Contrast versus Realism

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My previous post about the need to paint miniature figures with more contrast resulted in a fair amount of discussion on Facebook and some forums. (Feel free to make questions and comments right here on the blog so more readers will see them!) 

People seemed to have two main groups of issues related to contrast. One set of could be summarized as HOW issues – technique related questions of how to build up a lot of contrast while still keeping transitions between highlights and shadows looking good, for example. The other set of comments were more WHY type issues. These are people who feel uncomfortable with a lot of contrast. Most often this is expressed as a desire to paint in a fashion that looks as realistic as possible. So I’m delaying my post of some tips on how to push yourself to paint with more contrast since I think it’s important to make the case for WHY it’s important to do so in the first place.

On the topic of realism… absolutely there is a spectrum of contrast, and there are methods of painting that might be too cartoony or extreme for a particular genre or painter. The image I posted previously might be a level of contrast too extreme for some people to enjoy. (Although I will note that 1 – I was trying to make a clear visual point so I exaggerated a little, and 2 – that is a work-in-progress image. The perception of it will change when all parts of the figure are completed, and it’s very likely that I will do glazing that softens the level of contrast slightly.) I’ll include the figure in question below so you can reference it without going back to the previous post.

Vic1 combo faceExample of a figure painted with low contrast and with high contrast.

It’s okay to think that the image on the right is too highly contrasted. There is a spectrum of contrast between the left and the right. But it’s entirely possible to get overly concerned about the idea of keeping things ‘realistic’, and I think that this is something that absolutely holds back the painting of a lot of the people I talk to who are striving their hardest to improve. It is definitely something that holds people back from painting enough contrast. (And can affect their painting in other ways, as well, with colour choices, for example.)

So why DO so many instructors and higher level painters keep telling everyone (including ourselves) to push their contrast? The primary reason is that miniature figures are very small. They are so small, in fact, that when viewed under our normal light sources (ceiling lights, light coming through a window, etc.), they do not actually look completely three dimensional. If you hold a small bright light over a miniature, it will cast the type of shadows and highlights on the figure that a normal light will cast on a normal scale person. Since it’s not very practical to carry a light around with every figure, we instead need to paint in the way shadows and highlights appear under that kind of light in order to make a small figure appear fully three dimensional in normal lighting. So when we paint on shadows and highlights, we ARE in fact attempting to be realistic by mimicking the reality of how light and form interact.

Lighting comboLeft: Bright but distant ceiling room light. (My photo backdrop is attached to my photo cube, so he didn’t get the same background with this lighting.)
Center: Light positioned 13-14 inches above the model, and diffused by a photo cube.
Right: Small LED light positioned 5-6 inches above the model, not diffused.

In the first view you can see a decent amount of shadow. In the other views there is even deeper shadow, and much brighter highlights. It is easier to see the details like what the individual elements of the axe are and that his buckle is a lion’s head in the views with the light source closer (more in scale) to the figure. I think those views are also a lot more interesting to look at, precisely because of the higher level of contrast. The figure is a Bones model painted a mid-tone matte gray. In reality shinier textures like metal and hair would have even stronger contrast between bright light reflections and areas of shadow.

Another way to look at that is to think of miniature figures as something in between a two dimensional and a three dimensional piece of art. The best miniature painters borrow a lot of techniques that artists use on 2D artwork like paintings and drawings to make their depictions look three dimensional. (And perhaps it will console some of us to realize that plenty of student painters and sketchers have a lot of trouble going as dark as they need to do in their work – lots of them need more contrast, too!)

The need to simulate an in-scale light source illuminating our tiny figures is the essential idea behind why we have to add shadows and highlights. But the fans of realism are also correct that a lot of miniature painters push that past the point of how the light you might see in many ‘real’ situations behaves. We are exaggerating the effect. The goal in miniature painting is to bring a character, or even a scene, to life. We’re trying to convey not only factual information about the character (the colours and materials of the surfaces on the figure), but also emotional information about personality and story.

Given that we have the goal of bringing stories and characters to life, it might help to study how other types of art do the same thing – stage plays, movies, even commercials. Most of of the time the makers want their productions to feel as real as possible to the audience. They don’t want to ruin our suspension of disbelief by distracting us with elements that are obviously out of place or unrealistic. But at the same time, you don’t have to analyze even a very gritty and realistic seeming movie or play too deeply to start finding things that aren’t 100% ‘real’. The action of something like a fight scene is often compressed into a much smaller space than it might really take up. (Which as it happens is a pretty good rule of thumb for dioramas and vignettes in miniatures!) Likewise, the colours and designs of the costumes might be rigorously researched to fit an historical time period, but they are also chosen with colours, patterns, and styles in mind that bring out characterization and help tell the story. Which is also a pretty good idea to try to when painting miniatures.

