How to Paint OSL Better than Me

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What’s up with the clickbait title? I know that not every painter can (nor wants) to duplicate my smooth blending approach. But the key to successful source light (OSL) is not brushwork, it’s choosing the right colours and putting them in the right places. OSL is one of the few paint effects that is more about knowledge than dexterity – you can paint OSL with drybrushing! And you can paint source light effects more striking than what I painted on these two figures.

9party osl chars

I made compromises (and mistakes) in how effectively I painted the source light on the adventuring party. If you read through this guide, you should have the tools you need to paint these or other characters with better OSL than I did. I have written other articles with more information about other aspects of painting the adventure party, including the colour recipes used on each character: overview, halfling fighter, human rogue, dwarf cleric, elf wizard.

9party bl front

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How to Paint Great Source Lighting (OSL)

The art director of Reaper (Ron Hawkins) was excited about the possibilities for painted light effects with this set of figures. The human thief is carrying a torch, and the elf wizard is casting a spell effect. However, since people would first be acquiring these figures as random selections of the individual characters, it was also important that each figure be painted in such a way as to look great on its own. Both of those ideas make sense, so why would painting them be a challenge?

To answer that question, and to understand the keys to painting great OSL, we need to consider how we normally use (or should use) contrast. Contrast is a critical tool in our painter toolbox. We use contrast between different values (light, medium, dark) in highlights and shadows to make figures look more three dimensional. Contrast of values is also a major element to successfully simulating different textures. Shiny objects like metal often have shadows as dark as black and as light as white, while a more matte surface like wool cloth has a smaller range of contrast between its darkest shadows and lightest highlights. Contrasts of different hues of colour and the saturation level of those colours are also useful tools to help define the different areas of the figure, and make it more interesting to look at. These are just a few of the reasons we constantly harp on the need for more contrast in miniature painting.

Let’s look at the following figure as an example. The version on the right has additional value and saturation contrast between the shadows and highlights. The lighter highlights on the hair of the more contrasted version help create the texture of strands and give it a little shine. Lighter highlights on the green material help you better see the shapes – there are wrinkles and folds all along the arms, and a zipper down the front that are not very apparent in the version on the left. Lighter highlights and darker shadows on the red material also definite the shapes of the cloth, but more importantly, better help you see the shapes under the cloth – her legs and stomach look more rounded in the version with more contrast. The more saturated colours in the highlights of the red and the green create stronger contrast between those two complimentary colours and help move your eye around the scene and keep things more interesting to look at.

Dionne before after cr

I have several more examples of figures with less and more contrast that you can study: Victorian lady, tabletop blacksmith, beach beauty digital edit, backwards contrast thief.

The challenge in painting light effects (OSL) is caused by the limitations of paint colour. In life, when we’re looking at something like a candle in a dark room or a blazing sunset, the light has properties beyond its colour. It’s not just colour, it’s… light. Light can be so bright it hurts our eyes. There is no paint that duplicates this effect. All we can do is use the properties of paint to simulate that effect. The best way to create the illusion of light is to do the following:

* Paint the brightest areas of the light itself white, regardless of its overall colour, and do not use pure white elsewhere on the figure.

* Paint areas directly illuminated by the light source with lighter value and higher saturation colours.

* Paint areas in shadow (not directly illuminated by the light) with darker value and duller saturation colours.

But remember what I said earlier? We usually use the colour properties of value, saturation, and hue for lots of other purposes in our painting, including breaking up areas of the figure, simulating textures and surfaces, creating a focal point for the viewer, and making the figure look more three dimensional. The challenge is that it’s difficult to use paint colours for all of that and also create the illusion of light.

When rendering a scene with light effects, whether in two dimensions or three, we have to make decisions about what is more important – the strength of the light effect, or the other needs of the piece. The more you use value and saturation in the same way you would when painting under general lighting, the less powerful your light source will appear. If you want to paint a strong light effect, you need to limit the overall value contrast range used on shadows and highlights to emphasize the contrast between lit and shadowed areas. You also need to reduce the saturation of colours used in the shadowed areas.

