Paints, Lights, Cameras and Colors

By Cyttorak

There have been many questions over the years on our forums about how to paint several colors and have the pictures come out looking good. This tutorial will try to deal with the issues involved and help you become a better artist.There are generalities that apply to all colors, and certain issues that are color-specific. We will approach this from the general first and get to the specific examples last. Here goes… With the assumption that the artist is trying to produce high-quality pictures of their minis as the final product, this involves three things:
1)       the paint used
2)       lighting
3)       digital recording and post-processing (i.e. digital cameras and graphics programs)

1)       The paint used
The paint used on the mini affects the quality of the final image through several factors: hue of the paint, shade, quality, quantity, consistency, technique in applying, things added to the paint.
Hue of the paint: Hue/shade are the traditional subjects of “color theory” and are as general as you can get. Hue refers to the color part of the paint…the specific place on the color wheel or what mix of red, yellow and blue (primary colors) the paint has. There are examples of red that are straight red, reds that are orangish-red (more yellow is included), and reds that are purplish (including more blue). Orange, purple and green are called secondary colors and are mixes of the primary colors. Colors that are halfway between the primaries and secondaries are called tertiaries (red-violet, blue-green, etc.).


Shade: Shade refers to how light or dark the paint is. Given a certain hue of paint (red again, let’s say), there are light shades of that color and dark shades. Mixing in small amounts of straight black or white can change the shade of paint. Subtle effects can also occur like “pastel-ization” by adding in gray…this occurs because gray pigments (of the same shade as the paint) are replacing their hued counterparts, resulting in the same shade of color but with reduced hue. This tends to produce “more realistic” colors that aren’t quite as bright and “cartoony”. Depending on the scheme, they may also be less dramatic.



Quality: There are cheaper and more expensive paints out there. Usually, if paint costs more it is because it is higher quality (but not necessarily). This is because the paint contains finer-ground pigments, better liquid medium, better bonding agents, and a whole bunch of other stuff I don’t know anything about. Finer pigments mean that the paint “covers” better, requiring fewer coats to achieve a uniform color on the mini…many high-quality paints give 100% coverage with only 2 coats, while the worst paint I ever used required 7 coats! Higher-quality paints may also use more exotic (i.e. expensive) materials for the pigments themselves, resulting in brighter, more-vivid and longer-lasting colors.


*Note:the ranking of paints above is purely a matter of opinion.

Quantity: Literally, the amount of paint you put on the mini. This is often a result of the quality of the paint, as cheaper paints require more coats for good coverage. Even high-quality paints can give poor coverage if they are thinned too much or if not enough coats were used. In this case, the underlying primer color will show through. Assuming the primer is grayscale (as most of them are), it will end up effectively shading the paint above it. What color primer one should use is the subject of much debate, as black primers tend to make blacklining easier, but will darken the overall color if insufficient coverage is obtained. White primers tend to brighten/lighten the shade, but blacklining becomes an entire step in itself. Using too much paint is bad, as the paint fills in the paneling of the mini – reducing the mini’s detail, and can even add texture to otherwise flat panels which will show up in close-up photos.


*Note: 2 coats were used on these color swatches to show how well a paint covers. Even high-quality paints like Vallejo show some difference in coverage (especially for particular colors), but generally cover better than lower-quality paints.

Consistency: Paint should almost always be thinned in order to make it go on smoothly. One of the great lessons in painting is knowing how much to thin your paint. Different techniques require different levels of thinning in order to succeed: blacklining requires very thin paint (possibly with surfactant added, see “additives” below) for the paint to want to sink into the recesses. Good coverage in areas that are hard to reach will require very thick paint in order to both “stick” there and to use as few coats as possible (lest you make a mistake on your third coat!) Painting on flat, obvious surfaces requires moderately thinned paint to use a reasonably small number of coats while still making the paint come out flat. Glazing also requires a certain kind of thinning…more on that in “additives”. As stated in Quantity, too-thin paint will let the primer show through and will effectively shade the color used; too-thick paint is the same as too much paint and will add unwanted texture to the surface.
Technique: Assuming that nothing extra is added to the paint other than water for thinning, there are differences in technique that can affect how the paint looks. Drybrushing deposits the paint irregularly across flat surfaces and tends to bunch up on edges. On flat surfaces, this can make the paint look chalky unless care is taken (especially if using low-quality paints with large pigments). The uniformity of coverage on edges tends to counteract this. Layering uses highly diluted paint laid down in layers to form a gradual color/shade transition. If one blends the layers (especially using other colors) while the previous layer is still wet, it is known as Wet-blending. I’ve seen a variation of this using very wet layers (small puddles, in fact) where the colors tend to diffuse unevenly, resulting in exotic swirled patterns.


