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Attitude Adjustment

When I wrote my New Year’s resolution suggestion for you to FAIL, I planned to write a follow-up post comparing my experiences of failure in my miniature painting and traditional art journeys. Writing that turned out to be much more challenging than I expected, in ways both related and unrelated to the topic, but I’m going to go with this for now, and just post again on the topic in the future if I figure out how to say it better. 

I spent several days earlier this year going through pictures of the miniatures I’ve painted, from the very first learn to paint kit ones I painted in 2003, to the most recent ones I’ve finished. My goal was to find examples to use in an AdeptiCon class that I was designing to help people learn to critique their own figures, and to have more success applying the information from critiques they receive from others to their practice of miniature painting. And then AdeptiCon (and everything else) was canceled and I wasn’t able to try out that class. But taking a trip back in time raised some thoughts about my experiences learning to paint miniatures that I thought might be worth sharing here.

Anhurian front 600My first fully painted miniature! From the first generation Reaper Learn to Paint Kits. This took me 6-8 hours. (September 2003)

I took up the hobby of miniature painting in 2003 with the goal of learning high level display painting techniques. Although I liked that figures could also be used for role-play gaming, we weren’t playing much at the time, so it wasn’t my focus. I wanted a hobby that was a physical activity and not purely cerebral as many of my other hobbies were. I was inspired by the great pictures more and more people were starting to be able to share with each other online, and the community that was growing up around that sharing. I avidly consumed online tutorials (text and pics only back then!), and spent a lot of time in classes as I began to attend conventions like Gen Con and ReaperCon. 

I had a number of positive experiences and accomplishments throughout those years. There were also several negative experiences. Some of these were related to health problems, or other factors beyond the scope of what we’re talking about here. But as I look back, a number of them were related to my attitude and expectations about learning a skill. I can see now that I got in the way of my own goals quite a bit.

Arilynn front 600I made a mosaic! With a piece of screen door mesh and some Sculpey. There are more efficient and pleasing ways to do this, but I think it’s cool I at least tried. :-> (November 2003)

I took up more traditional artwork as a hobby about five years years ago. My goals were more nebulous, and my interests far too wide, but one element in common was the drive to want to be good at it. And just as when I started painting miniatures, I wasn’t. I wasn’t awful, but I wasn’t good. That first year or so I made a lot of the same mistakes I made in my mini painting journey, and I experienced a lot of the same negative feelings. But over time various elements came together that gave me a better understanding of how we learn (particularly in art related areas), how much my choices and my attitudes affected my experiences, and what the true value of the activity is for me.

I’ve been trying to share information about how we learn, and how the ways that the human eye and brain work can cause us roadblocks in pursuing artistic endeavours, and I have plans to share more of that in the future. I think that identifying the true value of an activity like miniature painting is also a topic that deserves its own post. Right now what I want to talk about is how my choices and attitudes affected my experiences, and the differences in learning one hobby and the other.

Crane back fullFreehand! I even wrote up a little tutorial for how I did this. Also an early and only partially successful attempt at basing using texture stamps. (October 2004)

Mismatch Between Goals and Action

It seems obvious to say something like if we make one kind of goal but adopt a contradictory type of action/practice it might not work out so well, but that is something a lot of us do, so maybe it’s not always so obvious. ;-> With miniature painting I had the goal to be world class amazing. But I did not practice for hours every day. Or even practice every day. Or sometimes even every week. Even today I end up spending much less time at it than I should. Yet I would often feel down about how I had been painting for X amount of months/years and wasn’t much better, Or I would be sad that I would never catch up to painters I admired. Or filled with sheer frustration over not learning fast enough.

Written out like that, you can see it doesn’t make sense. I was trying to have my cake and eat it too. To keep both of those contradictory ideas in my head at the same time could only result in unhappiness, which it did on many occasions in my miniature painting journey. The number of years I had been painting didn’t matter. The amount of hours I spent painting during those years was far more significant. (And there’s more to learning than just putting in time, but putting in time definitely matters!)

Ladydarkness face fullPerhaps my first real attempt at being a bit ‘artsy’ by playing with contrast of colour saturation, as well as a bit of sculpting. The attempt was fine, if nothing special. The disappointment that my artiness was not recognized with accolades was silly. (June 2005)

In working to take a more positive approach with my traditional art study, I am trying to be more realistic about this. If I get down about my lack of progress, I stop myself and check in on the amounts of time I’m putting into my practice. If those time amounts are fairly modest, then it is only reasonable for my amount of progress to be modest, and it is unproductive to make myself unhappy about it. 

It would make a lot more sense to either:

1. Keep the ambitious goal and buckle down and spent a LOT of time practicing. That means having to accept doing less of other activities. Depending on one’s responsibilities and leisure preferences, this may or may not be a possibility. 

2. Admit that I can’t or won’t do the activity with the intensity and time investment required to meet an ambitious goal and instead adjust my goals and expectations. I can still aim to improve, but I need to understand that it’s going to take a lot longer. I’m going to see new people who spend more time at it sprint ahead of me, and I might never catch up to my idols. Neither of those things makes what I do accomplish meaningless! I’m making choices to enjoy other hobbies or fulfill other demands and responsibilities of life. (And being understanding with myself about physical and mental limitations.)

Treat front fullThis was so much cooler in my head. :-< (October 2006)

Setting Your Own Goals

Speaking of goals… this isn’t something that’s been a major issue in much of my personal journey, but I have definitely seen it affect others. You get to decide your goals and what makes you happy. There’s no requirement in miniature painting that you ‘should’ always be striving to get better and win contests and so on. If what you enjoy is just kicking back and knocking out a tabletop miniature in an hour or four, then DO THAT! If you love constant experimentation and want to paint all over the map in terms of style and scale and whatever else but don’t necessarily care about contest-perfect finish, then DO THAT! 

But you need to accept that whatever choice you make means you can’t also expect to excel at what you aren’t doing. You can’t paint minis with a kick back and relax attitude and ALSO get upset about not winning awards. Well, you can, but you’re only hurting yourself if you do.

