Efreeti Paint Process and Colours

There seems to be some interest in knowing more about how I painted the Efreeti figure for Reaper Miniatures March promotion. The promotion – for every $40 you spend at the Reaper site during the month of March, you will receive a free copy of this miniature, which can also be purchased separately. It is provided in Reaper’s new Bones Black plastic, and was also available as a selection in their fourth Kickstarter, which will be shipping out to backers soon. (So it’s available now during March, then will ship to Kickstarter backers, and then will be available on the website again at some point in the future.)

(NOTE: I will be attending the Cold Wars convention to teach classes until next week. I will try to approve comments and answer questions as best I can, but if my schedule or tech access doesn’t permit, I will catch up on them next week, promise!)

Efreeti front on black backgroundMy painted version of the Efreeti figure from Reaper Miniatures. This is a resin master copy, as the figure was not yet available in the Bones Black material at the time I was assigned to paint it.

Every miniature (with the possible exception of completely scratch sculpted figures) is a collaborative process, and that is certainly true of this one. It started with Izzy ‘Talin’ Collier’s fantastic concept art, which sculptor Bobby Jackson did a wonderful job of bringing to three dimensional life. Before I began painting, Reaper’s art director Ron Hawkins and I talked about his vision for the colours of the character. While I have played role-playing games for many years, I’ve played in a lot of low level and custom world campaigns, so I’m not as familiar with some of the classic creatures and characters of the RPG world as you might expect. As a result, I always like to collaborate with Ron to make sure I’m painting the classics in a classic way!. 

This was my colour brief – red skin on the darker side, hair with flame-like colours, and yellow metals for armour and accessories. So yellow, orange, and red, both in fully saturated form for hair and skin, and less saturated form for the metals. That sounded like a classic analogous colour scheme. An analogous scheme is one that uses 3-5 colours that are side by side to one another on the colour wheel. Because the colours are adjacent, they work very harmoniously with one another, and you can be confident that everything ‘goes’. What you lose in that colour scheme is the punch and pop you can achieve by pairing complementary colours – colours which are opposite one another on the colour wheel. Analogous colour schemes can be very effective in graphic design, and with certain subjects/approaches in traditional art forms. But when it comes to portraying something of any complexity, to me they seem a bit gimmicky or limited in the situations in which they work effectively.

Colour wheel showing red through yellow analogous colour schemeA colour wheel can be a handy tool to help you choose colours for painting a figure, and quick reference for useful concepts like complementary colours. I like that this one shows tones and tints as well as pure hues. There are also a lot of great pages and programs available online related to colour schemes and selection.

I was excited about the prospect of being able to try a true analogous scheme on a figure since I had never done it before. Neutral colours are generally considered apart from the colours that make up a colour scheme, so I added black to the colour options both for mixing shades and as a minor colour for leather straps, horns, and claws. This was also a departure – I very rarely use plain black to darken colours. I far prefer to use a dark blue, brown, purple, even green or red depending on what I’m shading. White was added to make the hottest part of the fire and for the top highlights on the metals.

I had a firm deadline for completing this figure, but a whole lot of outside life issues kept getting in the way (flu followed by literal flood, and that was after some other issues even getting started!) While I enjoy colour mixing in my traditional art studies, for miniatures I often prefer to use as many pre-mixed convenience colours as I can, supplemented with custom mixes of my own as necessary. This allows me to quickly get paint on my palette and refill as necessary if I start to run low on a mix. This figure is almost three times the size of a standard gaming miniature, which is a BIG figure for me. I definitely ran out of mixes as I was painting! (You can read a little more about paint choices, colour mixing, and convenience mixes in a previous blog post.)

IMG 5727The bottom row on the palette shows the value range and the intermediary mixes I used to paint the skin. After I had paint on everything I added one slightly brighter final highlight to a few small areas on the face. You can also see the corner of my reference photo over on the right, and some colour scheme test figures behind the Efreeti.

