How to Neutralize a Colour Scheme: Lars Ragnarsson

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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Final Pictures

Lars bl front2

Lars bl face

Lars bl back

Lars bl back left

Lars bl back right

Lars bl right

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Paint Colours Used on Lars Ragnarsson

Skin:

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Boot fur:

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Green cloth:

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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:

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WIP version of the horns:

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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.

How to Test Colour Schemes: Fathom

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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. 

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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.

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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.

The Anatomy of Colour

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When I started to think about writing a handbook of miniature painting, I had an idea of where I wanted to start. And it wasn’t here. ;-> One of the challenges I wrestle with in teaching is deciding in what order to address topics. We tend to think of learning and improving a skill as a set of linear steps, but I think it’s often more like a spiral staircase where you repeatedly circle back over the same subjects, but each time increasing the depth of your understanding.

Where I wanted to begin is by discussing the core concepts of what we need to do to make miniatures look visually effective on the game table or in a display case. Recently, while I was working on articles related to that, it occurred to me that I was using a lot of colour terminology. So I think it will be helpful to start instead with an overview of the terms we use to identify, define, and discuss colour.

If you’re not very familiar with colour terminology, please don’t be intimidated or put off by these terms! It may seem like a whole other language at first, but just reread this document or others like it now and then, and before you know it the vocabulary of colour will become much more familiar. These terms are common to discussions of colour throughout all fields of art and design, so they’ll be useful to you in better understanding a lot of other useful  resources, too.

This is a (relatively) brief overview. At some point in the future I hope to delve into each of the aspects of colour in a lot more detail, to explore other aspects of colour theory, and of course to discuss how it all relates to miniature painting specifically.

A colour quick reference sheet is available to members of my Patreon.

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The Vocabulary of Colour

Every colour can be defined by various properties – whether it’s light or dark, vivid or dull, warm or cool, etc. Think of it as similar to using vital statistics for describing people – height, weight, age, gender, etc. Colours have identifying properties like that too.

Thinking of and describing colours by their properties is often more useful than thinking of them by their names. Colour names are not standardized in any art media. Individual people sometimes have slightly differing definitions for common colour names, as well. So it can be more useful to describe a colour as a dark, warm, somewhat desaturated red than it is to quibble about whether it should be called maroon or wine.

This is similar to people, too. You might know multiple people with the same name. When talking about them you have to distinguish between them via other characteristics – the tall Juan, Lee with the curly hair, Maria from work, etc.

Colour is Relative

The properties that definite colours are inherent, but they aren’t absolute. You may not always be aware of it, but the way you perceive a colour and its properties is affected by the colours around it. A colour that’s fairly dark can seem kind of light if it’s surrounded by much darker colours, for example. It is this relativity that causes a lot of our challenges in working with colour!

Relative greyThe same value of grey appears a little lighter surrounded by black, and a little darker when surrounded by white.

Think of it as similar to vital statistics in people. You probably have a friend who is quite tall. But if you imagine your friend standing next to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (7’2”/218cm), they might not seem quite as tall. And if your friend stood next to the current tallest person in the world, Sultan Kösen (8’9”/251cm), they wouldn’t seem tall at all. The actual measurable height of your tall friend doesn’t change, but your perception of your friend’s height is affected by the height of those you see around them.

Sultan kosenSultan Kösen standing next to other people of various heights. Photo by Helgi Halldórsson via Creative Commons.

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The Major Properties of Colour

Art theory defines colours by three major properties: value, colour/hue, and saturation/chroma.

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Value
(Sometimes called Lightness)

Value describes how light or dark a colour appears.

Value is a fundamental element of all visual art/communication. Some art instruction sources treat value as a property of colour when listing the basic elements of art. Others consider it so important that they list it as a separate element of art that is distinct from colour. And that sort of makes sense. After all, you can make art or other visual expression with only two somewhat different values of a single colour. And you can describe the world and explore artistic ideas with a lot of depth and finesse using only multiple values of a single colour.

Bw comboYou can say a lot with just black, white, and grey!
 (Blues Brothers stencil by Six-Hundred, drawing by Rhonda Bender, Deadlands Noir Detective by Rhonda Bender, movie still from Casablanca.)

I am going to use the term value a lot in discussing the core concepts for painting great miniatures. It is a key element in creating contrast, and an important tool to use to analyze our own paint jobs, assess those of others, replicating real life textures and materials, and more. Try to memorize and become conversant with this term first.

