How did old hand-drawn animation achieve such consistent color?


Mainly wondering how they avoided discoloration or the presence of brushstrokes. Thanks!

Found in Technology.

Speed and skill. Each pencil drawing by an animator was traced in ink on to a transparent sheet. Once the ink dried it was sent to painting where the paint was applied to the BACK of the transparent film. Each section of color had to be completed quickly while the paint was still very wet so it would show no brushstrokes or the cel was ruined, but going outside the lines would also ruin a cel, as even though it would not obscure the line, it would still show the color in the next section over.

In the golden age of Disney the ink and paint department was a fleet women who’s only job was to trace or paint. The inking girls were considered to be a higher caliber than the painting girls, as their work required a more steady hand, but the painting girls were amazing in their own right. One of the greatest accomplishments of that department was maintaining consistency in color and positioning on Snow White’s blushed cheeks, which were done with *actual blush.* The effect was so time consuming it was never used again. They stuck to solid colors from then on out.

Edit: I have been corrected below. The use of actual blush is an urban legend. The effect was achieved no less amazingly with a dye applied to each cel by a very talented woman from inking named Helen Ogger. See the post correcting me below for more detail.

There were whole departments dedicated to mixing the paints, doing nothing but ensuring every batch of colour matched every other. Cosgrove Hall had a pot of paint simply called “DM’s Nose”, used also for Duckula’s tongue.


The paint is paint- as long as you have it thick enough to be opaque, it looks the same if you apply extra anywhere. This was also necessary because it was layered over a background. Anything not opaque would be partially transparent when laid over the background. So it had to be opaque

Keeping the paint look *identical* was a big thing.

The backgrounds were often watercolor. It was not possible to anything other than scroll it around, it must be static. Because you can’t repaint animation cells in watercolor with any consistency.

Thus the Scooby Doo “secret door” or “something hiding behind a bush” being so obvious. If it opened or the bush shakes, that’s animation so it has to be painted cells laid on a static watercolor background.

Unrelated to actual painting per se, but not every color on the cel was redrawn. They’d use layers much like Photoshop and sometimes just change the head that moved slightly while using the rest of the drawing/painting from the previous cel. It’s also why lots of cartoon characters wore ties.

Finally something I can answer! I have studied under a traditional animation cel-painter that worked on Disney and Bluth films, I can give some background. When studios wanted to get colors to always match up, there were whole groups of people that spend all day being color scientists. They do lots of research and science to make sure that the paint and colors are always the same by mixing chemicals and making sure to keep the recipe exact every time. When you are painting an animation cel, the technique is to let the blobs of wet paint skim across the plastic. Technically, the brush should never sweep across the surface of the cel to make a brushstroke, the brush is there mainly to push the blobs paint around. Think of it like you are pushing a drop of water softly across a tabletop, you run your brush against the surface of the drop to spread it gently until you finish filling the section you need. I’m not sure how to explain it more, it’s a lot easier to do a demo but hopefully that helps!

My godfather actually worked as a color specialist in a small animation studio in Lithuania during 80s. He told me the stories how he spent countless days mixing paint so it would be consistent. Writing down the exact numbers of how much of every color he used to create one or another shade of required color. Also he did mess up couple of times, just by adding couple drops more than needed. He said that in hand drawn animation it’s VERY easy to notice even the slightest change in the shade of the colour when watching the final result

I can’t speak for the golden age of hand drawn animation, but by the time I arrived in Los Angeles there was a shop called ‘Cartoon Color’ that sold animation supplies, including a spectrum of premixed colors that were renowned for their consistency.

I believe the store—now closed—was in Culver City. There appears to be a moribund website associated with them as well.

If I’m not mistaken, Adam Savage (Mythbusters, [](, former ILM) has discussed this before and recalled the days where he would have to paint the different layers on the cell and work out what colour it would be based on where it is on the stack. The further down, the more the colour changed, so they’d need to know how many layers the image was and then adjust each layer to colour correct for it.

Excellent question, OP. Anecdotally, years ago (I’m in my 50’s), I took a basic animation class taught by a guy who worked on Sleeping Beauty. He was the biggest ass I’ve ever met, and I don’t think he actually did anything but tell (with obvious nostalgia) stories of the male Disney animators getting into friendly fistfights after work, playing pranks on each other, or making fun of any woman dumb enough to want to do what they did. In hindsight, I’m betting he had a very minor role and never got to see the inside of the studio again, which would explain why he never actually taught us anything.

Also the paint colors were available in slightly different variations to accommodate the layering of animation cels.

If a character had a blue jacket for instance the blue would be Blue 0. And if you were going to animate just the characters arm. You would separate and animate the arm movements on a cel above the previous cel but if you used Jacket Blue 0 the top layered cel would shift the color of the blue layer beneath it when photographed. So you would paint the arm with a slightly different blue, a specially formulated Jacket Blue 1 to accommodate the slight color shift and in the final result the two Jacket Blue pigments would appear identical.

RE the presence of brush strokes, they use a specific kind of acrylic paint that goes on very consistently. When I was really getting into sculpting I read about Cel-Vinyl paints that Kat Sapene (amazing sculpture painter) uses. Here’s what she has to say about it:

“KS: I like to use animation cel-vinyl to paint my projects. It’s very similar to acrylic paints. But because it was meant to be used to paint animation cels (the individual frames that make up cartoons), the paint is very opaque. This means fewer layers of paint that need to be applied and therefore I don’t have to worry about paint buildup distorting the original sculpt. Aside from being opaque, cel-vinyl dries quickly, keeps its color over time, and is slightly flexible. The flexibility allows for handling without much chipping. And the paint is very versatile. It can be used for a wash, a dry brush, or even through an airbrush. I love it!”

So I went to the manufacturer and got those paints! Sure enough they are extremely even and bold, and because they supplied the painting professionals their colors were always consistent.

Edit: a words

Cel vinyl paint. It was all premixed and put into tubes, ready to be used by the colorists. so there was no need to mix colors when it was time to paint. that’s where you would run into inconsistencies with paint color.

There were no brush strokes in the color because for one, it was painted on the back of the cels so the camera, and you the viewer was really just seeing the underside of painting behind some thin plastic. Also cel vinyl had a thick, almost glue-like consistency so it flattened out quickly and evenly when painting. Artists didn’t need the built up layers that oils or even acrylic needs to get rich, even color.

I painted a lot of artwork with cel vinyl, just because of those qualities. It was the best! Sadly the only company that produced cel vinyl paint, Cartoon Colour Company just quietly went out of business a couple years ago.