RVE Class Video Links

Reaper is hard at working posting the videos from the Reaper Virtual Expo classes over on their YouTube channel. New videos are being added every day, but there is already plenty to enjoy.

Reaper Virtual Expo Class Video Playlist

My two class videos are posted and available to watch, so I thought I would share links and a little bit of information here in case any readers are interested in checking them out.

Members of my Patreon have access to PDF copies of the handouts for both classes. Their generous support allows me to take the time to write blog posts and make videos that are publicly available to all. To thank them, I provide some bonus Patron-only benefits from time to time.

Snake rust rve

Painting Scales
I demonstrate two different methods for painting scales. One is classic drybrushing and washing, and I share a lot of tips and tricks related to those techniques. The other is painting streaks to create a striated appearance on larger scales. That is based on a technique I first learned about in a tutorial over at Necromancer Tales Miniatures.

In the Scales video I reference another video I made about problem solving, so I’m including a link here for easy reference.

Additives, Mediums, and Texture Pastes, Oh My!
If you’ve ever wondered what is glaze medium, or should I use flow improver, this is the video for you. I explain what these products are and how they affect paint. I also demonstrate some cool products you can use for prepping miniatures, and in creating textures on bases.


I’m attaching a few photos I took after the class and posted on the RVE Discord. This one is what the acrylic retarder tests looked like by the end of class, so after about 90 minutes. 

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After the class I finished up the base I was working on at the end of the video, so there are also a couple of pictures of that. I added a stick to look like a log, and also sprinkled some gravel in a few places to add another type of texture. Variety of texture is good when you have big spaces like this.

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In this second picture you can see that you can build up the texture in peaks and valleys of varying thicknesses. You can build it higher than this through additional applications.

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These videos were recorded via Zoom. I personally have had some frustration with Zoom video quality watching other miniature and traditional art workshops and classes. It’s a great platform in a lot of ways, but I’d love to see them add an option to have higher video quality for the main presenter.

I have been pondering doing a recorded version of the Additives, Mediums, and Texture Pastes with higher quality video to better allow you to see the product comparisons. If that is something you would be interested to see, let me know.

I expect to have some other video news coming soon… But in the meantime, I’m off to watch all great classes I didn’t get a chance to see during Reaper Virtual Expo!

Miniatures in this Post

The Nagendra Warrior is available in Bones plastic and metal.
The Warg is available in Bones plastic and metal.

Brown and Sooty: Painting Romag Davl

NOTE: There are many more WIP pictures in the Patron PDF version of this article.

Romag Davl was an interesting figure to paint as he presented an opportunity to work out how to do an effect I hadn’t done before. This miniature is also a great example of a dilemma we face in miniature painting that I suspect causes people a lot of frustration. In this post I’m going to talk through my thoughts about that, as well as the paint colours I used, and talk a bit about weathering powders.

Romag bl front

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The Brief and Pre-Painting Thoughts

Romag Davl is an updated version of a classic figure – modern proportions and quality, but with a nice old school vibe. Bobby Jackson did a wonderful job capturing the essential elements of the original. I like clean, simple figures like this a lot, and strongly recommend them for those just learning to paint or when practicing new techniques. Romag is part of Reaper’s Bones USA plastic line. (The copy I painted was a 3D print as production copies were not yet available.)

30004 comparison

Then and now! Enjoy more classic Dungeon Dwellers at https://ddwzrd.com

I painted this for Reaper, and Ron Hawkins, the art director, had some parameters for what he wanted to see in the paint scheme. Romag is a dungeon-delving rogue type of character, dressed in dark browns to better hide in the shadows. Ron also requested that he be a bit grimy from his adventures, and even a bit sooty from the torches the party would have to carry for its human members to see their way in the dangerous depths. 

Romag bl face

The dark-clothed skulking rogue is a classic character concept. And one that is largely at odds with the things we need to do to paint a visually effective miniature. People are drawn to look at vivid colours and high contrast between colours and between values. Most of us have been in the position of entering a contest or posting something online for feedback and being told that we need to make it pop, we need more contrast, we need to add/increase blacklining and edging to more clearly define the different areas of the figure. And most of us have also been in the position of being annoyed about that feedback because we felt that the story or personality of the figure that we were trying to convey demanded dull colours, or dark colours, or low contrast. 

There are lots of character types subject to these kinds of issues – assassins, thieves, soldiers in camouflage, animals with colouring that blends into their surroundings, and many more. You can run into similar problems with the opposite kind of characters, too – fair maidens and light airy angels, for example. I discussed that with an example of how Cindarella has been portrayed in a recent article.

Thinking about the nature and personality of the miniature and how to express that with colour and technique choices is a vital thing to do. However, it is also important to remember that the miniature as an object has a function apart from representing a specific character: a miniature figure is an object intended to be looked at. Whether you’re plunking the figure down on a tabletop, displaying it on a shelf, or entering it in a contest, the goal is for people to look at it. To paint a visually effective miniature you need to make choices that draw the eye and make people want to look at it. Sometimes that may mean tweaking or shifting elements to be less ‘realistic’ but more interesting to look at.

Romag bl back

Of course, you are always free to paint these kinds of characters exactly as dark and dreary as you think they should be! But if you choose to do that, you then need to accept that a lot of people aren’t going to be drawn to look at them. They’re going to fade into the background on a display shelf or when scrolling through Facebook/Discord/Instagram. If they do get feedback, it’ll likely be comments about needing more contrast or pop. What draws people to look at things happens on a visceral, subconscious level, long before they get to consciously thinking that this character is a rogue/assassin/camouflaged so of course it makes sense that it fades into the background.

So how did I decide to handle this with Romag? I’ll get into colour choices and such below, but one decision that I made is that my primary goal was to paint to fit my client’s brief. It was also helpful to accept that I was primarily painting for a stand-alone photograph. If I take this figure to ReaperCon and put it out on my artist desk or enter it in the Master Series Open, I don’t expect it to get a lot of attention from people. It is not going to stand out when surrounded by colourful and highly contrasted figures. It’s a decently painted figure and I’m proud of it, but it’s not a showstopper that will grab a lot of attention. So in a sense I adjusted my expectations as much as I adjusted how I painted the figure.

For more on constraints like painting for photographs or the competing goals of character/story vs what people want to look at, check out this recent article.

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Lighting Choices

After Ron mentioned soot from torches, I thought one way to try to add a little visual oomph to the fade in the shadows character type was to play with the light that would be casting those shadows. I decided to envision him as standing just behind another party member who is carrying a torch. I visualized the light as coming toward his face and upturned arm. In essence I wanted to try to paint OSL without a source light on the figure. Another way to put is that I wanted to paint directional light rather than zenithal or ambient light. I have talked about this approach, more than once, and it’s an excellent way to add a little more visual punch to a paint job.

I envisioned a scene with a bit of light from other torches bouncing around to create a dim ambient light, not one that was complete darkness illuminated by only the one torch. That kind of dramatic lighting can be very visually effective and is a good choice to consider for adding visual impact to fade into the shadows character types. In this particular situation, I was painting a catalog miniature, and I don’t typically feel comfortable going too extreme with OSL on catalog miniatures. Shoppers need to be able to see the figure as a whole and what all the bits are to determine if it fits their needs. I am also aware that people often use studio paint jobs as guidance when painting themselves.

Since I had a strong directional light in mind, it made sense to start with airbrushing in the big picture of light and shadow. So I broke out my Vex and some black and white primer to do that.

Romag wip1 combo

And then I thought about the fact that the bulk of my miniature would be painted brown and thought maybe I should start with brown, so I broke out the Vex again and this time loaded it up with brown paint. ;-> (I would have needed to do a separate priming stage anyway, so this wasn’t a complete waste of time, just sort of funny.)

Romag wip2 combo

The colours I used were 9137 Blackened Brown, 9307 Red Liner, 9161 Shield Brown, and 29105 Skysmog. It’s not super significant that you have those exact colours if you wish to try this technique, since all of this foundation layer was painted over by the end. So just about any dark/medium/light brown combo would have done the job. This was just to help me keep track of where things should be lighter and darker as I painted. A sort of roadmap, which you do not need an airbrush to do. In fact there are some things you can do creating a roadmap with a brush that you can’t do with an airbrush. 

I do think I should have done a final highlight layer with white or a light cream on the airbrush roadmap. The sense of light is much stronger in the black and white one than the brown one. That issue carries through to the final version of the figure. I don’t think I pushed the highlights high enough to evoke the idea of source lighting. I would have needed to lighten the highlights a fair bit along the edge of the hood and the folds of the raised arm. Particularly since I planned to come back in with weathering powders that would tone things down a little.

Below is a comparison of the actual figure versus a digitally edited version that shows what it might have looked like had I used some warmer and lighter colours in small areas to push the idea that Romag is being lit by a torch carried just out of frame. Probably still not enough to compete with a shelf full of high contrast, brightly saturated figures, but it does help it pop a little more while still keeping the idea that it’s overall pretty dark.

