Palette vs. Color

Posted in Savor The Flavor on June 23, 2010

Quick. What color is this card?

Soulbound Guardians | Art by Erica Yang

What about this one?

Forked Bolt | Art by Tomasz Jedruszek

What about this one?

Awakening Zone | Art by Johan Bodin

All fantastic pieces of art. All in deep blues, magentas, and turquoises. None of them blue cards.

In each case, the palette—the artist's selection of colors—doesn't match the colors of the card on which the art appears. So what gives? Don't the artists know what colors their cards are? Why does the art diverge so far from the color of the card?

Years ago, when we wrote art descriptions to give to Magic card illustrators, we used to specify palette in clear terms right in the card's art description. Here are two snippets from Mercadian Masques art descriptions, for example:

Palette: blacks, greys, purples

Palette: greens, nut browns, foliage colors

The idea was to keep the art of black cards looking black and the art of green cards looking green, and so on for the rest of the colors.

We don't ... we don't do that anymore.

Today we look at the reasons why.

When we say "card frame" or simply "frame," we mean the sum of all the visual elements that contain the card's game text, creative text, symbols and art (but that aren't these elements themselves). The frame includes the textured rectangle just inside the black border; the subtler texture that you see behind the name bar, type bar, rules text box, and power/toughness box; and the thin pin lines that run around and between all of those spaces.

That frame is one of the most consistent parts of the look of a Magic card, and the color associations it generates are among the game's powerful psychological signals. When you see that card's red frame—no matter what its name is, no matter what its text box says, no matter what its art depicts—your player-brain is already trundling down the anticipated path of doing something red. You're already mentally tapping some Mountains and conjuring up something fiery and impulsive.

So, simply put, we've learned that the frame does a lot of the work of communicating the card's color. It does so much work that the art palette doesn't have to match the card's color exactly. Cards with very different art palettes can all feel surprisingly red as long as they all share that psychologically well-established red frame.

So the frame is already handling most of the game-play job of conveying color. There are artistic reasons for letting the palette vary, too.

    Specifying Palette Unnecessarily Constrains the Artist

Restrictions breed creativity—we readers know this (I was going to link to a particular Mark Rosewater article about this topic, but it's been such a consistent message from him over the years that I'll just go ahead and link to his whole archive). Restricting the artist by asking for a particular color palette could actually help. A given illustrator might even be happy to have his or her options reduced so the imagination can be inspired by seeing a line that tells him or her to use "greens, nut browns, foliage colors" on a given piece.

But the thing is, we already constrain our artists puh-lenty. These poor, courageous humans are drowning in constraints. In addition to the dense block of instruction that constitutes the art description, they have to walk the line of Magic's tone and style. They have to adhere to the style guide for the year (sometimes more than one). And they have to keep track of all the additional reference we send along with their assignment, such as reference for what a particular planeswalker needs to look like, or reference for a particular monster that we've taken from another illustration. And sometimes the constraint is our difficult concept itself. Sometimes the artists have to navigate the stormy seas of our harebrained ideas, as Izzy so admirably did for Deprive:

Color: Blue spell
Action: A human or elf nature mage has just had his/her spell foiled, and the spell's remnants have exploded like a paint bomb. The nature mage stands in front of a rock face, bracing from the blasted-apart spell, and the "spell-stuff" is splashed all over the mage and the rock face behind him/her. The splashed stuff gives the impression of a radial splatter painting, and the splatter, through some kind of strange magic, forms a rough, partial landscape "painting" from the spashes of spell goo.
Focus: The exploded spell and the 'art' it has created

Deprive | Art by Izzy

Wow. So, the artists are already juggling many constraints, and we've found that color palette doesn't have to be one of them. We're pretty picky about how the subject matter of the illustration comes out, but we tend to let the artist figure out how to "solve" the piece in terms of its composition, lighting, "camera angle," and palette. They're the pros—we let them have most of the tools in the toolbox so they can do their job. Restrictions breed creativity, but too many restrictions can eliminate beautiful solutions.

    Variety Is Good

Besides, perfect uniformity isn't that great an artistic goal, anyway. Red cards already have red frames and red mana costs and red abilities and red-sounding names—and many of them also have red-tinted art of red-scaled dragons breathing red fire in front of red volcanoes. We don't need to get picky about specifying palette for every card. We enjoy seeing artists spin ghostly, sickly-green palettes into black cards or glowing-red, blacksmith's-forge palettes into white cards. These outliers create visual variety, so that the pages of red cards in your trade binder don't all run together to form an eye-tiring Wall of Fire.

