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Anime CGing Tutorial

Color Choice

1. Introduction to Color Choice

Before getting into detail on how to lay down the base colors, I'd like to discuss color choice. A lot of artists have problems with picking out appropriate colors -- lights, darks, and base colors - especially in the case of skin tones! This section should help with the problems associated with color choice. Color selection can be done in a variety of art programs but for the purpose of this section, I'll be using Photoshop.

2. Color Selection Tools

Color picker menu

To choose a color, double click on the Foreground/Background Color box on the Tool palette to bring up the Color Picker menu. Slide the bar up and down the color scale to find the appropriate color family, and then choose a dark or light value of that color. Alternatively, if you know the hexadecimal code, RGB, or CMYK number of the color you wish to select, you can plug that into the Color Picker menu to obtain your desired color.


This is my recommended range of colors on the Color Picker menu for general Caucasian skin tones that are used in the majority of anime artwork. I've boxed off the best areas to select colors from, ranging from pinker tones, to browner tones.

Eyedropper tool

If you're doing an image of a character that has already been created, just open up another image of the character and eyedrop the colors from that image. This way, you'll be using the exact same colors that were used on the other picture.

You could also try using the eyedropper tool to borrow skin colors from photos and other images until you get the hang of selecting your own colors with the Color Picker.

Her hair is eye dropped from a previously created image.

Colors perfectly match the colors in the original image, courtesy of our friend the magnificent eyedropper tool.

Depending on your version of Photoshop, the eyedropper tool may be placed in a slightly different position.

3. Skin Colors

The majority of anime style character's skin stays within the parameters I've set above in the Color Picker image, but depending on the race, gender, ethnicity, or species, etc) of your character, you might want to try experimenting outside that range.

Skin tone based on lighting

Keep in mind that lighting can greatly affect the colors on your character. Skin, and most other materials will generally take on the properties of the light hitting it. For example, if the character is under a green spotlight, their skin color will have a green hue. In the picture to the right, the girl has a green light shining on her, so the shadows and highlights of her skin and hair colors have a green hue.

Skin tone based on race, genes, or ethnicity.

The majority of anime artwork comes from Japan, which is a fairly homogeneous country. It goes without saying that it's unusual to see anyone of African, Hispanic, or even Caucasian descent portrayed in anime, because it would be unusual to see a these types of people walking around Japan. Due to this lack of exposure to diversity, and the difficulty presented in portraying ethic characters; race and ethnicity are generally overlooked in the highly stylized world of anime and manga, with few exceptions. As an exception, the anime Cowboy Bebop comes to mind, where characters of all racial background and ethnic cultures are constantly shown onscreen.

Skin Tone Examples

Try being experimental with your characters and their skin tones. We've included some examples of skin tones found in a couple of different ethnic groups. Obviously, the colors shown below aren't going to work for everyone in every situation. What you see below is by no means the end-all of skin color palettes. It wouldn't be possible to include every minute variation of skin tone on a chart. Many of these tones were eye dropped out of photographs using the techniques explained in the above section regarding the eyedropper tool. Try out these colors or even experiment with other colors on your characters. To use, simply save and open one of the following skin palettes in the art program of your choice, and eye drop your desired column of base, shadow and highlight colors.

Ethnic Traits - One point to remember about characters -- many manga and anime styles tend to simplify characters down to a triangle nose and big expressive eyes set in a rounded heart shaped face. When you're dealing with anime style artwork, you're working with a very stylized caricature. It's exaggerated, and often time fails to suggest any sort of ethnic or racial background.

Color can certainly serve as an indicator of racial background, but also try adding facial details to the drawing to emphasis ethnic traits. Because drastic differences in skin color outside the suggested skin tone color range in the first section are so uncommon in anime, they often have the effect of making a character stand out in a crowd. This can be a bad thing, putting too much attention on a minor character, or a good thing, causing a character to stand out.

Take your art style into consideration when using colors to indicate ethnicity. Changing the skin color on an anime style character's cherubic doll-like rounded face would probably look more odd then convincing.

Creatures - In the case of fantasy or science fiction related artwork, the normal range of colors may be too confining for your tastes. There's nothing preventing your from making orange or blue skin tones on your characters if that's what you desire.

