Adding a Dash More Colour

I mentioned a little while back that I’d been doing some thinking about colour theory when it comes to painting my miniatures. I think it was inspired by watching the instructional DVD by the painting legend Jeremie Bonamant Teboul. In it he spends a bit of time discussing colour theory and how he goes about choosing colour schemes and shading hues/tones.

Great DVD by the way, highly recommended.

Anyway, so it got me thinking about how I might use alternate hues to provide richer looking colours on my miniatures.

Colour Theory 101

I should probably explain some terminology come to think of it. Afraid it’s going to get a bit technical.

One of many colour “models” – or ways of describing a colour – is to break it down into its component hue, saturation and lightness.

  • Hue – umm, kinda hard to put into words but this is probably the main component of the colour and describes whether it’s a red, an orange, a blue, or whatever.
  • Saturation – how strong the colour is. Zero saturation means your colour would be a shade of grey.
  • Lightness – simply how light or dark the colour is. 100% lightness and you’ve got pure white.
  • Another important topic is that of the colour wheel and complementary colours.

    I won’t go into details of how it’s constructed, but what we need to know here is that if you pick a hue around the ring of the colour wheel (such as blue), then the hue directly opposite (ie orange) is known as its complement.

    Finally, colour hues can be classified as cool – eg greens, blues – or warm – such as reds or yellow. An interesting thing to note is that when we perceive colours in a painting, say, cool ones will tend to recede and warm ones will tend to stand out.

    Classical painters have been exploiting this for years and there’s nothing to stop us miniature painters doing likewise.

    Using Complements

    I’ve simplified a whole lot of colour theory there but it should be enough to be getting on with.

    Now traditionally people tend to start out shading their miniatures by adding small amounts of white or black to their base colour to get their light or dark shades. Before long though one realises that adding black paint tends to give muddy colours and start experimenting with adding different hues to the mix.

    One good example might be shading a red with a dark brown, and highlighting it with orange.

    So let me demonstrate with a few abstract examples I knocked up in Photoshop:

    Here I have created two spheres, the one on the right is limited to just one hue. Looks nice enough – especially if we were able to paint such a smooth blend on the mini – but I’d say that the sphere on the left is much richer.

    This is because I added complementary hues – beige and red-purple – into the highlight and shadow respectively.

    Here’s another couple of examples where I’ve used different hues to select a colour range that might work for leather, and a fleshtone:

    Colour Scheme Designer – A Useful Online Tool

    Not long after watching that DVD someone pointed me at an excellent web tool for choosing colour schemes. It’s designed for selecting colours for websites but is also really useful for picking colours for shading.

    What I’ve found is that by incorporating complementary colours into the highlights and shadows I can get those richer and more visually interesting shades.

    Instead of taking the directly opposite complement I’ll shift a little to either side on the colour wheel. Basically, I try to select the warmer of these complementary hues, lighten it right up and blend up to that for the highlights on the mini. I’ll then select a dark version of the cooler complement and use that for my shadows.

    Here’s how I ended up with the colours for the cyan example above. Firstly I identified my midtone (cyan) on the colour wheel. Then selected the “triad” scheme – this gave me the two complementary hues I was after. I played around a bit with the settings for saturation and lightness and ended up with the following colour swatch:

    You can see that the top 50% is my initial hue, with the bottom half representing variations of my two complementary hues. I opted the warmer light beige and the cooler dark burgundy colour.

    Putting it into Practice

    So how did I put that theory into practice then?

    Dr Douglas McMourning, Malifaux ResurrectionistMcMourning (left) was quite a groundbreaking miniature for me as he represented the first time I properly braved adding so many different colours into the mix.

    The cyan example I’ve cited above was used to some extent on his apron and gloves.

    Additionally his purple shirt was highlighted to beige and shaded to turquoise.

    Another example can be seen on Baby Kade’s teddy (right). Here I used quite a saturated blue-green in the shadows.

    Baby Kade, MalifauxKeeping it saturated actually served two purposes – firstly in terms of the colour theory presented above, and also helped the teddy to look somewhat musty and mouldy.

    So, that concludes this epic post discussing some basics of colour theory and my explorations therein. I’m only really scratching the surface and experimenting at the moment so I’m sure there’s plenty I’m getting wrong or not properly understanding.

    Anyway, I hope you’ve found it interesting and useful and I’d love to read any thoughts you have on the subject.

    ~ by Max Von Deadlock on November 16, 2010.

    11 Responses to “Adding a Dash More Colour”

    1. Really interesting blog, Jon. Any idea what the physics behind it is?


    2. Another question. Why do you pick two colours, rather than just the complement. Is there a particular angle you use to form the smallest angle of the isoceles triangle of the colour triad?


      • I think the use of two complementary colours adds a bit more visual interest, and also allows the warm/cool differentiation for highlight and shading hues.

        Not sure about the angle of the triangle, but reading a bit more into it it looks like I am choosing “split complements”. Check out this summary.

        As for the physics of advancing and receding colours, here‘s an article for you. Something about the focus points being in front or behind the retina, based on the wavelenght of the light. The lens of the eye must minutely magnify warmer colours to focus, making them appear slightly larger. Fascinating stuff!


    3. Thanks for the link. Agreed that it look like you’re using split complimentary, rather than triadic. I wonder if there’s a mnemonic for memorizing the colour wheel, or if not, of working it out apriori. Great article Jon! Got me thinking.


      • Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain? I remember that from school, being the light spectrum but it also applies to this wheel. Clockwise from the top: Red-Orange-Yellow-Green-Blue-Indigo-Violet.

        Gigi bought me a little card colour wheel which I keep to hand by the paint station. Very useful.


    4. OK, I’ve just read the link to the receding/advancing theory. If true, it has the following implication. The complimentary shading method you’re using won’t work perfectly if the base colour is cooler than the coolest split-compliment, or conversely if the base colour is warmer than the warmest split compliment. The only colour which has is split compiments warm in the highlights, and cool in the lows, is light green, whose compllments split red and purple. Make sense?


      • Yeah I wondered about that. Although the cool/warm thing is mostly used as a decider for which complement to be highlight and which for shadow. I think the predominant effect is the use of the complementary colour, which as Wikipedia states, is “an important aspect of aesthetically pleasing art and graphic design”.


    5. For tonal modulation the cooler/warmer colour recession won’t matter. Blue tends to be recessive which is due to the wavelengths of the spectrum.

      For shading on a mini as the technique as described will work fine. You can see the effects on the sphere. It is the differentiation in tone that gives the illusion of depth. The complementary colour in the shading gives the lighter colours more intensity and therefore stand out.
      Painters used the system in the 19th Century, notably Delacroix.
      You can see the same in Degas pastel works where he uses dark green for shading on a bathers back!


    6. Thanks for a very informative feature. What app/ program is the color scheme designer and the first similar image you used? I’d like to use/ purchase it.


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