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How to Make Colour Keys for Animation Scenes and Projects

Colour Keys are used in animation to help establish the look and feel of the background as well as the overall colour of the scene. Essentially they are background paintings that lighting, layout and other departments in the studio use as reference during production.

Colour key artists help set the mood of the scene by painting animation backgrounds, using different lighting settings and using different colour schemes.

In this tutorial we will use the same image and explore alternate lighting and different colour combinations. This can be achieved by taking a single storyboard panel and painting over it. We will be using Adobe Photoshop for the majority of this tutorial, however these skills are transferable to other image editing programs as well.

What You'll Learn in This Tutorial

Adobe Photoshop has many different tools that will allow us to create a colour key for animation quickly and easily. In this tutorial we'll show you how to create a colour key in order to help establish the look and feel of the background as well as the overall colour of the scene. You'll learn:

  • What is a colour key artist
  • How to use an image and paint on top of it to create a colour key
  • How to use a colour key to establish two different lighting situations
  • How to create different colour schemes

What You'll Need

For this tutorial you will need your own storyboard image or a simple scene to create your colour keys. For the purposes of this tutorial we will be using an image that you can download and use from Envato Elements:

sample scenesample scenesample scene

What is a Colour Key Artist

Colour key artists in animation create background paintings for scenes whilst prioritising details such as what colour palette to use, quality of lighting and materials. This helps establish the look and feel of the background as well as the overall colour of the scene, providing valuable information to the production teams involved with the animation.

This can come in the form of paint-overs for story boards or low-res 3D renders. For this tutorial we will be using an image from Envato Elements and painting over it to produce two different colour keys for two different lighting environments.

two different colour keystwo different colour keystwo different colour keys

How to Prepare the Colour Key

Step 1

Open your chosen image or 3D render in your image editor of choice. For this tutorial we will use Adobe Photoshop.

open image up in Photoshopopen image up in Photoshopopen image up in Photoshop

Step 2

Convert your image to black and white. In Adobe Photoshop this can be done by going to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation (Control + U) lower the saturation to -100 to create a greyscale image.

lower the saturationlower the saturationlower the saturation

Step 3

Increase the contrast or your images by adding areas of darkness and light using the Brush Tool (B), an adjustment layer, or the adjustment settings.

Remember to think about the values. Objects that appear closer to the foreground should appear darker (such as the rocks, the bear character and the plants), and elements that are further away (the trees, river and clouds) should appear lighter. This will give the image a greater sense of depth.

For example, in this image you'll see that the rocks, plants, bear character and ground appear much darker now than in the previous image. Whereas the background elements such as the trees, sky, clouds and lake appear lighter.

increase the contrast of imageincrease the contrast of imageincrease the contrast of image

Example 1: How to Create a Colour Key for Day Lighting

Step 1

Start by laying down the base colours, this can be done by using the flat paintbrush in Adobe Photoshop. Use the blending modes such as overlay and multiply to place the colours on top of the image. It is also good to keep in mind what sort of lighting condition you want to explore for the image (e.g. what time of the day, is it cloudy or sunny).

apply flat coloursapply flat coloursapply flat colours

Step 2

Create a new layer for the shadows with the opacity set to around 40-50%.

create a shadow layercreate a shadow layercreate a shadow layer

Step 3

Start laying down the shapes for the shadows. Think about what time of the day it will be as the lighting situation will change according to the position of the sun. This will also effect the length of the shadows.

For example, in a morning lighting situation the colours should be bright and vibrant. Shadows are also longest in the early morning when the sun appears low in the sky.

lay down some shadowslay down some shadowslay down some shadows

Step 4

Create a new layer for the lighting with the blend mode set to Screen.

screen layerscreen layerscreen layer

Step 5

Using a soft round brush, gently paint in areas of light where you want the glow of the sunlight to appear. Remember to use vibrant colours for a morning lighting situation. For example we have used a warm orange colour #f2a555 for the highlights.

add highlightsadd highlightsadd highlights

Step 6

Use the soft round brush to paint in some subtle sunrays to help complete the painting.

add sun raysadd sun raysadd sun rays

Example 2: How to Create a Colour Key for Night Lighting

Step 1

Start by laying down some base colours for the night time lighting using the flat paintbrush. For example we have chosen a purple colour for the sky. Keep the colours muted and desaturated for night time. 

If you want to use the base colours used for the day time lighting, simply use a new layer and fill it with a dark blue. Then change the blend mode to Multiply and change the opacity to around 40-50%.

create new night colourscreate new night colourscreate new night colours

Step 2

Create a new layer for the shadows with the opacity set to blend mode to multiply and the opacity to around 40-50%.

create new shadow layercreate new shadow layercreate new shadow layer

Step 3

Start laying down the shapes for the shadows.

add shadowsadd shadowsadd shadows

Step 4

Create a new layer for the lighting with the blend mode set to Screen.

create a screen layercreate a screen layercreate a screen layer

Step 5

Using a soft round brush, gently paint in the areas of light where you want the glow of the moonlight to appear. Remember to use cold colours for a night time lighting situation. For example you can use a cyan #7cf4ff colour for the highlights.

add glowsadd glowsadd glows

Awesome! You're Finished!

Congratulations! And that's how to create a colour key by painting over an image. Remember to keep in mind what sort of mood and visual tone you would like to convey in your scene and to try out different lighting situations such as noon time where the shadows will be shorter. I hope you've found this tutorial useful and I'll see you next time, on Envato Tuts+!

create colour keyscreate colour keyscreate colour keys
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