Fool’s Gold

I’m still working on the post about my personal adventures in failure. In other news, the hotel block for ReaperCon 2020 is now open for reservations. If you’re not familiar with ReaperCon, it’s a great place for miniature fans of all companies to learn more about mini painting and sculpting, enter an all brands welcome contest, enjoy gaming, and much more.

And now, let us travel back in time to 2010. My title for this little diorama is Fool’s Gold.

Fool's Gold main angle

A few days ago Reaper Miniatures reached out to me to ask if I could send pictures of a diorama I did some years ago. The main figure in the diorama is Crazy Pete the Prospector. Crazy Pete is available for purchase, but he is also being featured as one of the gift with purchase options on the Reaper site.

Fool's Gold face view

I did have pictures, but they were from 2010, taken with an older camera with lower resolution. And colour corrected before I had a proper greyscale card. Taking new pictures was complicated by the fact that Crazy Pete had become detached from the base.

Fools left 800

I dug him out of my case and discovered that the damage wasn’t bad at all. Some glue and a few minutes touching up a little paint were all that was required to get the piece in shape for new pictures. I did a little bit of touching up, which I’ll go into more detail on below.

Fool's Gold vulture view

The vulture is also a Reaper miniature. If one vulture is not enough to meet your scavenger needs, Reaper now has a six pack of different vultures!

Fool's Gold mole view

The mole is not available for sale. I started off sculpting it on top of an armature made from a Reaper squirrel familiar. But I am pretty bad at sculpting, and was even worse in 2010. Luckily Jason Wiebe of Pariah Artworks came to my rescue and sculpted this great mole figure for me! The mole was very important to my vision for the scene, so I’m grateful he took pity on me. 

Fool's Gold

One of the things that makes this piece dear to my heart is that it was a collaborative effort with a lot of support from my friends on top of Jason’s sculpting addition. Clever Crow Michael Proctor shared the piece of bark to make the mountain/cave, and a lot of great tips for painting scenery and true metallics. Ali Liu and other artists gave me great feedback and advice on ways to make the story stronger, and helped push me to try the freehand and texturing. (Way back before that became such a thing as it is today!) I would probably have chickened out if not for all of the support.

Fool's Gold Original picture

Above is a copy of one of my original photos. The touch ups I did included making the lining stronger in a number of places, adding a few more highlights on the vulture, more gloss sealer on the spilled water, and increased shading on Crazy Pete, mostly his skin and boots. 

There are definitely some things I would do differently if I painted this piece today, but I’m still proud of it, and it’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since I finished this one!

I Want You to Fail

Last year I posted some suggestions for hobby resolutions, including tips for dealing with time and space issues, and also talked about how to make more successful resolutions. (Spoiler alert: concentrate on your behaviour, not end results.)

This year the hobby resolution that I’m suggesting to you is: FAIL MORE

26 Recipes That LOOKED Good Ended Epic Fail Featured

Stay with me a minute here!

Many years ago I went skating at the roller rink and took a good tumble. A man paused by me for a moment and suggested that I should learn how to fall. At the time and for some years after that struck me as such a crazy thing to say. Falling is something you don’t plan, it’s literally an accident. What kind of crazy advice is learn to do it well!? 35 years later, I think I’m finally starting to understand him, at least on a metaphorical level.

I was never more than a barely competent skater, on the roller rink or the ice. I was too afraid of falling. I preferred to play it safe rather than push myself past my comfort level and risk injury. I have often been just as afraid, and just as held back, by fear of emotional injury. Fear of looking foolish hampered me in learning a second language. Fear definitely held back my progress in learning to paint miniatures. As I’ve been working on my journey to learn traditional art forms these past few years, I’m trying to have a different relationship with failure. Accepting failure as part of the process has helped me both in the growth of my skills, but also in what artistic endeavours can contribute to my emotional and mental health.

When you are learning how to do something, when you are striving to get better at something, you are going to fail. The only way not to fail is to never try. That is also the only guaranteed method to never do or learn anything. If you read up on successful people, you’ll see that an awful lot of them talk about how failure is at the root of their success. A lot of teachers and experts on learning tell us that failure is a far better learning tool than immediate success.

Difficulties When Doing Your Own Nails 2

So what I’m actually suggesting for your hobby resolution is: GET BETTER AT FAILING

Or as a mysterious wise man once told me, learn how to fall. If you try something that doesn’t work, or doesn’t quite turn out the way you planned, look at it as a learning opportunity. First, set it aside for a day or three and then come back to it with fresh eyes. It might not be as bad as you think. It might be worse. Either way, really look at it, and think about the process you used to get that result. Try to identify some specific reasons why it doesn’t work. “It’s ugly and I hate it” is just beating yourself up. “I can see brush strokes in paint I wanted to look smooth” or “The way I painted this wood texture doesn’t look natural” are starting points to figure out how to fix the issue or improve in future attempts. Then you can ask yourself some questions to start to make a roadmap for better success. What could you do differently next time to see fewer brushstrokes in your paint? What specific element(s) doesn’t look right about the wood?

Yeah, that may seem a little harder than trying to track down a skilled painter you admire and asking them to tell you how to fix things, or throwing something up on the internet and asking for suggestions. The thing is, a lot of what you’re going to get from that are just guesses. Absolutely it is valuable to study what other people do, to watch videos, and take classes, and ask others to give feedback on your work. But you are the biggest expert on you. You are the teacher you have the most access to. You know the process you use to paint. You know what tools you have at your disposal. You know your goals. Learning how to teach yourself more will get you further, faster, and happier than just about anything else I can think of.

Close enough

It’s advantageous to learn how to learn from your failures at any stage of your miniature painting journey, but at a certain point it becomes crucial. You reach a point where  it’s not about smooth blending or accurately applied texture strokes. It’s not about technique. It’s not about something someone else can easily explain to you in a five minute critique. It’s about applying colour, value, composition, and a lot of other much more complex and more nebulous ideas to your own work. I reached a point where I stagnated because I wasn’t sure what to work on to improve. I knew I wasn’t there, that there were still plenty of flaws in my work. I just hadn’t realized that I was at a stage where what I needed to do was learn how to analyze my work and come up with things to fix and try. Working to learn that has made me much more comfortable with my failures, and has rejuvenated my interest in and enjoyment of miniature painting.