Before starting to paint, I did a little testing to pick my colours. I chose to go with a cooler red rather than a warmer red mix for the skin, and I also had my colours set for the hair from the outset. (A cooler red has a touch of blue, a warmer red is more orangey.) I did some Google searches for bronze items and picked out a few I liked the look of, then picked out some colours paint colours that matched. Since I was trying for the analogous scheme, I didn’t want to use colours that appeared to have green in them. I also didn’t want colours that were too yellow, since I wanted the bronze to look as distinct as possible from the gold. For that same reason, I picked out strong yellows and reddish browns for the gold areas. I will list the names of the paint colours I used at the bottom of this post for those who are interested.

Efreet test paintI tested several different versions of the red skin on a few of these Bones figures, which I love for testing! Once I had a skin colour I liked, I tested a hair colour. Then I began to paint on the Efreeti itself. I kept the test figure available to use to check on my choices for other areas of the figure, such as the cloth and bronze. Even very rough tests of a basecoat for the cloth and just roughing in highlights and shadows on the bracer for the bronze were useful to help me see if the colours worked together. You don’t have to know every colour you’ll use before you start painting, and you don’t have to have an ‘instinctive’ sense about colour to make successful colour choices. But it definitely helps a lot to be willing to test and play around!

Colour choices are just one part of the puzzle for why the skin of the figure looks like it does. I think the way that the skin seems to glow a little is strongly impacted by the depth of the shadows, and the degree to which I painted in the shadows. I didn’t want the skin to be much lighter in value than a bright red/dark orange. Using white and yellow only in the hair would separate the two areas visually more effectively and help the hair read better as fire-like. The shadows of the skin are nearly black in the darkest areas, and there is a fairly large proportion of shadow. The lightest areas are in a circle on the right side that includes most of the face, the right arm and hand, and the right unarmoured hip. The highlights on the armoured leg are almost, but not quite as bright as those. Throughout the skin there are strong areas of shadow next to areas of light – light on the cheekbones, very dark in the hollows under the cheeks and the chin and neck. Very light at the top of the right hip, shading down to near black above the knee. Even darker on the opposite leg, so although the highlight there is not as bright in value as the face and hip, it looks pretty bright. 

Efreeti front on gray backgroundThe background you use to photograph miniatures can have a surprisingly significant effect on the end result, both in terms of how your camera may perceive colours, and the mood that is created for the viewer. This photo on a grey background is less dramatic, but the colours are probably a little more accurate.

As I’ve mentioned in some previous posts, it is increasingly my preference to try to separate out some of the steps or considerations of painting as much as I can. To ask yourself to think mentally about where the shadows/lights should go based on your light source, at the same time as placing them on the actual figure with paint, while at the same time trying to achieve a smooth blend or create a texture is like juggling a bunch of balls in the air at the same time. It can be done with a lot of practice and/or luck, but more often than not you’re likely to be dropping balls all over the place. You’ll have a much easier time with just two balls, or even just bouncing one ball back and forth against a wall.

My first step was to take a photograph of the figure under a strong light. I chose to make the direction of my light source above and to the right from the orientation of this photograph, and I took pictures with this lighting from several angles. (I think I’d like to get a lazy Susan type thing to make this easier to do!) This showed me where my main areas of light and shadow would fall on the figure. If you compare the reference photo below to how I painted the skin, you’ll see that I followed the placement shown in my reference photos pretty closely. Skin has a sheen but is not a strongly reflective surface, so a photograph of a resin figure seemed a pretty good guide to how skin would work, and likewise a good guideline for this type of non-shiny fabric. For the shiny metal surfaces, I had to extrapolate and use my imagination a lot more. In all areas I fudged or exaggerated whenever it seemed like it would look more visually interesting or effective to do so. As an example – the light falling on the right foot is about as light in value as that falling on the right hip in my reference photo. I chose to paint the foot darker because it is not a strong area of interest and should not be competing with the hip and the face for attention. The skin of the left arm is more heavily shadowed in my lighting reference photo, and I initially painted it that way, but I lightened it up a little because that area seemed too dull and indistinct when looking at the figure.

