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Modes of Renaissance Colour

Colour modes in Italian Renaissance Art and 3D Games

Originally published as a guest post on 3 Pipe Problem 02 Nov, 2011

In this post I explore one of the common threads linking Renaissance Art and 3D graphics – the use of colour modes to create a beautiful unreality.

Early Renaissance painters strove to create sacred worlds that were not too alien to relate to, but at the same time were clearly more beautiful than their own. This corresponded to the medieval Christian belief that reality was a pale reflection of heaven.

Saint Paul stated in his Epistle to the Corinthians I, 13:12, “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then [in heaven] face to face.” (ref 1)

Colouring therefore, could offer the observer a glimpse of the brighter world of salvation. In the world of 3D games and film, colour is also central to creating an alternative world, where the nature of ‘unreality’ is fine tuned with hue, shadow and light. Although the worlds of contemporary mass entertainment are not sacred, the promise to escape into them possibly is.

Hell is a Brown Basement

Early Renaissance art in Italy was characterised by pure colours, mixed only with white (known as the Cennini system). Gold leaf was commonly used to depict heavenly background areas.

Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven, ca 1423-24, Fra Angelico, The National Gallery, London

600 years later, the first 3D game art was also characterised by bright pure colours on a (very dull) gold background, in the form of Wolfenstein 3D (1992).

Wolfenstein 3D (1992)

In a world defined by a 16 colour palette and limited textural rendering, going bright and un-shadowed was not only sensible, but necessary. In this sense the early game designers faced similar limitations to their early Italian craftsmen equivalents who had to create interesting colour compositions from very limited colour palettes – where mixing colours went against the vogue for pure pigments.

“the medieval tradition…had condemned ‘corrupted’ colour (mixed or broken) precisely because it was less brilliant” (ref 2)

The early 3D games typically depicted hell rather than heaven, with grungy brown walls providing a backdrop onto which primary coloured action exploded. This basement style continued to suit the cavernous interior worlds of the first blockbuster 3D game titles including Doom and Quake. Here, developers grappled with challenges such as complex polygonal surface rendering, smooth motion, and on-the-fly re-scaling, bearing in mind the limited processing power of home computers in the 1990s.

Left: Doom (1993) Right: Quake (1996)

SuperBright Worlds

Game artists emerged from the basement and into a SuperBright world with RenderWare titles. RenderWare is a 3D graphics rendering engine which is behind more than 200 game titles across mulit-platforms including PC, Playstation, Nintendo, Xbox. One of the important features of RenderWare was its ability to handle large complex environments – so games emerged from walled basements and onto mountains, racetracks, and urban terrains.

Initially the worlds were brilliantly coloured, not attempting to be photo-realistic, as that would have been futile. But the artists and developers gained an understanding of light effects under different circumstances so that the real world was reflected in these games, if not recreated in a pixel perfect sense.

RenderWare titles from top left, clockwise: G-Nome (1997), Rayman 2: The Great Escape (1999), TrickStyle (1999), and Star Wars: Super Bombad Racing (2001)

The effect of this colourful flourishing is reminiscent of the later Cennini style of painting. Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, himself a painter, created a comprehensive manual of panel and fresco painting, Libro dell ‘Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook) in 1390. In it, he explained 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.

Detail from San Benedetto Altarpiece, 1407-9, Lorenzo Monaco, The National Gallery, London, showing the Cennini colour system

The effect of this shading system with the strongest and most vibrant hues in the shadows as well as abstract patterning is clearly not naturalistic. “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 3)

In 15th century Italy, a growing awareness of volume and depth emerged within this aesthetic of irreality. Painters branched out from gold leaf backgrounds and increasingly used landscape settings. The sacred world was edging closer to reality on earth.

The Adoration of the Magi, about 1433-34, Attributed to Zanobi Strozzi, The National Gallery, London

A bright Cennini colour style can also be found in contemporary games, especially where childhood nostalgia, toys, or simplified geometrics play a role.

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 colors (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 colors. Boys were more likely than girls were to have positive emotional associations with dark colors.”(ref 4)

The LEGO Star Wars series, developed by LucasArts and Travellers Tales is an example of a game featuring toys targeted at a younger audience (although not exclusively). The Cennini colouring, particularly of the main characters, evokes fun and simplicity.

Cennini colouring in LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars (2011)

DeBlob 2 is a game more directed to adult players who banish an evil corporation intent on de-colouring the world. Brilliant Cennini shading is used to represent triumph over evil, emphasised by simplified geometrics.

Cennini colouring in de Blob (2011)

Towards Greater Realism

The Italians began to think more about realistic colour as knowledge of Flemish oil techniques became more known. The Flemish were early masters of ambient light and surface detail.

