Colour Matching is Not the Secret Code to Realism

Patreon supporters receive a PDF copy with high res photos and better formatting!

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? 

I don’t think the one on the left is not 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 to add deeper shadows to the skin and hair, and that’s about value, not matching or changing colour hues.

Tristan front comp cr

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 right 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 would look 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 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

Patreon supporters receive a PDF copy 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

Patreon supporters receive a PDF copy 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.

Show Off! Have Fun! Win Prizes!

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

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

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

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

Pg gob bottles 1000

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

Pg gob front 300

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

Pg gob back 300

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

Pg gob face 300

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

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

Looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

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.

Bards face 600

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.

22d4f73c8718bd7886083bb5cf9a939a original

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. 

A9a692b020dd27ca333bba1023453d8e original

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!

IMG 5165

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