The Catalog of Contrast

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When miniature painters talk about contrast, we most often talk about one very specific type of contrast – painting a sufficient range of contrast between dark shadows and light highlights. That is a critical element to successful miniature painting, and one that I’ve covered extensively

However, that is just one variety of visual contrast! There are many other kinds. Understanding the other types and considering ways to use them in our painting can help us more easily accomplish goals in our own work, and better understand how the artists we admire create the paint jobs we love.

If you’ve received feedback that your miniatures need more contrast (or pop), bear in mind that our critique language in miniature painting can be pretty limited. You probably do need darker shadows and brighter highlights (most of us do, always), but the problem might be that the various areas of the figure are not visually distinct enough from on another and everything kind of blurs together if you look at the figure from  more than a few inches away. If your concern is to paint in a more realistic way, I encourage you to read my article Contrast Versus Realism, and also to read the comments on it from other painters who have struggled with this.

This article is an introduction to the types of visual contrast we can use in painting miniatures. Like the Anatomy of Colour article, it is intended more as a broad overview. I will expand on how to use these tools and provide additional examples in future articles. Since so many elements of contrast relate to colour, you may find it helpful to read the Anatomy of Colour as well.

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 What is Contrast?

At the simplest level, visual contrast occurs when you place two elements with opposing properties in close proximity to one another. The difference between the two elements draws the eye and attention of the viewer.

IMG 0822

We tend to think of contrast as being the extremes of difference – black vs white. However, it may be more useful to think of contrast properties as existing on a scale from absolute or extreme difference on one end, to very little difference on the other. There are visual design uses for all points on the scale. 

Contrast comp

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Why is Contrast Important?

Contrast is a very effective tool to attract, focus, or divert the viewer’s attention. Contrast is usually what draws people to look at a miniature (or billboard, or poster, or food label, or book cover or…) in the first place. Skilled artists use areas of high contrast to pull people’s eyes to the elements of the piece that are most important and convey the most character and story. They use lower contrast on sections that are less important, to give the viewer’s eyes a place to rest, or to divert attention from poorly sculpted/constructed sections. People like to look at contrast, so it also has the general effect of making what you paint more interesting to look at.

At the most fundamental level, using principles of contrast throughout your figure helps the viewer figure out the basic aspects of the figure – race/species, job/role, gender, and current action. Miniature figures are very small and can be difficult to interpret from even a relatively short distance. Use of contrast helps make them easier for viewers to read from further away. Contrast is equally important to the display painter who wants to win contests as it is to the tabletop painter who wants their figures to look great in games. The only difference is the techniques used to apply it and the amount of time spent.

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Types of Contrast for Miniature Painters

The varieties of contrast below are listed roughly in order of their importance and effectiveness. Strong value contrast and colour contrast are very eye catching and attention grabbing. You can paint a visually effective piece with clever use of these and only minimal application of technique. 

Note that the effects of contrast compound by using multiple types. Juxtaposing a light peach colour against a dark teal colour employs both value and hue contrast. It is very visually effective, as a great many designers and movie makers are already aware. Conversely, if you want to paint freehand that doesn’t pull a lot of attention from other areas of the figure, use lower hue and value contrast to keep it more in the background.

If you are unable to use strong value and/or hue contrast in your piece, you will find it helpful to use as many of the other types as you can. A simple example would be painting a figure in a monochromatic colour scheme. In addition to losing the cues to material/surface provided by colour, you also lose a major type of contrast. To paint monochromatic colour schemes most successfully, you need to be highly attentive to value, and put more focus on creating texture and detail to create additional contrast.

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1. Contrast of Values – Between Different Sections

Value is how light or dark something is. The most eye-catching and effective type of contrast is high contrast of value – when something very dark is placed in proximity to something very light. You will generally see text presented as very dark value text on a light value background, or the reverse. Value is easy to see in shades of grey, but can be more difficult for many people to correctly assess when looking at colours.

Value contrast rec crNotice how the graphics that use the extremes of white and black attract your attention more, particularly when the black and white are directly adjacent.

With this type of contrast, I am referring to contrast between adjacent areas of your miniature – pale skin next to dark hair, or polished non-metallic steel armour next to dark brown leather belt and gauntlets. Contrast within an area between shadows and highlights is critical to create three dimensionality. Contrast between areas is a critical element of good design/composition of the piece.

