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This is the second part of an article discussing the constraints of miniature painting – things that we can’t do, or can’t easily do, that are common in other forms of visual communication that we might study for inspiration and examples, like illustration or film. There are also things miniature painters may need to do to create a visually effective small object that are more optional in other types of media. I recommend reading part one for a longer introduction and explanation of why I think it’s useful to be aware of these constraints and challenges
I refer to some aspects of colour like value and saturation repeatedly in this article. If you find these terms confusing, the Anatomy of Colour article is here to help!
Constraint #4: Miniatures are Concretely Defined
A lot of art forms direct the attention of viewers to focus on certain elements by minimizing or eliminating unimportant information. Composition and cropping allow artists to direct focus by literally removing some information from the scene. Film and photography can use lighting to focus interest on a face and fade to black on objects more distant from the face. Painters and draftsmen can blur or fade out areas of a painting or drawing in a similar way.
Consider the portrait photographs below. The entire figure of the model is included in the portrait to the left, but the photographer has used smoke or mist combined with the lighting and her pose to make most of her body look faded and insubstantial. This focuses your attention on her face and arm. The darker value colours of her hair and shirt contribute to the effect. In the middle portrait, the photographer has used tightly focused lighting combined with dark value clothing on the model to create an image where you can literally only see the areas he wants you to focus your attention on. The model in the rightmost photograph is standing in front of a busy street, but the background is blurred out to keep attention on her. Colour choices (likely enhanced in editing) and cropping of the photo further direct your focus.
Left to right photo credits from Unsplash: Ilona Panych, Drew Hays, Cesira Alvarado.
Below are some similar techniques that I employed in painting portraits. In the portrait on the left, viewer attention is focused on the areas that are more rendered and in colour, and less attention is given to the sections that are just simple line drawing. All areas of the centre portrait are in colour, but they have not be developed to the same level of detail and nuance. The most detailed areas are the face. Objects around the face are blurrier and have little detail. I initially rendered the torso more precisely, and then later decided to make it blurry to put more focus on the face. In the portrait on the right, the face and ears are rendered with a lot of details and to a high degree of finish. The hair and neck are more roughly blocked in. The shirt is even less rendered. The background is abstract and not painted over the whole of the picture plane. At least part of the goal of all of those choices to keep the bulk of viewer attention on the face.
Miniature painters do not have most of these tools at our disposal. Our figures are tangible objects. How defined they are is largely determined by the sculptor. We can’t easily crop them down like a photographer composing an image. We don’t control the atmosphere around them to make some parts look less substantial. Unless we’re doing a backdrop/box diorama, we don’t even control the background, so we can’t artfully blur it out or abstract it. Most viewers are unlikely to accept the idea that since the message of our miniature was the face, we decided to leave the shoes plain plastic or metal. We need to paint the entirety of the miniature and approach it as a whole, that’s just a constraint of our art form.
While we may have fewer tools to use than in other visual forms, it is just as important for us to create focal points that help the viewer discern the story/character of our figures. We need to paint all of the figure, but we should not paint every area of it in the same way and to the same degree of finish. We can make choices with the colours, values, and techniques we choose to use to concentrate viewer attention in the more important areas and spend less time distracted by unimportant sections.
Exactly how to do that is a topic for another day. Right now I just want to make the point that we are trying to accomplish the same goal as artists in other forms in terms of having a main focus, but we have a much more narrow range of tools to use to accomplish that goal. So it is critical that we use the tools we do have as thoughtfully and effectively as we can. I have a few previous articles where I talk about making choices for a figure related to focus: leprechaun figure, Christmas goblin, wings for some succubi.
As a side note, for standard gaming scale miniatures the need to paint the whole thing includes basing materials. Even if you are using small rocks and such for basing and they’re already rock coloured, you still need to paint them so that they look in scale with the figure and like they’re part of the same world that it’s in. The OOAK (one of a kind) figure world is more multi-media, and those figures are generally larger in scale than classic miniature figures. To put this tip another way – viewers in the miniature figure world, particularly contest judges, have the expectation that multi-media materials used in miniature scenes should be painted whenever possible. If you prefer a more multi-media OOAK approach, go for it! Just understand how the choices you’re making will be received by your chosen audience.
