Colour Matching is Not the Secret Code to Realism

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One of the things that’s been interesting about studying more traditional art forms after learning to paint miniatures is discovering that there are common issues and areas of mistaken focus for learners of all forms of visual media. One area that less experienced artists in every media put a heavy focus on is trying to choose or match colours to achieve greater realism. Maybe you want to figure out the best colour recipe to use for skin, or wood, or rocks. Maybe you just want to know the ‘right’ colour to shade this other colour you’re using. Maybe you love a colour you saw on someone else’s figure or book cover art. Maybe you’re looking at a reference photo of a suit of armour or leather boots and trying to match the colour. (I encourage you to use reference photos and study real life objects, it’ll help your painting a lot!) Whatever the reference point, a lot of us stress ourselves out trying to find the ‘right’ or ‘best’ colour for something.

I want to talk about why matching colours isn’t as important to achieving realism as we think it is, and outline the element that is much more important than colour.

First I would ask: do we even need colour to perceive something as realistic? This is a drawing I’ve been working on for a while now. It’s not quite done, but would you say that the face looks realistic?

IMG 1102

In stark contrast to the focus learners put on matching colours, teachers emphasize another factor as being far more important. Tutorials by experienced artists and art teachers (including miniature painters) very often say the colours don’t really matter, use whatever paints you have, exaggerate or tweak the colour. What they emphasize instead is the importance of learning to see and apply to your work the full range of value and contrast found on objects in the real world, reference photos, and the work of people you admire. An uncounted number of instructors across all of the various medias that I’ve studied repeat basically the same message: 

The key to effective art, especially realistic art, is to accurately represent the natural range of dark, midtone, and light colours that would be seen on that material/object.

Absolutely colour can be important! It contributes a lot to mood and atmosphere and is just plain pleasing to look at. It’s also true that we see the world in colour, so colour is an important element of making something feel realistic to most of us. And it’s fun to work with! What I’m getting at here is that concentrating your focus on choosing/mixing an exact ‘right’ colour is not really that helpful to improving your skills. If you think that painting more realistically or more successfully is primarily a matter of choosing the right colours, you are overlooking other much more important issues that will slow down your progress.

Below you can see a more accurate photo of the painting I’m working on. Does the face still look realistic? I used wacky colours, so it’s not as realistic as it would look if painted with more naturalistic colours. You as a viewer may prefer art that is painted with naturalistic colours. But whether this is to your taste or not, the face looks like a real person. You can still identify the features and the expression. You can tell where the light is coming from. You can see which areas of the face protrude, like the nose and lips, and which are dips and depressions, like the hollows under the cheeks and the nostrils. You can probably even identify the subject’s ethnic background and what his natural skin tone might look like, despite the fact that I deliberately didn’t use any natural skin tones in painting this.

IMG 1103

Black and white and other monochromatic colour schemes work on miniatures too! In fact painting figures using a monochromatic colour scheme is an excellent way to push your understanding of the importance of value and texture, which are skills that will improve your painting on full colour figures.

Noir detective front 2000

Of course there are other important elements to achieve realism in drawing and painting! In this article I am primarily focused on the idea of rendering, in its definition of of painting in the colours and the shading and so on. This is what we do in miniature painting. If someone is drawing or sculpting their subject from a blank slate, they need to start with accurate proportion and perspective to make something look realistic and correct. If you’re painting a miniature figure, the sculptor has done all that work for us. Our focus is on rendering colour and the effect of light to look realistic and interesting. (And texture, but for the most part that is a topic for another day.)

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

They say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. I suggest you add colour to that list. You don’t need to match or find perfect colour hues to paint a decent miniature!

I painted the miniature on the left as part of a limited edition learn to paint kit for Reaper Miniatures. My goal was to try to match the colour scheme of the figure on the right that I had previously painted. Obviously there are differences in both the colours and the sophistication of the applied techniques between these two figures! But is the figure on the left a terrible paint job because it doesn’t match the colours of the inspiration exactly? 

I don’t think the one on the left is not a terrible failure as a colour scheme. The colours don’t clash or look garish or super unrealistic. The colours work together harmoniously and create a similar mood to the inspiration. The colour choices give the mini fairly good definition so you can read it easily even at a distance. The elements I would add to improve this miniature have very little to do with colour. It would benefit from some lining and additional contrast, and maybe painting some of the fine details. It might look a little prettier if it were smoothly blended or had more of a cloth like texture on the skirt. The only item related to colour in the list of things I would do to improve the mini is adding more contrast to add deeper shadows to the skin and hair, and that’s about value, not matching or changing colour hues.

