Contrast & Colours – the basics

Disclaimer: I’ve never been to art school, or really studied colour theory that intently. Most of the knowledge I am about to impart is from painting miniatures for two years, and the occasional quick tutorial. So take it for what you will…

Ah, colour theory.

When I first started up my Khador army, I quickly decided on a purple, white and silver paint scheme. I’m not sure exactly where I got the idea from, but I knew I wanted something different from the studio scheme and thought that it might look good. And it did look all right for a first attempt, but the scheme was missing something.

As I painted more and more warjacks, I would add a little more brass to them each time, painting a couple more metal bits in brass instead of silver, and they would end up looking a lot better. The brass seemed to go with my purple scheme much better than the silver, but I didn’t know why. That is, until I started looking at colour theory.


One of these warjacks is a lot better painted than the other…

The first rule of colour theory

So, the first rule of colour theory as it pertains to miniatures is simple and is as follows:

Contrast is good.

When you’re painting at the tiny scales that we usually paint at in this hobby, contrast is key. I can not overstate this enough. Contrast is what makes a miniature “pop” from across the table. It helps the eye make out shapes at a glance, and it is what helps convey shadows and lighting at this tiny scale. It’s one of the few things that I kind of got right in my initial attempt at a colour scheme — all the white trim pieces on the edges of the model create an intense light/dark contrast, and help make the basic shape of the model pop in a way that is readily apparent even from across a standard gaming table.

bob ross.jpg

Now, there are many different kinds of contrast. Light and dark is one of the simplest and easiest to understand, but to go deeper, we’re going to have to look at a colour wheel.

The colour wheel

When it comes to figuring out what colours go together, the colour wheel is our friend. It’s basically all the colours in a rainbow lined up bent back upon itself so the red and the purple touch, and then arranged in a circle.


A basic colour wheel

On this colour wheel, there  are some things that we can recognize from grade school and our Roy G. Biv. You have your primary colours, like red and blue and yellow, and your secondary colours like green and orange and purple in between. The colours seem to go together naturally, in that the red naturally flows into the orange and into yellow.

This colour wheel is also divided into warm and cool colours. As the name implies, colours close to the blue end of the spectrum are cool and colours close to the orange end are warm. Cool/warm is another form of contrast which you can add to your model. Further, when you look at a miniature, cool colours tend to fade back and warm colours tend to come forwards. This can be useful for shading and highlighting; for example, I often use GW’s Druchii Violet and Scale75’s Inktense Purple as shade colours for brass because I get those cool colours in the shadows, which contrast the warm brass and make it pop.

Saturation and shades

This is a great start, but there are a couple other properties of colours other than your basic hue. First, saturation is a measure of the brightness and intensity of a colour. The bright, fire engine red that you might see on a Ferrari is a very saturated colour, while a black and white photo has no colour saturation in it at all. As you can imagine, bright, highly saturated colours can attract the eye and really stand out against a desaturated background (again, contrast!), which is probably why they are so popular among makers of sporty cars. After all, if you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an Italian supercar, you might as well paint it in a colour that’s really going to turn heads.

Finally, you can create tones and shades by adding a white or black to a colour to make it lighter or darker. Again, this can create some light/dark contrast, however it will also desaturate the colour as pure whites and blacks have no actual colour to them so mixing them into your paints will naturally take down the saturation levels. If we add this information onto our colour wheel, we get something a little more advanced than the one above.


The colour wheel from Adobe Color

Okay, so how do we use this thing?

This colour wheel can be a very useful tool for things like picking out schemes or figuring out what colour to paint a part of a miniature.

You have what are called complementary colours — that is, colours that are directly across the colour wheel from each other, such as red and green. Because these complementary colours are so far apart, the use of them can be a good form of contrast. A good example from real life history is the red stars and other similar markings on Russian tanks and aircraft from WW2. Because the red is directly across from the green on the colour wheel, bright red markings on top of some desaturated green camo create some nice contrast which, used sparingly, can really make those markings pop and draw the eye.


Isn’t that a nice paint scheme? See the complementary colours on the markings? And the light/dark contrast on the white outlines that make the markings easily recognizable at a glance? No wonder Tamiya uses this scheme to sell models.

A complementary scheme is, as you can probably imagine, a scheme where you use primarily these complementary colours. These schemes can have a lot of nice contrast, as you can see from the example of the Il-2 above, however you do need to be a little careful with them. If you have the complementary colours both very bright and close to a 50-50 balance, you can end up with something that looks garish and, in the case of green/red, overly Christmasy. Where a complementary scheme can really work well is when you have a main colour and a nice, saturated complementary colour for things like trim, markings, and various other bits.