This is also an example to keep in mind when you get advice to make things pop or push contrast. You don’t have to make everything brighter and/or lighter. If everything’s brighter or lighter, that’s not really contrast. Keeping your brightest highlights to small tight areas is often the most visually effective approach and a method for having a darker overall look that still pops. The analysis of the Death Dealer painting and miniature versions in this post has additional visual examples of using small, bright highlights to add visual impact to an overall dark colour scheme. Which granted can be challenging to do on a paint application level! But it helps to begin with an understanding of how to fit concepts of painting with high contrast into darker, moodier colour schemes.

Romag osl cr

I was actually a little closer to the goal before I applied the weathering. I did not plan enough for how the weathering powders would likely mute the contrast of the paint. I needed to paint the contrast a fair bit higher than I wanted to get an end result that would be where I wanted it. Below is a comparison of Romag from before (left) and after I added the weathering powders.

Romag soot combo

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Colour Choices

My brief specified brown, and I did consider doing a 50 Shades of Brown type of approach and using only browns. In the end I decided that if I needed to keep the colours as dark as possible, I had better use a little contrast between colours to separate some areas of the figure. In particular, I wanted to paint the inside of the cloak a different colour to work as a ‘frame’ for the main body of the character. I decided to go with a very dull blue for that, with the idea of creating colour contrast between the blue and the yellow and orange tones in the browns of the armour and skin. I used various values of this blue on the clothing and non-metallic metal as well.

I also chose what shades of browns to use with an eye to creating contrast. The colours I chose for the cloak were based on a colour combo I had used years ago and had long meant to explore some more. Since those browns incorporated some purple and blue tones, I picked more yellow-based browns for the leather armour and boots. That creates some colour contrast between the two types of browns.

Apart from that the main consideration I made for colour choices was trying to use some paints from Reaper Virtual Expo that I haven’t gotten to paint with before!

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The colours on my palette (above) give you an idea of how dark and how brown the paints were that I used. The two lighter spots of blue to the right and the small dots of bright blue and green were for glazes used on the dagger. The small dots of yellow and off-white were for painting the eyes.

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Paint Application

I applied the initial coats of paint over my roadmap using rough wetblending. I mixed up my shadow, midtone, and highlight colours and painted the appropriate value over the areas of my airbrushed roadmap. You can do a similar thing with rough layering. The roadmap is just a guide, I consider ways that I might need or want to tweak it as I paint, like adding highlight details like on small folds and wrinkles, or making the shadows deeper in the folds on the back of the cloak.

Here’s an example from when I was painting the cloak. The area of the upturned arm has had colours roughly applied. From this stage I use my paint mixes and a gentle touch to soften the hasher edge transitions between the highlights, midtones and shadows. I also tweak to lighten or darken areas if I see places that need it. The right side of the cloak has had some smoothing and tweaking completed. The hood is still just the airbrushed brown stage.

Romag wip6 back

Here’s what that area looks like on the finished piece. If I were painting a different sort of material for the cloak, I might have smoothed it even further.

Romag gr soot

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Weathering and Colour Variation

I often use thin glazes of paint to introduce some colour variation and add weathering. On Romag, I only used glazes on the dagger, to add just a hint of blue to it. Instead I chose to use weathering powders. I am by no means an expert in using these types of products, as I typically work with paint. I’m going to share an overview of things I do know about them, but I’m sure you can find videos and articles from more experienced users if you’re interested in more information.

Weathering pigments are pigments in powder form. The instructions that came with my set say they’re mixed with dry adhesive that is activated with friction. You use a somewhat stiff brush to rub them into the areas of the miniature where you wish to apply them and they stick pretty well. It also says that this works best on a matte surface, so if you use glossy paint or sealer on your figure you’ll need to apply some matte sealer over that before applying pigments. You can also use a damp brush with them or mix in some water or acrylic medium for more of a muddy look or dried streaks and similar effects, but I did not do anything like that on Romag. When used dry, you can remove errant applications with a damp brush, so pigments can be a bit more low pressure to use than glazes and washes that cannot be removed once they are dry. 

I purchased my set at my local HobbyTown years ago. These days there are several companies catering to the miniature hobby that offer weathering products. You’ll also find these from vendors that cater to model kit and model train enthusiasts. Many are sold individually, but you may be able to find kits with a selection of colours. They usually come in small plastic tubs rather than the bags of my set (which came in a small plastic organizer.)

Pigment powdersSome of the pigments from my kit, and the instructions. I use a piece of index card to tap excess powder off my brush. I did not use any of the green, but used all of the other colours shown here. There are additional colours in my kit as well.

Before I had this set I also made my own by sanding dry pastel or Conte sticks that I purchased at the art store. You may be able to find these sold singly so you can buy only the colours you want. These will not have any sort of adhesive like the purpose made pigment powders, so will likely not stick as well to your figure. You may be able to make the application more durable by applying spray sealer over them. Purpose made weathering pigments are more durable, but I don’t know if they can stand up to heavy gaming use. Even if they did wear off a little you could just reapply more later. 

SAFETY NOTE: The particles of weathering pigments and soft pastels are small and light. They can easily be inhaled. I recommend wearing an N95 mask or similar protection when working with any kind of particulate. Particulates are very tough on your lungs. Airbrushing also creates aerosolized particles. I wore a mask when doing the airbrushing and weathering on Romag, and recommend you do the same.

I began by applying some of the powders to the hem of the cloak and the boots. I started with my darkest dirt colour and worked up from there. Some pigments fell on the base, but that was okay! That allowed me to add some browns into my base and tie the figure and base together a little more. Pigment powders are a nice way to add a little colour variation as well as weathering. When there was more pigment than I wanted or the location wasn’t quite right, I wiped it off with a damp brush and allowed the area to dry and then tried again.

Zombie servants front 800I used a mix of glazes and weathering powders to add the colour variation and stains to Barglemore and Camille.

Now it was time to see whether I could get an effect of soot and ash. What I really wanted was the pigments to appear just as they did when I dropped them on the figure, rather than how they looked after scrubbing them in like on the hem. So I tried dropping bits of pigment on the surface and then tapping rather than scrubbing with my brush. That worked really well with the lighter ash colour. It wasn’t quite as successful with the darkest colour, though I did get it working in a few spots on the hood. It’s possible that other areas where I was applying it needed a bit more matte of a surface. I suspect this will not hold up to heavy handling, but that’s not really the fate of this figure, so it should be okay. Trying to make the darker soot effect work is the stage where I ended up covering up too much of my highlights.

The company I purchased my set from has a website, but it looks like it hasn’t been updated for a while and they’re operating by mail order. So if you’re interested in trying out pigment powders you may want to ask around on your favourite forums or Discord channels or similar to get recommendations from people for other brands. 

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Paint Colours Used to Paint Romag Davl

I was painting fast and in the zone for much of this, so I wasn’t as precise in tracking my colours as I usually am. The key colours should be correct, but I might have swapped a shadow or highlight mix colour here and there.

Initial Brown Airbrush Stage
9137 Blackened Brown, 9307 Red Liner, 9161 Shield Brown, and 29105 Skysmog

9301 Red Liner, 9491 Minotaur Hide, 9494 Gnome Flesh, 9487 Yellow Mold

Blue (Inside of Cloak, Clothes under the Armour)
9066 Blue Liner + Red Liner, 29109 Hardsuit Blue, Yellow Mold

Leather Armour
Blue Liner, Blackened Brown, 9491 Minotaur Brown, 9429 Rich Leather, Skysmog

Blue Liner, 9136 Walnut Brown, Blackened Brown, 29114 Roogtarki Flesh, 9428 Saddle Brown, 9260 Bronzed Skin

Base Stones
Walnut Brown, 9085 Shadowed Stone, 9500 Brinewind Brown, 9087 Weathered Stone

Blue Liner, Shadowed Stone, 9086 Stone Grey, Weathered Stone, glazes with teal mixed from clear paints

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Figures Shown in this Post

Romag Davl is the Reaper Bones USA gift with purchase miniature of the month for April 2021. You will receive a copy of Romag Davl for each qualifying purchase of $40 USD (or equivalent) from the Reaper webstore throughout April. You can also buy copies, and he will continue on sale going into the future.

Barglemore and Camille are available as a set in metal.

Contraints and Conundrums – Part II

Would you like to support this blog and receive a PDF copy of this article? Check out my Patreon!

This is the second part of an article discussing the constraints of miniature painting – things that we can’t do, or can’t easily do, that are common in other forms of visual communication that we might study for inspiration and examples, like illustration or film. There are also things miniature painters may need to do to create a visually effective small object that are more optional in other types of media. I recommend reading part one for a longer introduction and explanation of why I think it’s useful to be aware of these constraints and challenges

I refer to some aspects of colour like value and saturation repeatedly in this article. If you find these terms confusing, the Anatomy of Colour article is here to help!

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Constraint #4: Miniatures are Concretely Defined

A lot of art forms direct the attention of viewers to focus on certain elements by minimizing or eliminating unimportant information. Composition and cropping allow artists to direct focus by literally removing some information from the scene. Film and photography can use lighting to focus interest on a face and fade to black on objects more distant from the face. Painters and draftsmen can blur or fade out areas of a painting or drawing in a similar way. 

