Understanding Color (Lights,Color,and Clarity: Preparing Your Titles) (Motion Graphic Titling) Part 1

Color and lighting are essential components to your titles. Choosing the correct color scheme and lighting setup will help you obtain the level of style you want, create the mood you seek, and provoke the desired emotional response from your title sequence. In this topic we explore the fundamentals of color theory and lighting and begin to explore some text styles you might want to use to increase the clarity of your titles.

Human beings recognize a visible spectrum of seven colors: red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue, and violet.

The visible spectrum is the portion of the optical electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye. The other portions, which are invisible to the eye, include radio waves, microwaves, terahertz waves, infrared, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays. Each of these waves carries unique ranges of wavelength, frequency, and energy. The wavelength of the light is measured in nanometers (nm) and affects the color perceived by the eye.

On one side of the spectrum is violet, with a lower wavelength value that presents a higher frequency; the wave cycles fast with a short distance between the wave’s peaks. On the opposite side is red, with a higher wavelength value and lower frequency.

We perceive color when light hits objects that surround our environment, and these objects absorb or subtract the unwanted wavelengths of the visible spectrum and bounce back only the ones that pertain to the surface of the object itself. For example, a red apple will reflect only the red wavelengths. The eye perceives these wavelengths and sends the message to the brain.

Other species recognize wavelengths outside the visible spectrum that humans see. For example, bees and insects can detect ultraviolet patterns on flowers, which help them find nectar.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1

It is important to understand which color you should be using in your titles and credits because we experience a psychological and emotional response to colors. When utilized appropriately, colors can evoke moods and emotions that enhance the meaning of the images, whether they are on a movie screen, a TV, or a computer monitor.

For centuries, artists have used the psychology of color to convey an emotional response and mood they wanted to evoke. Think of the use of color in the works of Van Gogh, Chagall, and Degas and the use of color and light in Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Whistler’s works.

Whether you use a color palette because of a personal like or dislike for other colors or with a particular color motivation in mind, you want to make sure that the color choices you make do not conflict with the message you are trying to convey. Or, if the medium and the message conflict, it should be an intentional choice. Understanding a bit of color history, the basics of color theory, and color symbolism will help you find a logical and dependable way to utilize color in your title sequences.

A Bit of History

Aristotle (384 B.C.-322B.C.)

In De Coloribus (translation: On Color), possibly attributable to Aristotle’s disciples, Aristotle theorizes that colors are derived from following natural phenomena: sunlight, firelight, air, and water. These four elements, mixed with darkness (black) and light (white), create color. Additionally, in the text On Sense and Sensibilia, written around 350 B.C., Aristotle identifies a linear sequence of color he deducted from observing the changes in the light during the course of a day, from white to yellow, orange, and red. After sunset, the light becomes purple, sometimes green, then dark blue and black. From his observations, he theorized a linear color system. This color theory was accepted for about 17 centuries.

Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472)

In De Pictura (On Painting, 1436), a treatise intended to define the rules of visual arts, Alberti states, “Through the mixing of colors infinite other colors are born, but there are only four true colors—as there are four elements—from which more and more other kinds of colors may be thus created. Red is the color of fire, blue of the air, green of the water, and of the earth gray and ash . . .Therefore there are four genera of colors, and these make their species according to the addition of dark and light, black or white." Alberti builds on Aristotle’s color theory with the exception of white and black, which are demoted to noncolors.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1529)

As a true Renaissance man, da Vinci investigated the topic of color. In his Trattato della Pittura (Treatise on Painting), published posthumously in 1651, he identifies six primary colors: white, yellow, green, blue, red and black. Each color had a direct physical manifestation of the natural world: white for light, yellow for earth, green for water, red for fire, blue for air, and black for night. He also wrote about what would later be referred to as simultaneous contrast: “Of different colors equally perfect, that will appear most excellent which is seen near its direct contrary blue near yellow, green near red: because each color is more distinctly seen when opposed to its contrary than to any other similar to it."

