Monday, May 10, 2010

A Little Color Theory - Part III

by SandWyrm

You may not have realized it, but visual artists have been deliberately manipulating your emotions and perceptions with color for at least 500 years now, and in an undisciplined way for many thousands of years before that. We do this using color harmonies mixed with specific value ranges to evoke exactly the mood we want you to feel.

In this post, I'll show you how it's done.

First the preliminaries:

In A Little Color Theory - Part I, I talked about the color spectrum and primary colors.

In A Little Color Theory - Part II, I talked about the Hue/Saturation/Value color model and how to mix any color using a pure hue, plus white and black.

Now we're going to talk about how to choose effective color combinations. If you haven't yet read my first 2 color posts, go ahead and do that now. The following post won't make much sense without that grounding. :)

What's a Color Harmony?

A color harmony is a specific set of color rules that an artist follows (or doesn't) to achieve a certain mood in the viewer. Basically it means that he or she chooses a specific subset of colors to use while ignoring all others. This focuses the emotional message that they want to deliver to the viewer.

If you don't use a harmony, you run the risk of sending an emotional message to your viewer that is garbled or contradicts the message that you intended to send.  When this happens we start saying that a painting or photograph looks cheap or sucks, even if we can't rationally explain why.

Take these two miniatures, for instance: The Space Marine on the left has been painted just as cleanly as the Space Marine on the right. Both are colorful too. But the Marine on the left has been painted with every single hue on the color wheel. While the one on the right was painted in a Triadic harmony that used just 3 hues. So we cue in to the harmony on the right and are at peace, while our feelings about the mini on the left become garbled and incoherent.

Or for the 3D animation example:

Consider how PDI/Dreamworks' "Shark Tale" looked visually cheesy compared to Pixar's "Finding Nemo". PDI's artists concentrated on making the individual fish look cool. While Pixar made it's choices based on the whole image that the audience would see.

By the way, I'm going to use stills from 3D animated films to help illustrate the various harmonies we cover. Because hey, that's my other major interest besides 40K, and nobody consistently does color better than Pixar anyhow. :)

Now, on to the harmonies!

Analogous Harmonies

Just to repeat what the slide says, Analogous colors are hues which are close together on the hue wheel. They're great for conveying intense moods and emotions. This is also the harmony of choice for realistic camouflage schemes and the like, as no individual color stands out more than any other.

My Tallarns are analogously painted. The majority of the army is painted in the red to yellow-orange range. With accents done in a yellow-green so that they're noticeable, but don't stand out.

And that cool Ork army that I posted pics of a couple of weeks ago? He's using the exact same analogous range that I am!

Here's some Death Company and the Nightbringer from GW's online catalogue. Lots of value contrast there, but they're still painted analogously.

Here's some Pixar examples:

Whether you want to communicate sheer terror or warm fuzzies, Analogous is the best way to communicate an intense feeling or unify a large number of elements like miniatures.

Complementary Harmony

Two colors are complementary if they occupy opposite positions on the color wheel. This is the best way of showing contrast and drawing attention to a specific element in a painting or a particular feature on a miniature. Particularly if you paint most of your image or miniature with one color and some important detail with the other.

One feature of true complements is that they scintillate. Which is an optical effect that we see as a dark line between two complementary colors when they touch (you can see it in the slide). This effect is caused by our eyes not being able to tell where one color ends and the other begins. Because the two colors trigger opposing color receptors in our eyes.

Opposite colors on the older, more traditional color wheels don't all scintillate, by the way. Which is one way that we know the newer digital/print wheels are more accurate.


Besides a straight-up complement, artists will also contrast an analogous range of colors with a complement to that range. Or even use 2 complementary ranges. This allows for more color variation and interest at the expense of diluting the color contrast a bit.

Here's a Terminator that's been painted with a Split-Complementary color scheme. Notice how the armor pops out at you.

Here's another mini that's been painted using a split-complement. But notice how out-of-place that green is. It's way too noticeable because it doesn't fit the rest of the scheme that he's using.