Constraint #5: Our Canvases aren’t Blank
Many of us enjoy the fact that miniature painting is a collaborative art form. However, it does mean that our figures are not blank slates, and that is something of a constraint to bear in mind. Whether it begins with a directive from a game company or art director, a piece of concept art, or an idea in a sculptor’s mind, an unpainted miniature already has a lot of elements determined before we put any paint on it.
The gender, setting/time period, job role, and personality are often well-established by the sculpt. It is possible to nudge some of these in another direction through paint, but significant changes generally require conversion or sculpting. Even something as simple as facial expression is more structural than you might imagine. You might be able to shift a face between neutral, pleased, or angry, but you can’t easily paint a closed mouth so that it appears as if it is open to create expressions like surprise or screaming.
Examples of shifting expression and facial appearance with just paint. The right and centre examples are painted kind of starkly to make things more visible in convention classroom lighting.
Even if you don’t need to alter a figure to fit into a specific diorama or story, it’s valuable to take a moment to consider the aspects that are ‘baked in’ to the sculpt before deciding how to paint it. We tend to associate certain colours and textures with certain jobs, genders, personalities, etc. We can emphasize sculpted elements by making choices that ‘fit’ with them. We can shift them by making different choices. For example, the typical way to paint a rogue character would be with dark clothing to help them blend into the shadows when skulking, but perhaps you envision your thief as more of an entertainer or someone who acts as a distraction, and bright colours would be more appropriate.
Note that I am absolutely not saying that you need to follow stereotypes for characterization in your painting! Nor am I saying that we must always paint to match the way a figure has been conceptualized and sculpted! Interpreting sculpts in unexpected new ways is fun and a great way to create work that might grab people’s attention. The key point I’m trying to make is that you need to be aware of what’s established by the sculpt and you need to make conscious, deliberate choices to reinforce, shift, or invert that. To be successful, these choices generally need to be made throughout the process of designing the figure, not tacked on here and there. For the rogue example, you could paint a skulking robe with overall dark clothing, but add a flash of colour or decoration to the inside of their cloak for personality and contrast. Whereas a rogue painted with dark armour that blends into the shadows and a bright blue and red checkered cloak would be a bit confusing.
Consider this figure from Dark Sword Miniatures as an example. The sculpt is based on Larry Elmore artwork, and she’s clearly designed as a peaceful, angelic type of character. Several artists interpreted her that way. And others did not. You can see that the most extreme reinterpretation from angel to demon required a conversion as well as different paint choices. (You can also see additional interpretations and the original art on the store page for this figure.) If you had a figure with the wings, face, and hair painted like either of the top two but the dress painted like either of the bottom two, the figure wouldn’t quite make sense to most viewers. (Unless there were some kind of context for the dichotomy provided in the basing and scene setting.)
The sculpt in the picture below was designed as a skulking thief type, but the elements that contribute to that in the sculpt are not as strong or fixed as with the angel, so shifting interpretations can be accomplished simply with colour and paint techniques alone.
Constraint #6: Miniatures are Three Dimensional
The fact that miniatures are tiny three dimensional sculptures is one of the things most of us love about them! But it definitely imposes some constraints on our art form. Most of the constraints I’ve been mentioning are things that we fail to consider enough. When it comes to three dimensionality, I think we impose more constraints on ourselves than we need to. The issue is more in our minds than in our figures!
We worry too much about the three dimensionality of our figures and struggle to paint them in a way that ‘works’ from every angle. I think this is a major barrier to people pushing themselves to paint with greater contrast. You sit down with the intention to paint higher contrast, and everything is looking good. But then you have to turn the figure sideways or upside down to reach something. You look at it from a different angle and suddenly what you painted looks harsh and rough, so you smooth it out and lose the contrast.