Leon Battista Alberti, in his 1435 treatise, Della Pittura, recommended trying out realistically dark shadows rather than the artificially pigmented approach of the Cennini style. ‘the same colour, according to the light and shade it receives will alter its appearance – we must consider how the painter ought to use black and white … with great restraint you will commence to place the black where you need it and at the same time oppose it with white.’ (ref 5)

This more realistic shadow rendering, in conjunction with perspective and an interest in natural light, signalled greater realism in Italian painting.

The Agony in the Garden, 1465, Giovanni Bellini, The National Gallery, London

In the game world, physics drove environmental realism with particle system effects such as water spray, fog, and dust. Memory and rendering power increased every year, enabling more detailed surface textures. Games rapidly became ever more photorealistic. By 2004, CryEngine emerged as a game engine with pixel shading capabilities. Pixel shading ‘gives artists and developers the ability to create per-pixel effects that mirror their creative vision’.(ref 6)

Crysis (2007), a game set in a lush waterlogged jungle, was stunningly realistic, almost photographic.

Crysis (2007)

Creative Colour Modes

Having achieved photorealism, where do game artists go? Of course there is still much to be achieved in terms of realistic character movement and expression. But in terms of colour - photorealism is far from all-pervasive as game artists mature into the medium. Game artists now tailor their colour and shading modes to the aesthetic requirements of each game experience. Game worlds are not conceived to mirror reality, but rather to create tailored realities. Artistic colour shading creates elevated rather than commonplace surroundings.

This stage can be compared to the High Renaissance, when artists began experimenting with individual responses to the synthesis of realism and sacred subjects. Modes of colour emerged – specifically Leonardo’s Sfumato, Michelangelo’s Cangiantismo, Raphael’s Unione, and later Chiaroscuro. None of these modes was an attempt to capture reality as such, but more an attempt to distill an individual aesthetic. Patrons would seek out artists who would deliver to them the mood they sought.

These modes influenced the subsequent direction of Western painting, and continue to be etched on our visual sensibilities consciously or unconsciously. It is fascinating to survey the incredibly varied and sophisticated landscape of contemporary game graphics and find incarnations of Renaissance colour modes. It may seem unlikely, but due to the similarity in visual aim of Renaissance painting and games (an elevated reality) it isn’t hard to find these colour modes in action.


Leonardo da Vinci’s Sfumato mode is particularly prevalent in the game world. As we know, Leonardo was fascinated with the application of scientific theory to his art. He had discovered in his experiments with optics that the pupil adapts to low light by dilating and that such dark-adapted eyes are able to see a greater variety of mid-tones. He therefore decided that the best time to paint was just before sunset for the most subtle and delicate lighting.(ref 7) This effect could also be simulated in the studio. He instructed that ‘the light from on high, and not too powerful will be found the best calculated to show the parts to advantage’.(ref 8)

He used dark hues including black to achieve realistic shadows in keeping with Alberti’s treatise. But he made sure the transitions between light and darks were so soft and graduated, that it is often hard to clearly see exactly where objects meet shadow. This creates an overall tonal unity which lacks the bright pure colours of the Cennini school, but creates a softly lit atmosphere of equivalent intensity.

In Leonardo’s beautifully restored Virgin of the Rocks at the National Gallery, London, the figures blend softly into their environment in dusky light. Hair dissolves into natural backgrounds, so that faces emerge from their swampy habitat like softly florescent jellyfish. His most intense colours, the aquamarine and orange shades, shine luminously through the fine layers of dusky light.

detail from Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, c 1491-1508, The National Gallery, London

Looking at Leonardo’s legacy on modern game and animation colour effects, the sfumato approach appears to be a popular one for games, not least because the moodiness and the mystery is well suited to historical and post-apocalyptic environments.

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed, which includes Leonardo da Vinci as one of its characters in Renaissance Florence, embraces sfumato. The twilight scenes are softly monochrome with warm crimson highlights. The surfaces are rich and detailed, yet the effect is misty, as extreme light and colour contrasts are avoided.

Assasin's Creed, Brotherhood (2010)

In the post apocalyptic genre, there are beautifully bleak sfumato visuals from S.T.A.L.K.E.R., published in 2007 by the Ukrainian developer GSC Game World. This is a game based on Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker. Interestingly Tarkovsky meditates on Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting, Adoration of the Magi, in The Sacrifice (1986). In Nostalghia (1983) there is a final sequence featuring mist, dusk light, and a primordial swamp.

Sfumato has also been used to beautiful effect in Shadow of the Colossus (2005), and the Myst series. Both of these games are renowned perhaps primarily for their beautiful visuals.