Here's a Valk that was painted by Goatboy (Complements are his favorite harmony).  It's something of a bad example because the complement isn't really used to draw attention to anything important. It's screaming LOOK AT ME! But once you look there's not much there. Sort of like BoLS itself. :)

 This one's much better, as it uses the complement to really accentuate the liquor this guy's carrying. But the complement is broken by the grass and earth used on the base, which dilutes it somewhat.

 Here's some of my old Dwarfs from the 90's. The Lord with the winged helm is painted in a straight yellow-blue complement. It should have been orange to blue, but I was still using the wrong color wheel. :)

The old Bugman's models (my first minis, their 3rd paint job) are painted in a split-complement of blue against a range of red to orange.

And finally we have my Slayers, which were painted in a double-split complement of red to orange contrasted with cyan to blue.

Some Pixar Examples:

Notice in these two images how your eye is drawn to specific spots that accentuate the emotional message. Also notice how evil the barracuda looks because it's very desaturated. If it was friendly like the sharks that show up in the film later, it would be more colorful.

Yep, can't help but look at the eye of that robot. In the second image the whole environment is against Mr. Incredible.

Triads and Tetrads

What Triads and Tetrads allow you to do is to show lots of different hues while still controlling the image somewhat. Basically, if you use these harmonies, you'll have to rely a lot more on controlling the saturation and value of your image or miniature to attract attention to a particular element.

Here's some Triad examples:

Red-Green-Blue for the Space Marine on the left. Magenta-Cyan-Yellow for the Daemons on the right.

Here's another Red-Green-Blue scheme, it's just more desaturated and subtle.

And for Pixar:

And some Tetrads:

Sorry, but it's amazingly difficult to find any minis that use Tetrads. While a lot of people will stumble into the other harmonies, this one really requires you to know what you're doing.

Color Psychology

Lastly, I want to show some images that illustrate some Psychological effects that you can get with color. This is only the tip of the iceberg, of course. But it should get you thinking. We need more of this in the miniature painting realm.

Mr. Incredible is having a bad day. We know this not only by his performance, but because all the colors in these scenes are desaturated to an almost-gray.

You can see this in the world around you too. Look what happens to colors on a rainy day compared to a sunny one. The picture on the right is saturated and full of life. Even though they're sitting in the mud. :)

Notice how gray the environment on the left is as the lifeless defensive machines attack him. While in the image on the right we get warm fuzzies contrasted with the color of his old uniform to unite the two thoughts.

And lastly... Did you realize when watching Finding Nemo that Dori and Gill both had the same hue combination? Dori was introduced early on, so when Gill came around they were able to use her colors to make you like Gill without spending as much screen time on him. We also know that he's more hard-edged than her because he's got a lot more value contrast going on.

You could use this in 40K to make your commander stand out, whilst visually tying him to the rest of your force.

Neat eh? GO PAINT!!!


  1. This is what blogging is all about: taking your talents and twisting them into a way that benefits the community as a whole. Not everyone will be as into color theory as you, but many readers will pick up a thing or two in these articles and become better painters because of it.

    Thanks a bunch for the lessons!

  2. This is the best series of painting articles I have ever read. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for articulating this. It's been tremendous reading this series -really inspirational and thought-provoking.
    Thanks again.

  4. Thanks for the articles.
    I've had to strip commanders after painstaking paiting because they just didn't look right - without knowing what was actually wrong.
    This is a breath of fresh air!

  5. I think a little more detail into how to paint to this concept might be needed. I like where this is going and I'd like to get some more harmony in my painting, but I'm still not sure how.

    So if I am painting blue, I should try for some teal to give it some more color that goes well with it?
    I might as well be color blind. lol

  6. I'll try and Cliff-Note it for you.

    1) Pick a dominant color that you like.

    2) Then decide how much color contrast you want/need. If you want more contrast, go complementary. If you want less, go analogous.

    3) If you don't know what to do, go with a blue-orange complement. It does great skin tones and shadows, which is why it's the world's most popular color harmony.

    Other than that... PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!!!