Quick tips: Try to use the strongest value contrast(s) near the most important or more interesting area(s) of the figure, like the face and/or whatever action is it performing. Avoid using strong value contrast in less interesting areas. An example for most figures would be to use high value contrast between the figure’s face and its hair/hood/hat, and use lower value contrast between a figure’s feet and its legs/skirt/pants. Take a black and white photo of your figure to check your value contrast. 

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2. Contrast of Hues (Complements, Triads)

Hue describes the main family of a colour  – orange, blue, green, etc. (The term ‘colour’ encompasses several colour properties that are also types of contrast, so I’m using hue to avoid confusion.) Each of the main hue families are more or less similar to other hues – orange is similar to red, but very different than blue. Placing hues that are more different than one another in proximity creates stronger contrast. Using hues that are more similar to one another creates less contrast.

For example, yellow, orange, and red are more similar to one another, and less similar to blue and green. Placing red next to blue or orange next to green creates more visual contrast than placing red next to orange.

The strongest contrast is between complementary colours. In classic colour theory the complementary pairs are: blue/orange, yellow/purple, and red/green. In the CMY system the complementary pairs are: cyan/red, yellow/blue, and magenta/green

Triadic colour schemes are those with three hues that are equidistant apart from each other on the colour wheel. They do not contrast each other as strongly as two complementary colours, but they do provide effective contrast, and make for harmonious colour schemes. Simple triadic schemes are the three primary colours or the three secondary colours. In classic colour theory the primary triadic schemes are red-yellow-blue, and the secondary are orange-purple-green. In CMY the primary triadic schemes are cyan-magenta-yellow and the secondary are blue-red-green.

Contrast hue rec cr2Two complementary pairs on the left, and two triadic schemes on the right.

The examples of hue contrast above may not look very attractive to you. When you use contrasting hues together that are all roughly the same value and saturation, the contrast can be so strong that the hues almost seem to fight one another. These hues will appear more harmonious if you vary the value and/or saturation between them. So you might have a vivid blue for your cloak, combined with a reddish skin tone and gold metallic trim.

Contrast hue rec cr desat2The same colour choices as above, but varying the saturation and/or value of some of the colours.

Quick tips: Hue contrast can be a great partner to value and used in a similar way. Or it can lend a helping hand when you aren’t able to make the point with value alone. For example, if the clothing and accessories of your figure are pretty similar in value, you can use hue contrast to help one stand out from other, like pairing green clothing with reddish brown leather armour.

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3. Contrast of Form (Higher Highlights, Darker Shadows)

We only see objects in light. Areas of objects that face the light and receive more illumination appear lighter to our eyes. Areas that face away from the light or are blocked from receiving light are shadowed and appear darker. When we paint shadows and highlights on our miniatures, we make them look more like objects appear to us in the real world. Because miniatures are so small, very strong contrast between the dark value of shadows and light value of highlights makes a painted miniature more interesting to look at. It also helps the viewer more quickly and easily distinguish the various areas of the figures to better interpret what areas are and what the figure is doing.

Contrast form rec cr

Compare these with the flat value versions below. There are ways that the shading and highlighting enhance the examples that have lower value contrast between areas, but the benefit of starting with strong value contrast between areas is apparent.

Value contrast rec cr

All of these same principles are true in traditional artwork, and understanding that may help us better understand why it is important for miniature painters. On a flat surface, the thing that turns a two dimensional circle (shape) into appearing like a three dimensional sphere (form) is applying shadows and highlights. This may not seem necessary on a miniature since it starts out three dimensional, but miniature figures are so small we need to use paint values to duplicate the way light and shadow would appear on the shapes of a figure lit by an in-scale light source.

Compare the two photos below. The photo on the left was taken with a bright overhead ceiling light. The photo on the right was taken with a lamp placed a few inches above the miniature. The light placement on the right is more in scale with the small size of the figure. The way the light and shadow fall on the right figure not only allows you to see the details more clearly, but also gives the shapes of the figure much more form and dimension. You can see that his chest muscles and belt buckle protrude forward, while other shapes recede back from view. The goal in applying shadows and highlights is to use paint to make a figure look like the one on the right does even when it is viewed in lighting like that on the left.

Standard vs inscale lighting crThis barbarian is available in Bones plastic.

