Contrast in art: Saturation

General / 30 April 2019

There are many ways to add contrast to a piece of art, such as value contrast, color contrast, contrast of shape, and many others. In this article, we'll discuss a way of adding contrast that's talked about less frequently: adding contrast through saturation.

For starters, lets take a look at this older piece I did in 2012:


My intention with this piece was to make it bright, colorful and upbeat. However, it doesn't work as well as intended due to the way I handled the saturation.

Notice that everything is super-saturated. The character's clothes are bright orange, his hair is bright orange, his skin is bright orange. Even the brown of his pouch and the tan color of his pants are very saturated!

When you make every part of your art saturated, you lose the opportunity to make any color in particular stand out. If you want to create something that looks colorful, you need to set bright colors against less saturated ones.
Key point to remember: if everything is saturated, then nothing is!

More recently, with the new incarnation of our game Nightstream (formerly Axon Runners), I had the opportunity to go back to this character and rework the textures with my current skill level. I was very excited to be able to apply what I have learned in the past few years!

Here's what it looks like now:


When reworking the character's color scheme, I first decided which colors I wanted to play up. I wanted to keep the orange of the shirt and boots as the main color. I also thought that the goggles and glows provided an opportunity for a nice color accent, so I decided to push the saturation even more and make them as neon-colored as possible! For everything else, I dramatically reduced the saturation.

To get started on the skin, I actually reduced the overall saturation to 50% of the old version! I originally made the skin a really bright peach, because I thought that reducing the saturation made the skin look dead.

This time around, I realized that skin is in fact quite desaturated in most areas; the life comes from the color zones of the face as well as subsurface scattering. So, I reintroduced some red color on the lips, cheeks and nose. I cooled down the face around the chin and jaw, to create a subtle five-o-clock shadow effect.

To simulate subsurface scattering, I painted thin strip of a saturated color sandwiched between the light and shadow areas on the face. I also pushed the saturation on the ears, to make them look almost glowing. In the end, getting the right look for skin comes down to understanding its subtle color variations, instead of making it one block of color as I had previously done.

The bright orange hair just had to go. I made it a much more natural strawberry blonde instead. The biggest problem with the orange hair was that there was just no opportunity for it to stand out against the shirt. Not to mention, no one's hair is that bright, even with hair dye!

In addition to the saturation changes, I also pushed on the value contrast between different areas. I made the dark brown parts much darker, so they stand out better against the other colors.

When deciding on a color scheme, consider all three elements of color: hue, value and saturation. You will want to make sure all of these elements are separated enough from each other. In my original piece, I thought I had a nice collection of matching hues. The problem was that they were all very close in saturation, and also too close in value in some areas.

Beyond the color changes, I also repainted all areas with improved structure, lighting and material definition. Reference is really your friend here! But that's a topic for another article.

Here's one last line-up of both versions, so you can check out the differences: