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Red Dead Redemption 2 - Arthur approaching a campfire Rockstar Games via Polygon

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The painted world of Red Dead Redemption 2

Rockstar’s newest game goes beyond other games and movies to find a new variety of visual inspiration

Video games live in a world of cameras and cinematic terms, where the goal over the last decade has been an emulation of film and optical technology. Bokeh-based depth of field, which emulates not just the behavior of a lens but the shape of its aperture blades, is often a measure of how advanced a game engine’s visual feature set is. For years, color grading has been an aggressive solution to a coherent visual presentation in games, mimicking the style of films from visually oriented directors like Tony Scott and Ridley Scott.

However, it’s long been clear that Rockstar Games wants Red Dead Redemption 2 to stand apart from its contemporaries with regard to its presentation — assuming, that is, the studio considers other games its contemporaries.

“Generally we were not looking to film or art for inspiration,” Rockstar North art director Aaron Garbut told me via email. “We were building a place, not a linear or static representation, so while in the past we had looked to both, it no longer seemed as necessary or relevant. We are not building a passive experience. [...] Numerous systems in our lighting, cameras, weather and time of day come together with the player’s actions and the world and characters we have built to create something unique and constantly changing.”

It’s an interesting statement, though, because in so many ways, Red Dead Redemption 2 seems more clearly inspired by a particular period of fine art than any game I’ve ever seen.

Editors Note: We’ve added a video where we further explore Red Dead Redemption 2’s connection to the Hudson River School of Art, including an interview with Wendy Ikemoto, Associate curator of American Art at the New York Historical Society.

Some of this may be a byproduct of a desire to establish a sense of literal atmosphere within the game’s Western setting. “Since the connection between sky and landscape [was] so important to us,” Garbut said, “we wanted to get away from the old methods of atmosphere rendering, where there was a theatrical layering between the world and the sky, and to make it something much more tangible, so the player can almost feel the wind, rain, and mist on their face as they ride across the landscapes. From the gusts of wind blowing through the grasslands, to the clouds scudding around the mountain tops casting shadows on the plains below, the atmosphere is a complete inter-connected system.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. Cameras and photographs are just one way of seeing the world, a way that in so many regards does not reflect the way that we see. But there are other ways of creating an image, and Garbut’s explanation of Red Dead Redemption 2’s philosophy of lighting, well, paints a picture, if you’ll pardon the expression.

“[We] looked to reality, we looked to the places that we were riffing from. [...] However, there were certain areas like lighting where there were some direct inspirations. Owen Shepherd, our lighting director, looked to the pastoral and landscape painters like Turner, Rembrandt and American landscape painters from the 19th century such as Albert Bierstadt, Frank Johnson, and Charles Russell.”

In my opinion, that’s not where Red Dead Redemption 2’s painterly influences stop, but it’s a great place to begin.

Landscape painting

Landscape painting was considered beneath fine art and proper culture in the West until it was largely legitimized by artists like Rembrandt in the 17th century, who took the practice from a lark or work for apprentices to something more widely appreciated by patrons and the public. This would lay the foundations for the Romantics, who used the wonder of the natural tableau for various symbolic purposes. The Romantics further solidified the artistic validity of landscape painting, and set the stage for later artists to make names for themselves.

J.M.W. Turner picked up the torch and ran with it. An English Romantic painter who studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, Turner painted with a dramatic, expressive style that presaged trends that wouldn’t find wide acceptance for decades with the impressionists and French Academy of the latter part of the 19th century.

Turner’s influence in Red Dead Redemption 2 is felt in its approach to lighting, but it is especially prevalent at a key moment in the game that’s a little early to talk about, so I won’t spoil it here.

The Hudson River School

Among the Sierra Nevada, California by Albert Bierstadt
Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California (1868), oil on canvas, 72” x 120”

The seeds of the Hudson River School and American landscape painting were likely planted during the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804, as the young country sought to find itself. The landscape of the West proved one way to do that, and artists sought inspiration there.

The Hudson River School’s work was marked by depicting peaceful relationships between “man” and nature, indicating a biblical sense of both coexistence and ownership over the wide-open spaces that distinguished the American frontier from the European environments that had previously dominated landscape painting.

It’s clear that Hudson River School landscapes influenced Rockstar’s portrayal of the world of Red Dead Redemption 2, from color choices to the immense sense of scale. It’s worth noting that many of these paintings are fairly large — Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada is 6 feet tall and 10 feet wide, the better to wow viewers with its tremendous sense of scale and majesty.

