How to Steal a Colour Scheme

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

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

Elanter front

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

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

Elanter back

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

Elanter face

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

Grey divider edit

Video Version

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

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

Part 2: Blocking in the main colours

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

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

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

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

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

Elanter wip cloak comp

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

Grey divider edit

Where to Steal Colour Schemes

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

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

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

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

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

IMG 2149My colour scheme inspiration.

Grey divider edit

Steal the Right Colour Schemes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grey divider edit

Steal ALL the Colours

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

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

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

Sophie18 color versionsArtwork by Izzy ‘Talon’ Collier.

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

Goth poster comboPoster art by Larry Elmore.

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

IMG 0138

Grey divider edit

Steal the Right Colours

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Colour Sampling

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

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

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

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

Pillow samples

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

Pillow digital cr

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

IMG 2969

Physical Colour Sampling

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

Pillow paint cr

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

Pillow mask cr

Colour Shifting with Image Source

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

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

Phone vs scanner

Testing a Colour Scheme

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

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

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

IMG 2970

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

IMG 7361

Grey divider edit

Paint Colours Used on Elanter the Lost Prince

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

Skin:

IMG 2986

Light wood bow:

IMG 2987

Dark wood staff (faux wood grain):

IMG 2988

Green cloak:

IMG 2989

Rust overdress:

IMG 2990

Metallics:

IMG 2992

Grey divider edit

Figures in this Post

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

How to Test Colour Schemes: Fathom

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG 7361

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

Reaper whiteThe Reaper catalogue photo of Churrusina.

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

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

IMG 0296

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

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

Fathom face

Fathom back 600

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

Fathom ss2

Fathom ss

 

Figures in this Post

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

Colour Matching is Not the Secret Code to Realism

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

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

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

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

IMG 1102

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

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

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

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

IMG 1103

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

Noir detective front 2000

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

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

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

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

Tristan front comp cr

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

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

Sophie 16 art mini

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

Cherries combo3

Cherries combo2

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

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

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

Cherries photo pink

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

Value and Contrast are Key

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

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

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

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

Green 1 cr

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

Green 2 cr

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

Green 3a cr

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

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

Green 6 cr

I’d say it would look pretty good! 

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

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

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

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

Smith ba back cr

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

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

Smith ba back cr bw

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

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

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

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

Green 4 cr

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

Green 5 cr

Figures in this Post

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

Wash Colour Experiments

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

One of my goals as a teacher of miniature painting is to encourage people to do more experimentation and testing. Willingness to experiment means willingness to spend time that might not result in a finished miniature. It also means potential failure in the sense of ending up with results you aren’t happy with. In the short term, both of those are somewhat painful experiences, so I think a lot of us just end up sticking with what we know works. In the long term we are missing out expanding our repertoire of tools and techniques that we could use on other miniatures.

I want to note that I am also one of the people I need to encourage with this message of openness to experimentation! So for my first show of Beyond the Kit I thought I would try something I’ve never done before. I chose to explore the effect of different wash colours on a figure. For the benefit of those who prefer a quick read, I’m going to share some pictures and thoughts about the experiment here. This technique may also be of interest to people who paint figures in number, as this ended up being an easy and relatively quick way to add some differentiation to individuals in a group of figures without adding a lot of extra steps and work.

IMG 0929My test subjects bravely lined up to get their experimental washes.

First something of a confession – I never really did a lot of washing and drybrushing in my early years of painting. I gave it a try on my first few figures, but I got frustrated because washes didn’t seem to work the way it sounded like they should. I didn’t understand at that time that although the wash would concentrate in the depressions, it would also tint the entire surface. I had been reading up on the layering technique, so I tried that instead. I understood it better, so I ended up focusing on that and not bothering much with washes and drybrushing for years outside of base textures. I circled back around to it, and I’ve since seen people do some amazing things with washes, but I didn’t have that foundational experience with them that most painters have. (At the time that I started painting there were no easily available videos to watch to see how something like washes works!)

Not long ago I had had a painting experience where the choice of wash colours ended up having a significant effect on the end appearance of the figure, and I thought that might be something fun to do experiments with. I concocted an experiment where the wash colour would be the only variable between the figures. For the non-variable elements I chose to use a figure and colours from the Core Skills learn to paint kit, since those are familiar to a lot of people. The figure was the Skeleton Archer. The paints were Desert Sand for the base coat, and then Pure White for additional highlighting. (The kit uses Solid White, but I couldn’t find mine during the stream and the true white paints are pretty similar.) 

IMG 0930If you want to try an experiment like this, any skeleton figure will do. If you don’t have Desert Sand any light grey, cream, or tan paint colour should work pretty similarly. Here are some examples of substitute colours.

Since I was painting basecoats on seven skeletons, I used my Vex airbrush to apply the paint, but two coats by brush should give a pretty similar result. I also brush painted a base coat of Naga Green onto all of their bases. I want to perform a similar experiment with the more saturated green, since I suspect the effects will be different over neutral versus more saturated colours. There wasn’t time in that episode, but I hope to return to that experiment another time.

Next I picked out some paints to test as wash colours. The Core Skills kit uses a dark grey colour. I chose the colours below to test as alternates. The swatches you see beneath each colour are painted from the washes I mixed during the stream, so you can also get an idea of the wash consistencies I used or compare to similar colours you might have in your collection if you want to try this experiment yourself. I have demonstrated how to mix and test wash consistencies elsewhere.