Consider the portrait photographs below. The entire figure of the model is included in the portrait to the left, but the photographer has used smoke or mist combined with the lighting and her pose to make most of her body look faded and insubstantial. This focuses your attention on her face and arm. The darker value colours of her hair and shirt contribute to the effect. In the middle portrait, the photographer has used tightly focused lighting combined with dark value clothing on the model to create an image where you can literally only see the areas he wants you to focus your attention on. The model in the rightmost photograph is standing in front of a busy street, but the background is blurred out to keep attention on her. Colour choices (likely enhanced in editing) and cropping of the photo further direct your focus.

Portrait comboLeft to right photo credits from Unsplash: Ilona Panych, Drew Hays, Cesira Alvarado.

Below are some similar techniques that I employed in painting portraits. In the portrait on the left, viewer attention is focused on the areas that are more rendered and in colour, and less attention is given to the sections that are just simple line drawing. All areas of the centre portrait are in colour, but they have not be developed to the same level of detail and nuance. The most detailed areas are the face. Objects around the face are blurrier and have little detail. I initially rendered the torso more precisely, and then later decided to make it blurry to put more focus on the face. In the portrait on the right, the face and ears are rendered with a lot of details and to a high degree of finish. The hair and neck are more roughly blocked in. The shirt is even less rendered. The background is abstract and not painted over the whole of the picture plane. At least part of the goal of all of those choices to keep the bulk of viewer attention on the face.

Portrait combo3

Miniature painters do not have most of these tools at our disposal. Our figures are tangible objects. How defined they are is largely determined by the sculptor. We can’t easily crop them down like a photographer composing an image. We don’t control the atmosphere around them to make some parts look less substantial. Unless we’re doing a backdrop/box diorama, we don’t even control the background, so we can’t artfully blur it out or abstract it. Most viewers are unlikely to accept the idea that since the message of our miniature was the face, we decided to leave the shoes plain plastic or metal. We need to paint the entirety of the miniature and approach it as a whole, that’s just a constraint of our art form.

While we may have fewer tools to use than in other visual forms, it is just as important for us to create focal points that help the viewer discern the story/character of our figures. We need to paint all of the figure, but we should not paint every area of it in the same way and to the same degree of finish. We can make choices with the colours, values, and techniques we choose to use to concentrate viewer attention in the more important areas and spend less time distracted by unimportant sections.

Exactly how to do that is a topic for another day. Right now I just want to make the point that we are trying to accomplish the same goal as artists in other forms in terms of having a main focus, but we have a much more narrow range of tools to use to accomplish that goal. So it is critical that we use the tools we do have as thoughtfully and effectively as we can. I have a few previous articles where I talk about making choices for a figure related to focus: leprechaun figure, Christmas goblin, wings for some succubi

As a side note, for standard gaming scale miniatures the need to paint the whole thing includes basing materials. Even if you are using small rocks and such for basing and they’re already rock coloured, you still need to paint them so that they look in scale with the figure and like they’re part of the same world that it’s in. The OOAK (one of a kind) figure world is more multi-media, and those figures are generally larger in scale than classic miniature figures. To put this tip another way – viewers in the miniature figure world, particularly contest judges, have the expectation that multi-media materials used in miniature scenes should be painted whenever possible. If you prefer a more multi-media OOAK approach, go for it! Just understand how the choices you’re making will be received by your chosen audience.

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Constraint #5: Our Canvases aren’t Blank

Many of us enjoy the fact that miniature painting is a collaborative art form. However, it does mean that our figures are not blank slates, and that is something of a constraint to bear in mind. Whether it begins with a directive from a game company or art director, a piece of concept art, or an idea in a sculptor’s mind, an unpainted miniature already has a lot of elements determined before we put any paint on it.

The gender, setting/time period, job role, and personality are often well-established by the sculpt. It is possible to nudge some of these in another direction through paint, but significant changes generally require conversion or sculpting. Even something as simple as facial expression is more structural than you might imagine. You might be able to shift a face between neutral, pleased, or angry, but you can’t easily paint a closed mouth so that it appears as if it is open to create expressions like surprise or screaming.

Expressions ingrid cuExamples of shifting expression and facial appearance with just paint. The right and centre examples are painted kind of starkly to make things more visible in convention classroom lighting.

Even if you don’t need to alter a figure to fit into a specific diorama or story, it’s valuable to take a moment to consider the aspects that are ‘baked in’ to the sculpt before deciding how to paint it.  We tend to associate certain colours and textures with certain jobs, genders, personalities, etc. We can emphasize sculpted elements by making choices that ‘fit’ with them. We can shift them by making different choices. For example, the typical way to paint a rogue character would be with dark clothing to help them blend into the shadows when skulking, but perhaps you envision your thief as more of an entertainer or someone who acts as a distraction, and bright colours would be more appropriate.

Note that I am absolutely not saying that you need to follow stereotypes for characterization in your painting! Nor am I saying that we must always paint to match the way a figure has been conceptualized and sculpted! Interpreting sculpts in unexpected new ways is fun and a great way to create work that might grab people’s attention. The key point I’m trying to make is that you need to be aware of what’s established by the sculpt and you need to make conscious, deliberate choices to reinforce, shift, or invert that. To be successful, these choices generally need to be made throughout the process of designing the figure, not tacked on here and there. For the rogue example, you could paint a skulking robe with overall dark clothing, but add a flash of colour or decoration to the inside of their cloak for personality and contrast. Whereas a rogue painted with dark armour that blends into the shadows and a bright blue and red checkered cloak would be a bit confusing.

Consider this figure from Dark Sword Miniatures as an example. The sculpt is based on Larry Elmore artwork, and she’s clearly designed as a peaceful, angelic type of character. Several artists interpreted her that way. And others did not. You can see that the most extreme reinterpretation from angel to demon required a conversion as well as different paint choices. (You can also see additional interpretations and the original art on the store page for this figure.) If you had a figure with the wings, face, and hair painted like either of the top two but the dress painted like either of the bottom two, the figure wouldn’t quite make sense to most viewers. (Unless there were some kind of context for the dichotomy provided in the basing and scene setting.)

Angels squareUpper left: Jen Haley; Upper right: Rhonda Bender
Lower left: Jérémie Bonament Teboul; Lower right: Alison Bailey Liu

The sculpt in the picture below was designed as a skulking thief type, but the elements that contribute to that in the sculpt are not as strong or fixed as with the angel, so shifting interpretations can be accomplished simply with colour and paint techniques alone. 

Tara comp front full

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Constraint #6: Miniatures are Three Dimensional

The fact that miniatures are tiny three dimensional sculptures is one of the things most of us love about them! But it definitely imposes some constraints on our art form. Most of the constraints I’ve been mentioning are things that we fail to consider enough. When it comes to three dimensionality, I think we impose more constraints on ourselves than we need to. The issue is more in our minds than in our figures

We worry too much about the three dimensionality of our figures and struggle to paint them in a way that ‘works’ from every angle. I think this is a major barrier to people pushing themselves to paint with greater contrast. You sit down with the intention to paint higher contrast, and everything is looking good. But then you have to turn the figure sideways or upside down to reach something. You look at it from a different angle and suddenly what you painted looks harsh and rough, so you smooth it out and lose the contrast.

You have to remember that viewers are not going to look at your figure sideways or upside down very often! It is most important to paint a figure so it looks good from the angles at which it will most often be viewed. If viewers do look at your figure from an odd angle, they will likely expect and understand that your painted lighting won’t look correct. If you get the opportunity, I highly recommend looking at painted figures from artists you admire at odd angles. It will help you see much better exactly how much contrast they are using, and also how they might be using colour in unusual ways that may not be obvious from the usual angles or photographs.

This is one of the issues that comes up with non-metallic metal (NMM). In the real world, the places where shiny objects reflect light change based not only on the position of the object, but also based on the position of the viewer. The painted reflections of the NMM technique are fixed in place and do not move with the viewer. The light reflecting from real metallic paints does shift with the viewer. That may seem like a compelling argument to only use metallic paints. However, it’s important to realize that shifting light reflections occur on all kinds of shiny materials that might be depicted on miniatures – hair, polished leather, vinyl, shiny silk, sweaty skin, shiny plastic, etc. Most of us paint these materials with matte paints, and to do so we have to choose a few angles and paint the way light and shadow would appear on those angles. The more we apply paint with a mind to replicating how light and shadow react on different textures, the more realistic and interesting our figures look.

Hair has similar properties to metal. In this video you can see how light in value the reflective shine can be even on dark hair, and how the exact locations of those shiny areas shift when the person or camera moves. When we paint hair we can choose to emphasize the sculpted texture, or we can try to use lighter and darker values of paint to simulate how light and shadow play on the hair. Below you can see some examples of how I’ve painted hair over the years. The middle and bottom rows have more of a realistic hair shine to them, with a larger range of values between shadows and highlights. Those are placed in such a way as to try to mimic the way light reflects from hair rather than based on the strand or lock texture of the sculpt like the top row.

Hair combo cr

So it’s reasonable to take the same approach to metal objects and use the NMM technique. Metal just stands out as something different or exceptional because it’s at the furthest extreme of a shiny reflective surface appearance, but in reality when painting we make this kind of choice all the time. The shaded metallic technique is a way to sort of split the difference and paint in fixed matte shadows, but have some movement on the metallic paint reflections. (I have an article and associated video available about painting hair more realistically. A video of Michael Proctor’s shaded metallic class from ReaperCon 2019 online is available if you’d like to learn more about that technique.)

