In this post about how to paint miniatures with more contrast, I’m going to discuss technique and paint application ideas for how to increase the level of contrast that you paint into the shadows and highlights of your miniature figures.
This is the second half of this how to paint contrast article. I highly recommend that you start with the first half.
The blog reader stats tell me that a lot of you haven’t read that post. I would like to strongly encourage you to do so. The mental goal to push contrast is as important or more so as anything you will find here. One of the things you’ll find over in that other post is larger pictures of the following figures. The before/after pictures on the left date from 2008-2009. Those on the right date from 2015. I didn’t just try to paint with more contrast once or even over the span of a year or two and then it just clicked and I started to be able to paint that way on every figure. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have photos to show from such a span of years. Painting with more contrast doesn’t have that much to do with tools – I was using the same set of quality tools throughout that timespan. It doesn’t even have much to do with specific techniques or brush skills. My painting ability did improve over that span – I would not have been able to paint the freehand details on the 2015 figure in 2008. But there I was making the same old lack of contrast mistake in 2015 as in 2008.
The root causes have more to do with my failure to stay focused on the necessity of contrast, and the need to better train my artist’s eye to judge whether or not something has enough contrast. I’m a slow learner sometimes! One of the reasons I’m sharing these kinds of things on this blog is that I am hoping to spare other people some of the time and annoyance I’ve spent along the path of learning. And the previous post has a lot of helpful tips on this topic!
Seeing these at this smaller size is a good reminder of why we need to paint with contrast – gaming figures are small! We need to add dramatic shadows and highlights for their details to be visible to the viewer, and to make them more interesting to look at. Larger versions of these pictures.
NOTE: I am going to use the word value a lot. When talking about colour, value refers to the lightness or darkness of the colour. White is the lightest value, and black is the darkest value. Pale pink is a light value of red, brick is a midtone value of red, and a deep wine colour is a dark value of red. For more examples and information on other aspects of colour, check out the Anatomy of Colour article.
Check and Reflect
A simple but important thing that leads us astray with contrast is that you can’t accurately judge the level of contrast on the various areas of your figure until you have mostly finished painting it. Both black and white primers are extremes of contrast that will throw off your perception of the contrast as long as any primer remains in view. (For example, try painting the same midtone colour like a tanned Caucasian skin colour onto a black primed and a white primed figure. It will look pretty pale on one, and fairly dark on the other.) Even after you put in all your base coats and cover up all the primer, the contrast level on the miniature will look different with shadows and highlights painted into all areas. So my first tip is to paint to the point where you’re finished or almost finished and then take a final look at the figure. And be willing to do touchups and adjustments as necessary.
It can be helpful to leave the figure to sit for a day or three before making that final assessment. It can also help to take photos, and then look at those scaled to a smaller size as well as a larger size so you can check both contrast and look for stray paint strokes or other detail level mistakes. This is a big part of what went wrong with the figures above. I declared them done and didn’t really take a moment away from them and then come back for a close look to assess the overall effect. When I did take a close look some time later, it became obvious to me that the level of contrast was far too weak.
Now let’s discuss some methods you can use earlier in the painting process in order to try to minimize how much you need to adjust at the end. These are going to be a quick overview – each of these tips could be expanded to be a blog post in their own right!
Make a Photo Reference
If you have trouble visualizing where to place the shadows and highlights, take a picture for reference. If possible, take it in a dimly lit room. Position a small bright light close to the figure in the direction you’d like to have your imagined light source. I use a small and inexpensive LED light. Experiment with different sizes and brightness of lights for different effects. Remember to take pictures from a few different angles so you’ll have something to refer to as you paint all the areas of the figure. Keep the light in the same orientation to the miniature when taking the photos from different angles – if you turn or move the figure, you’ll need to turn or move the light. If the miniature is metal or a very light or dark coloured plastic, you might want to prime it in a more neutral gray colour before taking your reference photos. These kinds of pictures make an excellent guide, but remember that different materials reflect light in different ways, so some will have higher levels of contrast than what appears in your pictures. Metal or hair, for example, are very shiny, so you will need to exaggerate the lights and shadows even more on areas you want to have look as if made of those materials.
Photos like these are a helpful helpful reference. They can help you keep areas of light and dark in mind even while you’re distracted by other concerns like blending, and thus help you paint with more contrast. Notice the difference between the leg nearer the light and the one further back. Also note that there is less contrast in a more matte material like the leather, but I painted a higher degree of contrast on the shiny metal armor plates and dagger.