So where does contrast come into that? The lighting and makeup used in stage plays and movies is chosen in a similar way. It is intended to feel as real as possible, but is actually skillfully manipulated and exaggerated in whatever way is necessary to tell the story and convey character. Consider the makeup used in stage plays. The eyes are outlined in large rings of black, and the lips are bold colours. Age and character lines might be drawn quite starkly. It’s actually a lot like how we paint miniature figures! And it happens for the same reason. A play takes place on a stage, and most of the audience is sitting some distance away from the actors. The actors appear much smaller, just like miniature figures. So the production needs to use bright lights, strong colour in costumes, and very exaggerated makeup in order for the audience to be able to distinguish each of the characters and their personalities. Just as the actors have to talk much more loudly and project their voices in order for everyone to hear them, the production has to find a way to make the visual elements ‘louder’ so they can be projected for the audience to clearly see.

If you’d like a more detailed example of what I’m talking about, have a look at this video where the costumer for an historical TV program breaks down the costume choices and how those contributed to defining the characters and the scene. There was even a lot of thought put into what the background extras were or weren’t wearing. For examples related more directly to contrast, you might also do some Google searches for ‘stage makeup’ or ‘theater makeup’.

My final argument is… have you looked at reality lately? I’m not trying to be snarky when I say that. Most of us miniature painters have not really studied reality. While it is commonplace for most traditional artists to look at references when creating art, it is much rarer for miniature painters to have that habit. What I mean is, traditional artists often draw/paint from life or photographs. Over years of doing that, they build extensive ‘visual libraries’ and can more easily draw what a variety of things look like accurately from imagination. But even then most will study a texture like leather or shiny metal or whatever when depicting it. Some even make up maquettes to study scenes and creatures in order to depict them more accurately. The highly respected paleoartist and fantasy realist James Gurney frequently uses maquettes to be able to visualize how extinct animals would move and look, and how light and shadow would appear on them. David Petersen is the author and artist of the Mouse Guard comic series. And he has built scenes and buildings to be able to render them well. In a comic. One of the best miniature painters today is Kirill Kanaev, and he uses reference photos extensively. (I was lucky enough to take a workshop from him, and we worked from photos for every element of the bust that we painted.)

I bring this up because I took some pictures to use as illustrations for my points in this post, and some of them surprised me! My aim was to show you pictures of real people scaled to the size of a gaming scale miniature to demonstrate that things like facial features and other detail are almost absent from a person standing far enough away from you to be the same size as a miniature figurine is. And I think these pictures do demonstrate that. But guess what else I found? Some pretty dramatic shadows and highlights! These include pictures taken outside on a fairly sunny day, and a few pictures taken indoors.

Real 150 comboThese pictures are also instructive about some other kinds of contrast, like how basic colour choices can set items apart from one another (or make things blur together visually) and how patterns can stand out or look murky, but those will have to be topics for another day.

Now here are a selection of miniatures that I’ve painted over the years with pictures scaled to the same size. Some are painted with very little contrast, and others with much more. Note that the painting isn’t the only thing exaggerated. If you compare the proportions of the figures to the real people above, you’ll see that the proportions of the figures aren’t ‘real’. In particular, the heads of the figures are much larger in proportion to the bodies than those of real people, which changes all of the proportions. Real people are above 7.5 heads tall. Gaming scale miniatures are often closer to 5 heads tall. Increasing the size of weapons and thin body points like wrists and ankles is a necessity of casting a miniature figure. The difference in overall proportion is largely an exaggeration for the necessity of conveying character. We like looking at and painting faces, and those faces need to be bigger to be seen at this scale. The miniature painter needs to exaggerate in the same way and for a similar reason as the miniature sculptor.

Minis 150 comboAn in-depth analysis and comparison of the contrast on the two figures to the left is available.

In my article about the power of light, I show another real world example of how light and shadow create different values of shadows and highlights on different objects. I also discuss some of the reasons our brains make it so hard for us to see this. 