I am aware that some painters use satin finish paint or glossy varnishes to enhance painted texture of leather, wet eyeballs, etc. There’s a spectrum of options from painting everything with matte paints to using effect paints. My point is that it’s entirely possible to paint everything with matte finish paint, just as illustrators and other 2D artists do. In fact, I would go so far as to say my point is that it helps a lot to think of miniatures as more similar to 2D art than less. Most of the effects that people really love on figures and think make them look really cool, are all co-opted or adapted from traditional 2D painting techniques –  strong lighting, source lighting, non-metallic metal, painted cloth textures, scratches and battle damage, etc. As I mentioned in part I, our figures are too small for our large diffuse light sources to illuminate correctly. The more we use paint to simulate the effects of light and shadow for both for form (shape) and texture, the more dynamic, dramatic and just plain cool our figures look. That is really the difference between the figures you admire from your favourite ‘pro’ artist and the average tabletop figure. (Well, that and the prowess to apply those kinds of effects well on tiny surfaces, of course, but you need both the dexterity and the eye to see and apply light. It is really not just all about fancy brushwork.)

The fact that miniatures are three dimensional means we do not have complete control on the viewing angle from which viewers will choose to look at our figures. However, we can use paint and basing choices to try to guide viewers to concentrate their attention on specific viewing angles. Because of the way miniatures are moulded and cast, many have a defined front and back plane. People are drawn to look at faces, so a turned head or a face on a shield or familiar might add another angle or two. Some figures are much more in the round than others. With those you’ll have to just choose a few to focus on. 

Try to identify these main viewing angles, and then make paint and basing choices that reinforce them. Place lighter and darker values and brighter and duller saturation colours in such a way that they entice the viewer to look at the figure from your main viewing angles and spend less time looking at other angles. Try to use your paint in the same way that a stage play uses a spotlight. Concentrate lighter and more saturated colours in the main area of interest of your main viewing angle. Use darker and duller versions of your colours away from that spotlight of interest. Place scenic elements like debris or vegetation to block viewing angles that aren’t your focus, or draw lines towards the areas that are important.

The constraint of three dimensions fall more heavily on sculptors than painters. Using two dimensional drawings and photos as reference to sculpt three dimensional objects can be quite challenging. There may not be enough information to easily figure out how to sculpt the areas not depicted in the drawing. Sometimes illustrators play a little loose with apparel or anatomy in drawings and paintings, but those issues have to be resolved to make sense when sculpting a three dimensional figure. I know from discussions with sculptors that they also consider the issue of primary viewing angles when sculpting figures.

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Constraint #7: Photograph or Physical Object?

As anyone who’s ever struggled to take pictures of their miniatures knows all too well, they just don’t look the same in photographs. It’s hard to see and appreciate some aspects of a three dimensional object in a flat picture. Photographs tend to amplify some things, minimize others, and distort colour.

However, it’s also true that the miniature painting hobby has flourished alongside the rise of accessible digital close-up photography over the past 20 years. It’s ever easier to share what we work on, and enjoy looking at the figures others have done. In fact, it’s probably the case that many of us mostly see miniatures painted by other people in photographs rather than in person. We might only see miniatures painted by other artists in person a few times a year, unless we’re lucky enough to be part of a miniature painting club/group or an active gaming community supported by multiple painters. 

So things look different in photos, but for many of us, our hobby viewing largely consists of photos. I think this is leads to or contributes to a situation where we make painting decisions to prioritize what looks good in photos over what looks good in person. 

I talked about the constraint of miniatures being small in the first part of this article. That small size means we need to exaggerate effects and textures, push contrast, and simplify to make our tiny figures readable to the viewer at a quick glance. Billboards and icons versus illustrations and movies. As makers we already have a tendency to forget that big picture and focus in on the details as we stare at our figures close-up and magnified for hours while we paint them. We hold ourselves back from pushing contrast or trying blacklining or similar things because it looks too stark in that close-up view. 

Viewing miniatures primarily as photographs only amplifies that. Photos often show miniatures at several times life size, emphasizing details that are barely noticeable in live viewing at actual size. This affects sculpts, as well as painting. I increasingly see figures festooned with details that look great in large close-up photographs or renders, but the actual production figures are disappointing. The fancy detail is too shallow or too complex to paint effectively, and the more delicate features and proportions lack clarity and definition at gaming scale. 

Take a look at the wrapping paper in the picture below. I first painted this kind of pattern a few years before this, and was pleased that I had improved my brush control to the point that I could paint it at an even smaller and more realistic size. It looks pretty nice in the photo, I think.

Xpenguin fade front 300

But then I put the penguin in my display case next to my first try at painting candy cane wrapping paper, and I noticed something.  Scaled down as in this photo or viewed in real life, the pattern on the penguin’s wrapping paper doesn’t stand out very well, especially compared to the candy cane wrapping paper on the diorama. The larger size of the candy canes on the diorama paper plus the higher contrast between the white of the candy canes and the darker green is much more visually effective. It’s an example of how sometimes it’s better at our small scale to simplify and exaggerate than to dive into super realistic fiddly detail.

Xmas paper comparison crop

This doesn’t just apply to detail, either. I think viewing miniatures in photographs is a big barrier to pushing contrast for a lot of people. You take a photo and see all the blending issues. So you smooth out the blending and lose some of the contrast. Or you pull back from even trying much contrast in the first place. If you look at this post, you can see a comparison of the same figure with more or less contrast, including a comparison picture scaled down to the smaller size you’d look at a figure in real life, where the contrast makes even more difference.

The ideal painting of a miniature is something that works both at arm’s length and close up. The best figures you see do this, whether or not you’re aware of it. You may think the part that wows you is the intricate freehand or subtle facial expression, and those are impressive. But to win the contest, to leap off the shelf at the viewer, to get lots of likes, all of that has to be built on top of a solid foundation of visually effective use of contrast and colour choices. The figure needs to stand out to the judge/viewer at a distance to get a closer look, and then that closer look needs to wow, as well. It’s easy to think that all the detail and fancy brush work is the only thing that matters, but it simply isn’t the case. 

Even in a non-contest situation, figures viewed in person are competing. They’re competing for the attention of the viewer against the other figures around them, or against the poor lighting in your game room, or just against the busy background of things that surround them. They need to be visually effective at a quick glance, and from a distance. Almost the opposite of the kinds of characteristics photography emphasizes. 

To try to simulate the effect of size and figures competing on a shelf, scale pictures down. Look at thumbnails on a webstore. Scroll through posts in a Facebook group on your phone. Take a look at this image search, which is a selection of different paint schemes on the same figure. Think about why. Sometimes it’s issues related to the photography, but often it will be because there is strong value or colour contrast that makes the shapes of the figure easier to read so you can quickly see who it is and what it’s doing. 

Now click through some of those you liked best and see what you think of the figure looking at larger scale photos. You’ll find some don’t have the level of detail and polish you had expected from the thumbnails. But they already accomplished something significant in getting you to click through and look closer. Try this same experiment with some of the thumbnails that least drew your attention. Some of these may be painted with more detail and nuance than you expected. You are also likely noticing that picture quality is a big factor – well-lit, appropriately cropped pictures on suitable backgrounds are much easier to look at, and something to look into if you want to post pictures of your work. But if you’re trying to address how your figures do at in person events, remember you can’t control the background. 

Cool Mini or Not is an effective site to use for this exercise. You can enter specific miniatures, manufacturers, or just look at all the submissions. I wasn’t able to link to a specific search, but here’s the general browsing page.

Painting for photographs and close-up views has definitely been an issue for me in my painting. If you look through my CMON gallery thumbnails (sadly very out of date), you’ll find lots of figures that don’t jump off of the page as thumbnails. I have spent years worrying too much about that close up view and not giving enough attention to creating a solid foundation. 

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Constraint #8: Character and Story vs Visual Impact

Sometimes the character/story you want to tell is about the skulking sneak thief, the stealthy ninja, the cloaked assassin, the camouflaged soldier, the animals that skillfully blend into their surroundings. So of course you’ll use darker and duller colours, less contrast, and fewer showy techniques, right? That approach generally creates issues if your goal is to paint a piece that people want to look at. The human eye is drawn to bright colours, strong contrasts in value, and other elements that stand out from the background and wave ‘look at me’.  So how do you balance those two competing goals?

Always keep in mind the function of your miniature as an object. Whether for play, display, or a contest, a primary function of your miniature is to be looked at. To perform that function the figure has to draw people’s eyes and make them want to look at it. That function trumps even character and story – it doesn’t matter how compelling your character/story is if no one ever looks closely enough at it to see. So if the function of being eye-catching is at odds with the concept of a character that is trying not to attract attention, we have to explore ways to accomplish both goals if we want to make an effective miniature. 

What attracts the human eye on an initial glance is largely subconscious, and heavily based on contrast. That might be contrast of something dark in value adjacent to something light, bright colours against dull ones, complementary colours, contrast of textures – there are lots of different kinds of contrast, though colour and value are the most compelling to our eye. Again, this is largely subconscious. Whether or not someone is drawn to look at your miniature happens long before their rational mind might say ‘hey, that’s a thief, it’s supposed to blend into the scenery, so those dull colours and low contrast totally make sense.’ Miniatures painted with more effective use of colour and value contrast don’t get more likes and win more contests because that is the ’style’ that is in fashion. They do so because those are the cornerstones of effective visual communication in every media, and they are especially critical when working at such a small scale.

