How can you apply the colourful schemes suggested by colour theory to dark and dreary types of characters? Why do some of your brown or grey paints look great on most of your figures, but then sometimes they don’t? What makes the blacks and greys and browns on the figures of painters you admire look more interesting than when you paint those colours? A better understanding of the colour that lurks within our neutral colour paints can help us paint better looking miniatures with less frustration!
The figures shown above and below are predominately painted with classic neutral colours like grey, brown, and black. But are they? Grouped together like this you can see that there are differences between the greys and the blacks on each. Compare the weapons, and the bases of the three with grey stonework. The use of specific grey and brown paint colours creates variations in the colours schemes and atmosphere of each figure.
Saturation and Neutral Colours
Saturation is a measure of the intensity of a colour’s hue (aka colour family, like red vs blue). We might describe acid green as an intense or highly saturated colour, and describe khaki green as a muted, dull, or less saturated colour. In the diagram below, the top row contains examples of highly saturated colours. The examples on the bottom row are somewhat less saturated versions of those colours.
We use the term neutral colour to describe colours that don’t really seem to have a distinct hue – beige, brown, cream, taupe, ivory, grey, etc. Neutrals are considered inoffensive, even bland colours, that can easily be paired with stronger colours to create harmonious colour schemes. The majority of human skin and hair colours are various shades of browns and tans, and most of us treat skin and hair as neutral colours that will look okay with any colour of clothing or decor, or for our miniatures, paint colour schemes.*
You can see some examples of neutral colours below. The bottom row are colours I sampled from hair colours, and the second from the bottom I sampled from skin colours. I sampled these colours from snapshots in my phone photos, not possibly manipulated studio photos.
Pure white, pure black, and the neutral grey colours you can mix with them are true neutral colours. They are completely desaturated of any colour.** They do cooperate with any other colour, but since they don’t really occur in nature, they can look artificial or too bland in some contexts.
Monochrome colour schemes suit some miniatures perfectly, and are a useful exercise for painters.
Neutrals can have Colour
If pure black, white, and grey are the only pure neutrals, then all the other colours we call neutral actually have some colour hue to them. Sometimes it’s relatively easy to identify the hue within a neutral. If you look back at the colour samples I shared earlier, you can likely identify that one of the skin tones is kind of orange, and another is kind of red (pink).
The fact that there are colours in neutrals can help us in several ways, which include identifying why our paint choices aren’t working out, adding visual interest and complexity, and applying colour theory to gritty and worn characters.
When we have a brown or cream or grey that doesn’t seem to be working very well on a miniature, often it is because the underlying colour tone of that neutral doesn’t harmonize well with the other colours we’ve used on the figure.
When we want to use a classic colour scheme but we’re painting a skulking thief or time-worn undead character, we can use less saturated versions of the suggested colours. Or to put it another way, we can use character-appropriate greys, browns, and tans, but choose ones that have the underlying colour tones of the colours suggested for the colour scheme.
Let’s say I want to paint a thief, and I want to use a triadic colour scheme. The three colours in a triadic colour scheme are spaced equidistant apart on the colour wheel. The two basic triads in the classic colour theory system are the three primary colours (red, blue, yellow) and the three secondary colours (orange, green, purple.) Neither of those sound very thief-like, but let’s see if we can use desaturated versions of those colours to make it work.
On the far left is the kind of highly saturated red, yellow, and blue a colour wheel or online colour scheme tool might suggest for a triadic colour scheme. The row of colours beside each of these is a less saturated version of the original colour. Some are darker, some are lighter, some are a similar value but more muted.
I’m not suggesting we use all of those colours on our thief! Those are just examples of types of colours that might work. Among that array we might see colours that would work for skin tones, leather, non-metallic metal, and other materials. Below is an example of a possible palette of colours for a thief with dark skin and dark hair. I chose the midtone, shadow, and highlight colours from the above examples, and then blended those together digitally in the same way we might test paint options on paper. These look like a set of colours that are suitably subdued, but still have some touches of colour you can use to simulate different materials and create colour contrast.
Let’s look at the other triadic scheme I mentioned. On the far left are highly saturated orange, green, and purple. The rows beside them are less saturated versions of those colours.
In this second example for a suggested palette, I did something a little differently. I used the same shadow colour and the same highlight colour on all of the mixes. You can see the colours I used for the shadows and highlights on the far left. This thief with pale peachy skin and reddish hair would have a very different colour palette to the one above, but still one that is subdued and which includes colours that could be applied to a variety of different materials.
