+ inload: Composition and the importance of contrast +

+ Count the Seven! +

+ Painting progress – nothing major, as hobby time has been slim – but the vanguard of the Death Guard are starting to look a bit closer to being ready.+

+ Blergh! +
+ Seven are being worked up from their base coat, including three leaders – the Blightbringer (bell chap); plague surgeon and Tallyman (the one with the loudspeaker backpack on the right). The step-by-step is here [+noosphericinloadlink embedded+]; and beyond that I've been working in with very dilute brown paint, touches of neat sepia ink, and glazes of sepia. This last stage is what gives them the warm yellowy tint. +

+ It's an organic process, by which I mean I have lots of pools of gungy brown/black mixes on my palette, and dip in and out of them freely. It's not quite random, but it's certainly a world away from the tight control I apply to (say) my Blood Angels. These Plague Marines are much more in my comfort zone, in terms of style [+noosphericinloadlink embedded+]


+ Theoretical: The importance of contrast +

+ One thing you will notice above is that although many of the details are unfinished, I've painted in the eyes on a couple of them. For practical reasons, I wanted to check the colours I was planning (Vallejo's Prussian blue, for the record) would work and secondly, that there would be enough contrast. +

+ Contrast is really important for composition, as the viewer's eye will go to the areas of contrast first. There's a saying – 'tone does the work, colour gets the credit', which I rather like. Usually, if you have a dark-shady area, a light tint will look good, regardless of colour. The opposite is also true: the important bit is the contrast. +

+ Contrast in tone – that is, between light and dark areas – grabs the eye; but it's not just tone. Contrast can come in hue, in colour temperature, in detail, and even in texture. If you want to create a focal point, adding high contrast in some way on it will be effective. This Plague Marine's eyes are a good example of using other methods of finding contrast when the tones are similar. Here, both the light blue lenses and the grungy white helm are fairly bright, so there's not much contrast in tone. Instead:

  • The cool blue hue contrasts with the warm yellow-tinged white that surrounds it.
  • The clean, smooth surface of the lenses contrasts with the battered textural helm in which they sit. 

+ The latter point is another reason I painted them: after liberally sloshing on browns and blacks and washes, things looked messy. I wanted to reassure myself that I can paint cleanly when I want to! +

+ On a related point, note the thin border of black around the eyes. This acts as a border between the two similarly-toned areas of white and blue, preventing them bleeding into one another visually. This technique – black lining – is a good one for keeping similar areas apart. You can see the same effect used to break up the armour at the joints and details. All very quick and simple, but effective and eye-catching (exactly the same reason eyeliner draws the gaze – it provides detail and contrast between the white of the eye and the surrounding skin). +


+ Contrast and composition +

+ A final note on contrast and focal points: While the figure above is unfinished, I don't have plans to add much in the way of freehand detail (though never say never) or develop the sculpted detail beyond regular highlighting and shading. The sculpt is already very complex, and I think picking everything out will make it all look a bit messy. The skulls on the wrist and so forth are given enough weight by the regular shading and highlighting; I don't need to gild the lily by painting them in a contrasting colour.  +

+ By leaving the gauntlet details unadorned – that is, with less contrast – they draw the eye less; and the lenses on the helm are thus left uncontested as a focal point. For similar reasons, the organic tentacles etc. will be painted with warm neutrals rather than vivid greens and purples, so the contrast is minimised and they sit quietly beside the armour plate. +

+ This is where composition and planning come into things. Generally speaking, I want the figures in this force to look slow and lumbering, to build the sense of inevitability that's in their background. That partially relies on having a single focal point for the eye to rest on. This doesn't need to be the head. Banners, weapons, shields and so forth are great spots for focal points. The important bit is that the viewer's eye is guided where I want it, and then rests there. +

+ Multiple focal points lead the eye around the figure. This is not necessarily a problem – sometimes you want to build a sense of movement or dynamism. Eldar, particularly Harlequins, for example, look great with multiple focal points – and it's for this reason that they tend to look best nice and clean, because then there's less contrasting texture to distract. The contrast is restricted to hue and tone. +

+ As well as imparting dynamism, multiple focal points mean the eye moves around the figure, and they're thus important if you want someone to really spend time looking at your work. If you look at single figures painted for competition, you'll probably find two or more focal points in order to encourage the judges to keep looking. +

