Realism, Reference, and Red Pandamonium

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My experiences painting these adorable red pandas from Dark Sword Miniatures are a great opportunity to share some thoughts about how realism and reference can fit into the painting process. This article also includes the paint colours I used and some step-by-step WIP photos.

Rp combo1These cuties are produced in metal, and available in a pack from Dark Sword miniatures.

The standing red panda is demonstrating the red panda threat display pose. Maybe other red pandas find it terrifying, but I’m not sure anyone else does! Alas, my local zoo, which is a premiere facility in the care and breeding of red pandas, assures us that real world red pandas are not at all cuddly nor interested in humans. At least we have figures like these to use in our imagined worlds where red pandas might be loyal companions to rangers, wizards, or druids. These would also look great nestled into lush vegetation to add a little extra to a display base or diorama.

Rp combo 2 2000


A lot of miniature painters I talk to are interested in achieving realistic looking results on their figures. Since we’ve been looking at objects, people, photographs, and films our whole lives, we surely know what a lot of things should look like, right? If we paint a familiar material or texture like skin, or cloth, or leather, or metal and we don’t like how it looks, the problem must be that there is something we don’t know about paints or painting techniques. We must need a tutorial to show us how to use brush and paint to make something look like cloth or leather. Or maybe it’s just that choosing colours is tricky and we just need a few good colour recipes for skin tones or non-metallic gold.

It’s true that we’ve been looking at the world around us all of our lives, and our clever human brains have stored and catalogued a lot of information about that visual world. However, most of us do not recall enough details about what things look like to accurately reproduce them when painting on a miniature (or in other kinds of visual arts/crafts). Not even for very familiar things. How can that be so? It’s not because we’re dumb! In a way, it’s because we’re too smart.

The vast majority of visual tasks that we perform on a day-to-day basis require that our brains identify, assess/compare, and categorize what we see. We do not need to store complete and detailed visual images to perform those activities. Our life experiences train our brains to store key facts and general impressions, and then how to access and use that information quickly on demand. We have a huge catalog of overall visual knowledge, but our mental picture of a specific item or texture is often much less accurate or complete than we think it is. (And that’s not even considering the number of people who have some degree of aphantasia.)

Hopefully this example will help you get a better idea of the kinds of visual information we are likely to have and that which we are likely to lack.

Imagine you’re at a party. The main floor restroom is occupied. The host directs you to go up the stairs to the second door on the left. That restroom is occupied too, so you stand and wait outside the door, which is decorated with bumper stickers, signs, and photographs. Eventually you are able to use the restroom and then go back down to the party.

If you can, stop reading now and click through to this link to look at the door.

IMG 0433

How would you answer these questions? How would you answer them two weeks from now?

Where is the restroom?

Likely you remember that.

What does the door to the restroom look like?

You stood and stared at this for five minutes while you were waiting. You probably remember a funny saying or two on a bumper sticker, or the subject of some of the photos. The more time passes, the less of this you will remember, unless something was particularly shocking or notable to you. This is not likely to be information you need to have in long term storage, so your brain is unlikely to retain it.

Can you draw a map of the placement of the items on the door?

How many panels were on the door?

Most of us would not remember all the details required to answer those questions that night, let alone three weeks later. Some of us might not be able to answer any of them.

Now imagine that you live in this house, and your room is across from the decorated door. How would you answer those last three questions? You’d likely be able to include more information in your answer, but you probably still wouldn’t have a complete picture of the doors or the stairs in your head. Do you know the exact number of steps in the staircase(s) where you work and live? I’m sure a few of do, but I’m also sure most of don’t.

These questions are examples of the kind of information we’d need to know to accurately draw the door, or create a miniature diorama that includes it. Few of us would be able to answer those questions completely without going back to look and take notes. It’s not that we’re stupid, or even unobservant. This is just not the kind of information we need to complete most tasks. Daily life hasn’t trained our brains to see or retain that kind of information.

The ability to answer those kinds of questions is what makes Sherlock Holmes such a unique person. That is his superpower. It’s not just that he knows a lot of facts. He notices and retains information about visual (and other sensory) details that few other people would. He then applies retained facts to his observations of visual details to make deductions. He also has an impressive ability to retain facts, but it’s the level of visual observation that makes him truly remarkable.