Btk1 washes paintThe paint colours I used for the washes, with swatches of each of the wash mixes.

Like any scientist, I had some ideas about how each of the colours would behave, because I’ve been working with colour for a while now. Do not fret if you do not have much colour knowledge at this point! You can study colour information. You can also just do experiments like this and mix random colours together to study what happens in the real world and begin to build up your own personal bank of knowledge.

My predictions:

Solid Black: I expected this to be too harsh and stark.

Russet Brown: I like this colour to shade ivory and parchment, and thought it might give a yellowed ivory appearance.

Rich Leather: I figured this might be kind of similar to the Russet Brown, but a little lighter and more yellow. Maybe too yellow or too light.

Clouded Sea: I suspected this would look weird, but thought it might work for a sort of ghostly glow.

Gutter Grime: I also suspected this would look weird, but wanted to try it for the potential of a moldering old bones look.

Naga Green: I expected this to look ridiculous, but wanted to test with a very saturated colour to compare to the others.

I mixed and applied the washes on stream, so I don’t have in progress pictures of that. Below is a picture of the palette of mixed washes with the wash colour choices shown in the above listed order from the Black to the bright Naga Green. 

Btk1 paletteThe mixed washes are above, in the positions of 11 to 5 on the clock. The basecoat and first drybrush step was Desert Sand, seen at the 10 o’clock position. The final drybrush step of Pure White is shown at 9 o’clock.

I also don’t have pictures of what all the figures look like with just the washes. However, I did want to give you some idea of how dramatically the appearance of the figures changed between just a wash and then after they were drybrushed. I repeated the Naga Green wash on another copy of the figure and took a picture of it next to the figure I painted on stream that had the Naga Green wash followed by drybrushing with first Desert Sand and then Pure White.

Btk1 green pre postJust the basecoat and wash on the left, with two colours of drybrushing on the right.

Once the washes were dry I began the drybrushing steps. I used the same colours and procedure as I did in the Core Skills kit: first Desert Sand, and then white. Below you can see the figures after all steps were completed. On the far left is a figure painted with the Core Skills wash colour of Mountain Stone for comparison purposes.

Btk1 figs

The wash colours absolutely made a difference, but in some ways a less dramatic one than I had expected! Pretty much all of them worked. There’s another picture below where you can see them from a different angle that might show the washes a little more dramatically. I also want to share my conclusions to compare them with the expectations I listed above.

Mountain Stone: This figure painted with the Core Skills instructions is an example of a standard type of grey bone look and serves as a comparison for the others. The control of my experiment if you will.

Solid Black: It’s a little stark for my personal taste, but less so than I expected. It would look great in a tabletop game. I suspect black as the wash for a white robe or dress or some other more flowing type of sculpted material would not look as good as on the nooks and crannies of the bones, however. It is hard to get most surfaces to read as white if you wash them with a very dark colour.

Russet Brown: I don’t dislike this result, but it did not end up with as much of an aged bone/ivory effect as I’d expected or hoped. To achieve that with Russet Brown would probably require changing the basecoat and first drybrush colour to something a little more yellowy. 

Rich Leather: The stronger yellow brown colour of this created more of an aged bone/ivory effect than the Russet Brown. It was a bit too light in value (or I diluted it too much) to bring out all the details, especially for the tabletop. 

Clouded Sea: The surprise hit of the stream! Viewers in the chat really liked this one, and so do I. The end effect is pretty subtle. I think the idea of a ghostly type animated skeleton effect would work. I would probably use a slightly darker colour and maybe include some blue in the basecoat/first drybrush colour to heighten the effect a little.

Gutter Grime: Another unexpected success. It gives a subtle mouldy effect. I think this also needed to be a little darker in value to better pick out all the details, particularly for tabletop viewing. 

Naga Green: A little more dramatic than the Guttergrime, but not as ridiculous as expected. It would work for a look of grown over with moss, animated by necromantic magic or radioactivity or something. If I were painting a figure like this I would not use the same colour on the base, however. 

NOTE: The texture of skeletal bone is unique to a lot of other textures. I suspect this kind of experiment would have a different effect on a finer texture like fur or scales, or a smooth surface like cloth folds. Let me know if you’d like to see me try an experiment like this on other textures!

Btk1 washes paint figsThe classic Core Skills colours are shown on the figure to the far left. The other figures are lined up next to the colours that were used to paint their washes.

I hope this gives you an idea for some fun experiments you can do with washes in your own painting!

Products Mentioned in this Post

Core Skills learn to paint kit
Skeleton Archer in plastic or in metal
Vex airbrush
Mountain Stone
Solid Black
Russet Brown
Rich Leather
Naga Green
Gutter Grime
Clouded Sea was a limited edition paint that is not currently available, but may return in the future.

The Anatomy of Colour

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

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.

Grey divider edit

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.

Grey divider edit

The Major Properties of Colour

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

Grey divider edit

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.

Grey divider edit

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

Grey divider edit

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.

Grey divider edit
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.

Grey divider edit

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.

Grey divider edit

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

Grey divider edit

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.

Grey divider edit

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.

Grey divider edit

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.

Grey divider edit

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!

Grey divider edit

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.