Beating yourself up for failure is counter productive compared to turning failure into a learning experience, but it can be even more harmful than that. We are wired to avoid pain, be it physical or emotional. Fear of failure can keep you from even attempting something. This is as true of miniature painting as it is for skating, or speaking a foreign language, or any number of things. For many years I would often plan to include a freehand element on something I was painting. But then I’d get to the point where it was time to do the freehand, and I’d chicken out because I liked the how the blending looked or how the miniature was going overall. I’d already put so many hours in that I didn’t want to ‘waste time’ doing something that would likely fail and I’d have to redo. Instead I wasted literal years where I could have been building my brush control a lot more quickly as well as adding another tool to my repertoire. 

B7c51b4ee4657ad9f63535048235526e cookie monster cupcakes sheep cupcakes

If it gets bad enough, fear of the pain of failure can keep you from painting outright. After all, if you don’t do something, you can’t fail at it. But you also can’t succeed at it! Or get to enjoy the aspects of it that had you start doing that thing in the first place. 

I think it can help a lot to understand that many of the mistakes we make are at least in some part a result of how the human brain and eyes handle visual information, or are due to conflicts between how different areas of our brain process visual information. In many ways these mistakes are natural, and unavoidable for most people. I hope to talk about some of them in a series of posts in the next few months. In most cases just knowing what the issues are won’t provide an instant fix, but it will help you in making better attempts, and will hopefully help you be kinder to yourself when you fail.

It’s easy for me to say all these positive things about failure, but our culture has a very negative view of failure that many of us have internalized that is hard to fight against. When we fail to achieve the goal we set out with, when we don’t get enough likes and comments on the work we post, when we don’t get the award we aimed for in the contest, or even when we just plain don’t like how the miniature came out, it’s a pretty natural reaction to feel very negatively about that and blame ourselves. I don’t have an easy answer for that. I have some thoughts I’ll try to share over the next year, but you may also find it helpful to consult books or videos from the wider world at large on topics like dealing with failure or how to learn skills more successfully.

So to sum up, my resolution suggestion for you is: Accept that you will fail. Don’t beat yourself up for this inevitable failure. Learn how to use failure as a learning opportunity. 

Bad nmmMy first ‘serious’ attempt at non-metallic metal. It did not go well. I did not take that failure well.

This got a little longer than I expected, so I’ll share my personal experience with failure learning to paint miniatures versus failure in learning to do traditional art in a followup post in a few days.

How to Paint Fur Patterns – Again

One of my first posts on this blog was a look at how to paint animal fur patterns. This is helpful to know not only for painting animal figures, but also for painting clothing or scenic elements made from fur. I recently finished painting another personified tabby cat figure, and I took some in progress pictures to talk a little more about the process I used for painting the fur.

Korben front view

Korben back view

The warrior cat above is an anthropomorphic imagining of one of my own cats, Korben. It is one of a line of terrific anthropomorphic animal figures from Dark Sword Miniatures. Korben is a large and beefy cat and a deadly hunter, so he was envisioned as a burly, but mischievous, fighter character. Once the concept artist and sculptor finished their fantastic work, it became my job to bring my orange tabby goofball to life. One important part of that was to study photos of the real Korben to determine good colours to use, where there were variations in his fur colour, and where to place the stripes.

Korben looking innocent. He's not.

One thing that’s apparent from these photographs is that the lighting conditions can have a significant appearance on the colour of objects. The fur appears more red/auburn in the first picture than the one below. I aimed for something in between the two in the painted version of Korben.

Korben profile2

I tend to start by painting the lighter colour(s) on an animal with patterning. It’s usually easier to paint a darker colour over a lighter colour than vice versa. Let’s study the lighter areas of the fur on my reference cat. One important element to note is that the lighter areas of fur are not uniform in colour. The variations are affected by several factors:

Natural Variation
The fur is a lighter colour in some areas than others. Most notably, the lower jaw, the tip of the tail, and narrow stripes under the eyes. The fur is almost white in places. It is very common for animals to have lighter coloured fur on their bellies than they do on their sides and backs.

Skin Showing Through
The number of fur strands is much less dense in the areas in front of the ears and above the eyes. More white skin shows through, which makes the fur appear lighter in colour here.

Light and Shadow
The way that light falls on the animal creates shadows depending on the shape of its body and limbs. Areas of fur will appear lighter where they are facing towards the light, and darker where the forms of the animal curve away from the light and create shadows. On the full body picture of Korben, you can see a dark ridge of shadow on the lower side of his flank above the tail, and quite a dark shadow under his jaw. 

His chest fur appears darker where it curves down towards his belly. This can create one of the challenges of painting animals. As mentioned above, fur is often lighter coloured on the underside of an animal. But in most poses this is also an area that is facing away from the light and thus shadowed. Where this occurs you need to paint the fur the shadow colour of your lighter belly fur colour. You might have belly fur that would appear pure white if it were viewed in good lighting, but you will need to paint it more of a tan or grey because it should appear as if it’s in shadow.

It can be difficult to depict both the natural variation of fur AND the play of light and shadow over the fur simultaneously in a way that makes sense on a small miniature figure. Sometimes you need to make choices about which aspect is most important to your vision for that figure.

In the case of Korben the miniature, my thinking was along the following lines. The lighter areas of fur on his face are part of what makes Korben look like Korben, so they are important to include to capture the likeness, even if I have to sacrifice creating the three dimensional form a little. Luckily those areas are mostly in the light, apart from the lower jaw. The colour shift of his tail from light to near white is interesting and also a distinctive feature of his appearance, so I wanted to capture that, but still add some shading throughout the tail to make it look round.