For these and other characters that don't fall under the recommended color range mentioned earlier in this section, try developing your own character or race specific palettes. Start with a base skin tone, and then select your highlight and shadow colors (see the Shadows and highlights section below). If you're not currently working on a picture, but want to save these colors for a later time, just simply open up a document in a graphics program, blot some colors down, and then save the colors for later use. You can choose them in later pictures by using the eyedropper tool.

Skin tone based on personalities

Different skin tones can suggest different personality types. Just at a glance, you can already start to guess
about the character's personalities based on their skin tone. Of course, the facial expressions don't hurt either.

Skin colors will vary from character to character, however slightly. In my artwork, I try to give each of my characters a realistic but notably different skin tone. I've found that variations in skin tone make for a more colorful and interesting picture, especially if there's a lot of skin to be shown off.

I sometimes like to reflect the personalities of my characters with their skin colors. I tend to fall back on stereotypes when selecting skin tones based on personality (i.e. shy = pale skin; athletic = tan), but the results always seem to work well. Just from looking at the character's skin color, clothing, hairstyle, and posture, you can already begin to guess something about their personality.

The following is just a list of examples, and is by no means the only "formula" you should follow when assigning a skin color to your character. A withdrawn character is just as capable of having tan skin as the outgoing character. Use your judgment, and choose the skin color that you feel works best for your characters.

Average flesh tone - What I mean by average is the flesh tone most commonly used on anime characters. This would be an average character, with no unusual quirks in their personality, with no reason for either too light or too dark a skin tone. Very healthy looking skin.

Tan or dark flesh tone - Tan skin seems to suit a tough character that gets him/herself in a lot of fights. Likewise, an athletic character might play a lot of outdoor sports, and extended exposure to the sun would result in tan skin. As tan skin suggests masculinity; male characters and tomboyish or masculine girls and could also benefit from darker skin tones.

Pale flesh tone - A shy or withdrawn character would generally stay indoors. Lack of sunlight would render their skin pale and delicate. Gentle, feminine characters often have softer skin tones.

Pink fleshy skin tone - This would work well with pampered princesses and princes, healthy characters, children, and bouncy playful characters.

Ghost white skin - Good for weak and sickly characters.

4. Shadows and Highlights

This is very important! Make your shadow tone significantly darker color than the base skin tone. In order to get this second color, I use the Color Picker to choose the first one, and the go about a centimeter to the right diagonally from this initial starting point. An intense contrast between the first tone and the second tone gives the character more depth. Very little difference between tones can lead to unnoticeable shadows, making your characters look two dimensional and flat, almost as if you never bothered putting shadows on the picture.

Highlights should be a significantly lighter color than the base skin tone. This highlight should either be a bright white, or a lighter version of the base skin tone. It can be acquired the same way the shadow color is, but going a centimeter in the opposite direction - diagonally to the upper left.

Lights and Darks for Skin Tones

To use any of the suggested colors featured in this section, just select them with the eyedropper tool and apply them to your own pictures. ^_^

Here's a more in-depth look at the 4 types of skin tone colors. Note that the color you see the most is the base color. 

More information can be found on shadows and highlights in the tutorial section appropriately titled Shadows and Highlights.

5. Hue and Saturation

When choosing colors for your image, don't fret too much over color choice. It is good to have some colors in mind when you begin, so you can save yourself some time and trouble, but if you find later that you dislike one of the colors you've chosen, it's really easy to change, even after shading and highlights have been placed.

For example, let's say I don't like Viviane's blue hair color in the image on the right. To change the color, I first carefully select his hair using the selection tool so I don't accidentally change the colors of any other objects that might also be on the hair layer. Then, I choose Adjust on the Image menu, and Hue/Saturation on the submenu. This will bring up the Hue/Saturation window.

Adjusting the slider on the three sets of bars will change the color of his hair. Hue will change the color of his hair, from green to blue to red, and everything in-between. Saturation will change the level of saturation, from bright, highly saturated colors to dull, gray colors. Finally, lightness will adjust the darkness or lightness of the color. The Hue/Saturation menu is a great way to experiment with a variety of colors, especially if you're unsure of which color you want to use for a particular area of your character. The colors change in real time, so you'll be able to preview the color changes on your character as they're being made. Once you've got a new color that you like, just hit OK, and you're done!

 Images, Text, HTML, CSS, & Design, 2003 Jared Hodges & Lindsay Cibos.