How to Practice Painting

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Is the way you look at your work when you’re trying to study or practice something new different than when you assess your work generally? Should it be? I think the answer is yes! It can be challenging to make that mind shift, but failing to use different metrics to judge our study results means we may not be learning as much or as well as we could.

Banner fullTara the Silent at different stages in the painting process.

In a previous Problem Solving series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), I talked through my mental assessments of my work throughout the process of painting a miniature where I was making colour and lighting choices on the fly. My goal for the Tara the Silent figure was to paint a miniature that was as attractive and successful a paint job as I could manage after a bit of a rough start.

When I was painting Anushka, my aim was to practice a new painting approach and demonstrate to myself that I had successfully learned and implemented new information. It may not seem like it on the surface, but that is actually a very different goal than trying to paint a good looking miniature! In both cases I repeatedly reviewed and then revised my paint work. But in each case I was working towards a different goal, and I was using different criteria to judge my success in reaching the goal. 

Anushka comp crAnushka at different stages in the painting process.

I’d like to talk about why it’s useful to approach a study piece differently than general painting, using my experiences painting the Anushka figure as an example. I also want to remind myself about this! I don’t think I do enough focused study like this.

I actually painted Anushka as a study piece in Spring 2019. I edited the WIP pictures and wrote a first draft of this article soon after the painting, but for various reasons it got put aside for a while.

Tsukigoro front 500My painting of Tsukigoro, a larger scale resin figure that we worked on in the workshop I took with Sergio Calvo Rubio.

In the Spring of 2019 I took a weekend workshop with Sergio Calvo Rubio, a fantastic Spanish painter. In addition to his feedback on my figure throughout the workshop, he kindly shared his thoughts on a few other miniatures I had painted. He felt I was a technically proficient painter, but that I wasn’t painting with enough contrast. In particular, I wasn’t painting enough of the small, bright highlights that really help a paint job pop. I have been receiving similar criticism from painters I admire for years! I do try to push for more pop, but in the struggle between a refined result and pop, I find it very challenging to not go overboard refining or smoothing the highlights, which usually dilutes the effect of the pop.

After the workshop, I painted a few practice figures to try to cement what I learned, and to try to figure out how best to apply his approach to the gaming scale figures I paint most often.

Important Note: I will be referencing some of the principles and techniques Sergio teaches in this series, but only insofar as is necessary for readers to understand the gist of what I’m saying. It is not my goal to share all of the material from Sergio’s workshop, and I will not answer questions about his techniques or methods. If you’re interested in learning more about how Sergio paints, I highly recommend checking out his Patreon or his YouTube channel, or attending one of his workshops if you have the opportunity. 

My reference materials when practicing included my notes and practice figures from the workshop and a couple of previous classes I had taken with Sergio at AdeptiCon. I also have the good fortune to have in my possession a couple of demo figures that Sergio painted as examples for classes. This allowed me to take comparison photos of Sergio’s examples and my practice figure, which will also allow you to compare my attempt to his demos so you can make your own assessment of my success of how well my study went.

You can see a few steps of Sergio’s process to paint the figure on the right. There is a video demonstration of how Sergio painted the non-metallic sword on the figure on the left.

Sergio figures fullThese two figures were painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio for class demonstrations.

When I painted Tara the Silent, my goal was to paint as good looking a figure as I could in a fairly tight deadline (for me). My initial colour selection didn’t work, so I got off to a bit of a rough start. Some of painting process involved trying to salvage as much of my previous work as I could, and tweaking things to look as good as possible. So my analysis concentrated on this question: does this look good, or do I need to change or tweak something? I think many of us paint day-to-day with that kind of mindset.

However, I don’t think assessing our work with the question does this look good is a helpful approach to take when to studying something new. Maybe you’re studying a new method, like I was with this figure. Maybe you’re trying to learn a new technique like wet blending or layering. Maybe you want to simulate a texture like worn leather or woven cloth. Maybe you’ve seen a particular colour or overall look on another figure that you like and you want to figure out how the artist did it. In all of those cases, you’re trying to model your work after a specific reference point.

I think the question you need to ask yourself when judging your success with that kind of study is not whether your work looks good, but rather: Does this look like my reference? If not, what are the differences?

If the answer is your work doesn’t really look much like your reference, you need to try to do a deeper comparison between your reference and your practice paint to try to analyze exactly what the differences are. You will likely find differences in the level of darkness and lightness, or in the location and size of the darkest and lightest areas. You might notice differences in shapes and patterns of texture. You might discover that the instructor you’re studying uses paint that is more or less fluid than yours for blending, or uses a different size or shape of brush. Training your eye to spot those differences and training your brain to analyze them more deeply can help you make bigger leaps in your skills than any specific technique.