Vamp bl frontWhereas this one came out cooler than I had hoped! (November 2007)

My personal example for this one is actually from my experience in university. I was a smart kid with smart parents. My Mom literally saved up her pennies from the time I was born for me to go to university. My parents didn’t go on and on about it, it was just the understood track of my life. I went, and I was pretty miserable. The experience was not at all what I imagined. When I was home for Christmas break in year two, my Mom said to me “You know you don’t have to go to university, right?” And I did not know that. The thought had literally never occurred to me. The entire concept was so freeing. I finished up the year, and then got a job. And then realized what I might actually want to do when I grew up and went back to school with much more of a plan. That second round was a much more positive experience. (I’m not going to say the plan unfolded as planned, but at least there was a plan. ;->) 

You get to decide why you’re painting miniatures and what your miniature painting goals are. You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. You just have to accept the consequences of your choices.

Cersei frontAgain, so much cooler in my head. I did two versions of the stone tile base. The one I didn’t use was slightly less awful. (August 2008)

You Can’t Study Your Way out of Risk or Failure

With an intellectual challenge like a science test or history essay, the more you study the subject, the more likely you are to learn and remember information. Those learning methods work well for purely mental pursuits, but they are much less useful with a skill like miniature painting that has a large physical component involving manipulation of tangible tools. Despite having also taken art and music in school, I don’t think I really grasped the difference in methods for learning information versus mastering skills until much more recently.

If you were teaching a young person how to cook, would you have them start by watching hours of cooking shows every day? You would probably start by showing them a few basic cooking techniques and have them practice those by preparing simple dishes. Even if you were starting with a young person who did like to watch a lot of cooking shows, would you assume they’d be able to prepare complex gourmet dishes the first time they cooked for themselves? You’d likely still start with some basics. And you’d understand that mastering those basics wouldn’t mean they’d be able to perfectly perform more complex tasks the first time they try them, regardless of how many times they’ve seen someone do it on TV. Miniature painting is a lot closer to cooking than it is to writing a history essay or doing equations.

Sophie black frontI painted this a few months BEFORE the preceding figure. (May 2008)

Watching videos or reading articles/posts while you’re at lunch or commuting or similar activities can be a fun way to enjoy your hobby when it’s not possible to sit down and actually paint. When you do have the ability to paint, spending a lot of time watching or reading thinking that you’re ‘preparing’ yourself can do you more harm than good. This is not a test that you’re studying for: more study is not the right approach. You need to watch or read about a technique enough to understand the tools you’ll need to have on hand and the general procedure to follow. And then you just need to sit down and try it. You very likely won’t achieve your desired result on your first few tries. Or even if the end result looks okay, it’ll take much longer than you think it should to achieve.

Poorer or slower than hoped results are not you ‘failing the test’. You can’t do mental study alone to prepare for a physical task. Sitting down and trying is how you study for and learn physical tasks. You have to try, assess your results, and then adjust your process the next time you try in an effort to find what works best for you.

You can study a video/article to get ideas about the correct consistency of the paint, or how to choose shade and highlight colours, or which brush to use for a technique and how to manipulate it. Studying the same material repeatedly won’t increase your chance of success on your first attempts because this is not memorization type of knowledge. You need to sit down and perform the task to figure out what is the correct paint consistency, brush, etc. for you to try to do the task. Studying how a bunch of different painters do the task before even trying it once yourself is also likely to be counter-productive. You’re more likely to confuse yourself with contradictory information than to clarify the ‘right’ way to do the task. (Because with a lot of things there isn’t one ‘right’ way, it’s a question of finding the right way for you.) If you try something and it doesn’t work well for you, it can be helpful to study how another painter or two performs that task to get ideas for what you might do that would work better, but filling your mind with dozens of variations before you even try it is just going to be confusing.

Hero frontMy painting might have been improving. My basing… (December 2009)

Time Spent Learning is Not Wasted Time

Now this definitely was a big one for me personally. Outside of a very occasional figure I painted to goof around with or for a game character, I painted miniatures as Serious Business. I was Investing Time when I painted. If I tried something and it didn’t turn out well, I had committed the grievous sin of Wasting Time. And that turns out to have been a very unhelpful and limiting attitude. That is not an attitude that encourages learning and experimentation. 

It raised the stakes on taking risks, so I would often hold back on trying cool new effects and techniques I was studying. There were lots of occasions where I would start a figure intending to try to do something tough like freehand and then chicken out later because I was already 15 hours into painting the figure and it looked good and I didn’t want to ‘ruin’ it. It can be frustrating to be slower at something, but why was it that demoralizing that I might try something and have to spend a few hours trying it again to get it right? If I did the blending successfully once, would I really not be able to do it again if I messed up and needed to fix it? Except for the most delicate of sculpts, it’s generally no issue to paint over a section on a figure a few times. The real issue was my attitude.

Cold frontThis isn’t a bad piece. It also isn’t a great one. I expected a way more enthusiastic response to it than it got, and I ended up having a lot of negative feelings around it as a consequence. (September 2010)

This is an area where things are a little easier in the realm of traditional art. Studies and sketches are pretty standard. It’s not odd to just do quick sketches or have half a notebook practicing drawing noses or something, in fact it’s highly recommended. And a few dozen nose drawings take up a lot less space than a dozen figures where I practiced blending or whatever, but with a little creative thought I could have just practiced speed painting on the rest of the figures, or just painted over them or stripped them or packed them away. What I have now come to understand is that painting sessions don’t have to conclude with a well painted figure to have been time well spent.

Learning Something New Takes Time and Discomfort

When I was looking back through all the figures I’ve painted, one of the things I noticed was that every now and then there would be a figure where I worked on something much more advanced or out of my comfort zone than compared to the rest of the things I did in that same time period. An experimentation with more complex colour use, more dramatic lighting, different blending techniques, whatever thing. Usually these were a result of a class or a tutorial I studied online. And most were just one-offs. Sometimes they would go on to influence my direction, or there would be lessons that I took from them moving forward. But most of them were me making the start of going down a more interesting and fruitful path and then turning around and walking back to the same path I’d been on before. It’s so frustrating to see where I had glimpses of the kinds of things I needed to do to improve my craft much earlier and then just let them drop.

