The problem with colour is that there's a lot of it, and it's never the same to two different people. It's not even the same to one person under different lighting conditions. I love the topic of colour theory, but when you're just starting out as a miniatures painter, it can be overwhelming to see a rack of 66 colours across the spectrum. Whether you're just starting to paint miniatures, or just looking to buy some paint for a friend, this blog post is my attempt to provide some simple guidance on what to consider buying.
I generally prefer Citadel paint. It's a pretty ubiquitous brand in miniature painting, it's got a great range of colours, and most importantly it pioneered the concept of auto-shading miniature paint. By "auto-shading", I mean that a single paint bottle contains more than one shade of its colour. That sounds like science fiction, but we live in the future and it's a real thing. When you buy, say, Ultramarines Blue in the Contrast paint line, you get a bunch of subtle shades of blue included. When you paint with it, you don't just get a solid monochromatic blue, but blue that's brighter at the peaks of the surface, as if it's being highlighted by the light, and darker in the valleys, as if it's in shadow. Traditionally, a painter could mimic this either manually by painstakingly adding on shades of colour, or quickly by using an ink-like "wash". With Citadel's Contrast paint, though, you get all the best nuance with one coat of paint.
First of all, Citadel has an online and mobile app that guides you through the painting process, including which paint to use for a specific model. This is one of the many reasons I'm a fan of Citadel paint. If you've purchased a set of miniatures from a Warhammer store, then you can buy the paints that go along with those exact miniatures, and you can get a step-by-step tutorial on how to apply them. If you're painting something not from the Games Workshop line of miniatures, you can probably find something similar to it and use those paints and tutorials. For example, I have an elf ranger I'm painting for an upcoming Pathfinder game. I have no idea how to paint this miniature. Green hair? Green clothes? Green skin? I have no idea.
Find an elf miniature, like Legolas or Tauriel from the Lord of the Rings miniatures line, and you get a paint list and a great example of how an elf miniature ought to look.
Maybe you don't paint just elves, and admittedly the Citadel app's suggestions kind of assume you're willing to buy 8 or 9 paints for a single model, or at least a single army. Sometimes, for purely practical reasons (like when your nearest Games Workshop store is an hour away), you have to be the reductionist.
Using my not-quite-Tauriel elf ranger example, the Citadel app suggest Nazdreg Yellow for the "gold areas". Well, first of all my elf may not have gold areas so it may not apply, but assuming it does, how gold is gold? Maybe a little Runelord Brass would work instead, or Imperial Fist, or Ironjawz Yellow.
Something I did for a long while was use Guilliman Flesh, a human skin tone as the name suggests, for leathers and woods, sometimes using a second thin coat to deepen the tone.
The reality of miniature painting is that you can usually anticipate what materials you're most likely going to have to mimic. In a fantasy setting, like Age of Sigmar or Cursed City:
In a scifi or horror setting, like Warhammer 40,000 or Blackstone Fortress:
There are a likely to be a few predictable exceptions, too. For instance, "armour" for some creatures might be the usual sparkly metal. But for your centerpiece Space Marine army, you probably know exactly what chapter you're going to be painting for a long while, so you know what colour you absolutely can't live without.
There may also be surprises along the way. You'll suddenly acquire of a bunch of undead miniatures. Now you need a colour for undead skin.
But 90% of the time, you're painting the same stuff over and over again.
What that means is that you can buy a dozen colours of paint and get a hundred miniatures painted without ever feeling like you're wanting for anything. There's plenty of guidance and beautifully photographed images of Games Workshop product to help you decide what colours you want. It's just a matter of deciding what you need.
What you need: you need black, brown, a skin tone, and the colours of the rainbow, with the primary colour or colours of your army taking precedence.
Here's my Citadel Contrast paint essentials list, consisting of a dozen paints:
This is a very flexible list because there are so many great Citadel Contrast colours to choose from, and your tendency towards a specific faction should influence your investment. I think this a really strong general-purpose list, though, with a paint for every common scenario. More than likely, you'll pick out a miniature, look at it and concentrate on it until you get an idea for a colour scheme (or else you'll look for ideas online or on the Citadel app), and then you just swap out the colours you actually have (the ones on this list) for whatever's been suggested. For my elf ranger, that means her clothes are Ork Flesh green, her skin is Guilliman Flesh, her bow is Guilliman Flesh with a second coat, and maybe she gets some highlights with Aeldari Emerald.
At 13.50 NZD a bottle for 10 Contrast paints plus 2 Base paints, that's about $145 for a dozen paints, and enough to last your for literally hundreds of models.
If you're timidly getting started and you don't feel like investing in a whole rainbow of colours is justified, then here's my basic list. As with the essential list, you may need to adjust what colour you consider a basic requirement depending on what you anticipate painting. If you're building an orc army, for example, then you might not need a human skin tone.
That's just 7 paints. You're using the same brown for skin tone, leathers, and wood, and you have the primary colours (red, blue, yellow) plus a little to round it out (green, silver). At 13.50 NZD a bottle for Contrast and half as much for Base paints, that's $85 for half a dozen paints, which ought to keep you happy for a hundred models. If you're still painting miniatures by then, you'll likely feel justified in adding more colours to your collection, based on what you feel you need.
The luxury option is to open the Citadel app when you buy a box of miniatures, get a list of all the paints recommended, and purchase accordingly.
Heck, there are only 61 paints in the Contrast line. At 13.50 NZD a pot, that's 750 NZD for the full line of Contrast paints, or 365 NZD for half (thanks to a promotional sale, every 10th one is $0, at least as I write this). Converted according to your local currency, it's probably a month of rent or a few nights at a nice hotel. If you've got that to spare, you're living a life of luxury and you now have the paints to prove it.
It's easy to get dazzled and even overwhelmed by all the choices you have in paints. Focus on what you're actually painting, get the colours your models demand, and fill in the gaps later. Citadel Contrast paints are amazing for miniatures, and well worth the purchase if you paint often and want the widest range of colours to choose from.
T'au soldiers photo by Seth Kenlon.