How to Neutralize a Colour Scheme: Lars Ragnarsson

The Patreon supporter PDF version of this article includes high res photographs and better formatting. Ko-fi tips are another way to help keep this content freely available to everyone.

My experiences painting Lars Ragnarsson are a  practical example of how to use some of the tricks and principles I discussed in my recent article about working with neutral colours. I started with red-violet, red-orange, yellow-green, and blue-green and ended up with a grizzled warrior.

IMG 0221

Grey divider edit

Inspiration

If specific ideas for how I might like to paint a figure aren’t coming to mind, I sometimes do a few images searches for inspiration. The colour palette and general vibe of this painting appealed to me a lot.

38bfa687d2a27a49379fc36cf7cc03fbViking Druid by Tomasz Ryger. Cover illustration for the fantasy novel Kroniki Dwuświata. Mrok we krwi by Paweł Kopijer.

I used a computer graphics program to isolate samples of the colours in various areas to get a clearer look at the individual components of the colour palette.

IMG 0149Viking Druid by Tomasz Ryger. Cover illustration for the fantasy novel Kroniki Dwuświata. Mrok we krwi by Paweł Kopijer.

I wasn’t entirely sure of the root colour family of some of the browns and greys, so I used the color tool in my graphics program to identify the more saturated versions of the colours. (I used the Procreate app on the iPad, but you can do similar things with many different programs, including the free GIMP program which is available for Mac and Windows OS.)

IMG 0151Viking Druid by Tomasz Ryger. Cover illustration for the fantasy novel Kroniki Dwuświata. Mrok we krwi by Paweł Kopijer.

While I think these digital tools can be helpful, I don’t assume that their interpretation of colours like this is 100% accurate. When you’re dealing with a very desaturated grey or brown, I imagine that one program’s coding could interpret something as closer to red, and another as closer to orange. I know that the programming of different digital cameras interpret colours colours differently, and I assume this might be kind of the same thing. Procreate interpreted these colours a little differently than I had expected – a lot of variations of orange and red, and less violet than I had expected.

Grey divider edit

Choosing and Refining a Colour Scheme

I decided to experiment with some of these colours in the other direction – if I wanted yellow-green cloth, orangey skin, and some kind of violet/magenta based brown for leather, was there a colour scheme that encompassed those colours, as well as an additional fourth colour? I headed over to Paletton to play with some colour schemes. Paletton is a very handy website that lets you choose different colour scheme options and then manipulate sliders around the colour wheel to refine the options within each scheme. It shows you the colour families to the right of the screen, with samples of different values within those families. You can also control the saturation of the main colour swatches as a group or individually.

I chose a tetradic colour scheme, which is a colour scheme composed of two pairs of complementary colours. Below is an image of the screen with the colours I settled on. I did not refine the saturation and value levels via Paletton. I find the Paletton saturation controls easier to use with a mouse, and I was using a touch screen at the time.

IMG 0146

I did not take full advantage of some of the other features of this app, either. If you look at the sample colours on the right, you’ll see the swatches are different sizes. In this example I have the yellow-green set as the dominant colour. The app based its other colour suggestions around that. Regardless of the number of colours in your chosen colour scheme, you generally do not want to use each of them all on equally sized areas on your figure. It’s more visually pleasing to have one colour that is the dominant colour, then use the second on a smaller area, and then use the other(s) in smaller amounts or just as accents. Which colour you use in which role isn’t dictated by colour theory guidelines. Apart from allowing you to set the dominant colour, I believe that Paletton’s suggestions for which colour in which proportion are just that, suggestions.

I thought that set of colours would work if I used the red-orange for the skin, yellow-green for the cloth, blue-green for the metal, and then red-violet for the leather armour. But I would definitely need to adjust the saturation levels of some of those colours to make them fit my vision of a grizzled, worn warrior! I took the starting points suggested by Paletton and altered the value and saturation levels with my color tool in Procreate to get some ideas for other colours in that colour family that would better suit my vision for the character.. I sampled the colours on a middle value grey background to be able to better judge the value differences. (If you prefer not to use digital tools, the neutrals article includes tips for doing this kind of thing physical colour samples and how to desaturate paint colours.)

IMG 0214

I selected versions of each colour that seemed like they would fit the intended areas of the miniature, picked out some paints to match, and got painting!

Grey divider edit

Painting Process

I will share the exact paints that I used at the end of this article. First I want to talk about some of my experiences with the colour scheme during the painting, and assess the end result compared to the intended colours. (I previously shared step by step photos and colour samples for the leather armour.)

The skin and armour painting went pretty well, but as I neared the end of the painting process there were a couple of areas I wasn’t entirely happy with. Below you can see the final version on the left, and a work-in-progress picture on the right. I repainted both the horns and the axe blade.

Lars axe combo wip

I still can’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t like the first version of the horns. Partly I think it is that the colour was a little off. I used a dark blue in the mix, and I think maybe it looked a little unnatural. The streaky texture and value transitions seemed like they should work with the vibe of the piece, but my instinct was that the streaky version of the horns was either stealing attention from the focal point of the face, or not sufficiently drawing the eye towards that area. Sometimes when I don’t like something on a figure I’m painting I try to analyze the problem to understand it better. Sometimes I don’t have time or energy to do that, so I just give it enough time and thought to be sure about exactly which part I think doesn’t work, and then I change that. The single colour horns do look very plain in comparison when I look at just at the horns, but when I consider them as part of an overall piece, I think they work better. I’d be interested to know what you think in the comments, should I have stuck with the original horns?

Lars leather chest comp

I did struggle a little deciding on paint colours to use on the hair and then the horns. The four colours of my colour scheme did not include a yellow, so a golden blond or yellow based ivory would mean straying from the scheme. As I mentioned in the neutrals article, colours like ivory and cream generally ‘go with’ most colours, and likely a blond/ivory type colour would have looked fine. But I wanted to work within the constraints of my chosen colour scheme. I instead opted to use khaki brown tans that had a touch of green in them. I am pretty happy with the platinum/aging blond end result.

I wanted to paint the metal trim items prior to assembly, to make sure I could reach everything. I thought it would also be a good idea to rough in the non-metallic metal on the axe head, as well. I wanted the final version of the NMM to have a little more texture, but I did some basic blends just to get colour on everything and see how the colours looked. (I would have no qualms about this level of NMM for a tabletop or quick paint figure, but Lars needed to be painted to store gallery quality.)

Lars wip1 front cu

After roughing in the axe blade I assembled the figure, and then I put it up on my shelf overnight to give the putty and glue time to cure. When I came back to look at it the next day, I was not happy with the colour of the axe head. It was a lot more blue than I’d intended for this version of blued steel. I’ve used a colour like this for blued steel before, why did it work then but look wrong now? This is a good example of why using the same colour recipe for a particular materials will not look great on every figure, even for materials that are brown, or cream, or grey like hair, wood, and stone. It’s also an example of how working with neutrals that have a little colour in them can be tricky sometimes!