You may be thinking your diorama would look just fine if you didn’t exactly reproduce the way that door looks, and that’s true. This example is just an example to try to help you understand that there is a lot of visual information about the world around us that we don’t notice or retain because it’s not relevant to our daily tasks. Noticing the number of stripes or spots and where those appear on an animal’s coat is an example of a situation where more precise information might be required to render something realistically. I’ve shared my life with two tabby cats for years and I could not tell you how many rings are on their stripey tails off-hand. Again, getting that number correct would not be required to realistically paint a cat. It’s just a quick and easy example of ways that we do not take note of or recall visual information about things as well as we think we do, even when those things are very familiar to us.

The kinds of information we don’t notice or recall easily can often be critical to realistically depicting hair colour/texture, leather textures, the level of contrast that exists on many objects, and everything else we’re trying to render with paint on a miniature. For example, I know some of you reading this believe high contrast painting and black lining to be an unrealistic, cartoony affectation in miniature painting. You can look at this article and this article to see some examples of how high contrast and lining are more realistic than you think.

In the case of the red pandas, did I know enough to paint them from memory? I’m a big red panda fan. I’ve sat and watched them at my local zoo many times, and I regularly look at photos and videos I’ve taken of them. I consulted my visual memory. I had a rough idea of their coat colour. I knew they have markings, including fur patterns that give them cranky little faces. But I couldn’t really visualize exactly what those markings look like.

If you want to check your memory in a similar way, try this. Colour in the facial markings of a raccoon on the following outline. I’ll include my attempt and an example of the accurate markings at the end of this article for you to compare.

IMG 0442

I’m not asking you to draw! Think of it more as making a diagram of where the markings should be located. In the example below, I did a diagram of typical tabby cat head markings using the raccoon head template above. Rough is fine for this, and you don’t ever have to show anyone.


IMG 0446

We think we should know what things look like because we’ve been looking at the world our whole lives, but that is a faulty assumption. Few of us have the ability to store and retrieve accurate and complete visual information of everything we’ve seen, or even things we’ve seen frequently. We don’t need these skills for most life tasks, so our experiences and education haven’t trained us to be able to do this well. You can read another example of how our big smart brains actually sabotage us when we’re making art.


So if we can’t rely on our general experience to know what things look like, what do we do? We study examples of what we want to paint! Either live/in person examples (preferred when possible), and/or photographs and film. Looking at reference gives us the opportunity to more accurately observe pattern, texture, colour, and other elements we can incorporate into our work to make it look more realistic. Artists generally refer to this as using reference. Using reference is common (and highly recommended) practice for visual artists. Even artists drawing comic or cartoon subjects. David Petersen sometimes builds models of buildings to be able to draw them with a better sense of 3D space in his Mouse Guard comics. Disney provides numerous live person reference photos and films and additional training to their animators.

Pexels ali atakan acikbas  5631323Photo by Ali Atakan Açıkbaş on Pexels.

I find Google (or equivalent search engine) image search usually works well as a starting point to find reference photos. For the red pandas, I also looked at my own photographs from visits to the zoo. It’s usually a good idea to reference multiple sources initially. It helps give you an idea of overall common characteristics, or whether a particular thing varies so much we need to make some choices and narrow down our reference. Leather coat is a broad category that encompasses a lot of different colours and levels of wear. If I wanted to paint a leather coat on a figure, I’d want to narrow it down to new black leather or weathered brown leather or something else more specific, and then start studying references.

Pexels ivan cujic 2265247Photo by Ivan Cujic on Pexels.

NOTE: Most images in a Google search are copyrighted and not free for you to copy, share, or repost. Referencing a red panda photo or similar to paint a miniature is transformative enough not to be an issue. Sharing reference photos online or reproducing them exactly in a sculpt/diorama is a different issue. I use the sites Unsplash, Pexels, and Morguefile when I need photos for this blog, and I credit the kind photographers who have made their work available for freer use.

IMG 4381 editA photo from one of my trips to the zoo. The red pandas at Zoo Knox have indoor and outdoor enclosures.

Often when take a more deliberate look at something we’ll find that there is more variation of colour, pattern, or texture to it than we initially thought, or we’ll discover that certain variations of colour, pattern, and/or texture tend to occur in specific places on the object, even apart from the effects of light and shadow. After looking at some reference photos and videos, what kinds of characteristics did I notice about red pandas that are common to all of them, or that vary between individuals?