To put it another way – when painting areas that are well lit, don’t paint shadows as dark as you should in general lighting, and use higher saturation colours. When painting shadowed areas, don’t paint highlights as light as you should in general lighting, and use lower saturation colours. The end result of painting this way is quite visually striking when the piece is viewed as a whole. However, depending on the location of the light source, it is likely that there will be view angles or portions of the figure that look kind of dull or are less visually distinct because they don’t have the same level of contrast as they normally would.

Here’s a figure painted with source lighting that demonstrates the effect of the constraints. To make it look as though areas of the figure are being lit by the candle, I had to paint those areas mostly with light values, and paint areas that are in shadow mostly with dark values. If you look just at the shadow areas on the back, there’s a very small range of contrast, with the darkest areas being effectively black, and the lightest areas being dark grey. On its own this would be way too little contrast. But put this adjacent to the areas painted in light colours, and it is the key to creating the illusion that the candle is casting light.

Xm past combo cr

Note that these colour choices have reduced the definition of some of the shapes on the figure. Look at the dress. There are a few folds on the sleeves where the light colour is on the top of the fold and the dark colour is underneath, and those are very well defined in shape, as well as dramatic to look at. Compare those with the folds only in the light areas, or only in the dark areas. In the bright light area, you can’t really see that Bob Ridolfi has sculpted the cloth to drape over the arm holding the candle in such a way that you can ‘see’ the shape of the arm underneath the cloth. In the back view, the folds of the skirt and shadowed sleeve don’t look nearly as large or dramatic as they are on the sculpt, because I have painted so little contrast between the shadows in the depths and the highlights on the peaks.

It is also very helpful to pose source lighting figures against a dark background for maximum effect. I used a photo taken on a more neutral background for the explanation above because I think the colours and values are more accurate to the painted figure, and I want you to be able to see those as well as possible for the purpose of this article. In the picture below, you can see the same figure posed on a black background. The other two figures in the picture were painted using the more typical soft light from above lighting scenario. If you study these figures you can compare the differences in how I used value and saturation in the typical lighting scenario versus the source light scenario. The light effect is very eye catching, but you see less information overall about the various areas and colours of the figure than with the other two.

Xm ghosts bk full

If you want to paint OSL with a really strong light effect, I think it’s helpful to think of the areas in light and those in shadow of as two different distinct things. For example, rather than thinking of ’the shirt’, think of the area of the shirt in light, and the area of the shirt in shadow as two distinct areas. Paint each section with a compressed value range compared to what you would (and should) use when painting a figure to appear as if lit by normal diffuse/from above lighting. You can enhance the effect even more by choosing more intensely saturated colours for the light areas, and making the shadow area colours duller as well as darker. Often I will use the same paints for both areas, but mix a dark dull blue or purple colour into each colour I use on the light side to create the shadow side colour mixes.

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Note that the OSL colours on the bottom vary in saturation, not just in value. The colours for the light side are more intense blues, and those for the dark side are duller blues.

You can see an example of this in practice in my article used on how I painted the figure holding a candle, which includes a picture of the palette colours used to paint the dress.

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Adventure Party Source Light

Okay great, so how does all of that theory relate to that adventuring party I painted? Ron wanted OSL. Two of the figures have light sources, and I just told you the ‘secret’ to painting effective OSL. So what’s the problem? Ron also told me he wanted each figure to look good on its own. When the figures are in group formation, the dwarf cleric is somewhat illuminated by the light sources, but there is not much light light falling on the natural focus of the figure – her face. There also isn’t much light on the front of the figure in general. There is even less light falling on the halfling fighter. All of the light sources are behind him. If I painted the figures to achieve the most dramatic OSL effect, the fighter’s face and the front of his body would be dark and dull. In addition to looking kind of boring, there would be no context as to why he looked like that in the pictures of him as a standalone figure.

2party prime2

As I described in my first post about these figures, I used primer to create a reference for the areas that would be lit by the in-scene light sources. I primed all of the figures black. For the last step of priming, I arranged the figures together in their tableau. I sprayed bright white ink through my airbrush from the direction of the two light sources. This allowed me to see which areas would be receiving a lot of light from the light sources. This is all I would have done if I wanted to paint a very dramatic light effect.

