Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Color Theory 11 - Mel Crawford's Secret Color Sense




Mel Crawford is my favorite Golden Book Painter. (This is actually a "tell-a-tale" book, but it's Whitman's imitation of Golden Books.)

This book has simpler technique than some of the better known Crawford books, which makes me think maybe TellATale had smaller budgets so the paintings had to be done faster. Thus - less brush strokes.

Crawford has a really unique brush technique, but he has an even more unique color sense. So unique that I can't figure it out.
Usually when I see great color work, I can figure out the whole scheme and plan. Like with Frazetta or Genndy or my favorite Disney cartoons.


I like these color schemes a lot, but I can tell what the plan is behind them. They are easy to analyze. Not so easy to come up with or paint though...
http://pumml.blogspot.com/2008/10/more-from-scott-wills.html


I can't do that with Mel's work. If he has a plan, it is very complex and unique to him.
He doesn't seem to like pure colors. He mixes colors in unusual proportions - never mathematically. Not 50% blue + 50% yellow to get green. Not even 75% + 25% to get turquoise.

He mixes a lot of colors with grays and neutrals - even muddy ones sometimes - which normally I don't like. He makes it work.

So first - each individual color is interesting.

But secondly, the way he chooses what colors to work next to other colors is equally baffling to me. It totally works, because you can see everything in his paintings at a glance. There's no awkward clutter and nothing gets lost.

Sometimes the textures he puts on objects have colors that strobe - like the bark on the trees in these paintings. Or the orangish texture on the purplish-grey rocks behind the pinkish-brownish-grayed bear.

Another thing I love about Mel's color is that he refuses to use the approved colors of the star characters - which are usually mathematical mixtures of colors straight out of the cartoon color tubes.
Wrong Color Magic:

http://johnkstuff.blogspot.com/uploaded_images/barneygives-737370.jpg




Many people who paint cartoons think that you are supposed to use the simplest colors imaginable - right out of the color tubes.

Partly it's because executives think that kids like "bright colors" and partly it's because it's easy and you don't have to think.

To me, "bright" doesn't mean primary and secondary colors, it means surprising fun colors and combinations. Mel Crawford's colors are always surprising and a lot more colorful than the typical cartoon formula.

29 comments:

Raff said...

>> There's no awkward clutter and nothing gets lost. <<

What strikes me is the combination of colors and white space. Look at the space around the lion, in the pic under the elephant in the chair. If it wasn't there the colors would clash. The bear and the seal are darker so there's a contrast, and no white space is needed.

I see lots of saturated colors. It's almost the usual "candy cane lane" business, but there are whites and greys to break it up.

And there's the use of hue to make contrast. Sometimes the positive space will be one or two families of strong warm colors and the negative space will be strong cool colors. Or the positive space will be saturated and the negative space will be darker or dulled down a little. Whatever makes things clear.

Ryan G. said...

Whoa! Looks like Barney is having his way with Fred in that boat!

Great post too:)

Peet Tamburino said...

Is it me, or is Barney giving it Fred in that row boat. "Yabba Dabba DOO"

Deniseletter said...

After see this,I understand why You like Mel Crawford color illustrations.They're stunning! specially combining colors, the white space and some neutrals and muddy ones are amazing and serving cleverly to rest the sight.Noting good contrasting too.Another thing is the figures didn't have too much contour and this give them more cuteness.As the character's eyes watch kindly with innocence and the lines are a slightly geometrical with free traces,all the drawing look is so amiable he makes the sensation that you live in a better world.I love to see this fantasy."Many people who paint cartoons think that you are supposed to use the simplest colors imaginable - right out of the color tubes." Those are the colors you see in a Kinder's room and they're already boring.This concept is another bad prejudice by these executives.How works the negative space?
Keep on posting this interesting things:-)

Peggy said...