Texture Impressions
It’s so fluffy! Some animals have short and/or sleek fur that conforms closely to their body contours, like horses. Red pandas have fairly long hair strands and fluffy looking fur. It makes them look a little pudgy, and there’s an overall sense of furriness to them. Whether fur looks sleek or fluffy on a miniature is heavily determined by the way it is sculpted, but we can also use different methods of paint application to mimic different kinds of fur textures.

Coat Colour
All of the red pandas have black legs and belly, but the coat colour on their backs ranges in colour between individuals. Some have darker fur, some look more brown with touches of dark blond, and others are more vividly red with touches of orange. There is a fair bit of variation within the umbrella of warm reddish/orangish brown colours.

Red pandas have black legs and underbelly, reddish back and head, and alternating rings of lighter and darker fur along the length of the tail. The tip of the tail is often, but not always, darker than the other tail rings. The colour patterns look more defined on individuals that have a higher contrast between lighter and darker values of fur on the tail and face. But even when the pattern is defined by strong contrast, the edges where lighter and colours meet appear a little fuzzy due to the fluffy fur factor.

Individuals display more differences in colour pattern on the face, but within an overall colour pattern. There is a small spot of white directly above each eye. The size and shape of this varies a little between individuals. Those little white patches heavily affect our human perception of the animal. They look like eyebrows to us. Eyebrow position is a key element of many human facial expressions, so these faux eyebrows help us endow them with ideas of emotion and personality. We relate to the similarities we see in the face of an animal like a red panda more than an animal whose face is very different than ours, like a rhinoceros.

There is a larger white spot or stripe on each cheek, and the muzzle is white. The size of the white area on the cheek varies from a thin stripe to covering the entirety of the cheeks. A dark stripe begins under each eye and curves out around the base of the muzzle. The colour of the fur on the forehead also varies considerably between individuals. It is as dark as the upper body fur on some, almost white on some, and kind of a strawberry blond on some.

Rp montageFrom top left: photo by Ali Atakan Açıkbaş, photo by Alexas Fotos, photo by Stepan Kriz, photo by Willy Wo.

Do I have to take notes and spend a lot of time on looking at reference?

Careful study of reference and making notes of distinctive features is a great way to train your eye to better see what things really look like, but it’s understandable not to want to go to that extent with every figure you paint! If I were quick painting a red panda for tonight’s D&D session, I’d take a quick look at a couple of photos, pick out a few appropriate colours, and try to paint the big picture elements in as little time as possible. Maybe start with the orangey-red for the back, then use washes to darken the belly and legs, and drybrushing to lighten the back. I wouldn’t worry if the transitions on the tail rings looked rough. I’d keep the ears a simple black on the back, white on the front, and then add the face markings.

If I were painting a horde of red pandas or a contest entry or gift, I’d put more time into choosing and studying reference photos. I think regular study of textures and materials that are often found on miniatures is also a useful practice. On one figure, put extra effort into studying and rendering what worn leather looks like, on the next, focus on the wood or the stone textures. As you do this, you will add more and more of the visual information you need to paint something realistically to your memory (and literal notes if those do help you remember things better.)

If you’ve ever wondered how someone like Kirill Kanaev achieves stunningly realistic NMM reflections, skin, hair, and so on, using reference and studying the appearance of surfaces and textures is a big part of it. I attended a workshop and he had us use reference photos for every area of this bust. We chose a face photo and painted to match the skin tone and the lighting. He had photos of worn leather, fur, and metals for to reference for the other areas of the figure. His overview explanation of how and what to paint included lots of reference slide examples.

Kbust face head My bust from the workshop with Kirill. It was really interesting to paint something larger like this and deep dive into the kinds of details and nuances we don’t have room for on gaming scale figures.

For these red pandas, my process was somewhere in between those two extremes. I looked through photos to choose the colour and patterning I thought would work well. I didn’t write anything out for myself like I have in this article, but I took note of many of those elements. It’s also worth mentioning that I’ve been learning to draw for six or seven years, and it turns out that a key component of learning to draw realistically is honing your eye to actually see what you look at with more and more accuracy. Just as with miniature painters, traditional art students are obsessed with what pen/pencil//brush/paint to use and the best techniques to manipulate those tools, but if you listen to good instructors, the bulk of them emphasize the importance of really seeing what you’re looking at. Drawing what you see is way harder than it sounds!

