Down the color wheel with Merrigo
Oh my, I’m very late with this. It’s been exactly two years since the last artist feature in the mag. The blog has seen a few in the meantime, but it’s about time for another longer look at an artist’s work.
I had a short chat with Amanda a.k.a. Merrigo about this article in July … 2016. So yeah, very late. But we’ll make the best of it. We’ll make it into a learning experience. Amanda’s work is just perfect to talk about color schemes.
Amanda is a graphic designer by day, pixel artist by night—or some permutation of the two. She’s a bit of a mystery, a magical presence that we can interpret only through fleeting moments captured in her artworks and punctuationless, lowercase/UPPERCASE sentences that never needed the 280-character upgrade on Twitter. To be fair, her 2017 tweets have sentence case and a period here and there. She doesn’t title her works though, so I’ll use her one-liners as captions under the artworks.
Our journey down the color wheel starts on the cool, blue side of the spectrum, staring out the windows. But is it? Is it so blue? Here’s the full palette of 20 colors Amanda used:
Indeed a lot of shades of blue, but also hints of pink and tan. If we narrow it down to five representative hues and shades, we could come up with these:
Every color tutorial on earth (and kindergarten color mixing class) talks about the color wheel, so I’ll assume you understand the basics by now. You know that orange is complementary to blue because it sits on the opposite side of the wheel. Together they create contrast (hue-wise) and as such introduce an important compositional element into the picture.
Without spending a whole article talking about composition, let’s just say it’s much less about cookie-cutter templates like the rule of thirds, and much more about contrasts. Contrasts of shapes, sizes, values, and yes, colors.
Let’s look again.
The complementary bright, warm, orange windows stand out from the dark, cold, blue skyscrapers. Your eyes jump from the building up close, to the big skyscraper in the back, to the flowers on the shelf, and back to the windows. It’s a dynamic dance between the bright spots that hold your gaze before jumping to another spot.
Contrast this with the sky in the image. If we try to ignore the buildings and just look into the distance, we’ll find our eyes slowly drifting in random directions over the clouds. Light blues and pinks create a smooth gradient on which our eyes slide like butter. Even though the hues do a 90 degree turn (from blue to pink), all the shades are light and muted (unsaturated), placing them closely together in our color chart.
Merrigo has plenty of works with the sky done this way.
I’ve included the value histograms (technically lightness) so you can see that the shades barely occupy any part of the full 0–255 range.
OK, that’s as sciency as we’ll get, lest we forget to enjoy the artworks themselves. The point is, contrasts create tension and focal points …
… while colors closer together—even complementary hues—create peace.
Similar colors are like a soft pillow for our eyes to rest on. Our gaze slowly drifts around, like a feather falling gently from the sky, rocking left and right. Like clouds, floating in the … You get it.
From blues and yellows, we’ve now come to purples and oranges, closing the gap between the hues. There’s no more jumping over the center of the color wheel, we’re now firmly on a single side—even less, on a slice one sixth at most.
These are not complementary colors anymore. Instead, a color scheme that lives inside a narrow range of hues is said to be analogous. And boy is Merrigo the master of analogous.
From warm to cool, from day to night, it’s hard not to lose yourself in Merrigo’s landscapes, moments, vignettes, triptychs. It’s all so peaceful, you want to stay there forever.
At this point we can’t even put an argument for an analogous scheme anymore. We’re right down in monochromatic territory.
Monochromatic doesn’t necessarily mean black and white, it just means single color—any color. The hue sets the mood, but it provides little to no contrast. It’s all down to values.
Amanda wasn’t (and isn’t) always so softly calm in her color choices though. Especially her earlier works had saturation to spare and values spanning the full range.
From monochromatic …
… and analogous …
… to complementary.
This last color scheme is more than complementary—it’s double complementary! Because of its four end points it’s called tetradic.
It’s quite violent, don’t you think? The red–green combination is represented just as prominently as the blue–yellow. There’s quite a fight going on for who will dominate the image.
From one of her oldest works, to one from just a month ago, Amanda isn’t afraid to mix the colors up sometimes.
The span goes even wider here.
The green and red are in control, but not so much that the yellow wouldn’t have its say. Even the blue is dominant in the windows and further present along the whole image center. It gives the image energy and you can just feel the flowers urging to spread around the house (I might be reading too much into this).
One way to calm the colors down is by having one of the complementary pairs take over control.
In this image, the second complementary axis is still there (orange–blue), but it exists in such a low amount that it provides just a spark of playfulness instead of a cry for attention.
This is the rectangle variation of the tetradic color scheme. It doesn’t need to be so insignificant though. Let’s look at an example, where the second axis covers more space.
The main dominance here lies between blue on the edges of the image (top of the sky and window frames) and yellow in the center (comprising most of the sky).
A perpendicular complementary axis would go from green to red. Instead, what appears to be green in the image (flower pots and right side of window frames) is actually in the cyan range (not really green). Similarly, in place of reds we have pinks and oranges.
A rectangle again.
Just like we can cover four ends of the spectrum with tetradic colors, we can settle down to three, bringing us to triadic color schemes.
Merrigo is literally serving us a study here, with a 5-color palette of primaries (yellow, red, two blues) and a pure grey that sits between them all.
Note that the grey appears quite warm since—in this combination—it’s closer to desaturated red and yellow than the vibrant blues.
A more subdued variation exists between triadic and complementary colors, called accented analogous.
Here, the dominant range of analogous blues and greens gets balanced with a small, but striking amount of color from the opposite side (orange/yellow).
One more thing I want to mention regarding color schemes is that the change in hues can also correlate with change in values.
From darkness in the blue range, we slowly make our way over reds in the midtones to the brightest yellow.
This is a very conscious technique known as hue shifting, another constant in tutorials on colors. It captures the interaction of multiple light sources, each with their own hue (color of the light itself a.k.a. its wavelength—or range of wavelengths—in the visible color spectrum). The most prominent example is daylight itself, where shadows appear dark and cool, and the bright sides are warm. This is because blue wavelengths bend through the atmosphere and tint the shadows, while warmer-color light particles hit objects in a direct line of sight. In other words, we have ambient blue sky light (radiating from all angles) and directional yellow sunlight.
Merrigo infuses some artistic freedom into this to produce interesting color combinations. From orange–green …
… to orange–purple, yellow–green, and pink–blue …
… all the way to little magical bubbles (green fireflies?) that produce analogous shades in vicinity of teal.
As you can see, not everything Amanda does is draw sunsets. She’s also a regular at Anime Expo in Los Angeles (a.k.a. AX), preparing cute stickers, prints, and booklets of her works.
She’s just as good at drawing creatures and characters as she is with her landscapes.
It’s the last post of the year, so I’ll make the outro short. Happy 2018, don’t drink too much, make all your dreams come true!
This article was brought to you by patrons including Reuben Thiessen, Qinapses, Magnus Adamsson, Jeff Chang, … (dot dot dot), CarbonBond, Robert ‘Pande’ Kapfenberger, and Lou Bagel. Thanks, patrons!