Painting with Contrast: Nothing to Fear…

Fear is a powerful motivator.  Fear can keep us from harm, it can force us to plan ahead.  But fear while painting is a burden that keeps an okay paint job from becoming a remarkable one.

Too often when I am painting I have the same thought:  “This looks good, I should stop now before I screw it up.”  I think this same fear holds back a lot of beginner painters.  You lay down a nice base coat, blend in a shade and a highlight and it looks okay up close.  Meanwhile on the tabletop it goes from okay to boring.  From arm’s length you can’t see that first subtle shade or highlight, it’s just a solid color.

I am here to tell you that we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.  “…I should stop now before I screw it up”?  What kind of talk is that?  It’s a small lump of metal, not peace-talks between warring nations.  The next time this thought holds you back think to your self: “What if I do screw it up?  What will really happen?”  There are three simple choices:

  1. Live with it!  Take it as a learning experience and move on.  Look back at it months from now and use it as a guide-post for how far your skills have developed.
  2. Fix it!  As long as you’ve been painting with thin, even layers of paint there should be lots of room to paint the base back over the whole section and try again.
  3. Start over!  Dip that model in some Simple Green and watch your troubles dissolve.

So put your fears at ease.  At worst you’ve lost some time on that model, but really that time wasn’t lost; it was spent learning.  Take a lesson from what went wrong and keep moving forward.  A little confidence goes a long way, and while you build that confidence just know that mistakes are fixable and they help you learn.  Most often you’ll find that by pushing yourself beyond the moment of fear will not result in failure, but in a better looking model.

This type of fear strikes me most when I am highlighting and shading.  Those who read the Ghool’s Graveyard review of my pCaine will recall that the most common issue was the lack of contrast.  In other words: I need brighter highlights and darker shades.  Had I been less worried about screwing up the work I had already done, I would have had a competition worthy model.

As long as I’ve already brought up my pCaine review, let’s look at an even more questionable paint job I did several months ago.  If you’ll recall NQ #35 had a challenge titled “Spoiles of War”, where you paint a Mercenary ‘jack up in a faction’s colors.  Here is a Nomad I painted up in Cygnar colors.

Classic Boring Paint Job

Now if you look really close you’ll see the barest of highlighting and shading on this model.  It’s a clean paint job, it’s using nice colors, but it’s so boring your eyes just slide off it.  The blues, the yellows, even the metals are bland.  Fear got to this Nomad and it’s painter.  In person, up real close you will see some bland edge highlights and a bit of shading on the undersides of things, but that’s it.  The range of blues is probably only from Exile Blue to Cygnar Blue Highlight.  That leaves a lot of ground to be covered on either end of the spectrum.

Shades! Highlights! Contrast!

The Journeyman above shows what shaking off fear and really shooting for high contrast can do.  Check out the shoulders: the tops are extremely bright, while the bottoms are very dark. The top of the chest plate, abdomen plate and knee plates all show edge highlighting that pops.  The edge highlights are done with pure Frostbite! Glance back at the Nomad, he didn’t even get above Cygnar Blue Highlight.  The leathers, the denim, the gold chest piece, they all have a nice range of contrasts.  Even from tabletop distances this model pops out and catches the eye.  The range here goes from Exile blue mixed with Battlefield Brown all the way up to pure Frostbite.

So go forth, be not afraid and paint with confidence and contrast.  Honestly, what’s the worst that could happen?




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  1. althai said:

    The journeyman could still use more contrast! I might start with some brighter edge highlights and darklining.

  2. DieselDM said:

    Do either of you have a model sporting Cygnar blues with the wider range of contrast you’re discussing? Link us up some pictures so we can see!

  3. GhoolGhool said:

    Bring your blues to almost pure white on the uppermost highlight, and add some Battlefield Brown to Exile Blue for your deepest shade. You need to go from almost black, to almost pure white.

  4. DieselDM said:

    As I mentioned in the article I used a range from Battlefield Brown/Exile Blue up to pure Frostbite. This range is taken from the FoW:Cygnar book. Though FoW recommends the final highlight being a mix of Frostbite and Cygnar Blue Highlight, I went a step further just the Frostbite.
    As always at some point it becomes a matter of personal taste.
    For an additional comparison interested readers can check out the two painted Journeyman Warcaster sculpts in the back of FoW:Cygnar. The male JW uses a fairly dark palette, while the female JW uses a much brighter palette.

  5. Andreas said:

    I definitely suffer from the contrast fear when I paint. I know it looks better with more contrast but quite often I end up at the bland boring stage anyway.

  6. DieselDM said:

    It’s a tough thing to work through. You might try working up to it in stages. On your next model add one additional darker shade. Then next time add in a lighter highlight, and back and forth until you get a good contrast going. Each time you add a darker or lighter color you’ll appreciate the improvement enough to spur you on to that next level.

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