You have to remember that viewers are not going to look at your figure sideways or upside down very often! It is most important to paint a figure so it looks good from the angles at which it will most often be viewed. If viewers do look at your figure from an odd angle, they will likely expect and understand that your painted lighting won’t look correct. If you get the opportunity, I highly recommend looking at painted figures from artists you admire at odd angles. It will help you see much better exactly how much contrast they are using, and also how they might be using colour in unusual ways that may not be obvious from the usual angles or photographs.
This is one of the issues that comes up with non-metallic metal (NMM). In the real world, the places where shiny objects reflect light change based not only on the position of the object, but also based on the position of the viewer. The painted reflections of the NMM technique are fixed in place and do not move with the viewer. The light reflecting from real metallic paints does shift with the viewer. That may seem like a compelling argument to only use metallic paints. However, it’s important to realize that shifting light reflections occur on all kinds of shiny materials that might be depicted on miniatures – hair, polished leather, vinyl, shiny silk, sweaty skin, shiny plastic, etc. Most of us paint these materials with matte paints, and to do so we have to choose a few angles and paint the way light and shadow would appear on those angles. The more we apply paint with a mind to replicating how light and shadow react on different textures, the more realistic and interesting our figures look.
Hair has similar properties to metal. In this video you can see how light in value the reflective shine can be even on dark hair, and how the exact locations of those shiny areas shift when the person or camera moves. When we paint hair we can choose to emphasize the sculpted texture, or we can try to use lighter and darker values of paint to simulate how light and shadow play on the hair. Below you can see some examples of how I’ve painted hair over the years. The middle and bottom rows have more of a realistic hair shine to them, with a larger range of values between shadows and highlights. Those are placed in such a way as to try to mimic the way light reflects from hair rather than based on the strand or lock texture of the sculpt like the top row.
So it’s reasonable to take the same approach to metal objects and use the NMM technique. Metal just stands out as something different or exceptional because it’s at the furthest extreme of a shiny reflective surface appearance, but in reality when painting we make this kind of choice all the time. The shaded metallic technique is a way to sort of split the difference and paint in fixed matte shadows, but have some movement on the metallic paint reflections. (I have an article and associated video available about painting hair more realistically. A video of Michael Proctor’s shaded metallic class from ReaperCon 2019 online is available if you’d like to learn more about that technique.)
I am aware that some painters use satin finish paint or glossy varnishes to enhance painted texture of leather, wet eyeballs, etc. There’s a spectrum of options from painting everything with matte paints to using effect paints. My point is that it’s entirely possible to paint everything with matte finish paint, just as illustrators and other 2D artists do. In fact, I would go so far as to say my point is that it helps a lot to think of miniatures as more similar to 2D art than less. Most of the effects that people really love on figures and think make them look really cool, are all co-opted or adapted from traditional 2D painting techniques – strong lighting, source lighting, non-metallic metal, painted cloth textures, scratches and battle damage, etc. As I mentioned in part I, our figures are too small for our large diffuse light sources to illuminate correctly. The more we use paint to simulate the effects of light and shadow for both for form (shape) and texture, the more dynamic, dramatic and just plain cool our figures look. That is really the difference between the figures you admire from your favourite ‘pro’ artist and the average tabletop figure. (Well, that and the prowess to apply those kinds of effects well on tiny surfaces, of course, but you need both the dexterity and the eye to see and apply light. It is really not just all about fancy brushwork.)
The fact that miniatures are three dimensional means we do not have complete control on the viewing angle from which viewers will choose to look at our figures. However, we can use paint and basing choices to try to guide viewers to concentrate their attention on specific viewing angles. Because of the way miniatures are moulded and cast, many have a defined front and back plane. People are drawn to look at faces, so a turned head or a face on a shield or familiar might add another angle or two. Some figures are much more in the round than others. With those you’ll have to just choose a few to focus on.
