Thursday, 14 May 2020

Creating a colour scheme. Part 2 of 3.

In Part One I wrote about colour theory, first taking a look at the values, or characteristics, of Hue, Saturation, Tone and Temperature. An understanding of this is key to building a successful colour scheme using colour contrast.

This time I’m taking a look at colour schemes and colour palettes and how, from my point of view, they differ from each other. Then I will describe the different roles colour can play within a palette.

What is a colour scheme?

When I talk about a colour scheme I’m referring to the overall visual impression created by the colours on a model. There is no limit to how many, or how few, colours can feature in a scheme; but you should be able to understand a colour scheme at a glance. An effective colour scheme can be described in fairly simple terms.

If a colour scheme is complex you should still be able to understand its overall nature at a glance with the nuances becoming apparent when you study it more closely.

Let’s look at some examples.

My Abyssal Warlord has a desaturated blue and yellow colour scheme.

Although not directly opposite one another on the colour wheel, blue and yellow are hues with a strong degree of contrast. I have lessened that contrast by desaturating the hues. I further adjusted the nuances by using a relatively cool yellow as it has a slight green tint. Similarly, where I’ve used a more saturated blue it has a greener hue and a darker tone.

By adjusting the characteristics of Hue, Saturation, Tone and Temperature, I’ve controlled the colour contrast between the blue and yellow and balanced my colour scheme.

Gutrot Spume has a saturated green and red colour scheme.

This is a bold complementary colour scheme. As I showed in Part 1, I’ve adjusted the saturation and temperature of my colours to bring balance.

Another vital element of my scheme are the neutral colours. These help by providing a low contrast backdrop for the reds and greens.

My Isharan Tidecaster has a scheme of dark, saturated blue/green with contrasting yellow details.

The (analogous) blue and green are the main or primary colours of this scheme. The dark, desaturated, yellow is a secondary colour.

My Sloppity Bile Piper has a yellow and purple colour scheme.

Yellow and purple are complementary colours. Again, by making adjustments to their characteristics, I’ve controlled the nature of their contrast. In addition, yellow is clearly the primary colour in this scheme. Creating a hierarchy of primary, secondary and (sometimes) tertiary colours is another way to bring balance to a scheme.

In all the examples above you can clearly see that I’ve used additional colours to those I’ve mentioned but, although they all have a part to play, they are not dominant colours in the scheme, and they are less apparent in the overall visual impression.

Colour hierarchy.

In Part 1 I described how having hues of equal saturation and tone will create a clashing effect. Similarly having equal quantities of different colours in a scheme may make it visually confusing.

By creating a hierarchy of colours that features a main, or primary colour, in contrast with secondary and tertiary colours, you will create a visually clearer scheme.

Your choice of these colours will greatly affect the nature of your scheme. Colour contrast is dependent on context, so the same primary colour may look very different against different combinations of secondary and tertiary colours. Understanding the characteristics of a colour will greatly help in your choice and use of it.

Deciding how the colours in a scheme fall in the hierarchy will also alter the final result. In the following illustrations I’ve used the same red, blue and green colour scheme but, in each example, I’ve switched their positions in the hierarchy.

Used in equal quantities the three colours are rather garish and clashing.
Red (primary) with blue (secondary) and green (tertiary)
Blue (primary) with green (secondary) and red (tertiary)
Green (primary) with red (secondary) and blue (tertiary)
Although it wasn’t my intention, taken together, the three illustrations feature schemes that could be used for Khorne, Tzeentch and Nurgle themed models, even though they all use the same three colours! This shows just how much colour hierarchy can change the overall appearance of a model.

What is a colour palette?

When I talk about a colour palette I’m referring to the actual colour of the paints I use on a model. The colour palette for a model will be closely related to its colour scheme but they are not the same thing! A colour palette is the physical medium I use to create a colour scheme.

A palette usually contains more colours than a scheme many of which may not be apparent at a glance. This is because the colours in a palette often have a specific role and may be hidden in the mix of colours or, in the case of a base coat, underneath other colours. Even though they are not always immediately obvious, the colours in a palette should all contribute to the final look in one way or another.