Value Scale

The term value scale refers to a range of lightest to darkest values. The scale is absolute, with the darkest possible value for that colour at one end and the lightest possible value for the colour at the other. When measuring all possible values or viewing value in greyscale, the scale has black at one end and white at the other. A value scale can be as small as two different values. Dividing the value range into ten is the most common, but several variations exist.

Value scale bw

Value is easiest to see in grayscale, but it exists for all colours.

Valuescale combo

Value Range

Value range refers to the range of values used in a specific work. This might encompass the full range of the absolute value scale and include extremes of white and black, or it might include only a portion of the full value scale. Generally speaking work that includes a full or nearly full range of values is more visually clear and pleasing to look at, particularly in the art of miniature painting.

Value range goblinIf you convert this goblin figure to black and white and compare it to an eight point value scale, the darkest colour is between seven and eight, and the lightest colour is around three. So the value scale of the goblin’s paint colour scheme is roughly 3 to 7.5. The goblin is less visually effective than it would be if it were painted with a larger range of values.

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Colour or Hue

In art terms colour/hue refers to the broad colour family to which a colour belongs. The colour families are: red, blue, yellow, green, orange, violet/purple.

What about pure neutral colours, like white, black, and grey? Think of those as another colour family, but one that is slightly different than the rest. The pure neutrals work with each of the other colour families in a different way than those colour families work with one other.

The colour/hue families are very broad umbrellas. It’s the whole family tree taken together. You are identifying a colour as a member of the green family, it doesn’t matter whether it’s lime or olive or chartreuse. Other than the broad names of the families, the specific names of colours are usually not useful or important in art colour discussions. It’s better to either refer to specific pigment numbers, or describe a colour by its family name and other properties.

Colour familes

By strictest definition, colour and hue have slightly different meanings. Colour includes the family of black/white/grey. Hue refers only to the main colour families. (So white is a colour, but it’s not a hue. ;->)

Note that hue also has other meanings. When used as part of the name on a paint tube/bottle, like Cadmium Red Hue or Cobalt Hue, it means it is similar in colour to Cadmium Red or Cobalt, but it is mixed with different pigments than those traditionally associated with those names. In general use people sometimes use the word hue to refer to variations of colours rather than the broader concept of a colour family.

Local Colour

Local colour is the inherent colour of something as seen under white light. That same colour may appear different under coloured light, or due to the influence of reflected light from nearby objects, though this may not be obvious to you as a viewer due to the effect of colour constancy. Painters often focus excessively on matching local colour, but matching value is more critical to a realistic and pleasing outcome. Including elements of reflected light can enhance both realism and visual interest.  

Local vs reflected colourThe local colour of my husband’s face is apparent at the top left, under white room lights. The strong colour of his shirt influences the appearance of the colour of his skin in the area under his chin. It’s particularly obvious in this photo, but this kind of thing affects the colour of many objects we view.

Colour Constancy

Colour constancy describes our brain’s ability to perceive the colour of an object as constant, even when it is altered due to lighting conditions or other elements. We see an orange as being orange in colour, regardless of time of day or moderate shifts in light colour. To paint an orange to look realistic in a twilight lighting scenario requires the painter to figure out what colour the orange actually appears in that altered lighting.

In the picture below, the skin seen through the dress probably looks pretty similar to the other skin in colour. The colour mixes on the far right show the colours used to paint the skin seen through the dress. Your brain knows it’s looking at skin seen through a green filter, so it largely ignores it. This figure would not look as good if I had painted the bare skin and skin seen through the dress with the same colour mixes. As an artist I had to factor in the green in my painting so your brain could factor it out, as it would expect to have to do in this situation.

Cersei combo

Primary, Secondary, Tertiary Colours/Hues

The terms primary, secondary, and tertiary are ways of categorizing colours in terms of how you can mix them. The colours in each category depend on the colour theory/wheel system you use. The one most commonly in use is the classic red-yellow-blue system. The second most common is the CYM (cyan-yellow-magenta) colour system. In either system, the combinations for mixing colours are based on how ideal colours would behave. In reality actual pigments and the paints made from them make slightly different mixes than expected. Delving into the realities of colour mixing is definitely a longer topic for a different day. For now, think of the colour theory/wheel mixing information as guidelines not certainties.

Primary colour
The primary colours are a set of colours which cannot be mixed from other colours. These are mixed together to create other colours.