So those are the reasons why so many painters and contest judges that you might ask for advice keep hammering on about contrast. If you consider all of those arguments and still disagree, that is absolutely your right to do as an artist and as a viewer of other people’s art! But you also need to accept that the majority of the miniature painting world has agreed on the necessity of contrast and at least a little exaggeration, and that philosophy is going to be reflected in how we judge contest entries and offer feedback. If you’re happy with what you’re doing, why would you feel the need to ask for feedback? If you do feel like you need to ask for feedback, why is it such a common inclination to disregard the most commonly offered piece of advice as ‘unrealistic’? If you disagree with the standard of contrast pretty universally preferred in miniature contests and shows, why are you entering them? I’m not asking these questions to antagonize anyone, but in hopes of jolting people into thinking about this issue a little more thoroughly.

Note that there may be some painters that you might look at and feel they do not use strong contrast that are still fantastic painters and well respected in the miniature painting community. Jennifer Haley is someone that springs to mind as a possible example. In my last post, you might remember that I mentioned that there are a lot of kinds of contrast, not just contrast between darkness of shadows and lightness of highlights. Jen Haley is fairly restrained in her use of that particular kind of contrast compared to many of the display level painters, but she is a master of several other kinds of more subtle and trickier to master types of contrast. Jess Rich is another artist I might place in this group. And both of them might be using stronger shadow/highlight contrast than you might think. More on that later in the HOW post…

Does my argument about contrast and exaggeration make sense, or do you think I’ve gone too far? Let’s discuss how we feel about contrast and realism in the comments!

For additional information on why we need to pay so much attention to contrast in miniature painting, see the article Constraints of Miniature Painting Part I and Part II.

Grey divider edit

Figures in this Post

Victorian woman in metal from Reaper
Brand Oathblood, Barbarian in Reaper Bones plastic 
Beach Babe Libby by Hasslefree in metal
Eriu, Champion with Greatsword in metal 
Tristan, Loremistress in metal from Reaper
Female Shaman in metal from Dark Sword
Barglemore and Camille in metal from Reaper
Tiviel, Hellborn Rogue in metal and in Bones plastic from Reaper

14 thoughts on “Contrast versus Realism”

  1. Good article again! I used to be in the “but it’s not realistic” camp until you, Anne, Derek, and a few others brought me around over the years. I still struggle with it, but I do recognize the need for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the biggest thing that helped me recognize the need for more contrast was looking at my miniatures for a couple hours on the gaming table across from someone who had painted their minis with a higher contrast.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I get reminded about the need for contrast when I participate in contests and shows. My minis often look pretty good in photographs, but they really fade into the background when they’re on a shelf next to figures painted with high contrast!


  3. I tried to comment on the previous article, but the blog system ate the comment. Good thing, too, since you say here at much more length and with more detail what I was trying to say in the comment. 😎

    The upshot is that I agree.

    One comment** that might be useful, though:

    Many painters think that the the distance of a light has a great effect on the appearance of the things it illuminates. This is true, but in very different ways than what most people think.

    The first thing, and the one most relevant to this particular discussion, is the “hardness” of the light. To a photographer, this refers to how sharp the edges of the shadows are and the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of the subject. It’s exactly what you normally see in many of your reference photos of real people and it’s most of what we try to paint in.

    In those photos, the primary (‘key’) light is the sun, which is farther away than any other light source you’re likely to use. I mention this mostly because it’s a common fallacy that you need to move your lights farther away to soften the light. In fact, the primary contributor to how hard the light is is the apparent size of the light, not its distance. (The sun subtends about 1/2 degree of solid angle, so it acts very much like a point source.)

    To get a soft light source, you need a light that covers a very large angle. A large light source will fill a larger angle (and get softer) as it moves closer to the subject, which is why portrait photographers use very large softboxes* placed very close to the subject. For very small subjects like miniatures, you can get the same effect as a large softbox by moving your lights in as close to the miniature as possible without obtruding into the frame of the cropped image. Closer lights are softer.

    Back to painting, this means that if we want to get the effect of a person in direct sunlight, we need very hard shadows. And the light in many (most?) of the places we look at miniatures is essentially the entire ceiling — a very soft light source with minimal difference between highlights and shadows. To get that hard-shadowed, sunlit look, we must paint in the shadows.

