with connotations that we can make use of in our analysis of the character’s appearance. At the most basic level, it can split hues into warm, magenta to yellow, and cool, green to purple, colours. Cool colours can be associated with calmness, objectivity, comfort, and nurture, whilst warm colours can be associated with passion, optimism, and excitement.
The value of a colour relates to its brightness, or how much light it reflects. Essentially, value can be considered in a scale, black to white, with the brightest colours, those with the highest value, at the white end of the scale. Hues combined with high values and lower saturation create pastel colours, which can be associated with a delicate, playful, and innocent character, and in particular are suitable to designs that are intended for very young audiences. Conversely, use of low values can create darker, murkier, earthier colours that are more naturalistic. So reds become maroons, oranges become browns, et cetera. One of the most effective uses of value is to create value contrast, also known as chiaroscuro.
Mixing high and low value colours can create one of the most effective contrasts achieved with colour. Consider the conceptual extreme, contrast of black and white. This most extreme of value contrasts can be used to accentuate the differences between two characters.
Saturation is a hue’s degree of purity, or how colourful it appears to be. Highly saturated colours are bold, striking, really unnatural, and can be used to exaggerate or enhance connotations of a hue. Due to their relative simplicity and strength, saturated colours can be appropriate for characters aimed at a younger audience, or conversely, can be effective when used sparingly with decreased saturation contrast within a character or between characters. Low saturation mixes hues with grays to create more realistic, mature colours that can make a culture appear more subtle, distant, thoughtful, or complex. Tints are hues that are mixed with white, while shades are hues that are mixed with black.
With these components of colour in mind, we can begin to consider the relationships between colours, and how this affects our perceptions of game characters. We can consider the organised colour relationships to be colour schemes. The most basic scheme is the monochromatic scheme. This is when a character or group of characters is designed using just one hue, with variation largely limited to adjustments in value and saturation. These schemes often appear quite stylised and unnatural, drawing clear attention to the chosen hue. As a result, a monochromatic scheme can act to exaggerate common interpretations of a hue.
Within character design, monochromatic schemes might be regarded as a means of simplifying a character and directly associating them with a single colour to point where they are, in effect, an embodiment of this hue. The Nintendo character Kirby, for instance, is effectively a monochromatic character centred around variations of magenta, accentuating his playfulness, energy, and sweetness. Analogous colours are colours that are adjacent to each other on the colour wheel, for instance, blue, cyan, and green, providing a sense of continuity and progression. These colour schemes can produce the most naturalistic results, as the colours are aligned with each other, creating a very pleasing appearance. The colour at the centre of the range of colours is typically the dominant colour.
Within a character design, and analogous colour scheme will convey a sense of harmony, serenity, and comfort, with no glaring contrast. You should consider how a character’s analogous colour design might amalgamate the potential meanings of applied colours, allowing for a more complex meaning of the colour connotations we commonly hold. Analogous schemes can also allow for broader application of warm or cool colours within a character. Colours that are complementary are those which, when mixed, achieve a neutral colour. One of the easiest ways to identify complementary colours is to identify the hues that are opposite each other on the colour wheel you’re working with. In our cases, we’re sticking with the traditional artist’s colour wheel.
The complementary colours are red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple. In character design, the application of a complementary colour is a key aesthetic consideration, as it can create a pleasing contrast and can be a sense of balance. From a practical point of view, complementary colours also provide a high degree of visibility and dynamism. For instance, many characters that are inspired by comic books make use of complementary colours in their design to emphasise their energy, vitality, and fantastical nature. The split complementary scheme can be considered a less jarring variation of the standard complementary scheme, whereby two colours are provided as a contrast to the dominant colour.
The two alternative colours would be placed on either side of the typical complementary colour on a colour wheel, so where dominant hue is green, the complementary hues would be red orange and red purple rather than red. This can create the same feeling of contrast and visibility, whilst producing the tension and simplicity that a straight complementary might otherwise create. As such, this could introduce more subtlety and complexity to a character and also draw on a wide array of connotations. A combination of four colours in a character design may fall within a double complementary scheme, where two sets of standard complementary colours are used.
Typically, these are not used equally, as the design can become overpowering and garish unless one of the pairs has a dominant complementary. Given the range of colours used, there is plenty of scope here for playing with colour application. In game character design, common application of the double complementary is not within a single culture, but between two or four characters who sit in opposition to each other. The use of two complementary schemes serves to draw further attention to the differences between, say, a protagonist and their primary antagonist. Finally, triadic colour schemes make use of three colours that are typically evenly spaced around the colour wheel. For instance, red, blue, and yellow.
This creates a vibrant appearance, can produce highly stylish results, and is often quite difficult to implement. The three colours are normally in equal balance, as the dominance of one colour over the others can create very unpleasing results.
In summary, when it comes to character design and analysis, the basic colour components and colour schemes provide us with a means of deconstructing and making sense of colour use. As with all visual principles, though, the interpretation of a colour based on hue, value, and saturation is fundamentally subject to cultural connotations, and there are no universal rules that link colour and meaning.

Following our discussion of line, shape, and silhouette, we will now discuss how colour theory can be applied to the visual design of game characters.

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Video Game Design and Development: Video Game Character Design

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