There are a few different ways to balance the two opposing goals. A light effect, a more vividly painted section of the scene that stands on its own and then the viewer discovers the lurking character on a closer glance, the character caught in surroundings that it doesn’t blend into, a few elements of subtle ‘bling’ for contrast, like the embroidered inner cloak of my rogue above. It’s not easy to do, but think of it as an interesting creative challenge!

If you study some illustrations of these types of characters, you’ll find that the artist often uses colour or value contrast in the background, much like I discussed with the Death Dealer in part one. Here are some sample illustrations of assassins, and some of rogues. Having no control over the background and atmosphere surrounding a freestanding figure is one of the biggest constraints and challenges of our art form! We have to adapt and work some of that colour and contrast into our figures, because unless you’re making a diorama/background, the figure and its base are all you have to work with.

You are of course always free to paint exactly to your vision and taste! But when you do that, you need to accept that the world at large may not agree with your choices. Your lurking assassin may lurk just beyond the attention of judges and viewers scrolling Instagram/Facebook/Discord. You can’t talk people’s eyes and brains into responding differently to visual information than they have for thousands of years. If you want to work on a contest entry or display piece that you’re going to invest a lot of time into, you and your audience will likely be happier if you choose to explore a character/story that you feel more comfortable using colour and contrast on.

Below are a couple of pictures taken of miniatures lined up on a shelf. The indifferent lighting and cluttered viewing area are similar to the conditions at most convention contests and game tables. Some of these figures jump out to your eye much more than others. Which ones those are are not necessarily the ones I invested the most time and fancy brushwork in. Some of these figures were painted to a high standard, some to a tabletop standard, and a couple to somewhere in between. This is the kind of first experience most people will have with your figures live or in thumbnail photos. You need to grab their attention here to make them want to look closer and appreciate your freehand or subtle colour transitions and so on!

If you’d like to try to guess the three categories for each of the miniatures, post your guess in the comments! (Tabletop, solid work, and display.) We’ll number them from left to right 1 – 5 for the top row and 6 – 10 for the bottom row. I’ll let a few days go by after first posting this and then verify the categories for the figures in the comments.

Shelf shot1

Shelf shot2

This is very much still something I’m working out how to do myself. And by no means do I always get it right! Sometimes I paint a figure that does its job as a catalog miniature in a photograph, but which would not get many second looks on a contest shelf. I finished one just recently, in fact, and I’ll share some details about that in an upcoming post.

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Miniatures Featured in this Post

Ingrid is available in metal or Bones plastic.
The Elmore angel is available in metal.
This version of Tara the Silent was a special edition miniature. An archer version of this sculpt was included in the Bones 5 Kickstarter and will release in retail at some point.
Lorielle Silverrain is available in metal.
The Crane Courtier is out of production
The Human Greenbond is available in metal.
Witch of the Darkmoors is available in metal.
Jahenna is available in metal.
Lilith of Ptolus is out of production.
Caerindra Thistlemoor is available in metal, and is part of Bones 5 in plastic. (Painting article)
Asandris Nightbloom is available in metal. (Painting article)
Churrusina is available in metal.
The holiday present penguin is occasionally seasonally available from Reaper Miniatures.
Mrs Claus is available in metal.
The mischievous Waggamaeph is out of production. Copies periodically show up on Noble Knight.
The noblewoman is available in metal, and is part of Bones 5 in plastic.
Madame Delia is available in metal, and is part of Bones 5 in plastic. (Painting article)
Alistrilee is available in metal or plastic.
Thregan Helmsplitter is available in metal and is part of Bones 5 in plastic.
The Rum & Bones pirate is a member of the Wellsport crew.
Alec, Young Mage is available in metal, and is part of Bones 5 in plastic.
Romag Davl is coming out in Bones USA in April. Blog post with more info pending!
The Troglodyte is available in plastic.

You Can’t DO that in Miniature Painting! (Constraints Part I)

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It is common and in many ways helpful to use other forms of visual communication as inspiration and ideas for what we might do with miniature figures. Traditional artwork, film and television scene setting, comic art, even advertising and packaging are often masterful examples of how to use colour, lighting, etc. I often find myself drawing on other visual forms for examples as I work on writing articles discussing core concepts of miniature painting.

However, it is critical to understand that there are some things that we can’t do in miniature painting (or can’t easily do) that are a standard part of other visual forms. There are other things we’re pretty much required to do to successfully paint tiny sculptures that may not be required in other media. So I think it is useful to take some time to discuss what I am calling the constraints of miniature painting – the limitations and requirements imposed by this form of visual communication.

IMG 0675A preview of some constraints.

Identifying these constraints can help us better understand the reasoning behind the most common recommendations and critiques in miniature painting, like the emphasis on high contrast. It’s also helpful to keep in mind what’s different about our form of art as we study other forms. Some ideas and effects may transfer easily from one to another. Others might not transfer at all, or might need to be adapted to work within our constraints.

Every form of communication has constraints. These are things that are difficult or impossible to do based on the medium. The stories you can explore and how you can explore them are very different between a graphic novel, a four panel comic strip, and a one panel comic. There are often conventions of style or subject expectations in different genres or time periods. The stylistic conventions of ancient Egyptian art are a clear example, but there are conventions to every form of communication. The types of acting (and makeup) that are most effective in a stage production are very different to those used in a close-up movie scene. Some forms of communication might even be said to be defined by their constraints, like the poetry forms of haiku and sonnets.

Please note that it is not my intention to say we need to impose rigid limitations on miniature painting! 20 years ago almost everyone painted metal areas on miniatures with metallic paints. Today is it commonplace to see the non-metallic metal technique from 2D painting and illustration used on miniatures. I myself am not a boundary pushing painter, but I love to see the work of those who are, and I hope I’ll continue to be surprised and delighted by the innovations of other miniature painters for years to come. I just think it’s helpful to define the boundaries of our art form so we have a better understanding of what we’re working with.

A lot of these constraints are going to seem obvious. The manner and degree to which they affect what we can’t do and what we need to do may not be as obvious. When I sat down to write this, I kind of knew most of it in the back of my head. But I didn’t really understand how much it affects some of what we can and can’t do until I starting really thinking about it and finding examples to help illustrate it to you. 

There’s a lot to think about and I wanted to use plenty of examples, so I have divided this article into two sections. Part II is now available

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Constraint #1: Miniatures are Small

Miniatures are small; it’s right in the name! And that small size is definitely a constraint. Nuance and subtlety are difficult to pull off successfully. Contrast needs to be bold and effects need to be exaggerated to be clear to the viewer. The smaller size of miniatures is the reason we have to add shadows and highlights in the first place – our real world large scale lighting is too diffuse to illuminate the forms and contours that make up the shapes of our tiny sculptures.

We can see similar constraints in other forms of visual expression. Visual communication that is small, viewed briefly, and/or seen most often from a distance generally uses simpler design and bolder colour than visual arts that are viewed larger, more closely, and for longer periods. As an example, you’ve likely seen a billboard that had print too small or too long to read while driving, or displayed a picture that was too complex and you couldn’t really tell what was happening. That is poor design for that visual format, and miniatures have similar constraints. 

I’ve grouped some types of visual communication into those that are more and less like miniature painting below. Think about elements that the members in each group share in common, and how those differ from the other group, and then consider how you might apply those ideas to painting miniatures.

Less Like Miniatures

Magazine ads
Movie posters
Book covers
Comic books/graphic novels
Standard scale paintings/drawings
Movie/TV makeup and acting

More Like Miniatures

Bumper stickers
Smart phone icons
Single panel comics
Stage makeup and acting
Nail art

I’m going to spend a minute talking about phone icons as an example in more detail. On the left below is a screen of app icons straight from my phone. (Are they organized, do I use any of these… that’s not the topic right now! ;->)

Phone icons

If you look at the bottom row of icons, the function of three out of four of the icons is immediately clear. (The ones in black squares in the photo on the right.) Even people who never seen a smartphone would easily be able to deduce what those apps do – telephone functions, mail functions, and music. None of those three icons realistically portray any of those concepts; they each use simple symbols for them. But being simple and clear makes them more useful than if they were complex photorealistic representations. 

Now look at the icons in the upper portion of the screen. Few of them are as immediately clear as to function as the ones at the bottom, but most are simple and legible. You can tell from the icons that Flow and Sketches probably have something to do with drawing or taking notes. You can likely see at a glance which icons are for games and which are for more utilitarian types of apps.

In my opinion some of the icons are not very visually effective for their function as icons. Study the icons in red squares. Two of these have more text than can be easily read in a small icon, and exacerbate the issue by using script type fonts. Two of them include images that are too complex and nuanced to work on this small of a scale. 

Our miniatures have a lot of the same constraints. A user looking at a smartphone screen would know these are all apps. What the viewer needs from the icons is as much simple, clear information as the designer can provide as to what that specific app’s function is. For miniatures, the viewer knows it’s a miniature. What they need is simple, clear information that tells them what the story/character of the figure is. We need to make choices in our miniature painting that give them that information. A super high degree of contrast or use of darklining is not always strictly ‘realistic’, but in the context of how miniatures are viewed and used, those approaches are often more effective than strict realism.

