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.


Continue reading “Unifying the Darks: How an Art Director Makes an Image Pop”


How Does Music Affect Your Creative Output?

“The purpose of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a new reality of equal or greater impact” -Duane Loose

I remember watching a package designer lay out sans serif type and bold, clean geometric patterns while he listened to Zero 7 and M83. He told me that to master the modern style, he had to work exclusively in that style and explore all its nuances. He’d won dozens of awards.


I wondered as I watched: how much credit does this music get for his creative output? What happens when The Shins or Suicide Machines or Mozart replaces the ethereal electronica on his playlist? Would the tempo change disrupt his flow, or could it even steer his creative output in a new direction?

Stephen King blares Judas Priest and Black Sabbath as he writes second and third drafts. Would the tone of his prose shift if he listened to slow, haunting music or to polka? I really want the answer to be yes, but I understand that coincidence does not imply causality. Steven King’s taste in prose may complement his taste in music, but Continue reading “How Does Music Affect Your Creative Output?”

How Does Music Affect Your Creative Output?

5 Package Design Lessons Learned

Here are 5 package design lessons I’ve learned this past month from my outstanding creative director:

  1. Simplify . . . Don’t over-design!
  2. Completely understand the visual vocabulary of the brand before you dive into designing.  Brand strength comes from brand consistency.
  3. As a designer, strive for a consistent style of your own.  A jack-of-all-trades designer with a wide stylistic variety in his portfolio will be less sought after by high-quality clients than a specialist who hones in on a distinctive style and masters the nuances of that style.  When you look at Robert’s work, you see that he maintains a stylistic consistency even while adapting his style to very different brands (e.g., Pureology vs Redken).
  4. Use your packaging to engage customers emotionally, not intellectually.  That means design objects of beauty, not objects that require pages and pages of justification.
  5. In addition to being beautiful, a well-designed package is highly legible.  Never make consumers work to discern what’s inside the package.

My creative director specializes in 360° branding in the beauty and health industry.  He’s one of the very best at what he does, and it’s been a privilege to work alongside him.

5 Package Design Lessons Learned

Finding new shapes

Here’s an exercise to get an artist past his or her familiar go-to vocabulary of shapes.  Paint a silhouette of a shape.  Then duplicate the shape a number of times, reflecting, rotating, and distorting it in the process.

I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t use this method to build patterns for package design or GD.  The shapes below all pertain to environment design, but have a look at the results:

Finding new shapes

Mixing skin tones: Colors, mediums, and techniques

June 2012

This is a girl I know very well.  She has beautiful skin.

I narrowed my usual range of colors to paint the skin tones on this one.  Cut alizarin crimson and the usual ultramarine, cobalt, and cerulean blues from the lineup.  I cut even the cadmium red.

So I built the whole face with only white plus 4 colors: Yellow Ochre, Venetian Red, Raw Umber, and Viridian.  Of these, I used Viridian the most (it’s a weak mixing color).  I mixed dozens of colors with these, all with a generous heap of Galkyd added.

My best advice is to cut any out-of-the-tube colors from your palette.  Just get rid of them!  Make it a rule.  In fact, you’d do well not to even use umbers or siennas, because you can mix your own umbers and siennas and they’ll be richer and more under your control.  I use raw umber only when I’m mixing dark colors, and I use raw sienna only to make greens and blues earthier or warmer.

Also, if a color mixture has lots of white, keep it thick and opaque.  I probably used more Galkyd than I should have, but that was just to keep the brushstrokes clean.  Another solution for getting clean, smooth, dynamic brushstrokes is to lay down a wet layer of Galkyd + stand oil + turpentine and then paint atop that layer with thick paint (no turp, no medium).  Definitely try this technique if you’ve never done it before.


Also see Part I of this series on portrait painting techniques.

Mixing skin tones: Colors, mediums, and techniques

Color and Cinema: On Picasso, Ridley Scott, John Carter, and Charlie’s Chocolate Factory

As Picasso painted in his studio in rural France, a thief approached. The thief did not know that Picasso was home, so when he smashed through the windowpane, Picasso startled him.  The thief lunged forward, grabbed two small paintings, and sprinted into the woods.  Picasso had lost the thief, but not before getting a good look at him.  So Picasso went to the police to describe the thief.  “But you’re an artist,” the police chief said.  “Why don’t you show us what the thief looked like by drawing him?”  Picasso drew the thief and handed it to the police officer, who made an arrest the next day.  With the help of Picasso’s sketch, the police arrested a washing machine and the Eiffel Tower.

That was just a bit of fun.  Say what you want about Picasso, but he was brilliantly inventive not only with his visual translations of the world, but also with his use of color.  Picasso studied Paul “Color Sage” Cezanne for years, and I give Paul the lion’s share of credit for refining Picasso’s color sense.

Picasso – Saltimbanques

Outstanding color relationships fuel this picture.  Paul C would be proud.

By the way, if you actually try to apply these colors to your own painting, you’ll find it’s quite the challenge.  You have to get the ratios right, and that’s trickier than getting the swatches right.  You also have to worry  about which colors go next to each other.  Do you notice that the red figure is missing a leg.  That’s no mistake.  Picture first, meaning second.

If you like Picasso’s colors in Saltimbanques, then you’ll love Ridley Scott’s colors in Gladiator (2000).  Here are two frames from the movie:

You can see how Ridley Scott carefully engineers each color in a scene.  Had he directed the movie John Carter (2012), audiences would have enjoyed color palettes that were more effective, more pleasing, and more inspiring.  I assure you he would have never allowed the aliens with tusks to wear green skin.

John Carter fatigued the viewers with this kind of drab color, which is drab because the art department had to desaturate the color of the frame to play down the clashing green and tan.  Why not just change the green?  Or add yellow flags and black costumes to spice up the scene.

Ugly, ineffective color schemes also afflicted Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and not for lack of effort from the art department.  I could show you dozens of examples, and here is one.  The factory interior has an ugly candy-green grass that just didn’t work visually against the milk-chocolate brown.  Candy red mushrooms improve the situation, but the colors still should have been better:

For the green to work in this particular frame, it needs to occupy more than 75% of the scene or it needs to drop to under 5%.  If you can’t fill the frame with green, consider these alternate grass colors that harmonize with chocolate brown.

(Also, the lighting looks silly.  Might I suggest making the red mushrooms into lanterns that are the sole light sources in this room.)

How do you justify the choice of white grass over green grass to a supervising studio exec that doesn’t “get it?”  I see so many amazing, beautifully designed elements in the Chocolate Factory interior.  The problem was organizational–artists felt they had to provide wordy justifications for their color choices. Meanwhile, Ridley Scott would have let them get away with “The grass is red because . . . it looks good on the screen.”  Done!

I’ll leave you with one last showcase of color mastery.  Once again, this comes from our hero, Ridley Scott, who turns what could have been sword-and-sandals drabness into a visual treat using dazzling, remarkable, competent color.

Color and Cinema: On Picasso, Ridley Scott, John Carter, and Charlie’s Chocolate Factory