Note that the colours you use in shadows and highlights still ‘count’ as part of your colour scheme. If I removed the purplish colour from the above scheme but continued to mix that purple into my shadows, I would still be using an orange-green-purple triadic colour scheme. Using the same or similar colours in shadows and/or highlights can help tie your colours together regardless of your colour scheme. If you look at the colour recipes I used on the puzzle party elf, you’ll see that the same colour shows up in the shadows for just about every colour on the figure. The painting process for the face of that figure also demonstrates how you can use colours from elsewhere on your figure to shift and desaturate paint colours you’ve already applied to help make a colour harmonize better if it isn’t quite fitting with the rest of the colours.
Naus the Waghalter is a figure I painted with the aim of creating a dark and dirty colour scheme, but one that had touches of colour rather than using super muted neutrals. I used a different process and I wasn’t adhering to a classic colour scheme, but I was using the general principles that I’ve been talking about here. I sampled various areas of the photograph to create the colour swatches below right. They’re all muted colours, but none of them are true neutral. You may not be able to identify the colour within every sample, but hopefully you can see a few that look a bit blue, green, and pink/purple.
How to Find the Colour in Neutrals
People who are adept or trained with colour might easily be able to identify the colour family to which a neutral colour belongs, but what about the rest of us? Lucky for us there are some handy tools we can use to find the colours in neutrals, both for photographs and physical paints.
If you can’t really see the colours in an inspirational piece of artwork or someone else’s miniature, you can manipulate the photo to increase the saturation and make the colours easier to see. If you have a smartphone with a camera, the built-in photo editor likely includes the option to alter the saturation of a photo. Photo editing and art software options like PhotoShop, GIMP, and Procreate also include options to increase saturation. (GIMP is free and available for both Mac and Windows operating systems.) I took the photo of Naus and set the saturation to maximum in my iPhone’s built-in photo editor.
You can also use art and photo editing programs to isolate colours in an image. That is how I created the colour swatches for Naus. Once you’ve isolated a colour, you can study it in the colour/palette tool of the program to identify the colour family it belongs to. In the example below, I’ve selected the colour in the red circle, since the saturation photo trick didn’t give me enough information about that one. Then I opened the Colors tool. Now I can see the overall hue of the selected colour, as well as experiment with what the colour would look like if it were lighter, darker, and/or more saturated. This screenshot is from the Procreate app on iPad, but there are a lot of different programs that do this same kind of thing. The Coolors.co site allows you to upload a photo and isolate colours from it. (It also has some other handy colour tools!)
It’s not quite as simple with physical paints, but there are still some tricks you can use. The following examples are samples of neutral colour miniature paints that I painted out onto heavy paper.
If you look at the colours within each grouping, they look pretty similar, though you may be able to spot slight differences. Now let’s look at those colours again, with a little bit more information. After swatching the paint straight out of the bottle at the top of the sample, I added water to thin it down at the bottom of the sample. It’s easier to see more information about the colours within a paint when it is thinned down and the white of the paper is showing through a little. You can mix a little white into a colour on your palette for a similar effect. You won’t necessarily be able to identify the colour family for every sample below, but you should be able to spot some of them, and see that several of the colours differ more from one another than it appeared above.
(The background behind the swatches varies because I digitally cut out swatches from several different sheets of sample colours and pasted them into one image to create this example. These are all currently available Reaper paint colours, though I think some are only available in Fast Palette sets.)
Another trick you can try is to compare the neutral paint colour to more vivid colours. Colour is relative, and can be hard to assess in isolation. Compare the brown or grey you can’t figure out the colour of to the primary and secondary colours. The one it seems closest to is its colour family. If the colour is dark, you may need to add a little white or thin it down on white paper to see it better.
If you have a colour wheel, one side should have the colours printed at the edge. You can hold the colours next to a sample of paint to make comparisons.
Another option is to paint strips of thick paper with the primary and secondary colours and keep them handy to use for this purpose. I used paint store sample cards to take the photo below, but you can also paint your own samples using whatever primary and secondary colours you use most often. The vivid colours in the example below should help you assess whether each of those two browns is more yellow, more red, or more blue.
I learned the colour comparison trick from a YouTube video. The artist instructor is an oil painter, and it may initially seem as if she’s talking about a different subject, but if you want to know more about seeing the colours in neutrals or mixing neutrals with touches of colour, I think this is a great video.
