Color Theory and Miniature Painting

Color theory is extremely complex.  However, grasping a few core concepts goes a long way in taking your miniatures to the next level.

From kindergarten learning that blue and yellow makes green, to advanced college classes breaking down the purpose of sfumato in the Mona Lisa, color theory is a part of art.

Miniature painting is no exception.  And our goal today is to break it down simply enough that a kindergartener understands sfumato.

What is Color Theory?

Color theory in miniature painting is quite the interesting topic, mostly because of how much you can accomplish without having to know any of it.

If you follow a step by step guide on painting miniatures, you don’t really need to know why it’s Rhinox Hide instead of Mournfang Brown, or why something is shaded with Agrax Earthshade instead of Nuln Oil.

Simply put, color theory is the ‘why’ behind these choices.

Once you break free of the step by step and are looking to create your own schemes and recipes, understanding color theory becomes somewhat mandatory.

Only somewhat mandatory?

We are talking about a very deep and complex subject.  There are entire college classes dedicated to the understanding of colors.  Fortunately, little goes a long way here.  All you need to know are a few core principles and basic tricks more suited to miniature painting.

Painting toy soldiers won’t require you to go to night school, not on my watch!

The Color Wheel

The first thing to understand is the color wheel, and a few things associated with it.  Don’t worry about the technical mumbo-jumbo or proper nomenclature here.

The color wheel shows us how colors interact with one another.  Much like our premise, put your finger on yellow and the more you move towards blue, the greener it gets.

The two most important things about the wheel:

1- Complementary Colors:  Those are the colors opposite one another on the wheel.  Commonly the following pairs:

  • Yellow and Purple
  • Red and Green
  • Blue and Orange

This has a lot of uses to contrast, shade and showcase specific areas of a model.

2- Analogous Colors: Those are the colors adjacent to each other on the wheel, like blue and green.

These are slightly less cut and dry, as, for example, turquoise is between blue and green already.

Simply put, Analogous colors share colors, Complementary colors do not.


We will use tones loosely here, as a catchall term to break down a few different examples.  Tones are variations within the same color.

For example, Doombull Brown, Mournfang Brown, and Skrag Brown are all browns, but of different tones.

There are three different kinds of tones that we are interested in:

1- Shade.  In our brown example, Mournfang Brown is a very neutral brown.  Skrag Brown is an orange-brown, and Doombull is a red-brown.  Basically, brown with more of one color in it.  This is more prevalent in browns and greys.

2- Brightness.  Keeping in the various Citadel Paints brown to showcase different brightness,  Dryad Bark is a dull or muted  dark brown, while Rhinox Hide is a vibrant or bright dark brown.

3- Temperature. As in  either hot or cold.  This is one that’s slightly trickier to grasp, and if you’re not quite artsy, I would not bother with it.   Essentially, Yellow, Red and Pink are warm colors; Green, Blue and Purple are cold colors.

This is practically all you need to know regarding color theory.  Click here for ways to put this new knowledge to practical use.

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