In classic colour theory the primary colours are: red, blue, and yellow.

Primaries classic

In the CYM colour system they are: magenta, cyan, yellow.

Primaries cymk

Secondary colours
Secondary colours are obtained by mixing two primary colours together in roughly equal proportions. (It may require different volumes of paint to achieve equal proportions due to tinting strength, which is discussed later in this document.)

In classic colour theory, the secondaries are: orange (red + yellow), purple ( red + blue), and green (blue + yellow).

Secondaries classic

In the CYM system the secondary colours are: red (yellow + magenta), blue (cyan + magenta), and green (cyan + yellow).

Secondaries cymk

Tertiary colours
The colours obtained by combining a primary and a secondary colour are called tertiary colours. In classic colour theory they are yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet, red-orange. Note that the naming convention is to use place the name of the primary colour first, secondary colour second: primary-secondary, or red-orange.

Complementary colours
The pairs of colours that sit opposite one another on the colour wheel are considered to be complementary colours. Complementary pairs provide strong colour contrast when used adjacent or in close proximity to one another. Mix a bit of its complement into a colour to reduce saturation. Mix the two in roughly equal proportions to create a brown or chromatic grey.

In classic colour theory the pairs are: blue/orange, yellow/purple, and red/green.

Complements classic

In the CYM system the pairs are: cyan/red, yellow/blue, and magenta/green.

Complements cymk

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Saturation
(Also called: Chroma, Intensity, Purity)

Saturation describes how intense or vivid a colour is. A highly saturated colour is very vivid. A less saturated or muted colour is duller. Black, white, and grey are completely desaturated colours. As with value, you can think of saturation as existing on a spectrum from black/white/grey to vivid colour.

A bright cherry red is a highly saturated red. A dull brick red is a less saturated red. A completely desaturated red is grey.

Colour complementsAbove is a diagram showing the classic complementary colour pairs with highly saturated versions (top) and less saturated versions (bottom).

There are a number of ways to desaturate a paint colour. Although they are not used as commonly as others of the terms listed here, there are specific terms used to describe some of the desaturation mixes.

Tint: a pure colour mixed with white is a tint. A tint is always lighter in value and less saturated than the pure colour it was mixed from. Sometimes called a pastel colour.

Tone: a pure colour mixed with grey is a tone. A tone is always less saturated, and might be lighter, darker, or equal in value to the colour it was mixed from, depending on the value of the grey used to to mix it.

Shade: a pure colour mixed with black is a shade. A shade is always darker in value and less saturated than the pure colour it was mixed from.

Hue tint tone

Neutral Colour
Colours that are fairly to mostly desaturated are generally considered neutral colours – brown, tan, ivory, and similar. A pure or true neutral colour has no trace of another hue in it – true black, white, and grey. Chromatic neutrals function like neutrals in a colour scheme, but have touches of another colour in them. The grey or brown colour obtained by mixing two complementary colours together is a chromatic neutral. Neutral colours allow you to add additional colours to a design without having to use a rainbow kaleidoscope of colour. True neutrals never clash with other colours, but are more lifeless than chromatic neutrals.

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Additional Colour and Paint Properties

Colour, value, and saturation are the three major properties that define colour in the abstract. In practice, and in working with actual paint instead of abstract colours, there are additional properties that it is useful to be aware of.

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Temperature

Colour temperature assesses a colour as either warm or cool. Warmer colours are those with more yellow (sometimes orange) in them, and cooler colours are those with more blue (sometimes cyan or blue-green) in them. Understanding colour temperature is helpful to paint mixing, and can be a useful tool for creating contrast and mood.

Note that even within a warm colour family you have variations of a colour that are warmer or cooler, and the converse for a cool colour family. So you can have blue colours that are warmer and yellow colours that are cooler.

Primaries warm cool classicThese are warmer (left) and cooler (right) versions for each of the classic primary colours in more saturated (top) and less saturated (bottom) examples.

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Opacity

Opaque colours cover over everything or almost everything beneath them. Semi-opaque or semi-transparent colours only partially cover, allowing some of what is beneath to peek through. Transparent colours reveal much of what lies beneath. The level of opacity that a paint possesses is largely determined by the pigments used to mix that paint colour. Many pigments that are rich in colour are innately transparent, including most of those used to mix yellows and reds, and some used in greens and blues.