Sfumato colouring in titles from top left, clockwise: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (2007), Shadow of the Colossus (2005), and Myst V: End of Ages (2005)

The Raising of Lazarus, ca 1517-19, Sebastiano del Piombo, The National Gallery, London

Chiaroscuro Chiaroscuro – translated as ‘clear and dark’ and coming to mean ‘light and shadow’ – follows Leonardo’s tradition of a shadowy manner but amplifies light contrasts for dramatic effect. Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo and Fra Bartolommeo, inspired by Leonardo’s results, experimented with chiaroscuro in their night time scenes, retaining the brilliant colour so valued in Renaissance Italy.

This style more than the others, went on to influence the next several centuries of painting in Europe, notably Rubens and Rembrandt in the North and Tintoretto and Caravaggio in Italy.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption features bright phosphorescent colours illuminating dark sets, which are reminiscent of Sebastiano del Piombo’s and Raphael’s High Renaissance schemes.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (2007) by Nintendo

Meanwhile Mafia II (2010), Lucius (2011), and LA Noire (2011) follow the more earthy chiaroscuro of Caravaggio. This genre emphasises a dark underworld where bright colour hues are avoided to retain a sombre mood.

Chiaroscuro colouring in titles from top left, clockwise: Mafia II (2007), Lucius (2011), and LA Noire (2011)

Left: Samson and Delilah, 1609-10, Peter Paul Rubens Right: Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1595-1600, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio


Michelangelo went completely against Alberti’s advice to darken shadows to enhance realism. He radically chose to instead revive the cangiante technique of earlier painters in the Cennini style, and use vivid contrasting colours for shadow areas instead. Giotto (1266 -1337) is credited as introducing this technique.(ref 9)

This practice provided options for greater compositional variety in the limited pure colour palette of the Cennini system. At the time Cennini wrote his treatise, it was often used for the drapery of Angels – the unnaturalness perhaps indicating unworldliness.

Michelangelo took the technique further than earlier painters – who tended to use cangiante sparingly.

Detail from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512

He went large with the technique on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, using colour contrasts schematically, not just ornamentally. He kept strong colours in the shadows, and extensively used white mixes for highlights. He used it not just occasionally for Angels, but extensively, wherever he wanted the impact of paired colour hues. This revival of Cangiante was called Cangiantismo.

In games, it can be found in fairy tale worlds such as Naruto Shippuden: Clash of Ninja Revolution 3 (2009), King’s Bounty: The Legend (2008), and Eternal Sonata (2007).

Cangiantismo colouring in games from top left, clockwise: Naruto Shippuden: Clash of Ninja Revolution 3 (2009), King's Bounty: The Legend (2008), and Eternal Sonata (2007)

In Alice, Madness Returns (2011) the water lilies are cangiante coloured for hallucinatory effect.

Alice, Madness Returns (2011)

Muramasa the Demon Blade (developed by Vanillaware for Wii, and released in 2009) uses a drawn 2D art style. Contrasting colour overlays create rippling shadow and highlight effects over large background areas including sky, rocks, and foliage. This recalls cangiantismo drapery. The glowing coloured backdrop creates a suitable setting for a Japanese mythological adventure.

Muramasa the Demon Blade (2009)


Unione was Raphael’s melding of Leonardo’s shadows with the bright colours of Michelangelo. Raphael was greatly impressed by the overall tonal unity of his style. In sfumato’s case, mid-tones dominated the palette. By delicately gradiating each transition from light to shadow, the overall effect of sfumato was one of great harmony, a kind of dusky perfection. What Raphael sought to do was achieve soft shadows and tonal unity, but without sacrificing bellezza di colore, or brilliant colour, a highly valued property of paintings in early Renaissance Italy.(ref 11)

Here is a juxtaposition of paintings found in Marcia B. Hall’s book, which illustrates this middle ground between Leonardo’s sfumato and Michelangelo’s bellezza di colore clearly.

a visual comparison of Unione, Sfumato, and Bellezza di Colore

Before encountering Leonardo’s sfumato whilst in Florence from 1504-1508, Raphael’s painting already exhibited the soft shadows and translucent colours of the painter Peitro Perugino (1450–1523). According to Vasari, Raphael worked as his studio assistant which would explain his stylistic emulation.(ref 12)

Perugino’s style owed much to the technique of glazing with oils, to achieve the soft shadows and light reflective colours which also became Raphael’s trademarks. After exposure to painters such as his rival Michelangelo, Raphael’s compositions tended to feature more animated people and scenes than Perugino’s, and he became more focused on colour style as a way to achieve diverse moods.(ref 13)

The Procession to Calvary, 1504-05, Raphael, The National Gallery, London

He sometimes used a bright style, flooded with daylight, and other times experimented with a more dramatic style for night lighting, a style which later came to be known as chiaroscuro. Even in Raphael’s Chiaroscuro mode, brilliant colours prevail – and in all his compositions, he concentrated on overall impression of colour balance and harmony on an abstract level. This recalls the earlier tradition of isochromatism, where painters concentrated on symmetrical deployment of their colours, ordering them in pleasing abstract patterns.