On the arms, the emphasis of the sculpt is on Korben’s muscular strength. (He is a mighty hunter!) In terms of capturing the vision for the figure, accuracy of the fur patterning or even whether the stripes are very visually apparent is less important than bringing out the rounded curves of the muscles so those are very visible to the viewer.

For the purposes of painting a more effective miniature, I increased the level of contrast between his light and dark colours of fur. Miniatures are small (even though this one is super sized compared to the other anthropomorphic cats in the Dark Sword line!), and a lot more of the body area is covered than in an unclothed cat. So it seemed like a good idea to exaggerate the contrast a little to ensure that the tabby patterning would be easy for the viewer to see in the display case at a busy convention, since that will be the function of this miniature.

I did a quick test of some colour options on another figure. Doing tests like these might seem like wasted time. But it is more efficient to spend a few minutes working out my colour choices on a test figure than to it would be to try something, discover it doesn’t work, and then have to spend a lot more time repainting the main figure. If I were not already practiced at painting stripes from painting anthropomorphic Archer and Ella, I might also have spent a little time practicing the techniques I planned to use to make the stripes look less painted on. The one downside of this test is that now I’m trying to resist the urge to paint this as a Pippi Longstocking wolf…

Korb wolf test photoI love the Bones figures from Reaper for quick tests like this. No prep or primer needed, just grab the fig and start testing. 

The following is a picture of what the Korben figure looked like after I finished painting the areas of light coloured fur, including the shading and highlighting as well as the areas that appear lighter due to other factors. Normally I would have finished painting all of the fur areas before painting his gear and weapons. In this instance I circled back to the fur later when I had time to take photos for this article.

Korben light fur before patterning

Now it was time for the stripes. How did I approach painting those, and how did I make them look more like natural fur stripes rather than painted on? I discussed some of this in the previous fur post, but it’s worth talking about again with some additional examples.

Manmade pattern examplesExamples of painting insignia and other manmade patterns.

If you think of the symbols on traffic signs, or many clothing designs, or other examples of patterns of that type, the edges of the elements are crisp and well-defined. (There are a few softer spots on the punk rocker’s t-shirt above, but I was trying to create the impression that it was stained and worn.) These symbols and designs are painted with hard edges in traditional drawing terminology. In your mind you might think of the stripes of a tiger or spots of a leopard as being pretty similar, since the patterns are well-defined, but if you take a closer look, you’ll see that is not the case.

Tiger and Leopard larger viewTiger photo by William Low. Leopard photo by Uriel Soberanes. Both courtesy of Unsplash.

In the photographs of a lion and a leopard above, you can see that their stripe and spot markings are very clearly defined. But even at this distant size/scale, the edges do not have the same kind of sharp definition as you would see on most printed or painted designs like signs and logos. Let’s take an even closer look at these animal markings.

Tiger and leopard markings close upTiger photo by William Low. Leopard photo by Uriel Soberanes. Both courtesy of Unsplash.

In a close up, it’s easy to see that the edges of the markings are not really sharply defined. There are light hairs that poke into the areas of dark fur, and dark hairs that push into the light fur sections. The overall shape of the stripe or spot is well established, but the edges of them are more diffuse. In traditional art terminology this is a firm rather than a sharp edge. That’s the end result we want in a miniature, but how do we get there?

I think sometimes we can make our lives as painters more difficult by trying to accomplish the end result immediately in as few steps as possible. A lot of effects and techniques actually benefit from breaking things up into steps, and that is what I did with the fur pattern here. 

My first step was to start laying in the darker stripes. My goal here was to focus on the placement of the stripes. I studied photos of his face very closely to determine where to place the stripes, and the same with his tail. I got a little more creative with placement on the arms since the anatomical structure of the limbs between the actual cat and the anthropomorphic cat is fairly different. When I say my focus was on placement I mean that my aim was to paint a stripe of roughly the correct width and length in the correct location. I didn’t worry if I had excessively sharp edges or even if the paint was streaky, I didn’t worry about highlights and shadows. Step one was just looking at my reference and placing stripes as accurately as I could. Mostly I used one colour of paint for this stage, but there were a few shadow areas where I used a slightly darker mix to make sure I could see where I put the stripes.

Korben stripes layin frontInitial lay-in of the stripes.

Korb back wip2 700h

You can see from the above photos that my stripes are a little rough. Some have edges that are way too defined. Some are wobbly. Some don’t have full coverage of colour. My next step was to correct any placement issues, clean up the wobbly lines, and make sure that the centres of the stripes have a solid coat of colour. I also added some shading and highlighting to the stripes, and made them a little darker in the centres. 

The next step in my process was to work on softening and diffusing the edges of the stripes so they looked more like natural fur and less like something I painted on. I mixed a colour in between the light fur colour and the darker stripe colour. Using a small brush with a very fine point, I painted tiny lines and dots along the edge transition to blur it. In essence, I’m making strokes to create the light bits of fur on the close-up photo of the tiger stripes above. There were times when I overdid it and needed to tidy a little with either the darker stripe colour or lighter background fur colour, so I kept both those paint colours to hand on my palette.

Striped tail painting process

The above photos demonstrate the three stages of the process I used to paint the stripes. The top photo is what the tail looked like after the initial stripe lay-in. In the middle of the tail on the bottom, you can see where I painted in some extra coats of paint on the stripes to build up the colour coverage. I have started the process of diffusing the harsh edges of the stripes on both ends of the tail in the bottom photo so you can see what that looks like in areas of higher and lower contrast between stripes and background colour. 

Korben face stripes work in progress

The photos above give you an idea of how the process worked on the smaller stripes on the face. The picture of the face on the left is the initial lay-in of the stripes. In the picture on the right, I have corrected the placement of the stripes on top of the head. I also realized that I had made the area of lightness above his eyes too large and dramatic, and I toned that down a bit, as well as painting the ears to better match my reference photos. The picture on the right was taken mid-way through the process – I still had a bit of work to do on softening the stripes on the cheeks and chin. 