Isaac Newton (1642-1726)

Newton was the first person to analyze color and view it as a result of light hitting objects and reflecting colors that are perceived by our eyes. In 1666, he conducted the famous prism experiment in which he demonstrated how light is responsible for color. A prism, when placed next to a window and hit by the sunlight, casts a seven-color spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. In 1704, Newton published Opticks, a “treatise of the reflections, refractions, inflexions, and colours of light." Newton rearranged the linear color system into a circular one in which the circular color diagram shows the relationship between primary colors and secondary colors. White is in the center of the diagram, to signify that the sum of all colors results in white light.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Geothe, in addition to being an outstanding poet and novelist, wrote Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors) in 1810. He disagrees with Newton and theorizes that the way we see color is affected not only by the light and the object but also by our perception. Color has “sensual qualities within the content of consciousness," he says. Goethe clearly moved beyond Newton’s study of color as physical matter and entered the realm of psychology. He developed a symmetric six-color wheel in which he arranged the colors on a circle to support his color theory. He divided colors into two main categories. The plus-side colors (yellow, orange, red) provoke warm, exciting, lively, and comfortable feelings, whereas the minus-side colors (green, blue, violet) provoke unsettling, weak, and cold feelings. Goethe also furthered the study of complementary contrasts.

Michel Chevreul (1786-1889)

Chevreul furthered the knowledge of color theory by advancing the concepts of simultaneous contrast, the optical illusion that appears to darken or lighten the hues of two bold colors placed in close proximity of each other, and optical mixing, the blending of two colors to create a third one.

Symbolism and the Psychology of Color

Color influences our mood and even the way we taste food. Color is deeply rooted in cultural, political, and sociological connotations. These associations are constantly changing throughout cultures, years, and generations.

One common emotional response, originally theorized by Goethe, is provoked by cool or warm colors. Cool colors are the ones close to the green/purple spectrum and evoke distance and coldness. Warm colors, on the other hand, are the ones close to the yellow/red spectrum and evoke urgency, action, and closeness.

Cool colors tend to recede in the background of a screen or Web page, whereas warm colors tend to pop to the front.

Table 4.1 Color’s Emotional Response and Screen Depth

Cool Colors (Purple/Green)

Warm Colors (Yellow/Red)

Emotional response

Coldness, distance

Action, urgency, closeness

Screen depth


Jump forward

When deciding the color palette for your title sequence, cultural connotations are another factor. Certain colors can acquire a particular significance, depending on the cultural background and codex. Red, for example, is often interpreted as danger, as exemplified by stop signs.

The following are some of the scientific, symbolic, and emotional connotations to keep in mind while you work with color:

•    Color affects our mood. In a study conducted by Shashi Caan Collective, called Spatial Color—Live Experiment, color affected physical activity. The Collective built three identical but differently colored rooms and held a cocktail party in each one. In the red and yellow rooms, people were dynamically interacting, gesturing, and moving around. In the blue room there was little social interaction and the people were more still and calm.

•    Color has cultural and sociological connotations.

•    White is associated with mourning in Japan.

•    Red signifies good luck in China but mourning in South Africa.

•    Black is associated with mourning in Western countries but signifies honor in Japan.

•    Purple is associated with mourning in Thailand but signifies royalty in Europe.

•    Color has political connotations.

•    Red: Labor, left wing, communism, socialism

•    Green: Green Party

•    White: Pacifism, surrender

•    Black: Anarchism

•    Color has a religious connotation.

•    Blue: Hinduism

•    Green: Islam

•    Color can influence other senses. A survey conducted by researchers at the Institute of Psychology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany found that colored lighting has an influence on how we taste wine. Wine that was drunk in an ambiance illuminated by red or blue lighting received a higher taste rating than the same wine which was drunk in an ambiance illuminated by green or white lights.

