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This article focuses specifically on common painting-related issues that we see with contest entries. I also recommend reading Part 1 of this article, which focuses on general tips and some common issues related to assembly and workmanship. Even if you’re not interested in contests, many of the tips in both articles are relevant to anyone looking to improve their work.
Erin Hartwell’s entries at World Expo in Chicago.
I’ve been entering figures into online and offline contests and shows for years, and have also acted as a judge at several. These tips are based on the issues I see most commonly when I give entrants feedback on their work. These suggestions are primarily aimed at beginner and intermediate painters (Certificate, Bronze, and Silver level at the MSP Open), but to be honest, I still struggle with elements related to everything I talk about below to one degree or another (apart from lining), and I suspect I always will.
I also have an article that explains the different formats and terminology used in miniature contests, with links to upcoming events that include miniature contests and shows.
7. Arm’s Length AND Close Up
Most of us paint with the figure held close to our eyes, in bright light, and often with magnification. We are used to assessing our paint jobs from that perspective, and it is easy to forget that this is not how viewers first encounter our figures. People’s first view of your miniature will be at a distance – arm’s length on the game table or contest shelf, or thumbnail on a webstore or social media page. You need to attract the viewer’s attention at that arm’s length view to make them want to look closer so they can appreciate all your effort on detail, smooth blends, weathering, etc.
Most painters understand that the arm’s length view is very important for gaming miniatures, but many people discount its importance in display level painting. Many display painters put all of their emphasis on detail and precision for the close-up view, and fail to consider whether the paint choices come together to work well in the big picture view. This has certainly been an ongoing issue that I battle with in my own painting!
This photo from the Atlanta Model Figure Show is an example of the bustle and visual clutter that happens at a show style contest. At a show, painters have a decent amount of space and some input into how their figures are displayed. Painters have no control over the location of their miniature in a contest with display cases. Figures displayed on shelves in cases are crammed together and competing with their neighbours for viewer attention.
Depending on the character type, the story you want to tell, and the colours you want to use, painting a figure to look good at arm’s length and close up can be pretty challenging. That is precisely why it’s important to think about trying to do it if you’re working on painting a contest entry. Judges know it’s difficult to do. We are considering that challenge factor when we assess entries. In a top three style contest the judges have to make difficult choices. A figure that is competently painted to be appreciated at both arm’s length and close-up may win out over one that excels in only one viewing distance. In medal style judging a figure that excels at detail and blending may place at silver rather than gold level if it is especially weak at the distance view.
Making your miniature stand out at arm’s length is particularly important for in person contests. Miniature painters do not have all the tools available to us that other artists do. We can’t make the background plain or artfully blur it out. Usually there is a lot of visual clutter surrounding our piece that it has to compete with. We also can’t crop our figures down to the important part to force viewers to focus on that the way photographers can. (Though sculptors can, and this is kind of what busts are!) The only tools we have are the colours we apply to the miniature and the way we apply them.
Below are a couple of shelf shots I took of miniatures I’ve painted. Some used tabletop techniques and a small time investment, some are painted to a high quality level with a larger time investment, and some are somewhere in between. The ones that first grab your attention are not necessarily the ones I put the most effort and time into. You can read more about this and discover which figures are from which level of paint job in Constraints and Conudrums Part II.
The above picture simulates some of the visual clutter and indifferent lighting that would be present on a convention contest shelf or game table. Compare it to the picture below with figures posed against a clean background with good lighting. Enticing viewer attention at arm’s length is especially important if the figure will be viewed in a cluttered environment and/or under suboptimal lighting.
So what makes for a good arm’s length figure? I’m going to outline some of the tools you can use in points below. I hope to expand on this and the other topics outlined in this overview in future articles.
8. Definition and Clarity
One thing to aim for in the arm’s length view is to make colour and paint technique choices that help the viewer identify the key elements of the figure as quickly as possible – who/what is this, and what are they doing. At its most basic level think of this as breaking up the main areas of the figure so the viewer can tell if it’s a human(oid) or a monster, and whether areas are skin, hair, equipment, etc.
How can you use colour to do that? One way is to choose colours for adjacent areas of the miniature that are significantly different from one another in at least one characteristic. Choosing colours that differ in more than one characteristic draws the eye even more, and is an effective way to create focus areas.