The way we perceive a colour is always in relation to the other colours that are around it. A moderate value colour seems dark when surrounded by light colours and light. A moderately saturated colour seems more intense if it is surrounded by more neutral colours, and less intense if surrounded by highly saturated colours Many optical illusions manipulate the way we perceive colour, but similar issues can occur on a smaller scale in life and with the colours we group together in a painting.

1280px Gradient optical illusion by dodekThe grey stripe in the centre is the same value throughout. It appears lighter at one end and darker at the other because of the surrounding values. Image by Dodek from Wikimedia commons. You can see some other optical illusions that make use of value perception.

GreystrawberriesmainimageThere are no red pixels in this picture. The strawberries are shades of grey. You can confirm the colours and read more about why Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s clever illusion works.

Mixing black into a colour will dull it down as well as darkening it, and mixing white into a colour dulls it down as well as lightening it. I chose a darker bluish paint that already had some black in it and added white to create highlight mixes. I repainted the axe and the metal bits on the belt knife, but I did not repaint the smaller bits of NMM. The stronger blue was not strongly noticeable in the small areas, and probably actually helps them stand out a little more. The finished axe colour was shifted a little more with some glazes. I added a little of the yellow-green from the kilt to a few spots, and some dark orange-brown in the crevices for weathering. These colours were thinned down to be extremely transparent before I applied them.

Grey divider edit

Assessing my Execution of the Colour Scheme

When I started working on the article about neutral colours, I wanted to check the colours as they appeared on the figure compared to the colours I had chosen from the online colour scheme tool Paletton. The majority were pretty close. The Procreate colour tool saw a bit of red and purple in some of the midtones and shadows of the leather armour, but I think overall it works as a brown version of red-violet. The one colour that isn’t quite right is the blue-green. Even the repainted axe head reads more as blue than blue-green, and I think that’s part of why the first attempt didn’t look right to me. Desaturating the blue made it clash less, but didn’t bring it in line with the tetradic colour scheme.

IMG 0178

Out of curiosity I digitally edited the photo of Lars to experiment with a more and less saturated version of blue-green on the axe to compare it with how I painted the axe. I think the desaturated blue-green on the bottom left looks the most harmonious of the four options I tested. I don’t think the axe I actually painted is terrible! You don’t have to exactly follow a defined colour scheme for something to turn out looking okay. Colour theory and colour scheme suggestions are handy tools to help us out when we’re having trouble making decisions, they’re not shackles.

Lars axe combo crTop left: final version of the figure. Top right: WIP version with more saturated blue NMM.
Bottom left: digital edit experiment with desaturated blue-green NMM. Bottom right: digital edit experiment with more saturated blue-green NMM.

Earlier in the article I talked about using the colours of a colour scheme in various proportions. I did use the four colours I chose in varying proportions on Lars, but but I did not use the proportions suggested by the Paletton site. Also when considering the coverage area for each colour, remember that it includes the different values and different saturation levels of that colour. The largest area is the red-violet. The leather armour is fairly dark, and the fur on the boots is quite light. The second largest colour area is the red-orange. The lighter skin tone and darker leather accessories like the belt and boots are both red-orange. 

Is the third largest colour area on the figure the yellow-green, or the blue-green? This is also an example of how it can get interesting with three dimensional figures. The area of yellow-green kilt on the front is smaller than the axe, so the colours are in one proportion to another from most front viewing angles. But there is a larger area of yellow-green cloth on the back of the figure, and much less of the axe head is visible from most rear and side angles, so the proportion of those two colours appears reversed. The horns and beard are also in the yellow-green family, but are visible in all angles to one degree or another. 

Grey divider edit

Final Pictures

Lars bl front2

Lars bl face

Lars bl back

Lars bl back left

Lars bl back right

Lars bl right

Grey divider edit

Paint Colours Used on Lars Ragnarsson

Skin:

IMG 2977

Boot fur:

IMG 2978

Green cloth:

IMG 2979

Leather armor:

IMG 2980Paints to the right were used to paint the texture and battle damage. Paints to the left were glazed over to integrate the texture and add colour depth. See this article for step-by-step photos and swatches of colours used.

Orange-red leather accessories:

IMG 2981Bright Skin 9233 is no longer in production. Add a little orange to 9445 Peachy Flesh for a similar colour.

Base:

IMG 3004

WIP version of the horns:

IMG 3005

Final version of NMM axe:

IMG 3012Colours on the right were used to paint the main NMM. Colours on the left were applied as spot glazes.

Hair and final version of the horns:

IMG 3013The Terran Khaki and Khaki Highlight are swapped in position to what they should be.

The Colours of Neutral

The Patreon supporter PDF version of this article includes high res photographs and better formatting. Ko-fi tips are another way to help keep this content freely available to everyone.

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!

Neutrals figures2

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.

Neutrals figures1

Grey divider edit

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.

Primaries warm cool classic

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.

IMG 0191 2

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.

Noir detective front 2000Monochrome colour schemes suit some miniatures perfectly, and are a useful exercise for painters.

Grey divider edit
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.

Triadic neutrals2 cr

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.

Triadic neutral options2

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.

Triadic neutrals cr

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.

Triadic neutral options

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.

IMG 0199

Grey divider edit

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.

IMG 0199 2

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!)

IMG 0202

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. 

Neutral swatches mass

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.

Neutral swatches under

(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.

Neutrals test2

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.

Neutrals test

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.

Grey divider edit

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.

Butler front full

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.

Wag blue face

Grey divider edit

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:

Ddog left full bw

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!)

Ddog left full

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!

Ddog left full 2

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.

Colour v bw

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.

Romag saturated cr

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.

11 sophie barglemore front combo cr

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.

Grey divider edit

Footnotes

 

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!

Grey divider edit

Miniatures Featured in this Article

Baran Blacktree is available
 in metal.
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.

How to Steal a Colour Scheme

The Patreon supporter PDF version of this article includes additional photographs. Ko-fi tips are another way to help keep this content freely available to everyone.

Choosing colours is hard. So don’t choose – steal! This article offers tips for how to find, adapt, and apply an inspirational colour scheme to your figures, with links to videos demonstrating how I stole the colour scheme for this figure and painted it. 

Elanter front

It’s valuable to study colour theory and become more confident choosing colours on your own. However, studying and applying the colour schemes that other artists choose is a great way to practice hands-on with colour theory.

I worked out the colour scheme and painted Elanter the Lost Prince on my stream show, Beyond the Kit. Part of my aim on that show, and with many of these articles, is to share the thought process behind what I paint. We tend to put most of our focus on the technique aspect of miniature painting – learning to wetblend or paint non-metallic metal, for example. And we can alway work to improve our technique, of course!