Tristan front comp cr

In the example below, I was tasked with painting the figure to match the 2D artwork by the talented Izzy “Talin” Collier. The colours between the two are not exact matches. The creepy doll is a pretty close colour match. Sophie’s hair, wings, and red dress trim are not as close of matches, nor is the gravestone nor the zombie hand. I don’t think my painting on this figure is perfect, and five years on there are some things I would tweak or do differently. But I don’t think the painting is terrible because of the colours that don’t match, and I don’t think it completely fails to evoke the atmosphere in the original art. (Some of the non-matching colour choices were deliberate, for reasons I hope to get to in another article.)

Sophie 16 art mini

Here’s a traditional art example. Which of these cherries looks most realistic to you?

Cherries combo3

Cherries combo2

If you thought think these are all the same cherries just shown under different lighting scenarios or with some colour editing, you’re mostly right. The photograph of real cherries is on the bottom left. (The photographer of these cherries is Margo Luc.) The bottom right is a painting I did using the photo for reference. The two top cherry pictures are versions of my painting edited to alter the colours to be more of an orange red or more of a crimson red.  

I don’t think the degree to which these appear realistic is affected by the colour shifts. What makes my painting look like realistic cherries is not whether I matched the exact colours (I didn’t). The paintings look realistic because I was attentive as to where areas appear darker and lighter. Placing the darks and lights correctly captured the texture of the various items (shiny fruit vs matte stems and cloth) and the sense of light. All I needed to do colour wise was stay roughly in the family of colours cherries and cherry stems could be.

The modified version of the photo below is still recognizable to you as cherries, but the colour is far enough out of the family of natural colours cherries and stems might appear that it probably won’t look as pleasing to someone seeking realism. 

Cherries photo pink

My recommendation is to focus less on getting exactly the right colour. Think of it like horseshoes and hand grenades. It’s great if you can hit the target precisely, but most of the time it’s okay if you’re just close and you use something in the appropriate colour family.

Value and Contrast are Key

The aspect that is more important is to try to make things darker where they should be darker, and lighter where they should be lighter. And not only making them darker and lighter, but making them dark enough and light enough.

Yeah, I’m talking about that pesky contrast thing again! 

I’m going to use a couple of quick portraits I’ve done as an example to talk about colour versus value contrast. Both of the portraits below were drawn using the same reference photo. Both were drawn using watercolour pencils as the medium. (You can draw with these like a coloured pencil, then apply a damp brush and they turn into watercolour paint.) With the one on the left, I did the drawing with less time and attention. I also had a very limited colour selection of watercolour pencils for the one on the left, whereas I had a quite wide selection to choose from when I did the drawing on the right.

The drawing on the left is not great. The colour is a little bit strange. The face is mostly skin colour, but the shadows are a pretty strong purple. That said, I don’t think colour is the biggest problem of that drawing. Not by a long shot. The errors in the drawing of proportion and anatomy are far more significant reasons that it doesn’t look very realistic.

Green 1 cr

For this next picture, I did a little digital plastic surgery on the left drawing. It’s not perfect now, but the anatomy looks a little less freaky. I did not alter the colour beyond blending away the cut and paste marks from moving the features around to correct the proportions a little. So the colour is still a little weird, and the blending is pretty rough. I don’t think the colour looks super horrible on its own, though. The one on the right has better colour, but if the blending was a little better, I bet the one on the left wouldn’t look so bad.

Green 2 cr

In the picture below, I used photo editing tools to smooth the blending on the skin of the one on the left. The purple is still a little strong, but overall it’s not looking so bad now! Especially when you consider I only had a few colours of pencil to work with and only one of them was at all close to the colour of the skin in my photo reference. I might have wanted to paint something more like the portrait on the right, but if I’d been able to paint something like the revised version of the one on the left with my limited tools, I would have been fairly satisfied with that. So what if I couldn’t get the exact same shade of green for the hair on this try and the shadows are a little weird, it still conveys the same idea, and the colours go together pretty well.

Green 3a cr

In fact, now that I’m not being distracted by incorrect anatomy and rough blending, I can see an area where the revised left portrait succeeds better than the right one. And that area is… contrast. Both portraits have dark hair and shirt. Both have dark makeup and shadows around the eyes. But the one on the left also has a darker shadow under the nose, between the lips, and under the cheekbones. The features stand out more and you can read the face more clearly, particularly if you look at the pictures at a small size. The face of the portrait on the right looks pretty washed out and flat apart from the eyes.