Why is this type of contrast third on my list if it’s the contrast miniature painters talk about the most? Partly this is a function of the conventions of critique in our hobby. Our vocabulary is limited. We do talk about value and hue contrast, but that conversation is wrapped up with the omnipresent discussion of shadow/highlight contrast. Whether we talk about it or not, and whether they’re doing it consciously or by instinct, the best painters of both display and tabletop miniatures use these others kinds of contrast. Skilled display painters start with an overall composition of the figure based more on value, hue, temperature and so on, and then layer shadows and highlights on top of that. Clever tabletop painters realize they need not spend as much time on laborious shading and highlighting if they skillfully employ value and hue contrast.

Also note that the other types of contrast can be used within shadows and highlights to make them more effective. We talk about using value in shadows and highlights a lot – darker shadows and lighter highlights is the mantra! However, you can increase contrast of form by using less saturated colours in shadows and more saturated colours in midtones and highlights. You can also increase it by using hue or temperature contrasts. For example, using cooler colours or a complementary colour in the shadows. When you look at work by skilled painters that you feel uses a lower shadow/highlight contrast than what you’re being told to do, the reality is that even if the value contrast is lower, they are using additional types of contrast in their shadows and highlights. If you feel higher contrast is not realistic or you’re perturbed about being told to increase the contrast in your work, I encourage you to read this article and the comments on it – Contrast Versus Realism.

Quick tips: I’ve got a whole series of articles on this topic, including lots of how-to tips.

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4. Contrast of Saturation

Saturation is a property of colour – how vivid or intense the colour is. Cherry red is a highly saturated red. Brick red is a lower intensity red. Neutrals are low or desaturated colours – purplish taupe, yellowish beige, orangey brown, grey, black, white, etc. Our eyes are drawn to intense colour. But too much intense colour can be jarring and discordant. We can use both of those facts to our advantage when choosing what colours to put where on our figures.

Contrast saturation rec crWhen you look at these, the light saturated green area and then the bright red area are probably the the two that draw your attention most. You probably spent the least time looking at the on the far right since it has low saturation colours.

Quick tip: If you are limited in the contrast of value you can use between areas, saturation is an effective tool to use to intensify contrast. Use high saturation colours on or near the most important part of your piece, and use lower saturation colours in areas you don’t want viewers to spend a lot of time on. You can use glazes/washes or mix more intense colour in and do touch ups to increase or decrease the saturation in particular areas. For example, if you were painting a Santa Claus figure, you could use more orange/yellow in your highlights on his suit near his face. You could dull down the red on his sides or legs a little with glazes of duller reds or other colours in the shadows to make those areas a little less distracting to the viewer.

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5. Contrast of Temperature

Temperature is another colour property. Each colour can be described as being a warm colour or a cool colour. Warm colours juxtaposed with cool colours create contrast. Part of the reason complementary colours contrast so highly to one another is that one in the pair is warm and the other is cool.

Identifying colours as cool or warm is easy in the abstract – colours with more yellow/orange in them are warm colours, and colours with more blue in them are cool colours. In practice it can be more challenging, as the temperature of a colour is always relative to the other colours used around it. If you compare multiple shades of blue, some will be cooler and some will be warmer. In the far right example below, the orange is a warmer colour than the dark pink. 

Contrast temperature rec crThe effect of temperature contrast works well in partnership with other forms of contrast.

Quick tips: Temperature contrast is another helpful partner if you are limited in the value contrast you can use. Use one temperature on the focal point of your figure, and the other in areas surrounding it. Temperature contrast is a very useful tool for creating stronger contrast between your shadows and highlights, as well. Using cooler colours in the shadows and warmer colours in the highlights (or vice versa) can add to three dimensionality and increase the impression of the value contrast between those areas.

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6. Contrast of Finish – Gloss/Matte/Metallic

This type of contrast relates to the way the paint reflects physical light rather than its hue or other colour properties. The finish of paint can vary from super matte, to satin, to very glossy, to metallic shimmer. Some painters use only matte paints, and paint metal surfaces with the non-metallic metal technique. Others use metallic paints to paint metal objects, and matte paints for everything else. It is also possible to use other finishes of non-metallic paints for additional contrast. You might use a satin or glossy finish paint to paint leather accessories or silk or satin cloth, for example. 

Finish based contrast can look great in person, but it does not photograph well. Which one of the following paints is a metallic?* Yeah, I can barely tell either. I could have photographed them in different lighting, but then I’d just get spots of white glare. 

Rve paint sample feb2

Quick tips: Using metallic paints in tabletop painting is a quick and effective method of contrast because of the finish difference between glittering metallic paints and flatter matte paints. Effects based on different finishes, like adding shiny blood or saliva, can also add a lot of visual interest to a piece, and glints of reflecting light help draw the viewer’s eye. However, don’t rely on finish as a primary source of contrast for miniatures that will largely be viewed in photographs.