As an example of how looking and really seeing aren’t quite the same thing, when I started writing this article I took a closer look at some red panda pictures, and only then did I notice that their appearance falls into two main groups. One with more contrasted colour patterns, and darker foreheads, and one with a lot of white on the forehead and less contrast in the tail rings. I’d seen a red panda at our zoo with a lot of white on the forehead and assumed he was older and the hair on his face was turning white as happens with dogs. It turns out that scientists have gone from considering these colour patterns individual variation, to believing them to represent either two subspecies or even two unique species. The Himalayan red panda has white on the face and less defined tail rings. The Chinese red panda has redder fur on the face and well defined tail rings. The pandas in my zoo aren’t old, they’re Himalayan!

Despite using reference photographs and my ongoing personal interest in these animals, I did not notice this significant visual difference at the time of painting these red pandas. Grabbing some reference photos (or real life objects) is just the first step to using reference. Training your eye to really see what you’re looking at is more of an ongoing skill improvement. This article discusses just one of several reasons why it’s harder to do than it seems like it should be. Don’t beat yourself up if you try using reference and it doesn’t solve all your painting problems straight away!

Realism… Plus

So if you want to paint something more realistic, just pick a reference photo (or real life item) and try to capture the colour and physical characteristics in your reference, right? There are some things to keep in mind to choose and adapt the best reference. Our paint choices can help viewers more easily see and understand a figure. Using high contrast of values (dark vs light) help create three dimensional shapes, and define patterns and textures. Higher saturation (more vibrant) colours are eye-catching and are another way to differentiate the various areas of the figure and make it easier to read.

With those ideas in mind, which would be the most visually effective choice for a red panda model, a Chinese or a Himalayan red panda? Which of the coat colour variations from the various photos throughout this article would work best on a miniature?

Joshua j cotten e8t9o3eJ36o unsplashPhoto by Joshua J Cotton on Unsplash.

Philippe oursel moRbywG2O g unsplash editPhoto by Philippe Oursel on Unsplash.

Steve payne CfTeGoutl7E unsplashPhoto by Steve Payne on Unsplash. (The cranky stomp just kills me!)

The Chinese red panda in the previous photo has strong value contrast between light and dark areas on the face (and probably the tail rings) that would be clearer and easier for the viewer to see on a miniature figure than some of the other red pandas. But the colours in the photo above that are very visually appealing, with rich saturation and strong contrast between the warm red-gold and cool black. So which one?

We don’t have to find one perfect reference to paint something. Reference is incredibly useful, but it doesn’t dictate everything we do. We not only can, but should, enhance and interpret our reference materials in order to create a visually effective miniature. The two types of red pandas are a great example of how to do that. We can use a reference photo of a Himalayan panda for colour inspiration, but paint the markings with the darker head and stronger contrast between tail rings. For these red pandas, I chose the fur colour from one picture, and face patterns from others. The tail wasn’t visible in my body fur inspiration photo, so I studied other pictures for tail examples.

Often it’s best if we tweak our painting a little past the reality of our reference. Imagine that only the Himalayan red panda type exists. Our miniature red pandas would still look better if we painted them with more defined tail and face markings. We want the viewer to see those cute ringed tails. We want the viewer to see lots of great cranky facial expression. And we want the viewer to see at least some of that without having to hold the figure a few centimetres away from their eyes. Exaggerating the value and saturation contrast in our paint choices creates a figure that ‘reads’ more easily, but still feels realistic.

I’ve scaled some of the reference photos down to closer to the size of a miniature to give you an idea of the impact that higher and lower value and saturation contrast can have on how easy it is to read visual images.

Rp tiny referencePhotos by: Rhonda Bender, Phillipe Oursel, Joshua J. Cotton, and Ivan Cujic.

For the red pandas I painted, I felt that a lighter value and more saturated orange-red fur colour for the back would stand out more against the black fur of the legs and belly. A lighter value fur on the body also gave me more room to add shadows in areas like the depression between the legs and belly of the walking panda or the fur ridges on the back of the threat pose panda. Looking at the photos now, I think I should have painted the tail stripes just a little darker on the walking panda.

Rp combo 2 full

Painting something that looks realistic doesn’t mean slavishly painting something exactly like a photo or other reference. Our role as artists is to both exaggerate and simplify as necessary for the viewer to be able to read the figure, and then to enjoy looking at it.

A figure doesn’t have to be 100% ‘real’ to look realistic. It needs to feel real, not conform exactly to reality. The idea behind using reference isn’t to try to include every detail and nuance. We need to find the essence of the visual characteristics, and condense them down to an interpretation that will be legible to the viewer when applied to the miniature.

