Illumination and Color Theory

Vikontessa Tatiana Nikolaevna Tumanova, OL


The key to good illumination involves the use of color as a structural part of your design. A good drawing can be ruined by a poor choice in colors, while a so-so design can be enhanced and made even better by the careful consideration and use of appropriate color.

There are three primary colors in the spectrum and these are red, blue, and yellow. Any other color can (in theory) be made by mixing these colors together. By mixing any two of the primary colors together you arrive at the secondary colors and these are orange, green, and purple. This gives us the major colors of the spectrum, and arranged in a circle (a color wheel), they run clockwise starting at the top: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple.

It's important to understand how a color wheel works if you have any intention of shading with color to give your illumination a three-dimensional look. The primary colors are scattered around the color wheel with the secondary colors inserted between them. If you draw a line from each primary color to the color just opposite it on the wheel, you will see red-green, yellow-purple, blue-orange. These are complimentary pairs, and each color has an opposite, or complement.

Using the Colour Wheel

All within a third. All the colours within a third of the wheel (that any 4 adjacent colours in our wheel) will work well together in harmony.

Separated by a third. Any 3 colours spaced equally around the wheel work well although - it is best to have one as a dominant colour with the other two being used to 'setoff' the effect. Such a colour scheme can give an exciting effect.

Two across. Any two colours across the wheel are complementary. With one colour used as the dominant scheme, the other colour will 'set off' the effect.

(Figures from

To give an object a three-dimensional feel, you must give a sense of nearness to those portions of the object nearest the viewer and distance to those portions which are farthest from the viewer. For any rounded object, the middle of it will always be closest and the edges will be farthest away. The rules for shading (using darks and lights to give depth) are that the farther away it is from your eye, the darker and less intense the color will be. The closer it is, the lighter and more intense the color is. Those portions of an object which are turned to the light will be the lightest, and those portions of an object which are in shadow will be darkest.

So how does one make a color lighter or darker and so give a sense of depth? By now you've probably discovered that you can make a color lighter by adding white to it. It therefore follows that by adding black to a color, that color will get darker. This is so, but you will find that this yields less than perfect results. Adding black to a color certainly makes it darker, but it also causes the color to lose its value (like blue's sense of blueness) and starts becoming muddy and murky -- some times it turns into another color altogether (adding black to yellow doesn't give you dark yellow; it gives you an olive green color). The secret in darkening colors without changing their value lies in the proper use of a color wheel.

You darken a color by mixing it with its complement. For example, yellow can be made darker by adding a little purple to it. To make it a little bit dark, add a little bit of purpled; to make it a lot darker, add a lot more purple. This works both ways: to darken purple, add yellow. And so on with the other colors.

The first step in shading with color is choosing the light source: i.e., from which direction is the light falling on the object you're painting? Once you've decided which will be the dark side and which will be the light, remain consistent. Step two: paint whatever it is -- let's say , a yellow heraldic lion -- with the color as it comes out of the tube (yellow, medium (see footnote)), or whatever shade is the 'base' color that you've decided on. I recommend you use a plastic palette with little round depressions to hold your paint. Put yellow straight out of the tube in one holder, put straight purple into another, and plain white into the third. Put more straight yellow into another holder and add a dab of purple (don't try to add light colors to dark ones or you'll end up with enough paint to cover your entire scroll -- always start with the light color) and mix. Put white into another holder and add some yellow to it. Now you should have dark yellow, plain yellow, and light yellow. Use the dark yellow to paint all the around the edges of the lion and to mark the interior details, using thick strokes for the shadowed places (the undersides of arms and legs, chin, the curve of the tail and the claws), and thin strokes in the lighter areas (upper surfaces of limbs, the head, the upper side over the curve of tail and claws). Take the light yellow and go over all those areas which normally would catch the light, away from the dark edges.

Where an object overlaps another object, a shadow will be cast; this is usually the case with flaps of mantling on the achievement. Where a piece of green mantling overlaps a piece of yellow mantling, place a thick line of dark yellow next to the junction to indicate a shadow is being thrown onto the yellow, and where the green mantling is shadowed place a thick line of dark green (green + a little red) along the edge.

The more shades of a color that you use, the greater the feeling of depth and the greater the illusion caused by the eye blending the different shades of color together. I often make up four shades of a color in addition to the plain color as it is straight out of the tube, it's complement, and white. Some details may require mixing up a dab of really dark paint to emphasize the deep dark shadows under the curve of the ear, a nostril, or the line where a joint bends.

Plan your scroll to include the signatures at the bottom and space for the seals and make sure to mark just where they're supposed to go, either with pen, an enclosing design, or pencil.

West Kingdom scrolls are always sealed with red sealing compound, therefore try to include a little red in your illumination. Too much bright red at the bottom of your scroll will make it appear bottom-heavy, the seals something just randomly stuck down there and not a part of the whole. By scattering some read throughout the scroll, it gathers the drifting elements of the arms, the illuminated Capital, any border work or designs, and the seals together in to a single working unit.

When repeating a color throughout a scroll from top to bottom r from side to side helps to tie all of the elements together and keeps them from drifting about, lost in an expanse of white paper. If your color scheme does not allow the addition of red, try to surround the seals and the area for the signatures with the same sort of design you've used in the illuminated capital that starts the scroll.

A Note on Problem Colors

The two colors which give an artist the most trouble the first time around are red and flesh-tone. Unlike any other color, red will not turn light red if you add white to it -- red turns into another color entirely. It's called pink. Pink is a nice color but it isn't light red, and you need light red for shading. The way to get around this problem is to remember that some reds are redder than other reds. Go out and purchase a tube of Red, Light. This is a slightly orangish red, and when you add white to it, becomes a light orangish red, not pink! Put in your lightest shading using Red, Light. Gradually start adding Red, Medium to it as it grows darker (to prevent the entire object from looking red-orange instead of 'pure' red), and eventually switch over to Red, Medium. Done carefully, no one will ever notice that part of the object is a touch more orange than the rest of it.

Flesh tone can now be bought in tubes, but in my day you had to mix it. I would mix a large amount of pink (white and red) with a dab each of yellow and blue added, and some brown (burnt umber) thrown in. The dilemma arose when I tried to darken it. To darken a color you add its opposite, complementary color, and flesh tone has all three primary colors in it. How then to darken it? I won't go into how much paint I threw away trying to figure that one out. Another artist told me the trick: make flesh tone by mixing Orange, Medium and white together, and add a bit of burnt umber. To make it lighter, add more white; to make it darker, add more umber. At first this mixture will look too orangish to your eyes, but once you get it down on paper and start shading with it, you'll find that it looks just like regular flesh tone, and is much easier to deal with.


1. Tubes of paint are often distinguished as Light, Medium, or Deep; for example: Red, Light; Red, Medium; Red, Deep. Red, Light has some yellow in it and looks more orangish; Red, Deep has blue in it and looks more purplish; Red, Medium is that color exactly as it appears in the spectrum and is uncontaminated by any other color.


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Authored by Jehan, Giles, and Yseult AS XXXVIII (2003)