Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Little Color Theory - Part I

by SandWyrm

After all the comp discussion last week, I feel like relaxing a bit. So I'm going to put on my art teacher hat and talk about one of my favorite subjects: Color! 

Now you might think: "What is there to learn?" But in fact color is a huge subject, and learning a bit about it can have a very positive impact on your miniature painting choices. So I'm going to do a series of posts on what color is, how to mix it, and how to choose effective color schemes for your minis. 

First off...

In Reality, There Are No Primary Colors

Yes, I know, that's heresy. But in practical terms it's true. Consider the traditional colors, as listed by Issac Newton when he first looked through his prism way back in 1665.

He listed seven colors total, which traditionally trained artists still swear by. But that's just 7 arbitrary points on what in reality is a continuous spectrum of possible colors within the range of visible light. With an infinite number of possible points you could choose from.

What's that color between the blue and the green? Why it's Cyan (or Turquoise), which Newton never named, but exists nontheless. And what about Magenta (Red-Purple)? You won't see it through a prism, but it exists too.

Here's some examples of how we see various shades and colors as light is reflected off of the surfaces of the objects around us. When we see the entire spectrum at once, we get white. If the whole spectrum diminishes in brightness equally, we get gray or black. If one part of the spectrum is brighter than another, we get a specific Hue in the red to blue range. And as for Magenta, it's a combination color made from seeing two parts of the spectrum (Red and Violet) at once.

When we combine the visible spectrum with the colors made by it's ends overlapping, we get a continuous circle of all the visible colors, as shown above. If we then pick out the traditional colors, you can see how fixated we are on certain portions of the spectrum to the exclusion of others, as shown below.

Now we can discuss the so-called "Primary Colors". Meaning the 3 or so colors that cannot be mixed using other colors, and can, in theory be used to mix every other color in the color circle.

In Newton's day, this was determined to be the colors Red, Yellow, and Blue. Which you'll still hear about in High School art classes. Problem is, while these primaries can be mixed to create pleasing flesh tones, there's colors like Cyan and Magenta that just cannot be mixed this way.

You can try this yourself with some Citadel Paints. See if you can create Blazing Orange using just Blood Red and Sunburst Yellow. Or Ice Blue using Ultramarine Blue and Yellow. The Orange will be close, although noticeably less intense than the bottled stuff. But your Ice Blue will end up looking more like Dark Angels Green instead of a Cyan-ish color.

Truth is, you can't mix the entire spectrum from those 3 colors. Which is why printers use Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow instead. These produce a wider range of possible colors, which makes them very useful for printing. But even they can't reproduce all the colors that your computer monitor can. The issue is one of pigmentation.

Every paint is made up of a base medium (Such as the Acrylic used in most miniature paints.) and a small amount of colorant, called pigment. In the olden days, these pigments could be bits of minerals or even crushed bug parts. But these days most are made using chemicals extracted from petrolium.

Every point on the color circle (called a Hue) has a pigment found somewhere that can be used to get the most intense possible version of that Hue (more intense even than a computer monitor can show). But professional printers and other commercial imaging businesses don't want to reproduce every possible Hue. Just a reasonable subset that gives the biggest bang for the buck. It's far cheaper to print using 3 or 4 inks than 6, 12, or 18. So that's why everyone in the industry at large thinks in terms of color primaries. because it's cheaper/easier than the alternatives.

Computer monitors have this problem too, but the possible range is wider than with print due to the technologies used. If you visit say, a national art gallery and see some original works by Dali, Monet, or other great artists of the past, you will be blown away by the colors they used that printed books and computer images can't come close to reproducing. Because they only limited themselves to the pigments available instead of trying to mix everything using the so-called primary colors.

Lessons To Take Away

Don't Cheap Out And Only Buy Just The "Primary Colors".

You may think that you're being smart and saving money by only purchasing Red, Yellow, Blue, White, and Black. But in reality you can't mix every color you need this way. Not by a long shot.

When Buying Your Paint, Explore Other Options

Citadel makes a good range of hues, but these do tend to cluster around the named colors from the image above, which are based on the traditional fine-art hues that largely ignore Cyan and Magenta. If you go to an art supply store (a real hard-core art store and not a hobby or craft store), you will find many more choices of acrylic colors available. Don't be afraid of mixing some of these with your Citadel paints to get some choices that you wouldn't have otherwise.

The neutral tones can all be mixed using the pure hues, plus black and white.

More on this in a later article. But if you're going to cheap-out, do it by not buying browns and other neutral colors. These can be easily mixed using a selection of 6-8 pure hues, plus white and black.