Our miniatures often share something else in common with this icon example – they’re not being viewed and judged in isolation. They’re on a gaming table, or a contest table, or a display shelf, or a Facebook group/forum/Discord channel/store page where they are surrounded by other miniatures that compete for viewer attention and comparison.

It’s not impossible to add detail and subtlety to miniatures, but this needs to be layered on top of the simple, clear visual presentation that gives the viewer the information they need. Studying how other forms of visual communication with similar constraints balance that can be valuable to us – app icons, billboards, sprites/avatars in video games, user/channel pictures in forums/Discord/Facebook/YouTube.

Detail is not impossible at miniature scale, but bear in mind that, like stage makeup, it’s actually got to be exaggerated quite a bit to read at all. Sculptors have always done this, and painters are increasingly doing it as well. If you look at a person from far enough away that they would appear to you as the size of a standard gaming figure, you would not see woodgrain on their bow or the stock of their gun, and you wouldn’t be able to pick out the wool weave texture on their clothing. When those things are sculpted or painted onto figures it’s not truly realistic, but if we emulate the shapes of the texture and how light and shadow behave on it, most viewers will find it feels realistic enough to accept it without thinking about the scale issue. Here’s an example with chainmail.

Chainmail realLeft by Dariusz Wielec from Wikimedia. Right by Moss Photography from Unsplash.

The size of the rings and the overall texture the linked rings create on examples of real chainmail is quite fine. From a distance you can’t even really see that the material is made up of rings, it’s more an impression of rows of lines. The chainmail on the miniatures below is sculpted with a fine degree of detail, but would look enormous if the figures were scaled up to actual life size.

Chainmail miniI have an article about painting the ranger in the centre. And another about painting the warrior to the right.

Let’s look at the real life and miniature examples again, but scaled down to be closer to the size a miniature would be viewed in the hand. The texture of the real chainmail is barely apparent. That would be the most ‘realistic’ way to portray it, but it would also be dull and not give the viewer much information about the material. The texture is still apparent on the figures, because the information and visual interest is more important (and fun!) than strict adherence to realism. We need to do the same kinds of exaggerations with paint as the sculptors are already doing.

Chainmail example cr

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Constraint #2: No Background

Unless a figure is placed into a scene that includes a backdrop, it stands alone with no background. The reality of this has a much more profound effect than you might imagine on what we can do, can’t do, and need to do with our paint choices.

Backgrounds in Art Inspiration

If you take inspiration from artwork/photos/movie scenes, you need to evaluate the colours and effect of the background as well studying the main subject(s). We tend to to focus on and respond consciously to the main subject(s), but the background is very much a part of the colour scheme, mood, and even story of the work as a whole, and often integral to its success. It is very common for one or more key colours in a colour scheme to appear in the background and not on the main subject, for example.

Let’s look a specific example I think will be familiar to most of you – Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer painting. There have also been several miniature figure and model versions of the character. (I have a previous article with some thoughts about painting a figure to match artwork for a different example.)

Frazetta paintingsReproductions of the Death Dealer paintings by Frank Frazetta. The colour of reproductions can vary wildly, as you see here.

There’s not a lot of ‘content’ in the background in terms of objects or people. Frazetta was a master of abstraction, particularly in his backgrounds. But that doesn’t mean that the background isn’t important. In both of these reproductions of the painting, all of the saturated colour is primarily in the background. Those background colours affect the colour of the reflected light on the metal and shiny hair of the horse, so you can bring those colours into a free-standing figure a little, but the majority of the figure is desaturated grey and black. If you remove the figure from its surroundings, you lose a lot of the colours in the colour scheme, and it affects the impact and mood conveyed by the main figure. The background establishes the scene as set in a fiery battleground wasteland. The lighter values and more saturated colours of the background also enhance the Death Dealer himself because they contrast with his darkness and lack of vibrant colour. He looks more menacing and creepy because of the lighter and and more saturated colours in the background.

(If you’re confused by terms like saturated and value, check out my Anatomy of Colour article for definitions.)

Death dealer minisLeft: Kabuki Studio’s Death Dealer, painted by Marc Masclans. Right: Moebius Model’s Death Dealer, painter unknown.

Compare the painting with the two versions of the Death Dealer as a three dimensional figure/model displayed on a plain white background shown above. The paint jobs are terrific, and the looming menace of the Death Dealer figure is very much apparent, but there are definitely elements that are lost in comparison to the original painting. (Link to additional views of Marc Masclans painting

Now let’s compare these two versions of the Kabuki Studio Death Dealer below. They both great looking figures. One is posed in front of the background of the painting, and you can see how much of a difference it makes to include even some of the background elements from the original painting.

Death dealer minis bgLeft painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro, Right painted by Marc Maslans.

I edited out the background from the picture, so we can make more of an apples to apples comparison between these two figures. I did not alter the pictures in any other way.

Death dealer minis nobgLeft painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro, Right painted by Marc Maslans.

You may not have noticed significant differences between the way the two figures are painted apart from the background in the first image, but looking at them both on white backgrounds makes it easier to spot the different approaches in painting. The left figure is painted with a much lower level of contrast than the right. The brighter highlights and variation of contrast on the right figure brings some of the colour scheme from the background surroundings into the figure. Keeping those areas of highlights small on the Death Dealer himself keeps him looking shadowed, dark, and dangerous.

Compare the way the bases are painted. One is fairly uniform. The other is lighter and has more saturated yellow near the front hooves, and is darker towards the back, just like the painting. It evokes the idea of a nearby fire. Compare the painting of the horse itself, particularly the rear end. There are strong highlights with reflection colours painted in on one (like the painting), and much softer highlights in the other. The one posed against the background is painted with less contrast and less colour, and does not match the original artwork as well. Chances are you didn’t notice that on first glance. I didn’t. I think the higher level of contrast works better, particularly for a figure standing alone with no background.

It takes time to tune your eye to consciously spot differences like this, so for the benefit of those who might be having a little trouble seeing the areas where there is a strong difference in contrast, I’ve indicated them on the picture below.

Death dealer minis contrastLeft painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro, Right painted by Marc Maslans.

Contrast Through Backgrounds

I described above how the lighter and more saturated colour of the background in the Death Dealer painting contrasts against the Death Dealer character and adds to the story and emotion of the painting. But it also adds literal contrast. He looks darker and stands out to your eye better when he is set against a lighter background. Using colour and value in the background of a movie scene, painting, etc. is a very common way to direct the viewer’s attention and focus. One reason we need to use so much contrast on our miniature figures is because we do not have that tool at our disposal. For a single freestanding figure, all of our contrast, colour, mood, and story has to be built into our paint job of the figure and its base, because that is all we have. 

Here’s another example. Disney’s Cinderella is the stereotypical ‘fair maiden’ – very pale skin, blond hair, and wearing a white dress. And a lot of people paint figures in a similar way. Without the addition of some contrast and definition, a figure painted like that will not stand out well on a tabletop or shelf. It will be difficult for the viewer to parse the various parts of the figure to see the character/story. The figure needs deeper shadows in the folds of the cloth and contours of the face, hair, and limbs. Adding lining where areas meet, like between the skin of the arm and the edges of the gloves and sleeves, is another way to help people better see the various areas of the figure and how they fit together.

Note that the constraint of size exacerbates the issues. A life size real person or a cartoon one drawn with the intention of being shown on a giant movie screen are working with different parameters than we are working on figures that are an inch and a half tall. These issues are apparent in comparing the two examples of Cindarella on the left below. The far left is a still from the 1950 Walt Disney movie. Although Cinderella herself lacks contrast and definition at this scale, the rich dark colours surrounding her help attract the gaze of the viewer and make the image interesting and pleasing to look at. While the animation style of the version second from the left is more modern and detailed, it looks like a pale coloured barely differentiated blob on a white background at this small scale.

Cindarella contrastThe centre left is an example of issues I often see in judging and critiquing people’s figures. The centre right is an example of how to use slightly stronger contrast and more definition to create a more visually effective miniature paint job, while still maintaining the desired characterization.

I think Disney itself has recognized the issues that arise when using the character design originally created for huge movie screens on smaller screens and in marketing materials. The newer animated version of Cinderella is shown in the centre right. She now wears a blue gown, and is drawn with a more strongly defined choker and headband. The shadow areas are a little darker, too, providing additional contrast. The design for the live action version of the character has undergone similar modification. The dress is a deeper shade of blue, which contrasts more strongly with Lily James’ fair skin and hair. Note that the deep folds and shadowed area of the bodice are actually pretty dark in value, as are several areas of the skin, like her neck. I would incorporate even stronger contrast in painting a miniature figure. In the original movie, Cinderella’s gown is white, and only appears blue in scenes where she is in heavy shadow. In evolving the character for modern uses, Disney has had to make decisions related to colour and value contrast for the same reason we do – to make sure she’s visually effective in different sizes, on different backgrounds.

