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When miniature painters talk about contrast, we most often talk about one very specific type of contrast – painting a sufficient range of contrast between dark shadows and light highlights. That is a critical element to successful miniature painting, and one that I’ve covered extensively.
However, that is just one variety of visual contrast! There are many other kinds. Understanding the other types and considering ways to use them in our painting can help us more easily accomplish goals in our own work, and better understand how the artists we admire create the paint jobs we love.
If you’ve received feedback that your miniatures need more contrast (or pop), bear in mind that our critique language in miniature painting can be pretty limited. You probably do need darker shadows and brighter highlights (most of us do, always), but the problem might be that the various areas of the figure are not visually distinct enough from on another and everything kind of blurs together if you look at the figure from more than a few inches away. If your concern is to paint in a more realistic way, I encourage you to read my article Contrast Versus Realism, and also to read the comments on it from other painters who have struggled with this.
This article is an introduction to the types of visual contrast we can use in painting miniatures. Like the Anatomy of Colour article, it is intended more as a broad overview. I will expand on how to use these tools and provide additional examples in future articles. Since so many elements of contrast relate to colour, you may find it helpful to read the Anatomy of Colour as well.
What is Contrast?
At the simplest level, visual contrast occurs when you place two elements with opposing properties in close proximity to one another. The difference between the two elements draws the eye and attention of the viewer.
We tend to think of contrast as being the extremes of difference – black vs white. However, it may be more useful to think of contrast properties as existing on a scale from absolute or extreme difference on one end, to very little difference on the other. There are visual design uses for all points on the scale.
Why is Contrast Important?
Contrast is a very effective tool to attract, focus, or divert the viewer’s attention. Contrast is usually what draws people to look at a miniature (or billboard, or poster, or food label, or book cover or…) in the first place. Skilled artists use areas of high contrast to pull people’s eyes to the elements of the piece that are most important and convey the most character and story. They use lower contrast on sections that are less important, to give the viewer’s eyes a place to rest, or to divert attention from poorly sculpted/constructed sections. People like to look at contrast, so it also has the general effect of making what you paint more interesting to look at.
At the most fundamental level, using principles of contrast throughout your figure helps the viewer figure out the basic aspects of the figure – race/species, job/role, gender, and current action. Miniature figures are very small and can be difficult to interpret from even a relatively short distance. Use of contrast helps make them easier for viewers to read from further away. Contrast is equally important to the display painter who wants to win contests as it is to the tabletop painter who wants their figures to look great in games. The only difference is the techniques used to apply it and the amount of time spent.
Types of Contrast for Miniature Painters
The varieties of contrast below are listed roughly in order of their importance and effectiveness. Strong value contrast and colour contrast are very eye catching and attention grabbing. You can paint a visually effective piece with clever use of these and only minimal application of technique.
Note that the effects of contrast compound by using multiple types. Juxtaposing a light peach colour against a dark teal colour employs both value and hue contrast. It is very visually effective, as a great many designers and movie makers are already aware. Conversely, if you want to paint freehand that doesn’t pull a lot of attention from other areas of the figure, use lower hue and value contrast to keep it more in the background.
If you are unable to use strong value and/or hue contrast in your piece, you will find it helpful to use as many of the other types as you can. A simple example would be painting a figure in a monochromatic colour scheme. In addition to losing the cues to material/surface provided by colour, you also lose a major type of contrast. To paint monochromatic colour schemes most successfully, you need to be highly attentive to value, and put more focus on creating texture and detail to create additional contrast.
1. Contrast of Values – Between Different Sections
Value is how light or dark something is. The most eye-catching and effective type of contrast is high contrast of value – when something very dark is placed in proximity to something very light. You will generally see text presented as very dark value text on a light value background, or the reverse. Value is easy to see in shades of grey, but can be more difficult for many people to correctly assess when looking at colours.
Notice how the graphics that use the extremes of white and black attract your attention more, particularly when the black and white are directly adjacent.
With this type of contrast, I am referring to contrast between adjacent areas of your miniature – pale skin next to dark hair, or polished non-metallic steel armour next to dark brown leather belt and gauntlets. Contrast within an area between shadows and highlights is critical to create three dimensionality. Contrast between areas is a critical element of good design/composition of the piece.
