Painting chaos with contrast

How black is black?

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I've been painting exclusively with Citadel Contrast and Vallejo Xpress Color paints lately. The idea of a high contrast black is a little strange, though. There's no contrast to black, it's just all black. If there's something blacker than black, then the first black wasn't true black. And yet there are high contrast black paints.

Chaos space marines generally wear black armour with gold trim. Normally for chaos marines, it makes sense to just use a black undercoat, and then paint gold trim. I've got several marines painted that way, and it works well.

Chaos space marines with a black undercoat.

For this, though, that wouldn't work because painting high contrast over solid black renders solid black, and anyway for the contrast gold to show up it has to be painted onto something light. I do have a grey undercoat I could use, but in for a penny, in for a pound: I used an undercoat of White Scar.

The first coat of Vallejo Xpress Color's Black Lotus definitely, maybe predictably, came out looking pretty grey. The paint does what it's designed to do, though, and the edges were shaded with the darkest parts of the paint. It looked good, but it didn't look black. It also didn't look grey. I detect a blue tint to Black Lotus, so after one coat it's sort of a bluish gunmetal grey. If you happen to be looking for that, I guess this would be fine, but it's a peculiar kind of grey and I'm not quite sure when I'd want that exact shade myself. Maybe I'll try it on some BattleTech mech miniature, in the future.

The obvious solution is a second coat.

After a second coat, the paint comes out a little darker, and yet still maintains much of its contrast. Obviously there's less contrast, because the surfaces are darker and therefore closer to the shading around the edges. Interestingly, some regions manage to maintain highlights, and those read as a kind of grey or whatever you call a black "highlight".

I think I hadn't expected there to be any highlights after the second coat. I applied a third coat on select areas, and the results were basically the same. There were definite highlights.

True black has no contrast

In the end, I decided that Black Lotus, at least, can't get to true black, at least not in a reasonable number of coats. That's fair, because it's intended as a high contrast paint, and there's no contrast in a 100% shade. The question is whether I care, and the fact is that I don't. I prefer a little variation and texture on my models, and I love the look of high contrast paints.

And anyway, colour is largely cognitive, and at some point black is only black in comparison to some other colur.


Chaos marines have gold trim on their armour, and the miniatures I'm painting also have a sort of tabard cloth showing under some parts of their suit. I painted one Plasma Red and the other Deep Purple, both by Vallejo Xpress Color, and then spent the obligatory 8 hours meticulously painting just the trim in gold.

I don't think I'll ever really be happy with how I paint trim, but my point is that the bright and vibrant accent colours completely changed my perception of just how black the armour was.

Here's an Adeptus Arbites I painted with Black Lotus. He's got similar accents. His shoulder guard was painted with Citadel Nazdreg Yellow (that's the Contrast version of gold), and the red is Vallejo Xpress Color's Plasma Red.

Adeptus Arbites with two coats of Black Lotus.

Matter of perspective

Next to the chaos marines I have painted with Abaddon Black, the lie is exposed a little. Side by side, the Black Lotus miniatures look blue-gray-black. Is it a bad thing? As always, only if you're trying to match.

(I feel like it's weird to try to match normal acrylic paint with a high-contrast paint, though. They do have their distinct looks, which is why, I guess, they co-exist.)

I'm not trying to match those miniatures, so Black Lotus for Chaos is what I'll continue to use. They'll all match each other.

Photos by Seth Kenlon.

Creative Commons cc0.

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