Modes of Renaissance colour

November 2, 2011

Shades of Unreal: Colour modes in Italian Renaissance Art & 3D Games
by Glennis McGregor

My attraction to the brilliant colour of early Renaissance painting is what started me on my journey into the history of art. At the same time, 3D graphics have always felt like the most beautiful niche in digital design; my area of work. In this post I explore one of the many common threads drawing these art forms together – the emergence of colour modes that create a beautiful 'unreality'.

Early Renaissance painters strove to create sacred worlds that were not too alien to relate to, but at the same time were clearly more beautiful than their own. This corresponded to the Medieval Christian belief that reality was a pale reflection of heaven. Saint Paul stated in his Epistle to the Corinthians I, 13:12, “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then [in heaven] face to face”.1

Colouring therefore, could offer the observer a glimpse of the brighter world of salvation. In the world of 3D games and film, colour is also central to creating an alternative world, where the nature of unreality is fine tuned with hue, shadow and light. Although the worlds of contemporary mass entertainment are not sacred, the promise to escape into them surely is.

Hell is a Brown Basement
Early Renaissance art in Italy was characterised by pure colours, mixed only with white (known as the Cennini system). Gold leaf was commonly used to depict heavenly background areas.

600 years later, the first 3D game art was also characterised by bright pure colours on a (very dull) gold background, in the form of Wolfenstein 3D (1992).

In a world defined by a 16 colour palette and limited textural rendering, going bright and un-shadowed was not only sensible, but necessary. In this sense the early game designers faced similar limitations to their early Italian craftsmen equivalents who had to create interesting colour compositions from very limited colour palettes - where mixing colours went against the vogue for pure pigments:
...the medieval tradition…had condemned ‘corrupted’ colour (mixed or broken) precisely because it was less brilliant. 2

Of course, the early 3D games typically depicted hell rather than heaven, with grungy brown walls providing a backdrop onto which colours explode.

This ‘basement’ style continued to suit the cavernous interior worlds of the first blockbuster 3D game titles including Doom and Quake. Here, developers grappled with challenges such as complex polygonal surface rendering, smooth motion, and on-the-fly re-scaling bearing in mind the limited processing power of home computers in the 90s.

Superbright Worlds
Game artists emerged from the basement and into a superbright world with RenderWare titles from 1998. RenderWare is a 3D graphics rendering engine which is behind more than 200 game titles across multi-platforms including PC, Playstation, Nintendo, and Xbox. One of the important features of RenderWare is its ability to handle large complex environments – so games emerged from walled basements and onto mountains, racetracks, and urban terrains.

Initially the worlds were brilliantly coloured, not attempting to be photo-realistic, as that would have been futile. But the artists and developers gained an understanding of light effects under different circumstances so that the real world was reflected in these games, if not recreated in a pixel perfect sense.

The effect of this colourful flourishing for me is reminiscent of the later Cennini style of painting, where a growing awareness of volume and depth emerges within an aesthetic of unreality. Painters broke out of gold leaf backgrounds and increasingly used landscape settings. The sacred world was edging closer to reality on earth.

A brilliant Cennini colour style can also be found in contemporary games, especially where childhood nostalgia, toys, or simplified geometrics play a role. More subtly, this style can also evoke nostalgia for an earlier era in games.

Towards Greater Realism
The Italians began to think more about realistic colour as knowledge of Flemish oil techniques became more known. Flemish artists were early masters of ambient light and surface detail. Leon Battista Alberti, in his 1435 treatise, Della Pittura, recommended trying out realistically dark shadows rather than the artificially pigmented approach of the Cennini style. This, in conjunction with perspective and an interest in natural light, signalled greater realism in Italian painting.

In the game world, physics drove environmental realism with particle system effects such as water spray, fog, and dust. Memory and rendering power increased every year, enabling more detailed surface textures. Games rapidly became ever more photo realistic. By 2004, CryEngine emerged as a game engine with pixel shading capabilities. Pixel shading "gives artists and developers the ability to create per-pixel effects that mirror their creative vision".3 Crysis (2007), a game set in a lush waterlogged jungle, was stunningly 'real', almost photographic.

Creative Colour Modes
Having achieved photo-realism, where do artists go? Of course there is still much to be achieved in terms of natural character movement and expression. But in terms of colour, photo-realism is far from all pervasive as game artists mature into the medium.

This stage can be compared to the High Renaissance in Rome, when artists began experimenting with individual responses to the synthesis of realism and sacred subjects. Modes of colour emerged – specifically Leonardo’s sfumato, Michelangelo’s cangiantismo, Raphael’s unione, and later chiaroscuro. None of these modes was an attempt to capture reality as such, but more an attempt to distill an individual aesthetic. Patrons would seek out artists who would deliver to them the mood they sought.