Quick tips: Try to use the strongest value contrast(s) near the most important or more interesting area(s) of the figure, like the face and/or whatever action is it performing. Avoid using strong value contrast in less interesting areas. An example for most figures would be to use high value contrast between the figure’s face and its hair/hood/hat, and use lower value contrast between a figure’s feet and its legs/skirt/pants. Take a black and white photo of your figure to check your value contrast.
2. Contrast of Hues (Complements, Triads)
Hue describes the main family of a colour – orange, blue, green, etc. (The term ‘colour’ encompasses several colour properties that are also types of contrast, so I’m using hue to avoid confusion.) Each of the main hue families are more or less similar to other hues – orange is similar to red, but very different than blue. Placing hues that are more different than one another in proximity creates stronger contrast. Using hues that are more similar to one another creates less contrast.
For example, yellow, orange, and red are more similar to one another, and less similar to blue and green. Placing red next to blue or orange next to green creates more visual contrast than placing red next to orange.
The strongest contrast is between complementary colours. In classic colour theory the complementary pairs are: blue/orange, yellow/purple, and red/green. In the CMY system the complementary pairs are: cyan/red, yellow/blue, and magenta/green
Triadic colour schemes are those with three hues that are equidistant apart from each other on the colour wheel. They do not contrast each other as strongly as two complementary colours, but they do provide effective contrast, and make for harmonious colour schemes. Simple triadic schemes are the three primary colours or the three secondary colours. In classic colour theory the primary triadic schemes are red-yellow-blue, and the secondary are orange-purple-green. In CMY the primary triadic schemes are cyan-magenta-yellow and the secondary are blue-red-green.
Two complementary pairs on the left, and two triadic schemes on the right.
The examples of hue contrast above may not look very attractive to you. When you use contrasting hues together that are all roughly the same value and saturation, the contrast can be so strong that the hues almost seem to fight one another. These hues will appear more harmonious if you vary the value and/or saturation between them. So you might have a vivid blue for your cloak, combined with a reddish skin tone and gold metallic trim.
The same colour choices as above, but varying the saturation and/or value of some of the colours.
Quick tips: Hue contrast can be a great partner to value and used in a similar way. Or it can lend a helping hand when you aren’t able to make the point with value alone. For example, if the clothing and accessories of your figure are pretty similar in value, you can use hue contrast to help one stand out from other, like pairing green clothing with reddish brown leather armour.
3. Contrast of Form (Higher Highlights, Darker Shadows)
We only see objects in light. Areas of objects that face the light and receive more illumination appear lighter to our eyes. Areas that face away from the light or are blocked from receiving light are shadowed and appear darker. When we paint shadows and highlights on our miniatures, we make them look more like objects appear to us in the real world. Because miniatures are so small, very strong contrast between the dark value of shadows and light value of highlights makes a painted miniature more interesting to look at. It also helps the viewer more quickly and easily distinguish the various areas of the figures to better interpret what areas are and what the figure is doing.
Compare these with the flat value versions below. There are ways that the shading and highlighting enhance the examples that have lower value contrast between areas, but the benefit of starting with strong value contrast between areas is apparent.
All of these same principles are true in traditional artwork, and understanding that may help us better understand why it is important for miniature painters. On a flat surface, the thing that turns a two dimensional circle (shape) into appearing like a three dimensional sphere (form) is applying shadows and highlights. This may not seem necessary on a miniature since it starts out three dimensional, but miniature figures are so small we need to use paint values to duplicate the way light and shadow would appear on the shapes of a figure lit by an in-scale light source.
Compare the two photos below. The photo on the left was taken with a bright overhead ceiling light. The photo on the right was taken with a lamp placed a few inches above the miniature. The light placement on the right is more in scale with the small size of the figure. The way the light and shadow fall on the right figure not only allows you to see the details more clearly, but also gives the shapes of the figure much more form and dimension. You can see that his chest muscles and belt buckle protrude forward, while other shapes recede back from view. The goal in applying shadows and highlights is to use paint to make a figure look like the one on the right does even when it is viewed in lighting like that on the left.
This barbarian is available in Bones plastic.
