You Can’t DO that in Miniature Painting! (Constraints Part I)

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It is common and in many ways helpful to use other forms of visual communication as inspiration and ideas for what we might do with miniature figures. Traditional artwork, film and television scene setting, comic art, even advertising and packaging are often masterful examples of how to use colour, lighting, etc. I often find myself drawing on other visual forms for examples as I work on writing articles discussing core concepts of miniature painting.

However, it is critical to understand that there are some things that we can’t do in miniature painting (or can’t easily do) that are a standard part of other visual forms. There are other things we’re pretty much required to do to successfully paint tiny sculptures that may not be required in other media. So I think it is useful to take some time to discuss what I am calling the constraints of miniature painting – the limitations and requirements imposed by this form of visual communication.

IMG 0675A preview of some constraints.

Identifying these constraints can help us better understand the reasoning behind the most common recommendations and critiques in miniature painting, like the emphasis on high contrast. It’s also helpful to keep in mind what’s different about our form of art as we study other forms. Some ideas and effects may transfer easily from one to another. Others might not transfer at all, or might need to be adapted to work within our constraints.

Every form of communication has constraints. These are things that are difficult or impossible to do based on the medium. The stories you can explore and how you can explore them are very different between a graphic novel, a four panel comic strip, and a one panel comic. There are often conventions of style or subject expectations in different genres or time periods. The stylistic conventions of ancient Egyptian art are a clear example, but there are conventions to every form of communication. The types of acting (and makeup) that are most effective in a stage production are very different to those used in a close-up movie scene. Some forms of communication might even be said to be defined by their constraints, like the poetry forms of haiku and sonnets.

Please note that it is not my intention to say we need to impose rigid limitations on miniature painting! 20 years ago almost everyone painted metal areas on miniatures with metallic paints. Today is it commonplace to see the non-metallic metal technique from 2D painting and illustration used on miniatures. I myself am not a boundary pushing painter, but I love to see the work of those who are, and I hope I’ll continue to be surprised and delighted by the innovations of other miniature painters for years to come. I just think it’s helpful to define the boundaries of our art form so we have a better understanding of what we’re working with.

A lot of these constraints are going to seem obvious. The manner and degree to which they affect what we can’t do and what we need to do may not be as obvious. When I sat down to write this, I kind of knew most of it in the back of my head. But I didn’t really understand how much it affects some of what we can and can’t do until I starting really thinking about it and finding examples to help illustrate it to you. 

There’s a lot to think about and I wanted to use plenty of examples, so I have divided this article into two sections. Part II is now available

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Constraint #1: Miniatures are Small

Miniatures are small; it’s right in the name! And that small size is definitely a constraint. Nuance and subtlety are difficult to pull off successfully. Contrast needs to be bold and effects need to be exaggerated to be clear to the viewer. The smaller size of miniatures is the reason we have to add shadows and highlights in the first place – our real world large scale lighting is too diffuse to illuminate the forms and contours that make up the shapes of our tiny sculptures.

We can see similar constraints in other forms of visual expression. Visual communication that is small, viewed briefly, and/or seen most often from a distance generally uses simpler design and bolder colour than visual arts that are viewed larger, more closely, and for longer periods. As an example, you’ve likely seen a billboard that had print too small or too long to read while driving, or displayed a picture that was too complex and you couldn’t really tell what was happening. That is poor design for that visual format, and miniatures have similar constraints. 

I’ve grouped some types of visual communication into those that are more and less like miniature painting below. Think about elements that the members in each group share in common, and how those differ from the other group, and then consider how you might apply those ideas to painting miniatures.

Less Like Miniatures

Magazine ads
Movie posters
Book covers
Comic books/graphic novels
Standard scale paintings/drawings
Movie/TV makeup and acting

More Like Miniatures

Bumper stickers
Smart phone icons
Single panel comics
Stage makeup and acting
Nail art

I’m going to spend a minute talking about phone icons as an example in more detail. On the left below is a screen of app icons straight from my phone. (Are they organized, do I use any of these… that’s not the topic right now! ;->)

Phone icons

If you look at the bottom row of icons, the function of three out of four of the icons is immediately clear. (The ones in black squares in the photo on the right.) Even people who never seen a smartphone would easily be able to deduce what those apps do – telephone functions, mail functions, and music. None of those three icons realistically portray any of those concepts; they each use simple symbols for them. But being simple and clear makes them more useful than if they were complex photorealistic representations. 