+ For armies, you've already got lots of figures; so the most striking tend to subsume the individual within the whole, to prevent everything looking messy and confused. Instead, certain figures – your centrepieces' – act as the focal point for the whole army. If you want them to stand out, you've got to apply the principles of contrast to the army as a whole, not just the individual model. Consider picking them out or adding details in a different colour; and – perhaps more importantly – keep the rest of the army uniform, or you'll draw the eye away from the centrepieces. +

+ Currently the pistol is the focal point – not necessarily as planned. +
+ As an example, consider this Blightbringer. On an individual level, I want the bell to be the focal point, as it's his 'thing', but there's too little contrast there at the moment, and too much on the plasma pistol. To fix this, I'll have to play around. I have the choice of incorporating the pistol into the composition as a secondary focal point, or I muting the pistol entirely. In either case, the bell needs a lot of work. +

+ To help make the decision, I think in terms of the army's visual composition. As a character, he deserves a little extra to make it clear he's important – particularly in this case, when he's already competing with some very complex and interesting sculpts. I've added some simple detailing to his tabard to reward a closer look (though note it's in the same hues as the rest of the scheme, so as not to be too obvious), but he needs a little more oomph. +

+ As it stands, the plain is to include the pistol as a secondary focal point to lead the eye to the main focus – the bell. In order to do this, I'll mute it a little; perhaps using a dimmer warm orange as an accent colour. I'll balance this by building up another secondary focal point; the handbell on the other side. These secondary focal points will (hopefully) lead the eye upwards to the main bell, then around again, forming a trianglular path for the eye to follow around the model – which subtly echoes the triangular pattern on the tabard. + 



In the +commentarysubmission+ form, WestRider has very acutely noted that the eyes sit in the centre of the triangle the focal points will form, and that a pop of blue-white there would help clarify things. Alas – here my decision to change the head of the sculpt works against me. As you can see, the vision slit is painted to match the others, but the depth of the recess means that it's just not visible except from underneath. +

+ Nevertheless, it's an excellent point, and links back to the use of multiple focal points. Were I able to create a pop here on the head, it would create a fourth focal point (main bell, head, hand bell, pistol), which sounds unwieldy. However, in this example, it wouldn't unbalance the model, as the fourth sits within the 'route' the eye is guided (pistol to bell to bell). +

+ If you are considering multiple focal points, check you can lead the eye effectively at the modelling stage – sometimes the decisions you make with the sculpt can prevent you. +


  1. Good stuff! I've always been fascinated with colour theory and this kind of thing.
    Somewhat on the topic of contrast, do you ever find yourself wanting to merge two similar colours when planning out colour schemes? For example, would you paint parchment or paper the same way as horns or bone if they were on the same model?

    1. Generally, I like different materials to read differently, so I'd avoid painting (say) bone and paper in the same way. However, that doesn't mean they can't be the same colour – you can add differentiation through your use of texture, tone or detail (as in the inload above).

      However, sometimes a very tight scheme (i.e. very restricted palette) will benefit from discipline over realism. In these cases, you might like to try it out; perhaps using blacklining to make it clear that you are delineating the two objects – otherwise they risk blending together and looking confusing.

      On a related note, if I ever get stuck with what colour to paint something, I often ignore what it is, and just use my colour scheme to help. The results are often striking: black parchment, a red skull, or silver skin, for example. I'd never have thought of them in advance, but they often really look very smart.

  2. On the discussion about the eyes, another point there is that when you're doing a messy paint scheme like this, having some of the contrasting details done very neatly, like those eyes are, can help signal to viewers unfamiliar with your painting that the messiness was a deliberate choice, rather than just the result of not being able to paint cleanly.

    On the Blightbringer, I notice that the edges of the eye-slit are more or less on the line of the triangle you're talking about creating. A little bit of blue-white there could help solidify that a bit. Also, Nihilakh Oxide would probably work great for creating more contrast up on the bell.

    1. Excellent points there – and it looks like we're of a mind! I've added a little +APPENDEDIT+ to the inload, as I wanted to address your excellent comment: thank you!

  3. Wow, a truly interesting read -with great examples! Thank you!

    1. Thanks! Good to generate some discussion :)

  4. A bit on contrast. Check out Johannes Itten's stuff on the seven kinds of color contrasts: http://www.worqx.com/color/itten.htm

    1. Interesting stuff – thanks for the heads-up.


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