Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Color Theory Tutorials: Why Didn't I Learn This Earlier?

You know, I love those moments when I really learn something I've always wanted to learn but say to myself "How in the world did I get from from where I started to here?" I'm sure this happens often to most of us. We sit down at our computers expecting to do a little hobby research on a topic but soon find ourselves veering off into something totally different because it catches our interest. Last night was no different for me. What started out as an expedition into making and using washes to paint faces on 15mm figures quickly turned into several lessons on color theory. Amazing.

In the past, I've tried to understand color theory but have had a difficult time with it. Sure, I understand all about primary colors, mixing them to make secondary colors, and then putting them on a basic color wheel, but I've never really been able to grasp much beyond that. I've read in How to Paint Citadel Miniatures the book's sparse section on color theory, but never quite understood the bits on complimentary colors, harmonies, discord, and so on. I've never understood how it relates to painting miniatures. Perhaps I'm just a bit dense when it comes to this subject. I don't know.

However, after watching some videos and reading some websites related to the videos, I have a much better understanding about color theory and why it's so important to understand when painting. I finnaly understand how to mix a proper shadow and highlight for any color. I understand warm and cold colors, for example the difference between ultramarine blue and cerulean blue and why that's important. I now understand why simply mixing white does not give us a proper highlight. And so on and so on.

Even if I don't want to mix my own shadows and highlights, which is quite easy it seems, I can at least know which of my 200+ bottles of paint will be a good match. I don't have to rely on Reaper or Foundry. I now am free! Of course, I have to rethink some of my painting habits but that is the fun (and frustration) of learning.

Anyway, that's enough blathering from me. Let's get to the meat of the matter.

The Basics, Shadows, and Greys:
"Mixing Paint with the 6-Colour Colour Wheel"

The fellow in this video, along with his companion website at Paint Basket, helped me understand color theory the best as it applies to creating colors suitable for making shadows and generally mixing colors. He also explains the difference between between the hot and cold version of each primary color and what happens when we mix them to create secondary and tertiary colors. For example, I always wondered about the difference between cadmium red and alizarin red.

He then explains how to create shadows colors for any color, using the various color wheels he creates. For example, I never knew that to create a shadow color for yellow we need to add violet to the yellow. Now when I have a color that I'm not sure what to use for its shadow, I can either mix it myself or take a look at these charts to get a good idea. Great stuff! I wish I had known this years ago.

Just make sure to look over his webpage after watching the video, and replay any bit of the video that may confuse you at first. I know that I had to do this a few times, but I readily admit that I can be a bit dense at times, especially late at night.

Highlighting (Plus Shadows and Color Wheel)
"The Color Wheel"

I also found this video from Paint Basket and its companion webpage to finish the missing pieces of the color theory puzzle. Whereas the video above delves into mixing colors to achieve proper shadow colors as well as proper gray tones, this video simply and clearly explains how to mix colors to achieve proper highlights, as well as how to make black. Simply adding white to a color to create its highlight is not the way to go. All that does is fade out the color. This video explains how to create highlights properly. This also was a major revelation for me. Be sure to check out the other videos at the Paint Basket's YouTube channel. They also discuss how to paint metallics and many other topics that might be of interest. I'm still poking through them, looking for new tips.

In-Depth Color Theory for Miniature Painting
" Colour Theory"

Finally, I want to mention the video series that got me delving into color theory last night. This is a six-part, detailed series of color theory presented by Romain at Beasts of War. Due to time slipping away from me last night, I haven't watched the entire series yet, getting through only the first two episodes. Each episode runs about 16 minutes. Romain has a very "Bob Ross" personality when it comes to explaining things, which I enjoy much more than the short-attention-span head-banging approach that many other hobby videos take on YouTube.

Episode 1 mainly deals with the importance of understanding color theory and why it's so important for miniature gamers to get outside and look at how color works in nature instead of simply slathering paint onto a miniature, something I like to call paint-by-numbers. Of course, this leads to the great divide amongst miniature gamers: those one one hand who enjoy painting the figures to look as artistically nice as possible and those who just want to get the little metal things done so they can play the game.

I'm beginning to think that many mass-combat gamers lean far closer to the latter than the former, at least from what I've seen at conventions and on TMP, whereas small-unit or skirmish gamers tend to want their figures to look more artistic. Of course, I'm generalizing here, brushing over the many possibilities in between. I enjoy the artistry side of miniature painting much more than I enjoy the gaming side, but there are times when I just want to do everything paint-by-numbers and get something done! Being all artsy-fartsy can be very frustrating at times. I guess this is the great dilemma of miniature gaming.

Anyway, Episode 2 gets more into the color wheel, mixing colors, and learning to paint with harmonies. Romain taught me the importance of using no more than three main colors on a figure and how to make the colors work with each other. Ironically, I had learned the same thing decades ago in college when I got into publishing, except there my professor limited me to using only three fonts on a page--anything more he felt created dissonance and was hard to look at.

Well, there you have it. Perhaps these videos and websites will help you understand color theory a bit better and help you select the best colors for your miniatures. As I mentioned, they're making me rethink a lot of what I thought I knew about shadow, base, and highlight colors. Good stuff.

If you know of any additional good painting videos, websites, or books, why not point us to them in the comments section below. Until next time, take care.


  1. Thats great. I didn't know about not using white great tip. Will give these a watch and make some notes. Cheers

  2. Great post - very interesting! Must admit, I tend to 'dip' or shade my stuff to achieve rapid results...

  3. LOL it is always a bit of a shock when you find this stuff out, you feel like someone has been hiding it from you! Great post and site, well done.

  4. And in 2021 this is still a great post, thanks!


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