You can make a paint more transparent by adding water or medium to it. You can only make it more opaque by adding more opaque colours to it, such as white and/or black. This will also alter the saturation of the colour, and depending on what you mix in, its value. Paint companies can also make paint more opaque by adding opacifiers like chalk dust or talc, which is probably functionally pretty similar to adding white. Mixing a large proportion of pigment into the mix can help make a paint more opaque, but since many pigments are transparent by nature, there are limits to what can be achieved with more pigment.

We tend to think of opacity/transparency primarily as tools related to techniques – we need more opaque paint to successfully wet-blend and more transparent paint for glazes, for example. However, opacity contrasted with transparency can also be usedl to create contrast, depth, and/or colour complexity.

Opacity

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Luminance

The way the human eye perceives the value of a colour is influenced by our perception of the hue and saturation of that colour. Colours that might appear as the same value to a camera will appear lighter or darker to our eyes based on their hue. This effect increases with saturation. This effect is particularly noticeable with red. You likely perceive saturated shades of red to be much lighter than they appear when converted to greyscale. The term brightness is sometimes used with similar meaning to luminance.

LuminanceThe desaturated greyscale versions for some of those colours are probably darker than you expected.

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Finish

Finish describes how the dried surface of the paint (or sealer, if used) reacts to light. A glossy finish reflects a lot of light, and appears quite shiny. A satin finish is slightly reflective and appears to have a sheen. A matte finish reflects very little light and appears uniformly flat. Acrylic paints are inherently glossy. Some paint companies mix in matting agents to alter the finish of the paint. Effect paints like metallics and pearls have mica or similarly reflective materials added to create sparkle or shine.

Some painters prefer a uniform sheen to their paint or finished product. Others prefer to use paints with different finishes to help simulate different materials. The most common example is use of paints mixed with metallic flake to paint areas intended to appear as if made of metal, while using matte paints for other materials, but there are artists who use a wider array of paint finishes for more subtle effects.

Sealers also affect finish, and can be used to simulate materials, such as painting gloss sealer on eyeballs to make them look more natural, or over black to create the appearance of shiny vinyl or patent leather.

Sprout front 600The visual differences between finishes are always more striking to view in person than in photographs.

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Strength, or Tinting Strength

Saturation level describes how visually powerful a colour appears. Tinting strength refers to how an actual paint colour behaves in mixes. If you want to mix green by combining yellow and blue, you will find that you need much more yellow paint than you need blue paint. Yellow can be a highly saturated colour with a lot of visual impact, but most yellow paints have weak tinting strength. Different pigments create paints with different tinting strengths, so you might have some blues that are stronger and some that are weaker.

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Patron Spotlight

My content is provided with the generous support of the members of my Patreon. To thank them, I will be featuring a Patron in each post I make!

Anne Foerster started at Reaper Miniatures as the staff painter. She then took on the project of mixing and designing all of the Reaper paint lines, which quickly became a full time job. For more than 15 years she designed, mixed, and named literally hundreds of paint colours. Recently she left Reaper to strike out on her own as a commission painter, and contribute to the community in a different way. She has a daily weekday show on the Reaper Twitch channel, additional streams on her Painting Big Twitch channel, a Patreon where you can learn a lot about colour and painting, and a website where you can find pictures of her great pieces and more information on commissions.

Thank you Anne for helping my Patreon get off to a great start. And for all the answers to paint questions I’ve had over the years!

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Figures Featured in this Post

The Deadlands Noir Occult Detective is available in plastic or in metal.
The goblin archer is from a pack of Goblin Skirmishers available in plastic.
Cersei Lannister is available in metal.
Sprout von Harvest II is a special edition metal figure. Purchase one and proceeds go to Second Harvest Foodbank of East Tennesee.

Show Off! Have Fun! Win Prizes!

(Hello! I just started a Patreon to support the blog and expand my teaching options! Right now it’s in ‘early access mode’, but I’ll be focusing on it a lot more after ReaperCon.) 

We interrupt your regularly scheduled Pirate Parade with this important message from our sponsor, ReaperCon 2020

Would you like to show off some miniatures that you’ve painted? Would you like to try your hand at an interesting colour challenge? This is a great opportunity to do one or both of those things AND win prizes!