Try to identify these main viewing angles, and then make paint and basing choices that reinforce them. Place lighter and darker values and brighter and duller saturation colours in such a way that they entice the viewer to look at the figure from your main viewing angles and spend less time looking at other angles. Try to use your paint in the same way that a stage play uses a spotlight. Concentrate lighter and more saturated colours in the main area of interest of your main viewing angle. Use darker and duller versions of your colours away from that spotlight of interest. Place scenic elements like debris or vegetation to block viewing angles that aren’t your focus, or draw lines towards the areas that are important.
The constraint of three dimensions fall more heavily on sculptors than painters. Using two dimensional drawings and photos as reference to sculpt three dimensional objects can be quite challenging. There may not be enough information to easily figure out how to sculpt the areas not depicted in the drawing. Sometimes illustrators play a little loose with apparel or anatomy in drawings and paintings, but those issues have to be resolved to make sense when sculpting a three dimensional figure. I know from discussions with sculptors that they also consider the issue of primary viewing angles when sculpting figures.
Constraint #7: Photograph or Physical Object?
As anyone who’s ever struggled to take pictures of their miniatures knows all too well, they just don’t look the same in photographs. It’s hard to see and appreciate some aspects of a three dimensional object in a flat picture. Photographs tend to amplify some things, minimize others, and distort colour.
However, it’s also true that the miniature painting hobby has flourished alongside the rise of accessible digital close-up photography over the past 20 years. It’s ever easier to share what we work on, and enjoy looking at the figures others have done. In fact, it’s probably the case that many of us mostly see miniatures painted by other people in photographs rather than in person. We might only see miniatures painted by other artists in person a few times a year, unless we’re lucky enough to be part of a miniature painting club/group or an active gaming community supported by multiple painters.
So things look different in photos, but for many of us, our hobby viewing largely consists of photos. I think this is leads to or contributes to a situation where we make painting decisions to prioritize what looks good in photos over what looks good in person.
I talked about the constraint of miniatures being small in the first part of this article. That small size means we need to exaggerate effects and textures, push contrast, and simplify to make our tiny figures readable to the viewer at a quick glance. Billboards and icons versus illustrations and movies. As makers we already have a tendency to forget that big picture and focus in on the details as we stare at our figures close-up and magnified for hours while we paint them. We hold ourselves back from pushing contrast or trying blacklining or similar things because it looks too stark in that close-up view.
Viewing miniatures primarily as photographs only amplifies that. Photos often show miniatures at several times life size, emphasizing details that are barely noticeable in live viewing at actual size. This affects sculpts, as well as painting. I increasingly see figures festooned with details that look great in large close-up photographs or renders, but the actual production figures are disappointing. The fancy detail is too shallow or too complex to paint effectively, and the more delicate features and proportions lack clarity and definition at gaming scale.
Take a look at the wrapping paper in the picture below. I first painted this kind of pattern a few years before this, and was pleased that I had improved my brush control to the point that I could paint it at an even smaller and more realistic size. It looks pretty nice in the photo, I think.
But then I put the penguin in my display case next to my first try at painting candy cane wrapping paper, and I noticed something. Scaled down as in this photo or viewed in real life, the pattern on the penguin’s wrapping paper doesn’t stand out very well, especially compared to the candy cane wrapping paper on the diorama. The larger size of the candy canes on the diorama paper plus the higher contrast between the white of the candy canes and the darker green is much more visually effective. It’s an example of how sometimes it’s better at our small scale to simplify and exaggerate than to dive into super realistic fiddly detail.
This doesn’t just apply to detail, either. I think viewing miniatures in photographs is a big barrier to pushing contrast for a lot of people. You take a photo and see all the blending issues. So you smooth out the blending and lose some of the contrast. Or you pull back from even trying much contrast in the first place. If you look at this post, you can see a comparison of the same figure with more or less contrast, including a comparison picture scaled down to the smaller size you’d look at a figure in real life, where the contrast makes even more difference.
