Getting the most out of GW’s Contrast paints

Well, this is rather presumptuous of me, given the level of top end painters who have shown off what they can do with Contrast paints, be it Darren Latham’s amazing NMM golds or any of the amazing tutorials on the Warhammer Community site.  Having said that … I think there are a lot of painters like me, who wouldn’t class themselves as top end painters,  but are struggling to get the most of out Contrast.

From my perspective, there are two main areas you need to look at to get the most from contrast paints by themselves, and then you can also look at moving beyond contrast paints by adding a little something extra with other paint techniques after contrast too.

First, contrast is a translucent paint that is designed to recede from edges and heavily pigment recesses.  That means, first and foremost, your choice of primer makes a massive difference to the outcome. 

1.  Primer

Well, for the contrast paints to flow properly, the primer has to be smooth.  If you get a grainy undercoat, the contrast paint will lock between the grains and you won’t get any sort of decent shade at all, regardless of the colour.  Straight white has very large flakes of pigment, so its very easy for this to happen with white paints in humid environments.

Next, the choice of colour will make a massive difference, and can deal with one of the constant criticisms of contrast paint I hear.  Contrast paints as recommended by GW go straight over their wraithbone primer for a slightly warm vibrant shade. While more nuanced,  it’s roughly the equivalent of using a bright white primer, using vibrant layer paints, then putting a light coat of a sepia wash like Agrax Earthshade on it.   That’s very different to the grim dark tones that have been mostly popular over the last year.

Now, I started painting in the 80s when white primers and vibrant colours and pageantry was the order of the day!  I rather like that.  But you don’t have to use Wraithbone.  If you start with a grey primer (like halfords grey primer, or mechanicus grey), you get a fantastic muted effect that looks a lot closer to the current palette.  On the flip side, the edges aren’t as effectively highlighted, because the darker grey isn’t as high a contrast in tone with the recesses.

My thoughts on different primer combinations, from my own experiments and what I’ve seen others do on twitter:

Pure white – really vibrant effects, but hard to get the smooth undercoat.  Thinner contrast flesh tones can look a little washed out over the sharp white.  

Wraithbone – awesome vibrant colours with a warm hint.  An initial wash of agrax can add extra depth while keeping that lovely warm tone and crisp highlights.  Cracking!

Grey Seer – lovely vibrant colours again, but the cooler tone can leave flesh tones seeming a little more cadaverous, which is perfect for things like admech.  An initial wash of nuln oil can add extra depth while keeping that cooler, tone and the crisp highlights.  Brilliant!

Mechanicus Grey/Halfords Grey – muted colours, and the highlights aren’t as crisp, but we’re right in the colour tone for standard painting over black undercoats now.  An initial drybrush of wraithbone or Grey Seer depending on warm or cool notes will bring those highlights up really crisp while preserving the more muted vibrancy of the colours in general.  Perfect if you want to come closer to matching existing forces.

Leadbelcher – now we’re talking amazing coloured metals, with a metallic sheen thing through the translucent paints.   Absolutely amazing colours metal effects – using blues over silver for deep cool metallic blues is just fabulous, as are greens for classic chaos warrior effects.  Superb!  Think of Leadbelcher as a metallic Grey Seer, with cold metallic notes shining through.  An initial nuln gloss wash or shining silver drybrush (or both!) really takes this up a note to make it really pop.

Retributor Armour – More coloured metals!  Think of Retributor as a metallic Wraithbone, with warm metallic notes shining through.  An initial fleshshade gloss wash (or agrax gloss) with a light gold or silver drybrush really takes this up a whole other level for effectiveness.  Brilliant!

2.  Applying Contrast paints effectively

Let’s get the condescending part out of the way.  Contrast paints are a pain to clean up on your model, so you need pretty tidy brush work to get the most out of them.  If you slap dark contrast colours everywhere, you’ll need to repaint any overlaps with paint matching your undercoat, and that’s very time consuming, especially if you’ve gone an extra notch on your model by drybrushing or washing your undercoat first.

But it isn’t that hard!  I find contrast paints really nice to work with.  They are a really good consistency straight out of the pot, and apply like a paint, rather than running everywhere like a wash or shade.  The mistakes I see people making when applying contrast paints are:

  • Thinning with water – this is a major no no, and the contrast paints won’t flow right at all.  I even make sure my brush is pretty dry every time I clean it off.  If you want to thin the contrast down for a lighter colour, use contrast medium.  Add water, and it stops being contrast, and turns into a very expensive runny glaze.
  • Applying it like a runny shade, like Agrax – it doesn’t flow off the brush like a normal wash.  If you run a big brush over an area quickly, you’ll end up with areas of primer visible in recesses that haven’t been touched by the brush.  Let’s be clear – you apply it as if you were applying a normal base coat, in general.  You can use it as a heavy wash over another colour with the translucent nature – but you apply it like a normal paint.  I tend to fall for this one myself still!
  • Applying too much – this normally comes because someones either trying to apply it like agrax with loads on the brush, or because they haven’t checked into how to apply contrast and have taken the “One thick coat” line used when discussing it literally.  One thick coat means that if you have picked the right contrast colour for the job, you can apply it in one carefully applied coat straight from the pot.  It doesn’t mean you’re trying to make it extra thick.
  • Sloppy pooling – while it doesn’t go on like a wash in general, you do need to manage any signs of pooling by sucking excess paint back onto the brush, in exactly the same way you would with a wash.  And it dries faster than a wash, so you need to manage pooling faster.  I find breaking the application down to smaller sections helps me get better coverage and deal with any issues before moving on to the next.  Do one arm and check it over before moving onto the next, for example, rather than trying to cover both arms and legs in the same colour before checking it.
  • Not cleaning the brush enough – contrast can dry quite quickly, and is thinner than the paint many of use, though we probably should be thinning it more there 😉  Its important to clean the brush often or the paint can be sucked up and dry at the base of the brush, especially as contrast can dry deceptively fast compared to a wash.  If you don’t keep the brush fresh, your accuracy will get hammered quickly.
  • Shake the damn pots properly – contrast, more than almost any other paint, separates like mad.  It’s really what its designed to do on the models, so its no surprise.  But shake the pots up well or you get some bloody odd results.