  7. Blue-orange is the most popular? Really? I noticed the complement about a decade ago, and people (ie, my family, lol) thought it was strange to have it as my room's scheme...I often try to dress according to the colour wheel - it's useful to ALL of life!

  8. Ok, thanks. I read through it, got distracted by all the cool pictures, and I'm a bulletin point kind of guy anyways.

    so blue to violet/teal for subtle fading. Blue to orange/yellow for a stand out shade.

    well my test model is going to hate me, but I'm going to give it some practice.

  9. I think what I'm getting from this is that my Mechrite Red - Bestial Brown scheme is analogous? So long as I keep the shades similar and not add too many shiny accessory bits to my guardsmen?

  10. Or, now that I look, it's the colors near it, to both sides of it? So I should also use some dark reddish purply color? xD

  11. Another very cool post in this series sir! :)

  12. This is an awesome article, great detail and extremely informative. I'm loving this series.

  13. Just sheer awesome. This is the quality of article the hobby needs. Now all we need is for lots of examples of this. Sort of like how Grey Death has done articles on how to do battle damage and then giving examples of it with his army.


  14. Where does grey hit on the chart... is it desaturated blue tone usually?

    I've just started on the latest armies test model - blue/green (Alpha Legion) with Red highlights ... that's a Triad! Woop!

    My armys are:

    o purple/shadow grey (nids)
    o shadow grey/codex grey (guard)
    o codex grey/ blood red (tau)

    So the first two are analogous and the third complementary?

  15. I really love the examples. I understand the theory, but the visual reminder of "here is what we mean" is an excellent benefit.


  16. Wow. When I get back to painting, I'm gonna keep these articles on hand.

    Awesome stuff!

  17. @Metrosh

    Shiny bits are fine. Metal has color too, even if it's only the colors it reflects.


    Pure gray doesn't exist in nature. There's always a slight color tint. Concrete, for instance is slightly yellow-orange on a bright day. While being bluish if it's overcast and/or wet because it also reflects the color of the sky.

    Which is one way of saying that color is a very malleable thing. Generally, there's always some way to paint something so it's both recognizable and conforms to a given color scheme.

    Take a Sanguinary Guard model, for instance. You could paint the wings a light, desaturated orange to keep them analogous to the rest of the figure's skin tones and reds. Or you could go with a light, desaturated blue if you want to draw more attention to them.

    It's a matter of focus and intent. If you want to accentuate a chalace that the model is carrying, don't go complementary on the wings too. Because it divides the attention of the viewer.

  18. @TKE

    Why do you think people like blue eyes so much? It's because they're complementary to the various orange-red shades of human skin. :)

  19. Huh, that makes perfect sense. Personally, my preference is for brown eyes though.

    ...Not sure that adds anything but you know I read and appreciated the reply. lol

  20. TKE ... brown eyes all the way. But all my kids have green.

  21. All 3 are fantastic articles. Among the best I've ever read for anything 40k. This probably had more to do with your 2nd article, but for metallics what would you recommend? More specifically I was needing a color for the basing of my Black Legion CSM's and I was thinking a yellow sand that isn't overly bright. Is that about right for not wanting to detract too much from the gold?

  22. Don't let the reflections fool you. :)

    Gold is yellow, brass is orange, bronze is red-orange, silver is white.

    So with that in mind, you should be able to slot them into a harmony.

  23. Thank you for the very well informed article. As well as being useful, I also found your use of animated films illustrated the comments well.

    Thanks again.


  24. This is a fantastic article. Thank you so much!

  25. I've been referring back to these articles for months. Thanks very much for the excellent work.

  26. Thank you thank you thank you, you're sitting proud in my bookmarks bar.

  27. I'm way late to the party, but I think I'm actually learning something! Thanks for posting these collectively in the archive!

  28. Very interesting stuff! Color theory for the win!

  29. This is the first read for me and I can tell I will need to read them again! Thanks for the basic information that took you a few years to learn.

  30. Dude, just what I was looking for. Thank you so much for a fantastic post! Though I can see i'm a little late as usual :D


out dang bot!

Recent Favorites

All-Time Favorites