Why is this type of contrast third on my list if it’s the contrast miniature painters talk about the most? Partly this is a function of the conventions of critique in our hobby. Our vocabulary is limited. We do talk about value and hue contrast, but that conversation is wrapped up with the omnipresent discussion of shadow/highlight contrast. Whether we talk about it or not, and whether they’re doing it consciously or by instinct, the best painters of both display and tabletop miniatures use these others kinds of contrast. Skilled display painters start with an overall composition of the figure based more on value, hue, temperature and so on, and then layer shadows and highlights on top of that. Clever tabletop painters realize they need not spend as much time on laborious shading and highlighting if they skillfully employ value and hue contrast.
Also note that the other types of contrast can be used within shadows and highlights to make them more effective. We talk about using value in shadows and highlights a lot – darker shadows and lighter highlights is the mantra! However, you can increase contrast of form by using less saturated colours in shadows and more saturated colours in midtones and highlights. You can also increase it by using hue or temperature contrasts. For example, using cooler colours or a complementary colour in the shadows. When you look at work by skilled painters that you feel uses a lower shadow/highlight contrast than what you’re being told to do, the reality is that even if the value contrast is lower, they are using additional types of contrast in their shadows and highlights. If you feel higher contrast is not realistic or you’re perturbed about being told to increase the contrast in your work, I encourage you to read this article and the comments on it – Contrast Versus Realism.
Quick tips: I’ve got a whole series of articles on this topic, including lots of how-to tips.
4. Contrast of Saturation
Saturation is a property of colour – how vivid or intense the colour is. Cherry red is a highly saturated red. Brick red is a lower intensity red. Neutrals are low or desaturated colours – purplish taupe, yellowish beige, orangey brown, grey, black, white, etc. Our eyes are drawn to intense colour. But too much intense colour can be jarring and discordant. We can use both of those facts to our advantage when choosing what colours to put where on our figures.
When you look at these, the light saturated green area and then the bright red area are probably the the two that draw your attention most. You probably spent the least time looking at the on the far right since it has low saturation colours.
Quick tip: If you are limited in the contrast of value you can use between areas, saturation is an effective tool to use to intensify contrast. Use high saturation colours on or near the most important part of your piece, and use lower saturation colours in areas you don’t want viewers to spend a lot of time on. You can use glazes/washes or mix more intense colour in and do touch ups to increase or decrease the saturation in particular areas. For example, if you were painting a Santa Claus figure, you could use more orange/yellow in your highlights on his suit near his face. You could dull down the red on his sides or legs a little with glazes of duller reds or other colours in the shadows to make those areas a little less distracting to the viewer.
5. Contrast of Temperature
Temperature is another colour property. Each colour can be described as being a warm colour or a cool colour. Warm colours juxtaposed with cool colours create contrast. Part of the reason complementary colours contrast so highly to one another is that one in the pair is warm and the other is cool.
Identifying colours as cool or warm is easy in the abstract – colours with more yellow/orange in them are warm colours, and colours with more blue in them are cool colours. In practice it can be more challenging, as the temperature of a colour is always relative to the other colours used around it. If you compare multiple shades of blue, some will be cooler and some will be warmer. In the far right example below, the orange is a warmer colour than the dark pink.
The effect of temperature contrast works well in partnership with other forms of contrast.
Quick tips: Temperature contrast is another helpful partner if you are limited in the value contrast you can use. Use one temperature on the focal point of your figure, and the other in areas surrounding it. Temperature contrast is a very useful tool for creating stronger contrast between your shadows and highlights, as well. Using cooler colours in the shadows and warmer colours in the highlights (or vice versa) can add to three dimensionality and increase the impression of the value contrast between those areas.
6. Contrast of Finish – Gloss/Matte/Metallic
This type of contrast relates to the way the paint reflects physical light rather than its hue or other colour properties. The finish of paint can vary from super matte, to satin, to very glossy, to metallic shimmer. Some painters use only matte paints, and paint metal surfaces with the non-metallic metal technique. Others use metallic paints to paint metal objects, and matte paints for everything else. It is also possible to use other finishes of non-metallic paints for additional contrast. You might use a satin or glossy finish paint to paint leather accessories or silk or satin cloth, for example.
Finish based contrast can look great in person, but it does not photograph well. Which one of the following paints is a metallic?* Yeah, I can barely tell either. I could have photographed them in different lighting, but then I’d just get spots of white glare.