Efreeti front light refence photoThe unprimed resin figure illuminated by a single small light source placed above and to the right. The soft transition from light grey to near black on the right thigh is an example of a form shadow (see below). The sharp line across the right arm under the shoulder pad or the diagonal line of shadow on the left sword are examples of cast shadows.

For the past few months I’ve been studying shadows in traditional art. In particular, I’ve studied cast versus form shadows. Shadows occur where light is occluded from falling on a surface. When you stand out in the sun your body blocks the light of the sun from falling on the area where your shadow appears. That is a cast shadow, and there is a noticeable line around its edge that separates it from the area where the light is illuminating the surrounding surfaces. If you hold your arm out in the sun or a room with a ceiling light, you’ll see that your arm appears lighter on the top where it faces the light, and the skin that slopes down towards the underside of your arm appears to darken gradually. That transition from lit area to dark shadow area is a form shadow, and it is generally very soft and gradual, rather than having the sharper line or edge that defines a cast shadow.

As I was starting to paint this figure, I got to thinking that in miniature painting, we generally emphasize painting form shadows – those gradual transitions that show rounded forms sloping away from the light. But unless we’re painting figures that depict and emphasize the light source within the scene, we rarely paint cast shadows. I suspect this is because we look at miniatures in the round in a variety of lighting conditions. Cast shadows define the imagined light source more strongly and may look odd from certain angles or if the viewer has light coming from other angles. Also cast shadows tend to have hard edges, which require more precise placement to appear correct to the viewer. One of the exceptions to this is lining. One of the reasons lining often looks more natural than you might imagine is because there often is a ‘dividing line’ between overlapping surfaces that is created by cast shadows. If you look at a sleeve overhanging an arm, you’ll see the sleeve casts a thin line of shadow just below itself – a cast shadow that we paint as a line. You can even see this on the reference photo above – the thin dark line between the bracer on her right arm and the hand below it.

Drawing demonstrating different types of shadows and edgesThis is a reference diagram from my study of shadows and edges in traditional art that hopefully demonstrates a form shadow versus a cast shadow. The light is coming from above and to the left.

Important note! There are definitely miniature painters that paint cast shadows! Even apart from the example of the many painters who have painted shadows on the ground/basing when painting source light scenes. Alphonso Giraldes (Banshee) has done it, Aythami Alonso Torrent (NotOriginalMinis) has a short video demonstrating it, and I’m sure there are many, many, many others. I’m not under any illusion that I’ve invented anything unique here! I’m just exploring the idea that I think we emphasize form shadows and smooth transitions in miniature painting, and rarely paint the more sharply defined cast shadows.

Because yellows, oranges, and reds are not the best coverage paints, I decided against doing a grisaille primer approach or something similar. Instead I blocked in the main shadows and lights with the colours I intended to use on the skin and armour. For this figure, I decided I wanted to more actively paint in cast shadows. If you compare the figure to the reference photo, you’ll likely spot areas where I did this. It is most noticeable on the right arm, where I painted both the shadow cast by the large overhanging shoulder plate, and another area of shadow cast by the contour of the bracer. 

Efreeti WIP pictureIn this photo you can see the block in version of the bronze armour and swords. Blends are rough, and I haven’t added the brightest highlights or darkest shadows, or done any lining between the scale plates, nor any other kind of detailing. The goal is just to lay in an idea of where the big areas of dark, light, and midtones go.

Efreeti WIP pciture 2This is further along in the process. I’ve completed the gold non-metallic metal, and I’m starting to work on refining the bronze. I’ve finished the scale armour section on the bracer and her right breast. I’ve increased the contrast on the swords, but will do a bit more work on that as well as refining the blends. The placement of highlights and shadows on the metal areas is a little less straightforward than just following the reference photo, since super shiny surfaces behave differently than matte ones. You may find this video helpful.

In general I suspect that the shadows on the skin look natural enough that people might be (consciously or subconsciously) reading them as being partly paint, partly naturally occurring from an overhead light source. I have set up my photo area to cast as flat of light as possible so as to create as few shadows on the figure as possible. If you look around the area of the base in the finished photos near the top of this post (or scroll down a little), you’ll see only faint shadow cast around the base of the figure. The very dark areas next to the skirt are painted shadows, and my willingness to go down to near black there (and to follow a reference photo to help me visualize where things should be placed) is what makes the lighter areas of the skin appear to glow or pop. Committing to the cast shadows only enhanced the effect of that I think.