Donner Lake From the Summit by Albert Bierstadt
Albert Bierstadt, Donner Lake From the Summit (1873), oil on canvas, 72” x 120”
The New York Historical Society/Getty Images
Emigrants Crossing the Plains - Sunset by Albert Bierstadt
Albert Bierstadt, Emigrants Crossing the Plains—Sunset or The Oregon Trail (1867), oil on canvas, 31” x 49”
Wikimedia Commons

The Hudson River School proved exceptionally adept at depicting the natural world and large spaces the way we see, in a physically based way, which translates well to the manner in which Red Dead Redemption 2’s game world is constructed.

The game’s environments are full of atmosphere, figuratively but also sort of literally. There’s a progressive amount of effects at play that simulate fog and humidity in various environments that, in turn, have a profound effect on the composition and visual presentation of the game. This goes beyond the appearance of clouds and fog and a convincing sense of environment. It also emulates specific concepts of landscape painting.

One is color saturation, and the use of it to establish space and depth. For landscape painting in particular, this plays out in several ways. First, color is generally less saturated the farther back in real space it exists. Second, the farther back something is within a landscape, the more blue it is. This is for the same reason that the sky is blue — as sunlight passes through the atmosphere, progressively more of it is blocked by air molecules, save for higher-frequency ranges like blue and violet.

This was reflected in the Hudson River School’s paintings, and you can see some of that influence in the screenshot from Red Dead Redemption 2 below, where the environment tends toward pastel colors and atmospheric shapes as it leads away from the front of the picture plane.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Micah, Arthur and Dutch riding toward Twin Stacks at golden hour
Red Dead Redemption 2
Rockstar Games via Polygon

Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t about a maximally contrast-driven, high-intensity image at all times. It plays out in the middle values, where color is present but not blasting out the way modern pop culture visuals have conditioned our expectations to sit — particularly in HDR.

Other inspirations

C.M. Russell

Charles Marion Russell’s paintings focused on the idea of the West and the frontier, though he was less idealistic than many of the Hudson River School painters. He spent time with the Blackfeet Nation in 1888, which likely deeply informed his understanding of the dynamic of westward expansion.

You can see a similar color sensibility to many of Russell’s paintings throughout Red Dead Redemption 2. Colors are more saturated closer to the focal point of the painting, and much of the rest of the painting here, When the Land Belonged to God, exists in grayish shapes of color, particularly as the scene recedes.

N.C. Wyeth

While Rockstar doesn’t explicitly mention N.C. Wyeth’s work in reference to artistic inspiration for Red Dead Redemption 2, there are moments scattered throughout the game that make it hard not to think of his sometimes heroic but often melancholy tempera paintings. Wyeth is one of the most beloved and legendary American painters and illustrators, and was the scion of a family that continues to feature prominently in American painting.

John Singer Sargent

Self-Portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1892
John Singer Sargent, Self-Portrait (1892), oil on canvas, 21” x 17”
Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Red Dead Redemption 2 - Arthur in winter outfit
Red Dead Redemption 2
Rockstar Games via Polygon

John Singer Sargent became known primarily in France, and later England, as the most in-demand portrait painter of his generation in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was indicative of the style emerging from the French Academy at the time, which took the realistic approach of earlier academic styles and integrated influence from the impressionist movement spearheaded by artists like Mary Cassatt.

Sargent’s style was wet into wet — rather than painting in meticulous layers involving monochromatic values with color layered over the the top bit by bit, he relied on an all-at-once technique that placed color, light and shadow more or less as it appeared. The result was a phenomenally believable sense of form and flesh to his subjects.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Arthur, Hosea and Pearson in the snow
Red Dead Redemption 2
Rockstar Games via Polygon

The point of this comparison is the manner in which human subjects are depicted in Red Dead Redemption 2, which is to say, subtly. Faces and flesh exist largely within halftones, avoiding excessive contrast. Warm and cool tones dance across surfaces, avoiding the muddy appearance of so many other games, including, at times, the original Red Dead Redemption and even Grand Theft Auto 5.

The depiction of luminosity and light interacting with flesh calls to mind the brilliant reds so frequently found in Sargent and his contemporaries’ portraits to signify light spreading through fleshy areas like ears and fingers. This touch is evident throughout Red Dead Redemption 2, sometimes subtly, and sometimes not at all — there’s the occasional sense that someone figured out how to recreate the specific red in use, and went a little overboard with it. The effect is nonetheless beautiful, whether the similarities were intentional or not.