Unifying the Darks: How an Art Director Makes an Image Pop

 Cornelius Dämmrich - Mercury

Today, I’m picking on a talented German artist who works in 3DS Max.

His rendering’s crisp CG details draw me in, but then send my eyes to flit back and forth across the image in want of a strong focal point to stick to. Poor tonal organization=no focal point=weak visual punch. I respect the self restraint the artist displays with a limited palette, but he needs to organize, unify, and simplify these tonal shapes.

In a highly-complex image such as this, only focal points should have such severe light/dark contrast.

Violating this rule yields a too-busy image. That in mind, I spent 15 minutes retouching the image in Photoshop. (I’ll confess it’s rude of me to do this to a stranger’s work, but wait until you see the difference.) Notice how now the tones look correctly and coherently grouped, thereby uncluttering the image.


Your eye moves more gracefully around the retouched version.  I left some areas of high-contrast between light and shadow, but they’re selectively and strategically placed.  Master Illustrator Paul Felix explains:

All great illustrators and painters unify their darks and their lights (though I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone do this as well as Paul Felix!).  An art director is no different.  He or she is responsible for consolidating the tones of a composition and thereby guiding the viewer’s eye to the focal point(s).

How do you get this skill down?  The best way is probably to copy the masters as much as you can.  The masters are Paul Felix, as I mentioned already, and then Degas, Bierstadt, Annie Leibovitz, Rembrandt, Paul Strand . . . and so on.  Great painters, photographers, and illustrators have this skill down.  Filmmakers too.  Below is a frame from a beautifully shot movie.  Can you guess which one?  Hint: early 80s.

3-1 reference

There’s a well-mapped path for your eyes in this one because the director of photography tinkered with the lighting relentlessly to get this shot just right.

In the next example, Paul Felix unifies the dark passages across an image to simplify what might have been a busy, chaotic composition in in the hands of a less skillful artist.

Paul Felix - Art Direction
Paul Felix unifies the dark passages in this image to simplify what might have been a busy, chaotic composition in less-skillful hands

Start looking for successful and unsuccessful instances of consolidated values in the ads, photos, and movie stills you come across.  Look at Rembrandt’s Windmill.  It’s a masterful composition!  To be a masterful art director, illustrator, or photographer, you need to get this skill handled.

Further reading: Shape Welding by James Gurney



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