To join in the ReaperCon Showcase, post your work to any or all of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or the ReaperCon Discord using the appropriate hashtag. You can find the complete instructions here. Note that you can post work by any manufacturer. We want to enjoy all your cool figures and scenes! A number of Reaper reviewers will be picking their favourites as Reaper Choice selections. The painter of every piece selected as a Reaper Choice will receive a $20 US gift certificate to be used on the Reaper store. Entries must be posted by Sunday, September 6, 2020 at noon Central time to be considered.

Pg gob bottles 1000

The other painting event is the Quad Color Clash. For this one you must use Reaper paints and Reaper miniatures to be considered for prizes. There are also some steps to follow with the photographs, so please read the complete instructions here. (Note there is a typo in the hashtag on the page currently, use #quadcolorclash.)  You can post entries on any or all of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or the ReaperCon Discord. And as with the showcase, Reaper reviewers will be selecting QCC Favorites that will win $20 US gift certificates to the Reaper Store. The deadline for this is also Sunday, September 6, 2020 by noon Central time.

Pg gob front 300

Even if you don’t care at all about gift certificates or ReaperCon, I hope you’ll consider trying out the idea of selecting four paint colours and painting a figure using only those. Art challenges and exercises that limit our options can spur new creativity. You might find this helps you learn a lot about how to use your colours for more than you imagined. Or some elements you absolutely need to include to successfully paint a miniature, and others that might be less necessary than you thought. 

Pg gob back 300

As soon as I finished this I thought had some thoughts about slightly different colours I could have used that might have given a bit of a different effect. Not to mention some other ideas entirely. I’m itching to try this some more. I’m hoping I’ll get to try a few more schemes in the next week or two so I can write a blog post and we can have a discussion about this exercise and why it’s worth doing. I encourage you to mess around with it over the next week or two so I can hear your thoughts as well!

Pg gob face 300

This figure is one of three sculpts in a Goblin Skirmishers pack. There’s a pack of similarly sculpted Goblin Warriors, as well. Bobby Jackson sculpted these, and I think he packed quite a lot of personality in these small packages. I’ve been planning to get back to doing some speed paint practice, and I think these will be great vict… subjects for that exercise. I painted this guy in about 65 minutes while I was trying to practice working with my new video set up. And they won’t be too tough to fight the next time we get together for in-person role-playing. Whenever that might be…

I think I might try something a little larger for future quad colour attempts, if only so it’s easier to see on video and in photographs. 

Looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

Colour Link Ups – January 28

Life continues to leave me much less time for blogging than I’d like. I’ve got some additional thoughts on why we need to paint strong shadow/light contrast that I want to talk about, but that’s going to take a little while to work up. In the meantime, here are some link-ups to helpful information on working with colour!

Video: Colour Theory 101

If you aren’t very comfortable with choosing colours, colour theory can seem a bit of a daunting topic. But it’s worth studying because it can provide great guidelines precisely for those moments when you aren’t sure what colours to use. This introductory video covers the basic concepts of colour theory. The demonstrator uses canvas acrylic paint, but the principles apply to miniature paint, too. She’s working on a follow-up video, which I will try to link to when it releases.

https://youtu.be/XrROq7Qoxok

Text: Colour Theory Basics

No time for videos? Prefer to learn via reading? No problem! There’s a wealth of information on colour theory out there, and this guide from the Metropolitan art museum is a good place to start.

https://mymodernmet.com/basic-color-theory/

Video: 8 Tips for Choosing Colours

Theory, smeory. What if you just want to some hands-on practical tips for colour choices? You might like this video, better. The artist uses markers for her examples, but don’t be dismayed by that. Marker artists work the same way many miniature painters do, choosing from a wide selection of pre-mixed colours rather than mixing colours from a small pool of paints (or markers).

https://youtu.be/Qp2oQnsZ-Ac

Video: Painting True Metallics

Shiny metallic paints have different properties than standard colours, and can benefit from use of some different techniques. Join Reaper Miniature’s paint maven, Anne Foerster, for a great technique to use painting with metallic paints. Anne demonstrates on a bust, so you can get a good view of what she’s doing. This is the first in the Reaper Toolbox video series. This is a different technique than what I’ve used in the past with metallic paints, and I’m looking forward to trying it out soon myself!

https://youtu.be/csnzlcKruBo

Video: Me (Awkward!)

I was interviewed for the Reaper Live program a while ago, and the video is now up on YouTube. Topics include how I got into painting miniatures, and some sneak peek info on upcoming paint collections and the next learn to paint kit.

https://youtu.be/uyXDS9F_fTE

Photo by Treimerh, from Morguefile.