Elanter back

However, once painters have a certain level of competence with a brush, their technique is not holding them back as much as they may think. Often what is needed to improve has more to do with colour choices and use of value (contrast!) than with how they’re applying the paint. A better understanding of how to make those choices is critical to improving as a display painter. Those thought processes are also pretty helpful to tabletop painting. Effective colour choices and clever use of contrast can allow you to streamline some steps, while still painting figures that have great visual impact on the table.

Elanter face

Below you will find some tips for how to find and apply colour scheme inspiration to your miniatures. I am not suggesting that you need to do all of these steps for every figure, but if you’re having trouble identifying and matching colours to an inspiration source, these steps should help make it a little easier.

Grey divider edit

Video Version

If you want to skip straight to the videos of choosing the colour scheme and painting Elanter, you’ll find the links below.

Part 1: Stealing the colour scheme, painting the green cloak. I spend some time on a question about mixing colour in the middle of the video, then return to working on Elanter.

Part 2: Blocking in the main colours

Part 3: Painting the scabbard, arrows, robe, quiver, and finishing up the cloak

Part 4: Painting the front of the cloak, leather (boots, belt, straps), faux woodgrain on weapon haft, bow, hair, and checking the value contrast level

Part 5: Painting the base, metallic weapon and trim, a simple method for painting gems, and hands

I think I painted the face off-stream, but you can watch the recording of another stream where I focused on painting faces.

The only WIP shot I took is of the back of the cloak after the first session of streaming. The middle fold shows what it looked like after some initial wetblending. The rightmost fold is what it looked like after I did some smoothing and enhancing of the initial wetblending. The rough layers on the left are an example of a paint method you can use to push your level of contrast, which I talk about in the Part 1 video.

Elanter wip cloak comp

The photograph on the left was taken with an iPhone 12 Pro, the one on the right with my usual miniature photography camera, a Sony Alpha NEX-F3. Both are of the same stage of painting, the differences are due to the photography alone. You can read more about how I take pictures of miniatures in this post.

Grey divider edit

Where to Steal Colour Schemes

Where might you find colour schemes to steal? The colour scheme of a miniature you admire is one option. So is your favourite fantasy and sci-fi art. But you don’t need to look at only the type or genre of thing you like to paint for inspiration. We are surrounded by colour schemes that talented and and trained colour experts have designed to attract our attention and be visual pleasing. Anything that attracts the eye or where the colours just seems to work can be inspiration for a great colour scheme. This includes all kinds of artwork, but also movie scenes, photography, home decor advice, product packaging, and advertisements. We generally find natural colour scenes visually pleasing – a flowering bush on a sunny day, a vivid sunset or other scenic vista.

IMG 3006Miniatures and fantasy art are great inspiration, but so are the colours of clothing patterns, home decor suggestions, and many more!

It is often easier to decode and put into use a colour scheme drawn from design or decor than it is to figure out and adapt the colour complexities of a detailed painting. There are also a lot of books and webpages designed to help people choose colours, and those aimed at web page and print designers, home decorators and the like, can be very useful.

Most of us always have a camera on our person thanks to our smartphones. When you see a colour combination you like – take a picture! Then favourite it or sort it into a specific directory you keep for colour inspiration so you can easily find your colour scheme inspirations later. Sunsets, flower beds – you’ll run across all sorts of colour inspiration out in the real world as well.

The colour scheme for Elanter comes from a World Market flyer. I was looking through mail for paper to recycle, and the pile of pillows on the corner of one page of the flyer caught my eye. The colour palette struck me as having a very autumnal feeling while not being the typical fall colour scheme. (Not that I don’t also love a typical fall colour palette!) I really like this colour scheme, but I don’t think I would ever have come up with it on my own.

IMG 2149My colour scheme inspiration.

Grey divider edit

Steal the Right Colour Schemes

There are some instances where colour schemes that work for one function, like home decor or a webpage, will probably not work as well for a miniature. When assessing a colour scheme, consider whether there is a mixture of colour values. Is there at least one pretty dark colour, one pretty light colour, and one moderate value colour? Variation in values between areas on a figure makes it easier for viewers to read and identify what’s skin, clothing, armour, etc.

The pillow colour scheme had a dark green and light cream colour, with the flesh tone, orange, and silver in values in between those two extremes, so I was pretty confident it would work well for a figure.

Analogous colour schemes are common in design, but I think they’re pretty tricky to use on miniatures. An analogous colour scheme is 2-5 colours that are adjacent to each other on the colour wheel. Yellow, orange, and red would be one example, and blue, teal, and green is another.

The reasons analogous colours are challenging on a figure is that analogous colour schemes remove or constrain your options for contrast. We generally use analogous colours for shading and highlighting our miniatures. Even if you vary the values of the colours to help define your areas, you’ll be using similar colours for highlights on your mid value areas as you use on your lightest area, and similar colours for highlights on your darkest area as you use on your mid value areas. This can work well on a simple figure like a fire elemental, but would be more challenging on a humanoid with more complex gear.

Mono cowboy front fullSpeed painted with an analogous/monochromatic colour scheme. Since human hair and skin are shades of browns and tans, this colour palette looks pretty natural, but it would be more visually striking with even a bit of subtle colour variation. Note the way it pops a bit off of the cool blue background due to the hue and temperature contrast between the warm browns on the figure and the cool blues of the background.

Analogous colours also minimize temperature contrast. Generally speaking all of the colours will lean more to the cool or the warm side. Depending on which colours you pick, there may be a pair where one is somewhat warmer and one is somewhat cooler in comparison to each other, but this is much less contrasted than choosing complementary colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel.

Mono cowboy mixes horThe palette I used to paint the cowboy – desaturated reds, oranges, and yellows (aka shades of brown).

I’m sure it’s possible to successfully use complementary colour schemes on a miniature! But if you’re stealing colour schemes because you’re struggling with colour, an analogous colour scheme is going to be more challenging than something with a wider mix of colours.

Grey divider edit

Steal ALL the Colours

Colour is relative: our perception of a colour is strongly affected by the colours that are near it. That is not always obvious. We may look at a miniature and admire the vivid blue that the person used, or we might love the look of a purple in a sunset sky. But if we try to take the colour we like from here, and another we like from there and combine them, we often find they don’t look great together. If we’re struggling with colour, we will have more success if we borrow the whole of a colour scheme.

When we want to borrow the colour scheme of another figure, or fantasy art or photograph with a person in it, we tend to just look at the character and the colours are on it. It’s easy to overlook the background of a movie scene or the base of a figure, but the soft blue of a sky or pale green grass on a base might be part of what is making the colours on the figure itself pop.

