You assembled your first box of Warhammer miniatures, want to get started with the game, but you also want to play with painted models? In this beginner article I will show you how to choose a color scheme for your new army that is right for you.
The problem you are facing as a beginner to the hobby is, you don’t know how miniature painting works yet. There are some techniques you will need to pick up along the way. Don’t worry, it’s not exactly rocket science, but choosing a color scheme is rather difficult, if you don’t know the different approaches. This is why i will highlight the different approaches to painting miniatures and why that is important to the color scheme you choose. First things first, the miniatures shown on the box or inside the codices are painted by pro painters. You will most likely not get these results on your very first army. So you shouldn’t try to. You should use a color scheme that is right for your situation. I will go over a couple of key concept for painting miniatures and will follow up with practical tips to get you started.
Quality and speed
This is the first thing you will need to think about, that will be important for your color scheme. Let’s assume the following: “the more time you spend on a miniature, the better it will look”. Obviously this is not universally true but a miniature you spent 10 hours on will look better than one you spent 20 minutes on. If you take more time for each model, you can make use of several different techniques that will improve the look of your model. When going for speed you should “skip” as many steps as possible to speed up the process. You should ask yourself at the very beginning: How much time do you want to spend (on average) per model and how nice do you want your miniatures to look? This will determine what kind of techniques you will be able to implement or what shortcuts you should prepare for.
There is no point in painting your army fast, if you’re not happy with the result. Equally it is not advisable to create this elaborate color scheme you will never finish because you paint one miniature per week. Get your army painted as fast as possible and have them look nice on the tabletop. We call this approach battle ready.
Highlighting and shading
Let’s say you wanted to paint a red space marine, obviously you would paint him red. But the miniature now looks flat and boring. Nothing like the pictures you have seen online or in the books. This is because a miniature needs to be shaded in some way. Real life objects cast shadows on themselves on some parts and other parts will be brighter due to light hitting the surface. Just look at the folds in your clothing and you will see the effect. You need to recreate that on your miniature. So a red space marine would be red, have a darker red tone in the recessed areas and a lighter red on the raised areas. Don’t worry, there are really quick ways to achieve these effects on a miniature.
When choosing a color scheme for your army you need to think about contrast. Contrast could be defined as the difference between colors on your miniature. This can refer to the contrast when shading and highlighting. Here, I am referring to the contrast in color between the different parts of the model. A well chosen contrast will draw attention to your miniature or specific parts of it. Too little contrast will make your army look bland and boring. Too much contrast will make your army look like ugly Christmas tree decoration from the 90’s. Contrast does not have to be in color, though. Here are three different types of contrast you could use in your paint scheme:
- Warm / Cold
- Colored / uncolored
- Dark / Light
Let’s talk about the red space marine again. To make a miniature stand out we could use the warm / cold contrast. Red is a warm and dark color, so if you paint power weapons and plasma guns in a bright blue they will really stick out on the tabletop. If you do this for every miniature it will look too overwhelming. With my red space marines I contrasted the dark and matte red with bright gold and a toned down white. In my opinion, this is enough to create an interesting miniature on the tabletop. Especially for your first color scheme you shouldn’t use more than five different base colors on your models. You will have to use at least two colors to create any contrast, though. So you should pick two to five different base colors, depending on how much work you want to put into your army. Check out the image of the blackstone fortress miniatures below. They each have some sort of contrast to highlight the special features on each mini.
In conclusion you want to have:
- Medium contrast for different parts of the model
- Contrast between shadow and highlight areas
- Heavy contrast to draw attention to special features
This is something that will not necessarily make your miniature look better, but make it easier for you to paint new models for your Warhammer 40k army. Every one of the colors you use in your color scheme should have a distinct meaning and you should actively use the color this way. If you do this, your Warhammer army will look coherent and uniform, while clearly showing things like hierarchy, value, toughness, strength and so on.
Let’s take the space marines as an example again:
- Cloth is dark grey
- Armor is red
- Special parts of the armor are white
- Highlights on the armor are gold
- Weapons are grey / metallic
Isn’t it super simple to see where the guns are, which one is more important in terms of hierarchy and who has the most interesting weapons? If you follow this simple guide for all space marine models in your army you will have a coherent look for all models. The important part is, the colors have meaning. The less dark grey a model has, the more armored it is. The more white & Gold the model has, the more special it is. Weapons are easily recognizable because they are always grey / metallic. For a beginner, a guide like this will help recognizing what color you should use for which parts of the model. Plus, you will be able to recognize individual models on the table at a glance now. Slight deviations from this, like blue power weapons, will create a nice highlight to your overall force.
