Painting in a desaturated style

Kyssa rocking that desaturated look

Regular followers will know that I am generally focused on cranking out models fast to a high tabletop quality. I embrace shortcuts like metallic sharpies, airbrushing, drybrushing and of course Contrast paints. These methods have given me a certain style that is somewhat identifiable and has become habitual enough that attempting other styles can be a challenge. A buddy on instagram @hobbygoblinjoe recently sent a request out for a method of painting desaturated looking miniatures and I thought - my time has come!!!

What is Desaturated?

Before we dive into the weeds, let's bore you with a bit of art theory. I am not gonna go crazy here but just summarize so we are hopefully on the same page as we work through this. Colours have 3 basic elements that artists tend to talk about to describe what they see. First we have hue - this is 'red' 'yellow' 'blue' but also 'bluey-brown' etc. Second there is Light (or value) - a measure of how white or black the colour is. The third is Saturation and this is what we care about here. So what is 'saturation'? This is a measure of the 'strength' of the colour. An example of this is 'salmon pink' vs 'hot pink':

Both are clearly pink, neither is notably 'lighter' or 'darker' than the other - the difference here is colour saturation. This is basically 'how much' of the colour is there - the hot pink is a stronger pink, has more pink pigment and is more saturated. This is a great article that goes into more detail if you want further reading.

This is actually a look that I was stuck in for a long time and really really disliked. It works in a few niche cases such as a Blanchitsu vibe but creating whole armies, like I am often doing, is a problem. Desaturated minis don't tend to shine from a distance - for that you really want vibrant, saturated colours. Necrons are a really great study in what I mean. Take the classic Steel and Green 'Rons. They pop on the tabletop, but remove that rich, saturated green? The whole thing falls flat.

So why did I get stuck with desaturated looking minis? Well one of my main techniques for painting is based on the 'grisaille' style of painting. I was introduced to this by the great Matt DiPietro who really popularised the adoption of this classic art style (really an instructional tool rather than a style) into mini painting where he dubbed it as 'Sketch style'. The idea is to fully paint the model in greyscale, getting all the shading, light and dark into place. Once this is complete - overlay it with thin glazes of color - simple!


Ok so the technique is simple and it works very well but there are caveats. The biggest of these is how important the word glazing is. The more model paint you apply, the more you loose that gradient and if you're working with paint with too much opacity (aka coverage) - this can happen in one or two coats. The flip side is also a concern however - if you thin the paint too heavily - you're not really imparting any color onto the model and it ends up... wait for it... desaturated! BINGO so this is the solution to our problem. (If you want tips on how to master 'Sketch style' I suggest that you learn from the master and check him out on Miniature Monthly's patreon or go and take a class from the man himself.

For this tutorial, I am going to demonstrate my own take on Matt's style - it is a lot less refined and a little quicker to execute. The key difference to my normal style is that I am going to be focused on desaturating more than I would normally shoot for. The nice thing about this process is that it will use exactly the same paints you are normally using, the application method controls the finish.

When scrambling to write this article I had Morgwaeth's Coven sat on the table waiting for some love so we're going to use Kyssa as a nice straight forward model to demonstrate on!

Kyssa primed black

Step 1

For those of you that aren't familiar with the 'zenithal' prime phenomena, this is a two stage prime for any model where you kick things off with a black prime. There are a lot of zenithal skeptics who point out that this is wasted effort when you'll paint over the model completely anyway. There are a few reasons to go with zenithal even if you are painting flat coats over the top however for this process, a zenithal is essential.
Soo tldr; step one - prime black

Kyssa with a zenithal prime

Step 2

The 'zenithal' is applied by spraying a white down from above. This is meant to represent the ambient light on the model. It keeps the black primer in the shaded undersides and brightens up the areas that would collect light. I am fortunate enough to have an airbrush and use Liquitex White Ink airbrushed to apply this. If you don't have an airbrush - you can simulate this with a rattle can. The result isn't as fine but it is doable.
If using a rattle can - ensure the white is REALLY well mixed, spray in short bursts, moving the can across the model in multiple passes - front, back and side until you have a decent coverage with the front a little brighter than the back.

Step 3

We've laid the groundwork for the process, now it's time to apply the colours! We are taking the same paints that you would normally use to paint a model (for this one I used druchii violet for the hair, corvus black and a white ink for the steel nmm, mephiston red for the boots and bodice, mournfang brown and inktense yellow). As mentioned before, the exact paints don't really matter but rather the application. The paints are heavily thinned to be glaze-like, and painted on in thin, even layers. For this saturation I was using 1-2 coats, enough to get a smooth coat but without imparting too much colour saturation and without losing too much of the preshading.

Finish Kyssa
Step 4

So this is something of a secret to help give a model of this style some visual distinction - dark lining. Dark lining or black lining is a thin line of a dark colour between sections of the model to visually distinguish them. This is particularly important here because there is less contrast between adjacent colours due to the nature of de-saturation moving all the colours towards grey.

- Raggy, signing out