Let’s look at the Death Dealer figures again for a miniature-based example. Here I’ve converted the backgrounds to black, which is quite different to the background in the original painting, and is an example of how that can affect our perception of the main subject. The Death Dealer on the left is painted with more even lighting and lower contrast. The overall contours of the figure stand out better against the background – there aren’t many areas that are so dark they fade into the background and you can’t quite tell where one begins and the other ends. (In traditional art parlance that is a ‘lost’ edge.) But the piece overall does not quite pop in the same way that it did against the original background or the plain white one.

IMG 0676Left painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro, Right painted by Marc Maslans.

The figure on the right is painted as if it is being lit with stronger light sources, and has higher contrast between highlights and shadows. There are lost edges here – areas where you can’t see the exact border between the horse or rider against the background. However, I think the stronger contrast makes it easier to distinguish the various elements within the figure itself. You can easily pick out the horse vs the saddle vs the base, the helmet vs the armour, etc. You can tell which legs of the horse are the ones closest to you the viewer because they are painted as if more light is falling on them since they’re facing outwards. I think this strong contrast also evokes the mood of the original painting quite well. The more reflective NMM helmet, shield, and weapon contrasted with the deeply shadowed face of the rider gives him a mysterious and ominous air, as do the bright highlights on the axe head compared to the darker blood on its tip. (There’s also a cool/warm contrast between the blue NMM shadows and the red blood.)

Backgrounds in Photographs

When taking photographs of miniatures, we can try to consider this aspect of background. It is usually best to choose a simple, uncluttered background for your figure. (It makes it easier for your camera to focus on it, too!) But you can go beyond that and make colour or texture choices that enhance its appearance. If you have suitable terrain pieces, those can make fun and atmospheric backdrops for photos. Experiment a little, you may be surprised to find out how much of a difference it makes. 

Xmas osl comboIt’s particularly obvious with a lighting effect figure like this one, but can make more of a difference than you might expect with many figures.

Viewing Miniatures Live

When making colour and painting choices while painting your figure, remember that you have no control over the background of a miniature when it is used on a tabletop or viewed on a contest shelf. There is going to be a lot of visual clutter around it – other figures, terrain, other objects and people. That’s just one more reason to use strong contrast in value and colour, definition like lining and edge highlights, and to go big rather than subtle with effects.

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Constraint #3: No Atmosphere/Air

In three dimensional space, objects might exist at varying distances behind and around the main subject(s). A two dimensional work like a painting can depict these as part of the painting of the background. If you look back at the Frank Frazetta paintings as an example, we understand that each of the three birds in the painted sky is a different distance away from the Death Dealer, with the largest bird positioned closest to him and the smallest bird being the furthest away.

Even if you were to paint a backdrop for a miniature, there are materials and effects that are very difficult or impossible to convey in our medium. Smoke, clouds, and mist are great examples. You can have smoke or clouds sculpted onto a figure, and then it is a very solid object made of metal/resin/plastic that you’re trying to paint to appear as insubstantial air. Another alternative is to use cotton wool or other materials to try to evoke the appearance of these effects. How well that works can vary widely depending on the nature of the effect, skill of the modeller, and tastes of the viewer. 

It’s a little less obvious, but our lack of control over the atmosphere around a figure also significantly impacts our ability to depict light. We can paint a light source, and we can paint how the the light reflects on the actual figure and any basing and scenic elements that exist in our scene. But in the real world an actual light also illuminates the atmosphere around itself. And while this is most readily apparent in dramatic source lighting scenes, any direct light we depict is part of this effect. This is yet another reason why we have to exaggerate our painting of light and shadow on our figures. We have to exaggerate the elements that we can control to help compensate for the areas we can not depict due to the limitations of our medium.

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I have digitally altered the light source photographs I posted above to add a sense of illumination to the area directly around the candle. In the case of the picture on the right, I accomplished this mainly by adding shadows to the background areas distant from the candle. This is exactly what I did on the figure: I painted the areas of shadow quite dark to make the light source stand out more. This is something to take note of for general painting, too. You generally want your main area of focus to be lighter in value or brighter in saturation. Making the less important areas around it darker and duller is a great way to achieve that!

While I can add this kind of digital manipulation to a photograph of my miniature, when the miniature is viewed live the issue is not just with the area behind the figure, but the volume of air surrounding it. It is difficult or impossible to add atmospheric or light effects to that volume of air using paint alone. 

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Part 2 – Constraints and Conundrums

Ready for more? Part II is now available

I’m sure I didn’t think of everything, so please feel welcome to give us some more food for thought by leaving a comment. If I get enough suggestions, I’ll put together a part III some time!

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Image Credits

Some of the images included in this article are not mine. Some are freely made available for use, others are not. I have included them here for educational purposes, which I feel falls under the Fair Use doctrine. 

Smoke picture from Pexels, artist uncredited.
iPhone screen and app icons created by a number of different designers.
Chain armour photo by Dariusz Wielec from Wikimedia.
Chain armour photo by Moss Photography from Unsplash.
Original Death Dealer painting by Frank Frazetta.
Kabuki Death Dealer figure painted by Marc Maslans.
Moebius Models Death Dealer figure painted by unknown artist.
Kabuki Death Dealer figure painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro.
Incarnations of Cinderella by Disney.

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Figures in this Post

The Orc Slicer is available in Bones plastic.
The Female Ranger with Bow is available in metal, and will release in plastic in a year or two.
I believe the Kabuki Studio Death Dealer is available here
The Moebius Models Death Dealer is available here.
The Ghost of Christmas Past is a seasonal figure occasionally available in early December from Reaper Miniatures.

Going Green with Focus

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St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, so it’s fitting that Reaper’s Bones USA miniature of the month is Finn Greenwell, the leprechaun. Christine Van Patten of Moonlight Minis did a wonderful job sculpting this little charmer. I can’t give you any tips for how to find the end of the rainbow, but I’m happy to share my experiences with painting Finn. I’ll also share the exact colours I used to paint this figure at the bottom of this post.

Lep bl front

NOTE: My copy of Finn is a metal master. The Bones USA version wasn’t ready in time to send to me for painting. 

Colour Considerations

With some miniatures the choice of colours is vast. With other figures, like this one, you may be working within established colour scheme ideas. It didn’t take too much time looking at other artistic interpretations to establish that leprechauns are most commonly depicted with fair or ruddy skin and red hair, and wearing clothing/accessories of green and gold. Taupe/brown/cream as a third accent colour was fairly common, as well.

I did have some decisions to make about which kinds of greens, however. Earthier less saturated greens were as common and logical as intense vibrant greens. I chose to go with more intense greens, reddish gold metals, and taupes/yellow-brown for an accent colour. I decided to use Bones HD greens, since I haven’t previously had a chance to use the saturated Bones greens that much and I wanted to get more familiar with them. 

Lep bl face

While I was researching the depiction of leprechauns, I was interested to learn that in the past it was traditional to depict them as wearing red, most often a red coat. So if you plan to paint Finn for a game or want to mix up the colour scheme for some other reason, you might want to read more about that. (I have another article with some tips and recipes for painting red.)

My initial impulse for the skin colour was a pinkish-red, as many fair skinned people with red hair have a lot of pink and red in their skin tones. In the end I decided to go with a less saturated and more peachy skin tone. My thinking was that the touches of red I planned to paint on his cheeks, nose, and ear tips would stand out more that way. 

Lep bl back

Two last elements influenced my colour choices. One is that I was trying to get this done ASAP, since people are always eager to see the monthly mini as soon as they can. So I chose a lot of Bones paints and other paints I know have decent coverage, and I used a few  old favourite recipes for some colours. It was a time for trusted standbys, not experimentation.

The final influence is that I tried to avoid using discontinued or special edition paints, since I know not everyone can get those and whether I mean to or not I seem to use several on most pieces. There is one in my gold recipe, but I’ll discuss alternatives to it in the colour list. I can’t do this every time, but I wanted to try to minimize it!

Approach to Painting

It is generally the case that I have one or two main areas that I’m concentrating on trying to improve in at any given time in my painting efforts. Attempting to just ‘get better’ is too vague a goal. Working on too many areas at a time is too much to think about and stressful.  Examples of improvement goals I’ve concentrated on over the years have included blending, basing, more complex colour use, higher contrast, directional lighting, stuff like that. For the past while I’ve been concentrating on the idea of creating more of a focal point on a miniature.

A focal point is the main area of interest, the place I want the viewer to spend the most time looking. There are things the human eye is drawn to look at –  faces, areas of strong contrast, and saturated colours. And there are things we’re less likely to look at – dull or dark colours. So the idea is to use painting techniques and colour choices that draw more viewer attention to the focus area than other parts of the miniature. You still want people’s eyes to move around the figure as a whole and not get bored, you just want them to spend the most time and interest on what you have decided is the most important/interesting part of that figure. 

I’ve been aware of focal points as a general concept for a long time, but it is something I have not put nearly enough thought and effort into for most of my painting history. Sometimes the trickiest part of focus is not even doing anything special in the focus area, but making sure that choices you make elsewhere do not steal focus from the important area(s). I think I managed that well enough on Finn to use him as an example of what I mean.