Hmm. I mostly see strong color contrast to pop out the shapes, first and foremost (note the muzzy white line around the gator's nose in the spread where he's composed in front of the hedge? and notice that in both of the big zoo spreads, he's putting the green of Wally against the red of bricks, despite the hat vanishing?)

I'm not getting any strobing; maybe this is a scan/computer display issue? The bits you point out as potentially strobey are both muted, and in the background behind much higher-contrast stuff; he clearly doesn't want our eyes to linger on these less-important parts.

The whole thing really feels like marker on marker paper to me - there's a dullness to it that feels like a result of media choice, rather than deliberate paint color marshalling. Do you know what media he leaned on for these books? The orange stuff in the bg of the bear-cage spread really really looks like marker to me, some wet-on-wet, some with a half-dead marker.

Aside from black, he never seems to pass a certain level of color intensity. This may be due to fading inks on the books, of course.

The Butcher said...

I don't think children really like the execs' definition of "bright color", but they're more familiar with it because they've been force fed it. Not only with modern cartoons, but cereal boxes, toy packaging, etc. I hope the trend is reverse someday.

Mister 1-2-3-4 said...

I really love how, in the picture of Wally next to the bear cage, there are blue clouds against a white sky. Completely unrealistic, but my mind accepts it eagerly. Same thing with the orange elephant. I'm sure the corporate type would get hung up on this. "Why is he orange? That's not realistic." (Never mind that an elephant is sitting in an armchair reading a book.) The rest of us just accept that it works and enjoy it.

Caleb said...

Since I don’t know for sure, my guess is he’s using some of the more pure colors (that he mixed) to mix with as he goes. The monkey, seal, lion and bear all have different browns but seem like the same hue. The orange rocks, tree, and bear seem to be similar hues in the other pic. That’s my guess for how the colors seem in tune like a guitar.

Aaron said...

That's cool. You can tell he really eyeballs the colors and works from instinct, makin sure he's doing art and not math. That's admirable and fun to look at. I love the elephant in the chair. I don't think I've ever seen orange and blue look so good together.

Nicol3 said...

Mmm, Brokeboat Mountain.

These are the brilliant sort of color schemes that I still have yet to understand. Most of art teachers I've had in my life have emphasized on following a specific theme of color, without dwindling off and contrasting things. I think it takes real skill to contrast, not just knowledge of which colors are the opposite.

Don't know, it's something to experiment with. Great examples though!

HemlockMan said...

I'll tell you what's weird...the red headed kid walking in front of the brick facade. Both the kid's hair and the bricks are "red", but the kid's head doesn't vanish into the background. Nice touch.

Is Crawford still around?

pumml said...

I love this book! The color use is unusual and interesting for sure. The man painted over 300 kids books, and his experience really shows in how he was/is able to use surprising colors in such a beautiful way. I believe Mel worked primarily in gouache (and watercolor?), not in dried out marker as Peggy suggested, so the grayed down colors were entirely intentional and not merely a result of media choice.

Great post and analysis, John!

JohnK said...

Hey Drake

I added a couple of Scott's paintings from your blog to the post.

I hope you don't mind.

RAAA said...

Happy World Animation Day John K.
http://www.nfb.ca/webextension/get-animated/

mike f. said...

["Is Crawford still around?"]

Mel Crawford is not only still around - he's still working!

He has a website devoted to his more recent fine art paintings, and also an active new blog that's specifically devoted to his classic children's books. The Golden Book blog is run by Crawford with Frank Forte. Here are the coordinates:

http://melcrawford.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2007-01-01T00%3A00%3A00-08%3A00&updated-max=2008-01-01T00%3A00%3A00-08%3A00&max-results=4

Why don't you stop by and tell him personally what you think of his brilliant, amazing cartoon books? I'll bet he'd love to hear from some young fans...

Blammo said...

