Saturday, September 1, 2012

Dark Ages Color Palettes

I've been noodling the idea of starting the Dark Ages / Norman Conquest / Normans in Italy / 1st Crusade period, but since it's on the back burner I'm taking my time and planning out how I want to tackle Yet Another Period. I read some really good posts on Model Dad's blog about dark ages dying techniques and color schemes. Using that as a base, I've decided to work out the color schemes for the various armies I might be painting up for my 10th - 12th century Normans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. This is a pretty massive post where I go into historic dyes, hobby paint equivelants, color schemes, and samples. All this and more after the jump.

Fabric Colors of the Anglo Saxon World

I've just started researching Dark Ages color schemes, but I've found Jenny Dean's website a great resource (thanks to Model Dad for pointing me there). Jenny has a number of posts dedicated to Anglo Saxon dying techniques. Along with descriptions of her dying methods and examples of her experimental results, she also drops cool tidbits like this:

"The analysis of dyes in textiles of the early Anglo-Saxon period seems to indicate that reds, like purples, were mainly used for narrow woven bands, headdresses, embroideries and accessories, such  bags, rather than for larger fabrics. Where dyes were used in larger fabrics (and dyes were detected in only one-third of the larger fabrics analysed) these were mainly dyes that give shades of yellow, blue and brown, plus green from blue and yellow dyes used in combination. It is also possible that, at least in the early Anglo-Saxon period, reds and purples were colours reserved for people of high status."

Ms. Dean seems pretty reliable regarding natural dying techniques of early Britain, so I'm going to assume her description of colors and their frequency in the archeological record is accurate. This gives me a good place to start for planning out color schemes (dyed textile images from Jenny Dean's site).

Common Colors(60% of cloth)
Undyed Fabric in Off-white, Gray, Tan, and Brown

Uncommon Colors (30% of cloth)
Yellow, Blue, Brown, and Green

Rare Colors (10% of cloth)
Red, Purple
I had read a bit of wargamer wisdom that said the color green was not available as a dye color during the dark ages, but based on the examples above I feel confident that nearly every color of the rainbow could be produced during the 11th and 12th centuries, and only the saturation and frequency of various shades need to be adjusted on our figures to recreate accurate clothing.

Historically Accurate Hobby Paints

With these Anglo Saxon color samples as my guide, I've tried to find suitable color matches in the Vallejo and Games Workshops line of paints. I'm working from images from the web, and comparing them to the paint samples from the two manufacturers, so I can't promise an exact correlation, but hopefully it's good enough for the tabletop. The Games Workshop colors appear to be more vibrant on the whole, so many of these GW colors would probably need to be desaturated by adding some white or brown to the shade.

Sample Vallejo Games Workshop
Common Colors
883 Silver Gray Rakarth Flesh
918 Ivory Ushabti Bone
837 Sand Light Karak Stone
916 Sand Yellow Zamezi Desert
877 Goldbrown Balor Brown
876 Brown Sand Mournfang Brown
Uncommon Colors
953 Flat Yellow Tau Light Ochre
915 Deep Yellow Yriel Yellow
961 Olive Green Loren Forest
833 German Camouflage Caliban Greent
907 Pale Greyblue Celestra Gray
963 Medium Blue Kantor Blue
Rare Colors
959 Purple Xereus Purple
817 Scarlet Wazdaka Red
911 Light Orange Jokaero Orange

Creating Color Palettes for Dark Ages Armies

Now that I've narrowed down the colors I'll be using for my dark ages figures, I've combined them into a few color palettes.  Although information about warfare during this time is limited, it's unlikely vikings, normans and anglo saxons adhered to any sort of uniform, each man providing his own gear, painted and dyed to his own taste.

On the wargame table though, I find treating each figure as an individual turns the board into a visual mess. My goal was to create a color palette for each army that would visually tie them together, without implying that they were wearing uniforms or livery. I wanted these color palettes to be fairly generic so I could assign them to armies at a later date, so I've gone with four simple color themes based on the seasons of the year.

The common colors will appear most prevalently within each army. One or two uncommon colors may appear as well, with the rare complimentary colors reserved for decorative items and borders on elite figures.

883 Silver Gray 918 Ivory 907 Pale Greyblue 963 Medium Blue 916 Sand Yellow
Rakarth Flesh Ushabti Bone Celestra Gray Kantor Blue Zamezi Desert

918 Ivory 837 Sand Light 915 Deep Yellow 961 Olive Green 959 Purple
Ushabti Bone Karak Stone Yriel Yellow Loren Forest Xereus Purple

916 Sand Yellow 918 Ivory 961 Olive Green 833 German Camouflage 817 Scarlet
Zamezi Desert Ushabti Bone Loren Forest Caliban Greent Wazdaka Red

877 Goldbrown 918 Ivory 876 Brown Sand 953 Flat Yellow 911 Light Orange 817 Scarlet
Balor Brown Ushabti Bone Mournfang Brown Tau Light Ochre Jokaero Orange Wazdaka Red

Painted Examples of Viking Bondi

I'm hoping to start playing SAGA this winter starting with viking and norman warbands. I painted up a few 28mm bondi from Wargames Factory's "Vikings" as samples to see if this technique would work.  When I think of vikings one of the first images that comes to mind is the viking longship with its striking red and white striped sail. 