Adapting the detail and nuance of something to a miniature usually means simplifying. In the case of the red pandas, my example photos showed 6-8 dark rings on their tails. I painted four. Increasing the number of rings would have meant I had to paint much narrower rings. This would be both tricky to paint in terms of dexterity, and also probably would have looked messy to the viewer.

Another thing I altered for the sake of simplicity was the front paws of the standing red panda. The photos I studied for their cute little paw pads show that they have a little bit of lighter coloured fur on the wrist area. I chose to leave this out. That area did not have any texture differences in the sculpt. I hadn’t been aware of it until I did some research, so my guess is that few people know exactly what the underside of a red panda paw should look like. It was my feeling that including that detail and being more realistic was more likely to confuse the viewer than if I took a little artistic license and left it out.

I wrestled with a similar decision when I painted this fox bard for Dark Sword many years ago. Real red foxes have black feet, but the apparel on the anthropomorphic fox covers the part of the body where the transition from red fur to black would occur. I was concerned that viewers quickly glancing at the figure might be confused by black hands and toes when the rest of the visible fur is rusty red and white. The transition is easier to understand and interpret on the ears, so I painted the ear-tips black as they appeared in my reference.

Fb front lrgThe Fox Bard is available from Dark Sword in metal. I painted this in 2011. There are a few things I would do a little  differently now, but I stand by the choice I made for the foot and hand colouration.

Work in Progress Photos

I took a sequence of work in progress photos while painting the walking red panda. The PDF available to PDF Patreon supporters includes larger high resolution photos of the WIP sequence below, as well as the sequence for the opposite side.

Rp wip left combo

For the face patterning, I blocked in the main areas of colour to the correct locations, and then worried about adding shading, highlighting, and texture. For a quick game figure I could just darken the insides of the ears a little, paint the eyes, nose, and mouth and call it done.

Rp wip face

Additional Figure Photos

In this section I’m including some photos of the red panda figures from different angles.

Rp log right

Rp log left side

Rp log right back

Rp threat front right

Rp threat left back

Rp threat left face

Rp threat left back

Rp threat right back 500

Basing the Red Pandas

Each of the pandas is sculpted with a small base, but the way Andy Pieper designed the bases should make it fairly easy to fit them into a wilderness display. Since mine would be standalone figures, I decided to extend each of their bases a little. I added an area of earth and vegetation around the rock of the threatening pose standing panda. 

I have spent hours at Zoo Knoxville watching the red pandas lope along tree branches and fallen trunks. They like to keep moving, and they like to be elevated. I built up under the base of the loping red panda to raise the tree branch up and try to capture a little more of that feeling. I built up with cork, and added a few rocks, and then integrated everything together with pumice/sandy texture paste. I primed the figures and bases before beginning to paint. I like to have all the messy stuff finished before painting whenever possible.

Members of my Patreon have access to a video of me working on the panda base construction with information on the materials I used.

Rp1 right

Red Panda Paint Colours

These are the paints I used to paint the figures.

Red-Orange Fur

Rp paint red fur

White Fur and Ears

Rp paint white fur

Black Fur

Rp paint black fur

Racoon Face Exercise

Earlier in the article I shared an outline of a raccoon face and suggested you try sketching out where the darker and lighter face markings would appear as a way to test whether our mental images of things are as detailed as we believe them to be. Here’s the outline again so you don’t have to scroll up.

IMG 0442

I did the exercise, and you can see my attempt to draw the face pattern from memory below.

IMG 0443

You may wonder how I drew the outline and then tested my memory of the face pattern without actually looking at a raccoon, and that is a good question! I first drew the outline of one of the red panda faces. I sketched what I remembered of raccoon face markings on that, but the outline and the pattern were on two separate layers. Then I digitally manipulated my face markings sketch a little to to nudge it into the outline of the raccoon head.

I also asked my husband to make a diagram of what he remembered of raccoon face patterns. He immediately realized that all he remembered was that they have a bandit mask, but he gamely gave it a shot.

IMG 0445

I created the following more accurate diagram using the photograph of a raccoon for reference.

IMG 0444

Yeah, I missed a few things…

Racccon comp

And finally here is the raccoon photograph.

Joshua j cotten IWKIHuzl tU unsplashPhoto by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash.

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