I have tons of Crawford books and they never let you down!
Did you know he is Canadian?
That doesn't really prove anything except that he is more manly than other Golden book painters;)
Mel works in 3's and 5's with objects that lead the eye from left to right and back again.
If the boy at the left has red/orange hair than you can bet money so will the Monkeys bag and Wally's hat and then the bricks too.
If the boy has a blue shirt you will find other objects and items of clothing across the page balanced perfectly with the same texture and colors.
Try it with almost everyone of these paintings and you will see strong marker points with anchor colors pulling you with deceptively simple mastery across the pages with purpose.
Mel Crawford is a great painter and your post is as interesting as ever.
I always leave your Blog with new answers,understanding, or even more questions.

Best,
Jason.

SoleilSmile said...

I have a story in reference to the mistake of applying primary and secondary colors to images straight out of the tube:
I designed and outlined a Sid Hoff style mural for a boys school years back, only to have to colored with paint applied straight out of the tub by the school's students.

What gets me is that the art teachers mandated this despite the fact that they had so many colors mix and use! This mural was for a school with a prominent art therapy program why weren't they more creative? I had color theory in high school, what was up with this institution???

It's amazing the appalling level of working art teachers out there, while animators are fighting each other for jobs. It's just disgusting.

Trevor G. said...

I'm pretty sure its just value contrast that sells his composition. Light next to dark, both horizontally and vertically, in design compositions that exhibit non stop dark light patterns.

Also direction changes in the lines that are the same, one direction opposing the other.

To check out a master at composition, even greater than Frazetta in my opinion, would be Yoshitaka Amano. A freak among freaks.

lastangelman said...

mike f wrote:Mel Crawford is not only still around - he's still working!

Whoa, thankin' yew, Mike! JohnK, perhaps, for the purpose of this blog, you can contact Mel and arrange to have him explain (if he can) his approach and technique here.

Elana Pritchard said...

color can give a drawing contrast and harmony all at the same time!

TacoTheSmurf said...

although I don't know squat about cartooning, The biggest difference I see between Mel's pictures and the other two are that Mel somehow creates a focus around the action, yet it diverts the readers attention to the rest of the surroundings piece by piece. The other two, however, don't seem to keep my interest as long. I end up looking at them as a whole, rather than the individual parts.

The Infinity said...

Nice post.I love comics

The Infininity

pumml said...

I don't mind at all, John. Hopefully Scott doesn't either!

BadIdeaSociety said...

"Many people who paint cartoons think that you are supposed to use the simplest colors imaginable - right out of the color tubes.

Partly it's because executives think that kids like "bright colors" and partly it's because it's easy and you don't have to think."


Wouldn't it be easier to color-match between the various outsourced departments using primary colors?

Not that the executives would be championing aesthetic innovation.

Timothy Merks said...

I love how 'Golden books' are fantasticly placed right at the checkout line at major grocery stores. After being bombarded by the colour mess of the grocery shelves they are a nice bit of eye clenser before giving up your hard earned money.

Sean Ward said...

I wonder if he just goes off of instinct without thinking about it too much. That's how I used to do it and got lots of compliments on my coloring. Then when I tried to get edumacated about color theory, it all went to crap because I was thinking about it too much.

perspex said...

i dont know anything about color and never noticed it until i started reading TankGirl, and i STILL dont know how or why Jamie Hewlett picked his color combinations, but i DO know it blew my mind.

Thismuststop! said...

I found this site while researching Mel. Very cool to learn about his style. He was a friend of my late grandfather Charles Lundgren who was also an artist. He was a maritime painter. I have a painting of my grandfather, painted by Mel and given to Charles as a gift. How cool is that! I used to see him often over at my grandfather's house when I was a youngster. Real nice guy he is.

Chris

Thismuststop! said...

I found this site while researching Mel. Very cool to learn about his style. He was a friend of my late grandfather Charles Lundgren who was also an artist. He was a maritime painter. I have a painting of my grandfather, painted by Mel and given to Charles as a gift. How cool is that! I used to see him often over at my grandfather's house when I was a youngster. Real nice guy he is.

Chris