Primary, Secondary, Tertiary – Reducing Anime to Color

Paraietta is a BABE. Screw off, Akira.

The Impressionists had been fascinated with color. It was a playground for them; a fertile field from which they could explore that very subjective experience of color qualia. A hundred years later, anime studios continue to carry on the tradition of experimention. However, I think we sometimes take for granted how the mood is conveyed in anime. We certainly can dissect it in a way by talking about the lighting, the facial features of the characters, the placement of the items, all the while coherently picking out the mood that the scene contains, but we haven’t delved far into the heart of the art behind it at all. Let’s take a second and see just how the completed product – the artistic experience from watching anime – can be reduced to the most fundamental of building blocks: color.

Warning: spoilers for the anime tagged in this post. Particularly Haibane and Simoun.

Inspiration for this post started with this thread about Shaft on AnimeSuki forums. Admittedly, I’m not terribly fond of their stuff as a whole. Particularly a lot of Shinbo Akiyuki’s work (although I loved Tsukuyomi Moon Phase, but that’s another story). Sometimes, the viewers can simply grasp the situation just from the crossing of legs, the tapping of fingers, or even the arch of an eyebrow. And that’s enough for me.

But this isn’t a tirade against Shaft. No, it’s a small exercise in color theory, if you will. My hope is that those who read this will take away an awareness of just how fundamental color can be in our enjoyment of anime.

First, we should refresh ourselves with some basic terminology. Primary colors in art consist of red, yellow, and blue, since these colors cannot be mixed from other colors. From these, we mix the secondary colors of orange, green, and purple. We can further mix these colors into more and more, generating tertiary colors such as blue-green and red-orange. The above picture illustrates a color wheel with primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Once we have the color wheel, we can use the relative placements of the colors to experiment with their effects. Thus, we can look at how modern day anime studios rely on color theory in the following three distinct ways. (Click here if you have never studied color theory before. It is a great website to visually see what I’m talking about.)

Let’s get started. This scene from episode 3 of Bakemonogatari is arguably uncomfortable for the eyes. Not uncomfortable in the sense that you’d barf if you stared at it long enough, but in the sense that it’s unnatural. The use of the three sharply contrasting primary colors causes the eye to drift around, almost wanting to focus on the bold colors rather than the characters. Referring back to the color wheel, you can see that the primary colors form an equilateral triangle, a triadic color scheme that screams vibrant. Plus, the purity of the colors is critical. The red, yellow, and blue form solid lines and arcs; they’re not used for shading and lack gradients. Now, you might ask why Shaft would choose to do this during a scene just with two people talking, and I’d guess that they simply like to do this so the viewer is actively taking in the scene by remaining involved with their eyes despite the lack of movement in the characters.

Moving on, let’s take a look at the careful use of color in Haibane Renmei. Haibane Renmei was spectacular partially because of the use of muted green throughout the entire series. The sky, the buildings, the ground – all of these seemed to be united by the same gentle, yet unsettling pale green. It’s perfect for the show’s atmosphere. The main heroine gets dropped down into a mysterious world, and she lacks any memories of her past. The viewer is constantly reminded of the almost surreal experience Rakka surely must be going through, being born into a whole new world.

Analogous use of color. Calm, yet sullen.

Above, one scene from earlier in episode 8. In the first picture, the clouds are tinged with blue (next to green on the wheel), and the rooftops are a simple ochre (yellowish, and thus related to green as well). This is another color scheme in which colors next to each other on the color wheel are used to provide a sense of harmony. At this point in the series, the mood is solemn; the shaded blue clouds create a dreary mood (the colors used here are relatively cool as well) to describe the state of the characters’ emotions. But as Rakka gets worse later in the episode, we see the sky suddenly change.

Complementary colors. Angsty with sharp contrast.

This is a screenshot from later in the same episode. It shifts to a powerful, dark yellow-violet complementary color pairing. Complementary colors (red-green, blue-orange, yellow-violet) strongly contrast each other when juxtaposed. They jump out against each other in an effort to catch the viewer’s eye. Fully cognizant of these properties, the artists employed complementary colors to emphasize the rawness of emotion underlying Rakka’s existential crisis.

Finally, I want to quickly explore the use of color in Simoun. This anime demonstrates just how powerful an impression color can leave on our apprehension of an entire series. I will focus specifically on the eyes of the girls in this show. First look below at Neviril. This girl has a spectacular design employing teal, blue, and pink. Her eyes are painted so that they form islands of green-blue in a sea of flowing pink hair, but the real clincher is that, in this particular scene, the animators drew a crescent of pink under her blue pupils to fully reinforce the determination behind her gaze. Here, the blue pupils dominate the entire image with the support of the teal irises, both of which contrast with the pink.