Note that you don’t have to have an airbrush to do this type of thing! You can instead use a single small bulb light to take similar reference photos. This is the first lighting effect I’ve painted with figures primed in this manner, usually I use lighting reference photos. I did find that the primer helped me avoid the cognitive dissonance I experienced when painting the figure holding a candle.

2party prime1

Since these figures also needed to look good viewed individually, I needed to paint the figures as if there were a decent amount of ambient light in addition to the in-scene light sources. So I added a step between the black primer and bright white paint. After the black, I used the airbrush to apply dark grey primer from above on each figure, in the zenithal priming fashion. This gave me the information I would need for where the ambient light would create areas with more or less light. Then I assembled the group and applied the white paint to identify the areas lit by the in-scene light sources.

2party prime5

Below is a series of photos where you can compare the primed figures to the final painted versions. I’ve converted the photos to black and white to make it easier to see differences in value between the two.

9party prime face bw cw

Note that while this priming technique provides an excellent overall feeling for the location of light and shadow, it does not take into account the way different textures and materials appear, and how they react to light – matte cloth versus somewhat shiny leather versus reflective metal. To best evoke the qualities of those materials requires the painter to use the primer (or lighting reference photos) as a guide, but to then extrapolate and tweak value ranges and value placement to match various types of materials. For example, if you compare the areas I painted as metal on the figures to the photos of the primer stage, you’ll see a number of differences in where the lightest and darkest colours are placed because I was trying to simulate the reflective appearance of metal.

These photos also demonstrate that I missed some opportunities to enhance the light effect. I could have used much stronger highlighting on the back of the helmet and backpack flap of the halfling fighter. I should have had much stronger highlights on the lit portion of the human rogue’s hair. It’s can be challenging to see value correctly in many colours, and the orange and red glazes added on top to create the colour of the light also darkened everything a little, which is important to keep in mind if you use glazes to add hints of the colour of the light to the lit areas.

9party prime right bw cw

Using your own judgement as a painter is also important. Even had I been painting this scene as a much stronger light effect, I would still make judgements about making some parts a little lighter or darker. In this case, I would have painted the sides of the faces pointed towards the light in a lighter value on both the wizard and the rogue, even though they don’t show a lot of light in the primer reference photos. There may also be areas that should be receiving light that may not have received much white paint due to being awkward to reach with the airbrush. One example is the arm of the rogue that is holding the torch. Her arm is the closest object to the torchlight, and would appear lighter than it ended up in the primer photos, so I painted it accordingly.

9party prime back bw cw

To make these figures look more interesting when viewed apart from the group, I extended the contrast value range of the areas that were not receiving much light from the in-scene light sources. This is particularly true on the halfling fighter and the dward cleric. Compare the cleric sabatons and the halfling’s green clothing in the primer photos above.  You can see details in the final versions that you cannot in the primer versions. Painting those areas darker and less distinct would have strengthened the light effect, but made those individual figures less interesting to look at.

I digitally edited one of my photos to help give you an idea of how the tableau might look if I had painted it with a stronger light effect. I increased the saturation in the areas receiving light. I decreased both the value and the saturation of areas that should appear in shadow. My digital editing skills are pretty rudimentary, but hopefully this gives you an idea of how the scene might look if only the torch and the spell effect were illuminating the gloomy dungeon scene.

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Here’s a comparison with the original:

9party dig edit comp cw

And converted to greyscale:

9party dig edit comp bw cw

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More Examples of Painting Light

I’m going to compare some 2D paintings to further illustration how colour use differs in well-lit versus source lit scenarios, and then show you some terrific examples of OSL miniatures.

Judith Leyster was a Dutch Golden Age painter. Many painters of this time period focused on painting scenes with dramatic lighting, a continuation of the interest in chiaroscuro that began in the Renaissance. These painters also lived in a time when interiors were lit only by daylight, candles, and lamps, so I think their paintings are a good example of the kind of pre-Industrial lighting that would be seen in a fantasy/steampunk world. I’m going to compare the value range of two of Leyster’s paintings that depict bright daylight lighting (top), and two painted with with interior source light style lighting (bottom).