Value: place a darker colour next to a lighter colour.
Hue: use a colour that contrasts in hue/temperature next to another, like blue next to orange.
Saturation: use a vivid colour adjacent to a neutral colour, like red next to grey.
Texture: smooth areas next to textured, detailed, or freehanded areas; or metallic/glossy paint areas next to matte paint areas.
To put it another way, it is helpful to use contrast in adjacent areas. Miniature painters tend to focus on contrast within an area – darker shadows and lighter highlights. This kind of contrast can help viewers more easily ‘read’ your figure, and it’s definitely helpful to improving your miniature painting. However, for the best big picture view, you need to create contrast between sections of the figure. See the Anatomy of Colour for visual examples of different colour properties, and the Catalog of Contrast for visual examples of the different types of contrast you can use to define and clarify your figure to the viewer.
This chart from the Anatomy of Colour article demonstrates some of the ways that hue, saturation, and value interact with one another.
Consider the following figures. Try to view them at the same size as a gaming scale miniature would look from 2-3 feet away. These are some of the example figures from a Kickstarter Learn to Paint kit that I wrote for Reaper Miniatures. They are all painted with the techniques of drybrushing and washing, have roughly the same level of shadow-highlight contrast, and minimal lining. Some of them grab your attention more than others. This is largely due to their levels of contrast between adjacent areas. Those that have bigger differences in value, saturation, and/or hue are the ones that stand out more.
Using more refined techniques of blending, and/or stronger highlight-shadow contrast, and/or lining, and/or increased detailing would add to the visual impact of the figures that don’t stand out as much, but this is a good example of how the basic colour choices for your figure can give you a more solid foundation to build detail and blending and other techniques on top of.
Below is the same image converted to black and white, so you can see how strong the effect of the values and hues can be. The orc with the staff and the woman with the dragon stand out well in both colour and grayscale because the colours of the different areas on those figures are significantly different in value. For example, light skin and hair next to dark bodice next to medium value skirt on the woman with the dragon. The archer on the bottom left is more attention grabbing in the colour photo due to the hue contrast between the reddish armour and blue cloak, even though the greyscale photo reveals that there isn’t a strong value difference between her armour and her cloak. The figure on the top row in yellow and grey also stands out better in colour. The value between the grey and yellow is exactly the same in greyscale, but the saturation difference between the bright yellow and neutral grey really stands out when it is viewed in colour.
You can see some additional examples and expanded discussion of this topic in the Constraints of Miniature Painting Part I, and a comparison between two figures that are similar in sculpting style and colour scheme, but have differing levels of definition, in Understanding Critique.
The most common piece of feedback I end up giving to Certificate and Bronze medal figure painters after the MSP Open is to use lining on their miniatures. I know that other judges and instructors emphasize the same point, as well. Michael Proctor has said lining is the one thing you can do that has the most visual impact. Although all of these judges and skilled painters I know suggest lining enthusiastically, many of the people who hear that advice are very resistant to the suggestion.
So what is lining, why are we suggesting you should do it, and why might you feel uncomfortable with that suggestion? The technique of lining involves painting a line of black or a dark colour where two different areas of the miniature meet or overlap. For example, a line where the edge of a sleeve and the skin of the arm meet, or a line between overlapping armour plates. Applying a wash does not substitute for lining. Wash paint is thinned down enough to be somewhat transparent. While it adds definition to sculpted texture and shadow areas, it does not create the same level of clean definition between areas that lining does.
The figure on the left has almost no lining. The centre figure has been digitally edited to add subtle lining, the figure on the right has digitally added strong lining. In the versions with lining, you can more clearly see which parts of the figure are swimsuit and which are skin even when the photos are scaled down in size as if seen from a distance.
Judges suggest lining for several reasons. The primary one is that it adds definition and clarity to the figure and helps the viewer ‘read’ it more quickly. It’s particularly helpful in situations where the two adjacent areas are similar in value and/or hue. For example, you want to paint a white beard flowing over a pale blue robe. From a distance, the two areas are likely to blur together. Painting a line between them helps visually separate them so the viewer can identify what is what. Lining also helps your paint job look cleaner. The edges where different paint colours meet often look wobbly and messy even if you’re a fairly neat painter. Lining cleans up the edges between areas.