This is just one method for painting fur patterns! If you’re not painting a larger figure or one intended for display, you might be more interested in one of the other methods I described in my original post about painting fur patterns.

Thank You Dark Sword Miniatures!

I would like to say thank you very much to Dark Sword Miniatures for adding our third furry goofball to the anthropomorphic critters line up! Now he definitely feels like he’s a part of the family. We only planned to have two cats, but when we realized that the friendly orange cat that had been hanging around the neighbourhood was a stray, how could we resist? Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into!

Archer bl front 500Our tyrannical overlord, Archer, depicted as a grumpy warlock. He’s a lot skinner now that he’s quite an old man cat. We think he’s working on becoming a lich.

Ella front 450Our second cat, sweet Elasund or Ella, depicted as a rogue. She could also have made a good cleric, she’s the only creature in the house with a high Wisdom score. (But very low Int.)

Korben family 1000The whole furry family. You can see that Dark Sword went the extra mile to capture the true scale of Korben the Warrior.

Korben v archer1Real life size comparison of Korben and Archer.

Figures Featured in this Post

Korben the Fighter is available from Dark Sword Miniatures

The test warg is available in Bones plastic, or in metal

Inspector #3 from Heresy Miniatures

Inspector #2 from Heresy Miniatures

Sid the Rock Star from Reaper Miniatures

Holiday Miniatures

Happy Holidays! Whether you celebrate Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanza, Yule, or are just trying to keep your spirits up in these darker days of the year, I hope you find some joys in the season! I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you for being a reader. Knowing that there are people who’ve found something I’ve shared helpful or informative definitely brings me joy.

I’m still working on getting into the holiday spirit, and as part of that I’m going to share pictures of the holiday themed miniatures I’ve painted that are currently available as a gift with purchase or for sale. Scroll to the bottom of the post for more information about that. I’d even say that rushing to paint festive figures has become part of my personal holiday tradition! 

Cat Dragon and TreeCat Dragon in Tree. New this year! More photos here. Information on how to paint fur patterns.

Ghost of Christmas PastThe Ghost of Christmas Past. New this year! More photos here. Information on how I painted the candle and reflected light.

Ghost of Christmas PresentThe Ghost of Christmas Present. New this year! More photos here.

Ghost of Christmas Yet to ComeThe Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. New this year! More photos here. Information on how I painted the black (and blend in general) here.

Holly Christmas ElfHolly the Christmas Elf. More photos here.

Christmas Dragon HoardChristmas Dragon Hoard. More photos here. Some tips for painting wrapping paper here.

Christmas FamiliarsChristmas familiars (all three count as one selection.) More pictures here.

Tinker the GnomeTinker the Gnome. More photos here.

Joy Winter FairyJoy the Winter Fairy. More photos here. There is some info on paint colours I used here.

Dragon and StockingDragon and Stocking. More photos here. Work in progress pictures and information on how I painted him here.

I hope that you and yours enjoy a wonderful holiday season filled with miniature (and full-sized) fun!

Below is a graphic listing all of the 12 Days of Reaper figures that are available. The promotion runs on their website from December 2 to December 13, 2019. In the past, the promotion featured a different figure each day as a free gift with minimum purchase. This year you have more choices. If your purchase total meets the minimum purchase requirement of $50 (pre-tax, and in a number of currencies), you will be able to choose which of this year’s 12 featured figures you would like. And the purchase amount stacks – if your pre-tax order totals $100 or more, you’ll pick out two figures, and so on.

Orders of $60 or more will also receive a holiday sampler that includes an ornament, a couple of paints, and some figures. (But only one sampler per order, and only while supplies last since some elements aren’t made in-house.) And on top of all of that, you’ll still get the usual free figure of the month for every $40 worth of your order. Which you also now choose from a menu of options! One of the current options is Ashana the Genie. She is the same scale as the Efreeti I painted earlier this year. (Scroll to the bottom of the Efreeti post for a scale picture.)

12 Days of Reaper 2019

The 12 Days figures are only available as a gift with purchase during the promotion period. But after December 13, the remaining stock will go up for sale individually. Note that at this point each will only be available while supplies last. 

If you’re not sure what to buy, Reaper has just put almost all of the special edition Sophies of years past into open release. These were originally available only at conventions and similar events, and some have gone on to be rare and a little pricey in the secondary market. Now everyone can have the ones they want. There are also a number of additional holiday figures that are only available for purchase at this time of year, including a limited availability set of holiday paint colours. These colours are now available for purchase individually, as well. There are some additional Christmas figures available for purchase year round. (The Sophies and a few others at the bottom of this link, and a set of Nativity figures if you’d like to paint your own crèche.) And new this year is the Dreidel Golem and a new Krampus sculpt.

Can I See the Light (to Paint)

I’d like to share some general thoughts on how to tackle projects that are ambitious or intimidate you, as well as a few tips on painting object source lighting (OSL). These are based on my recent experience in painting the Ghost of Christmas Past. Check the end of the post for information on how to get this miniature as a free gift with purchase.

Ghost of Christmas Past with OSL effectThe Ghost of Christmas Past sculpted by Bob Ridolfi.

If this short article isn’t enough information on the subject of OSL, I will be teaching a class on object source lighting at AdeptiCon in 2020 where I will dive into it in a lot more depth. I will also be teaching classes on a quick and easy blending method, and understanding common critique terms and issues. Dozens of other terrific painters and hobbyists will be teaching classes on a wealth of topics. AdeptiCon is a great convention to attend if you want to skill up, and if you enjoy playing games with your figures. AdeptiCon passes and class and event tickets go on sale December 8, 2019. You can check out all the classes and other events by going to this link and selecting the Event List option from the left side menu.

Study and Research

When trying something outside of your comfort zone, it can be very helpful to study some video and/or text tutorials by more experienced painters. Oftentimes there are some guidelines or approaches that you just might not have thought of.