An analogous scheme is the opposite. It’s where you stick to colours next to each other for the colour wheel. For example, you could create a scheme out of shades of blue and cool greens that go together nicely. This is particularly good for models with a lot of earthy tones, such as the Circle Orboros studio scheme from Warmachine. In fact, you can even go all the way and create a monochromatic scheme by using colours of the same hue, just using different levels of tone, shade and saturation to generate different colours. You can also get a nice effect by painting up a miniature mostly in an analogous scheme, but adding a couple tiny accents in a contrasting colour, such as doing a wizard up with a blue-green analogous scheme and adding a red or orange gem at the end of his staff.

A triadic colour scheme is, as the name implies, the sort of scheme you might get if you overlay an equilateral triangle over the colour wheel. These kind of schemes tend to be nice and vibrant, and contain a lot of contrast and a nice variation of hue, though again, you may want to make one of the colours a little more dominant than the others so it isn’t too garish. Split-complementary is similar, except instead of an equilateral triangle, you’re creating a long, pointed isosceles triangle by choosing one colour at the point and two colours right next to the complement of the first.


(clockwise from top left) Complementary, analogous, split-complementary and triadic colour schemes.

There are some other advanced schemes such square and rectangular, and other ways to generate contrast such as the use of different levels of saturation, different textures, gloss/matte varnish, etc, but these are perhaps a little more advanced and this article is getting a little long. The point is, by learning a little bit about colour theory and using a colour wheel to pick out a colour scheme, we can create a miniature that is pleasing to the eye. One of the most frustrating things that you can do when miniature painting is spend a lot of time working on painting a miniature in a scheme that just doesn’t work. In that case, no matter how skilled you are with the brush and how much time you put into it, you will left with a finished product that doesn’t look great and you will be frustrated because you don’t know enough about colour theory to know what’s wrong with it.


There are also some great resources out there for choosing schemes. Of course, you can always print off a colour wheel from the internet or buy one from an art store and tack it up in your workspace. Alternately, if you’re a little more tech-savvy, Adobe Color has an intuitive, easy to use interface and allows a user to pick a colour off the colour wheel and the type of scheme you want (complementary, triangular, etc) and the program will automatically generate some addition colours for your scheme for you.

Why did my first model look like crap?

Finally, we can return to my first warjack. It’s not a great piece by any means, and next to my newer models, doesn’t really look great. Part of that is because I just didn’t have the skills back then for things like highlighting, weathering, or brush control, but part of it has to do with my colour choices — particularly the addition of more brass bits.

The first model is almost completely in purple, white and silver. While the white trim contrasts the dark purple nicely and helps convey the shape of the warjack at a glance, there isn’t much else in the way of contrast. White is a neutral colour, and silver is basically a shiny grey, so the only actual colour on the model is the purple. This creates a bit of an imbalance, as there aren’t any warm colours on the model to contrast the purple.

In contrast, the newer model has lots of warm brass and golds. Gold is across the colour wheel from purple, so in addition to some warm/cold contrast, we also have the complementary colour contrast. Essentially, by adding brass bits, I blundered my way into a complementary colour scheme and just stuck with it.


Though it might help, you don’t need to go to art school to get a basic appreciation of colour theory. Now that you’ve read this article, you probably have a good start, and a little bit of reading on the internet can give you everything you need to know for the sort of hobbying we do.

Paintlog: Aiyana & Holt. Also a bit of colour theory…

Between the recent theme changes in Warmachine allowing mercenary models in theme forces, and magic weapons being an important consideration if you want to play competitively (screw you, Gremlin Swarms and Ghost Fleet!), there are a couple models which have rocketed up to the top of my painting list.  That’s right, I’ve got Lady Aiyana & Master Holt to paint.


However, because of my rebellious tendencies, following a studio scheme is anathema to me, so I decided to do my own take on Aiyana & Holt.


Starting with Aiyana, I decided that I wanted to give her a dark skin tone.  I’ve got plenty of caucasian models in my army and have had plenty of practice on light skin tones at this scale, so I wanted to do something a little different to both up the diversity of my army, and get some practice painting dark skin (my first attempt ended up looking more Drow than African-Khadoran).  However, I also like to have some sharp contrast between skin and hair colour, so I decided that a bright pink would make a nice hair colour for her, giving me both that contrast I was looking for and a sort of cyberpunk aesthetic which I’m a fan of.