Liw face lgThis piece ended up being a bit of a milestone in my painting journey for reasons having nothing to do with tools or techniques. (July 2011)

Trying something new, be it a new paint line, new brush, new technique, or new approach to using colour or something else more complex like that is hardly ever a question of one and done. It needs to be something you try repeatedly or find a way to work into regular practice or it’s going to get forgotten and be a curiosity you don’t know how to repeat. Habits take time to form, and that includes habits of how you approach painting.

I hope that you aren’t getting in your own way the way I did, but if you think that you might be, I hope these thoughts might give you some ideas about how to be kinder to yourself in the future. My realizations about these issues weren’t something that happened overnight, and honestly I still have to work at having healthier and more constructive thoughts about a lot of these things. But since I have been making that mental effort, my frustrations have been fewer and of shorter duration, so I think it has been a helpful exercise.

Figures in this Post

The Anhurian Swordsman is available in Bones plastic or in metal.
Arilyn the Water Sorceress with shell
The Fairy Dragon is available in metal and in plastic
The Crane Courtier miniature is no longer being produced.
The Lady of Darkness figure is also out of production, though a modified version is available
The Wyrd Hell’s Angels are no longer in production.
Witchy Meg is part of a Demon Children pack.
The Vampiress is available in metal with tomb accessories.
The tombstone comes form another pack, though.
Cersei Lannister. The fountain was converted/assembled.
Bourbon Street Sophie was a con special, but is now available to everyone!
Firefox and Captain Griffon are metal figures.
Wyrd completely redid their product lines and this version of Alyce and this ice golem are no longer produced.
The Lady in Waiting #2 is part of the Dark Sword line based on the Game of Thrones books.

Flesh (Tones) for Fantasy

In choosing colours for the third succubus, I wanted to includes elements from the other two to help draw them together as a group. My aim was to paint her skin as sort of a middle ground between the other two. The colour selections were darker and a little pinker than the kneeling succubus, but lighter in value than the seated succubus. The golds and blues used for clothing and accessories were used in various areas of the other figures as well.

Since I would also be painting a transparent cloth effect on this figure, I decided it was worth the time to test the colours I proposed to use, and I painted a quick experiment on one of the figures I previously used in a hair painting demonstration. The blond hair colours wern’t exactly the same recipe I used for the jewelry of the succubi, but they’re in the ballpark.

Succ3 test fullTest of skin and cloth colours for the standing succubus.

This was the easiest of the three skin tones for me to paint. I imagine that was largely due to being well in practice at that point after having painted two other similar figures. But I suspect that the fact that the midtone value of the skin was more of a middle value colour also made it easier. It’s tricky to judge highlights and keep them small enough on a very dark colour. Shadows painted on to very light value colours can easily look sloppy or unnatural, or be very challenging to achieve smooth blends with. 

Succ3 wip1 face 600 cropIn doing a rough block in the main concern is where lighter and darker values are placed. It’s not meant to look smooth or perfect at this stage.

I once again decide to start with a rough block-in for the major highlights and shadows on the flesh. I do mean rough, as is probably more apparent in the close-up below. During this stage I was regularly holding the figure out at arm’s length and looking at it without magnification. I wanted to see whether the various masses of the body standing out as identifiable and looking three dimensional from a distance. I was not particularly concerned about how it looked up close at this stage. 

Succ3 wip1 front 600 crop cu

The next stage was to go back in and refine the placement and the blending. For me this refinement step includes three elements, but it’s certainly possible to break these down into sequential steps instead of combining them if that makes it easier to manage.

Firstly, I was fine-tuning the initial block in by making a highlight a little brighter here, or shifting the placement location of a shadow, that sort of thing.  If you compare the two stages, you can see that the highlights are shifted a little lower on the breasts in the refinement stage.

Secondly, I was making sure I had addressed smaller or subtler areas. This includes checking that I addressed all of the smaller shapes within a bigger one, like on the knee, which is this case is sculpted in such a way that some of the complexity of the knee bones are apparent. You can also see that the area of the bellybutton is more refined in the second stage.

Thirdly, I was smoothing out rough blending transitions but taking half-step mixes between colours and stippling them along the edges until I got the blends as smooth as I possibly could.

Succ3 wip2 front 600 crop cu

The face, hands, and feet are areas with a lot more detail. I worked on those after I had completed the main body areas. Partly this was just a question of time management. I knew I would be working on this over multiple painting sessions, so I concentrated on the body the first day, and the other areas the second. (The hand on the chest would also be most easily painted after the neck and upper chest area were completed) For these more detailed areas I painted a little more precisely. There was still a small amount of roughing in and refining, but I didn’t want to cake up any detail with paint or make my life too difficult, so I painted up a little more cleanly than I had on the body block in. 

Succ3 wip3 face 600 crop

I had thought I would paint the transparent cloth immediately after finishing the skin, but it occurred to me it would be very tricky to paint the jewelry without getting paint on the cloth. You can just barely see it in the picture above, but she has jewelry on both ankles, and the inner leg is quite inset behind the cloth. For the non-metallic metal on this figure,I decided to use the colours I used to paint the freehanded pillow on the second succubus, which were adapted from the jewelry colours on the first succubus.

Succ3 wip3 front 600 crop

The blue cloth incorporated colours that I had used on the other figures, but I also added more of a teal blue. I had a similar issue with saturation as came up with the freehand pillow on the second succubus. I liked the value and general colour tone of several teal blues, but they all looked garish when placed next to the more subdued colours used on the figure. There are a number of different ways to desaturate colours. If you only have the budget or room for a small number of paints it is better to buy highly saturated ones and learn how to use colour mixing and colour theory to adapt them as necessary. In this situation, I chose to add one of the purplish colours used on the skin to the teal. 