I decided to assign my autumn color scheme to any vikings I paint up, with particular emphasis on ivory and a rusty red color. The bondi were viking farmers, and unlike the more heavily armored huscarls, the bondi are wearing simple tunics and breeches providing a good range of fabrics to paint up. As lower class warriors, they shouldn't have a large amount of the rare red fabric, but I made sure to include at least one bit of red on each. A red cap on one, but only a simple belt or pouch on the others with some red being incorporated into the simple geometric designs of their shields. I also included a bit of ivory in various tunic borders as well, using the two "team colors" to tie the whole army together.

Viking bondi from Wargames Factory
I still need to paint up more vikings and some opposing normans in a different color scheme, but already I'm happy with the result. By forcing myself to limit the color palette and pay attention to how I could incorporate the ivory and rust red colors I think the end result should appear suitably archaic but with enough pops of color to add visual interest to the game.

Buying Dark Age Vallejo Paints Online 

The paints above are available from your FLGS, but my FLGS is pretty lackluster and constantly seem to be out of stock. I tend to order more frequently from Amazon and The War Store and a number of the paints mentioned above are available there:

918 Ivory Vallejo Model Colors: Ivory #5
883 Silver Gray Silver Grey
916 Sand Yellow Sand Yellow
877 Goldbrown Vallejo Model Colors: GoldBrown #126
876 Brown Sand Brown Sand
963 Medium Blue Vallejo Model Colors: Medium Blue #57
953 Flat Yellow Flat Yellow
961 Olive Green Vallejo Model Colors: Olive Green #82
817 Scarlet Scarlet
959 Purple Purple
911 Light Orange Vallejo Model Colors: Light Orange #22

There are also a few paint sets that offer a good place to start if you need to pick up more than a few bottles of paint to add to your collection.

Panzer Aces Wood & Leather
The Vallejo Wood and Leather set contains a variety of earth tones, a great place to start for the common colors that appear in dark age armies.

The Vallejo Earth Tones set  looks like it provides a good initial set of muted natural colors too.

Amazon's Vallejo Game Colors Paint Set: Undead
The War Store's Vallejo Game Colors Paint Set: Undead
The undead set comes with a metallic silver and bronze, white and black as well as a shade of red, parchment, purple and violet. Along with a few individual bottles of earth tones, this seems like a good basis for a generic dark ages color palette.


  1. Very interesting and very helpful. Many thanks for this post.

  2. As one of the very last people to jump on the Saga bandwagon, I remembered your post and I'm using it to help in color selection for my first Viking warband. It's a bit of a struggle making the jump from 15mm to 28mm AND trying to pick subdued colors but this helps. So, thanks for your hard work!

  3. Oh, awesome Monty! Glad it's helpful! Looking forward to seeing your axe-wielding raiders :)

  4. Excellent resource, just what I needed for the lead pile of unpainted Gripping Beast Saxons staring at me from the desk :-). Regards, Mark

  5. Thank you for assembling this great guide.

  6. for cheap order go on becareful stock is not always good but prices are low!

  7. I think it's awesome how the vallejo colours are like exact but the closest one available from GW are like way off. Though the over saturated colours do look good at table viewing distance.

    1. Agreed the GW paints aren't exact matches, but for someone new to the hobby, or transitioning from GW games to historicals they might be the only thing on hand. I think adding a little brown, black or white to a GW color could mute it enough to look appropriate. Thanks for the comments, hope my guide was useful!

  8. Thank you.

    I've enjoyed reading this post and found it very interesting and informative.

    I still like Blood Red!


  9. This article is brilliant! Have just finished glueing my fingers together, I mean creating my Viking army, undercoated it, and was then starting my search for pictures and articles on what colours I should use for the clothing - I am now thinking to split the army into warbands, each having a different seasonal palette.

    1. Excellent! Glad the article proved useful! I just finished up some Norman foot in my "summer" palette (with a few spots of blue) if you'd like to see the end result of these color schemes:

  10. This is great. I wish I'd read it before assembling my "all-foot-factions" SAGA army. What are your views on early tartans/stripey tops for celtic types and stripey pants (trousers) for germanic types?

  11. Thanks! Glad it was useful! I think there's an assumption to view the dark ages as peopled by primitive folk, barely scraping out an existence amongst the blood, mud and ruin of a post-Roman apocalypse. I'm not an archeologist or scholar, but I think that's a mistake.

    Humans have always sought to spend time and money on art and fashion for their own aesthetic delight as well as social currency among their clan/tribe/village/class. We know that the people of the ancient world wove intricate patterns into cloth (the purple hems of Iberians, the colorful paint and design of Celtic shields, the riot of color recently detected on Greek sculptures, etc.). And if you look at evidence in contemporary sources like the Bayeux Tapestry you can see that there are at least colorful cloaks, tunics and hose with collars and belts of different color. I'd be very surprised if the same desire to show off didn't crop up amongst people living during the dark ages. Stripes and borders seem very likely, and I could believe that the use of tartan as a mark of clan pride is something that has a very ancient and unbroken lineage.

    My ancient celts all have tartan pants. My germans and even some vikings sport stripey pants. We're not creating static dioramas to be completely historically accurate (such a thing is going to be impossible anyway), but using some artistic license to add drama to the battles we are recreating. Does it feel right? Does it look right? That's all that matters.

    Just shy away from putting blue face paint on your 13th century Scottish knights and you should be fine ;)

  12. very useful, had found the Fabric colours but the colour match to Vallejo takes a lot of the hard thinking work out, much appreciated

  13. Great post, this will help painting Saxons and Normans, bookmarked.

  14. I cant thank you enough for your work. I just bought my first Footsore vikings and i was overwhelmed trying to get myself into the hobby. But with your research on historically accurate colors you have contributed so much to my learning curve. Thanks for your time and effort.

  15. very helpful. thank you