Here Is A Good Minimum Citadel Paint Set:
Blood Red
Blazing Orange
Sunburst Yellow
Snot Green
Ice Blue (Actually a Light Cyan)
Ultramarine Blue (This name is actually a traditional one that predates GW by a couple of hundred years.)
Liche Purple
Warlock Purple
And to mix your other tones:
Chaos Black
Skull White (Buy 3 of these for every one Chaos Black)

And there you go. You can mix almost any color you need with those 10 bottles.

Make Sure Your Painting Table Is Neutrally Lit

Most standard light bulbs give off a slightly yellowish hue, while most florescents give off a slightly bluish or greenish hue. You can either spring for daylight bulbs (daylight being the most neutral white light), or you can do what I do and mix standard fluorescent and incandescent light bulbs to even out the light.

That way, you won't paint something that looks great under an incandescent bulb, but flat and lifeless under a fluorescent fixture, and vice-versa.

To Be Continued...

In my next color article, I'll discuss the HSV color system and how to mix various shades like browns and khakis using just the pure hues, plus white and black.

Continue To Part II... 


  1. Thanks for the lesson. I've taken a little colour theory for web design, but nothing for print (or painting). Very interesting.

  2. Excellent posting! Long live the electromagnetic spectrum. I think I recall reading in "Fulgrim" that some of the characters were painting their armour in colours beyond the (narrow) optical portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. I've always thought it might be cool to have a little UV-sensitive paint and shine a UV light on to a battlefield... just a crazy & out there thought!

  3. heh. now do I have to do an article on excitation and emission spectra?

    Don't make me drag the water cooled UV laser down there...

    good start.

    ah for UV, there are detergents you can brush onto your army that will not affect the normal light color, and will still illuminate in UV.
    I've seen a Dark Eldar Army done that way online. it was interesting.

    now if you could do an IR army. Which should be easier to do, but harder to detect.

  4. Thanks, this was really helpful for someone with no actual art training. Looking forward to the next one.


  5. Ah, good old colour theory...

    And I certainly hear you on the bit about print versus real life. A college Art History paper required me to do a paper on Van Gogh's "The Bedroom" from print sources and was underwhelmed. But then I was in Chicago, spent a day at the Art Institute, saw it in person and had my socks blown off.

    Excellent post! A nice refresher for those of us that have seen it before and excellent for newcomers. I look forward to seeing more on this.

  6. I have to say, this article blew me away. I don't know yet how far this will change the way I paint -

    though I want to experiment with Cyan and Magenta more now -

    but understanding the difference between what I learned in class and the reality was truly something.

    Thanks for this one gents - Brent

  7. As regards a painting in a gallery, another factor is the layering of pigments. By slowly adding layers of paint, the artist ends up manipulating subtle levels of light, dark, saturation & hue within a small area.

    When someone takes a photo of that phenomenon, it tends to flatten out the color saturation and what you actually "see," no matter how good the camera, the color space doesn't capture the actual depth of color and light. Add viewing online and printing it out and you have several layers removed!

    So, in short layering is important to get those rich color ranges!

  8. Good article but I do disagree with not being able to mix any colour from the three primarys with black and white, but doing so does not work well with minis as it requires a lot of practice and wastes a lot of paint especially as the GW paints dry so fast. I end up buying lots of colours because it makes the minis more consistent and if any touch ups are needed I dont waste more paint trying to mix just the right colour.

    Another way to get a reasonable white light that is very flat is to have a couple of bright lamps shining away from your work space onto white paper, not the most effective way but relativeley cheap.

  9. Ahh...colour.

    This is a great post - but I'm still rubbish at telling the difference or understanding what works well. I know I'm not colourblind, but I sure as hell am not very far off it!

    Mrs. Drax despairs when I dress myself, let alone Drax Minor!

    - d.

  10. Marvellous new header, by the way, Chaps!

  11. Well of course you won't be able to mix every color. But that was the budget set. Personally I buy as many different colors/shades and adjust them as needed.

    The white paper trick won't work BTW, due to the nature of light. As white paper will simply reflect whatever color is thrown onto it. To make it work you would have to use paper that's tinted to the complement of the light's tint (light blue for your typical incandescent bulb). Which would balance the colors out at the expense of losing some brightness.

  12. My next few color posts will help you Drax. :)

  13. I just found this article. It explains a lot about why some things I've painted just "worked" and some were never satisfying!

    Your last post also explains why I really like my painting room right now. I have blue walls and halogen track lighting.


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