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7. Contrast of Texture (Detail vs Smooth/Quiet)

We love details in our figures – sculpted textures like chainmail and fur, painted textures like woven cloth, freehand, weathering, delicate filigree, and so much more. Detail, texture, and pattern can draw the eye and make a piece more interesting to view. But our eyes can also get overwhelmed by too much. It is helpful to remember that smooth is also a texture. Smooth areas contrast well with areas of painted or sculpted detail, and you can use the contrast between smooth and detailed to help direct the viewer’s eye or keep it on your story. If nothing else, you need to be sure to give the viewer’s eye a few places to rest in between taking in all the details.

Contrast texture rec crThe sections on the leftmost example are not visually distinct from one another. The plain areas of the middle examples stand out because they are contrasted with the sections of detail and texture that surround them and with strong value contrast. Although the rightmost example has lower value contrast between all the sections, the plain area still stands out most because it is different than the surrounding areas.

Quick tip: For display/contest figures, don’t think of texture/freehand as a method to demonstrate painting skill. Only paint bold or bright freehand and texture in situations where it helps direct the viewer’s eye and tell the story/character of your piece. Keep it more subtle in other areas. For tabletop pieces where speed is of the essence, use lots of shadow/highlight contrast on sculpted texture to bring out the details. If you’re going to spend a little extra time to paint some some super smooth blends, prioritize the face and skin and areas in proximity to the face, and don’t worry about more distant and unimportant objects like the boots.

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8. Contrast of Opacity (and/or Paint Texture)

These types of contrast relate to the paint itself, and how it is applied.  Many darker paint colours are somewhat to very transparent due to the nature of the pigments they’re mixed with. White is a fairly opaque colour, so most light value colours with white added are usually opaque. Painters can use those properties by using opaque lighter value paints for lights and highlights. Opaque colours appear more solid and substantial, and thus appear as if are closer to the viewer. Contrasting that against darker more transparent colours used in the shadows enhances the effect. Miniature painters explore aspects of this when they use washes and glazes in shadow areas and then more opaque paint applied in layers or drybrushing for highlights.

Some traditional painters use paint texture in a similar way. They use smoother strokes and and thinner coats of paint on shadow areas or objects in the distant background to keep them unobtrusive and receding from the viewer. Painters can contrast that with thickly applied strokes and dabs of paint in areas of light and on objects that are closer to the viewer so they leap out to the eye and grab attention. 

You can see an example below. The white highlight reflections on the peppers have been painted with paint strokes several millimetres thick. The darker areas are flatter and the paint is a bit more transparent. (This is not a great painting, but it’s the best example I had to hand. The dabs of white would look better supported by stronger strokes or a little more general paint build up in the area of the lights.)

For a much better example, look at this self-portrait of Rembrandt. Zoom in and you can see thick textured strokes in the light areas of the skin. Texture also helps describe the hair and moustache. Areas of the shadow in the skin are painted with thinner, less textured paint, which is also true of the large dark areas in the rest of the painting. As a result, the face jumps out at the viewer. I imagine the effect is even more pronounced when it is viewed in person. You can see some video footage and compare the effect against other painting styles in this short video

Impasto highlights cr

Texture prokoThis second example is by Stan Prokopenko. He is a talented artist, and a fantastic art instructor. This image is was posted on his Instagram, but he has a wealth of resources and a supportive community of artists on his website.

Use of these types of contrast is uncommon among miniature painters. Miniature paints are formulated to be fluid and self-levelling specifically to minimize the appearance of brush strokes, and painters are often admonished to thin their paints. However, there are miniature painters who use heavy body tube acrylic paint to add physical dimension and texture to highlight paint mixes. There are also painters like Alfonso “Banshee” Giraldes who are exploring use of more visible brush strokes in miniature painting. This is most commonly done on larger scale figures and busts, like this Van Gogh inspired bust by Anthony Rodriguez.

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*The metallic paint is the second from the right.

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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!

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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.

Fall Colours

If you like the work I do on this blog, please consider supporting it via my Patreon.

I live in the southeast of the United States, and while our days are getting colder and shorter, we are also still enjoying the last gasp of the beautiful colours of fall foliage. All the red and gold splendor and cool blue skies got me thinking about these figures I painted not too long ago, which also got me thinking about a useful tool to use for developing a colour scheme for a miniature.