Since I teach a class on it, I had already done a fair amount of study into elements that can contribute to more successfully creating the illusion of reflected light on a miniature. And that study is why I had trepidation about painting this figure. The character in the book A Christmas Carol is described as wearing a white robe. I advise people not to use white on the clothing/hair/etc. of a figure painted with OSL. We can’t paint a glow or nimbus of light around a light source the way someone could on a two dimensional painting. So it is advisable to reserve bright white for use only on the light source, and maybe just a touch for highlights on areas of reflected light right next to the light source. 

OSL Mages ComparisonThe mage on the left was my first attempt at OSL. I studied what worked and what didn’t (almost everything) and tried to do a more effective version with the figure on the right. If I painted this figure again today there are yet more changes I would make.

Another recommendation I make for painting effective OSL is to reserve highly saturated colours for use only on the light source and the reflected light, and to use less saturated colours for the clothing and equipment of the figure. As with using white on the light source, this technique helps further the illusion that the light source is brighter and lighter than the rest of the scene. The Christmas Past miniature sculpt also includes holly leaves and berries, which are typically fairly saturated green and red in colour, so that would be a second guideline I’d be breaking to paint it.

So why did I decide to paint this figure with an OSL effect? Since I am preparing to teach a class on the subject in a few months, I was intrigued by the challenge of whether I could pull it off! If you are newer to painting OSL, I recommend that you follow the guidelines I’ve suggested for the use of white and saturated colours, at least on your first few experiments.

Plan and Experiment

Study is helpful, but a lot of us have the tendency to put off the intimidating project by burying ourselves in videos and tutorials. It is far more helpful to dive in and get some practical experience.

One way to more actively study is to look at specific figures. Pick out some that you feel do a good job of the effect or technique you’re trying, and also some that are less successful. Including your past attempts, if any. Study both groups with an analytical eye. Dissect the colour choices in detail. Evaluate where areas are lighter and darker. Try to come to some conclusions about concrete things you can do to improve your chance of success when you try.

Test colour scheme ideas on paper or on a test figure. Look up reference photos for materials and textures. Not just how other people have painted them, but looking at the materials themselves. Think about how you’d replicate that in miniature and test some of your ideas.

One of the things I do to prepare to paint a single point light source figure is to make my own reference photos for where areas will appear darker and lighter. I use a mini Maglite bulb to simulate the light source. I primed Christmas Past with Reaper’s white, black, and grey brush-on primers. This allowed me to prime areas of the miniature at roughly the same value as the colours I intended to paint them – white robe, light grey skin, black hair, and dark grey on the red and green areas. (Both colours tend to be darker than you’d think.) You could also do basecoats of your midtones and then take a reference picture to really get a good idea of how the light affects the various colours and values.

Christmas Past light referenceYou can make your own reference photos for less extreme lighting, too.

Just Do It!

The most important element is to get your butt into the chair and do it. Don’t procrastinate too long or psych yourself out of even trying. This is not life and death stuff. It’s not the end of the world if you mess up. You never have to show anyone if you don’t like how it came out. It’s just paint, and you can always paint over it and try again. Whether it’s a rousing success or not at all what you hoped for, you can study your end result to learn more to apply to your next attempt.

Problem Solving

I am trying to learn to do a better job of finding and solving problems during the painting process, and as I have with a few other figures, I will share my experience with that on the Ghost of Christmas Past.

In this first WIP picture, I’ve completed painting the skin, the hair, the base, and the accessories. (Or so I thought.) The robe and candle are still only primer.

The first thing I painted was the skin, and it was a frustrating experience. I kept feeling like it looked wrong and kinda rough. And I think that’s something that happens to a lot of people when they’re trying more advanced techniques. A lot of effects and some techniques do not really look good until the final stages. Some don’t even look right until the painting on the figure as a whole is almost finished. Non-metallic metal doesn’t really start to ‘shine’ and look good until you have your darkest and lightest values painted on. Initial passes of a texture can look rough and unconvincing. The first few stages of how I paint transparent cloth look almost silly.

Some types of painting techniques and effects start to look good pretty quickly, and you can assess whether there are issues you need to fix as you go along. Drybrushing or sidebrushing texture is an example. With many other effects, it can be very difficult to tell in the early and middle stages. When you try techniques like this, you need to take a leap of faith and follow through until the end. And then finish the figure. Only then can you take a step back and get an idea of whether or not you’ve been successful. If you try to judge and adjust a lot in the beginning and middle stages, you are making your life more difficult and might even be undoing things that would look better in the end if left as they were. 

My frustration in painting the skin was related to this. The figure I was holding was being lit by my room lights, which cast highlights and shadows on that big expanse of dress that match the zenithal lighting approach we usually use when painting miniatures. I was painting shadows and highlights on small areas of the figure to match the lighting in my reference photo. The location of those lights and shadows contradicted both years of habit for where to visualize and place light and shadow, and what my own eyes were telling me based on the room light. I had to just have faith that it would all come together as more of the miniature got painted and resist the urge to dial back or alter the effect.

Xpast wip1 front 600

In this next WIP picture, I had finally gotten colour on most of the miniature. My concern was getting everything in the right place and working on the right level of contrast within the light area and within the shadow area. If I started with trying to soften the edges I’d probably have had to do it over a few times while fiddling with one of those other aspects.

This is where I left off in painting the night before Thanksgiving. We were hosting people in our home, so I just put her up on a shelf and studied her now and then when passing through the room. I felt like things were coming together and working more than in the beginning stages, but I also felt like something just wasn’t quite right. I had to step away and then study the figure a bit more to figure out what. As eager as I was to finish since I was cutting pretty close to the deadline, the break ended up being helpful for getting a little distance and being able to solve the problem.

Christmas Past WIP 2

Late Thanksgiving night I realized what was bothering me – there wasn’t much value difference between the lit areas and the shadow areas on the far arm and skirt of the dress. If I squinted, the whole right side looked pretty much the same in value. I was trying to create the illusion that the light was much brighter closer to the source and fell off in brightness as it moved away from the source, but had I gone too far?