Now look at the icons in the upper portion of the screen. Few of them are as immediately clear as to function as the ones at the bottom, but most are simple and legible. You can tell from the icons that Flow and Sketches probably have something to do with drawing or taking notes. You can likely see at a glance which icons are for games and which are for more utilitarian types of apps.

In my opinion some of the icons are not very visually effective for their function as icons. Study the icons in red squares. Two of these have more text than can be easily read in a small icon, and exacerbate the issue by using script type fonts. Two of them include images that are too complex and nuanced to work on this small of a scale. 

Our miniatures have a lot of the same constraints. A user looking at a smartphone screen would know these are all apps. What the viewer needs from the icons is as much simple, clear information as the designer can provide as to what that specific app’s function is. For miniatures, the viewer knows it’s a miniature. What they need is simple, clear information that tells them what the story/character of the figure is. We need to make choices in our miniature painting that give them that information. A super high degree of contrast or use of darklining is not always strictly ‘realistic’, but in the context of how miniatures are viewed and used, those approaches are often more effective than strict realism.

Our miniatures often share something else in common with this icon example – they’re not being viewed and judged in isolation. They’re on a gaming table, or a contest table, or a display shelf, or a Facebook group/forum/Discord channel/store page where they are surrounded by other miniatures that compete for viewer attention and comparison.

It’s not impossible to add detail and subtlety to miniatures, but this needs to be layered on top of the simple, clear visual presentation that gives the viewer the information they need. Studying how other forms of visual communication with similar constraints balance that can be valuable to us – app icons, billboards, sprites/avatars in video games, user/channel pictures in forums/Discord/Facebook/YouTube.

Detail is not impossible at miniature scale, but bear in mind that, like stage makeup, it’s actually got to be exaggerated quite a bit to read at all. Sculptors have always done this, and painters are increasingly doing it as well. If you look at a person from far enough away that they would appear to you as the size of a standard gaming figure, you would not see woodgrain on their bow or the stock of their gun, and you wouldn’t be able to pick out the wool weave texture on their clothing. When those things are sculpted or painted onto figures it’s not truly realistic, but if we emulate the shapes of the texture and how light and shadow behave on it, most viewers will find it feels realistic enough to accept it without thinking about the scale issue. Here’s an example with chainmail.

Chainmail realLeft by Dariusz Wielec from Wikimedia. Right by Moss Photography from Unsplash.

The size of the rings and the overall texture the linked rings create on examples of real chainmail is quite fine. From a distance you can’t even really see that the material is made up of rings, it’s more an impression of rows of lines. The chainmail on the miniatures below is sculpted with a fine degree of detail, but would look enormous if the figures were scaled up to actual life size.

Chainmail miniI have an article about painting the ranger in the centre. And another about painting the warrior to the right.

Let’s look at the real life and miniature examples again, but scaled down to be closer to the size a miniature would be viewed in the hand. The texture of the real chainmail is barely apparent. That would be the most ‘realistic’ way to portray it, but it would also be dull and not give the viewer much information about the material. The texture is still apparent on the figures, because the information and visual interest is more important (and fun!) than strict adherence to realism. We need to do the same kinds of exaggerations with paint as the sculptors are already doing.

Chainmail example cr

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Constraint #2: No Background

Unless a figure is placed into a scene that includes a backdrop, it stands alone with no background. The reality of this has a much more profound effect than you might imagine on what we can do, can’t do, and need to do with our paint choices.

Backgrounds in Art Inspiration

If you take inspiration from artwork/photos/movie scenes, you need to evaluate the colours and effect of the background as well studying the main subject(s). We tend to to focus on and respond consciously to the main subject(s), but the background is very much a part of the colour scheme, mood, and even story of the work as a whole, and often integral to its success. It is very common for one or more key colours in a colour scheme to appear in the background and not on the main subject, for example.