People who resist the idea of lining often say it’s because they think it’s cartoony and they prefer a more realistic and natural style. Certainly a thick black line separating every area of a figure might inspire a cartoon feel, but that’s not the only way to use lining. You don’t have to use a uniform colour for all the lines. You can customize it to the area(s). So in the example with the white bard and pale blue robe, I would use a dark blue or dark grey to paint the line between them. If you customize lining colours to the various areas of your figure, you need to choose a lining colour that is dark in relation to the darkest area where it will be applied. If I had a white beard sitting on a navy shirt, then I would use black, since navy is a dark colour.
I would also argue that lining is more realistic than you think. Objects that overhang another object block the light and create the appearance of a dark line of shadow. Consider the following examples. You can see a dark line of shadow between the mug and the table. You can see lines under the man’s shirt collar flaps, beside the button placket, where the arms meet the body, and where the shirt touches the arms. Yes, those lines are a little more subtle than what you would paint on a miniature, but they are there. We have to exaggerate the lines we use a little just as we have to exaggerate everything else we do on our tiny figures.
Photos from Unsplash. Left by Mediamodifier, right by Gordon Cowie.
If I remove the shadow lines from the photo above, things don’t look as crisp and clear to read (especially if you scale down the size of the pictures like a miniature is scaled down), and they don’t look as real. This is not solely a result of my meagre skills at photo editing. The shadow lines happen in real life, and our visual processing system uses that information to interpret what we’re seeing.
Photos from Unsplash. Left by Mediamodifier, right by Gordon Cowie. Digitally edited for educational purposes.
Another reason people avoid lining is because it is difficult to do. It is definitely challenging to paint thin clean lining on a completed figure! However, that is not the only way to do lining. I like to paint my lining right after I paint a basecoat colour. For example, if I were painting the face, I would paint the initial skin colour and then the dark line where the face meets the hair. I can easily clean up mistakes if I got some liner paint on the nose by accident, or if I need to make a line a little thinner. Then I do my shading and highlighting (or washes and drybrushing). Once I’m finished there will probably be a few spots where I painted over the lining, but I find it’s easier (and less stressful) to clean up a little spot of lining here and there than paint the all of the lining on top of fully finished shading and highlighting.
A tip for painting lining around small details like rivets or an armband is to first paint the dark colour over the entire area and then use the side of the tip of your brush to apply the intended colour to the top of the sculpted detail surface.
Left: Figure with moderate level of contrast but no lining.
Center: Lining has been added digitally.
Right: Figure with painted lining and additional painted shadow contrast.
Try to view the above pictures at the same size a humanoid miniature would appear to you from 2-3 feet away. The difference between the left and centre photos may not be immediately apparently, but try comparing specific areas of the miniature. For example, compare the straps on the forearm and the fingers on the hands. The lining helps you see those details more clearly from further away/at smaller size.
This is a slightly larger version of the photos, with the moderate contrast but no lining figure on the left, and the example where lining has been added digitally on the right. The lined version looks cleaner and it’s easier to see where different items start and end.
You can see another lining example in the Understanding Critique article. This article about how I painted a hydra has examples of the power of lining and more information about how I did it.
It is possible to paint figures without using lining, but it requires the ability and willingness to use very strong shadow contrast. Most painters will find it easier and quicker to implement the lining technique and work up to more highly contrasted painting styles.
10. Focal Point(s)
While the figure/scene exists as a whole, there are parts of it that convey more story and character, and there are parts that are less interesting or less important to look at. A lot of this is established in the sculpt (and/or the composition you choose for the diorama/scene), but the way we paint figures can emphasize, shift, or distract from what’s inherent in the sculpt. When story/character elements and paint elements come together in a way that draws the viewer’s eye, that is the ideal focal point. (It is possible to have one or more secondary focal points, as well.)
Ideally we want to make choices that help direct the viewer quickly identify the main focal point(s) and make it interesting and enjoyable to look at. Painters have several tools at their disposal to try to direct the viewer’s eye to certain places. Most of them involve our colour choices. Lighter and brighter colours draw our eyes. High contrast draws our eyes. (This can be between elements, not just shadow/highlight contrast.) A higher level of detail draws our eyes.
