Contrast Paints – Maximised!

Well, after a few months of using contrast paints, I think its worth taking a look at what really works for me with contrast paints, and what I’ve learned through experimentations and from others.  

Let me qualify all of this, though, by saying that painting is a very personal hobby.  While I’ve found this tremendously useful, your mileage may vary.  I’m not going to jump in with tips and tricks, though – I’m going to go systematically through contrast paints, as I’ve found understanding them in some detail has made working with them much more productive.  We’re going to begin with looking at the paints themselves, look at how important the underlying primer or base paint is, then thoughts on methods of applying them, and finally some thoughts on how to work with other techniques rather than just pure contrast to kick things up another notch.

Understanding the Paints

It sounds silly.  Its paint.  You put it on a brush and slap it on a model.  Whats to understand?  Well, if you understand how contrast paints work on the model, how they inter-relate with other paints, washes and shades, and how they are designed to be used, you instantly get two benefits – you know how to get the very best out of them,  and also avoid frustration when a paint doesn’t work for you because you are trying to use it in a way it really isn’t designed for.  This isn’t an in depth technical guide to how the paints work – its a practical hands on look.

Contrast paints use a range of different pigments in a different medium that are designed to separate out, with the darker pigment being drawn into the slower drying recesses as the liquid contracts.  It is designed to separate on the model.  This leads us instantly to the first practical consequence – contrast paints need bloody extensive shaking to fully mix the pigment to get the proper effect on the model.  If you don’t, you’ll get odd tones and often insufficient main colours or contrasting dark colour in the recesses.  You need to shake them much more thoroughly than normal paints.

Another consequence of the nature of the paint is that the paint is designed to separate as the contrast medium dries.  The key to that sentence is the contrast medium.  If you add water, you change the nature of the medium.  It doesn’t separate as much, and starts acting as a wash or glaze.  That’s fine, people say, I don’t need to thin it, so water isn’t going to be a factor.  But how are you cleaning your brush?  Not drying your brush a little after washing it is one of the main reasons I see streaky effects with contrast paints.  A tiny amount of water doesn’t make much difference, but if you have a habit of using a fairly wet brush, it really can damage the contrast effect.

Finally, contrast paints are designed to be applied straight from the pot.  This is one of the factors of the paints that far too few painters step back and think about.  This paint is designed to be used for a specific effect straight from the pot.  It isn’t designed for a particular shade of colour so much as its designed as three shades of colour to achieve a specific goal – a highlight (close to the primer colour), a layer, and  a recess (and the colour visible in the pot tends to be the latter).

If I pick up a pot of Magos Purple, it looks really washed out as a purple.  There’s a reason for that.  This is, I firmly believe, a paint designed to be applied from the pot as a gene stealer hybrid flesh tone.  The colours are spot one for such an result, and the clue is in the name.  This is true of a lot of the range.  You aren’t applying a colour, but an effect designed to work straight from the pot, and if you use a colour designed to be light flesh tones, it needs to be light.  You sometimes need to try the paints out – Shyish Purple is the strong purple for general coverage.  Aethermatic blue can leave you with quite a washed out blue – its really more to add a mysterious blue glow effect over part of the model and designed to pick up the recesses, I think.  Think effects with contrast paints, rather than colours, and you’ll lose that frustration.  And many of the paints are gloriously vibrant – the reds, shish purple, volupus pink.  These are just so much fun to get on a model.  One useful tip – if the colour mentions a space marine chapter, its for space marine armour, and will have excellent vibrant coverage.

You can always wait and add additional layers of the milder contrast paints to get a stronger effect, or thin the stronger ones down with contrast medium (volupus pink mixed 50/50 with contrast medium is an absolutely note perfect colour for Witch Elf Hair, for example), but understanding the reason for the effect in the first place makes things a lot less frustrating.

Putting paint on the model first

Its very easy to jump into contrast paints and not think enough about what goes on underneath the contrast, but the choice of primer determines the entire underlying tone of the finished piece, and is absolutely vital to the end result.  People look at pics of contrast paint over the various primers, choose a primer, based on that, and away they go.  And … well … that’s just not enough to get the absolute best out of contrast.

The reason why primer is so important when working with contrast is basically that contrast paint is thin and translucent, drying more opaque in the recesses and almost transparent on the edges as the medium contracts.  That means two things – the colour show through, which is what changes the tone, but also that the paint has to contract over the primer.  A lot of people don’t pay enough attention to the latter.  You need a smooth primer, and its one of the main reasons to use wraith bone or grey seer as off whites – straight white paint tends to dry grainy.  Almost every single picture I’ve seen on twitter where people have slapped contrast on a mini and said its rubbish has had an obviously grainy primer on first.  Effectively, the paint recedes around the grains rather that the detail on the model.  It breaks the effect.

You also don’t have to stop with a single colour primer.  People tend to spray wraithbone or corax white, maybe add some metallics, and stop.  But you can do just so much more here.  Paint sections grey for dark tones.  Paint flesh in wraith bone for warmth even if the armour looks better with a general grey seer primer.  Drybrush a lighter tone over the primer to get exaggerated highlights.  There’s so much you can do quickly before applying contrast, and it all improves the effect if you understand what you want to achieve, rather than just thinking about getting contrast on quickly.  

A real highlight with contrast paint is zenithal priming, though I think its something a lot of people get wrong.  Contrast needs a tone to show through on the highlights, so doing a traditional black to white gradient ends up with black highlights in places!  It works far more effectively to go mid grey (administratum or halfords), go up to grey seer, go up to wraith bone, then go up to white (corax or halfords), making sure the coats are all smooth.  This looks fantastic, and gives a tremendous lighting effect while contrast takes care of the recess shading.  You can double down with an airbrush by doing multiple light source effects this way in very little time.