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These figures were painted for Dark Sword Miniatures. They were part of a Kickstarter campaign for a line of classic character class miniatures appropriate for use in role-playing games, which were designed by the talented artist Stephanie Law. Bards are my favourite character class, so I was excited when Dark Sword offered me the opportunity to paint these. Stephanie’s concept sketches included some fallen leaves, so an autumnal colour scheme was a pretty natural choice. I also tried to incorporate the values (light, medium, or dark colours) she used in her concept sketches into my colour choices for the figures.

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I don’t paint with oranges and yellows very often, so this was a novel experience. The face on the female bard is one of the loveliest face sculpts I’ve ever had the opportunity to paint. Sculptor Patrick Keith really did a fantastic job with this one. It reminded me of a figure from a Renaissance painting. I enjoyed the rest of the miniature quite a bit, too. I love painting hair, and she has lovely flowing locks. The sense of movement in her skirt was also a lot of fun, as well as the fun detailing to her outfit. 

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I also enjoyed painting the male, of course. His clothing is more finely detailed than hers in several respects, which made the occasion for some different types of painting. He also has some fun details on his instrument. 

Bards front 600

When you look at the two figures side by side, they work as a bit of an example of how using the same colours in different proportions can alter the appearance or effect of the colour scheme as a whole. The woman’s colour scheme is almost entirely made up of warm colours, with just a small area of lace and her jewelry in the cool blue colour. The man has a much larger proportion of the cool sky blues used. Where the yellow was more of an accent colour on the woman, the yellow, orange, and brown appear in almost equal proportion on the man. 

When you’re making a decision about a colour scheme, the colours you choose are not the only consideration. Where you put those colours and the proportion of each to the others can have a dramatic impact on drawing the viewer’s attention where you want it (or shifting it along from where you don’t), and the overall mood and personality of the figure. 

This next picture might look kind of goofy, but it’s a handy tool for working on colour schemes, so don’t dismiss it too quickly. It demonstrates a couple of ways that I work through and test colour ideas. Up top are basic swatches. I’ll often try to make these roughly match the areas of a figure and the proportions in which the colours would be used, but the main point of the exercise is to get colours next to each other to see if they look good together and give a decent range of values. You can see that my initial thoughts about the colours were still autumnal, but very different from where I ended up!

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Just above the figure are some transitions from light to dark. When I find a midtone colour that I like for an area, I’ll often test different shadow and highlight options in this way to see what fits the colour and what I’m trying to do with the piece.

Lastly you can see a very rough representation of the male bard. My goal with this is not a fine drawing or painting, it’s still about testing the colour. I place the colours down in roughly the place and size of how they would appear on the figure to better get an idea of whether the colour scheme works with the figure. I ended up changing the hair colour and increasing the proportion of the cool sky colour, but overall I ended up painting pretty close to my test version. It might seem that something like this wastes time, but it’s a lot quicker to do a few rough colour sketches like this than to do a lot of repainting on the figure itself! I used to use index cards for this, but I have since found that good quality drawing paper is better but still quite affordable tool for these kinds of tests.

The painter who first exposed me to this idea is the very talented Derek Schubert. His colour sketches are quite lovely and artistic. He keeps a sketchbook for doing colour tests and working out ideas for figures. I’ve since seen other painters do similar things. If you have a picture of a plain sculpt of your figure, you can convert it to black and white and use a computer or tablet photo or graphics editing program to ‘paint’ on colours for similar tests, or print it out onto paper and paint on it. If you look at the beginning of the video at this link, you can see a colour scheme test like that of Marike Reimer’s Crystal Brush winning piece, Kraken Priestess: http://www.destroyerminis.com/kraken-priestess-video/

Another option is to ‘sketch’ directly on the figure and roughly block in your colour choices. This can occasionally be risky with smaller scale and very finely proportioned figures (as Dark Sword figures often are) as it risks clogging up some of the detail of the figure with paint if you revise your colour scheme ideas multiple times. 

Bards back 600

Links to Figures and People Mentioned in this Post:

Dark Sword Stephanie Law figure line: https://www.darkswordminiatures.com/shop/index.php/miniatures/stephanie-law-masterworks.html
Stephanie Law’s website: http://www.shadowscapes.com
Patrick Keith’s website: http://www.patrickkeith.com
Derek Schubert gets a lot done by spending minimal time online, but here is a short bio: http://www.reapermini.com/Artists#Derek%20Schubert
Marike Reimer’s main website: http://www.destroyerminis.com