Excluding some of the colours won’t necessarily result in an unattractive figure, but it can have a significant impact on the overall mood and tone of the finished paint job. My painted version of Masquerade Sophie incorporates only the colours on the figure. It does not have the black or red from the background and accents of the colour art. As a result, the lighter and more pastel colours are more visually dominant on the figure compared to the art. The painted figure works in terms of colour, and it is an attractive figure to look at, but it doesn’t have any of the ominous tone of the art. If that had been part of what I was trying to capture in the colour scheme, I would be disappointed by my end result.

Sophie18 color versionsArtwork by Izzy ‘Talon’ Collier.

This example is a figure I painted in 2008 for Dark Sword Miniatures. It is based on the DragonCon 2006 poster painted by Larry Elmore. I followed the colours for the figure itself fairly closely. In Elmore’s artwork, there are several other colours that are prominent in the colour scheme that are not represented on the figure, including the red of the dragon and the soft yellows and oranges of the sky. The colour scheme on the figure works (everything goes with black, after all), but the colour interaction in Elmore’s art is much more complex.

Goth poster comboPoster art by Larry Elmore.

Compare the miniature above as painted with the digital edit below. The red behind the figure helps make the skin really pop, and the lighter sky and base colours do the same with the black boots. I did not edit anything on the figure itself, just added the background and base colours.

IMG 0138

Grey divider edit

Steal the Right Colours

Because colour is relative, the colours surrounding a colour may make it appear darker or lighter, more saturated or duller than it is when viewed in isolation. This is the basis of many common optical illusions. You need to take this effect into account when you’re trying to mix or match the colours in your chosen scheme to your paints to get the best effect from your inspiration.

Dale purves value illusionYou perceive the top square as darker than the bottom square. Hold your finger over the middle and discover that they’re the same shade of grey. Your eye is fooled because the colours that surround and separate the two squares influence how you perceive their colours. Picture by Dale Purves.

The following is an example of how even in general art and photographs, our perception of a colour is affected by the surrounding colours. One of my paint buddies, Jen Greenwald, was using a painting for colour inspiration, but finding that it wasn’t quite coming out as she expected on the miniature. I sampled the colours and discovered that the reds the artist used in the auburn hair were actually much less intense colours than Jen had supposed when picking out her paints. The proximity and the large volume of greens and teals in the inspiration image make the reddish-brown appear more saturated than it is. Jen chose brighter reds for her paints, and found they looked too intense on her figure. She matched the teals well (using brighter highlights, which will often be necessary on a figure), but was a bit off on the red-browns.

IMG 0139Fantasy painting by Anna Dittmann. Miniature painted by Jen Greenwald.

There are a few different tools you can  use to isolate colours to see them more accurately.

Digital Colour Sampling

If you have a digital version of your inspirational colour scheme, you can use a variety of different programs to isolate and sample colours. You need a program with an eyedropper sample tool and a brush that you can use to make a swatch of colour. You sample the colour you want, and then paint a large swatch of it, ideally on a plain white background.

On my desktop, I use GIMP, which is a free alternative to Photoshop that is available on Mac and PC. On my iPad I use the Procreate program. It is not free, but I have found it well worth the one-time $10 fee. There is a Procreate Pocket for iPhone that costs $5 that has the sample and paint features.

Don’t try to find one single overall colour in a complex image. Even on something like my ad flyer, the pillows are being affected by the light and have areas where they appear lighter and darker. I will find it much easier to match colours and create highlights and shadows for my miniature painting if I sample from light, midtone, and dark areas of my image. It also helps me identify the range of contrast between the lightest areas and the darkest areas, which is often much more dramatic than we think, even in fairly flat, bright light like like that used in my ad flyer.

Below is an example of the areas I would sample to see the colours on my flyer colour inspiration.

Pillow samples

If you compare the image and the swatches, you may find at least one of the pillow samples is a different colour than it might appear to your eye. The second pillow from the top looks yellowy-cream coloured to me, but when I colour sample on it, many of the colours have a green cast to them. The photo above is intended to demonstrate how to sample from various value areas. I recommend that you make the colour samples larger than that. Then you can print the page out to test colours against.

Pillow digital cr

I printed out a page with my sample colours on it, and then tested potential colours against it, as you can see in the following photo.

IMG 2969

Physical Colour Sampling

My flyer was a printed object, so I could try to match colours directly against it. This is just an ad, so I might not mind painting directly on it to test colours. If it were something I could not paint on, I could paint samples on the edges of another paper and hold those next to the image to see if the colours match. Let your paint dry before assessing the match. Wet paint is shiny, which makes it harder to compare to dry paint, and which can make it look a little darker or more saturated. In the picture below I’m comparing some of the paints I chose against my example colour scheme.

Pillow paint cr

When comparing against a physical sample, I might still run into the issue of not being able to accurately see all of the colours. You can isolate colours on a physical item by cutting a small hole into a piece of paper. Using midtone grey paper will make it easiest to judge value and saturation, but even using a little hole in a piece of white paper can help. I cut a hole into a piece of index card to isolate an area on the dark green pillow in the picture below.

Pillow mask cr

Colour Shifting with Image Source

For my colour scheme, I started with a physical advertisement. I took a photograph and then scanned the source to be able to digitally sample it.  Then I had to print those digital samples to be able to test paints against them. If you compare each of these steps to one another, the colours shift slightly. Every camera processes colour a little differently. Each screen displays colour a little differently. Every printer prints colour images a little differently. Doesn’t that matter? I don’t think that the slight shifts between sources matter because the entire image gets shifted from source to source. Whatever colour cast your camera/screen/printer may have, it alters the entire image in the same way, so the colour scheme remains unified and effective.

In the image below, the colour samples on the left side are from the photo taken with my camera, and those on the right are from the image made with my scanner. There are slight differences, and I might prefer one to the other, but each functions as a cohesive colour scheme within itself. 

Phone vs scanner

Testing a Colour Scheme

Testing your colours is the most important step. Regardless of how much effort you spent on the preceding tips, it’s always worth a few minutes to do a quick test of how well your colour choices work together. This is especially important if you did just eyeball matching the colours to your inspiration. 

When using inspiration to find colour schemes, the important question is not how well did you match your inspiration, it’s do these colours go well together? Learning to match and mix colour matches is a great way to improve your eye for colour, of course, but exact colour matching is not necessary to be able to find some great colours to paint on a mini! (Whether the colours go together is also the important question about your chosen colours when you chose them with a colour wheel or your imagination or some other source.)

I painted the following colour swatches while testing the colours for Elanter on stream. I used a piece of tan toned paper. Grey works even better, but white is fine if that’s all you have.