Succ3 cloth nmm cu 600

The photo above shows the palette of colours I used to paint the gold NMM and the teal cloth. You can see that there is not a true saturated yellow in the colours I used to paint the gold up towards the top. The teal that I picked to paint the cloth with is the blob in the far upper right. You can see how bright it looks next to everything else on the palette. Had I painted that directly on the miniature the cloth would have stood out in a way that wouldn’t look natural. It would have looked as if it existed under different lighting than the rest. The row of less saturated teal paints near the bottom are the colours I mixed using that teal that were used to paint the cloth.

The two pools at the very bottom left are glazes that I used. These were small amounts of paint to which I added a lot of medium (in this case Reaper’s brush-on sealer) to make them very transparent. I painted the heavily thinned down blue over the areas of flesh seen through the cloth to create the impression of the cloth colour acting as a filter on the skin colour. After I finished painting the blue cloth it still seemed a little more saturated than I wanted, so I painted a thin glaze of the purplish skin colour I had mixed into the pools over the whole surface to tone it down even more. That did fix the colour, but it also subdued the value of the highlights, so I painted some of those back on.

Succ3 wip3 back 600 crop

Following the picture above, I painted her hair and also did some work on the figures’ bases. I thought it would be good to take pictures of the three together to see how they work as a group.

Wip1 succubi front 1000

Wip1 succubi back 1000

When I took a look at the group pictures, and then compared the figures on the shelf, I felt I wasn’t sure if the standing figure ‘matched’ the other two in terms of contrast. I had painted her hair with a softer sort of texture and wanted the robe to look filmy, but overall she seemed to have less oomph than the other two. I shared the pictures with a friend who recommend that I bump up the highlights in the hair and the focal area of the skin, and also on the robe. (My helpful friend was Jen Greenwald, who also has a blog!) The other change in the later photos is that I added some glazes of colours used on the figures to the base stones to help tie those in a bit more and give them a bit more variation and visual interest.

Wip2 succ front 1000

Wip2 succ back 1000

And a look at the changes on just the standing succubus figure alone:

Succ3 wip5 front 600

Succ3 wip5 back 600

Below is a picture of the layer mixes I used to paint the skin of the standing succubus. The darkest two colours on the middle row were only used for lining. (I line fingers and toes with a slightly lighter value than the main lining.) The three lightest colours (including the pale green-white in the upper right) were not really used in my initial pass. I did use a tiny amount of those light values when I went back in to add in some additional highlights in the focal area. IIRC the midtone was the center pool on the bottom row.

Succ3 palette 600 cu

Paint Recipes

Skin base colour: 9679 Drow Nipple Pink 
Skin shadow colours: 9602 Bruised Purple, 9307 Red Liner
Skin highlight colours: 89503 Sinspawn Pink, 9282 Maggot White

Cloth base colour: 89522 Grindylow Blue desaturated by mixing in 9679 Drow Nipple Pink
Cloth shadow colour: 61127 Waveform Aquamarine desaturated by mixing in 9602 Bruised Purple (using 9077 Marine Teal would also work, or just mixing Blue Liner into the base colour), 9066 Blue Liner
Cloth highlight colour: 9282 Maggot White, 9039 Pure White

The paint colours in italics are not currently available for purchase. Waveform Aquamarine was from a licensed line of paint and thus very unlikely to be reissued. Bruised Purple is coming back, and is currently available for preorder in a Bones 5 pledge. Drow Nipple Pink was a special event colour available at a few ReaperCons. I have heard rumours it might make a reappearance someday…

Figures in this Post

The work-in-progress succubus figures are not currently for sale. They are available for preorder as part of the Bones 5 Kickstarter late pledge. Look for the Demonic Temptations add-on.

The spellcaster holding up an orb is available in plastic or in metal. She was repurposed from my article/video on how to paint hair.

Contrast: The Power of Light

I’ve talked about contrast a lot in the past. Recently I woke up to a great example of contrast in the real world that I thought might be helpful to share. (I’ll link to the previous contrast articles at the end of this post.)

Window light 1 crop 600Look closer and you might also see the power of cat hair in action.

The picture above is of a wall in my bedroom. The black shape on the right is a blackout curtain. The picture was taken on an overcast day, but you can still see the light sneaking through the curtain to shine on the wall. My bedroom wall is a dark green colour. I’m including the official paint company swatch below, but I’d say it’s even slightly darker than that in real life. Close to the colour of Reaper Paint’s Forest Green if you have that one. (It’s called Night Watch. We didn’t pick it for the nerdy name, but it’s a nice bonus. ;->)

Night watch ppg timeless paint colors ppg1145 7tsg 16 64 1000

So that’s the midtone colour of my wall. If you look at my room picture above, you’ll see that the shadows go down to pure black, and the highlights are much lighter green in colour. You may think they appear almost white right next to the edge of the curtain. We’ll take a look at the exact colours in a minute, but for now just take a minute to appreciate how large that range of contrast is. Probably a lot stronger than the contrast you’re painting on your figures, particularly if you’re a painter who worries that too much contrast will look cartoonish and not realistic.

This contrast is created because light is powerful stuff (and the absence of light is likewise powerful in creating dark shadows.) The effect of the light is particularly dramatic in this scenario because there’s a small bright area of light penetrating into a dark room. 

So if this effect of dramatic contrast actually is realistic, Why do we seem not to be able to ’see’ this dramatic effect in the colour and value (lightness vs darkness) of objects around us?

One answer is that often the appearance of highlights and shadows is not quite as dramatic as this. If there are numerous or larger sources of light, the light bounces around and creates a more diffused lighting effect. Very diffuse light may be a lot easier to paint, but it is not very exciting to look at. If you study movie making or photography at all, you know that photographers and movie makers choose to shoot at certain times of day or use lights and reflectors to light their scenes in very specific ways. They do this to help convey emotion and story, but also just to make their scenes more interesting to look at. Our miniature figures will benefit a lot if we paint them with more interesting and dramatic lighting. If you know anything about movie making or photography, I recommend that you apply everything you know about dramatic lighting in those fields to how you approach painting shadows and highlights on your miniature figures, and you’ll improve your handling of contrast immensely!