The ideal painting of a miniature is something that works both at arm’s length and close up. The best figures you see do this, whether or not you’re aware of it. You may think the part that wows you is the intricate freehand or subtle facial expression, and those are impressive. But to win the contest, to leap off the shelf at the viewer, to get lots of likes, all of that has to be built on top of a solid foundation of visually effective use of contrast and colour choices. The figure needs to stand out to the judge/viewer at a distance to get a closer look, and then that closer look needs to wow, as well. It’s easy to think that all the detail and fancy brush work is the only thing that matters, but it simply isn’t the case.
Even in a non-contest situation, figures viewed in person are competing. They’re competing for the attention of the viewer against the other figures around them, or against the poor lighting in your game room, or just against the busy background of things that surround them. They need to be visually effective at a quick glance, and from a distance. Almost the opposite of the kinds of characteristics photography emphasizes.
To try to simulate the effect of size and figures competing on a shelf, scale pictures down. Look at thumbnails on a webstore. Scroll through posts in a Facebook group on your phone. Take a look at this image search, which is a selection of different paint schemes on the same figure. Think about why. Sometimes it’s issues related to the photography, but often it will be because there is strong value or colour contrast that makes the shapes of the figure easier to read so you can quickly see who it is and what it’s doing.
Now click through some of those you liked best and see what you think of the figure looking at larger scale photos. You’ll find some don’t have the level of detail and polish you had expected from the thumbnails. But they already accomplished something significant in getting you to click through and look closer. Try this same experiment with some of the thumbnails that least drew your attention. Some of these may be painted with more detail and nuance than you expected. You are also likely noticing that picture quality is a big factor – well-lit, appropriately cropped pictures on suitable backgrounds are much easier to look at, and something to look into if you want to post pictures of your work. But if you’re trying to address how your figures do at in person events, remember you can’t control the background.
Cool Mini or Not is an effective site to use for this exercise. You can enter specific miniatures, manufacturers, or just look at all the submissions. I wasn’t able to link to a specific search, but here’s the general browsing page.
Painting for photographs and close-up views has definitely been an issue for me in my painting. If you look through my CMON gallery thumbnails (sadly very out of date), you’ll find lots of figures that don’t jump off of the page as thumbnails. I have spent years worrying too much about that close up view and not giving enough attention to creating a solid foundation.
Constraint #8: Character and Story vs Visual Impact
Sometimes the character/story you want to tell is about the skulking sneak thief, the stealthy ninja, the cloaked assassin, the camouflaged soldier, the animals that skillfully blend into their surroundings. So of course you’ll use darker and duller colours, less contrast, and fewer showy techniques, right? That approach generally creates issues if your goal is to paint a piece that people want to look at. The human eye is drawn to bright colours, strong contrasts in value, and other elements that stand out from the background and wave ‘look at me’. So how do you balance those two competing goals?
Always keep in mind the function of your miniature as an object. Whether for play, display, or a contest, a primary function of your miniature is to be looked at. To perform that function the figure has to draw people’s eyes and make them want to look at it. That function trumps even character and story – it doesn’t matter how compelling your character/story is if no one ever looks closely enough at it to see. So if the function of being eye-catching is at odds with the concept of a character that is trying not to attract attention, we have to explore ways to accomplish both goals if we want to make an effective miniature.
What attracts the human eye on an initial glance is largely subconscious, and heavily based on contrast. That might be contrast of something dark in value adjacent to something light, bright colours against dull ones, complementary colours, contrast of textures – there are lots of different kinds of contrast, though colour and value are the most compelling to our eye. Again, this is largely subconscious. Whether or not someone is drawn to look at your miniature happens long before their rational mind might say ‘hey, that’s a thief, it’s supposed to blend into the scenery, so those dull colours and low contrast totally make sense.’ Miniatures painted with more effective use of colour and value contrast don’t get more likes and win more contests because that is the ’style’ that is in fashion. They do so because those are the cornerstones of effective visual communication in every media, and they are especially critical when working at such a small scale.