IMG 0636

First off, the sculpture is already doing a great job of putting a lot of focus in the area circled in blue. The face is there, and it has a lot of animation and expression sculpted in. The mug is close to the face and it’s easy to picture (or create) a relationship between the face and the mug. In other words, you can make the story of this miniature the emotions that Finn feels for (or because) of his drink. (Or maybe he’s trying to distract someone who’s eying his pot of gold with his drink.) The face is surrounded by interesting details to help pull your eye – two of the buckles, the scarf, and the details on the hat are all in close proximity to the face. The mug also has a fair amount of detail compared to the figure as a whole. 

For this figure, my job as a painter was to compliment that focus area, and also to make choices that did not distract the viewer too much from it. The buckles are painted as shiny NMM that draws the eye, and the NMM on the mug is painted to be quite shiny too. The lightest and brightest colours are on or near the face – the bright green of the hat shamrock, the reddish hair and eyebrows, the light colour foam of the drink. The highest contrast is in that area, as well – the light skin tone next to that deep shadow under the hat brim, and the pale foam of the drink next to the dark colours on the mug. Detail is concentrated in that area, both detail that is sculpted (facial features, mug, clothing and hat details) and detail that is added with paint – freckles, and freehand stripes on the scarf.

The areas further away from that are downplayed a little. The contrast on the NMM of the shoe buckle and gold coins isn’t quite as dramatic as the NMM near the face. The skin of the hands has less interest and contrast than the face. The pot and shoes are fairly subdued. The tan of his socks is darker than the tans on the scarf near the face. An example of stealing focus would be if I had made Finn’s socks the same colours as the beer foam. That would fit in with the colour scheme and makes sense from a colour use point of view, but it would distract the viewer’s focus down to Finn’s ankles, and they are not a significant part of the characterization or story of this figure. 

One important aspect about miniature art is that figures are three dimensional, so you’ll get a different effect from different angles. In an angle where you’re looking only at the back view of the figure, things might look a lot different. You might need to choose another spot as the focus area. I will confess that I didn’t think a lot about the focus of alternative angles while painting Finn, but if you look at the back, I think this area becomes the focus point because of the contrast, saturated colours, and detail in this section.

IMG 0637

I also talked about working to create focal areas on the Mistletoe Goblin.

Paint Process Notes

I’ve covered much of what I did on this figure in other posts. I chose a simple pattern and subdued colours for the scarf for the same reasons I talked about with the freehand on the pillow of one of the succubi. I’ve shared non-metallic metal tips before, too. 

My approach to painting the darker and lighter green areas was similar to what I described for the red in the Mistletoe Goblin. I picked out a selection of greens from dark to light value. The darker greens focused on the darker side of the values with lighter colours in small areas for the brightest highlights. The lighter greens were painted with the lighter half of the scale. Their shadows did not go as dark, and they had lighter value highlights. The key is the difference between the midtones of the two areas, as depicted in set of paint swatches below.

IMG 0660

Order of Operations for Painting

One of the most common questions I get from newer painters is wondering what order they should paint things on the figure. I have talked about order of operations before, too. It is something that came up for me several times while I was painting Finn. My paint colours at the bottom will be listed in the order of painting each of the areas. 

Lep bl left

A good general guideline for painting order is to paint ‘from the inside out’. So paint items that are the most inward or under other objects first, and then work out from there. Usually that means skin, then clothing/armour, then accessories and weapons. I typically paint hair/hats and objects that protrude away from the main body of the figure (often weapons) last. These are most likely to get handled during the painting process and experience some rub-off, so I like to leave them for last, even touching up the primer if necessary. (Letting your primer cure for a while and using a painting handle help make your paint jobs sturdier.)

Painters also generally try to paint all areas of the same colour at the same time, particularly for quicker paint jobs. If you decide to paint the gauntlets, boots, and belt on a figure all the same colour leather, it’s more time efficient and uses less paint if you paint them all at the same time.

Lep bl right

These two goals sometimes collide, and you the painter have to make decisions about how to handle that in the way that works best for you. Skin is often an issue for this. The face, torso, arms, and legs are generally under clothing and accessory items and most easily painted first. Hands often surround or rest on top of other items so are most easily painted later in the painting process. You have to consider whether it’s easier to mix up your skin colours twice and paint things in the easiest order, or paint all of the skin areas at the same time and deal with the challenges that can bring.

On Finn, the hand and arm holding the mug in the front view are kind of tucked away between the torso and the mug. The handle of the mug is inside that tucked-away hand. I started painting with the idea that I would paint the skin first. I painted the eye and did an initial base coat. While I was putting the base coat on the hands I got to thinking it would probably be easier to paint the gold in the pot on the right side and the mug handle and the sleeve on the left side prior to painting the hands. As a result, I ended up painting the skin nearly at the end of the process, and breaking up the painting of the steel on the mug and the hair/eyebrows into two parts. Another option would have been to paint the face early on and the hands when I had the other areas done.

Work in Progress Pictures

I took some pictures while I worked, so I figure I might as well share them. My PDF Patrons will receive back view WIP pictures as well.

I used brush-on primer, but applied it with my Reaper Vex airbrush. I love that it doesn’t clog and frustrate me when using primer! (I have been using the larger needle, I haven’t really used the smaller needle.)

IMG 0574

After painting the eye first and thinking I would start with the skin, I instead painted the hair, socks, dark green clothing, the wood of the mug, and then the handle of the mug in my first paint session.

IMG 0585

In my next short session, I tackled the black areas – the shoes, belt, and the pot. I looked up ‘cast iron cauldron’ for photo references on the more subdued reflections on that kind of metal.

IMG 0587

The next day I started with the hat band, then the lighter green sections, and the gold NMM, and then finally on to the skin!

IMG 0592

One more long session staying up way past my bedtime, and I was just about finished. The picture below shows where I left off after that session. The next day I checked for anything that needed touch ups, added some vegetation to the base, and added freckles at the request of Ron, the Reaper art director. (And I think he made a great call on that!)

IMG 0594

You can get a free copy of Finn Greenwell with purchases of $40 (or equivalent in local currency) from the Reaper website. You can also just buy copies directly. 

Colours Used to Paint Finn Greenwell

All paints used are from Reaper Miniatures.

Colours in italics are not in production. Alternatives are suggested.

Colours are listed from darkest to lightest. A few areas were painted this way. Most were painted by starting with a base coat of the midtone and layering in shadows and highlights. For items painted with a starting midtone I’ve indicated the midtone colour in bold, or made a note of the colour mix used.

9282 Maggot White for sclera (alternative option: Ghost White), Elven Green and Turf Green for the iris, Blue Liner for the pupil, Blackened Brown for the upper lid line and Saddle Brown for the lower lid line.

Socks and Mug
9040 Dark Shadow, 9127 Uniform Brown, 9129 Faded Khaki, Yellowed Bone

9070 Mahogany Brown, 9072 Rust Brown, 9243 Highlight Orange, 9247 Saffron Sunset

Dark Green
Blue Liner, 9488 Elven Green, Wilderness Green, 9481 Turf Green, 9012 Pale Green
Midtone: mix of Elven Green and Wilderness Green

Black (pot, shoes, belt)
9066 Blue Liner, 9479 Solid Black, 9085 Shadowed Stone, 9086 Stone Grey, 9087 Weathered Stone

Hat Band
Dark Shadow, 9041 Dark Skin, Uniform Brown, 9032 Amber Gold

Light Green
9411 Wilderness Green, Turf Green, Pale Green, 9415 Dungeon Slime, (For the leaf, added a dab of White in for top highlights)
Midtone: mix of Turf Green and Pale Green

Non-Metallic Gold
9137 Blackened Brown, 9071 Chestnut Brown, 9073 Chestnut Gold, 9074 Palomino Gold, 9075  Buckskin Pale, 9061 Linen White, 9039 Pure White
Chestnut Gold is currently out of production. 9256 Blond Shadow is a close match to mixing Chestnut Gold and Palomino Gold, as shown below. Mix with Chestnut Brown for intermediary shadow colours.

Gold nmm paints

9428 Saddle Brown, 9443 Bronzed Flesh (previously called Warrior Flesh), 9445 Peachy Flesh (previously called Youthful Flesh), 9487 Yellow Mold, Pure White
Red areas glazed with very thinned down 9134 Clotted Red
Freckles – 9305 Tarnished Copper, Mahogany Brown

Scarf Light Stripes
Entire scarf was first painted with the lighter colour.
Uniform Brown, Faded Khaki, 9143 Yellowed Bone

Scarf Dark Stripes
Chestnut Brown, Chestnut Gold, Palomino Gold

Non-Metallic Steel
9318 Carbon Grey, 9088 Stormy Grey, 9089 Cloudy Grey, 9038 Rainy Grey, 9090 Misty Grey, 9316 Foggy Grey, Pure White

Beer Foam
Yellowed Bone, wash with Uniform Brown, highlight with Yellowed Bone, then Pure White

Mottled areas of Uniform Brown and Turf Green, wash of Blackened Brown, highlight with original colours and versions lightened with Yellowed Bone.
Sticks painted with browns used elsewhere on the figure.
Grass is grass tufts, shamrocks are small dried flowers.

Shadow Glaze
Shadow areas on much of the figure glazed with very thinned down 9023 Imperial Purple. 

IMG 0644Quick cellphone scale picture. Does anyone need a pint more than Sir Forscale?