Next, I had to do the rest of her without clashing.  Settling on a colour scheme was a challenge, but I figured that, to complete the cyberpunk look, some shiny black leather would be necessary, so I started there by working that into the boots, leggings, and the sides of her top.  From there, it was a matter of choosing colours that were different enough to distinguish the several different parts of her outfit and different material types (smooth leather, cloth, metallics, fur), while also not clashing with each other.  To accomplish this, I stayed in the cool end of the spectrum, going for blues, greens and purples, with just a bit of warm gold on some of the highlights to get that cold/warm contrast.  I used P3’s Coal Black for the base colour inside of the cape, which is just a great bluish, greenish, blackish colour in general and one of the few colours that I will accept Privateer Press’ terrible, terrible paint pot design and dip into P3s range to pick up.  The cloth hanging from her waist was based with Reaper’s Amethyst Purple, a nice light purple that I use a lot for highlights on my warjacks.  Throw in some blues and greens, and we’ve got a colour scheme going.

Then we have her companion and bodyguard, Master Holt.  Ironically, for someone who plays Khador, I haven’t had much experience painting reds (see: my irrational avoidance of studio schemes), so I decided to do him up as a redcoat.  The majority of the jacket ended up red, with some black in different areas to break it up and prevent the red from being too overwhelming.  The white trim was added to give some bright contrast and make the miniature pop even from across a table.  Finally, a pink scarf was added, to match Aiyana’s hair and help tie these two models together.

Overall, I was very satisfied with how these models turned out, however there are two parts that I wanted to highlight in particular:  The bases, and some of the colour theory I applied to my highlights and shadows.


On these models, one of the questions that I’ve been getting a lot was how I did the base, where I got it, and so on.

First off, these aren’t premade bases or base inserts, so anyone looking to just spend money to replicate this effect is out of luck.  While I wouldn’t go as far as saying that using a base insert is cheating, I find that I much prefer doing my own thing.  Custom basing is one of my favourite parts of this hobby, and just sticking a premade base on, I feel, takes away from that.

For Aiyana & Holt, I decided that I wanted to do an urban scene, but I also wanted to give them a little bit of height on their base so they stand out on a table.  As such, I decided to do a cross-section of a city street or alley, with them standing on a stone surface.

Each of these bases are three layers.  The first is simply the standard, round, 30mm, Privateer Press base that we are all familiar with.  On top of that, I used gel super glue to attach a piece of cork ripped from some dollar store cork board.  Cork is a useful basing material, which is good for creating cross-sections of earth, but one of the tricks to it is that it has these unnatural-looking perfectly flat surfaces. so you usually have to do some work to it.  However, since I was planning to build on top of this, it wasn’t a problem in this case.

Next, I had some tiny bricks that I had picked up somewhere; while I didn’t make them myself, I believe they were made from Hirst Arts molds and some sort of plaster.  These were simply broken up around the edges with some of my sculpting tools and glued in place with the same gel super glue as I used on the cork.

To add a little more texture onto the cork, I used a coarse pumice artist medium.  You can use sand and glue, which may be a bit cheaper of an option, but I’ve been moving to textured artist mediums for this sort of thing because I’m sick of cleaning sand out of my apartment, and because you can mix craft paint into those artist mediums to colour them as you apply them and skip a step in the process of painting your base.

Beyond that, it is mostly a matter of the usual base coat, wash, drybrush technique.  The stones were base coated in a stone grey colour, washed with a black wash, and then drybrushed up all the way to Reaper’s Misty Grey, which is very close to white.  Then, to add a little colour and visual interest to the piece, I brushed on some dry pigments from Vallejo and Secret Weapon.  These are a recent addition to my hobby arsenal, but I’ve found that they are particularly useful for adding a touch of colour to stone and brickwork.  Finally, I drybrushed it with a little more misty grey, just because some of the pigments took off the brightest highlights on the cracked and broken stone edges and I wanted to bring that back up.

To attach the models, I simply drilled into their feet and drilled a hole all the way down into the base and pinned them in place.  One important thing with these bases is that I specifically chose not to place the models in such a position that they would be parallel to or at a 90-degree angle to any of the bricks, and instead went for something in the 30 to 45 degree range.  When you are doing basing, you always want to add an element of randomness to it as nature is by definition pretty random.  Even in an urban setting, I felt that having the models perfectly aligned with the bricks would interfere with that randomness and end up looking unnatural.

Colour Theory

Finally, I wanted to draw some attention to some of the choices I made on these miniatures when it came to things like highlights, shadows, and colour theory.  As I’ve said before, painting miniatures is often a study of light and shadow and trying to replicate that on a small scale, and there are a number of things I did on these models that I may not have known to do when I was first starting out.

