There is a wealth of information about colour theory out there so I have tailored this article towards the painting of miniature figures and the kinds of things I think about when painting. However, there is no reason why these principles cannot be applied to other areas.
This is a colour wheel for the RYB model. It is one of many models used for demonstrating how to choose and mix colours. This particular one represents the mixing of pigments, which is slightly different to mixing light (usually RGB), but because a computer uses light, it is very difficult to get the colours correct and different VDUs (monitors) will display the colours slightly differently but I’ve done my best.
There are several ways in which you can use this tool to create a colour scheme for you miniature.
This would be painting the whole miniature in one colour. This can look quite dramatic for a display miniature but all the masses will have to be picked out using only variations in luminosity.
By using colours in opposite positions on the colour wheel, you will end up with quite a striking look. This is because, when talking about the primary and secondary colours at least, there is none of the primary colour in its compliment which is a secondary colour. For example, there is no blue in orange as orange is made from red and yellow. As a bonus, the warmer, more yellowish colour will stand out against the colder, more bluish colour. Tertiary colours will be complimented by another tertiary colour which has the least in common with it, for example turquoise and orange-red.
This is a very common colour scheme choice for miniature painting. You choose one colour, which will be your ‘spot colour’ and then two colours equally spaced from its complimentary colour. An example of this might be blue with red and yellow which are equally spaced from orange, the compliment of blue (think Ultramarines!). Alternatively, for a bit more colour harmony, blue with red-orange and yellow-orange could be used.
This is simply two pairs of complimentary colours. For example, blue, orange, purple and yellow.
Also known as analogous, this can be similar to monochromatic in appearance but a little more interesting. You can use more colours but all from one region of the colour wheel. For example, you could use reds, oranges and yellows, which would give quite an autumnal feel to a miniature or yellows and greens, which would give a more summery feel.
This is the same as the above but you will also choose the complimentary colour of the middle of the chosen region as a spot colour. This is also very commonly used on miniatures as it allows a lot of colour harmony but the spot colour can be used to pick out details. This could be all the colours between red and yellow and then blue as a spot colour, which is complimentary to orange, the mid-point between red and yellow.
Choose a dark tone of one colour and a light tone of its complimentary colour or alternatively, choose a colour and its complimentary colour, then mix black with one and white with the other. This can give a very striking contrast, which can be useful for picking out details. It works best if the warmer colour is used as the lighter colour and the colder colour as the darker colour.
This is essentially how light or dark the colour is. From our point of view when painting miniatures, we’re thinking about a mid-tone with shadows and highlights, which can be achieved by mixing black and white, respectively, into your mid-tone. However, mixing black with the mid-tone can dull the colour. Also, black pigment is actually either dark brown or dark blue (you can find out which by mixing your black paint with yellow; if it goes green then your black is dark blue and if it goes brown then it’s dark brown). A blue-black is preferable for shadows but even this can be a bit too harsh and make your colours muddy. The other problem is that highlights made with white can look chalky and become hard to blend. It is therefore better to find paints which are made with darker and lighter pigments rather than mixing with black and white. Reaper Master Series paints are especially good for this as each colour has been matched with a lighter and darker version and you can, in fact, buy these as sets of three (they call these sets ‘Triads’). If nothing else, this is a good way to build up a good spectrum of colours to work with.
This time instead of mixing the mid-tone with black and white, each colour has been mixed with dark blue to make a darker tone and pale yellow to make a lighter tone. Blue and yellow are complimentary colours when you are talking about light. This is because there is no blue light in yellow as yellow light is made from red and green light. The added benefit, especially on something as small as a miniature figure, is that warm colours (red, orange and yellow) will appear to be closer to the viewer when put next to cold colours (purple, blue and green), which will appear to be further back than they actually are. You can even see this effect on the colour wheel to the left. The mid and pale yellows really jump out at you compared to the rest of the colours.
Using this warm-cold contrast on a miniature means that warm highlights will pick out the details against the cold shadows. This contrast is very pleasing to the eye. You may also have noticed that this website uses pale yellow text on a dark blue background to make it easier to read.
Another trick, which can be useful, is to play with saturation. Saturation can be thought of as the colour’s closeness to grey, or the brightness of the colour. Very saturated or bright colours will stand out against less saturated or duller colours. Additionally, using pure grey on a miniature can look quite dull so maybe think about adding a little of one of the other colours on the miniature to it to allow it to harmonise with the rest of the miniature or a complimentary colour to add contrast.
Another way that we can mix shadows, which I feel gives a much more natural look than simply adding black or grey, is to mix complementary colours. The resulting colour is less saturated, as when we mix the original colour with grey but it will have a slightly more interesting tone due to the presence of the complimentary colour and the fact that the paints we can buy, as with the colours I’ve used in my colour wheel, are not perfectly matched. We will usually get a brownish or greyish hue with a tint of one or other of the colours used to make it, depending on the proportions used. This will not work so well for dark blue or purple as their complimentary colours are both warmer and generally lighter, therefore, you are essentially doing the above and making a warm highlight rather than a shadow, however, a warm dark brown (which could be thought of as a dark orange) can be used instead of a middle shade. Painting like this may also aid colour harmony between warm and cold colours present on your miniature.
These colours are also useful as extra colours on a miniature. By mixing the colours already present on the miniature, you can promote colour harmony and the miniature will look less gaudy. I will also often use this technique for making greys to highlight black or for painting grey stone as the variations produced are more interesting for the eye than grey paint straight out of the bottle.
The reality of the situation is that paints are not pure colour and will usually have a little of other pigments in them to make the desired colours but this can upset things when we start mixing them. Reds will often contain some yellow, yellows and light or bright blues will usually contain a lot of white and dark blues will usually contain some black. This is because acrylic (or enamel paints, if you use those) are body colour which means they are relatively opaque. The pigments on their own aren’t enough to make the paint opaque so white and black are added to aid this. One way to avoid this is to use transparent paints. Inks and ready made washes can be useful for this and Reaper and Vallejo also make transparent paints, which are more pigment pure. I find these kinds of paints also work well with my preferred glazing style.
Painting Highlights and Shadows
I usually use a mixture of luminosity, warm-cold and neutrality above when considering how to mix my colours. For my shadows I will use a neutral colour mixed from my mid-tone and a darker version of its complimentary colour. This is utilising both luminosity and neutrality and usually promotes colour harmony across the miniature too. Then for the more extreme shadows, I add dark blue or blue-purple to this and pale yellow or a warm off-white to make highlight colours, which adds warm-cold contrast. I will then only add white to pick out certain details (or to paint white, of course). Limiting the use of white prevents chalkiness.