Color Theory For Miniature Painting - Part 1, The Wheel

“Light is a thing that cannot be reproduced, but must be represented by something else – by color.” – Paul Cezanne

“Color helps to express light, not the physical phenomenon, but the only light that really exists, that in the artist’s brain.” – Henri Matisse

“Everything that you can see in the world around you presents itself to your eyes only as an arrangement of patches of different colors.” – John Ruskin

Color theory encompasses a multitude of definitions, concepts and with applications in traditional art, photography, print, design and of course Miniature Painting. There is a multitude of information in print and media, enough to fill a library.

There are three basic categories of color theory that are essential for the miniature painter : The color wheel, color harmony, and context.

Color theories create a logical structure for color. For example, we could have a squad of space marines all from different coloured chapters, we can organize them by color and place them on a circle that shows the colors in relation to each other.

Fig 1 The Colour Wheel

The Color Wheel

Fig 1. Shows a color circle, based on red, yellow and blue (outer ring), is traditional in the field of art. The wheel pictured is in fact the same wheel I keep by me for reference, you could save the image to your phone for easy look up or you can purchase one here.

The wheel was first developed by Sir Isaac Newton (yes the same guy who discovered gravity) developed the first circular diagram of colors in 1666. Following this scientists and artists have studied and designed numerous variations of this concept. Differences of opinion about the validity of one format over another continue to provoke debate. In reality, any color circle or color wheel which presents a logically arranged sequence of pure hues has merit.


There are three definitions or categories of colors based on the color wheel.

Fig 2. Primary Colors

Fig 2. Primary Colors

Primary Colors: Red, Blue and Yellow
There are three primary colors. Red, Blue and Yellow. These three colors are the hues that in theory can be mixed to make all other colors. If you mix the three colours, it would produce black. Primary colors are the 3 pigment colors that cannot be mixed or formed by any combination of other colors. All other colors are derived from these 3 hues. 

Fig 3. Secondary Colors

Fig 3. Secondary Colors

Secondary Colors: Green, Orange and Purple
These are formed by mixing the three primary colors.

Fig 4. Tertiary Or Intermediate Colors

Fig 4. Tertiary Or Intermediate Colors

Tertiary Or Intermediate Colors: Yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green & yellow-green
These are made by mixing adjacent primary and secondary hues. The six tertiary or intermediate colors are yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet, red-orange, and yellow-orange.

The names for the tertiary colors always begin with the primary color then the secondary color; yellow-orange not orange-yellow, for example.