We are so used to assessing our work by the standard of whether something looks good (enough) and whether we like it (or at least can we live with it) that it can be really challenging to shift how we analyze our work. It’s really easy to fall back into just painting as we always do instead of pushing ourselves to be sure we’re actively learning and experimenting and studying. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time learning, and teaching, I experienced exactly that problem while painting Anushka!

I think it’s entirely possible to paint a study piece that successfully demonstrates your understanding and application of something, but which doesn’t look super attractive, polished, or finished. It really is two different metrics.

An easy example of that is contrast. If you’ve been told you need to push your shadow/highlight contrast, you will likely find that when you try to practice doing that, your work may not look as good to you. The transitions may look rough, or even stark. If you are only looking at your practice piece(s) with the question does this look good in mind, you will feel as if you failed. If you painted darker shadows than usual and lighter highlights than usual, you did not fail, you achieved your stated goal! You might need to continue practicing painting with higher contrast for a while to accustom your eye to it, and then set your next goal to be painting higher contrast with more attractive transitions between values. To ask yourself to apply higher contrast values of paint AND do so with flawless transitions on the first few miniatures you try it with is unrealistic! When you study and work to learn something new, make sure you’re assessing your progress in understanding and applying the something new, not judging every single thing about the figure.

The flip side of that is that you can paint something that does look good but which does not demonstrate that you have understood and applied the thing you’re trying to learn. This is what happened to me while painting Anushka.

Grey divider edit

In the workshop, Sergio had us paint from dark to light. I have very rarely painted this way. Just a few times in other classes I’ve taken, with certain colours like black, and when painting areas that are recessed and hard to reach. The advantage of starting with the darkest colour is that you create your deep shadows and lining with your basecoat. (Assuming you have the brush control to not slop into the crevices, which I have not always had.)

Most of the time when I paint I start with the midtone, then paint the shadows, and then paint highlights. I have found that it is easier for me to identify the correct placement for shadows and highlights with this method. It also makes it easier for me make sure I leave enough of the midtone colour apparent, which is important to establishing the texture and overall colour of the material, and can also help create more contrast.

Another reason I prefer starting with the midtone colour is that I worry that if I start with the darkest shadow colour, I will be more more likely to paint most of the areas in a similar midtone value instead of separating sections of the miniature by starting with different value midtones for each. Even when using the method I’m used to I don’t always get this right, as you can see in the example below.

Erli original cr 1000

One of the reasons the paint scheme on the right is more effective than that on the left is that adjacent areas of the figure differ in the value of their midtones. You can see that more clearly when the picture is converted to black and white as below. A deeper analysis of the differences between these two figures is available.

Erli original cr bw

To better understand and study Sergio’s method, I followed his approach and started with the darkest colours for each area of the figure. I forgot to take the photo until after I had painted the green pantaloons, but it should still show the overall idea.

Anushka wip1a basecoat front fullAnushka painted with the darkest shadow colours for each area.

One of the things that distinguishes many high level paint jobs is a strongly painted light source. Often these are painted with the common light from above direction, but with stronger contrast between deepest shadows and brightest highlights. Others may be painted with a more directional light source shining more brightly on one side of the figure, which creates darker shadows on the other side. Sergio’s usual approach is less fussed about painting a precise light source direction than some high level painters. He aims for more of a stage light effect, as if the figure is standing on stage with a spotlight aimed at them. He paints stronger light and brighter saturation on the figure’s head and the centre of its torso, and uses duller, darker colours on the sides and extremities. He prioritizes creating a strong focal point and making the figure interesting to look at, rather than aiming for a super realistic rendition of the light and shadow.

I mention this because it is a great example of how there is not only one style or approach to painting that is recognized and rewarded in the miniature world. I often see comments from people complaining that only one painting approach gets recognition, particularly after the results of a painting contest are announced. There have been times or specific contests when there may have been a grain of truth to that, but for years now I’ve seen a very diverse range of styles recognized both by contests and miniature enthusiasts. In most contests I’ve seen, the elements that factor into top level recognition include the obvious factor of advanced paint manipulation skills, but also a well developed artistic eye, and the courage to commit to one’s vision. In the case of light, whether a painter is trying to replicate real light source reference pictures or aiming for more of a ‘make it look cool’ illustrative approach, they need to commit to their vision for the light and create a high level of contrast. Painting a high level of contrast while also painting smooth blends, or cool textures (including comic book style), or cel shading or whatever other approach challenges both your hand and your courage.