The following is a picture in the same room taken with the overhead light turned on and sunlight coming through the window. It is less dramatic, and probably a little less interesting. There is also still a wider range between the value of the lightest colour on the wall and the darkest colour of the wall than many people feel comfortable painting.

Overhead light 600

This next picture is the same scene but using the flash on the camera, which is an additional light source. So it has three light sources – the overhead light, the sun coming through the window, and the flash from the camera. The flash is bright enough that it overpowers the effect of the light coming in from under the curtain so that’s not really visible in this photo. It also creates a pretty dramatic range in value between the brightest highlights and darkest shadows on the wall.

Flash light 600

The other reason we have trouble seeing the level of contrast around us in every day life helps explain why we often fail when we attempt to paint stronger contrast. We are literally ‘of two minds’ about the things we see. (At least two.) Part of our mind looks at things exactly as they are. There’s another part of our mind that adds our general knowledge and experience in to our view of what we see. It interprets the things we see with or into information it thinks we will find useful to performing various activities. That information is useful for a lot of areas of life, but it can be actively unhelpful when trying to create art.

Let’s return to my wall to see what I mean. The paint swatch shown above is the midtone colour. I know that’s the colour of the wall – I went to a bit of effort to pick it out! ;-> So when I look at the wall, part of my mind can see how light the colour of green is next to the window, and how dark the green is next to the corner of the wall. But the other part of my mind that knows what colour the wall is. That part is going to give me second doubts and pull me back from trying to paint highlights that stray too far away from that midtone colour by making me feel that they look ‘wrong’. That part of my mind is also the part that tends to be in charge for many day to day activities, so it’s really hard for the part of my brain that accurately sees the correct highlight colour to override the part that knows what colour the wall is. Or to put it in a different way, we spend so much time listening to the part of our mind that knows how things are that we have trouble trusting the part of our mind that more accurately sees things and using that in our art.

I don’t know if I’m explaining it very well, but this is why you have to fight yourself sometimes when you’re painting. First you have to push out of your current comfort zone and be willing to paint with more contrast. And as you do that, you also have to fight the part of your brain that is telling you what you’re painting looks wrong.

This is a similar idea to the principles and exercises of the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Many of the same issues affect our ability to use colour and value to best effect in our art, it’s not just about literal drawing. I mention that book because I suspect many will have at least some experience with it, but a book I would recommend as much or more is Your Artist’s Brain: Use the right side of your brain to draw and paint what you see – not what you think you see by Carl Purcell. Both of these books help explain what’s going on in our minds that can lead to things like the very common situation that we like miniatures other people paint that use quite a lot of contrast, but we have a lot of difficulty using that level of contrast on our own figures.

If you are already familiar with this idea and successfully pushing your contrast, keep reading for the advanced credit version of this post. Or skip to the bottom for a photo that isolates the main colours and values in the picture, and also links to more information on why you need to paint with more contrast, and some methods to actually do it.

Window light 3 cropSame view, but with some additional objects.

Once you start to get more comfortable with painting a more dramatic effect of lighting, the next step is to consider how different types of surfaces and textures are affected by the light, and attempt to render more of that in your painting.

Above is a view of the room scene that includes additional objects. The wall paint is an eggshell finish. The lampshade is a smooth shiny plastic, and the neck of the lamp is a dull metal. Notice that each of these surfaces reacts to the light in a much different way. The bright areas of highlight are smaller and much more sharply delineated from the midtones and shadows on the lamp than they are on the wall. There is a gentle transition from light to dark on the wall, whereas the light and dark areas appear in sharper bands on the lampshade and lamp neck.

The water sprayer and the fabric piece at the bottom of the photo appear much more evenly lit than either the lamp or the wall. They are made up of more matte materials than the wall paint or the lamp. You can see a subtle edge highlight on the fabric piece, and shadows on the white head of the sprayer, but the effect of light and shadow is not as dramatic.

Two things to note about the water bottle and fabric piece. One is that I would exaggerate the light and shadow on those objects if I were painting this scene on a miniature scale. It would be necessary to do so simply because of the smaller scale. Two, this is also an example of how photographs do not exactly capture real life. (And that I’m no great photographer or photo editor.) I adjusted the exposure and it’s a lot better than what I started with, but both objects appear much lighter in the photograph than they do looking at this scene in person. 

In the final photo below I have isolated the colours from several areas of the photograph so you can see their exact values. It is very likely that you interpreted some of these values as darker or lighter than they actually appear. This is another thing our eyes/brains do that can lead us astray in creating art! Note that the only true white in the following photo is on the captions for what each of the arrows point to. The background behind the text is neutral gray. So both of those give you points of comparison in judging the value of the isolated colour squares.

Window light labels cr 600

Links to Previous Articles on Contrast

More and less contrast demonstrated on the same figure.

Visual comparison of more and less contrast and lining on the same figure and between two figures.

Contrast versus Realism, and Why You Should Choose Contrast.

How to Paint with More Contrast Part I: Mindset.

How to Paint with More Contrast Part II: Visualizing Light and Methods of Paint Application.

Example of using lighting reference photo, then rough colour block-in, then details and refining on Caerindra Thistlemoore.

Example of using value mapping/grayscale (and freehand practice) on Sophie 2018.

Example of using value mapping/greyscale, then rough colour block-in, then details and refining on Dragon and Stocking.

Using a lighting reference photo, and the difference between cast and form shadows.

NOTE: Links are provided solely for the convenience of readers, I don’t have any affiliate links or anything like that.

Some Thoughts on Freehand

Freehand refers to patterns, pictures, text, or similar elements that are painted on a flat surface, as opposed to decorative elements that are sculpted into a figure and enhanced by paint techniques like washes. Freehand is a way to individualize your interpretation of a sculpt, and reflects the universal human urge to decorate ourselves and our surroundings.

Freehand vs sculpted exampleThe top shield is an example of sculpted detail. the design and letters are sculpted in strong relief on the shield. The quarters are sculpted into the bottom shield, but the trees were added with freehand – flat paint painted over flat paint.