If you have a physical colour inspiration from an art book or similar, you may find it difficult to accurate identify the colours in it. I have a separate article with tips for how to create a colour scheme based on an inspirational photo or artwork.
How to Put a Colour into Neutral or Colourize a Neutral
Comprehensive discussions of colour mixing and paint application methods are definitely topics for another article, or video. But here is an overview of methods you can use to tone down or increase the saturation of a colour.
As a general guideline, there are five ways to decrease the saturation of a paint colour. Note that these may also change other properties of the colour, including the value (lightness or darkness). I recommend that you experiment with each of the methods to become more comfortable with colour mixing and learn more about how each method affects various colours.
* Mix in white
* Mix in black
* Mix in grey
* Mix in brown
* Mix in the complementary colour
* Mix in the closest colour you’re using on the piece to the complementary colour
Don’t worry that you have to figure out the perfect saturation for your paint colours before you apply them to your miniature! If you find that there is an area on your figure that looks too vibrant, you can try applying glazes (paint diluted to be very, very transparent) over it, or over portions of it. Don’t automatically reach for your black or grey paint to do this. Somewhat dark, and at least somewhat vivid colours often work well. This is where those paints that aren’t as opaque straight out of the bottle come in handy!
Try using a complementary colour for your wash or glaze, or the closest colour to the complementary that you’re using on your piece. Complementary colours are directly opposite to one another on the colour wheel. You can also use colour temperature as a guide to glaze colours choices – If your colour is warm, try a glaze of a colour on your palette that is cooler to tone it down, and vice versa. If you aren’t sure what to use, muted purples work well with a surprising number of colours. If weathering is appropriate for that figure, weathering powders/pencils are a great tool to mute colours and add some wear and tear, though as I describe in that article, it’s easy to overdo it and mute too much.
Let’s say you want to tone down a reddish-brown. Green is the colour complement of red, but you’re using a red, blue, yellow scheme. Blue is close to green, but so is yellow. Blue is a cooler colour and yellow is a warmer colour, so blue would be a good choice to try for a glaze or weathering powder/pencil.
This video shows an example of Fernando Ruiz painting a metallic helmet with multiple washes of vivid colour inks. The end result isn’t one colour or another, and it looks much richer than just using a black wash. I learned this method in a workshop with Fernando, and used it on the leather jerkin and cloak for this ranger.
It is also possible to start by painting with true neutrals or very muted colours and then later add notes of additional colour on top. This is the approach I used with Barglemore the zombie butler, below. I used glazes of blues, greens, and purples in the shadow areas of his skin to add subtle hints of colour. I often paint stone bases with basic greys, and then glaze or drybrush on colours that I’ve used elsewhere on the figure. This adds natural variation to the stone, and helps unify the colours on base and figure. I used weathering powders on Barglemore’s clothing to make it look old and worn, but also to introduce a few more hints of colour and tie the golden stone base and reddish brain in with the rest of the figure.
I haven’t used colour underpainting a lot, but I experimented with the approach with Naus, Waghalter. I roughly painted in an an assortment of very vivid colours, and then painted over them with neutral colours that weren’t entirely opaque. (At least that was my plan, as you can read it didn’t entirely work out that way and I used glazing, as well.) My goal was a set of colours that overall looked muted, dirty, and worn, but which still had touches of colour for visual interest.
Examples of Muted Colours and Colourful Neutrals on Figures
I’m going to start with an example of a simple figure that I think will make it easier to see the advantages of using some colour in your neutrals. The miniature is a black dog standing on grey stone. If I had used only true black, white, and grey paints, it would look something like this:
The photo below is what I actually painted I added touches of colour to the black fur to help differentiate the shapes while still keeping the overall value pretty dark. The colour within the neutrals helps add visual interest. My first step in painting was to establish the light and dark areas, using uniform mixes of paint. I used true black for the basecoat on the fur, but I probably didn’t use true grey for the drybrushing, nor on the rock. Then I thinned down colours like khaki green, dark red, and soft blue, and brushed them over areas of the fur and the base. (And looking at this now, I think I should have used a few small points of brighter highlights in key areas. Everyone needs more contrast!)
