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The most common advice miniature painters receive is to paint with stronger contrast between their shadow and highlight areas. I’ve written several articles over the years on this topic. This post collects those articles together for easier reference, and for the benefit of those who missed reading them as they first released.
One article in that series is far and away the most popular page on this site: How to Paint Contrast – Hands On*. I’m pleased so many people like it and find it useful! But I think you will find it most useful if you also read the articles that explain more of the theory and psychology behind why we like looking at contrast (more than we realize we do), but nonetheless still find it difficult to paint.
I also took this opportunity to add additional links to the older articles, clean up the formatting on them, and add additional examples.
The Catalog of Contrast
There are actually many different kinds of contrast you can use in miniature painting. This is an overview with some suggested tips for use.
Understanding Shadow/Highlight Contrast
Compare and Contrast
A visual comparison of a miniature painted with fairly low contrast, and the same figure painted with much higher contrast. This introduction to the subject gives a detailed look at the difference between various areas of that figure with more and less contrast.
Before and After Feedback Example
What would implementing feedback look like? I critique a figure, and then touch it up using value, colour, and texture to address the issues. This example uses less complex painting techniques and a lower contrast level than the above. A video version is also available.
Contrast versus Realism
Miniature painters receiving the criticism that they need to paint with more contrast often object because they feel that high contrast isn’t realistic. Take a look at the real world a little more closely and you’ll see there’s often more contrast than you think. And even when there isn’t, there are reasons we need to exaggerate it on our figures.
Painting Shadow/Highlight Contrast
Prepare your Mind and your Eye
Understanding why it’s so hard for you to paint with more contrast can help you push yourself to do it more successfully. This article also includes additional before and after examples of figures I have revised to add more contrast.
This is an overview of several methods of applying primer and/or paint that you can use to help you push the contrast between your shadows and highlights. Several of these methods can also help you figure out where you want to put those shadows and highlights.
The Constraints of Miniature Painting
These articles aren’t about contrast specifically, but they can help you better understand why miniature figures need it. We don’t control the background of our figure. We also have much more limited tools to use to direct viewer attention than illustrators, movie makers, or photographers. Part I includes a comparison of two painted versions of a Death Dealer figure with higher and lower amounts of contrast. Part II discusses additional issues.
Visualizing Contrast and Lining
I compare two similar figures I painted to one another, and explain why one is a stronger figure. I also compare the painted figures to digitally edited photos of what they would look like with stronger contrast and darklining between sections.
Before and After Blacksmith Touchup
I critique a miniature to highlight common issues you might receive as feedback, and then do paint touchups to address those issues so you can visualize what they look like. Includes link to the video where I paint the touchups live.
The Power of Light
I observed strong contrast in an everyday scene in my home. In this article I have photo examples that demonstrate the powerful effect light can have in creating strong value differences between dark shadows and light highlights.
More Contrast can be Subtle
This article includes a more subtle comparison of painting more contrast. I revised an area I had painted to have slightly darker shadows and slightly lighter highlights.
Character/Story versus Visual Impact
How can we approach the conflict between a character concept or story of a figure that is dark or blends into the background, but also create a miniature that attracts the viewer’s eye to look at it? Here are some ideas for handling this issue that often holds people back from painting with more contrast.
Study Guide for a Video Example
I wrote a guide for how you might study and practice from a great video that demonstrates how to apply highlights and shadows to a face. In the article (and the video) you can see the level of contrast between shadows and highlights.
Use Your Primer to Add Contrast
For Sophie 2018, I used grayscale brush-on primer mixes to rough in the shadows and highlights on the miniature. I applied paint to the figure using the primer values as a guide to where to place darker and lighter areas.
Lighting Reference Photo and Colour Block In
To paint Caerindra Thistlemoor I took lighting reference photos of the primed figure. I first roughly blocked in the areas of light and shadow, and then refined the blends and added details.
Lighting Reference Photo and the Types of Shadows
I angled a light into position and took photos of Ziba the Efreeti to have a guide for where to paint areas of shadow and light. This article also include information about cast vs form shadows and how we approach those in miniature painting.
Primer Contrast and Colour Block In
For this Dragon and Stocking figure, I started by using greyscale primer to rough in the location of shadows and highlights on the figure. Then I applied the main colour paint in a similar way using the primer as a guide. Includes WIP photos from the rough block in to finished figure.
* At time of writing the Hands On Contrast page has had almost 9000 hits.