How can you help yourself when applying contrast paints?  Darker contrast paints cover light ones really well!!  That means if you structure your painting from light paints to dark, being increasingly careful, you can really minimise any need to do any cleanup at all.

That doesn’t come to us naturally.  Normally with paints we paint from the lowest parts of the model up to the highest as its a little easier in terms of brushwork and clean up.  You need to forget that with contrast paints, apply them carefully, and go from light to dark to maximise the effectiveness.

In addition, you need to pick the right contrast paints.  Some paints give a much more washed out effect than others.  This is, I believe, by design.   There are light blues that seem too light and washed out but work brilliantly for tau skin, and magos purple seems designed for Genestealer Cultist flesh tones, not a deep purple.  Understand your paints before you apply them.  They each have a main goal in mind, I think, and are designed to be used out of the pot for that.  You can thin with contrast medium.  You can wait for it to dry and apply a second coat.  Always try the colour out before using it in anger or you can be very disappointed.

I love painting with contrast paints.  For me, applying paint quickly and neatly enough is fun, and because I see the model come to life without the “this looks terrible stages of base coats and highlights”, it maintains my interest painting the same colour over larger numbers of models.  My accuracy stays far higher than doing base coats normally, as I get bored and slop it on when I don’t get that instant result.

Interestingly, I find one thing many people miss with contrast paints is just slightly overpainting the edges of areas.  With the way contrast pools in the recesses and runs away from edges, its easy to have gaps between colours.  Running just slightly over gives you some lovely recess shading with minimal work, but just requires a light touch.  If you are just using contrast paints, remember you won’t be filling that gap with a later wash!

My final tip for application involved brushes.  Again, treat contrast a bit like a normal paint.  If it’s a delicate area, put it on with a smaller brush.  I find a size 2 brush with a decent point is working brilliantly for me generally, but I will happy use a smaller brush for smaller areas.  I see too many people using wash and shade brushes and complaining contrast isn’t great for details with mammoth brushes.   Interestingly, I find Contrast works better for me with a squirrel hair brush than the traditional sable, though both work just fine.  

Oh, and if you put a few areas of different primer on your contrast lids, then cover it with that contrast paints, you’ll know what it’ll look like.  The colour in the pot is way off!

3.  Going beyond Contrast

Honestly, though I love contrast … you can really improve your minis with a few extra touches.  

The first main area for me is metallics (assuming you haven’t done a metallic primer, of course!).  Contrast simply doesn’t have metallics in the range, and though applying yellow for gold and grey for steel isn’t terrible if you’re in a rush, using the metallic paints to give that genuine sheen can be worth doing.  Plan your contrast paints around the metal going on, and you can often find that you can speed up a lot of your painting as if the metal parts are going to get overpainted carefully, you can slap the other colours on faster around the awkward bits.  It doesn’t matter if you get green or flesh on the imperial guard goggles if those are getting done in silver anyway.  Again, careful planning reduces the clean up.  5 minutes before applying the paints can save you hours of touching up later.

The second main area is your initial assembly.  Contrast paints almost entirely rely on recess painting, and despite the marketing about “one thick coat” actually apply incredibly thinly, highlighting all the details on the model.  And that includes your mould lines, stubs from sprue cuts, and everything else.  A lot of that is often hidden slightly with traditional painting, especially if its slapped on a bit thicker than it should be.  Well, that isn’t happening with contrast – so spending a little extra time on the build will really pay off for the final outcome.

Third …. you don’t have to stick at contrast paints!  Do eyes with normal paints for coverage and control!  Apply extra edge highlights to increase the colour contrast and make hard edges pop even more!  Add a few details in over the top of bigger contrast areas, like buckles or buttons with normal paints.

Fourth …. a really nice trick can be to use a contrast paint more than once for depth, combining it with dry brushing or edge highlighting with the primer colour first to exaggerate the depth of colour from the recesses to the edges.  This can be amazingly effective, and can also combine colours really well.  If you use a dark contrast paint, drybrush it with the primer, then go over it with a lighter colour, you can really get some brilliant effects like light green edges over shaded black models, an amazing effect on Drukhari, for example. 

There will be loads more ways to add to models painted with contrast and to use contrast to improve your overall painting.  Hopefully this gives you a bit of an idea on using contrasts in simple, effective ways to speed up your painting, look effective in different ranges, and look at ways to take it forward too!

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