For a simple example, consider the classic vampire trope – super pale skin, with blood red lips (and/or literal drip of blood), black hair, black clothes. The contrast of that pale skin surrounded by black immediately draws the eye to the face. The contrast of the vivid red of blood/lipstick against desaturated pale skin and black hair/cloth also attracts attention. The Marvel character Storm and the classic interpretation of Drow elves use the same principles with the colours and values in different locations – dark skin surrounded by white hair.
Left: Marvel Comics Storm by Julie Bell Right: Morticia Addams played by Angelica Houston in The Addams Family by Paramount.
Creating focus is often a lot more difficult than that. We’re already juggling choices of value, colour, texture, etc. to simulate real world items and create definition. If the idea of also having to think about creating focus points seems too daunting at this stage in your hobby journey, that’s understandable. I am still wrestling with how to do this well myself! Instead, try to think of it from the other direction – avoid choices that steal focus from the important areas and divert it to less important areas. Try to avoid using strong contrast, bright colours, or fancy freehand on areas that are distant from the face or main action. Remember that the materials you use in your basing can also cause problems. For example, if you paint a gritty marine in a khaki uniform and position her on a base covered with bright spring green static grass, people are going to spend too much time looking at the grass, and not enough time looking at your figure. You need to get a different colour of grass, or use washes and drybrushing to dull down your bright green grass.
In the example below, I have digitally edited Storm and Morticia to remove the bright red near their faces, and I’ve added bright colours elsewhere on the figure. Storm’s boots and Morticia’s belt may not be the first place you look at each image, but you’re going to notice those areas more and spend more time looking at them than you did when viewing the original versions above. The bright colours fight with the faces for your attention.
Left: Marvel Comics Storm by Julie Bell Right: Morticia Addams played by Angelica Houston in The Addams Family by Paramount. Digitally edited for educational purposes.
The Catalog of Contrast and the Anatomy of Colour outline the tools you can use to create focus and/or avoid stealing focus. If you’re painting something like an assassin and you’re wondering how to balance the competing demands of painting a character that thematically blends into the scenery while still standing out to the viewer, I discuss that issue in Constraint #8 in the Constraints and Conundrums article.
11. Don’t Be Too Subtle (GO BIG!)
Special effects like source lighting or textures, as well as just general contrast and lighting that you apply to your miniature, are often not nearly as obvious to the viewer as you the painter feel like they are. When you paint something you stare at your miniature for long periods under bright lighting, with it held close to your eyes. It’s easy to feel as if high contrast or textures or whatever effect looks garish or unrealistic while you’re painting it.
You are particularly likely to feel like something is over-the-top when you’re trying something new. Maybe you’re trying to push your contrast. Maybe you’re testing out a new technique for doing blending, or trying some underpainting. Maybe you’re taking a stab at non-metallic metal or weathering. Whatever it is, as you sit there working on it your brain is screaming at you that what you are doing is too much and it looks ridiculous. The problem is that your brain doesn’t know what something new is supposed to look like yet. It just knows that what you’re doing doesn’t look like what you usually do. So it nags at you to make changes so it look like more what you usually do. That is not at all helpful if your aim is to try to learn how to do something new that doesn’t look like what you usually do! The fact that a lot of more advanced techniques like non-metallic metal don’t really look ‘right’ until you’re pretty much done painting only adds to the problem.
These are figures that I painted as examples for classes on source lighting. I painted the leftmost years ago. The centre one was painted in 2015. The one on the right was painted in 2020. Compare the differences in the level of shadow on the left side of the cloak and the left side of the hat. You can get there a lot faster than I did if you embrace the idea of pushing to extremes. (When comparing these remember that the point is not which variation of brown you like better or something like that. The goal of my paint choices is to make that globe that he’s holding look like it is emitting light, and I think it’s clear that the rightmost figure does that most convincingly.)