As you can tell from the photo below, yep, I had gone too far. There is virtually no difference in value between the light and shadow on the right side and bottom of the skirt on the left side. I had a warmer colour and a cooler colour, but they were the same value of grey, so couldn’t really create an impression of light and shadow.

Christmas Past WIP 2 in grayscaleConverting your photo to grayscale by desaturating it is a good way to check whether or not you’re actually painting the appearance of reflected light.

Since the shadow areas were already pretty dark, I felt the best remedy for the issue was to lighten up the areas reflecting the candle light. I did that over all of the sections of the figure – skin, hair, dress, and accessories.

Christmas Past WIP 3 Colour

Christmas Past WIP 3 grayscale

The final steps were to paint the buttons, candle, candle flame and candle holder, and to soften the transition edge between the areas of shadow and areas of light. Oh, and to add in the colour of the light. You might not have noticed it, but I didn’t really paint in the colour of the light as I went along. I used warm colours for the lit areas – more yellow in the greens and reds, and a tan colour for the shading of the white. I mixed a dark purple into the light area colours to create darker, cooler, and more muted colours for the various areas of the shadow side. For the shadow areas of the dress I just used pure neutral greys since I have a spectrum of those pre-mixed for easy blending, and then added the purple via a glaze at the end.

This is what everything looked like prior to painting on the light and shadow colour, painting the flame, and softening the edge transitions.

Christmas Past WIP 4

I thinned some red and yellow paint way, way, way down and painted glazes of the colours over the areas of light. I thinned down the dark purple I used in the shadow areas in the same way and painted it over the neutral grey parts of the dress to integrate them in with the rest of the shadows. I used the brightest white paint I have to paint the base of the candle flame. Here’s what the finished figure looks like on the same flat gray background I used for my WIP pictures.

Christmas Past on Grey Background

Below is a picture of the palette I used to paint the dress and glaze in the colours on the light side. The lit areas of the dress were painted with the top row of colours. The shadow areas were painted using the darker greys mostly on the bottom row of the palette. The red and yellow pools were my glaze colours. The colours in the centre of the second row were the mixes I used to soften the edges between the lit areas and the shadowed sections. (Which literally were mixes of the neutral and warm greys in various values.)

Christmas Past Palette

I used a wet palette for the majority of the painting, but I wanted to be able to preserve my paint mixes for the dress to be able to do touchups and alterations. I preserved the paint by placing almost dripping wet sponges on top of the ceramic palette when it was not in use. I’ll post more about that trick another time.

And here are a few more pictures of the completed figure, along with her compatriots from A Christmas Carol.

Christmas Past Back

Christmas Past Left

Christmas Past Right

Christmas Ghosts Front

Figures Featured in this Post

The three Christmas Ghosts are available until December 13, 2019. You can choose from one of these figures or another nine holiday options as a gift with $50 (or in other currencies) purchase from the Reaper website. For each $50 worth of your purchase(s) during the promotional period, you’ll be able to choose one of the 12 Days of Reaper figures for this year. If your purchase is over $60, you will also receive a sampler bag that includes a couple of festive paint colours, a Christmas ornament, and a few Bones miniatures. Each $40 of qualifying purchase throughout the month of December also receives a free Bones Black figure that you likewise choose from a selection of options.

The mage casting magical lightning is based on a classic piece of Larry Elmore art, and is available from Dark Sword Miniatures. I’ve used this figure in the past for my OSL classes, but this year’s class at AdeptiCon is going to mix it up and use another fun Dark Sword figure. They have a lot of miniatures that would make for great OSL practice – I had a hard time choosing the figure for this class!

Painting the Bones V Hydra

In a previous post post I talked about how it was a change of pace for me to paint this large hydra figure because of the difference in size and subject to what I paint most often. Now I’d like to share a little of the actual painting process for this miniature.

Hydra - finished, view 1It’s not too late to get this and hundreds of other figures at much lower than retail prices.

Planning Phase

My first step was making a plan of action. This is the stage where I consider different colour scheme ideas, what might be the best order to paint areas, things like that. In this case I did not take very much time and effort at this stage. I was on a deadline and not wanting to psych myself out about the aspects of painting something less usual for me.

And my experience in painting this figure is an example of how not spending a little bit more time in thought beforehand likely cost me a chunk of time in execution. I had some broad colour scheme direction via photos from Reaper’s art director, Ron Hawkins, but I didn’t take the time do do any colour tests. With some minis, I spend a bit of time working out my exact colour choices on paper before I start painting on the figure. I decided to wing it with this one, and I didn’t get it right on my first try.

Colour Complexity and Variation

One thing I did think about a little was colour variation. This is a subject I often end up talking with intermediate painters who are looking to improve their work to the next level. While painting shadows and highlights on an area adds some variation and visual interest, it only does so much. If you look at something the size of the hydra, or even a cloak or large expanse of skin, it gets a little samey to look at if the only variation is a difference between the dark, midtone, and light areas.

Bases color complexityTop: Shades of darker and lighter grey only.
Middle: Grey shaded with dark Burgundy pink, and highlighted with pale Caucasian flesh tone.
Bottom: Shades of darker and lighter grey for the value transitions, glazed over top with other colours.

These colour variations are reflect real world objects more than you might think – reflections from surrounding materials on shiny objects, variations in skin tones like blush on the cheeks, colour shifting caused by a light with a colour cast, all kinds of things create varied colours on surfaces. And just as with many elements of art that reflect real life, it’s pretty common for artists to exaggerate these colour variations to create a more interesting piece.

There are a number of different techniques you can use to add some colour variation to areas. I talked about a couple of methods in a Reaper Toolbox video I recently completed. Michael Proctor is a master of colour use, and he also has a recent Toolbox video where he talks about some of his techniques.