If I manage to strike the right balance, viewers will find the figure more interesting to look at than if it were painted with true neutrals, but they won’t see so much colour that they start to think about it and wonder why there’s green on the black fur of a death dog. Below is a version of the photo edited to increase the saturation to make it easier to see the colours. The colours of the paints that I applied on top of the fur and stone were pretty close to the colours you see in the enhanced photo. The colours look toned down in the end result because they were thinned down and applied over more neutral colours. Looking at the enhanced picture makes me wish I’d pushed the colours a little more!
Baran Blacktree’s colour scheme is all neutrals – black, grey, brown, and white (on the shield front, not pictured here.) The touches of colour on him are more subdued than the death dog, but he is definitely not painted in true neutrals. If you compare the colour picture to the black and white one, you’ll see that the touches of colour are actually doing a lot of heavy lifting on this figure. Apart from some white highlights on the NMM and base stones, the overall contrast level on Baran is pretty low. The hue and temperature contrast between the warmer browns and cooler greys and blacks helps to compensate for the lower contrast. It also helps visual separate the different areas of equipment and make the figure easier to read for the viewer. The exact paint colours I used are listed in a PDF guide that includes more tips for painting black. You can read more about the weathering and the hue and temperature contrast in this article.
Romag Davl is painted with a lot of brown, and a little bit of grey. I used temperature contrast more starkly on Romag than on Baran – the grey cloth and non-metallic metal are cool slate blues, and the armour and cloak are warm browns. Roman’s colours are a slight twist on a complementary colour scheme called a split complementary colour scheme. Orange is the colour complement of blue. I used the colours to either side of orange to have two slightly different brown colours on the figure. The armour is a brown in the yellow-orange family, and the cloak is a brown in the red-orange family. I edited the photo with the saturation trick to make the colours a little easier to see.
The colours of the stereotypical uniform for a butler are true neutral black, white, and grey. The fact that this character was a zombie offered the opportunity to introduce more colour by adding weathering and clothing stains after I finished painting the clothing. But I also used paints that were not pure flat neutrals for the initial shading and highlighting. I started the figure with an underpainting using white, grey, and black primers. The photo below is not digitally edited, it compares true neutral paint to colourful neutrals. The difference between cream instead of pure for the neck ruffles and dove grey rather than true grey on the vest and pants is more significant than you might imagine. You can read more about the the underpainting process and see the paint colours I used in this article.
Michael Proctor of Clever Crow Studio is a master at weaving notes of colour into his work.
The husband and wife team at Craftworld Studio often use highly saturated colours to paint their fantastic miniatures.
Sergio Calvo Rubio blends touches of colours into his painting of many surfaces.
Some of my definitions and statements about neutral colours are simplifications intended to help make things easier to understand for people who may not be familiar or comfortable with colour use and colour theory.
*Natural human skin tones and hair colours are not universally considered neutral colours. There are experts in fashion and cosmetics who advise people on colours to wear and avoid based on the undertone of their skin colour. Movie makers design or colourize scenes to harmonize with or accentuate human colouring.
Miniature painters can use the tools and ideas I described above for the browns and tans of human skin and hair as much as leather and NMM. Your figures will have more visual impact if you pick skin and hair browns and tans with touches of colour that harmonize with the other colours on your figures. But at the same time, if your redheaded character wants to wear pink, I say go for it, don’t let the fashionistas tell you otherwise!
**Even black and white aren’t actually as simple as black and white. Just as there are different pigments that make the colour blue, there are different pigments to make white or black. There are several different black pigments and at least two different white pigments in common use today for acrylic paint mixing. Any given miniature paint company probably only uses one black pigment to mix their colours, but they don’t necessarily each use the same one. Just about everyone uses Titanium White for their white. Art paint brands may offer multiple black and white pigment paints, and use different black and white pigments in paint colours mixed from more than one pigment.
These different pigments can have different properties. One property is temperature. A given black or white paint might appear warmer or cooler when compared to another. Warmer means there’s a hint of orange/yellow, and cooler means there’s a hint of blue. In comparison to other colours, though, the statement that pure white and black are true neutral colours is a useful guide for working with colour schemes. If you’re conversant enough about paints and pigments that you think I’m wrong about that, you probably know a lot more cool things about colour as well!
Miniatures Featured in this Article
Baran Blacktree is available
Goblin with axe is available for preorder via the Bones 6 pledge manager.
Barglemore and Camille are available in metal.
Naus, Waghalter is available in Bones USA plastic.
The Occult Detective is available in metal and Bones plastic.
Death Dog is available in metal and Bones plastic.
Romag Davl is available in Bones USA plastic.