Thursday, March 22, 2012

Color Theory and Painting Miniatures

With the imminent release of the new Citadel line of paints, I thought this might be a good time to go over some basics of color theory and how it relates to painting our little toy soldiers. What better opportunity than now, especially with the new color charts I found on Miniature Wargame Conversions, right?

I promise to leave my soapbox for this particular topic in the corner and approach this from a rational perspective.

Well, I'll try at least.

By definition, color theory is a practical guidance to color mixing and the visual impacts of specific color combinations.

"Okay, fine. Any one of us could go to Wikipedia and read the technical definitions and history of color theory. How does that help with painting figs?"

Notice the separation of the definition there. Color theory helps you determine what happens not only when colors are mixed together to form a new color, but also the results of placing one color next to another. Ever tried out a few color schemes for your army that you didn't like? Maybe more than a few? Perhaps you've seen an army on the tabletop that, while painted well in technique, just didn't look quite right to you? Both the frustration that lies in determining a color scheme that you enjoy, as well as the nagging feeling that something isn't quite right about a color combination you see, are more often than not the result of not paying the proper attention to how the colors chosen will interact with each other. This is the heart of color theory.

Above and below, you see pictured a color wheel. Large and pocket-sized versions of this can be purchased at most local craft stores and all art supply stores. This is an invaluable tool when looking for color combinations that are appealing to the eye.

While you can find free, digital versions on some websites, I highly suggest you avoid them. Like a plague. Why? Because anything backlit, as all monitors are, will always look different than something physical like a paint or a print. Because of that, it is nearly impossible to match a color you like to something portrayed on a backlit monitor, specifically because of how your eye perceives the color in the first place when flooded/created with light, versus when that color is actually reflected light.

Sorry. It seems that that soapbox of mine crept beneath me a bit after all. Just...just don't use you monitor for judging color, please. I'll get down now and put this back in the corner.

Using the color wheel, we can create a core of 8 types of color schemes. They are above, in order from left-to-right:

Row 1: Monochromatic, Analogous, Complementary, Split Complementary

Row 2: Diad, Triad, Square, Tetrad

Do they always look good together? Well, that depends on the application. Red and green are a complimentary color scheme and look great during the holidays, but do you really want Christmas-Marines? That's an obvious example, but my point is made. This is where owning a color wheel helps as you can turn it, compare colors and schemes and move from there, giving you a leg up on the process of determining a color scheme for painting. Once you have decided on a scheme, you can even use the color wheel to show you what color you could make the eye lenses, gems or other key points on the figure really pop, based on the color scheme you've chosen!

"But Tim, khaki isn't on the color wheel. How do I account for things like that?"

You boil the color in question down to its closest relation on the wheel. Does the khaki color you like have more yellow in it, more red, or more green? Make that distinction and use your color wheel accordingly.

I hope this helps when determining not only the color scheme you want to use on your next project, but also during the next big paint purchase you plan to make, no matter the brand. Maybe a deeper understanding of color theory can save you a few bucks in paint you didn't need to buy!

- Tim



  1. Great article! color selection can make a break your models, and is the first thing catches your attention and draws you further in. I would like to throw you a shout out on my Blogger's Best.

    1. You're absolutely right about the colors being one of the first things that draws you into any miniature project! I'm glad you like the article and would be honored and very appreciative of the shout out! :)

  2. I'm trying to work out if I can use a brown, orange, and metallic gold/bronze color scheme. I have been looking at color wheels all day but none seem to account for brown. The closest seems to be orange, but an orange-orange scheme makes no sense. Often the color opposite orange on the wheel is a pale blue which looks kind of dreadful. I'd paint a test squad, but I don't want to waste the month it takes me to paint ten guys.

    Do you think a chocolate brown and blaze orange work together? how would you know from the color wheel? Should I go for a brown made from blue-greens to get a complimentary effect? I would really hate to have an army where one of the primary colors is something I have to mix.