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I’ve written previously about why we need to paint miniatures with a lot of contrast, and why painting in a more contrasted fashion is not only more artistically interesting (and better for game play use), but also more realistic than you might think. Assuming you were persuaded by my argument, you might now be wondering just how to go about doing that in practical terms.
When we think about working to learn a new technique or effect, or working on getting to the next level with the techniques we already use, we tend to focus on how to handle the brush and dilute the paint, and other practical matters of that nature. No doubt those are issues that can hold us back or cause frustration. But our mindset and expectations can also hold us back, and we don’t always think about how important the mental aspect of striving to improve is.
Change is Hard
If you’d like to paint with more contrast, begin by thinking of that as a technique or effect. You are going to need to focus on it as an end goal and practice with it just as you would with learning a method of blending or trying non-metallic metal or painting hair or whatever else. It is also helpful when you are learning or aiming to improve to put most of your focus on just one or two areas at a time. Starting to paint a miniature with the expectation that you’ll paint it with a lot of contrast, perfect blending, a fantastic colour scheme, etc. is putting too much pressure yourself. It will be more effective if you keep contrast as your main goal until you feel comfortable painting with a higher level of contrast. Achieving your goal on just one or two figures isn’t really enough, it’ll be easy to slide back into old habits unless you’ve made your new approach into a new habit.
To help you keep the focus on pushing your contrast, I recommend that you choose figures you like and find easy to paint. Pick paint colours you enjoy and find easier to work with. Accept that your blending might look a little worse than usual because you’re painting it over a greater range of contrast than you usually use, which makes it more likely that you’ll see rough spots. Work on getting the contrast for a few minis, then work on the blending, then contrast, and then back to blending, and hopefully you’ll get the two working in harmony before too long.
I painted this in 2008. I was aiming for a shiny leather/rubber look. I thought I had painted it with plenty of contrast.
Our minds tend to resist change. You are going to be sitting there painting the figure and your brain will start to scream at you that the contrast looks ridiculous. You should pull it back, glaze it down, do something to make it look like what you’re familiar with seeing when you paint. Resist that urge! Remember that what you’re familiar seeing while you work is a miniature painted with insufficient contrast. You’re trying to paint the opposite of that. If you start feeling uncomfortable, chances are that means you’re doing something right, because if nothing else, you’re trying something new. Never make a sudden decision right after you’ve painted something new like that. Paint until the end of your session then walk away from the miniature. (Or stop right then and walk away if it’s just tempting you too much to ’tone it down’.) Come back the next day and give it a good look (using some tricks I’ll outline below). Think about it for a while. If you still think it’s too much, then go ahead and make some adjustments. (Though it doesn’t hurt to wait until you get closer to finished and look over the figure as a whole when considering whether certain areas have too much or too little contrast.) This approach gives you time to get used to the new thing that you’re trying and to assess it with fresh eyes. If you ‘fix’ it right after you’ve painted it, you risk covering up a lot of hard work that actually achieved some of the goals you set for yourself.
I took a second look at it in 2009. Nope, not remotely enough contrast for a shiny leather/rubber suit look. Also not enough contrast on the hair. And note how the deep shadows under the stomach and between the legs make the shapes look like they have more volume and are more rounded. This is what I meant when I said we need to use contrast to make miniature figures look fully three dimensional. If I were to paint this today or touch it up again I would probably add very small even brighter highlights to areas of the suit.
I’m definitely speaking from experience with that one. I’ve been working on painting something like contrast, or an animal pattern or whatever. It’s late, and I’m tired, and it just seems way too exaggerated and ridiculous looking. I’ve given into the impulse and painted over it, and regretted it the next day. I’ve also put the figure down and walked away, and come back the next day to realize that no, it doesn’t look so bad after all.
Remember that the viewer approaches your miniature in a much different way than you do. First the viewer gives your figure a quick look. You have a few moments to capture their attention to make them want to look closer. Even when people love a figure and want to study it for a while, I think few people are likely to look at a miniature for more than five, maybe ten minutes. As the painter, you spend a lot longer on it than that. Even a speed painted miniature takes 30-60 minutes to paint. Many of us spend hours looking at a figure. We come to know every fold of the cloth, every curve of the muscle and so on. Because of that, what you do will always look more extreme to you than it does to other viewers. If you want to see what I mean, go back and have a good look at figures that you painted a few months ago, or even better, a few years ago. Do they look as highly contrasted and exaggerated as you felt like they were when you were painting them?
Another thing to remember is that this is art. You want it to feel real, sure. But you want it to feel real in a way that emphasizes the drama and character of the figure/scene. You are like the producer of a play or a movie. You need to try to keep some elements as real as possible, but you also need to take some dramatic license to tell your story to the audience.