Maybe the reference photo had light shadows in those areas and the portrait on the right matches better? I dug it out to take another look and… nope, that wasn’t it. The left portrait is a more accurate representation of how dark the shadows appeared in the photo. In this last example, I asked myself what would it look like if I did a little digital editing to add more shadow to the portrait on the right? I didn’t change any aspect of the drawing (the shapes of the face and location and shapes of the features) other than moving the eyebrows up a little. I just added shadows, and a little bit of highlights on the lips. 

Green 6 cr

I’d say it would look pretty good! 

Let me repeat again that the only change I made to the underlying drawing was moving the eyebrows up. I did that so I could add more shadows under the brow ridge like in my reference photo. I did not change the shape of the mouth! That mouth is the same structure as in my original drawing. It looks really different because I added the shadows that were in the reference photo, and I added a little bit more highlight on the lower lip. My original version of the portrait on the right is kind of like what often happens on miniatures that we paint. I drew the underlying anatomy and proportion pretty well, but I didn’t render it with enough contrast, so viewers couldn’t see the shapes very well.

The revised version looks more realistic and much closer to the reference photo. That’s because shadows are realistic. Contrast is realistic! There are lighting scenarios that create more or less shadow, but unless an object is completely surrounded by light from all angles, there will be shadows. And an object completely surrounded by light would look very flat and boring. The shadows on areas that curve away from the light or are obscured from the light help us understand the shapes of objects. You can tell that the face in the revised portrait is closer to the viewer than the neck because of the shadow on the neck. You can tell that the hollows of her cheeks curve in and down from the cheekbones because of the shadows. The lips look so different because the shadows I added give you more information about what shape they are.

Adding these kinds of shadows is as important on a miniature as it is for a drawing or painting on a flat surface! Miniatures are so small that the lighting in our large scale world does not cast shadows on them in the same way as it does on larger objects. To make them look real and as if lit by a light source in their scale, you need to paint shadows, including deep shadow in some areas. If you are practiced with a form of 2D art, I recommend you try to paint a few miniatures thinking of them as if they were as flat as a drawing, and that should help you feel comfortable adding more of the necessary contrast.

Below is an example of a similar situation on a miniature. I took a figure I had quickly painted some years ago and did some touchups on it. Compare the muscles on his back, the folds in his pants, and the boots in the before and after. You can see the shapes of these objects much more clearly in the figure on the right where I added additional shadow contrast. (And a touch more highlights, particularly on the boots.)

Smith ba back cr

I would say the increased contrast on the figure looks both more interesting, and more realistic. I encourage you to spend more of your hobby study effort on learning to see the contrast around us in the real world and applying that to your miniatures rather than getting too caught up in finding the exact right colour recipes for various objects and textures. (As a side note on how colour isn’t the secret key to realism, the shadow colours on both the pants and skin of the blacksmith figure include saturated purple.) 

Here’s the black and white version of the blacksmith figure. I know people sometimes find it easier to see contrast in grayscale. I’m going to include a couple of grayscale photos of the portraits at the bottom of this article as well.

Smith ba back cr bw

If you’d like to see some more before and after comparisons, check out my articles on common issues in painted miniatures

If you have a bad habit of beating yourself up about your painting, I encourage you to read my article about measuring progress, where I talk more about the experience of drawing the two portraits and how I didn’t let the bad one get me down.

In a future articles I plan to talk about why it’s so hard to see and match colours, and why sometimes you might choose different colours for artistic reasons.

Below is a black and white version where the left portrait has been edited and the right has not. The placement of shadow areas and their level of contrast is actually more accurate and interesting on the left badly drawn version of the portrait.

Green 4 cr

In the picture below, the portrait on the right has been digitally edited to add additional shadows based on the original reference photo. It now looks more realistic, helps viewers see the shapes better, and is more interesting to look at.

Green 5 cr

Figures in this Post

The Deadlands Noir Detective is available in plastic and metal.
The metal version of Tristan Loremistress was a special edition and no longer available. The plastic version will release sometime in the future. Keep an eye on this link, which also includes previous classic sculpts of Tristan.
Gravestone Sophie (and friends) is available in metal.
The Blacksmith is available in plastic or in metal.

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