A quick word on shade washes & contrast paints
A wash (or shade) is a heavily diluted paint that is very runny. A wash will NOT cover the miniature like a regular paint. It will slightly tint the miniature and run heavily into the recessed areas. So if you were using a dark brown shade like Agrax Earthshade you would tint your whole model slightly brown-ish and darken it. The wash will also run into all the recesses and create shading on your miniature very quickly. I used Agrax Earthshade on my red Space Marines to give them a more dirty look. Contrast paints are similar. They are very runny but cover better than the shade colors. You would typically prime the model white and then generously go over it with a contrast paint. The recesses automatically get shaded while coloring the model at the same time, saving you a step. The result is not as good as the base color + shade method. You could also use the shades like the contrast paints if you want a lighter tone.
What’s right for you?
Let’s figure that out now. You know, you need contrast, highlighting, shading and meaning in your color scheme. I will not include any more advanced techniques like edge highlighting and the likes. After all this is a beginners guide. And for a beginner shades and contrast paints are what will make your models look great. With the recent release of contrast paints you have additional options when it comes to quick painting. In my experience contrast paints shine with very simple color schemes. If you have more than three base colors in your color scheme, working with contrast colors is a little annoying and time consuming. At this point you could have just done a regular color scheme and gotten better results. Where is the balance between speed & quality for you? How much time do you want to spend on each miniature? I will go over a couple of different approaches, to give you a feeling for what you will have to expect. Everything in between is also possible.
Basic Contrast Paints on white
This is the easiest method you could do, and will take about 20 minutes per model. Prime the model white, and pick 3 different contrast colors for your color scheme and apply generously. For example a tau Fire Warrior could use dark grey for the cloth sections and some weapon features, light grey for the armor and main weapons and orange for the highlights like shoulder pads. The result will be a little uninspiring and unclean around the edges but the quickest possible way to build an army. For special models you could introduce another color to add another highlight to your army.
Base colors with a wash
This is the classic approach, which gives good and clean results. You will need about 50 to 70 Minutes per model. Depending on how many base colors you use and how many details you want to paint separately. Pick 3 to 5 different base colors you want to use. Prime the model with the main base color. For Space marines this would be the color of the armor for example. Make sure the entire model is covered with this color. Add the color with a brush if the spray-can missed some parts. Then fill in any parts you want colored with the other base colors (guns, highlights, etc.). Remember, you do not need to pick out every detail, but maybe add paint the muzzle of the Bolter metallic. Leave parts that are very hard to reach in base color. You won’t see them during the game anyways. Once you blocked in all the colors your model will look pretty flat and unclean around the edges. This will change now.
Once the paint dried, apply a wash of your choice all over the miniature. Apply it generously and make sure it flows into the recessed areas on the miniature. You will have covered up the unclean edges and shaded the entire miniature in a matter of minutes. Just make sure you pick a relatively neutral wash. A black and dark brown wash will almost always work. A colored wash will tint the model, which can be desirable but doesn’t work on some color schemes. Just make sure it fits your color scheme. And you’re done. Your models will look more cleanly painted that with contrast paints and have a somewhat battle scarred look (in a good way). The shading will be really noticeable and the models will look great on the tabletop.
This expands on the previous method and will take you about 90 minutes per model. Just pick around 5 base colors for your color scheme and some highlight colors for energy weapons and such. Basecoat the miniature and block in all the colors, just like before. When washing you can use different types of washes for different parts of the model. Gold looks great when washed with sepia for example. Now once the wash is dry you will add highlights to your miniature. You should be drybrushing the metallics over the now darkened metallic parts. Make that gold and silver shine again. Additionally use a lighter tone of the base colors to drybrush the edges of the model. You can drybrush in a neutral color you can use for the entire model. If you want to really go the extra mile, you can drybrush in a lighter tone of the basecoat color for each part.
The added colors and highlights will add more contrast to the model and make the army more interesting to look at as a whole.
Whatever method you decide to use. It is important to know beforehand. It starts with the choice of primer and the types of paints you buy. Once you figured out the colors you want to use just get started with one of the methods. If you realize that another method would be better for you, you can still change course. If you stay with the colors, the color scheme will still look coherent.
I hope this helped you getting into painting your Warhammer 40k army. Whatever you decide to do, anything is better than an unpainted army.
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