IMG 2970

My goal here is to check if the colours all seem like they’re playing nice together. I tested prospective highlight and shadow colours as well as the main colours, since I find it hard to assess using just flat midtone colours. There are lots of ways to test colours! You can test on a quick speed painted figure, just a part of a figure, swatches on paper, or bad drawings on paper, as you can see in the examples below. (Not pictured is a digital method for testing colours.)

IMG 7361

Grey divider edit

Paint Colours Used on Elanter the Lost Prince

These are the colours I used to paint Elanter. I didn’t plan in advance to use a number of the Pathfinder colours (the 89xxx paints), they just happened to be the ones that fit in well with my colour inspiration! I can’t follow all of my usual process when I’m painting on stream, so this colour recipe information may not be as accurate as that I usually provide.

Skin:

IMG 2986

Light wood bow:

IMG 2987

Dark wood staff (faux wood grain):

IMG 2988

Green cloak:

IMG 2989

Rust overdress:

IMG 2990

Metallics:

IMG 2992

Grey divider edit

Figures in this Post

Elanter the Lost Prince is available in Bones USA.
Tywin Lannister is available in metal.
Deadeye Slim is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Masquerade Ball Sophie is currently available in metal, and in plastic via the Bones 6 core set.
Goth Warrior with Sword is available in metal.
Callie Ranger/Rogue is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Anirion, Elf Wizard is available in Bones USA plastic, clear plastic, or metal.
Isabeau Laroche, Paladin is available in Bones plastic and metal.
Geisha Assassin (colour tested on Isabeau) is available in metal.
Seoni, Iconic Sorceress  is available in Bones plastic.
Male Bard with Lute is available in metal. (Colour scheme on paper.)
Arran Rabin is available in Bones plastic and metal.
Children of the Zodiac, Cancer is available in metal.
Wing from Griffon, available in Bones plastic or metal.

Face Highlights and Darker Skin Tones

Ko-fi tips help keep this content free. Patreon supporters receive PDFs with high res photos.

 In this article I outline where to place highlights when painting faces on miniature figures. This information is applicable to all skin tones, but since highlights are the key to painting great looking faces with darker skin tones, my examples focus on those. I am also including recipes and suggested paint colours you can use to paint darker skin tones. I discussed where to paint shadows on faces, and the importance of shadows to faces, particularly with lighter skin tones, in a previous article. I recommend reading that article first, as it has additional information on lighting and contrast that is relevant to painting all faces.

Ds faces square

There are videos that accompany this article, since I did the bulk of the painting on some demonstration figures on my Beyond the Kit stream on the Reaper Miniatures Twitch channel. In this video, I discuss the specific challenges of painting darker skin tones and demonstrate a cool and a warm dark skin tone recipe on female faces. I painted an example of a slightly cool dark skin tone on a male face in this earlier video, but there were some technical difficulties.

Grey divider edit

Highlights on Faces

The typical lighting scenario for a painted miniature is that the light is coming from above (the sun, ceiling lights) or from above and to one side (the sun, gas lights on walls, street lights). The locations where shadows fall on faces are pretty consistent. While shadow location is affected by the location of the light and the position of the head, the overall placement guidelines hold true unless either the light direction or head position is shifted to a fairly extreme degree. 

As an overall guide for where to paint highlights, areas appear lighter in value (have highlights) where the light shines more brightly on them. This includes areas that are located higher on the face and thus closer to the light, like the forehead and the tops of the cheekbones. Areas which protrude outwards from the main mass of the face also receive more light, like the nose, the lower lip, and often the top of the chin.

That guideline is all you need as a beginner or for quick paints of gaming scale figures. If you are aiming to paint a display quality figure or are painting a larger scale figure, there is a bit more nuance to highlights, because our skin is a little shiny. Human skin has a natural sheen to it due to our skin oils. Strong emotion and physical activity make us sweat and adds to that sheen, which is particularly apparent on the face.

We can visually distinguish the matte appearance of wool cloth from the sheen of human skin from the extreme reflectivity of chrome. Whether or not we are consciously aware of it, we identify these surface textures based on the appearance of shadows, midtones, and highlights on the surface of items The way the highlights on a surface look influences whether we perceive it as shiny or matte. The value range between the darkest shadows and the lightest highlights on a shiny surface is much more dramatic than on a matte surface. A shiny surface also has a lighter highlight/reflection. The transition area between the shadow/midtone on a shiny surface is more abrupt, and the bright highlight/reflection appears in a smaller area.

Hardesty skin texturesThese texture exercises were painted by Jonathan Hardesty. Compare the two skin examples in the middle to the other two spheres. The skin spheres are not as shiny as the material on the right, but they have elements in common, including a bright highlight of reflected light. Jonathan Hardest has made a study of textures. He has several skin texture study videos on YouTube. He teaches a textures class on Schoolism, and occasionally paints live on Twitch.

For a variety of reasons, this is a very brief overview of the properties of shiny materials. The reason I’m mentioning it at all is because the shininess of a surface affects where the highlights are located as well as how bright they are. If your imagined light source is coming from a different direction than above, the location of the highlights shifts towards the direction of the light. If the head is tilted to one side, the highlights also shift towards the direction of the light. Shadows are affected by both of these factors as well, but to a lesser degree.

Lighting combo crThe direction of the light changes which areas appear shadowed or well-lit. Notice how the shift in the location of the highlights is more dramatic. There are some areas that remain shadowed in all three lighting scenarios.

If your lighting situation or the position of your model is more complex, remember that you can create your own reference photos to identify the location of shadows and highlights on your figure! Use a single bulb lamp to simulate larger light sources like the sun or distant lights, or a small single point light source to simulate something like a candle or torch.

To sum up, here are some short guidelines for painting highlights on faces:

1. Don’t be afraid of painting strong highlights on faces, it looks natural because our skin is a little shiny.

2. Confine the brightest highlights to very small areas if you can.

3. Start with the guidelines for highlight placement outlined below. If your light source is coming from a direction other than above, shift the highlights on the specific miniature you’re painting towards the direction of where the light is coming from.

Faces angles crThe figure on the left is looking straight forward as if standing under light from above, like sunlight. The light is coming from above and to the left of the centre figure, and she has her head tilted, so one side of her face is lit and one side is shadowed. The light is coming from above and to the right of the figure on the right, and her head is slightly tilted, so one side of her face has a lot more highlights than the other.

Grey divider edit

Guidelines for Highlights Placement

Forehead

If you ignore the features, the human head is shaped like an egg. Or you can think of the upper half of the head as a sphere. Either way, the top of the head is the dome of a spherical object. In standard lighting you will see a circular highlight in the centre and near the top of the forehead. If the head is bald, the circle may appear a little higher. (A similar circle will be visible on the back of a bald head.) If the head is tilted, or if half of the forehead is obscured by hair/hat/hood, the circular highlight will appear shifted towards the direction of the light.