I have an example of using a reference photo for shadow and highlight placement when painting Ziba the female Efreeti.
I also used reference photos to paint Caerindra Thistlemoor.
Zenithal priming is a way to apply a reference to the location of your light source directly to the miniature itself. With this method you prime or paint the entire figure black. Then you spray white primer/paint ONLY from the direction of your light source. (Some people do an intermediary step of spraying gray paint/primer to add the midtone values.) The result allows you to easily see where light hits the figure strongly (white areas), or doesn’t hit the figure much at all (black areas), as well as the in between sections that should be midtone values . You can use this as a ‘map’ for where to apply colour by applying opaque layers of paint in the correct value over the zenithal prime. Or you can glaze transparent colours over the established values to add colour to the figure. (A glaze is paint heavily thinned down with water, but applied in a controlled fashion rather than allowed to pool as with a wash.)
Miniatures painted with glazes over zenithal priming have good contrast within each area, but can lack contrast between each of the areas. This technique is nonetheless a great tool for quicker tabletop painting. And you can compensate slightly by adding other types of contrast, like using complementary colours on adjacent areas. (I’ll cover colour contrast in future posts.) If you try this technique, you may find that you need to apply some opaque highlights in the brightest areas to get maximum pop and contrast. (Note that you can also take pictures of the miniature after zenithal priming but before applying paint so you still have a reference in case you lose track of where the shadows and highlights should be while painting.
If you’d like to know more about methods of zenithal priming using spray primer, airbrush, or brushing by hand, check out this excellent video by Metalhead Minis. NOTE to painters of Bones miniatures: I do not recommend using spray primer on Bones. It often fails to cure and remains tacky to the touch. Applying paint via an airbrush is the best way to zenithal spray ‘prime’ Bones figures.
This figure was zenithal primed with spray primers. Use of spray cans creates a speckled appearance of the white over black in the midtone areas. You can reduce that appearance a little by adding grey in the middle step, or smooth it out by touching up the figure by hand with some thinned white and thinned black. Spraying with an airbrush has a smoother look. For the next step, layers of transparent paint were glazed over the underlying values on the cloak – dark reddish-purple in the shadows, red in the midtones, and a little orange in the highlight areas. Then a more opaque highlight was added in just a few spots that would be receive a lot of light. This figure is from a painting class I took with Eric Louchard many years ago.
I used a zenithal primed roadmap to help paint Romag Davl.
Underpainting: Value Mapping
Zenithal priming is a method of underpainting, but there are other options for underpainting. Sometimes I roughly block in the midtone, shadow, and highlight values of the major areas on my figure using black, white, and grey brush-on primer. I do this to create a ‘value map’ for myself to follow when I start applying the colour. During the value mapping stage I am just concentrating on contrast and value – trying to make the midtones of adjacent areas different enough from one another, and blocking in the appropriate shadow and highlight contrast based on the location of the light and the texture of the material in each area. Then I apply opaque colour directly over the map, matching the placement of my shadow, midtone, and highlight colours to the locations I picked out for them in the value map stage. Once the primary values are placed where they should be, then I can concentrate on blending, and after that worry about the fine details.
In the value map version on the left, you can see that I am not very worried about blending, and I’m completely ignoring details. My goal is to establish the midtone, shadow, and highlight values on the large areas of the figure. This method does rely on you following the map, which I can see now that I failed to do on the bodice area. But it also leaves you the freedom to adjust and embellish as you see fit – I altered the midtone colour on the skirt from my original map, as well as painting it as more of a gauzy textured material.
My post on painting ReaperCon Sophie 2018 has more details on my value mapping method.
I also have written a PDF that will be released by Reaper that goes into a little more detail on the process I used with Sophie and a few other figures. I’ll link it here once it’s available, as well as mention it in the comments and likely in a future post.
In the traditional art world, what I’m doing is equivalent to a value study. A value study is a quick sketch or painting of a subject or scene that concentrates on the values (the darks and lights) of the subject. This is done as a way to familiarize yourself with the subject and to assess if the composition is eye-catching. The artist can refer to the value study during the drawing/painting process of the final work to ensure that they are capturing the full range of shadow and light they saw on their subject. It forces the artist to look at the big picture of the contrast before they get lost in painting colour and details. My use of brush-on primer to map values is a similar thing, I’m just doing it on the same surface that I will do my final painting over. (Again, taking photos of the value map stage is probably a good idea since I’ll be painting over the reference on my miniature. You could also have two copies of the figure and paint the value study on one and the full colour paint on the other.)