These modes influenced the subsequent direction of western painting, and continue to be etched on our visual sensibilities whether we realise it or not. It is fascinating to survey the incredibly varied and sophisticated landscape of contemporary game graphics and find incarnations of Renaissance colour modes. It may seem unlikely, but due to the similarity in visual aim of Renaissance painting and games (reality, but more fantastical) it isn’t hard to find these colour modes in action.

Leonardo da Vinci’s sfumato mode is particularly suitable for moody game worlds. Leonardo once wrote that "light and shade should blend without lines or borders in the manner of smoke".4 He therefore decided that the best time to paint was just before sunset for the most subtle and delicate lighting.5 He used dark hues including black to achieve realistic shadows in keeping with Alberti’s treatise but avoids strong contrasts and dramatic spotlights.

This style works well in urban as well as natural settings. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (2007), Shadow of the Colossus (2005), and the Myst series are sfumato worlds featuring natural settings.

The Assassins Creed series features historical cityscapes in beautiful sfumato, most notably, Leonardo’s Florence, and on Nov 15 2011, Istanbul.

Chiaroscuro - translated as 'clear and dark' and coming to mean 'light and shadow' - follows Leonardo’s tradition of a shadowy manner but amplifies light contrasts for dramatic effect. Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo and Fra Bartolommeo, inspired by Leonardo’s results, experimented with chiaroscuro in their night time scenes, retaining the brilliant colour so valued in Renaissance Italy.

This style more than the others, went on to influence the next several centuries of painting in Europe, notably Rubens and Rembrandt in the North and Tintoretto and Caravaggio in Italy.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption features bright phosphorescent colours illuminating the dark sets, which are reminiscent of Sebastiano and Raphael’s High Renaissance schemes.

Meanwhile Mafia II (2010), Lucius (2011), and LA Noire (2011) follow the more earthy chiaroscuro of Caravaggio.

Michelangelo went completely against Alberti’s advice to darken shadows to enhance realism. He radically chose to instead revive the cangiante technique of earlier painters (in the Cennini style) and use vivid contrasting colours for shadow areas instead. Michelangelo took it further than earlier painters – who tended to use cangiante sparingly, often to colour angels. He went large with the technique on the Sistine chapel ceiling, using colour contrasts schematically, not just ornamentally. This revival of cangiante, called cangiantismo, was a rippling sea of colour - rigorously ordered, and beautifully unreal.

In games, it can be found in fairy tale worlds such as Naruto Shippuden: Clash of Ninja Revolution 3 (2009), King’s Bounty: The Legend (2008), and Eternal Sonata (2007).

In Alice, Madness Returns (2011) the water lilies are cangiante coloured for hallucinatory effect.

Unione was Raphael’s melding of soft sfumato shadows with the bright colours of Michelangelo. Unione is characterised by balanced colour compositions, gentle gradient shading, and a bright overall impact.

A wonderful demonstration of Raphael's gradations of colour is featured in the video below, excerpted from Renaissance Revolution, a 2010 BBC documentary presented by Matthew Collings. 6

Games in this mode include The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, particularly Grand Theft Auto III (2001).

Games in unione mode seem less common than those in other Renaissance colour modes - possibly as the bright and softly shadowed atmosphere goes against the mystery and danger inherent in so many titles. The unione colouring of Grand Theft Auto III is ironically soft and bright, considering its content. In this sense the GTA artists have perhaps more in common with the later mannerists than Raphael, but that is a whole other topic.

This survey of game colour modes is only a tiny sampling of the artistry that can be found in the games industry. Although the use of Renaissance colour modes in games isn’t necessarily deliberate, their reincarnation is still interesting to contemplate. Perhaps contemporary gamers have more in common with sacred art audiences of 600 years ago than we might imagine. Colour now, as in Renaissance Italy, artfully fuels an essential escape to alternative states of mind.

1. Edgerton, SY. The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe. [Author Review] Nexus Network Journal. Vol. 12, No. 1, 2010: 150. link

2. Hall, MB. Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting. Cambridge University Press (1992), p. 15.

3. Pixel Shaders: A Facet of the nfiniteFX Engine. link

4. Mysterious Virgin: Light and Shade. The National Gallery London link

5. Hall. op. cit. p.119.

6. Collings, M. Renaissance Revolution: Raphael. BBC. October 2010 (documentary) link

Alberti, Leon Battista. Della Pittura.  [Spencer, JR. Trans]. Yale University Press. 1970 link

Doom to Dunia: A Visual History of 3D Game Engines link

Moby Games link

Glennis McGregor is a painter and digital design professional working in London, UK, and is an associate member of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Her blog, Renaissance for Real, explores the parallel movements of contemporary 3D art with Renaissance painting. The idea for this blog came to her on the way home from watching Up 3D, the visual experience of which felt somehow akin to the dazzling unveiling of a van Eyck altarpiece to Ghent church goers of the early 1400s.