Building a colour palette.

The combination of roles within your palette can vary from model to model, but the examples below are those I use most often in my own work:
  • Base colour,
  • Shade,
  • Highlight,
  • Mid-tones,
  • Spot colours,
  • Nuance colours,
  • Metallic colours,
  • Neutrals.
There are no rules about how many, or how few, colours you can have in a palette, however, it’s easier to create a clearer and more cohesive colour scheme if you try to limit the number of colours. To achieve this, it’s helpful to remember that many of the colours in a palette will be suitable for more than one role.

Once again I’m using Gutrot Spume as an example! Although the colour scheme is a simple red/green contrast, the palette is one of the most varied I’ve ever used. There are many colours on Gutrot that add extra nuance and visual interest to the model without altering the overall scheme.

In truth another reason for the huge range of colors is that I was using Scalecolour paints for the first time and was experimenting with unfamiliar colours. Some of the colours above were picked out but hardly used. There was one additional colour that played a major role that isn’t shown, but I will come to that later.

In the picture above you can see the palette of colours I used to paint my Rockgut Troggoth. Like Gutrot’s, this palette may seem quite large but it includes all the colours used on the Troggoth, the base and the Goblin.

The top row shows the colours used for the Trogoth’s flesh tones. The second row shows additional colours used for the rock and dark cloth. The third row is for the metallic colours and washes used on the Goblin’s sickle. The final row shows the colours used for the Goblin’s flesh tones and some of the greenery on the base.

That’s the palette but I would describe the scheme as a red/brown and blue/grey scheme with a green spot colour, featuring an overall warm/cool colour contrast.

Choosing a base colour.

A base colour is quite literally the foundation of your paint job and your choice of base colour will have a massive impact on the final result. If your model features light and/or saturated colours, a lighter base colour may be the best option. If you want a dark moody feel then a dark base colour will help. You approach to painting is also a factor, for example, do you prefer to paint from dark to light of vice versa? Or maybe you prefer to start with a mid-tone and work out to the shadows and highlights at the same time.

I used a light base colour for my frog from Squarg the Frog Rider. I painted the flesh with a series of glazes and the base colour reflects light through these translucent layers. The base is a warm neutral colour (Rakarth Flesh from Games Workshop) which is in harmony with the overall naturalistic colour scheme.

My Farseer has a dark, almost pure black, base colour. I decided to paint the majority of the Farseer by going from dark to light and, in addition, the dark base created a helpful deep shadow in the hard to reach recesses. When I paint a dark base I usually use the same colour as my shadow colour.

The base colour for my Troggoth is a mid-tone but, equally important, it is a warm pink hue. This warmth underlies all the flesh tones and adds greatly to the finished look. I’ve also used the base colour in the mid-tones.

If your model features areas of strong colour contrast you may want to use a different base colour for each area.

Using global highlight and shade colours.

This refers to using one colour for all of your shadows and another for all of your highlights. This doesn’t mean that all the shadows on a model need to be exactly the same colour. Instead it means that they will all have your shade colour in the mix, to a greater or lesser degree. The same principle applies to the highlights.

Using global highlight and shade colours unifies a colour scheme and helps to create a feeling of the wider environment your model is situated in. The model, and all of the colours on it, will be lit by the same light, so all of your shadows and highlights should relate to this. Consider two important points: is your character inside or outside and is the overall lighting warm or cool?

The temperature of your global highlight and shade colours is the main factor to consider. Different combinations of warm and cool will create very different atmospheres.

A common example is a character situated outside with warm highlights from the sunlight and cool shadows reflected from the blue sky.

My earlier models (below) were painted without any global highlight and shade colours. All the reds are shaded with dark red. All the greens are shaded with dark green. And so on. This is a very ‘old school’ approach and can create a less realistic, graphic or even a cartoon-like style. Not that there is anything wrong with that but, if you are going to paint in that style, it should be a conscious choice.


There are no rules about how many colours you can use for your mid-tones and, if you so wish, you could pick a totally different paint colour for each of them.