Additives: There are various materials one might add to paint for desired effects. Matte medium includes everything in paint except the pigments. Adding it to paint will dilute the color while maintaining a high amount of bonding agent…this is often necessary for glazing/layering, as adding water alone will also dilute the amount of bonding agent and will make previous layers wipe off when one tries to add the next layer. Future floor polish can also be used for this purpose, but is both glossy and is a surfactant – something that breaks up the surface tension of water, making the fluid naturally flow into recesses and corners. Of course, some sort of overcoat matte agent (specifically, Testor’s Dullcote) can be sprayed on afterwards to kill the gloss. Some sort of retarding medium may be added to make the paint dry slower, which is useful when wet-blending.


2)       LightingOften the most overlooked step, lighting is at least as important as the other steps. Paints appear the color they do because they absorb parts of the light spectrum (red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet) and reflect the remainder. Straight red paint will absorb everything except red; blue will absorb everything except blue, etc.Not all light sources are equal, and many are quite insufficient for certain colors. Fluorescent lights (which may be mercury-vapor bulbs) radiate strongly in the blue and green colors, and very weakly if at all in the remainder (which is why they look so “cold”). A red mini under this light will look very dull, or even the wrong color altogether since there is no red light for the paint to reflect. Many indoor bulbs advertised as “warm” radiate well in the red-to-orange colors and weakly in the rest…especially bad for blue or green minis.While it is possible to combine both fluorescent and “warm” bulbs to create a kind-of full spectrum, the best solution is to get bulbs advertised as full spectrum. These come with a rating on the package in degrees Kelvin, equivalent to the light produced by a “sun” of that temperature. Our sun is about 5500K, so bulbs rated from 5000K to 6000K should be just fine. The great thing about these bulbs is that they are sold most places and cost no more than ordinary bulbs…there’s really no excuse for not using them.


3)       Cameras and graphics programs
First off, I’m not an expert on every camera out there; I just go by word-of-mouth. From what I’ve heard it seems that not all cameras are equal, and the two best companies in terms of consistent optical quality are Nikon and Canon…I personally use a Nikon D60 with the stock 18/55mm lens. The difference in optical quality is mostly seen in sharpness and lack of haze. There may also be a superiority in the color sensors and software, but I don’t know that for sure.Every camera has certain things that need to be set properly in order to take the best photos, assuming those parameters are adjustable on your particular model: white balance, aperture (f-stop), exposure, metering, timer and vibration reduction (depending on if you have a tripod or not).
White balance: Digital cameras are wonderful in that all the picture information is adjustable. You can for example take one color and replace it with another, increase or decrease the brightness/contrast/sharpness/etc. This also means that there are no real “standard” values other than what comes pre-programmed. Don’t expect your camera to know what “medium red” means…it doesn’t. It only knows what you tell it. That’s where white balance comes in. You basically take a card that is defined as a certain shade of gray (18%, I believe), take a picture of it, and tell your camera THAT’S what “18% gray” looks like. This sets the baseline for your camera, from which it can define all other shades and colors. This is especially important for eliminating overall color casts to your pictures and achieving proper color balance.


Aperture: This is how wide-open the shutter is (which is actually in reverse, with higher numbers representing smaller openings). There are two main effects: 1) the higher the f-stop (e.g. f/14, f/20, f/22) the greater the depth-of-field is. Depth-of-field is how much in front and behind the subject is also in focus. Note that increasing the distance between camera and subject, a.k.a. focal distance, will also increase this (but will make your subject smaller in the picture). High f-stop/large focal distance is useful if you have some super-cool terrain that you want to show off as well as your mini.


2) Making the shutter opening smaller (higher f/#) lets in less light, resulting in darker pics. You can fix this by either increasing the ambient light (but be careful about increasing glare), or by increasing the camera’s sensitivity to light…called the exposure.

Exposure: This allows you to adjust the camera’s sensitivity to incoming light. It’s done on an exponential scale, so something like +/- 0.3 represents a doubling/halving of the brightness, I believe. The only problem with this tool is that EVERYTHING gets boosted, including unwanted electrical noise in the camera’s sensors. You will see this if you try boosting the exposure on a subject that simply has inadequate lighting…you will see randomly colored pixels from the noise on a very dark background. This is usually so far outside of the range we work at that you won’t have to worry about it.The bigger use of exposure is to correct your camera’s “corrections”. Cameras try to be smart, but they’re actually pretty dumb. They will often “correct” a perfectly good exposure value until it’s either too dark or light…all on their own initiative! How wonderful!After seeing that your camera (yet again) messed up the exposure value, you can set the exposure compensation manually to fix it.