Many types of freehand can be quite challenging to do on a miniature figure since it involves both drawing and doing it at a very small scale. As a result, miniature painters understandably tend to focus on the technical aspects of executing freehand. But sometimes that focus distracts us from taking more general artistic considerations into account. (These same considerations also apply to use of decals.)

What do I mean by artistic considerations? Your figure/scene should work together as a whole to illustrate a character or tell a story. This means choosing colours, textures, and elements like freehand that work together, and applying them in a way that enhances the whole. I think a lot of us don’t think of the figure as a whole that way. We want the whole thing to look cool, but we might start by thinking we want to paint the cloak this colour and the hair in that way without a lot of consideration into whether all of that would come together to a pleasing whole. Even when we do think more holistically, it is very easy to forget that big picture when you start working on the individual elements. Freehand is definitely something that can end up being a distraction or looking showy or unnatural.

Dancers front 800The sculpture/castings of these 54mm figures is a little rough. I chose to use a lot of freehand partly to distract from the rough spots, and also because it was germane to the character types. But to keep it from being too noisy I painted most of the freehand/texture as tone-on-tone. Although the silver trim on the man’s tunic is sculpted, it is an example of a distracting element. It is painted with a high level of contrast and in a colour much different than its surroundings so it draws the eye too much and becomes a bit of a distraction. Compare it with the more subdued gold trim on the woman’s sleeves and belt that better fits in with that figure overall.

Detail tends to draw the eye. On a simple humanoid figure that often works to our advantage. You have larger plain areas like clothing, armour, and weapons for the bulk of the figure. The face with its features becomes an area of detail that focuses the eye in the correct place for appreciating a character’s personality. (We also have a part of our brain that specifically looks for faces, so we’re naturally drawn to look for and at them and the effect is magnified.)

Freehand is detail, and outside of an occasional face tattoo, it tends to be applied to areas outside of the face. It takes one of the plainer areas like a piece of cloth and adds a lot of detail to it. That detail can draw the eye quite a bit. It can even compete with the face. I have talked to contest judges who dislike freehand that seems applied just to demonstrate the brush skills of the painter that ended up detracting from the piece being appreciated as a whole.

Rivani front 450The freehand detail on the sash and its bright white and red colours are both elements that draw the eye away from the face or appreciating the miniature more as a whole. I painted this to match artwork, but the artwork does not suffer from this issue. One reason is because Wayne Reynolds dulled the white down to more of a grey in his drawing, which kept the pattern lower contrast. Also because he’s Wayne Reynolds and pretty awesome at this art thing.

This was my dilemma painting the second succubus. She is seated on a cushion. It seemed like it would be visually interesting and appropriate to the character to have that be a decorated cushion. But how could I be sure to add freehand that would accent but not overpower the character?

One way is to give careful consideration to the question of colour, and this is a reason to spend a little time learning colour theory. Warmer colours draw the eye. More saturated colours draw the eye. The figure has warm reddish-pink skin. It is somewhat saturated but not a pure strong saturated colour. There is a touch of blue in the non-metallic metal jewelry. It is both less saturated and cooler. Since I already have red and blue, yellow would make a logical third main colour to add for a red-blue-yellow triadic colour scheme. I also have the loincloth to paint, so I need to figure out colours for that and the cushion. Golden yellow and a bit more blue seem like good choices, but I have to be careful. Yellow is warm colour, and in context to the figure a lot of yellows, even duller, darker yellows, would look very saturated.

Freehand practice and testsI often do tests and practice for trickier work like freehand. I practice first on a flat surface, and then on something similar to the surface I’ll be painting on the miniature. (Blog post on painting this figure.)

Here’s where relying on recipes can get you into trouble. I do have a gold non-metallic metal ‘recipe’ I use quite often. A satin or brocade cloth is also shiny so similar paints to NMM would seem to suit. My standard recipe is Mahogany Brown, Chestnut Gold, Palomino Gold, Buckskin, Linen White. Chestnut Gold and Palomino Gold are both less saturated than pure yellow. But they are also both as or more saturated than the colours I have on the main figure. In context they would look more intense and more yellow than they do in a general context. (I did not use this recipe as the gold for the jewelry on the first succubus for a similar reason.) If I don’t want the pillow to draw all the attention, it would be advisable to choose colours that are more brown with a touch of yellow than yellows that are a little muted. 

I might also want to keep the freehand subtle. Choosing a colour/value for the freehand that strongly contrasts to the fabric of the pillow will make the freehand stand out more. Letters, numerals, and identifiable symbols also strongly attract the viewer’s eye, and will distract them with wanting to read/interpret any symbols. Pictorial representations of faces, human(oid) figures, or even objects that are human made also tend to draw the eye.

Succ2 wip freehand1 600On the left is the initial stage of laying in the freehand pattern. Stage two is cleaning up the curving patterns. Stage three on the right is adding some dots to make the pattern look more complex and interesting.

Keeping all of that in mind, if I want to add a freehand element in this situation I might do well to use a more abstract design, and to make colour choices that are lower in contrast within the freehand, and/or lower in contrast to the main figure. I went with a tone-on-tone gold, using the same mixes of paints to paint both the cushion background fabric and the decorative design.

Succ2 wip freehand2 600While I didn’t want the pillow too saturated or bright a gold, it was a little dull as initially painted. For a final step I glazed with a yellow-brown colour to add richness and a bit more colour.

It helps to have in mind your purpose in adding freehand to a figure. Sometimes it might be required to fully expression your ideas for a character or scene – insignia or text on military and sci-fi characters, richly decorated clothing or scenic elements for a noble character. Sometimes we might wish to add it as a way of demonstrating our skills to the viewer, like for a contest entry. Occasionally we may even use it to obscure an area that is poorly sculpted or where we missed some divots or mould lines. Some of these purposes require specific types of freehand in specific areas of the figure, which we may need to balance by making other kinds of choices for the figure elsewhere.

Punk pattern comboExamples of freehand added to areas where it would have looked odd and more distracting to leave it off!