Finally, one of the most difficult things with contrast is, frankly, applying contrast paint quickly and effectively.  You usually have an all white or all cream model to start with, and while its easier to see the outlines than with black primer, it is so easy to miss details.  Particularly for larger, more complex models, add a light wash of agrax or nuln oil first.  It makes a massive difference to what you can see on the model, and lets you paint in the sections much more effectively, minimising any time on clean up.

Applying Contrast Paint

We’re now ready to slap some paint on the primed models!  Huzzah!

Let me first address one of the most unfortunate marketing slogans  – “One Thick Coat”.  Its a clever parody of the two thin coats motif used over and over for how to use standard acrylic paints, and with contrast (assuming you have the right paint for the effect), you do indeed just apply one coat from the pot that you haven’t thinned down.

It has led to more contrast screwups I’ve seen on social media than bad priming.  The idea isn’t to apply a thick coat.  The idea is to apply one coat from the pot.  Slapping on contrast is like slapping on a agrax wash – you want enough coverage to apply an overall tone, and to highlight the recesses, but not so much you get the paint pooling all over the model.  A smooth even application is the goal, and the contrast medium will take care of the rest.  Don’t try to apply a thick coat – just one coat from the pot.

Applying contrast itself is an usual art, and quite personal, so please bear that in mind for this next section.

Ideally, you want a brush that holds a reasonable amount of contrast paint in the belly.  When you apply the brush, it feels like you are putting on normal paint, not a wash (despite the fact it looks like a wash).  if you run the brush over raised areas, like you do with a wash, you’ll leave chunks of model unpainted.  You need to approach it like your normal base coat.

The one technique you need to take from applying washes is reducing pooling by sucking up any over application of contrast onto the brush.  If you don’t do this, the application will look patchy and terrible.  

Contrast is hard on brushes.  Because of the way it separates, you will need to stop and clean your brush frequently – and as already mentioned, you’ll want to make sure the bristles are reasonably dry after you clean them.  It doesn’t have to be 100% dry, but any droplets of water that run down the handle will destroy the medium effect.

One of the very interesting things with contrast paint is that darker contrast paints cover lighter ones amazingly well.   Even when people notice this, they often don’t think through the logical consequences.

We’ve been trained for years to paint models from the inner recesses to the outer trim.  It makes sense – if we get paint on the outer bits reaching while reaching the brush through, it doesn’t matter.  Normal paint will just go over all that.  That doesn’t work for contrast though.  Blood Angels Red can’t cover black templar at all, effectively.

Instead, if we plan our approach by colour, painting the lightest colours first, and painting increasingly carefully as we apply darker and darker colours, we can effectively go over the lighter colours leaving almost no trace of the lighter one, without needing to repaint the primer colour to clear it up.  Its tremendously quick compared to re-edging every colour.  In addition, if you have applied a light wash over the primer, picking out areas as you paint is much easier, leading to much fewer mistakes (and also hiding any little gaps between the colours from speed painting).  Its so much more efficient!

Because darker colours overpower weaker contrast colours so much, mixing colours isn’t very effective.  It adds a slight hint of the lighter colour to the darker colour.  Where that is very useful is just adding a tone – a hint of navy to black with leviadon blue mixed with black templar for a judge dredd style dark shiny leather, or wildwood brown with black templar for a warm black leather look.  It still looks black, but the note of colour brings out a difference so you can use the same colour on a model for different areas.

If you want to get more of a mix on lighter colours, i find adding 50% of the main colour, 25% contrast medium and 25% of the tone works well – blood angels red with some shysish purple gives a lovely deep red tone (though Fleshbearers is already brilliant neat!  One area where people complain about contrast is the washed out look for some of the paints – these are fantastic mixed with other paints to add depth to the recesses while not affecting the layer and edge areas of the model.  Look for ways to make the paints work rather than complaining about the deliberate effect.

Using Other Techniques

One of the oddest things I’ve come across with contrast paints is the way so many people seem to see it as all or nothing.  I just use contrast as a tool in the arsenal, though it is the primary tool when speed painting.

However, adding other techniques to the mix really brings up the overall quality, and doesn’t have to add much time.  Have some magic runes?  I have a Morathi with blue runes in the midst of scaly black.  I blobbed aethermatic blue over the runes, painted the bulk of the scales black, then dry brushed over the runes with abaddon black.  It gave crisp, clear, vibrant runes in a tiny amount of time while letting me use Black Templar to paint a massive amount of the model.

Want to improve the depth of colour?  Use contrast over an area, dry brush it white or off white, then put another coat of contrast on.

Want to really make edges pop?  Then do some classic edge highlight key areas that stand out to the eye after getting a quick coat of contrast on the model.  You can highlight after contrast – you don’t just have to use that paint.

Want an edge highlight look in a different colour for a tron effect? Paint the area with black templar or basilicanum grey, dry brush with white, the use a layer of vivid contrast over the top.

My favourite effect at the moment is to use the lighter contrasts over metals (like magos purple over gold – glorious!), then use gloss medium or a gloss wash over that to bring up the shine.  Gorgeous, genuine metallic look with ease.  Aethermatic looks great over bronze!

That’s just a few quick ideas right away, but you get the idea.  Mixing traditional techniques selectively with contrast to add improvement for minimal effort?  Total winner.  They are really a whole new style of painting, so keep trying things out, and focus on what you find works for you …. not that you think Magos Purple looks washed out.

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