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3D DIRECT • September 11, 2000

The Artist's Canvas

The True Color of Things

by Eni Oken

One of the strongest trends in the 3D industry is realism, especially in film. Real-life footage is often combined with gaseous characters, monsters, or futuristic helicopters because we artists are striving to make the 3D models realistic enough so that the audience will be fooled.

A strong factor in establishing realism is how we approach color choices and saturation. In a computer world, we are offered endless colors displayed on a bright monitor. We tend to imagine that colors present in our reality are far more saturated and bright than they really are. By realizing the true value and saturation of colors, 3D artists can work to improve realism and thus make 3D blend into live footage more seamlessly and imperceptibly.

Psychological colors

Figure 1: Blue is the hardest color for little children to differentiate because the shades can be very different.

As little children, we are conditioned to learn basic primary colors by name. We are taught to differentiate Red from Green, while our parents applaud enthusiastically when we are able to tell one from the other. Studies show that the hardest color to learn is blue because light sky blue and dark blue have such different tones. Most little children at first are baffled when presented with two different shades of blue—how can we call two such different things the same name (see Figure 1)?

Later, we become conditioned in our knowledge of colors, and an opposite effect takes place: We are no longer able to discern visibly between subtle differences in hue. Red is always red, no matter what. So, from an early age, we become accustomed to thinking of red as being bright and vibrant.

Figure 2: Red in various subtle tones.

This type of psychological conditioning can take years of art school to brake. It's not until later that we learn colors can have many hues, shades, and tints, if we simply mix them with a bit of white or black. Obviously our eyes become more trained and can perceive subtleties better (see Figure 2). Now red is not simply Red—it becomes cherry red, china red, and various other meaningless names in an attempt to describe the variances of the color.

But still, somewhere deep down in our minds, red is always Red—vibrant, and energetic.

The Red that is not

Enter the computer graphics world. A young artist is working hard to perform in the 3D industry, and, in the process, gets assigned a project about creating a fantasy Oriental temple that contains a lot of Red. No problem. A quick search for reference materials digs up the two perfect sources of temples that contain a lot of Red (Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3: A reference picture of an Oriental temple with a lot of Red. Photograph copyright Eni Oken, courtesy Eni Oken.

Figure 4: My traveling buddy posing in our recent trip to Thailand seems like another perfect reference for the project. Photograph copyright Eni Oken, courtesy Eni Oken.

Both pictures seem to have Red in it, and apparently there is no mystery. However, if we take a little time to analyze both reference pictures a little bit closer, we will discover that they are very different types of Red.

Using Photoshop to extract real colors

Analyzing a little closer will show that the two reds are indeed so different they can barely be called the same color. Using Adobe Photoshop and the eyedropper tool, the two reds can be compared in their real hue, saturation, and brightness.

To analyze the true value of a color extracted from a photograph, use the following technique:

  1. Scan a photograph that contains a lot of red, trying to avoid having the software color-correct your picture.
  2. Open the image in Photoshop and use the eyedropper tool, clicking on an area that seems to be the purest red.
  3. Open a new image and fill the image with the new color (see Figure 5).
  4. Repeat with other chosen areas of the same picture (see Figure 6).
  5. Create a pure red by choosing RGB values of 255,0,0, and fill another picture with it.
  6. Compare the two sampled values to the pure red (see Figure 7).

Figure 5: Filling a new picture with the color acquired with the eyedropper shows that the color is not close to red at all.

Figure 6: Repeating the process with the other picture.

Figure 7: Comparing the two sampled reds to a pure 255,0,0 red shows that neither one is really a true red.

By seeing the sampled colors in a large area, unaffected by the surrounding elements of the photograph and compared to an absolutely pure red, we can then see how not red the photographs really were. Usually the sampled colors almost invariably turn out to be duller—with less saturation than expected. The levels of saturation can be sometimes almost 30 percent less than a true pure hue.

Unsaturated 3D imagery

If you are an artist working on a project aimed at realism, especially one that combines 3D with live footage, try to analyze the true color of things, and reduce the saturation of your textures and lights. You may find that the 3D integrates with the real footage better.

A different kind of test can prove if the saturation is part of the answer to realism:

  1. Open a 3D-generated image that contains a lot of one specific color. In our example, we are continuing the theme with Red (see Figure 8).
  2. Use Image>Adjust>Hue/Saturation to remove at least 20 percent of the saturation of the overall image (see Figure 9).

If the theory is correct, the second unsaturated image should look more realistic (even though it does have less appeal due to its duller coloring).

Figure 8: Open a 3D-generated image with a predominant color. Image by Eni Oken, courtesy Eni Oken.

Figure 9: Use the Hue/Saturation to remove at least 20 percent of the images saturation. Image by Eni Oken, courtesy Eni Oken.

Conclusion: The true colors of the world

Our years of conditioning train us to learn certain values as absolute, and sometimes makes us perceive things a little differently than they really are. By training our eyes to see colors as they truly are, we can improve our understanding of the visual, artistic world, and therefore give us more control over the realism of our 3D.

The disadvantage of seeing the true colors of things is that you might also notice how more drab and dull our cities have become.

Eni Oken is a freelance 3D artist based in Los Angeles. As an architect with 13 years of experience in computer graphics, she has participated in the creation of 3D art for numerous interactive projects and has won several awards for her work. You can reach her at www.oken3d.com.