Related colour mode posts on Renaissance for Real include:
Cennini and the Superbrights link
Leonardo’s Sfumato link
Michelangelo’s Cangiantismo link
Raphael’s Unione link


Lauren said...

This was a great read, thank you for posting. Now I am thinking about all my favorite games and which historical style they represent!

Sedef said...

Amazing post. I love the way you formed such a coherent correlation between two distinctly 'different worlds.'

You also made me better understand the awe I feel when watching an animation movie. I have to take a closer look at my son's games now. (boy, will they be surprised)After reading this post I realize I have to get beyond the subject matter in gaming as I had to with 15th century Renaissance painting to see the artistry and the magnificence.

I would love to read a followup regarding the gamers' Mannerist approach.

Thanks Glennis for broadening my horizons and H. Niyazi for exposing the conspicuous implication of the arts in our daily lives.


Glennis said...

Thanks so much for your thoughts. I love the idea of you taking a sudden and inexplicable interest in your son's games :)


Unknown said...

Hi Glennis! Thx for this amazing guest post! I'm curious to ask - what style would you ascribe to Rockstar games' Red Dead Redemption? The way the landscapes are rendered, in bright locations such as Mexico etc are more reminiscent of Raphael's unione, yet in indoor scenes esepcially, there are definitely elements of sfumato.

Like LA Noire and the Assassin's Creed series, RDR is definitely one of the more visually stunning games ever made. The work that went into rendering the horses in an anatomically correct way was phenonemal. There was a great piece on this at gamespot:

Breaking in the digital horses of Red Dead Redemption

Kind Regards - and keep up the ground-breaking work!


Glennis said...

What a great game to contemplate. Having grown up on the Canadian prairies I'm struck by the nostalgic realism of the daylight scenes in Red Dead Redemption. (Living in London I'm do get nostalgic for that blazing sun.)

I agree that the indoor scenes and dusk scenes appear sfumato in their colouring. There is a really magical scene at the end of this
YouTube clip at the 9 minute mark where the sun is low in the sky and a reddish light creates a lovely warm sfumato feel.

The bright scenes lack the saturated colour hues of Raphael's unione, although the soft tonal shading is unione in spirit. Perhaps I might describe it as a sepia-unione hybrid. Like many films, colour modes alternate between scenes, and I've noticed that sfumato and unione are natural companions.

Unknown said...

Cheers Glennis!

I'm also fond of the landscapes in Alan Wake - which was built on an in-house engine. I also like how modern games also allow cinematic 'film grain' to be switched on and off - which I experienced mainly in Mass Effect, built on the Unreal3 Engine. Speaking of game engines, I hear id Software, whom you mentioned above - are about to open source the Doom3 engine, which great news for community developers and those looking to showcase their skills with future employment prospects in mind.


Margaret said...

Such a fascinating guest post! The author's approach to digital art is exciting and fresh. One of the things I found most disappointing in grad school was the lack of contemporary comparative studies like this one. I'm afraid it may take a while for this to catch on in the academy, but hopefully it can't take much longer with work like this being done.

Alberti's Window said...

What an interesting post! I like the comparisons that you made! I know very little about gaming, so it was especially interesting to see this perspective. The interest in color schemes is very comparable. In in a very basic sense, we perhaps we could say that we have simply replaced our paintbrushes with pixels?

I know very little about the creation process for digital art. Is there anything that is comparable to the preparatory "ground" layer that is applied by painters?

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Margaret - I'm sure they are in the minoroty, but there are some art historians who have contemplated it - the late Donald Kuspit was one of these. I quoted some of his work in my interview with digital artist Gilles Beloeil.

@Alberti's Window - digital techniques have their own methodology, though there is alot of variance depending on what the project is and which tools are being used.

Some try to recreate the experience of using real media, others augment or manipulate photographs and use software to assist with architecture and lighting effects etc.

You can get a nice inkling of how some digital painters work by watching the captures of projects on places like YouTube. Here's a nice one of an artist recreating Vermeer's 'Astronomer' > link

Kind Regards

Glennis said...

Thanks for reading and commenting!

@Alberti's Window
One thing I've learned from painting & designing is that colour behaves really differently in the material and digital worlds.

The digital screen has a natural luminosity, and translucent effects are achieved with a lot more ease than real paint (and the layers don't dry).

Also light can be projected onto digital surfaces, especially 3D, whereas in a painting, all the light effects must be hard boiled into the paint layers, making the ground a lot more crucial.

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