Let’s look a specific example I think will be familiar to most of you – Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer painting. There have also been several miniature figure and model versions of the character. (I have a previous article with some thoughts about painting a figure to match artwork for a different example.)

Frazetta paintingsReproductions of the Death Dealer paintings by Frank Frazetta. The colour of reproductions can vary wildly, as you see here.

There’s not a lot of ‘content’ in the background in terms of objects or people. Frazetta was a master of abstraction, particularly in his backgrounds. But that doesn’t mean that the background isn’t important. In both of these reproductions of the painting, all of the saturated colour is primarily in the background. Those background colours affect the colour of the reflected light on the metal and shiny hair of the horse, so you can bring those colours into a free-standing figure a little, but the majority of the figure is desaturated grey and black. If you remove the figure from its surroundings, you lose a lot of the colours in the colour scheme, and it affects the impact and mood conveyed by the main figure. The background establishes the scene as set in a fiery battleground wasteland. The lighter values and more saturated colours of the background also enhance the Death Dealer himself because they contrast with his darkness and lack of vibrant colour. He looks more menacing and creepy because of the lighter and and more saturated colours in the background.

(If you’re confused by terms like saturated and value, check out my Anatomy of Colour article for definitions.)

Death dealer minisLeft: Kabuki Studio’s Death Dealer, painted by Marc Masclans. Right: Moebius Model’s Death Dealer, painter unknown.

Compare the painting with the two versions of the Death Dealer as a three dimensional figure/model displayed on a plain white background shown above. The paint jobs are terrific, and the looming menace of the Death Dealer figure is very much apparent, but there are definitely elements that are lost in comparison to the original painting. (Link to additional views of Marc Masclans painting

Now let’s compare these two versions of the Kabuki Studio Death Dealer below. They both great looking figures. One is posed in front of the background of the painting, and you can see how much of a difference it makes to include even some of the background elements from the original painting.

Death dealer minis bgLeft painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro, Right painted by Marc Maslans.

I edited out the background from the picture, so we can make more of an apples to apples comparison between these two figures. I did not alter the pictures in any other way.

Death dealer minis nobgLeft painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro, Right painted by Marc Maslans.

You may not have noticed significant differences between the way the two figures are painted apart from the background in the first image, but looking at them both on white backgrounds makes it easier to spot the different approaches in painting. The left figure is painted with a much lower level of contrast than the right. The brighter highlights and variation of contrast on the right figure brings some of the colour scheme from the background surroundings into the figure. Keeping those areas of highlights small on the Death Dealer himself keeps him looking shadowed, dark, and dangerous.

Compare the way the bases are painted. One is fairly uniform. The other is lighter and has more saturated yellow near the front hooves, and is darker towards the back, just like the painting. It evokes the idea of a nearby fire. Compare the painting of the horse itself, particularly the rear end. There are strong highlights with reflection colours painted in on one (like the painting), and much softer highlights in the other. The one posed against the background is painted with less contrast and less colour, and does not match the original artwork as well. Chances are you didn’t notice that on first glance. I didn’t. I think the higher level of contrast works better, particularly for a figure standing alone with no background.

It takes time to tune your eye to consciously spot differences like this, so for the benefit of those who might be having a little trouble seeing the areas where there is a strong difference in contrast, I’ve indicated them on the picture below.

Death dealer minis contrastLeft painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro, Right painted by Marc Maslans.

Contrast Through Backgrounds

I described above how the lighter and more saturated colour of the background in the Death Dealer painting contrasts against the Death Dealer character and adds to the story and emotion of the painting. But it also adds literal contrast. He looks darker and stands out to your eye better when he is set against a lighter background. Using colour and value in the background of a movie scene, painting, etc. is a very common way to direct the viewer’s attention and focus. One reason we need to use so much contrast on our miniature figures is because we do not have that tool at our disposal. For a single freestanding figure, all of our contrast, colour, mood, and story has to be built into our paint job of the figure and its base, because that is all we have. 