There are a few different ways to balance the two opposing goals. A light effect, a more vividly painted section of the scene that stands on its own and then the viewer discovers the lurking character on a closer glance, the character caught in surroundings that it doesn’t blend into, a few elements of subtle ‘bling’ for contrast, like the embroidered inner cloak of my rogue above. It’s not easy to do, but think of it as an interesting creative challenge!
If you study some illustrations of these types of characters, you’ll find that the artist often uses colour or value contrast in the background, much like I discussed with the Death Dealer in part one. Here are some sample illustrations of assassins, and some of rogues. Having no control over the background and atmosphere surrounding a freestanding figure is one of the biggest constraints and challenges of our art form! We have to adapt and work some of that colour and contrast into our figures, because unless you’re making a diorama/background, the figure and its base are all you have to work with.
You are of course always free to paint exactly to your vision and taste! But when you do that, you need to accept that the world at large may not agree with your choices. Your lurking assassin may lurk just beyond the attention of judges and viewers scrolling Instagram/Facebook/Discord. You can’t talk people’s eyes and brains into responding differently to visual information than they have for thousands of years. If you want to work on a contest entry or display piece that you’re going to invest a lot of time into, you and your audience will likely be happier if you choose to explore a character/story that you feel more comfortable using colour and contrast on.
Below are a couple of pictures taken of miniatures lined up on a shelf. The indifferent lighting and cluttered viewing area are similar to the conditions at most convention contests and game tables. Some of these figures jump out to your eye much more than others. Which ones those are are not necessarily the ones I invested the most time and fancy brushwork in. Some of these figures were painted to a high standard, some to a tabletop standard, and a couple to somewhere in between. This is the kind of first experience most people will have with your figures live or in thumbnail photos. You need to grab their attention here to make them want to look closer and appreciate your freehand or subtle colour transitions and so on!
If you’d like to try to guess the three categories for each of the miniatures, post your guess in the comments! (Tabletop, solid work, and display.) We’ll number them from left to right 1 – 5 for the top row and 6 – 10 for the bottom row. I’ll let a few days go by after first posting this and then verify the categories for the figures in the comments.
This is very much still something I’m working out how to do myself. And by no means do I always get it right! Sometimes I paint a figure that does its job as a catalog miniature in a photograph, but which would not get many second looks on a contest shelf. I finished one just recently, in fact, and I’ll share some details about that in an upcoming post.
Miniatures Featured in this Post
Ingrid is available in metal or Bones plastic.
The Elmore angel is available in metal.
This version of Tara the Silent was a special edition miniature. An archer version of this sculpt was included in the Bones 5 Kickstarter and will release in retail at some point.
Lorielle Silverrain is available in metal.
The Crane Courtier is out of production.
The Human Greenbond is available in metal.
Witch of the Darkmoors is available in metal.
Jahenna is available in metal.
Lilith of Ptolus is out of production.
Caerindra Thistlemoor is available in metal, and is part of Bones 5 in plastic. (Painting article)
Asandris Nightbloom is available in metal. (Painting article)
Churrusina is available in metal.
The holiday present penguin is occasionally seasonally available from Reaper Miniatures.
Mrs Claus is available in metal.
The mischievous Waggamaeph is out of production. Copies periodically show up on Noble Knight.
The noblewoman is available in metal, and is part of Bones 5 in plastic.
Madame Delia is available in metal, and is part of Bones 5 in plastic. (Painting article)
Alistrilee is available in metal or plastic.
Thregan Helmsplitter is available in metal and is part of Bones 5 in plastic.
The Rum & Bones pirate is a member of the Wellsport crew.
Alec, Young Mage is available in metal, and is part of Bones 5 in plastic.
Asandris Nightbloom is available in metal.
Romag Davl is available in Bones USA plastic. (Painting article.)
The Troglodyte is available in plastic.