Complementary colours in the Viking Age

In my last post, I wrote abit about the range of colours available from natural dyes in Anglo-Saxon England.  Whilst this gives wargamers a pallete from which to work, I’ve noticed that the best painters skillfully combine these colours to produce outstanding results.  Whilst I can’t match this standard of painting, I think I understand some of the basic principles that make such colour schemes work.

The colour wheel or colour circle is the basic tool for combining colours and was first designed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666. The colour wheel is made up of primary, secondary and tertiary colours.  Figures painted with the primary colours of red, yellow and blue can be pretty intense:

Fortunately, primary colours can be combined to make the secondary colours green, orange and purple.    Tertiary colours are formed by mixing primary colors with secondary colours and commonly include amber (yellow–orange), vermilion (red–orange), magenta (red–purple), violet (blue–purple), viridian (blue–green), and chartreuse (yellow–green).

Why am I boring for with all this?  Well, by following some basic rules you can produce some pleasing results.

It comes as no surprise that colours on opposite sides of each other on the colour wheel are considered to be complementary colours:

As the Viking bondi above show, the high contrast of complementary colours creates a vibrant look.  Complementary colour schemes can be tricky to use in large doses, but work well when you want something – or someone – to stand out.  Copying one of the paint-jobs on the Gripping Beast website (itself a derivative of the Angus McBride’s painting of a 12th Century Siculo-Norman knight, c. 1130), I used this principle in the base colours of my Warlord’s conical helmet:

Analogous colour schemes use colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel.

Analogous colour schemes are generally quite harmonious and can include two or more adjacent colours.  Choose one colour to dominate with a second to support.  Make sure you have enough contrast.  I’ve applied this principle to one of my Comitatus’ leggings and shield rim:

Triadic colour schemes use colours evenly spaced around the colour wheel:

Triadic colour schemes tend to be quite vibrant, even if you use pale or unsaturated     colours as I’ve tried to do here in the base colours for the helmet, cloak and tunic:

To use a triadic harmony successfully, the colours should be carefully balanced to let one colour dominate and the other two accentuate.

Things start to get clever with split complimentary colour schemes where the base colour is used alongside two colours adjacent to its complement:

This color scheme has the same strong visual contrast as the complementary                 colour scheme, but with less tension.  The nearest I’ve come to applying this principle in practice is on the shield of another of my Hearthguard: 

Shields can be important part of a figure and you can see here that I’ve opted for muted analogous colours for the leggings in deference to the red-blue-yellow busyness of the shield.

Your options don’t stop there.  You can opt for rectangle (tetradic) or square colour schemes, but I’ve yet to apply these to my figures:






This rich colour scheme offers plenty of possibilities for variation but works best if, like the examples above, you let one colour be dominant.

Whilst following these schemes will give you complementary colour schemes, it doesn’t guarantee an historical outcome.  The range of dyes available in the Viking Age rarely produced colours as vibrant as those illustrated in the wheels above.  By means of a summary, I’ve found the following colour wheel useful to work from as it includes a range of less saturated tints, shades, and tones more appropriate to the naturally derived colour pallete of Anglo-Saxon England:

In the third and final piece in what now appears to have become a mini-series after a relative drought (doh!), I’ll explore how I’m thinking of combining the natural colours of Anglo-Saxon England with the priniciples of colour combination and what we know from the archaeological and historical records to produce what I hope will be a relatively convincing warband, or two.

10 Responses to “Complementary colours in the Viking Age

  • Scott Dallimore
    6 years ago

    Outstanding! Thanks for sharing.

    • Glad you liked it Scott, send us some photos of your figures!

  • Thanks so much for a very useful couple of articles.

    • No problem, glad it was useful. Good to see some chaps from the Saga forum over here 🙂

  • Great article, bookmared it for future reference 🙂

  • A fantastic article, relevant across a wide field of interest. I work as a designer and even I had not heard of one of these examples, namely the split complimentary colour scheme.

    Outstanding job Dr. J

  • Very informative article. Thank you very much.


    • No problem, welcome to the site and thanks for the feedback.

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