Here is a site with a good visual example of a simple value study.
This site demonstrates how even something that looks super sketchy and rough can be valuable to a well-executed end result.
Notan is a Japanese word meaning ‘light-dark balance’. (Supposedly, honestly I have no idea how much of the interpretation I’m discussing of the concept is appropriation by the Western art world, but there is certainly a strong tradition of black and white traditional art and graphic elements in Japan.) In its purest form, Notan interprets a scene or subject in black and white only. This Blues Brothers graphic is an excellent example:
Classic Notan – everything in the image is either black, or white.
For me, at least, that idea is a little challenging to apply to miniatures. Luckily people also create Notan using three or four values. So if using only two values seems to challenging, consider using white, black, and one or two values of gray to create a Notan on your figures. This is very similar to the idea of value mapping, but you don’t worry about blending in even a rudimentary way. You just make notes on the figure with paint about where you want to apply highlights, shadows, and midtones. I loaded the lighting reference photo shown earlier into a Notan app and applied a three value filter to give you an example of what that would look like.
Note that I did not have the app at the time of painting this figure, I just wanted to give you an example of what using the app on a reference lighting photo might look like.
The following is an example of my attempt to apply Notan underpainting to a miniature figure. After taking pictures illuminating the figure with an in-scale light, I applied areas of black and white over the gray primer to block in a Notan value map. Notice that there is no attempt to blend whatsoever. I’m just trying to establish where I want things much lighter and much darker. After that I applied blocks of opaque colours over those maps, placing my highlight colours over the white, midtone colours over the gray, and shadow colours over the black. Then I worked on blending the edges where each section met.
This was my attempt to apply the Notan concept to a figure. This was my interpretation of the placement of light and shadow based on my lighting reference photo, I did not have an app that could apply Notan filters at the time. Notice that there is no blending in this kind of value map, just a very clear indication of where things should be lighter, darker, or somewhere in the middle.
A discussion of classic Notan ideas.
Examples of using three and four value Notan.
There is an app for that! The app that I mentioned, Notanizer, is available for various operating systems, including Android and iOS and Mac. This site shows you how the app works. Try it out on some photos of miniatures painted by painters you admire to give you a better idea of how to apply better contrast to your miniatures.
It is also possible to apply the idea of zenithal priming/value mapping in a much more finished way. With this method you use a wide range of grays as well as black and white to paint the figure to a high level of polish and detail, and then apply thin coats of transparent paint over that to introduce colour. Given the nature of acrylic paint and how pigment colours behave, you would likely also need to apply some more opaque layers of paint, particularly for the top level highlights, but also possibly in other areas.
This figure was painted as a black and white noir detective, but you could also use this approach as a grisaille under painting. After completing this step, I could add transparent layers of paint to introduce skin tone, hair colour, etc.
Grisaille is also a well-established technique in the traditional art world, particularly for oil painting. Again, the purpose is exactly the same as what we’re trying to do with our figures – ensure that the contrast level range between the darkest and lightest values is large enough enough and pleasing to look at.
Marco Frisoni has a great video of using the technique on a miniature. Try doing a search for ‘grisaille miniature painting’ for more examples.
You can watch a shorter 2D painting video example of glazing a grisaille underpainting with colour. (Technically this is a brunaille since the value painting is in brown rather than gray, but same idea.)
This page has photos of the process with a relatively simple portrait.
And this is an example using a more complex colour scheme.
If you’re interested in studying more about how this is used in the traditional art world, here are some search terms: underpainting, grisaille, brunaille, verdaccio, verdaille. (Grisaille is when it’s done with grayscale, brunaille with brown colours, and verdaccio/verdaille with greens, which can be quite effective under skin tones.
Underpainting: Sketching and Sketch Style
In the miniature painting world painters have recently begun using terms like sketching or sketch style to describe variations of underpainting applied to miniatures. Alfonso Giraldes (Banshee) often paints with a sketch approach, and Matt DiPietro has adapted that approach into what he calls sketch style. For tabletop painting I believe Matt uses zenithal priming or something very similar. For display level work, I think Alfonso and Matt more often sketch in colour, something more like a colour block in or ebauche. (Discussed more below.)