Please note that I am definitely not saying that there is no point to exploring more creative styles of paint application and/or lighting approach if a painter’s skills are more beginner or intermediate level, or if working on a quicker tabletop piece! I just think it’s helpful to understand that the competition side of our hobby rewards skill of execution as much or more as creativity of concept. The highest level painters have literally spent years studying traditional art and/or learning through experience. It’s not really reasonable to expect that the first few pieces someone tries to paint with an advanced lighting technique or textures or whatever is going to instantly catapult them to gold level.

In the year or two preceding the workshop, I had spent a lot of time practicing painting more directional light. I also focused on portraying my light source both more correctly and more evocatively. One example of that is the way I painted Ziba the Efreeti. I created lighting reference photos and I followed them to the extent of painting the cast shadows on her. What I had been focused on prior to the workshop was in many ways a completely different approach to what Sergio was teaching us, so it was a bit of a mind shift for me.

Grey divider edit

First Study Session

Regardless of your approach to the light, when working on a textured surface (or one you’re painting to appear textured) the goal is to build up both the appearance of the texture AND the placement of lighter and darker areas that will evoke your imaginary light source. I painted the green pantaloons as a smooth cloth texture with a moderate level of contrast. They’re in a low interest area and mostly to the sides of the body, so with Sergio’s approach they shouldn’t stand out particularly. Next up was the top and overskirt. I decided to paint these areas as one piece of clothing, and with a worn leather texture. I decided that, but that’s not what I painted…

Anushka wip2b front full

Anushka wip2 back full

The top ended up looking like a different colour and material than the skirt. That did not have a lot of bearing on the lessons I was trying to learn, so I decided not to worry about it. Sergio’s main critique of my work was that it was technically very proficient, but it did not have enough contrast. In particular, it completely lacked the strong edge and spot highlights that help a figure pop off the shelf/tabletop and grab the viewer’s attention. These are also an important tool a painter uses to draw the viewer’s eye to the key focal points the painter wants them to zero in on.

So how well did I do with the study goals of painting strong texture and using strong contrast to make the figure pop? I did not make this assessment immediately after painting. I waited until the next day. I think it is very helpful to step away from something you’re working on overnight, or at least for several hours. It allows your eyes to reset, and gives your brain a chance to shift from creation mode to editing mode. As you’ll see below, my impressions of my work while I was painting versus my impressions of it the next day were very different!

The top, while painting: I felt like I was really pushing the highlights and going quite bright, and doing a good job concentrating the brightest areas in the centre of the figure’s cylinder as Sergio does. 

The top, next day: Huh, where did those bright pops of highlight go? I swear I worked on them! (And as a side point, I realized that if the back of something is armour, so is the front, so I needed to paint the chest plate area to match the armour sections, not the skirt or the sleeves.)

The skirt, while painting: I think I’m getting a texture that is less fiddly and small than I usually paint for leather. It’s a little darker overall than the top, but since the skirt is on the bottom half of the figure and attention should be focused on the face and upper torso, that should work out well.

The skirt, next day: This texture part looks pretty good. But I almost completely failed to create any overall sense of light or bring out the forms of the different skirt folds.

My assessment of the skirt is an example of the difference in analyzing success in studying something versus success in achieving an attractive result. If this were something I was painting on deadline, I would probably leave the skirt basically as it is and just build up a few more highlights on it to create a little more form. The texture looks pretty good, it photographs well, and it fits the character and colour scheme.

For a piece that was intended a practice of a specific approach, I needed to assess whether I demonstrated that learned and understood the lesson. The way I painted the skirt at this stage did not demonstrate that, so I needed to try again, possibly even repainting the area to start from scratch. (If you are incorporating practice into a project like painting an army, another option is to call it good on this figure and then try again with the next one.)

I also took a moment to ask myself how did I go so wrong with this attempt, and I think those thoughts are worth sharing with you as well.

Fuzzy Goal/Intention
I just sat down and started painting. It would have been a good idea to study my reference figures and photos right before and even while I was painting, so the result I was aiming for was fresh in my mind.

Distractions
I had an episode of a TV show running in the background while I was painting. When I’m doing routine tasks and things I’m proficient at, it is helpful to listen to a video or audiobook. It distracts me if my back is sore or I’m getting bored, and keeps me painting longer. But if I’m trying something new or working on a technique I find challenging, I need to minimize distractions so I can keep my brain actively focused and concentrating on the task at hand.

The combination of those two factors made it very easy to go into autopilot and just paint the way I usually do. Painting on autopilot is useful for routine tasks, but it’s a dangerous trap if you’re trying to learn something new.

For those who might be having difficulty seeing what I’m talking about, here’s the figure I’m working on next to a couple of Sergio’s WIP figures from classes he’s given.