Metering: Closely related to exposure, this is the method you choose by which the camera will calculate how bright or dark a scene is. You can tell the camera to focus on only the subject even if it represents only a tiny portion of the whole scene (spot metering), you can tell it to give a large weight to the subject but also consider the surroundings (center-weighted metering), or tell it to average the entire visible space evenly (matrix metering). Focusing on only the subject can cause problems unless the brightness of your subject and terrain happen to be about the same…and the same thing goes for averaging the whole scene. The first tends to produce over/underexposed terrain, the second over/underexposed subjects. Don’t think that just weighting the subject will solve all problems either, for that matter. The combination of metering and exposure compensation seems to be where the real art of digital photography lies. Personally, I’ve made several terrain boards: one dark, two medium, one light. This lets me match my minis to the terrain for brightness; dark minis on the dark board and so forth.


Timer and vibration reduction: Ideally, you will want to have a tripod in order to have a stable platform, especially for low-light longer exposures (i.e. the shutter will remain open for up to a few seconds). When you press the button to take the picture, it vibrates the camera a bit. Here is where having a 2-second timer is useful for letting the camera stop moving before the exposure. Some cameras also come with vibration reduction; tiny motors in the camera counteract any movement in the camera as a whole, thereby stabilizing the image. This is mostly useful for live-action shooting with the camera held in-hand. Ironically, it will DE-stabilize an already motionless camera on a tripod, and so should be turned off if you have one.
Graphics programs: These allow you to fix LOTS of stuff in post-processing: bad color (at least a general hue cast to the pic), brightness, contrast, sharpness…even smallish errors in the painting (through use of the eyedropper and pixel-by-pixel painting). They also allow you to standardize the presentation of the pictures by maximizing the color space of each picture, which lets you be able to compare pics to each other since they will be approximately of the same brightness/contrast/color space. These programs tend to be another of the invaluable tools that don’t get spoken of a lot. They are pretty cheap, too…in some cases, even free! The programs are similar, but different enough that a detailed discussion of the features here isn’t possible.Now onto some specific advice for “problem” colors: painting black/white and red.
Black/white: As mentioned above, most colors lie somewhere in the middle of the shading scale. Black and white, however, are the exceptions…they lie at the ends. The problem with these colors is that there isn’t any “room” to maneuver. How can you highlight white? How can you shade black?The answer is to make room by fudging the colors a bit. When painting a white mini, I use Delta Ceramcoat Drizzle Gray as the base instead of white. This paint is so light that against darker colors it looks white, but is just dark enough that it can be highlighted in pure white. I usually further shade it with darker grays.Black should be similar in theory, but in practice I do it a bit differently. When I make room by using charcoal gray instead of black, it tends to look like dark gray instead of black. I therefore paint about 60% or more of the surface area in true black, highlight about 35% or less in charcoal gray and the remainder in lighter gray. There may be some sort of general lesson here about it being more important to have “room” for highlighting than shading, but I’m not 100% sure about that.


Red: Red is a different sort of problem. Mainly, it’s hard to get red to “pop” sometimes. Also, there seems to be less differentiation between shades of red on the market, even between brands. I own over 20 different red paints, and have trouble telling half of them apart. The rest could be comfortably grouped together in threes or fours…and that’s not including the pinks/fuchsias. I’ve heard two related theories about this: 1) red doesn’t “pop” in pictures because cameras have fewer red-sensors than green or blue. This is because there is less red in everyday life by volume than other colors. This makes sense to me. 2) Human eyes may have less red “sensors” for the same reason. This makes less sense to me, as the red that does occur in nature tends to be more survival-oriented than other colors; red = fruit, fire and blood…my 2 cents on the matter.At any rate, the camera thing may not be equal across brands. There is a “normal”, “vivid” and “more vivid” setting on my camera. The highest setting produces reds so bright it hurts to look at them…I’ve had to dial it back a notch.


Paints don’t seem to be equal, either. You just have to find a red that works for you. The main difference between all the similar reds in my arsenal is saturation – the degree of “redness”. I think this is a result of the specific pigment used, and possibly the pigment concentration. This difference doesn’t help with shading or highlighting, however, as you can’t tell the difference between “just red” and “really red” by sight. Highlighting is simple enough by just adding white to the mix. There seem to be two ways of dealing with shading: 1) layering/glazing with black, and 2) adding black to the red and shading with paint. Both seem to do the job.I did also hear an interesting thing concerning shading and color theory: If you add a bit of the complimentary color to the main color, it will be both darker and more vivid. Complimentary colors are those on the opposite side of the color wheel from the main color, which would be green for red and vice-versa. I’ve tried this once or twice and it works sometimes…you have to be careful to not add too much of the complimentary color or the hue will show. That’s my understanding of these issues as it currently stands. I hope it is useful to you.
Now get painting!!!