top of page

Cennini and the SuperBrights

Originally published 14 June 2011

One of the 3D art styles I love is the 'SuperBright' style (I'll call it). It’s primary and flooded with clear bright light. Examples that come to mind include Pixar's Toy Story and Up.  This style has an immediate appeal to children, but also to grown-ups including me.  I have in recent years thought about the similarities between SuperBright 3D digital art and the colour palettes of certain Renaissance paintings.

Marcia B. Hall, in her book, Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting explains the context and technique of Renaissance colour modes including the Cennini mode - the bright primary style of early Renaissance Italian painters.

The Virgin and Child Enthroned, mid-1470s, Cosimo Tura, The National Gallery, London

Renaissance Italians created treatises on art, summing up practices of the period and explaining how others can achieve similar results. The colour shading methods of the 'Bright' style are found in the treatise Libro dell ‘Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook), written by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini in 1390. 

Cennini, himself a painter, created a comprehensive manual of panel and fresco painting, explaining challenges such as ‘How to paint a dead man’ and ‘How to paint water’.  His description of colour shading is now known as the ‘Cennini system’. 

In this system painters model objects in three dimensions by using pure colours in the shadows, and adding white to the pure pigment to achieve mid-tones and more white for highlights.  This is a simplification, but it’s the basic concept.

Brilliant colour like medieval stained glass was the aesthetic preference of this time, and pure pigments were the way to achieve this.  Mixing pigments together lessened the brilliance and were even considered to be corrupted.  With a therefore limited range of pure colours to work with, Cennini system paintings tended to have an aesthetic unity.  Painters concentrated on symmetrical deployment of their strong vibrant colours, ordering  them in pleasing abstract patterns.  This colour abstraction is called isochromatic

The Cosima Tura (ca 1431–1495) painting to the right is an example of isochromatic composition within the Cennini tradition.

Here are a few more examples of paintings in the National Gallery, London, using the Cennini system.

The Adoration of the Magi about 1433-4, Attributed to Zanobi Strozzi, The National Gallery, London
San Benedetto Altarpiece, 1407-9, Lorenzo Monaco, The National Gallery
Detail of San Benedetto Altarpiece, 1407-9, Lorenzo Monaco, showing the Cennini colour shading method
Detail of San Benedetto Altarpiece, 1407-9, Lorenzo Monaco, showing the Cennini colour shading method

The effect of this shading system with the strongest and most vibrant hues in the shadows as well as abstract patterning is definitely not naturalism. “As in a stained glass window, it makes no real pretence at replicating the visible world, but it creates a picture that is coherent and pleasing and one that in its irreality may seem to give us a glimpse of a higher reality.” (ref 1) Compare this now to The Sims, Finding Nemo, and Katamari Damacy – all of which avoid the use of black or dark blended colours for their shadows and instead add white to pure colour to create mid-tones and highlights.  The unreality of this colour scheme suits the mood of each of these titles in a slightly different way.  The Sims, which invites players to create a social and domestic world based on their own, but better and brighter, eliminates black in the shadows even at night.

The Sims, published by Electronic Arts

Finding Nemo is targeted perhaps more exclusively than other Pixar films at children, and SuperBright graphics are used to depict an underwater world of childhood fish innocence.  There are many studies exploring children’s response to colour stimulation, which product and animation designers are aware of.  In 1994, for example, a study at California State University, found that “Children had positive reactions to bright colors (e.g., pink, blue, red) and negative emotions for dark colours (e.g., brown, black, gray). Children’s emotional reactions to bright colors became increasingly positive with age, and girls in particular showed a preference for brighter colors and a dislike for darker colours. Boys were more likely than girls were to have positive emotional associations with dark colors.” (ref 2)

Pixar's Finding Nemo (2003)

And finally, Katamari Damacy is a bright pastel world of mid-tones and highlights.  The parent colours – to which white is added, are often absent. This reminds me of Cosimo Tura’s paintings, (see above) which can be pastel in overall effect.  Katamari Damacy is a cult classic, developed by Namco for the PlayStation 2 which aims to collect the detritus of the modern world in great rolling balls, which are cast out into the heavens to restore stars to the darkened sky.  The mood is slightly psychedelic and strangely uplifting with its sentimental soundtrack and spirit of restoration and de-clutter.  With its proliferation of objects rolling around in complex clumps on the screen, the choice to simplify shading with flat planes of colour is beneficial to both mood and render speed.

Katamari Damacy published by Namco

References 1. Hall, Marcia B., Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting, Cambridge University Press (1992), p. 29.

2. Boyatzis CJ, Varghese R, Children’s emotional associations with colors J Genet Psychol. 1994 Mar; 155(1):77-85


Cennino D’ Andrea Cennini Libro dell ‘Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook) Translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1933, by Yale University Press.


Archived Comments

Hasan Niyazi 15 Jun 2011 What a super post! I like how you compared it the palette range to contemporary sources in animation and game design.It is interesting to note that, just as in Renaissance art, as artists and their techniques became more sophisticated, the range of the colour palette increased. This same progression is being mirrored in computer generated imagery used in games, film/TV an animation – compare for example the palette of the Sims with Red Dead Redemption of Assassins Creed Brotherhood. Also, you may be interested to read my recent review of Marcia Hall’s new book on Sacred Imagery, as well as a follow up interview: Kind Regards – and keep up the amazing work H Niyazi



bottom of page