Leyster combo

These images are from Wikipedia, and you can see large scale copies of them on Leyster’s paintings page.

The scene of the Jolly Topper is well lit, suggesting that the figure is facing one or more windows. The skin overall is a lighter skin tone, but as you can see in the colour samples from the painting, the darkest shadows are close to black. These are sparingly applied in areas where the face turns away from the light. Likewise, the clothing of the figure is a somewhat dark grey in value overall, but in a few spots the highlights on wrinkles of cloth are close to white. (This painting is also a good example of why you should use more contrast in highlights and shadows in regular lighting than miniature painters often think we need!)

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The painting Two Children with a Cat depicts a scene of even brighter daylight. Perhaps the children are sitting outside in front of a building on a bright sunny day. The child holding the cat has very pale skin and is facing directly into the light, but note that areas of his skin facing away from the light still have strong dark shadows. The child wears a jacket of a golden brown colour. Although it is a fairly matte cloth, the shadows are close to black, and there are a few spots of fairly pale highlights. 

IMG 0050(For the sake of my sanity I’m going to assume a supervising adult rescued the cat soon after the moment depicted in this painting…)

In both of the daylight paintings, Leyster has used a fairly broad value range from light to dark to paint the various materials in the painting. Let’s compare those to the paintings with interior light sources.

In The Proposition, Leyster has used two different value ranges for each material depending on whether it is being lit by the lamp or is on the shadow side. Although the wrinkles in the white shirt appear to have fairly deep peaks and valleys, the value range of the material is compressed – it is painted with mostly light values on the lit side, and mostly dark values on the shadow side. Combined together they create the overall impression of light coming from the lamp. The contrast is even more apparent on the skirt. The fabric falling across her lap is being lit by the lamp, and is painted mostly light in value. (There is a dark shadow line in this area next to a particularly tall fold of cloth.) The side of the skirt that is in shadow is painted in variations of dark grey, with very little detail of wrinkles and folds apparent. Leyster creates the strong sense of light by sacrificing some details in the most well lit and the most deeply shadowed areas. (Which is also accurate to how our eyes perceive objects in super strong and very dim lighting.)

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The last painting is The Serenade. Here the light source is ‘off screen’, and the overall dimness of the lighting suggests the musician is sitting a little further away from the light source than the figures above. Compare the two cuffs. If you were not seeing those within the context of the painting, you would say the sets of colours used to paint them depict two completely different objects. The viewer might not perceive it consciously, but within the context of the painting, the viewer understands that both of the cuffs are white or cream in colour, but one appears much darker because it is further away from the light. To paint light effects successfully, we need to be conscious of this. We have the impression that there is light coming from the left side of the painting because objects on the left are painted with lighter colours, and objects on the right are painted with a smaller value range of darker colours.

Study the collar for a similar example. There’s no actual white used on any of it, and the side of the collar furthest from the light is painted in dark greys, but you as a viewer understand it to be white from the overall context of the painting.

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The values and saturation of the colours Leyster uses in all of these paintings are what create the impression of the different kinds of lighting, And we can do the exact same thing on miniatures.

David Colwell is a highly skilled painter who regularly explores painting light. I recommend following him if you’re interested in OSL or just more dramatic lighting of miniatures in general. Below is one of his pieces, Seeking Refuge. The light source isn’t part of the scene, but she’s been painted as if there is a light just off screen above and to one side. This is also a great example of a light source that is cool and not strongly coloured compared to the warmer orange/red light often used for OSL. Cool light colours work too!

David colwell seeking refuge frontPainted by David Colwell.
Observe how the light appears brightest in the upper left, and much softer further down and to the right. David is using values of paint to convey this impression.

David colwell seeking refuge backPainted by David Colwell.
Note how dark the back view is! It takes courage as well as skill to be willing to paint like this in the dark areas in order to make the light areas appear lit.