My own preference is to try and use less paint colours in my palette and mix them to create intermediate tones and hues. I also like to incorporate my highlight, shade and base colours into the mid-tones to unify the overall colour scheme. But be careful to avoid over-mixing because this may result in a dull desaturated colour scheme.

Once I’ve established the overall tonal range on a model I often go back to my mid-tones to restore any saturation that may have be lost during the painting process.

Spot and nuance colours.

A spot colour can be used to add extra drama and contrast by drawing attention the details on a model. In the overall hierarchy, spot colours are tertiary colours as there will be much less of them than the primary and secondary colours.

Nuance colours also add drama and contrast to a palette but are far less obvious than spot colours. I often apply nuance colours as a glaze, or thin layer of paint, giving an extra pop of colour to a shadow or a flesh tone. Very often these nuance colours are in a complimentary hue to the area they are painted on to. I often use them to represent a colour reflected from a nearby surface but, sometimes, they have no obvious source and are simply there to add ‘nuance’ to the scheme!

In the examples above you can see how I’ve added red and blue/grey nuances to my flesh tones. Adding nuances to flesh tones can enhance the illusion of life in them.

I’ve added nuances of purple and green to the Tidecaster’s clothing while there is a little blue on the gold armour. The Scourge’s armour and equipment have nuances of orange and blue.


Always consider metallics in the context of your overall scheme. The characteristics of Hue, Saturation, Tone and Temperature apply to metallics as much as to any other colours.


Strictly speaking, in the context of colour schemes, neutral means “lacking or being without colour” or, in other words, unsaturated with colour. But the characteristics of Hue, Saturation, Tone and Temperature can still be applied to neutral colours. Therefore a better description would be something like “a hue that appears to be without colour.”

The neutral colours are black, white and grey. However, there are quite literally many shades (and hues) of grey, and even black and white are more complex than they may at first seem. In reality the term neutral can include a wide range of desaturated colours such as beige, ivory and taupe.

The tone of a neutral colour is the easiest characteristic to see as it applies to how light or dark a neutral colour is. On the other hand, hue and temperature are sometimes quite hard to tell apart because they can be very subtle.

Broadly speaking the more saturated colours are the less neutral they become. However, as is always the case, context is everything and a colour that acts as a neutral within one scheme may not do so in another.

When choosing neutrals for a colour palette make sure that their characteristics of Hue, Saturation, Tone and Temperature relate to your overall colour scheme in exactly the way you want them to. Used successfully neutrals are a great foil for other colours and colour contrasts.

The neutral colours on Gutrot Spume provide a backdrop to the saturated complementary colours.

The black on my Farseer has a cool desaturated blue/green hue that sets off the more saturated colours. The light grey outer robe adds a strong tonal contrast to the scheme without adding to the hues. However, I’ve used a subtle combination of warm and cool grays on the robe to give it more interest than one type of grey alone.

Build your knowledge.

Over time you’ll discover colours that become your favorite ‘go to’ options and that’s no bad thing. Becoming familiar with a colour and understanding it’s characteristics will enable you to use it to good effect.

However, it’s very easy to always use the same familiar colours and get stuck in a creative rut! I think it’s important to experiment and try out new colours in your palettes. Use them alongside your trusted favorites and gradually expand you range of options.

Coming next …

In the final part of this trilogy, I will look at how and why I picked the colour scheme for my Kastelan Robot.


  1. Great article, I need to digest it and think about what I'm doing with my paints! Look forward reading the last one.

  2. Yet more interesting and thoughtful stuff David... thank you.

    All the best. Aly

  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to share this David -what a mother lode of information!

  4. Wow. I've been a graphic designer for 15 years and never thought about colour in this detail. You've put words to some of the stuff I do instinctively and then gone far beyond that. I've recently got back into painting minis - find your blog post and get a complete education! Can't wait for the final post and to read through your older blog entries.
    Two temperatures of grey in a cloak... mind blown.
    Thanks again.

  5. So much good stuff here, thanks for your effort in this!