Games in unione mode include The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and the Grand Theft Auto series, particularly Grand Theft Auto III (2001).

Unione colouring in (top) Grand Theft Auto III (2001) - (bottom) The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

Games in unione mode seem less common than those in other Renaissance colour modes – possibly as the bright and softly shadowed atmosphere goes against the mystery and danger inherent in so many titles. The unione colouring of Grand Theft Auto III is ironically soft and bright, considering its content. In this sense the Grand Theft Auto artists have perhaps more in common with the later mannerists than Raphael, but that is a whole other topic.


Unione colouring is seldom maintained throughout an entire game, as dark passages tend to punctate even the brightest of games. Sfumato and unione tend to be commonly paired, a technique which can be found in Tim Burton’s film Alice. It is mostly a lovely piece of sfumato colouring throughout, with subtle moments of unione when the sky clears.

Alice in Wonderland Wii Game (2010)

Transfiguration of Christ, Raphael, 1516-1520, Oil, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City

The Wii game version, developed by ELB, stays faithful to the artistic style of the film, while giving it a Wii brightness boost. Although much of it is under moody skies, the overall result is a colourful chiaroscuro reminiscent of Raphael’s in his darker modes, and under blue skies, a satisfying unione.

The Adventures of Tintin also spends a good deal of time in colourful high Renaissance chiaroscuro mode when deep in the territory of the unsolved mystery, while chase scenes and everyday scenes are often a bright and softly shaded unione.

This alternation recalls Raphael’s forays into multi-modal painting, adopting his colour mode to suit the requirement of the commission, even within a single work.

His last painting, Transfiguration, uses unione style in the top divine half, and a dramatic chiaroscuro style in the bottom half, which depicts a less than divine cast of characters.(ref 14)

Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption (2010) is also an example of modal alternation. Its high noon landscapes are coloured in a light flooded sepia-unione hybrid.

High noon in Red Dead Redemption (2010) uses a sepia-unione hybrid

Then late in the day, the sun dips low in the sky and a reddish light creates a lovely warm sfumato feel.

The sun sets into sfumato mode in Red Dead Redemption (2010)

This survey of game colour modes is only a small sampling of the artistry that can be found in the games industry. Although the use of Renaissance colour modes in games is not necessarily deliberate, their reincarnation is still interesting to contemplate. Perhaps contemporary gamers have more in common with sacred art audiences of 500 years ago than we might imagine. Colour now, as in Renaissance Italy, artfully fuels an essential escape to alternative states of mind.


  1. Edgerton, Samuel Y., Rev, of The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe, by, Samuel Y Edgerton, Nexus Network Journal – Vol. 12, No. 1, 2010: 150

  2. Hall, Marcia B., Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting, Cambridge University Press (1992), p. 15.

  3. Hall, Ibid., p. 29.

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

  5. Alberti, Leon Battista, Della Pittura (On Painting), Translated with Introduction and Notes by John R. Spencer. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1970 [First printed 1956] online version

  6. Pixel Shaders: A Facet of the nfiniteFX Engine,

  7. Hall, op. cit., p. 119.

  8. Leonardo da Vinci; J F Rigaud, A Treatise on Painting, Dover Publications (2005), p. 70.

  9. Hall, op. cit., p. 21.

  10. Hall, op. cit., p. 92.

  11. Hall, op. cit., p. 67.

  12. Jones, Roger and Penny, Nicholas, Raphael, Yale University Press (1983), p. 5.

  13. Raphael: from Urbino to Rome, The National Gallery London

  14. The Cambridge Companion to Raphael, Series: Cambridge Companions to the History of Art, Edited by Marcia B. Hall,Temple University, Philadelphia, (2008), p. 6.


Archived Comments

Robert Eilert 07 Feb 2013 Brilliant! Tying the past to the present is a gift to see across time. “Every picture has been painted” is rebutted by I haven’t painted every picture. Your idea of unrealism is fascinating. Whether modern game artists all understand the origin of the techniques they use in 3D and digital art is largely irrelevant except to those of who love renaissance art and history. Thanks for your delightful, insightful exposition.



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