Mephiston: Revenant Crusade was painted by the very talented Erik Swinson, and if you look at his page you’ll see he’s explored light on others of his painted figures. Mephiston was sculpted by Joaquin Palacios, based on concept art  by Lie Setiawan. This piece was an entry in the Golden Demon Chicago 2022 contest, and placed Gold in the Open category. I’d love to see the back view, but judging from the front alone, Erik intended to paint a slightly less extreme version of light than in the David Colwell piece above. Mephiston’s sword appears on fire and if it is casting light, but Erik has used a little more value contrast in the areas receiving less light so you can still see a lot of detail and form. Note that there is still a wide level of contrast between the darks and lights, however! And Erik has painted very dark shadows, even on objects that are meant to be perceived as lighter in value. Look at the shadowed areas of the hair and skin. Both are very dark, but because of Erik’s overall use of value, hue, and saturation, we still read the hair and face as suitably pale and deathly.

Erik swinson revenant crusadePainted by Erik Swinson.
Winner of Gold in Open category at Golden Demon Chicago 2022.

At the beginning of this article, I said that painting OSL is more about colour use than super fancy brushwork. These next two examples were painted in 2001 and 2003, a somewhat simpler time in the hobby of miniature painting. Also, in contrast to the two pieces shown above, these scenes use gaming scale figures. Both were painted by talented painter and sculptor Victoria Lamb, of Victoria Miniatures. I don’t know if she was the first person to paint OSL on miniatures, but I’m not alone in considering The Rescue of Saint Joan one of the first really iconic OSL figures in the miniature world. Victoria’s work blew our minds back then, and it still demonstrates of how deft use of value and saturation can create the illusion of light! It is not really a surprise to learn that Victoria Lamb is a skilled theatre set designer.

Victoria rescue of sister joanPainted by Victoria Lamb.

The Rescue of Sister Joan won the Slayer Sword (best in show) of Golden Demon Australia 2001. The background is the key element to conveying the OSL in this scene. The area of the wall reflecting light from the torch is more saturated and lighter in value than areas further away from it. That OSL effect is not really carried through to the figures, but the scene and action are so strong that it still works. And Victoria was just getting started. She painted the duel scene Fiery Angel for Golden Demon Australia 2003.

Victoria fiery angelPainted by Victoria Lamb.
Winner of Bronze demon in the Duel category at Golden Demon Australia 2003.

Here’s a look at Fiery Angel on a grey background.

Victoria lamb fiery angel greyPainted by Victoria Lamb.

Victoria also painted this diorama scene for George R. R. Martin’s extensive miniature collection. I do not know the year this one was painted.

Victoria lamb grrPainted by Victoria Lamb.

And here is another one of my much more humble efforts. I think the way I contrasted saturation of the shadow versus the light areas is effective, but I could have pushed the value contrast even more and gone darker in the shadow areas for a more dramatic light effect.

Bourbon street combo

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Miniatures Featured in this Article

Dionne is available in metal from Hasslefree Miniatures.

The three Christmas Ghosts are special edition holiday miniatures. They sometimes made available are to purchase or as a gift with purchase in late November and/or early December from the Reaper website

The adventure party figures and a dungeon dwelling goblin are teasers for Reaper’s Bones 6 Kickstarter: Tales from the Green Griffin, which is running until the end of April. A random selection of one of the five figures is still being added to most Reaper Miniatures orders. One of the five was included in the swag bags for AdeptiCon, and there may be other giveaway opportunities where you can obtain one or more of these figures. If you are interested in these figures but are not able to receive a free one, or you’d like to ensure you get all of them, they are included in the Kickstarter core pledge level. I expect that they will go into retail sales channels at some point after the Kickstarter pledges have been fulfilled, but it will be several years until that happens.

Seeking Refuge is a larger scale resin bust available from Robot Rocket Miniatures.

Mephiston: Revenant Crusade is a scratch sculpted figure and not available for purchase. Other versions of Mephiston are sold by Games Workshop.

The figures in the first two Victoria Lamb scenes are out of production Games Workshop figures. I’m not very familiar with the line so I don’t know the exact names, sorry.

The figures in the diorama for George R. R. Martin are from Dark Sword MiniaturesGeorge R. R. Martin Masterworks line – Stannis Baratheon, and a converted Melisandre.

Bourbon Street Sophie is currently available in metal. A Bones plastic version is available in the Core pledge of the Bones 6 Kickstarter, and should come to retail within a few years of Kickstarter fulfillment.

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