Friday, January 20, 2017

Yellow-purple traditional complementary palettes in scenery

Last week I looked at red-green colour palettes, this time I want to look at one of the other two traditional 'complementary' colour palettes.

As a comment pointed out last week, the use of the term 'complementary' for these palettes is somewhat outdated, as the modern colour wheel is a bit different to the traditional one teaching red, yellow, blue as the primary colours. Nevertheless, all the art books I've read, and all the art folks I know refer to these as complementary, so I'm going to refer to these as 'traditional complementary palettes' for now until a better way of describing them comes along. The colour wheel they're based on may be outdated, but these are still some of the most popular 2 hue colour palettes.

The Dig is a great example of several variations on this idea. Here we see a vivid purple foreground and a vivid yellow backdrop, with dark purple and dusty reds and oranges showing middle grounds nicely. The rich colours give the scene a classic 'science fiction' feeling of an alien world, and really pushing their saturation is a great way of spicing up natural looking forms to look both spectacular and memorable. Yellow rimlights also help to delineate forms nicely. I love this particular use of yellow, having the reds in between the two colours really makes the scene glow.

Another example of using reds between the two colours to give a warm glow is this scene from Shannara. The yellow candles not only warm the scene up, but also help to distinguish foreground forms, such as the human figure who sports his own personal yellow purple palette. Interesting to see how the spines of the books are hit with purple as though it was a hidden light source, despite the fact that nothing else reveals the presence of any purple light source. This may have simply been a way to tie them more closely into the scene's tight palette.

A much more exaggerated example of a red between the yellow and purple is this scene from Sam & Max. The red is so prominent here that I wouldn't call this a yellow/purple palette, but it's interesting to see how shifting the balance changes things. The purple here feels more like a background element, hitting shadows and distant object more than anything else, but it's still vivid enough to feel memorable. An odd colour combination that helps this scene feel suitably bizarre.

From a warm purple to a cool purple, The Dig once again provides another example of this combination. The yellow in the distance looks quite welcoming, from the rather alien purple in the foreground, and can be used two ways - if we were walking in from the yellow background into the purple foreground, it could feel like entering from a 'safe' location into an uncertain one. If we were going from the purple foreground to the yellow background, it could feel like leaving a potentially dangerous place into the welcoming safety of sunlight. I particularly like how the yellow hits the edges of forms here, helping to show distance and delineate form.

Similarly cool purples are present in this scene from King's Quest 6. Once again, the purple feels slightly mysterious compared to the yellow middle ground, but here it represents strange objects such as a skeleton, a crystal ball and a suit of armour, and the area in which we can walk is all yellow and 'safe'. This bluish purple helps to offset the many yellows and the whole scene has a light, airy feel that's framed nicely by these slightly darker, cooler foreground elements.

By making the yellow less vivid, or 'saturated' and making the cool purple more vivid we get a nice futuristic feel, as in this shot from Gateway. Because purple isn't a common colour for a natural light source, nor is it common for ordinary, everyday lighting, showing such a cool purple as a light really gives the scene a feeling of advanced technology. The same applies for the yellows - we're used to yellow lighting being quite warm and vivid, whether from the sun or electric lighting, and showing it in such a stark, cool form as a light makes it feel sterile and artificial. A great way to help establish a science fiction setting.

Science fiction is also well suited by warmer colours when dealing with more natural environments, though - this shot from The Dig has a sunny, warm yellow showing the alien sun bearing down on the landscape. This warms the purples up too, particularly where they cast shadows on the distant forms, which gives a strong feeling of ambient light. Once again, however, the lack of saturation in this lightsource makes it feel slightly off - it's too pale and washed out to be a sunset on Earth, which is the time of day the colours and the shadows would suggest, making this look alien and unusual.

By contrast, the yellow highlights in this scene in King's Quest 6 fight to light up an oppressive expanse of deep, saturated purple which feels gloomy and massive. Whereas the yellow in the last shot lit the distant purples right up, here the purple largely reigns, with just a few highlights of yellow here and there. This is helped by the cavernous expanse of black water which sucks up any light the torches shine also.

Between the two extremes lies this middle ground from Gabriel Knight - the purple in the darker areas feels cool and somewhat gloomy, but glows where the yellow fire hits it, warming it right up. This is a nice way of balancing out the cooler, darker areas, by showing not only the yellow light source, but the effect it can have on the purples of the image.

A similar thing can be seen in this shot from Kyrandia - where the sunlight coming in through the window hits the yellows and purples they glow with rich colour, and in the shadowy areas they both have less saturation, showing that the effect works on yellow also. Here the yellow isn't a lightsource, and the deeper colours and darker values make it feel less light and airy than the earlier interior from King's Quest 6. The combination of yellow and purple here also feels quite rich and regal - purple especially brings to mind royalty, or someone important, and the gold decorations would never be seen in a commoner's habitat. A great way to convey status through colour.

One last shot from Kyrandia, here showing a scene with no visible lightsources, but nevertheless one that has light coming from a clear direction. The purple dragon here feels more 'magical' than the more menacing, traditional red, black or green dragons. Purple is an unusual colour to find in nature, and the presence of it in a creature's colourings feels interesting more than a threatening red or black. The purple crystal ball also suggests magic, and the yellowy paper helps to suggest the writings of a wizard in some long forgotten time much more than clean, white paper we're used to seeing would. This is an interesting example of how applying these colours to materials provides insight into the setting.

As we've seen, the purple/yellow combination of colours is great at suggesting certain feelings, and by cooling them down or heating them up we can helps establish particular atmospheres. I love studying how other artists have employed these hues together, and seeing which combinations feel 'right' and trying to work out why. It's a facinating palette, used by many artists, and one well worth experimenting with.


Unknown said...

A very nice study of the colours and their uses. Learned a few things about some scenes I thought I knew well so that was nice. Keep it up Ben!

Ben304 said...

I always learn when I take a proper close look at my favourite scenery too! :D

Scott said...

Wow. I'm curious if you have all these screenshots already laying around, or if you have been collecting specific color palettes as you play over time. Also, I like the idea of a backdrop scene being "memorable" because of the color juxtaposition.

Ben304 said...

I definitely collect screenshots as I play games, and then study them after playing. I don't sort them into specific colour combinations until I want to compare them, though. If there's some I'm missing I check Mobygames or has a cool collection of backgrounds from some LucasArts games, as well as some infinity engine games.

Colours are definitely memorable to some extent, I think - they might not be the exact element you remember about the scene, but they can highlight the more memorable elements more clearly, if nothing else. All artistic techniques have power! :)

Ponch said...

Hello, 304.

What's this madness I'm reading about the color wheel being outdated? When did this happen? I've been using the same color wheel that I got as a gift back in the 80s! What sort of new-fangled contraption are you kids using today that I haven't heard about? And why? I swear, if this has something to do with that fancy metric system all you kids seem so excited about...


Ben304 said...

You know, Ponch, if I'd known that the metric system would lead to colour wheels changing, I wouldn't have been so eager to support it. I helped get us all into this mess. brb, changing everything to "ounces", whatever that is, and maybe I'll start using Fahrenheit for temperature while I'm at it!