Life Through Tonal Contrasts

Posted by Charlotte Belland on
Wurzburg Ceilings in Wurzburg Residence, Bavaria, Germany.
Photo by Nutopia Ltd
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author. 

“Color and Light” opens with the phrase “In the modern world, color has become available to all.” This resonates deeply with me as an educator of young animators. The computer has become an essential tool in animation production. While the craft of animation is rooted in solid drawing and storytelling, an animator will eventually find him/her/themselves staring at a machine of infinite possibilities. The challenge with infinite choices is that the color of an animated film can fall into two traps: the trap of over application or the trap of color stereotypes.

Over application of color manifests when an animator tricks him/her/themselves into thinking that because a blade of grass is scientifically green, then all the blades of grass, and subsequently the entire field of grass needs to be all different shades of green.  This literal application of color deadens the scene because the viewer perceives the colors in isolated blocks. The viewer has no chance to experience the scene because he/she/they is being forcibly told what to perceive.

The second trap, color stereotypes, can damage the potential connection between the viewer and the film because the animator is making an assumption about the audiences’ social connection to color. This heavy-handed application leads to shallow detached scenes and can add fuel to social stereotypes. 

The challenge with infinite choices is that the color of an animated film can fall into two traps: the trap of over application or the trap of color stereotypes.

Monet has said, "There are no objective facts about a landscape or a building which we need to describe literally. There is only the sensation of looking at them." Successful animators understand that it is the relationship of color, not the individual colors, that heighten the viewers’ experience of the film. It is the placement of one color next to another that can emote a feeling, and an emotional connection to the film. In Claude Monet’s “Grainstack (Sunset)” (1891), we can see that even though we perceive that the haystack is golden, upon closer inspection we see that the perceived gold is a neighborhood of different colors. The subtle tonal relationship of color allows the viewer to deeply connect with the subject. The connection is an active engagement with the subject.  We feel the painting; we experience the animation.

This does not mean that animators are forbidden to use solid fields of color. In “Three Aspects of the Absolute” (1823), the Unknown Artist depicts the nothing with a perceived field of solid gold. On closer inspection, the viewer can see the brushstrokes. This gestural application of paint allows the gold to vary its tonal structure. The tonal structure allows the viewer to stay with the “nothing.” The viewer can experience it; the viewer can feel it. The challenge with a computer is that it can create a true field of one consistent tone of color. These computer-generated monolithic fields can be jarring because there is no path for the viewer to roam. The viewer is forced to confront this field without any gesture.

In his paper cut-out compositions, Henri Matisse provided the illusion of silhouettes of color. When we look closely at these silhouettes, we find that there is a gestural application of numerous pieces of modulated paper. The subtle tonal contrast moves our eye through the composition because the angles of the scissor-cuts flow into the overall gesture of the figures. For an animator, designing a character or an object starts with the overall silhouette. He/she/they then need to create a flow with the interior details of the subject. Just like Matisse used several pieces of paper to make one field, an animator will arrange the different segments of a character or object to direct the viewer’s eye through the overall design. The viewer will read these tonal contrasts as harmony.

Just because an animator has access to every color imaginable, this does not give the animator permission to use every color.

Tonal contrast can also provide an animator with a wonderful optical illusion: Scintillation. This technique involves placing two different colors with matching tones side-by-side in a composition. The result is that the boundary of the two colors will optically burn and swirl because the viewer is in an unconscious state of visual analysis. When scintillation is applied in-support of a story, a character at rest can still be perceived as lively. Simon Schama describes the figures in Giambattista Tiepolo’s “Fresco for the Wurzburg Residence” (1751-53) as “…endlessly animated. This is world in motion.” The gestural figures are energized by the tonal relationship of color. The liveliness of the figures’ poses is reinforced by the scintillation. The viewer can read a character as jumping, dancing, stretching because the color is dancing in harmony with the story.

The tonal relationship of color is a powerful tool. Understanding those relationships can allow an animator to visually describe complex human emotions. Just because an animator has access to every color imaginable, this does not give the animator permission to use every color. It is the nimble application of color and tone that will provide a story for the ages.

Charlotte_Belland_1.jpgCharlotte Belland, BFA, MFA is an Associate Professor and Chair of Animation at the Columbus College of Art and Design. Her artistic practice focuses on capturing the immediacy of animal movement with ink drawings.

“Working with ink is foundational to my process because the quick, permanent medium keeps me focused in the present moment. Even though my ink drawings are a single moment in time, the energy of the gesture that leads and follows that moment must resonate in the lines. This energy honors the essence of the animal and encourages viewers to pause and appreciate the beauty of the animal realm.”

Belland graduated with a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Computer Animation from The Ohio State University. Part of her creative habit is to post a daily animal drawing to Instagram. Those drawings can be viewed on Instagram.

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