Faces forehead crBoth of these figures have hair hanging over their foreheads on the right side, so the placement of the highlight is shifted to the left.

Brow Ridge

The brow ridge can be fairly prominent, especially on male characters. Often the brow ridge is covered by sculpted eyebrows, but depending on the severity of the slope and location of the eyebrows, there may be some highlights above the brow ridge.

Quinn face 300This figure has prominent brow ridge, so I added highlights above his eyebrows. I painted this several years ago, if I were to paint it today I would have added small and lighter value highlights on the bulb of his nose and on top of his cheekbones.

Cheekbones

The cheekbones protrude slightly from the face and are located higher up on the face, so the tops of the cheekbones often catch a lot of light and appear strongly highlighted. If the light is directional or the face is tilted, one cheekbone may receive more light than the other. (You can see a few examples in the photos in the previous section.) For gaming scale characters I place the highlight just under the character’s eyes. The strong contrast between the dark eye lining and light cheekbone highlights draws the viewer’s eye to the face, which is almost always an important focal point of the figure or scene. If you are painting a larger scale figure or a bust, study some high quality reference photos of faces like those included below – the placement of areas of light under the eyes and on top of the cheekbones is more nuanced than that.

Nose

The nose protrudes out from the egg shape of the face, so it catches quite a bit of light. I use moderate highlights on the upper plane of the nose slope. I apply bright highlights in a circle on the bulb at the end of the nose. If the sculpt accommodates, I highlight the wings over the nostrils, but not with the lightest highlights. If the nose is tilted, the line of highlight along the slope of the nose shifts towards the direction of the light, and the wing over the nostril further away from the light is less highlighted.

Mouth

Humans do not have the prominent muzzle of many animals, but the overall area of the mouth protrudes slightly from the face. On many people the area of skin between the nose and the upper lip slants outward from the face, and receives more light. However this area is lower down the face, and it does not protrude significantly, so I use moderate highlights at most. Occasionally highlighting the area between the nose and lip on a female figure can kind of look weird and give a bit of a moustache effect. If you have painted this area on a female gaming scale figure and find that something looks a little off, try painting the midtone of the face over it and see if that helps.

The lower lip protrudes outwards. Because the lips are often a little moist, there can be a fairly strong reflection highlight on the lower lip. For a natural lip, paint the highlight a little lighter than the brightest highlights on the rest of the face. If the person is wearing shiny lipstick, the highlights can be close to white.

Tara face full cu2This figure is representative of the typical highlight locations. She is looking straight ahead and was painted as if standing under an overhead diffuse light source. She has a highlight on the top of her forehead bulge, on top of her cheekbones, tip of her nose, and just a little bit of highlighting on the upper lip and chin.

Chin

The chin is often a sphere or egg shape that protrudes out from the face. The top of the chin usually has a highlight. If the light is directional or the face is tilted to the side, the location of the highlight will shift towards the light. However, look at a face in profile. The chin extends roughly as far out as the forehead, but it is lower down on the face, and so receives less light. I usually paint some highlights on the top of the chin, but I do not paint these with as light a value as I will use on the forehead, tops of the cheekbones, or the end of the nose. The chin can vary with the sculpt, so if the sculpt has a prominent chin I may add more highlights, or less if the chin appears inset, as is the case with the female face I painted for dark skin demonstrations below. The chin also needs less highlighting if the face is tilted downwards.

Jawline

The jawline is the line of bone from the chin to the side of the face. A prominent jawbone is considered a masculine characteristic. I rarely highlight this area on female faces. If the face is tilted to one side the jawline on the side facing the light might need a little bit of highlighting. Even on male characters I generally only apply a little highlighting to this area. The jawline is surrounded by the shadow of the cheek hollow above, and the under chin area below. It should appear lighter than both of these, but often just the midtone skin value or slightly lighter in value is all that is required to make it appear so. It may appear more highlighted in reference photos or miniatures you study than it actually is because of the darkness of the areas around it.

In the Where to Shade Faces article I shared some examples of repainted dolls heads to demonstrate the effectiveness of adding shadows. I found a photo of dolls heads taken with fairly flat lighting, and digitally edited them to add highlights. The top photo is the original. The middle has a modest amount of highlights, and the bottom one has a higher level of highlight/shadow contrast. The bottom edit is the minimum level of highlight/shadow contrast I would recommend for a dark skin tone. There are reference photos of real people further in this article. I have isolated colours of various values and hues beside each picture so can see just how much contrast there is between the lightest highlights and darkest shadows.

664541b01151d7bc629b8dbceb71bb84

IMG 1332

IMG 1337

Grey divider edit

Colour Variation, Makeup, and Features

Detailed information on painting the eyes and mouth is beyond the scope of this article. For the demonstration figures, I painted the lips with the same colours used on the rest of the skin. Most people have more colour variation than that in their lips, but using the same colours as the rest of the skin often works well for gaming scale masculine figures. For a more feminine lip, add some red or pink and use more contrast, even if you’re not going for a shiny lipstick appearance. Other areas of the body may have colour variations, like the ears, the palms of the hands, and soles of the feet. Hopefully I’ll be able to delve into skin variation in more detail at some point in the future, but you should be able to look at reference photos of people to get ideas. For gaming scale figures it will likely not look odd if you use one overall skin tone for all of the figure.

Grey divider edit

Dark Skin: Highlights are the Key

Highlights are the key to painting faces with dark skin that look vibrant, realistic, and interesting. Strong highlight/shadow contrast is always desirable in miniature painting. Even in fairly even lighting conditions, the range of contrast on a face with dark skin between the darkest shadows and the brightest reflection highlights is quite large, due to the natural sheen of skin. You can see examples of that in the following reference photos.

IMG 1338Photo by Ema Studios on Unsplash.

IMG 1340Photo by Naeim Jafari on Unsplash.

Grey divider edit

Technical Challenges of Painting Dark Skin

Painting an attractive and realistic looking dark skin tone can be challenging. To maintain the overall dark tone of the skin you need to confine the light highlights to small surface areas. If they expand over too wide an area, as often happens when we are working on the technical challenge of painting smooth blends, the overall colour of the skin tone becomes lighter than you intended. To appear dark, at least 60-70% of the area of the surface needs to be painted with the midtone or shadow colours. Gaming scale miniatures are small objects. To paint bright highlights, blend them out smoothly, and also keep them confined to as small a surface area as possible can be quite challenging! The good news is that you will get better and better the more you practice challenging tasks like this.

The photos below are the demonstration figures I painted on stream. This first one shows how the faces appeared at the end of my streaming sessions. You can see that the blending is a little rough, and the highlights aren’t quite light enough. I find it very challenging to paint fine detail on stream. Attempting to keep the miniature in the viewing area, describe what I’m doing, do it well, and keep an eye on the chat for questions taxes the limits of both my eyes and brain!

