Compare and Contrast

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As a conservative estimate, I’m going to guess that 80% of the miniature painters reading this (and 100% of the person writing it) have received feedback that their miniature ‘needs more contrast’. Contrast is the real bugbear of our hobby, more fearsome by far than the monster so named! I recently worked on a miniature that gave me a perfect example of what more and less contrast look like compared to one another.

Usually when miniature painters refer to contrast, they mean the range of contrast between the darkest value of shadow in an area, and the lightest value of highlight. There are actually upwards of a dozen different kinds of contrast you can use to separate different areas of a figure and draw attention to your focal point(s). I have an overview of the various kinds of contrast, and I hope to explore them in more detail in the future. But as true as that is, it is also true that the range of contrast between highlights and shadows is vital in miniature painting, and something that is an ongoing struggle for most of us. I’ve been fighting to get more contrast into my painting pretty much since day one!

The figure below is a Victorian era miniature that is one of a small set. I started painting her at least three years ago, possibly longer. I was pretty happy with her at the time of painting, particularly with her face. I knew she needed another colour somewhere, but I put that and the figure aside since I wanted to have all of the figures in the set mostly painted so I could work on all of the bases together. While I was at ReaperCon, I started painting one of the other Victorian ladies. And when I came home and put her beside this older one, it really struck me how much duller and less contrasted the older one looked. So I decided to do a little work on the older figure.

Vic1 combo faceOn the left, the figure as painted in 2015 (or earlier). On the right, the figure with a few hours of touching up to add more contrast. Revising the painting of a figure like this is a much less scary prospect than I once thought it was. Once you have your basic values established, it’s not as tricky to go in and fiddle with colour or adjust contrast as you might imagine. 

I’m hoping that this is a pretty good demonstration of what we mean by ‘needs more contrast’ and ‘darker shadows, lighter highlights’. Of course there is a certain amount of to taste with this. There may be those among you who feel that the revised version is too highly contrasted. But I think most of us will agree that the original version is just too blah. The face isn’t too bad, and the contrast between the light colour of the face and dark colour of the clothing really helps it to stand out, but the details of the folds and ribbons in the cloth get lost without the contrast. 

NOTE: I could not find my notes on the colours I used, so I attempted to reconstruct them when doing these painting revisions. I guessed right on the teal. I picked different colours for the purple/magenta. While I do like the original colour a bit better, this is a useful demonstration that you can tweak and paint over things without having to be too worried about matching the colour exactly. You just need to be in the same colour family and place the light and dark values in roughly the same areas. (In this case, also tweaking them for more contrast.)

Vic1 wip combo backThe sculpted detail is a lot more apparent with the greater contrast between highlights and shadows.

You might also note that the blending on the revised one isn’t perfect. I’m working on having more than one style of painting. I’m trying to develop a level that I hope still looks good, but takes less time to execute. There are so many things I want to paint! The contrast is more important than the blending. Photographing painted miniatures and sharing them on online makes it easy to forget how miniatures are most often viewed and used – at arm’s length. Whether it’s an entry into the Crystal Brush or your character mini in your favorite role-playing game, the first task of a paint job is to make the character of the figure and the various items and elements of the sculpt visually apparent at two feet away. The photo shown above is 4-5 times larger than life size. Let’s take a look at this figure again at something much closer to life size.

Vic1 combo face smallWell, that really puts things into a different perspective, doesn’t it? Whether you’re entering a figure into a contest or plunking it down on a table, you want the paint job to wave at the viewer from a distance and say hey, look at me closer!

Ideally a paint job will have qualities to be appreciated at both distances – at arm’s length, and up close and personal in the hand or in a photograph. So working on blending for smooth areas and other cool textures for different materials is very important. But if you don’t have enough contrast to grab the viewer’s attention, they’re never going to take a close enough look to fully appreciate all the other things you’ve worked on in the figure.

One more set of pictures that might help view the contrast changes in a different way. I first worked on the face, using paint I had on the palette for another figure. The next session, I touched up the dress. I apparently forgot the colours I originally used and didn’t write them down as I usually do. But since I was in the ballpark and matching values, the fact that I was using different colour mixes didn’t cause me any real trouble in doing the touchups. I could go over it with a glaze to shift it closer to the purple it originally was, but I’m waiting to see what colours I end up using on the third Victorian lady before I take that step. Lastly I went back over the teal portions of the figure. I still need to introduce a third colour and do some final touches, like adding a bit more colour variation to the face, but I figured it was would be more helpful to people to compare the original version with a version painted to the same stage rather than fully completed.

Vic1 wip combo 1000Left: as painted three years ago. Second to left: repainted face. Third to left: repainted dress. Right: repainted hood, ribbons, and underskirt.

Hopefully that is a helpful insight into what a miniature looks like with more (or less) contrast. I have a series of posts with advice for methods you can use to increase the amount of contrast in your own work.

What are your experiences battling with the contrast bugbear? Or are you that rare painter who doesn’t get told they need more contrast in their work? Let’s talk about contrast in the comments!

Grey divider edit


This figure is available in metal along with a second Victorian woman:
The base was made using a herringbone brick press mould:

7 thoughts on “Compare and Contrast”

    1. Wield your brush with determination and smite that wily foe! (And boy do I constantly have to struggle through this fight, too! The before example should be a lot older than three years seems like…)

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I love your point that most minis are seen at a arm’s length. Sometimes when I paint a mini, I think I nailed it! Then I photograph it to post it and get very disappointed.
    I’m working on photographing during the process to catch small errors before I think I’m “done”. But this article, and the recent one about not having to reach perfection have really made me feel better!
    So thanks!!
    And she’s gorgeous by the way. I love that color combination.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so sorry that I took a few days to approve this! Normally I get an email when there’s a new comment, but I must have missed the email on this one. Yeah it’s definitely a challenge to paint for both viewing distances. I spent a lot of years focused too much on the up close distance and I struggle to get enough pop and contrast in for the arm’s length distance. It’s good to strive, but definitely don’t let yourself get dragged down by chasing the impossible dream of perfection!


  2. I’m particularly interested in the tension between painting camouflage (e.g. on contemporary and 20C historical figure) and the need for contrast.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I face a similar issue when painting animals. Most animals have fur/scale/feather patterns designed to blend into their surroundings. On top of that, a lot of animals are palest on their bellies and darkest on their backs, which is opposite to how we normally handle things with contrast and lighting. There’s always something to try to figure out how to master with miniature painting!

      For both situations it may be that some types of contrast are going to work better than others to both give a realistic air but still accomplish the artistic goals of drawing the eye around. (Contrast with complementary colours, warm vs. cool colours, textures, stuff like that.)


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