•    Color palettes can evoke places, memories, and personal associations. Think of colors that evoke a particular childhood memory, season, or place where you spent time. Memory can influence the perception of color; studies indicate that we recall colors as more saturated than they actually were, as though we replaced the original memory of the image with something different. These memory colors do not affect our perception of reality, but they do affect our color preferences. In research published by the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Karl Gegenfurtner stated, “It appears as if our memory system is tuned to the color structure found in the world. If stimuli are too strange, the system simply doesn’t engage as well, or deems them unimportant." Co-author Felix Wichmann said, “In order to engage or grab one’s attention, bright colors might well be most suitable . . . If, on the other hand, the aim is more to have an image stick in the viewer’s memory, unnatural colors may not be suitable." Based on these studies, while you are working on your title sequence, if you wish to make a particular element endure in the audience’s memory, you could try to enhance it with color (for example, the lipstick’s vivid red in the True Blood title sequence).

•    Color as therapy. In chromotherapy, an alternative medical treatment, color and light exposure is used to heal and restore a physical or emotional imbalance.

•    Color preference is affected by culture and geographical location. In the topic Eidetic Imagery, E. R. Jaensch explains that human beings living in hot climates have to adapt to the long waves of light because of the increased amount of sunlight, which could create a different pigmentation in the retina. People affected in this way are referred to as red-sighted and their color preference is warm, vivid hues. On the other hand, green-sighted people have adapted to a shorter amount of sunlight and have developed a preference for blues and greens. Another study, conducted by Marc H. Bornstein, resulted in evidence that people living closer to the Equator do not distinguish blue from green.

•    Color preference is affected by age. In the topic Color Psychology and Color Therapy, color expert and industry consultant Faber Birren states that yellow is the color of preference for children, but their preference for it declines as they grow into adulthood, at which point blue becomes more popular. He says, “With maturity comes a greater liking for hues of shorter wave length (blue, green) than for hues of longer wave length (red, orange, and yellow)."

Take a glance at the following table to see some of the most common emotional, political, and cultural connotations generally associated with colors. Keep in mind that these associations are only a starting point; before you embark on a project you should do research to ensure that you have the most up-to-date information on what colors represent to changing attitudes, generations, and cultures.

For example, even though white has traditionally been associated with mourning in China, brides have started to wear white gowns in addition to traditional red dresses, mimicking Western brides. Or consider the use of violet in Thai Airways’ branding. Even though the color violet is culturally associated with mourning in Thailand, the airline’s decision to use violet in its branding is most likely dictated by the fact that the target audience for Thai Airways is foreigners who often associate the color purple with luxury.

Table 4.2 Common Emotional and Cultural Color Connotations


Possible Psychological Responses

Possible Cultural Connotations

Possible Physiological Responses

Warm colors (preferred by younger audiences)


Violence, war, aggression, heat, love, excitement, passion, danger (Western cultures)

Celebration and fortune (China, North Africa), purity (Japan), integrity and purity (India), mourning (South Africa)

Raised heartbeat, increased adrenaline, increased blood pressure, raised temperature; orange and


Warmth, light, happiness, nostalgia, energy, enthusiasm

Royalty (Netherlands), Protestantism (Ireland), Hinduism

yellow have similar but less intensive effects than red


Warmth, joy, happiness, excitement, irritation, optimism, wealth

Mourning (Egypt), courage (Japan), royalty (China)

Cool colors (preferred by older audiences)


Coldness, coolness, calmness, sadness, somber, clinical, scientific

Slower heartbeat, decreased temperature, relaxed muscles


Calmness, quietness, coolness, envy, growth

Rebirth and fertility (Celtic myths), sacred (Islam), environmentalism, capitalism


Intrigue, luxury, darkness, power

Royalty (United Kingdom, Medieval Europe), mourning (Thailand), clergy (Western churches)

Color Systems

Now that you’ve learned about color’s history and cultural and psychological connotations, let’s dig into the nuts and bolts of color theory.

A number of color systems are used today; most can be found in common computer applications. The most common color systems are:

•    RGB. An additive color system that applies to devices using light, such as computer monitors, TV sets, and digital projections. The concept behind RGB is that its primary colors (R = red, G = green, B = blue), when combined, create all other hues. An equal amount of red, green, and blue creates a white light.

•    RYB. A color subtractive color system most commonly used in visual arts. Its primary colors are red, yellow, and blue, and its secondary colors are VOG—violet, orange and green.

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