Ds group before cr

After the stream concluded I did some touch ups on these faces. I used the same colour mixes, and I focused on two tasks: confining the highlights to small areas of the face, and trying to blend everything out as smoothly as possible. I stippled dots and fine lines over the transition lines to soften them. I painted basic lips and eyes and painted the hair black so you can get an idea of how the faces would look in the context of an overall figure.

Ds group after crThe highlights of the warmer skin tone on the left cover a little too much area, and it has lightened up the overall value of her skin compared to the version from right after the stream above.

I often paint dark colours in a similar way – I start with the darkest colour and work up through my lighter colour layer mixes applying highlights. I concentrate on trying to place these in the correct places and with an appropriate amount of contrast. Then I work back down though the layer mixes from lightest to darkest. As I paint back down through the value mixes I’m trying to tighten up the size of the highlights and smooth out the blending. 

I chose figures with larger faces in hopes of making it easier for people to see what I was doing on the video, but you may also find it easier to practice on larger faces. The male is a halfling character, but has a larger face. This is true of many gnome, dwarf, and halfling characters. You can see a comparison with some human gaming scale figures below.

Face practice

In the photo below, I’ve painted out swatches of the value mixes I used on each of the demonstration faces. Note that other painters who use the layering method might use fewer steps but thin their paint more, and there are other methods to apply paint than layering. Regardless of how you apply the paint, the key is to keep those highlights small but high contrast! I have more paint colour suggestions for dark faces in the next section of this article.

Ds recipes full crThe recipe for the cool female face is on the left, the male face in the centre, and the warm female face on the right. I’ve added the product numbers of the Reaper paints I used next to the appropriate swatches.

I’m not sure there’s a feasible way to paint something that looks similar with quick paint techniques like drybrushing and washes. It is difficult to apply these techniques with the kind of precision you need to keep the highlights confined to small areas. Using drybrushing to apply highlights will likely mean that the highlights are applied to a larger surface area and the face overall will appear lighter in value. If you’re comfortable applying washes in targeted areas (which is essentially the layering technique but using more transparent glaze consistency paint), you could start with the light value of your highlights and then use layers of semi-transparent paint to darken the midtone and shadow areas considerably. Applying an overall wash will either not be dark enough for the shadows, or would darken the highlights too much.

You can see some of these issues with these figures I painted for the Bones 5 Learn to Paint Kit. I used only three drybrush steps to keep my instructions accessible to novice painters. The value difference between the deepest shadows and lightest highlights is too low to bring out the features of the face, so these faces don’t stand out well at arm’s length view or on the tabletop. Had I drybrushed a few additional lighter value steps, the faces overall would look lighter in value than I wanted since I wouldn’t be able to confine those light highlights to very small areas. 

Faces ltpk

Faces db vs layer crThe version on the left was painted with layering, and the one on the right with drybrushing and washes. (While I aimed for a similar value skin tone, these skin tones are also different colour palettes.)

Grey divider edit

Dark Skin Paint Colour Choices

If we look at the reference photos of people with dark skin in this article, you can see a wide range of skin tones. And this is just a small sample of what you might see on real world people! You should be able to find many more examples through a web search or via the photo sites I use to find reference photos for these articles. (Unsplash, Pexels, Morguefile)

One variation in skin tones will be in the value range of colour. Dark skin tones can range from very dark in overall value to moderate or even fairly light in overall value. Another variation is the overall colour temperature of the skin. Some people might have a very warm colour skin tone with a lot of orange or yellow apparent in the highlights of their skin. Others may have a much cooler skin tone with highlights that appear a little grey, purple, or pink. The colour cast of photographs/light temperature also factors into this.

IMG 1342 2Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash.

IMG 1343 2Photo by Olawale Munna on Unsplash.

IMG 1344 2Photo by Wadi Lissa on Unsplash.

One of the strengths of the Reaper Miniatures paint lines is the wide variety of skin tone paints available. Reaper has paints specifically designed to emulate the appearance of real world skin tones, and I used several of these on my demonstration figures. If you have not yet tried their paints and you’re wondering what to try, some skin tones would be a great place to start.

If you use other brands that do not have paints that are obviously intended to be used to paint darker skin tones, do not despair. Human skin tones are basically variations of browns and tans, and every miniature paint line has some of those! They won’t all be suitable to paint human skin, but many will.  You can also try mixing a little of a middle value skin tone into a darker brown paint colour to create your own custom mixes.

I painted swatches of some paints suitable to paint dark skin into a chart that I have included below. The chart is organized in two different ways. The darkest paints are on the left, moderately dark paints in the middle, and the paints for the lightest highlights (or that you can use to mix lighter highlights) are on the right.

The paints are organized top to bottom to reflect their colour temperature. The cooler colours are at the top, and the warmest colours are at the bottom. You can pick a spot on the chart and use colours to the left of it to shade and those to the right of it to highlight. You can use the furthest left paints as a starting midtone for a very dark skin, and then use black for the darkest shadows. (Or a contrasting colour, which I’ll discuss more below.)

Since I recently reorganized my paints, I am including colours from two brands in addition to Reaper. Paint numbers that start with P are Privateer Press P3 paints. Those that start with N are Nocturna N-Paints. If you don’t have any of the brands on the chart, you can print it out and test swatches of paints that you do have (or custom mixes) against the colours to find the closest colours in your collection.

Ds paints full cr

Grey divider edit

Adding Creative Colours to Dark Skin Tones

One of the really fun things about painting darker colour skin tones is that you can really get creative with colours.Scroll back up through this article and look at the colours I isolated from the reference photos. Some of them are pretty saturated oranges and pinks! I often paint slightly thinned down glazes of bold colours into the shadows of dark skin. I used a rich purple colour in the shadow areas of my cool temperature dark skin demonstration. I used a saturated teal colour in the shadows of the warm temperature skin example. Using a contrasting colour/temperature in the shadows can add depth to the shadows and pop the highlights even more. I often add thin glazes of other colours (purple or green most commonly) to medium or somewhat fair skin tones as well, but it’s a little trickier to do than with darker skin tones. I have to thin the colour down a lot more and proceed carefully.

Faces with dark skin tones usually look great with saturated makeup colours, as well, which can be very fun! I’ve seen rich greens, bright oranges, and even yellows for both eye makeup and lipstick that look terrific on dark skin tones, as well as the more typical reds and browns. Adding some saturated colour to a face will help draw the viewer’s eye to this important focal point of your figure. You can see fun examples of bright eye makeup and bold lipstick on these links, and many more with image searches.

Note that the general principles for where to paint highlights (and shadows) apply to fantastic skin colours as well. You can see an example with a pinkish-red skin tone below.