Quick tips: Using metallic paints in tabletop painting is a quick and effective method of contrast because of the finish difference between glittering metallic paints and flatter matte paints. Effects based on different finishes, like adding shiny blood or saliva, can also add a lot of visual interest to a piece, and glints of reflecting light help draw the viewer’s eye. However, don’t rely on finish as a primary source of contrast for miniatures that will largely be viewed in photographs.
7. Contrast of Texture (Detail vs Smooth/Quiet)
We love details in our figures – sculpted textures like chainmail and fur, painted textures like woven cloth, freehand, weathering, delicate filigree, and so much more. Detail, texture, and pattern can draw the eye and make a piece more interesting to view. But our eyes can also get overwhelmed by too much. It is helpful to remember that smooth is also a texture. Smooth areas contrast well with areas of painted or sculpted detail, and you can use the contrast between smooth and detailed to help direct the viewer’s eye or keep it on your story. If nothing else, you need to be sure to give the viewer’s eye a few places to rest in between taking in all the details.
The sections on the leftmost example are not visually distinct from one another. The plain areas of the middle examples stand out because they are contrasted with the sections of detail and texture that surround them and with strong value contrast. Although the rightmost example has lower value contrast between all the sections, the plain area still stands out most because it is different than the surrounding areas.
Quick tip: For display/contest figures, don’t think of texture/freehand as a method to demonstrate painting skill. Only paint bold or bright freehand and texture in situations where it helps direct the viewer’s eye and tell the story/character of your piece. Keep it more subtle in other areas. For tabletop pieces where speed is of the essence, use lots of shadow/highlight contrast on sculpted texture to bring out the details. If you’re going to spend a little extra time to paint some some super smooth blends, prioritize the face and skin and areas in proximity to the face, and don’t worry about more distant and unimportant objects like the boots.
8. Contrast of Opacity (and/or Paint Texture)
These types of contrast relate to the paint itself, and how it is applied. Many darker paint colours are somewhat to very transparent due to the nature of the pigments they’re mixed with. White is a fairly opaque colour, so most light value colours with white added are usually opaque. Painters can use those properties by using opaque lighter value paints for lights and highlights. Opaque colours appear more solid and substantial, and thus appear as if are closer to the viewer. Contrasting that against darker more transparent colours used in the shadows enhances the effect. Miniature painters explore aspects of this when they use washes and glazes in shadow areas and then more opaque paint applied in layers or drybrushing for highlights.
Some traditional painters use paint texture in a similar way. They use smoother strokes and and thinner coats of paint on shadow areas or objects in the distant background to keep them unobtrusive and receding from the viewer. Painters can contrast that with thickly applied strokes and dabs of paint in areas of light and on objects that are closer to the viewer so they leap out to the eye and grab attention.
You can see an example below. The white highlight reflections on the peppers have been painted with paint strokes several millimetres thick. The darker areas are flatter and the paint is a bit more transparent. (This is not a great painting, but it’s the best example I had to hand. The dabs of white would look better supported by stronger strokes or a little more general paint build up in the area of the lights.)
For a much better example, look at this self-portrait of Rembrandt. Zoom in and you can see thick textured strokes in the light areas of the skin. Texture also helps describe the hair and moustache. Areas of the shadow in the skin are painted with thinner, less textured paint, which is also true of the large dark areas in the rest of the painting. As a result, the face jumps out at the viewer. I imagine the effect is even more pronounced when it is viewed in person. You can see some video footage and compare the effect against other painting styles in this short video.
This second example is by Stan Prokopenko. He is a talented artist, and a fantastic art instructor. This image is was posted on his Instagram, but he has a wealth of resources and a supportive community of artists on his website.
Use of these types of contrast is uncommon among miniature painters. Miniature paints are formulated to be fluid and self-levelling specifically to minimize the appearance of brush strokes, and painters are often admonished to thin their paints. However, there are miniature painters who use heavy body tube acrylic paint to add physical dimension and texture to highlight paint mixes. There are also painters like Alfonso “Banshee” Giraldes who are exploring use of more visible brush strokes in miniature painting. This is most commonly done on larger scale figures and busts, like this Van Gogh inspired bust by Anthony Rodriguez.
*The metallic paint is the second from the right.