Colour Scheme for the Pillow:

Midtone basecoat: 9200 Harvest Brown
Shadow: 9137 Blackened Brown
Highlights: 29826 Desert Tan (out of production, 9256 Blond Shadow would likely work as well), 9257 Blond Hair, 9258 Blond Highlight
Glaze: 9314 Heartwood Brown

Figures in this Post and Where to Get Them

Sprout von Harvest II (metal) – Charity fundraiser figure for Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee
Baran Blacktree, Veteran Warrior (metal) – there’s a painting guide for this figure
Dancing couple – I do not know the manufacturer of these figures or if they are currently available for purchase
Rivani, Iconic Psychi (metal)
Masquerade Ball Sophie (metal) – Painting to Match Artwork, general Painting Process
Sir Malcolm, available in metal or in plastic.
The seated succubus is available for preorder in plastic by adding the Demonic Temptations add-on to your Bones 5 late pledge. The add-on includes three succubi and three incubi. Previous post on painting her skin.
Inspector #3 – Camille Van Towe
Inspector #2 – Johnson
Sid the Rockstar

Succubus Too Skin Too

I’ve been working on the skin of a second succubus from the Infernal Desires add-on of Bones 5. I asked myself what I might write about that, and two very different lines of thought came up. So I’m dividing this into two different posts.

One line of thought was a reflection on the differences in the experience between painting the skin of the first succubus and the second. You might imagine that those experiences would be pretty similar, and in a lot of ways they were. But there were also a lot of differences both in the process and in my feelings of success or frustration at various points during the process. (Pictured below are two of three succubi you can order by adding the Demonic Temptations add-on to your Bones 5 pledge. Also includes three incubi.)

Succ1 2 wip1 front 600Paint desk WIP pictures – good camera, meh lighting.

If I were writing an essay or a scholarly paper, that would be the introduction of my thesis. Then I would run through evidence and citations, and finish by summing up my conclusions. I assume blog readers are more interested in getting straight to the punch. :-> So I’m going to start with my general thoughts and then get more into the specific work-in-progress experiences that lead to them.

Here’s the TL:DR – sometimes you will find it challenging to do tasks you think you should be able to do easily. It is not helpful to beat yourself up for ‘failing’ to get the drybrushing or whatever correct in this instance. No technique, tool, or artist performs exactly the same all of the time. Instead of giving up or trying to force things, it is much more productive to try to adjust what you’re doing to increase your chance of getting a good result and/or to better enjoy the experience.

There are scores of variables that go into a painting experience – specific shapes of that figure, the brushes and paints, the weather and climate, the physical and emotional condition of the painter, I could go on and on. The main point I want to make is – we don’t consciously think about how much some of those factors can vary. We spend a lot of effort on finding the ‘right’ tools, but apart from an occasional bad brush or weird pot of paint, once we select our tools we assume they’re always pretty much the same and focus our attention on the process. If we find a process that works for us for how to put the paint on the figure, whether for a result like smooth blending or an effect like non-metallic metal (NMM), then we have learned how to do that thing and should be able to do it with relatively the same level of difficulty every time. (Or in fact believe it should get easier over time because we’re practicing so we should be getting better at it.)

Succ2 wip1 front 600Started with the legs again. But I felt like I couldn’t really judge whether the location and brightness of the highlights was correct.

In practice we find that is not always the case. Sometimes we sit down to paint and the process seems smooth and easy and the end result comes out well. Other times are a mire of failure and frustration. Most of the time is somewhere in the middle. But we’re doing everything the same! So the only variable we see is ourselves. Somehow we’re bad at this – bad at learning it, bad at doing it, just bad in some way or other. If you give a good painter their preferred tools and methods they surely have a much more uniform experience when working on familiar techniques or effects, right?

I think the only ‘bad’ thing you’re doing in this scenario is setting up a false expectation of how learning and performing a complex skill works. Absolutely the painter is a variable! But that’s not just about your ability to have learned the thing. How well rested and fed are you? Are your muscles sore from moving furniture yesterday? How much caffeine have you had lately? How’s your mood? Are you distracted with excitement over a happy event or frayed with worry over an unfortunate one? All of those things may or may not affect the end result of how what you paint looks that day, but they definitely will affect how you feel about the experience of painting.

Succ2 wip2 faceComing together a little more, but still having trouble judging value and placement of those highlights.

Then you have the question of variations in your environment. Some days the paint takes more or less time to dry. On those days you may have challenges with layering or wet blending or other techniques that require the paint to be at a certain level of wet or dry to work most successfully. People who travel to out-of-town conventions often notice the paint behaving differently since it’s a big change in environment, but there are smaller changes happening at home all the time, too.

The difference in shapes on miniatures is also not an inconsiderable variable. Painting a large relatively flat area with a smooth blending technique is going to be a lot more challenging than painting an area that is small and/or has more jagged shapes. If you’ve successfully painting NMM on jewelry, small weapons, and small armour plates but found it challenging on large flat swords or big armour plates, you’ll have experienced this. (Or the reverse with metallic paints, where they often look great on larger surfaces but don’t bring out fine detail of jewelry or filigree and such well.) The same is true for a lot of techniques and effects – some work better or worse on different kinds of texture and different sizes of area.

Succ2 wip3 face 600Blocking in all the areas and painting the hair dark helped make it much easier to see what range of values I needed and where to put them. Compare how much brighter and broader the highlights are between this and the preceding photo.

People tend to think of a line of paint as being very uniform in its properties, but paint can vary widely in how it feels, acts, and looks based on the pigments used to mix it. It’s not your imagination that it feels different to paint red versus white versus blue or whatever. (And there are many pigments of various hues, so it’s also not your imagination if this blue is easier to paint than that one.)

Succ2 wip3 front 600Different angle of the stage with blocked in values.

To me the takeaway from this is that the goal in learning should not be to expect to learn a process for something like painting skin and expect to be able to apply it the exact same way and obtain the exact same results every time. As you learn a process, learn it with the expectation that it is something that can be tweaked to adapt to conditions or the desired result. If you start painting and something about the process isn’t going well, don’t berate yourself for being ‘bad’ or grit your teeth that you have to accept it’s just going to suck this time.

