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.

One thought on “Contrast & Colours – the basics

  1. Pingback: Paintlog: Dana Murphy and fun with airbrushing inks | Ice Axe Miniatures

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