Vallejo Paints and FeR Miniatures created a video demonstrating how to block in the shadows and highlights on a face. I wrote a study guide for the video with some additional picture examples and links to the video.
Benjamin Kantor has a terrific video demonstrating sketching in black and white on a bust. He follows it up with a colour sketch video.
Block in Values with Colour
I recommend trying some of the monochrome underpainting methods out because separating the stage where you work on values out from working on colour and blending helps to make it much easier to keep your focus on building higher contrast in your values.
However, it is useful to know that you can also block values in with colour. The idea with this is to rough in your values similarly to the value mapping or Notan methods above, but using mixes of various values of your colours. At this stage you do NOT worry about blending or details. Just try to get the shadows, midtones, and highlights roughed in to their correct locations on the major areas of the figure. Then you can get a better idea of how things work as a whole and whether you need to tweak some areas to be lighter or darker before you put a lot of work into blending and detail painting. This is a way around the issue I mentioned up at the top in the Check and Reflect section – you can’t really judge whether the contrast range of your values is correct until you get the majority of them painted on your figure.
This kind of blocking in is the idea behind the technique called sketching that Alfonso Giraldes, Matt DiPietro, and other miniature painters often employ, particularly the European painters. Get an overview of your big picture blocked in quickly to make sure the colour and value choices work before investing a lot of time into the work. This can also be a useful method for speed painting or tabletop painting. You work on the big picture, then start to refine blending and details, stopping at any point where you’ve invested as much time into that miniature as you can afford.
I used the block in method to paint Baran Blacktree, and there’s an example of it in a PDF I wrote for Reaper. It also includes information on painting lights and shadows to match a directional light source.
Life Miniatures has some excellent tutorials demonstrating one kind of block in approach for major shadows and highlights followed by blending the transitions. (This particular approach is called planar painting, where each plane of the three dimensional object is painted the appropriate value based on the direction of the light source.) I recommend scanning through all of the tutorials, as each demonstrates some of the points better than the others in some respects. Each of the tutorials has a ton of photos.
Benjamin Kantor has a video of doing a colour sketch on a bust, though in this case he is applying it over a previous black and white sketch.
And at this point it probably won’t come as a shock to learn that this is something else practiced in traditional painting. You can get an overview with some nice examples of block in compared to finished painting.
You can also read about a traditional art technique of underpainting with colour called the ébauche. (The videos linked from that page seem to have been taken down unfortunately.)
Whew, that is a lot of information to parse! So I think that I should bring this post to a close. I have had some questions in response to my first post about contrast that were really more related to blending. It is definitely more challenging to create smooth transitions when you have a more extreme range between your darkest shadow and lightest highlight. So you aren’t necessarily doing anything ‘wrong’ if you find that happening! I am considering whether to write a post with some tips for blending. I generally reserve extensive discussion of blending for convention painting classes where I can easily demonstrate the techniques and brush handling that I use. In the meantime, here are some additional resources you might find useful.
I have written two Learn to Paint kits for Reaper Miniatures. The first covers the core skills of drybrushing and washing. The second is an overview of my methods for blending – layering and glazing. You can find that kit at this link, from your local retailer, or numerous online shops.
Layering is not the only method for blending, although for a variety of reasons I do think it is useful for every painter to learn. Anthony Rodriguez (Pirate Monkey Painting) has a good overview of the major blending techniques (including layering) on this site. His full length videos have been lost (he’s recreating these on Patreon I believe), but the text articles under the Brushwork Technique Articles heading include animated gifs that are great illustrations of the techniques.
I haven’t watched a lot of blending videos, but will try to keep my eye out. There are a lot of hands-on videos on the Reaper Miniatures YouTube channel. These include actual classes. There are blending classes in both the ReaperCon 2020 and RVE 2021 Classes playlists. The archive videos of the Reaper Twitch shows also include lots of hands-on demonstrations.
Remember – ultimately the contrast is more important than the blending!
Figures Appearing in this Post:
Dionne, Werewolf Hunter by Hasslefree Miniatures
Wood Elf Goddess Avatar from by Dark Sword Miniatures
Tara the Silent by Reaper Miniatures, special edition figure not currently available. A version of this is in Bones 5.
Unknown figure by Sandra Garrity (possibly an Adiken figure)
Camille from the Barglemore and Camille pack
Deadlands Noir Occult Detective by Reaper available in metal or Bones plastic