Here’s another example. Disney’s Cinderella is the stereotypical ‘fair maiden’ – very pale skin, blond hair, and wearing a white dress. And a lot of people paint figures in a similar way. Without the addition of some contrast and definition, a figure painted like that will not stand out well on a tabletop or shelf. It will be difficult for the viewer to parse the various parts of the figure to see the character/story. The figure needs deeper shadows in the folds of the cloth and contours of the face, hair, and limbs. Adding lining where areas meet, like between the skin of the arm and the edges of the gloves and sleeves, is another way to help people better see the various areas of the figure and how they fit together.

Note that the constraint of size exacerbates the issues. A life size real person or a cartoon one drawn with the intention of being shown on a giant movie screen are working with different parameters than we are working on figures that are an inch and a half tall. These issues are apparent in comparing the two examples of Cindarella on the left below. The far left is a still from the 1950 Walt Disney movie. Although Cinderella herself lacks contrast and definition at this scale, the rich dark colours surrounding her help attract the gaze of the viewer and make the image interesting and pleasing to look at. While the animation style of the version second from the left is more modern and detailed, it looks like a pale coloured barely differentiated blob on a white background at this small scale.

Cindarella contrastThe centre left is an example of issues I often see in judging and critiquing people’s figures. The centre right is an example of how to use slightly stronger contrast and more definition to create a more visually effective miniature paint job, while still maintaining the desired characterization.

I think Disney itself has recognized the issues that arise when using the character design originally created for huge movie screens on smaller screens and in marketing materials. The newer animated version of Cinderella is shown in the centre right. She now wears a blue gown, and is drawn with a more strongly defined choker and headband. The shadow areas are a little darker, too, providing additional contrast. The design for the live action version of the character has undergone similar modification. The dress is a deeper shade of blue, which contrasts more strongly with Lily James’ fair skin and hair. Note that the deep folds and shadowed area of the bodice are actually pretty dark in value, as are several areas of the skin, like her neck. I would incorporate even stronger contrast in painting a miniature figure. In the original movie, Cinderella’s gown is white, and only appears blue in scenes where she is in heavy shadow. In evolving the character for modern uses, Disney has had to make decisions related to colour and value contrast for the same reason we do – to make sure she’s visually effective in different sizes, on different backgrounds.

Let’s look at the Death Dealer figures again for a miniature-based example. Here I’ve converted the backgrounds to black, which is quite different to the background in the original painting, and is an example of how that can affect our perception of the main subject. The Death Dealer on the left is painted with more even lighting and lower contrast. The overall contours of the figure stand out better against the background – there aren’t many areas that are so dark they fade into the background and you can’t quite tell where one begins and the other ends. (In traditional art parlance that is a ‘lost’ edge.) But the piece overall does not quite pop in the same way that it did against the original background or the plain white one.

IMG 0676Left painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro, Right painted by Marc Maslans.

The figure on the right is painted as if it is being lit with stronger light sources, and has higher contrast between highlights and shadows. There are lost edges here – areas where you can’t see the exact border between the horse or rider against the background. However, I think the stronger contrast makes it easier to distinguish the various elements within the figure itself. You can easily pick out the horse vs the saddle vs the base, the helmet vs the armour, etc. You can tell which legs of the horse are the ones closest to you the viewer because they are painted as if more light is falling on them since they’re facing outwards. I think this strong contrast also evokes the mood of the original painting quite well. The more reflective NMM helmet, shield, and weapon contrasted with the deeply shadowed face of the rider gives him a mysterious and ominous air, as do the bright highlights on the axe head compared to the darker blood on its tip. (There’s also a cool/warm contrast between the blue NMM shadows and the red blood.)

Backgrounds in Photographs

When taking photographs of miniatures, we can try to consider this aspect of background. It is usually best to choose a simple, uncluttered background for your figure. (It makes it easier for your camera to focus on it, too!) But you can go beyond that and make colour or texture choices that enhance its appearance. If you have suitable terrain pieces, those can make fun and atmospheric backdrops for photos. Experiment a little, you may be surprised to find out how much of a difference it makes. 

Xmas osl comboIt’s particularly obvious with a lighting effect figure like this one, but can make more of a difference than you might expect with many figures.