Hydra view of light directionI visualized the sunlight shining from the direction of the tip of the hydra’s tail, but much higher in the sky.

In the case of the hydra, I relied primarily on shifting the colours used to paint the lights and shadows, as in the middle photo of the example above. I added a little more visual interest to things by shifting the direction of the light to one side of the figure, and using some colour contrasts in my (eventual) paint choices. I visualized the light as bright sunlight streaming from the direction of the tip of the tail. This created a situation where one side of the creature would appear more in light, and the other side more in shadow, with some interesting interplay of light and shadow on the necks.

Airbrush Misstep

Several people have asked me if I used an airbrush to paint the hydra. My answer is yes and no. I did try to start with an airbrush. it seemed like a perfect fit for a large creature like this, and handy method to lay in the broad strokes of the directional light I planned. It took me a few hours of painting over a couple of sessions (my compressor overheated the first session!), but eventually I ended up with this.

Wip1a Hydra airbrush stageThe more lit side after the airbrush stage. Crummy cellphone photo.

It looks pretty dull in the photographs, and that’s not because they’re just crappy cell phone pics – it looked pretty dull in real life, too! Essentially I ended up with a sort of zenithal prime effect – it was a good guideline to where to place my shadows and highlights, but not much more.

Wip1b hydra airbrush back viewThe more shadow side after the airbrush stage. Cellphone photo.

Painting the Base

As I considered where to go from here, I realized that it would be tricky to reach all the areas of the base if the body were fully painted, so I decided to paint the base first. I talk about the techniques I used to paint the rocks in my recent Reaper Toolbox video.

Wip2a hydra painted basePainted base. Light side view. Cellphone photo.

The technique I used on the pillar pieces was a little different. I painted using my usual layering technique, but with some variation in the selection of colours for lights and shadows. I looked at some reference photos of Greek temples, and plenty of them are not perfectly polished white marble. Several seemed to have a fair bit of ruddy red showing on the pillars. So I started with a basecoat of cream, and used a clay red in the shadows. To keep the effect of the bright sunny day throughout the whole figure, I used some dark blue in the shadow areas of the pillars, and yellow in the highlight areas that are receiving full light.

Wip2b hydra base shadow sidePainted base. Shadow side. Cellphone photo.

Re-Colouring the Body

Now I had to figure out what to do with the body of the hydra for a more interesting colour selection. I decided to keep my main shadow colours, but swap in more saturated midtone and highlight colours. As with the rocks and the pillars, I was using dark blues in the shadows, and yellow in the highlights to simulate a sunny day.

Wip3a hydra base colour repaint light sideAfter wet-blending new body colours. Cellphone photo. View from the direction of the light.

The majority of the paint on the body and necks was applied with the wet-blending technique. I started with a size 2 round sable brush, but this figure was large enough that I switched to a bigger synthetic brush for most of the basic lay-in of colour transitions, using the size 2 on smaller areas or to refine blends. I used the light to dark transitions created by my airbrush stage as a guideline, but refined and shifted the location of light and shadow as I deemed necessary to create the effect of the lighting or make the figure more interesting to look at.

Wip3b hydra wetblending shadow sideAfter wet-blending in new body colour, view from the more shadowed side. Cellphone picture.

Forging a… Five Heads

I was much happier with the colour selection for the body than I was with my first attempt. However, I felt like using the exact same colour transitions on the head would not work very well. The heads need to stand out in some way to help the viewer spot them and connect with them. I did some experiments with a couple of patterns to see whether patterning would be a good way to make the heads stand out. Sometimes I’ll grab a similar figure to practice tricky freehand or do tests like this (Bones are great for this!), but in this case it was just as easy to test on the figure, and it is sculpted with such definition that a coat or two of extra paint wouldn’t be an issue.

Wip5 pattern testingTesting some ideas for patterning on the heads and/or neck scales.

I also decided to use more saturated colours on the heads than I had on the body. I switched out my brown shadow step for one that was more green, and swapped my kinda yellow highlight step for one that was a more intense yellow. The heads and spines scales were smaller areas and I was working with more transparent colours, so for these I used my usual layering techniques rather than doing any wetblending.

Wip4a hydra colour contrast between heads and bodyPainting completed on two heads. They are a slightly different colour scheme than the body to help them stand out to the viewer.

Lining the Scales

The next time I sat down to paint I wasn’t in the mood for fiddly blending with semi-transparent colours, so I decided to work on painting the lining between the scales instead. I talked about the technique I used for that in a previous blog post.

Hydra lining comboAdding lining between the scales makes a big difference in the appearance of a figure like this!

Once I had the lining in, I reevaluated my intention to paint some patterns on the heads and/or spine scales. The lining between the scales added a lot of texture and I felt like the contrast between that texture and the smooth blending on the heads would help keep the heads as the focus.

Belly Scale Dancing

Wip6a hydra blue belly scalesTest of a blue colour scheme for the belly scales. I used slightly different colours on the final version.

The last thing to figure out was the colours to use on the belly scales. As with the pattern experiments I decided to test right on the figure rather than grabbing a separate one or testing on paper. I wanted to pick colours that would stand apart from the belly scales, but not steal focus from the heads. The brown was a bit too bland. The blue worked better, but it was important to keep it muted so that it didn’t compete with the yellow of the heads. I tweaked the colours a little on the final version.

Wip6b hydra brown belly scalesTest of a brown colour scheme for the belly scales. 

Concluding Thoughts

As you can see from my experience painting this figure, one of the things to keep in mind when painting something that is different from what you normally paint is that the process is not likely to go as smoothly as usual. You have less experience to draw on, fewer helpful habits established. Even though I was painting this on a deadline, and I felt some pressure to make it look as cool as I could for the sake of the Kickstarter campaign and a few other reasons, I had to accept that I lost time to mistakes and having to do tests to avoid more mistakes. There would have been no value to beating myself up or getting too frustrated about it.