Here’s another way to look at the realism concern – if you aren’t regularly referring to reference (photos, lit maquettes, real scenes), you’re not painting in a truly realistic fashion anyway. You’re trying to match your imagined idea of reality, which is generally a lot more inaccurate than you think it is. And if people keep giving you feedback that your ‘realistic’ painting lacks contrast, your imagined reality isn’t serving you very well. You and your audience will likely be much happier if you either just paint to look cool, or start studying the real world and using reference photos a lot more often for what you paint. If you do that, you’ll find that shadows and highlights look a lot more dramatic than you think they are under a lot of lighting conditions.
I painted this in 2015. I was pretty sure I painted with loads of contrast.
Leaps and Bounds not Baby Steps
I think when a lot of us get feedback to do something like paint with more contrast, we go back to our paint table and push a little, then seek out more feedback, get told we need to push more, etc. It can take years to make notable progress that way. At least I’ve gone through periods where that is the case. I would like to suggest considering a different approach. Exaggerate. Go nuts. Push it and then push it some more, way past where you think you can stand it. Keep pushing until you get consistent feedback that it’s too much. (By consistent I mean more than one person saying it, and in response to more than one figure.) I think that might be a quicker and more efficient method than the tiny increments method. It’s worth a shot at any rate!
I took a second look a few months later. Um, I guess there really wasn’t that much contrast after all! When I went back in to rework the figure, I think I overdid it with the hair. Keeping the overall hair darker and having brighter highlights in small areas would probably look better. But I think it’s safe to say that the dress and non-metallic metal and even the peppers look much better with more contrast.
Everything Old is New Again
If you’re afraid of ‘messing up’ some of your favourite new figures, go back into your archives. Grab a miniature that you didn’t really like how it turned out or something else you don’t have much attachment to, and work on touching it up to push the contrast. This is also a great way to get more comfortable with doing final touch ups and editing a miniature. For a long time I was very reluctant to fiddle with something on a figure once I’d completed that section. But my skills improved a lot once I became more willing to do that. And it wasn’t as difficult to do from a technical standpoint as I had feared. The figures shown earlier in this blog post are a good example of what I mean by touching up a figure once it’s completed and you’ve had a little time and distance to take a hard second look at it.
If you like all your old miniatures, paint some quick tabletop figures for your role-playing game. Or grab the figures out of a board game and paint those. Because we often play games in less than ideal lighting conditions, gaming figures in particular benefit from high contrast paint jobs. And any paint on a game miniature is cooler than playing with unpainted pieces, so you don’t have to get too stressed out about getting the blending perfect while you work on that high contrast.
The fact that we get so familiar with a figure while painting it is a big part of what makes it hard to see that it needs more contrast. Here are some tips you can use to try to jolt your eyes into seeing it like something less familiar.
When you’re painting and you get up to get a drink and take a break, turn off your painting lights. Take off any magnifiers you might use. Then when you come back from your break, pick up your miniature and study it under the regular room lighting. Try looking at it in different rooms of your house to see what it looks like in different lighting. In between painting sessions, store your miniature in a place in your home with moderate to low lighting. Ideally this is a location where you’ll have an opportunity to see it a few times a day. As you pass by, stop and take a look at your figure. Start by looking at it from a distance of two feet away, and then pick it up and look at it more closely. Ask yourself whether it has nice visual contrast and holds your interest both at arm’s length and closer view. Another way to get a fresh look at a figure is to take a picture of it and then flip the figure to a mirror image orientation. Or hold it up to a mirror and look at the mirror image.
Whoa, it’s a completely new view! (Okay it’s maybe not that dramatic, but this can be a helpful trick to jolt your brain into seeing stuff you might otherwise not notice.)
Angle of Attack
When you paint, you turn the figure around to a lot of different angles to be able to reach various spots that need paint. I think these are often moments when we notice a crevice that looks super dark or a highlight spot that looks ridiculously bright and then we feel like we must have painted those badly and need to fix it. Do not judge the contrast (or any other effect) by what it looks like at a weird angle and fix it to look good at that angle! Always stop for a moment and hold the figure in the orientation in which it will be viewed. It needs to look good and correct from that angle only. If you’re painting the shadows and highlights with enough contrast and in the right locations for your viewing angle, it should look weird if you look at it upside down or turned sideways. If you get the opportunity at a convention or similar event, try to look at the figures of skilled painters you admire from odd angles. You will likely find all sorts of super dark shadows and crazy color placement and other elements that feel very awkward to paint, but which can look great on a miniature from the intended viewpoint.
Hands-On How to Tips
If you’re hoping for more hands-on practical tips for how to paint with more contrast, I have those, too! I just think it’s important to remember that while some of it is in your hands and your brush, a lot of it is in your mind and your eye.
Do you have any tips for pushing yourself to try new things? Tricks to get a fresh look at something you’ve been working on for a long time? Let’s help each other out and share some ideas!
Figures in this Post
Dionne, metal miniature by Hasslefree
Wood Elf Goddess Avatar by Dark Sword
Andriessa, Wizard in Bones plastic by Reaper
Andriessa, Wizard in metal by Reaper