Viewing Miniatures Live

When making colour and painting choices while painting your figure, remember that you have no control over the background of a miniature when it is used on a tabletop or viewed on a contest shelf. There is going to be a lot of visual clutter around it – other figures, terrain, other objects and people. That’s just one more reason to use strong contrast in value and colour, definition like lining and edge highlights, and to go big rather than subtle with effects.

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Constraint #3: No Atmosphere/Air

In three dimensional space, objects might exist at varying distances behind and around the main subject(s). A two dimensional work like a painting can depict these as part of the painting of the background. If you look back at the Frank Frazetta paintings as an example, we understand that each of the three birds in the painted sky is a different distance away from the Death Dealer, with the largest bird positioned closest to him and the smallest bird being the furthest away.

Even if you were to paint a backdrop for a miniature, there are materials and effects that are very difficult or impossible to convey in our medium. Smoke, clouds, and mist are great examples. You can have smoke or clouds sculpted onto a figure, and then it is a very solid object made of metal/resin/plastic that you’re trying to paint to appear as insubstantial air. Another alternative is to use cotton wool or other materials to try to evoke the appearance of these effects. How well that works can vary widely depending on the nature of the effect, skill of the modeller, and tastes of the viewer. 

It’s a little less obvious, but our lack of control over the atmosphere around a figure also significantly impacts our ability to depict light. We can paint a light source, and we can paint how the the light reflects on the actual figure and any basing and scenic elements that exist in our scene. But in the real world an actual light also illuminates the atmosphere around itself. And while this is most readily apparent in dramatic source lighting scenes, any direct light we depict is part of this effect. This is yet another reason why we have to exaggerate our painting of light and shadow on our figures. We have to exaggerate the elements that we can control to help compensate for the areas we can not depict due to the limitations of our medium.

IMG 0418

I have digitally altered the light source photographs I posted above to add a sense of illumination to the area directly around the candle. In the case of the picture on the right, I accomplished this mainly by adding shadows to the background areas distant from the candle. This is exactly what I did on the figure: I painted the areas of shadow quite dark to make the light source stand out more. This is something to take note of for general painting, too. You generally want your main area of focus to be lighter in value or brighter in saturation. Making the less important areas around it darker and duller is a great way to achieve that!

While I can add this kind of digital manipulation to a photograph of my miniature, when the miniature is viewed live the issue is not just with the area behind the figure, but the volume of air surrounding it. It is difficult or impossible to add atmospheric or light effects to that volume of air using paint alone. 

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Part 2 – Constraints and Conundrums

Ready for more? Part II is now available

I’m sure I didn’t think of everything, so please feel welcome to give us some more food for thought by leaving a comment. If I get enough suggestions, I’ll put together a part III some time!

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Image Credits

Some of the images included in this article are not mine. Some are freely made available for use, others are not. I have included them here for educational purposes, which I feel falls under the Fair Use doctrine. 

Smoke picture from Pexels, artist uncredited.
iPhone screen and app icons created by a number of different designers.
Chain armour photo by Dariusz Wielec from Wikimedia.
Chain armour photo by Moss Photography from Unsplash.
Original Death Dealer painting by Frank Frazetta.
Kabuki Death Dealer figure painted by Marc Maslans.
Moebius Models Death Dealer figure painted by unknown artist.
Kabuki Death Dealer figure painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro.
Incarnations of Cinderella by Disney.

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Figures in this Post

The Orc Slicer is available in Bones plastic.
The Female Ranger with Bow is available in metal, and will release in plastic in a year or two.
I believe the Kabuki Studio Death Dealer is available here
The Moebius Models Death Dealer is available here.
The Ghost of Christmas Past is a seasonal figure occasionally available in early December from Reaper Miniatures.

4 thoughts on “You Can’t DO that in Miniature Painting! (Constraints Part I)”

  1. Love your articles and your painting! Absolutely spectacular, always.

    Also, while the “Next Post” link at the bottom of the blog goes to Constraints and Conundrums Part 2, as of 4/14/21 the internal links to the follow-up post in the body of the blog lead to the Wikipedia page for Montreal-style bagels. Copy/paste error, I’d guess; thought you might want to know.

    Liked by 1 person

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