First, let’s take a look at the green on Aiyana’s dress.  Green is an interesting colour to work with because of how it plays with highlights.  When I first started painting, when I wanted to highlight, I would just lighten the colour I was working in by mixing in a little white.  While this worked for some colours, it really broke down when it came to green.  In order to properly highlight green, you’re going to want to use yellow instead of white.  This does a couple things.  First, as a fairly warm colour, the yellow will make your highlights warmer, which tricks the eye a little.  Warm colours tend to come forward, so a warm highlight and cool shadow will make the miniature pop.  Second, adding white to green, especially the sort of drab, military-style greens we tend to use, can really desaturate the highlight, which is not what you are going for.

To illustrate this point, compare the highlights on Aiyana’s dress above with this Assault Kommando I painted before I learned about how to properly highlight green with yellow.  You can see that the former just looks so much better on a miniature.


Unplayable trash?  I don’t think so.

I had a similar issue with Holt’s red coat.  Red is another colour where just adding black and white to do shadows and highlights doesn’t quite work.  First, as a warm colour, red really benefits from a cool shadow, such as a blue or green across the colour wheel from it.  Second, when you mix red and white, you end up with pink, which isn’t what you want.  Instead, red should be highlighted towards orange, which also has the benefit of being an even warmer colour and “popping” just like how yellow makes green “pop.”


Not bad, but for my money, Julie Newmar is the only true Catwoman

Then we get to black.  Black is a very interesting colour to paint because it is defined as the absence of light.  However, when you look carefully at pictures of black, you will see that unless you have some sort of exotic material such as a Vantablack or a miniature black hole, what our brain tells us is black is very rarely actually black.

This is a little tricky to explain, but if you spend enough time staring at shiny black objects, you will start to see what I mean.  What our brain may tell us is a glossy black, like Michelle Pfeiffer’s outfit in Batman Returns, is actually the interplay of both black and the light reflecting off of it.  In this case, if we look carefully, we can see that a lot of the pixels in this image of her allegedly-black outfit are actually white, as these bits catch the light and reflect it directly into our eye.  A glossy latex catsuit may be an extreme example, but the same principle is at play with just about every black object; unless we’re staring down a black hole from which no light can escape, what our brain tells us is black actually still has some light reflecting off it.

So, what does this mean for miniature painters?  It means that when we are painting something black, we need to take into account the properties of the material that we are attempting to replicate and how it will catch and reflect the light, and try to replicate that at scale.  Simply slapping on a bunch of black paint all over the area that we want to represent a black item or piece of clothing just won’t do.  To see what I mean, compare the black on Holt’s coat partway through painting below with the finished product above.


Holt, before shading and highlights

In the before picture, the black sections of the coat don’t really look like anything but a miniature that someone slapped some flat black paint on.  However, by adding some highlights, in the above case, some desaturated blues (P3’s Gravedigger Denim and Frostbite) near the front of the coat, it made it possible for me to really sell the effect of a black coat by showing some of that light reflecting off of it.  The same goes for Aiyana’s thigh-high leather boots, however to make them look shiny like the Catwoman outfit, I made the highlights smaller, brighter, and sharper, making it look as though the light was really reflecting off those small points where it is being caught and reflected into the viewer’s eye.

Got all that?

mv5bnzezmti2njeynf5bml5banbnxkftztcwnta0ote4oa-_v1_ux214_cr00214317_al_The same goes for black skin.  While I can’t say that I have a lot of experience with or have quite cracked the code on painting African-American (African-Iosan?) skin, one of the things I’ve gleaned from looking over reference material is that dark skin tends to be relatively smooth and reflective compared to other skin tones.  I believe the scientific term for this phenomenon is “Black don’t crack.”

Because of this, if you look carefully at a picture of a dark-skinned person, you will see highlights and reflections that have a touch of blue to them.  You can see this in this picture of Idris Elba; the cheekbones, the nose, and the top forehead are caught in the light and emanating that reflection, which is something that we will want to take into account when we paint our tiny, dark-skinned faces.

So, this is where our old friend, P3 Frostbite comes into play, as the perfect colour to mix into these highlights to get that reflection.  It’s hard to see in some of my pictures, but that touch of frostbite really helps make the highlights on Aiyana’s skin look a little more realistic and gives a little more contrast.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I’m very satisfied with how these two turned out, and I felt that being able to try out some different colours was a nice palate cleanser from my usual painting.  Despite being one of PP’s older sculpts, they are both very nice models, with plenty of character to draw out.  I already brought Aiyana to the Ottawa Figure Show, and I’m sure they will be seeing their fair share of table time at upcoming events.