Amuria (below) is similar. The blue eyes and violet hair harmonize with one another, while the yellow powerfully carves a path through her eyes. These two girls are obviously suited each other, even without having me to remind you that this is a (somewhat) yuri show, and that these two were initially a pair. Once again, a perfect demonstration of how color conveys emotion.

On the other hand, Aaeru (again below) has the most brilliant, bold, yet piercing eyes out of anyone in the series from what I’ve seen. She replaces Amuria as Neviril’s pair after Amuria’s death disappearance (Thanks Gaguri) in the first episode. In the beginning, Aaeru and Neviril are at odds; this is further vocalized in the anime by Neviril, when she recovers from the disappearance of her loved one from earlier in the series:

“You and I are completely different in every way. But in one respect, we’re just the same.”

Neviril couldn’t be more right with this statement; this difference is visually personified by the contrast between their respective character designs. Neviril is a split-complementary triad; Aaeru, a juxtaposed pair of analogous colors. Aaeru’s green eyes are purposely vibrant in order to contrast with her somewhat more muted blond hair. Rather than having a unified green-yellow scheme, the artists chose to contrast two closely situated colors to show a sense of motion, driving the viewer straight into Aaeru’s emerald orbs. When we look into Aaeru’s eyes, we’re overpowered by the depths of the green, but we feel a sense of pride and confidence. But with this difference in color, we see how Aaeru couldn’t be more different from both Neviril and Amuria, who both have similar color schemes.

In conclusion, I have briefly gone over three distinct ways of employing color theory to engage the audience with the anime. Artists are constantly making the smallest decisions in order to enhance the finished product, which is something that those of us without training may fail to appreciate fully. Perhaps now we can more fully engage in the shows we watch, and notice just how meticulously detailed the production of an anime can be.

14 Responses to “Primary, Secondary, Tertiary – Reducing Anime to Color”

  1. Ningyo also did a good job breaking down color palettes in Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, which I think supports the thinking in this post:

  2. Very good primer on basic color selection. Thanks!

  3. Also, Paraietta is a BABE!

  4. Essence of anim-ation, is of colour assembled in forms, brought to life through movement.

    And Amuria didn’t die, it’s one of those things that were never made clear in the series (like what Dominura saw inside Simoun).

    And finally, yes Parietta is a babe.

  5. Damn, Simoun has flown under my radar for far too long. That’s one more title on my “To-Watch” list.

    Great article; quite unusual for a topic for me because colors do play an essential role in portraying subtle elements that otherwise can’t be explicitly verbalized. Color blending for the eyes is something I’ve never really paid attention to, so yes, now I have a more discerning view over aesthetics after reading this article.

    I think Casshern SINS is an exemplary showcase of how colors plays second fiddle (perhaps even primary role) of narrating the story. When I look back at all the screenshots of the characters’ eyes, they all possess some unique traits. There are those who have deep eyes that absorbs your attention (e.g. Casshern); those with those that lacks weaknesses and exhibits surreal invulnerability (e.g. Sophita); some with intense vibrance that screams anger (e.g. Braiking Boss – notice how his bloodshot eyes don’t glow like most evil villains do, giving that menacing look) and others with weak, subdued hues to show how her precious days are fleeting (e.g. Nico).

    What’s amazing about the above examples, is that there isn’t anything amazing about their color combinations. Rather, it’s the simplicity: it’s a classic example of how to convey the most raw messages through the most undistracting blend of colors. And this is only focusing on the eyes alone; I haven’t even started discussing how influential the colors used for everything else – the setting, the ambiance and overall background – are.

  6. Wonderful read and great examples.

    Shinbo and his dudes at SHAFT are masters of color usage. All of his shows (Especially Hidamari Sketch, Bakemonogatari and Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei) employ color masterfully to convey mood and setting.

    Interesting analysis of the characters in Simoun. Never thought of character design that way.

    You’re still a fool for taking Paraietta over Neviril.

  7. Great post. This is one of those things that guys like me who are inexperienced with color theory (beyond the absolute basics — warm colors, cool colors, etc.) kind of take in subconsciously. I can feel that Aaeru is an intense, passionate character not just in the way she speaks and carries herself, but in the way she looks; however, if I were asked to formulate exactly WHY I feel this way, I’m not sure I would be able to concretely explain it. At least not without this kind of knowledge.