    The distance of the light from the subject, or more precisely the relative distance between the light and the nearest and farthest points on the subject does have an effect, though for general painting, this isn’t usually important. A light close to a larger subject will show more falloff with increasing distance than a light farther away. In miniatures painting, this effect is most useful to consider in OSL, since we’re usually interested in replicating the effect of close light sources there. (This is an inverse square law falloff.) It can also be important when photographing very large subjects like large dragons, but otherwise doesn’t much matter.

    To get a light that is both soft and has little falloff, you need a large source like light bounced off a white surface (a wall or bounce card) or a large softbox.

    * A softbox or other diffused light source is softer because it is larger, not because “diffusing” the light has any special effect on the light itself.

    ** Hmm, that ended up longer than I expected.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the detailed comment and information about light! I still have a lot to learn about light, that is for sure. At this point I am happy if I can convince others (and myself) that lighting in general has a more dramatic effect than we think, at least in terms of the ‘real’ vs exaggerated argument about contrast in miniatures. Or at least that we should pick more dramatic types of lighting as our model for painting miniatures!

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  4. I’m also in the camp of not “getting” contrast for a long time as a painter. But (and it excites me no end that you mention this) I eventually “clicked” and leveled up my painting in a big way, once I connected the idea of contrast on a miniature with the idea of contrast on my face when I’m doing makeup for stage.
    Stage makeup and miniatures painting share a lot of common ground.


    1. I wasn’t able to find any good allowable use pictures of stage makeup to add to my post. (By that I mean something that the copyright holder has allowed for use by others, like on Wikimedia.) If you have any pictures to share or links with good photos that you could point people towards, I’d love to see them and my guess is that others would too!


  5. I’m hoping you can touch on the HOW issues in your next post. I like the idea of establishing value using just black and white before any color is added, but this is something that I have not had much success with in the couple times that I have attempted it. You touched on this some in your post for the RC18 Sophie and I would love to see more insight into how this is accomplished

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s looking like possibly two posts. A lot of the ideas are going to be about mindset. I don’t know that I’m going to be going into as much detail on painting techniques as some people might be hoping for. At least not at this time. I’m already spending a ton more time on the blog than I have been painting of late! I will try to take more WIP photos and such the next time I paint a figure in the way I did Sophie.


  6. Maybe I read too much Japanese manga (: but, very often, you need to master one technique before you progress to the next one. “Realism”, I think, is a technique that you learn once you *understand* contrast, and the best way to understand contrast is, for your typical painter, to *add more contrast*. I believe this is so because, while “add more contrast” is only three words, it encompasses multiple different techniques, as well as knowledge of how to apply them. Not exactly something simple to master. 

    My question about “realism” is what’s the point of so-called “realism” if you can’t see the miniature? A pretty common miniature example of “realism vs. contrast” is the mundane company photograph of an “unpainted” miniature. I say “unpainted” because, for many miniatures, such as Bones white plastic, it can be hard to see the details on an unpainted miniature! Some miniature company photos will change the light to better see the details on a miniature — so you essentially have an “unrealistic” use of light to create a “realistic” photo! Or they’ll wash the miniature to add good ol’ contrast to see the, guess what, details. Malifaux miniatures goes one step further in the “unrealistic” direction by showing renders, not photos of miniatures, because their customers know (or at least should know!) that the renders should give enough information about the details to make a purchasing decision.

    Speaking of photos, you’d think photos are “realistic”. Just snap the camera, right? Yet we can even start with most poses being unrealistic. And most people don’t say “cheese” all that often, either. Photography has plenty of techniques, such as filters, angles, position of the subject matter, photoshop enhancement, etc. that you can question whether or not the photo is “realistic” — or just something to fool the layman viewer into thinking so. Heck, even the subject matter of a photo and how it is photographed can be chosen to pass off, say, propaganda or some other underlying purpose, as “realism”.

    Back to art, this article sums up two movements, Realism and Photorealism. Yet both of these art styles were *reactions* to previously accepted art styles, and sometimes had a symbolic message behind them.  Not exactly the use of “realism” in the sense of accuracy.

    Finally, if you do want to use apply the “accuracy” notion of “realism” to small things, like miniatures, remember this question you may have heard as a kid. : What is smoother? A billiard ball, or the earth shrunk down to the size of a billiard ball? Sometimes “realism” is the classic “You Keep Using That Word” meme.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the detailed and thoughtful response! I hope that you have helped persuade a few more people away from worrying too much about realism in miniature painting. I’m going to check out the link you shared as soon as I get a chance.


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