If I had to pick a theme of the feedback I give most often as a judge, it would probably be that something isn’t enough. There isn’t enough contrast. There isn’t enough lining. The source lighting is too subtle for the viewer to understand that it’s supposed to be source lighting. It isn’t clear on a first glance that this item is supposed to look translucent. The story of this scene or the nature of this character isn’t readily apparent to the viewer. (One exception to this is gore. It’s really easy to overdo blood and gore to the point where it obscures other important information on the figure.)
People take that information home, and they do try to nudge up their contrast a little, or push the source lighting or whatever. And most of them probably do improve, but just a little. They’re very likely to get similar scores and similar feedback on next year’s entries. They’re also likely to feel frustrated and demoralized.
I have two pieces of advice for this issue. One is to just see it through when you’re painting something new. Finish the whole section of NMM or texture or whatever. Better yet, finish the whole figure. You can’t really judge the success of adding more contrast until the figure is pretty much done. If your brain starts screaming at you to tone something down while you’re painting. STOP PAINTING. Do not paint over that section, or dull it down with a glaze. Put the figure down, and get a good night’s sleep, or at the very least work on something else. Come back to it with fresh eyes tomorrow and see if you still think it looks badly done or over-the-top. Remember to look at it in normal lighting and from arm’s length when you are making that assessment! I discussed one of the many occasions where I’ve had to resist the urge to alter something in a previous article, even though it was a technique I’m fairly practiced at painting! I have also made the late night bad decision of toning something down and waking up the next day to realize I’m going to have to redo a lot of work because what I have now is not enough.
This photo is a before and after example of what it might look like to go back to something you’ve painted and address the kinds of issues I’ve outlined here. You can read an article with a full critique of this figure and discussion of what I changed, and it also links to a video version where you can watch me give the critique and then touchup the paint live.
My other suggestion is to take a figure or three and try pushing it to the extreme rather than aiming for incremental improvements. Go big. Go RIDICULOUS! Paint OSL so bright your viewers will need to wear shades. Paint contrast so extreme that no one could possibly accuse you of too little. Exaggerate the story of your diorama so it’s immediately apparent even to the briefest of looks. Use bold strokes and colours for textures and effects. Chances are your end result will be nowhere near ridiculous, but it’s likely to be a lot closer to where you’re trying to go than where you’re getting with the incremental baby-step approach.
If you’re working on contest figures for an open style show like the ReaperCon MSP Open, the nice thing is that you don’t have to choose just one figure to enter. Bring a couple of figures painted in your usual manner, and bring one or two GO BIG figures. Find out which one is picked for judging. Show both styles to friends and instructors and see how others perceive them. See which looks more effective in the photographs taken of all the contest entries, or which gets more response when you post your own photographs on social media.
If you have been painting for years and repeatedly gotten feedback about needing more contrast, or more vivid colour use, or more whatever else, what would it hurt to try at least one figure going to the other extreme? Maybe you’ll find out you need to dial it back just a little. Yeah, maybe your blending or fine detail painting will suffer a bit. But even if that is the case, you’ll probably be closer to where you need to be than you’re getting by slowing inching forward year by year.
You knew it was going to be on this list! The good news? This entry is going to be really short! The bad news? It’s short because I’ve already written about contrast so much that I have a table of contents to my contrast articles. Maybe more good news? The articles include discussions of why it’s hard to push yourself to paint with more contrast, concrete strategies to use to do it, and more before and after examples of what more contrast looks like in practice.
An example of a figure painted with less and more contrast. The right might be too much contrast for your personal taste, but the left is definitely too little.
Patron Spotlight: Matt Davies
This blog is made possible thanks to the generous support of my patrons. The Patron Spotlight is an opportunity for me to share their work and philosophy with the world!
Matt Davies runs a site called D&D With Dad that covers tabletop role-playing games. Content includes reviews, tutorials, and fun miniature-related things. D&D With Dad also has a YouTube channel. One of the videos features Matt and his son working on the skeleton from the Core Skills learn to paint kit, and having a lot of fun doing it!
Matt is a professional photographer, videographer, and instructor. He’s noticed that there is a lot of interest in the challenging art of photographing miniatures, and he’s actively building a live class on how to do that.
Figures in this Post
There are a number of figures in the photos of this post, and it would take me some time to add links to all of them. If there is one you’re particularly interested in, let me know and I’ll figure out what it is and where to buy it (if available.)