    I love that you bring up the impressionists, by the way. Many of the backgrounds, random shots of the world and the dramatic still frames gave off an impressionistic vibe to me (they’re no doubt influenced by Osamu Dezaki, as well, but I can’t imagine he wasn’t also influenced by the impressionists). That style of art is by far my favorite — I love the intensity and passion of Van Gogh, the cool movement of a Degas and I’ve always loved this Renoir painting for reasons I’ve never really been able to define.

    Finally, gotta go against Akira — Paraietta is a total babe. (But my favorite is Mamiina. :X)

  8. That was really good, and definitely something we take for granted. Not much of a color theorist here, but will need to keep this in mind next time I design/draw something xD
    Thanks \o/

  9. (This is the type of article that gaguri would write :P)

    As well as vibrant colours, another thing that Shaft does really well is the use of light, dark and shading to create atmosphere. Shinbo loves to flip into sudden moments of grayscale or a minimal number of muted colours, to create shock or surprise or suspense. gaguri wrote an excellent post about this at the end of Bakemonogatari.

    (Who is this Paraietta, and why is she such a babe?)

  10. Well…This has made me watch to go back and watch Haibane again…For what’s likely the 9th time. I’m surprised I never really picked the colour stuff out, being a photographer and a general arts student…I normally pay more attention to the music, being a musician also…

    Great post by the way, shame I have to skip over the Simoun stuff since I haven’t seen it.

  11. I can’t remember when’s the last time someone discussed moe as an aesthetic,but this post heavily reminds me of the concepts of character design that usually fly under the radar. Specifically, it reminded me of the TvTropes pages tareme and tsurime, especially considering you focused on the eyes. This raises an interesting question concerning how we interpret the more iconic art style of anime in terms of color and other artistic signifiers…

    I also think that the color for Haibane Renmei helped supplement what some people complained as a sort of blurry art style that I once argued was a result of the design and shading. All of the colors simply to be slightly tinted in such a way that they seem washed out and surreal, which is exactly what you want when your world is calm but mysterious and archaic. The coloring also reminds me how backgrounds seem to never get the same amount of emphasis as characters in most anime, as I seem to have a dearth of beautiful wallpapers of settings.

    As for Shaft, they’re pretty hit or miss. There are times when their style stand out as being exactly what is needed to accentuate the atmosphere, such as in ef and Bakemonogatari. At other times, it feels forced, and the number tricks they have left is rapidly decreasing. Sure, they’re unique compared to everyone else, but it doesn’t stop the fact they’re a bit of a one trick pony.

  12. @ghostlightning

    Thanks for the read!


    <3 Paraietta.


    Thanks for catching my careless use of words. It's an honor to have someone of your caliber comment on a post about the visual art of animation.


    Casshern is fantastic in terms of color. Its method of narration just isn't my thing, but from the outset I noticed how the colors created such a strong impression on our apprehension of the show. Some other series to think about include Kaiba, Shaft's Tsukuyomi Moon Phase, and Gankutsuou.


    If there's one thing I'll grant Shaft, it's their extremely unorthodox way of using lines and colors to generate a certain feel. I hate their use of text though. Jeezus.


    All the more reason to study some basic art theory. :)

    I took AP Art History and AP Studio Art back in high school, as well as about 5 years of private art lessons. I have a huge fondness for the impressionists, although my favorite period of art tends to be the Middle Ages, leading from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance.

    One extremely interesting thing to look at is the two-way relationship between impressionism and Japanese art. In the Dance at Le Moulin that you linked me, you can see that the foreground-background perspective is pretty skewed. The ground the dancers are standing on feel more like an emotion than trying to provide any real sense of space. Other artists from around that time (Mary Cassatt's painting of mother and child comes to mind) borrowed a bunch of perspective techniques from Ukiyo-e. A great artist to look at for comparison would be Suzuki Harunobu.


    Glad you liked it. :)

    Btw, I love our posts.


    Thanks for the link. Such great analysis. D: Maybe someday I can dissect art like that.

    (Paraietta is a beautiful character from Simoun. You should watch that series. :P)


    Glad you went back for the nth time to pick up something new. It's good to know that this post fulfilled my initial reason for wanting to write about color. May your viewing be even more fruitful in the future.


    I actually wasn't familiar with the tareme and tsurime styles of drawing eyes. Most of my training is in Western art, and not so much the styles used in manga, so my knowledge of that is rather thin. However, I very much appreciate you giving me more stuff to read. Thanks!

    You're right about the relationship between color and texture in Haibane. However, that's really part of the charm of the show, IMO. Those haters can get out.

    And yeah, I feel like Shaft is hit or miss too.

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  14. bump. gayol trhead. vefry nice, actually.

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