Besides, variety is practical. That visual variety helps players play the game by keeping individual cards from looking too much like one another. I'll bet most of you could correctly identify one of these from about a quarter mile away:

The idea that the art needs to match up to card color every time—or even frequently—is just a false assumption. It's like geocentrism or the idea that one player can't take on many all at once—get rid of that assumption, and it leads to great discoveries.

    Subject Matter Can Convey Color Values Better Than Palette

Palette is a sledgehammery way to express a card's color. But "color" means a lot more than a wavelength of the light spectrum in Magic. The five colors are value systems, perspectives, philosophies. Each color represents a huge collection of visual motifs, emotional tones and attitudes, surface textures, associated creature types, spell styles, even body languages—in addition to a literal color scheme. Black cards, for example, often show ambitious death-mages, skulls and rotting flesh, shadowy swamp environments, agonizing victims, and/or a preponderance of barbed or spiked armor. Every color has characteristic shapes and subject matter that can get across the values of the color without relying on—well, color.

In fact, even if all Magic art were grayscaled into black-and-white, I'll bet you could usually still tell what color a creature was.

Color palette is a great tool for expressing mana color, and having the two match satisfies most players' expectations. But we find it much more powerful to focus on matching up a card's color with subject matter that expresses that color's values. It's more subtle, but in the long run it can create deeper, more meaningful, more long-lasting impressions of the Magic Multiverse.

    The Palette Usually Matches Anyway

The final reason we don't specify palette to artists (or at least, the final one that comes to mind for me today) is that artists often use a palette that matches the card color without us calling it out. It's not surprising; they're usually primed to do so implicitly, even if palette isn't specified explicitly. For example, every art description starts with a line that mentions the card's color:

Color: Green creature

We use that line to specify the card's color values, but it inevitably influences the artist's choices of color palette. That word "green" might mean growth and instinct and massive creatures, but it also just means "green," so we often get greenish baloths and greenish wurms even when we don't ask for it. And there's another line in every art description that often influences palette:

Location: Forest

If you're illustrating a "green creature" in a "forest," you're probably naturally drawn (heh) to choosing "greens, nut browns, and foliage colors" even if we don't tell you to.

When it's important, we do sometimes ask the artist to use colors that contradict the "color line" or "location line" in the art description. The Eldrazi, for example, are defined in part by their surreal, otherworldly magentas and teals and royal blues, frame color be damned. That helps them look distinct from the more traditional Zendikarian creatures and spells in those "brood lineage" colors—and just helps them feel like Æther-born weirdos.

A card's mana color and its art's color palette are different things. We learned to decouple the two from each other, and Magic is richer for it.

    Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Fear No Good":
The Archenemy decks seem like they'll be awesome from a flavour perspective, but I have a question. Why is there no white theme deck? Flavour-wise, it seems like the four themes are red dragons, black zombies, green crazy nature, and blue artifacts. Where are the blank-eyed, constantly smiling cultists? The beautiful soldiers who don't seem to notice they're covered in blood? The loving, gentle overlord who'll make all your problems disappear if you just stop fighting her and believe ...
I'm just saying, white can do creepy melodramatic evil too!
Yours, Pye

Good question, Pye—and I've gotten a similar question from several readers. The designers set out to make four decks for Archenemy—four, which is a number that happens to be conspicuously not five. I'm not privy to all the details of how decisions like that "four" get made; there's a delicate mathematical dance to weigh all the costs and benefits of all our products, and I'm not one of the dancers (which suits me). But I believe Archenemy was largely set up to fit the model that Planechase provided, and four worked well last time, so four it was.

Once we knew that four was to be the number to count—and that the number of the counting would be four—we created a list of fun, villainous scenarios to give identity to the decks and to flavor their infamous schemes. Although schemes are colorless and can be paired up with wickedness of any color, the flavor scenarios that we liked the best tended to fall along color lines—ferocious dragons, the restless dead, nature run wild, and mad artifice. And although we like how good and evil can appear in every color, white's color values do tend to overlap with traditional morality a lot of the time, and so the white-aligned scenarios we came up with didn't have the same recognizable villain-punch as the others. So, even though the color white appears in the Trample Civilization Underfoot deck and the Assemble the Doomsday Machine deck, the number of the counting was four, and so white was the color that was "left out" of having its own villainous-scenario-slash-game-pack.

That said, we had some fun ideas for white. And I kind of want to hug your conception of the white-aligned villain deck, Pye. So evil! Evil that's so evil that I want to hug the evil. Hmm, which schemes would go well in a white-flavored villain deck? Someone should get on this.

Speaking of evil: next Wednesday I preview a Magic 2011 card that is drenched with villainous flavor. See you then.

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