Cennini and the Superbrights

The aspect of early Renaissance painting which first drew me in was colour.  The intense pure colours of early Flemish and Italian art still transfix no matter how many paintings I see.  Perhaps it’s a bit like being a magpie, genetically attracted to bright and luminous objects.  I finally had a chance to read ‘Color and Meaning:  Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting’ by Marcia B. Hall, unfortunately now out of print.  I’ll be reading chapters of this on many repeat occasions, but for now, I’m feeling equipped to think about some systems of colour application in the early Renaissance and their equivalent incarnations in game and animation art today.

One of the recognisable styles of 3D art is the ‘superbright’ style (I’ll call it). It’s primary and flooded with unnatural light.  This has an immediate appeal to children, but also to grown-ups including me.  My attraction to this style was again part of my initial attraction to 3D graphics in general, and I have in recent years thought about the similarities to the colour palettes of certain Renaissance paintings.

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

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 ‘superbright’ 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 Adoration of the Magi about 1433-4, Attributed to Zanobi Strozzi, The National Gallery, London

San Benedetto Altarpiece, 1407-9, Lorenzo Monaco

San Benedetto Altarpiece, 1407-9, Lorenzo Monaco, The National Gallery (shown without the frame)

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 pretense 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.”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 Screengrab,

The Sims Screengrab, published by Electronic Arts

Finding Nemo is targeted perhaps more exclusingly 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 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.”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 screengrab

Katamari Damacy published by Namco

And finally a sampler of the game experience which can be set to HD:


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.
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6 Responses to “Cennini and the Superbrights”

  1. 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
    Three Pipe Problem


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