Anushka wip2d comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip2c comps back full

Don’t despair if you’re having trouble seeing everything I’m pointing out. It takes time, practice, and concerted effort to start building your critical eye. There is very little material related to training critique ability in our hobby. I did not have a strong eye at all when I started out, and I know that there is a lot that I still miss. Being conscious of the importance of an artist’s eye and trying to cultivate it has immensely helped me in my quest to improve my painting level, and I am confident it will continue to help me. I wish I had been more deliberate about practicing things I’d learned in classes and workshops and aiming to build up my eye much earlier in my painting career.

Grey divider edit

Second Study Session

For my second attempt, I set my intention and reviewed my examples before beginning to paint, and minimized distractions while painting.

I think I was much closer to goal this second time. I don’t know if it’s perfect by any means. It might even be overly textured, and there is still more emphasis on texture over value and form, but I think it’s better. The form of the skirt in the back view particularly is much more apparent.

Anushka wip3 back full

I thought I should go in and glaze in some more contrast and/or tone down the texture on the skirt, but I decided that it would be best to work on more of the figure and see how it came together as a whole before making that decision. Sometimes one of the hardest things for me in painting is to just let something be until the figure is almost finished and I can assess how the colours, values, and other decisions work together before trying to tweak anything. I find it can save a lot of time if I can resist that temptation! If I am painting one section at a time and trying to make each individual section ‘perfect’ while I working on it, I may end up fixing something that doesn’t need it or applying the wrong fix and end up having to spend more time at the end making tweaks than I would have otherwise.

This is one of the reasons that many artists start with an initial quick sketch of the main areas of the figure before preceding to refining individual areas. That is the approach that Sergio took in his class demonstration goblin figure. He started with the basic colours of the figure, then roughed in some highlights, and then continued to refine them. This approach allows painters to assess the success of their colour choices and overall approach for the miniature after a relatively short investment of time, so they aren’t losing a lot of work if they have to make adjustments.

In the workshop and with Sergio’s demonstration figure on the right in the picture below, he painted section by section, but I suspect this was for teaching reasons, and that it is not his usual approach. It’s easier to talk about the specifics of how to paint non-metallic leather, worn leather, and so on if you paint each section individually.

Anushka wip3 comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip3 comps back full

Grey divider edit

Third Study Session

After finishing up the non-metallic metal and the hat (still trying to adhere to Sergio’s principles), I decided to revisit the skirt yet again. I painted a number of glazes on the skirt. Some of the glazes were lighter colours, intended to bump up the overall contrast in the highlight areas. I also added some orange tones to saturate the colour a little more, and I used some of the same blues I used in the hair in to glaze in more shadows. The overall intent was to build up the value contrast a little more, and tone down the texture. I think it has a bit more of a buckskin hide look now, and the level of texturing is more appropriate to the character.

Anushka wip4 back full

Anushka wip4 comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip4 comps back full

Here’s a compilation photo of the three phases I went through trying to work out how to do the skirt.

Anushka comp cr

Grey divider edit

The Finished Figure

So did I accomplish my goals and successfully study Sergio Calvo’s approach? Let’s take a look at the completed miniature.

Anushka front

I think I did focus attention in the centre of the figure and put a lot of light around the face. I painted a different sort of leather texture than Sergio had, but my practice was focused on how Sergio approaches painting light overall, not that specific leather texture. (That might be a good subject for another practice session, though!

I achieved more pop highlights than I usually do, but still probably not enough.  Also some of the pop is coming from the non-metallic filigree. I’m generally comfortable going up to white on NMM, so that might not be a true test. To be thorough, it would be good for me to paint some additional miniatures with different materials and review how I did with those. In my opinion Anushka is a reasonable success, but I still have work to do to internalize and consistently apply the approach. What do you think?

Anushka back

Here are some comparison pictures with the reference figures. Note that in some ways this comparison isn’t fair to either of us. My figure is completed and has been worked on for several hours, while Sergio’s demo figures are quick demonstration pieces.

Anushka done comps front light edit

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka done comps back light edit

So that’s where I was after a couple of study pieces. Did I go on to incorporate principles of what I learned into my working process? Did anything stick? I’ve been thinking about that as I finish this article, and I think I’ll be working on a followup…

Figures Appearing in this Post

Tara the Silent is currently available in metal. She will be released in Bones Black plastic in the near future.
Tsukigoro is a 75mm scale (or 100mm?) figure from the Hirelings of Asura Kickstarter. I am unsure if the Hireling figures are currently for sale.
The goblin is Bocanegra the Little Tyrant.
Anushka Female Fighter is available in metal.
Mavaro, Iconic Occultist is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Beach Babe Libby is available in metal.
Eriu Champion with Greatsword is available in metal.

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