Succ sit front2

Grey divider edit

Figures Featured in this Article

Elmore Female Sorcerer is available in metal.
Tillie, Fighter Pilot is available in metal
Quinn, Rogue is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Tara the Silent is available in Bones Black plastic or metal.
Brand, Barbarian is available in Bones plastic.
Masquerade Ball Sophie is available in metal.
Elmore Female Shaman is available in metal.
The Drunken Mermaid is available in Bones USA plastic.
Frost Giant Queen is available in Bones plastic.
Chop, Halfling Cook is available in Bones USA plastic.
Ogana, Ranger is currently available in metal, and will also be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.
Ingrid, Gnome Rogue is available in Bones USA plastic, Bones plastic, and metal.
Gisele, Sorcerer is available in Bones USA plastic.
Thregan, Fighter is currently available in metal, and will also be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.
Noblewoman is currently available in metal, and will also be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.
The Succubus will be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.

How to Test Colour Schemes: Fathom

Ko-fi tips help keep this content free. Patreon supporters receive a PDF with high res photos and a few work-in-progress pictures.

Working out the colours to paint a miniature can be tough! I want to share the process I used to choose the colour scheme for the figure below, as well as a few other ideas you could try for testing colours. Fathom is my character in a Dungeons and Dragons game on Twitch with some of the other Reaper artists. I wanted to try to choose a colour scheme that reflected the character well, and which would also look good on the fantastic terrain boards Knight Heart Gaming puts together for our streams.

Fathom front 600Fathom the Tiefling warlo… magic user with a mysterious patron.

I know a lot of us find colour to be very challenging to use. You’ve surely had a situation where you pick out a colour to paint on your miniature that looks one way when first applied, and a different way once you’ve finished painting the figure. If you use white primer, a colour you use in the early stages may seem fairly dark when you first apply it over the white primer, but once you paint the rest of the figure it looks more medium in value or even too light. The reverse is true with black primer, where something might seem too light until the whole piece comes together and you discover it’s not. You might notice something similar with some of your favourite colour recipes. You might use a set of colours for wood or gold non-metallic metal that looks good on most of the miniatures you paint, but find that there is a miniature or two where the colours look more washed out or more garish than usual. This happens because the way that we perceive colours is always relative to the other colours around them.

If the way colours appear is always relative, how are you ever supposed to know how to pick successful colour combinations?! I think it helps to be aware that this is just how colours work. You can still paint using on the fly colour choices and recipes, but you have to accept that there might be times when colours don’t jibe as you hoped, or they need to be tweaked a little. It can also help to study colour properties and colour theory and use tools like a colour wheel.

For more important figures that you’re willing to spend a little more time on, it can be very helpful to do some colour studies or tests before you begin painting. Making this effort now and then will also help you improve your overall understanding of how to use colour. When you do colour tests, you can test your colours overall, or start by working out a few colours and building from there with trial and error on the miniature. 

IMG 7361

The photo above includes examples of a number of different kinds and methods for colour testing that I’ve used over the years. Some are tests of an overall colour scheme. Others test shadow/wash colours, or colours and brush strokes used to create textures. Some are on paper, others on figures. Some are just colours placed in proximity to one another in the approximate proportions in which they’d appear on the figure. You don’t have to paint a complete test figure or a detailed drawing on paper. Even playing around with some paints on your palette or on a piece of paper before you start painting can give you a lot of useful information! 

Reaper whiteThe Reaper catalogue photo of Churrusina.

There are digital tools you can use, as well. These vary in levels of sophistication and complexity, as well as cost. I decided to use a digital painting method to test colours for my character Fathom, pictured below. I used the Procreate app on my iPad, but as I mentioned, there are a lot of other options for different platforms and budgets. I loaded the unpainted catalog picture of the figure, seen above, into my digital program. I found the photo on the Reaper Miniatures site. Many manufacturers have similar pictures you can use as a starting point for colour tests. I reduced the transparency of the layer with the photograph on it to less than 20%. This gave me a faint image to use as a sort of colouring book outline I could use to test different colours. For Fathom, I went to the extent of painting in some shadow and highlight colours, but even doing some basic block colouring on the main areas would help you get a sense for how your proposed colour scheme works.

Another option would be to print out a catalogue photo like the above and paint colours onto the paper. This has the advantage of allowing you to test the exact paints you’re thinking about using rather than approximating colours in a digital program. If you don’t have access to a good catalogue photo for your figure, you could prime/paint it in grey or white, place an overhead lamp over it, and make your own reference photo. You can see an example of a colour test with physical paint in Marike Reimer’s slideshow of the steps to paint her Crystal Brush winning Kraken Priestess. I used a rough drawing on paper to test an autumn colour scheme for a bard character.

IMG 0296

The photo above shows the colour schemes I tested out for my character Fathom. I ended up painting the figure mostly like the one on the bottom left, but swapped to the shirt colour of the one on the bottom right. It had a touch of green in it, so I felt it would look more harmonious with the reddish skin and red of the cloak. I think the figure on the upper left works really well in terms of being an eye-catching colour scheme, but it did not fit the concept of my character. Fathom has decided to lean in to the stereotypes about tieflings instead of trying to fight them. The upper left colour scheme would have been a great choice if her patron had been more of a fey type.

Here are a couple of more views of the completed paint job on the character. Since this figure was intended for game play, after I took the photos I brushed on gloss sealer for some additional protection, and then sprayed that over with matte sealer for my preferred matte finish. Note that sealer works best if you also take other steps during prep and painting to create a sturdy paint job.

Fathom face

Fathom back 600

Once I finished painting, I sent Fathom off to Frank and Ann of Knight Heart Gaming. They host a Dungeons & Dragons game for some of the Reaper artists on Reaper Miniature’s Twitch channel every other Friday. Frank is a wonderful DM, adept at dealing with the parameters of running an entertaining game in a streaming environment and time limit, and also at dealing with our crazy artist nonsense. I often forget to take screenshots in the midst of the fun role-playing, but here are a couple of shots of Fathom and her compatriots adventuring in the fantastic Knight Heart scenic setups. You can catch up with past episodes on Reaper’s YouTube channel, or via the droll musings of Kay Nimblewit (played by Jen Greenwald on the far right below. Jen also has a great painting oriented blog.)

Fathom ss2

Fathom ss

 

Figures in this Post

Churrusina is available in metal.
Anirion, Elf Wizard is available in Bones USA plastic, clear plastic, or metal.
Isabeau Laroche, Paladin is available in Bones plastic and metal.
Geisha Assassin (colour tested on Isabeau) is available in metal.
Seoni, Iconic Sorceress  is available in Bones plastic.
Male Bard with Lute is available in metal. (Colour scheme on paper.)
Arran Rabin is available in Bones plastic and metal.
Children of the Zodiac, Cancer is available in metal.
Wing from Griffon, available in Bones plastic or metal.