Instead, think about ways to tweak and adapt the process. I think I was particularly aware of this idea in this situation because of the similarities. I was painting the same area of two very similar figures one after another. It seemed like it should have been a very similar experience. And in many ways, it was. In many other ways, it was interesting how many differences I noticed.

Succ2 wip3 top 600Bit of a closer view of the blocked in values. It’s not super rough, but it’s also not the level of smoothness I would want as an end result for this project.

One difference was how I felt about my paint colour recipe/choices. (More specifics about how I arrived at those are the other line of thought that will be in a different post.) I loved the skin colour I came up with for the first succubus. I was much less sure about the colour choices for the second. I kept going back and forth liking this but disliking that, not being sure if the value range went bright enough, etc.

Succ2 wip4 front 600For comparison, this is what it looked like after I smoothed out the transitions. (And added lining.)

My experience with how easy it was to paint those two skin colours was the reverse. While I loved the look of the first succubus skin, it felt annoying to paint those blends. Looking back on it, I’m not sure if there really was a big difference in the paint colour mixes. I’d have to paint the two them again the same day to really know I guess. It may just have been the case that I was out of practice with fiddly detail blending and not in the mood for it. It can be sort of zen if I get in the right frame of mind, but it’s slow and somewhat tedious and I suspect I would have been happier doing a quicker but more imperfect kind of painting on those days. (So switching to a different project or task is another way to adapt to circumstances!)

The experience of painting the skin on the second succubus felt much less onerous. But just the act of painting at all was a little challenging. I have been very fortunate in a lot of ways during this time of isolation, but I have days where I have a lot of trouble focusing on anything to any depth and for any length of time. I had a couple of days like that while working on the second succubus. I had to figure out what kind of video/audio I could listen to that would work to keep the unfocused part of my mind distracted enough to keep my butt in the chair.

Succ2 wip4 face 600Another view of the skin finished and with lining.

I’m taking the time to comment on my emotional response to painting the figures because it can help to remember that our feelings about the process of creating something can have a big impact in our feelings about that thing overall. You might feel more attached to something you’ve struggled over and judge it with a kinder eye. Or you might be so frustrated by something that felt like a chore to paint that nothing about it seems right to you. A viewer with no emotional attachment might look at those two figures and see not a great deal of difference in the painting skill demonstrated on them, but to you they can look very different. (This is one reason why it is so hard to accurately critique our own work!)

I used a pretty similar process to paint both – the layering technique using a lot of small steps between values of shadows and highlights with paint only slightly thinned from out of the bottle consistency. I used similar brush handling to make the smooth blends – stippling tiny amounts of paint of intervening values along visible transition lines. But I found myself making changes to how and where I applied that paint with those brushstrokes between the two figures. There were enough variables between them that it made sense to make some changes to my process to maximize my chances of success.

Succ2 wip4 back 600Finished skin, back view.

I started off painting the darker skin succubus in a similar way to the pale one. I started with the legs. Legs (and arms) are fairly simple structures, so they’re often a simpler surface to paint in terms of figuring out where the highlight and shadow areas would be located. They’re also less detailed, so if I had the colours wrong and needed to paint several more coats until I was happy with the colour selection, there was no danger of filling in detail as there might be with a face or hands. 

But I found myself feeling like I was unable to make good judgements of the paint on the first leg. Darker colours, including darker skin, generally require smaller and sharper highlights to keep the surface appearing dark overall. I started that way with the first leg, and I felt like the small highlights did not convey the form very well. An additional problem is that I was having trouble judging my value range. Were the highlights bright enough? It’s always hard to be completely sure on a partially painted miniature (another argument in favour of the sketching approach to painting), but I felt much less sure than I had with the pale skin version.

Succ2 wip4 left 600Finished skin, left view.

What form is and what we do with paint to create/enhance it is very much a topic for its own post. For now here’s a brief definition: Form is the three dimensional shape of an object. So in the case of the thigh, the general form is a cylinder. Bringing out the form of a cylinder involves painting shadow where it recedes (or you want it to appear to recede) from the viewer, and highlights where you want it to appear closest to the viewer. (As well as in a way that reflects the imagined lighting scenario.) And then within that general concept bringing out the forms of smaller muscle groups that are part of the thigh in a similar fashion. Basically I felt like the way I was painting didn’t really show the viewer the shape the thigh had been sculpted.

When I sat down to paint again I thought it might be helpful to shift my approach a little. I would take more of a sketch approach. I applied shadows and highlights over the entire body, but painted them in a looser way. The aim was to get the values placed approximately where I wanted them, but not stress the blending. (Which was the complete opposite to the pale skin succubus where I stressed the blending through the entire skin painting process!) I found that the lighter area of primer on the hair was a distraction so I painted it over with a dark value of paint. I might end up changing my mind on the actual colour of the hair, but having the intended dark value painted there was very helpful to being better able to assess the shadows and highlights on the skin.

Succ2 wip4 right 600Finished skin, right view.

Once everything was roughed in I could take a step back and assess the overall effect. Did the value range of dark to light seem sufficient and attractive? Did the placement of areas of light and areas of dark look good? Only once I could answer yes to those questions did it seem reasonable to spend the time and effort to create super smooth blends.

Since I would be working over a few days I once again used the palette and paint keeping process described in the previous succubus post. I used a similar number of layer step mixes. With this figure, I did use all of the shadow mixes, with only the very darkest being for lining.

Succ2 skin palettePalette of layer mixes used to paint the skin. Brightest pink in the top row used very sparingly. 

Skin base colour: 9602 Bruised Purple (this colour is not currently available, but can be ordered through a Bones 5 late pledge)
Skin shadow colours: 9307 Red Liner, 9066 Blue Liner
Skin highlight colours: 9283 Old West Rose, 9503 Sinspawn Pink

Now I just have to figure out how to paint the skin of the third succubus…

If you’d like to try your hand at these figures, join in the Bones 5 pledge manager and pick the Demonic Temptations add-on, which includes three succubi and a trio of incubi.