Display Painting versus Tabletop Painting

I’m still working on a bit more of an overview post of my experience painting the hydra I showed in my last post. In the meantime, I was thinking about the conversations I had with people about painting at the countdown party. 

Hydra side viewLate pledges are available if you missed the Kickstarter campaign.

I was very happy to talk with people about painting and try to share some tips. My painting knowledge is built on a foundation of generosity of other artists taking time to share what they know, and I want to give back to the community in the same way. I also genuinely enjoy geeking out about one of my favourite things with other fans! But there were times when I felt like the information I shared was disappointing to people since a lot of it summed up to the big ‘trick’ in painting this was time and patience.

When you’re learning a new skill, you tend to assume that as you get better at it, you’ll be able to do things in a similar amount of time and with similar techniques, just better and quicker. Certainly there are skills or areas in which this may be true. I’m not a great cook. I could follow a recipe to make a pie crust, but it would take me a lot more time and effort than a professional baker or even a practiced and enthusiastic home cook. And my results would likely neither look nor taste as good as theirs. They have a lot more experience and possibly access to better tools than I do. However, there are also areas where neither expertise nor tools are the limiting factor. My pie is going to take about as long to cook as the expert’s, and there’s not much either of us can do about that.

Cmon speed paints - frontA group of pro painters including myself, Jen Haley, Elizabeth Beckley-Bradford, and Clay Williams painted these Robb Stark models in a 90 minute speed painting challenge at CMON Expo 2018. The figures benefit from our painting expertise, but display models they are not.

Now I’m going to look at a more art based example. Someone who is in the earlier stages of learning to draw can produce an accurate and realistic drawing, whether through use of tools like grid drawing or just sheer effort. I did some decent drawings in my early days of starting my learning traditional art journey. But just like my attempt to make a pie crust, they took a lot of time and effort on my part. And they weren’t the norm. There were a lot more terrible drawings than decent ones. That stands in stark contrast with the work of a skilled artist, who can do quick sketches that look attractive and realistic in a few minutes. That is the value of practice and repetition, but also a lot of knowledge and experience that the artist draws upon.

I think people look at something I’ve painted like the hydra and parallel it to the example of the two artists above. They assume it’s the ‘pro’ version of their tabletop or speed painted miniatures. But it’s not really an apples to apples comparison. It’s more like comparing a pencil sketch to a high rendered photo realistic drawing. There’s a foundation of knowledge that applies to both, and there are some similar tools and techniques. But one is not the evolution of the other. It’s more like siblings or cousins.

Cmon speed paints - back viewMy figure is the second from the right, and is the weakest of the bunch. The painters who are more successful at balancing speed and end result than I am picked colour schemes with much more contrast, and enhanced those with painting techniques that enhanced the pop of the figure, and then sprinkled a dash of an extra like weathering and/or freehand on top. I spent too much time worrying about blending.

A professional painter, particularly one who paints armies or other tabletop figures regularly for commission, is like the professional baker making the pie crust. They have good tools and materials, but also a wealth of experience to draw on to create a great looking result in less time than a beginner or casual painter. Something they speed paint might be to a standard a beginner is aspiring to do as a display painted piece. But a lot of high level display painting techniques we use are more like the baking time in the oven for the pie, or the time it takes to render a quick sketch into a fully painted picture – there’s no quick trick or tool that does the job for you, it just takes time and patience.

Hydra - pre scale liningA work-in-progress picture of the hydra before I painted in the lining between the scales.

The lining between the scales of my hydra is a good example. Using quick painting techniques, most people would line between the scales by using a wash of a darker colour. Or maybe they would start by painting a dark coat of paint and then drybrush or sidebrush lighter colours on top of the scales, leaving the lines in between them dark. This figure is sculpted with a lot of great definition, and those techniques should work well to paint it. But that’s not how I painted mine, and I don’t think you could use those techniques and get a result that looks like what I got.

Hydra - after scale liningThe same view of the hydra with the lining painted between the scales. It adds a lot of impact and texture!

The way I painted the lines between the scales of the hydra was… to paint the lines between the scales of the hydra. I used a fine tipped brush, patience, and a little over two hours of my life. The only ‘tip’ type thing I did that might not be obvious to the viewers is something that made the process even more fiddly, not less! I did not use a single colour of lining over the whole figure. If you compare the value (lightness/darkness) of an area of scales to the lining around it, you’ll see that it’s fairly constant over the whole figure. It looks that way because I used a lighter brown colour to line between the lightest colour scales, a blue-black to line between the darkest colour scales, and a couple of mixes in between. In total I used five values of lining. Possibly I could have gotten a similar effect with four or perhaps even three value mixes, but in for a penny, in for a pound is how I tend to paint. ;->

Hydra scale lining paletteThe dried liner mixes in my welled palette.

My analogies are to an extent a simplification. There is a gray area between tabletop painting and high level display painting. High tabletop, basic level display painting, I’m not sure what you’d call it, but the basic gist is something both fast and good. There are some limits to how fast you can paint like this, and just how good of a result you can get with this. It uses techniques from both ends of the spectrum, so if this kind of painting is your goal, it is worth studying information from display level painters. Most people who paint miniatures for a living probably paint to this level as much as they can – as good as you can get it to look, in the least time possible. But when they paint a very high level commission piece or a contest entry that pulls out all the stops, they use techniques that take a lot of time and skill, like individually lining every scale on the hydra.

That balancing act between end result and time commitment is one of the ways I am not very good at my job. I’m working at getting a little better at it, but through my entire miniature painting experience I have tended to use time and brute force and focused on the quality of end result, and done a poor job of learning increased efficiency and good planning to improve on time. Or even just learned to accept that a lot of the time 80% of the best I can do is good enough.

As a result, those who are seeking information on how to better balance high quality result and speed are probably better off consulting other painters. :-> Two of the best painters I know for this both share their experience on Patreon if you’d like to learn a lot more tips and tricks than you could from a quick convention conversation. (And they also teach full classes at conventions.) Look up James Wappel and Aaron Lovejoy.