So how did an analogous colour scheme work out for me? In the end, I’m not entirely sure whether or not this piece qualifies as one. The purple colour on the skirt was mixed by adding gray to my darkest red (and then using a very close match pre-bottled colour for simplicity.) But in the final stages of painting I added a glaze of a true purple colour in the shadows of the skin, cloth, and gold NMM. It is hard for me to paint without using purple! Although I was attempting to avoid using any paints that seemed to have any blue or green in them,  I didn’t mix the NMM colours from my basic colour set, so I can’t guarantee they could all be achieved from my analogous colours plus black and white. Perhaps I will try an analogous scheme again in the future and conform to it more strictly, but in this case it was more important to me to make the piece as interesting and well done as I could manage given my time limitations.

Special thanks to Jen Greenwald for her suggestion for a way to paint glowing eyes that I’m quite happy with. If you like work in progress pictures and frequent updates, you’ll enjoy her blog a lot more than mine. :->

Scale picture of EfreetiOne more picture, this one indicating the scale of the figure. She’s big! But Sir Forescale doesn’t mind dating a taller woman, he’s secure in his masculinity. 

Paint Colours

All colours used are Reaper Master Series Paints unless otherwise noted.

Colours in italics are out of production or special edition colours not currently for sale. You can approximate Bruished Purple by adding Stormy Grey to Crimson Red. Garnet Red is a cool red with a value between Crimson and Brilliant, and several MSP colours should work in its place.

Colours marked * are currently unavailable and were previously part of the MSP HD line. They will be available in the near future as part of the Bones HD line.

Colours are listed from darkest to lightest. Bolded colour is the closest approximate midtone. Note that there may be intermediary steps of colours mixed together to create smoother blends.

Skin: Solid Black* + Crimson Red*, Crimson Red*, Garnet Red, Brilliant Red*, Red Neon Glow (pre-release colour, will be available soon), touch of Lava Orange + Linen White, glaze in the shadow areas with Imperial Purple

Bronze Non-Metallic Metal: Solid Black* + Woodstain Brown, Woodstain Brown, Tanned Leather, Blond Hair, Blond Highlight, Linen White

Gold Non-Metallic Metal: Solid Black* + Bruised Purple, Bruised Purple, Chestnut Brown, Chestnut Gold, Palomino Gold, NMM Gold Highlight, Blond Highlight, Linen White

Skirt: Solid Black* + Bruised Purple, Bruised Purple, Linen White + Bruised Purple

Hair: Crimson Red*, Garnet Red, Brilliant Red*, Lava Orange, Fire Orange, Lantern Yellow, Candlelight Yellow, Lemon Yellow, Pure White

Horns: Solid Black*, Dusky Shadow, Dusky Skin, Dusky Highlight, Vampiric Shadow, Vampiric Skin, Vampiric Highlight

Bone carved skulls: Same mixes as the horns, but emphasizing the lighter end of the colours. Glaze with Bone Shadow

Base: Grays mixed from Solid Black* and Pure White, glazed with colours used elsewhere on the figure

How to Paint Contrast – Hands On

In this post about how to paint miniatures with more contrast, I’m going to discuss technique and paint application ideas for how to increase the level of contrast that you paint into the shadows and highlights of your miniature figures. 

If you haven’t read the previous post about how to paint with more contrast, you will find it here: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/10/06/how-to-paint-contrast-mind-games/

The blog reader stats tell me that a lot of you haven’t read that post. I would like to strongly encourage you to do so. The mental goal to push contrast is as important or more so as anything you will find here. One of the things you’ll find over in that other post is larger pictures of the following figures. The before/after pictures on the left date from 2008-2009. Those on the right date from 2015. I didn’t just try to paint with more contrast once or even over the span of a year or two and then it just clicked and I started to be able to paint that wayon every figure. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have photos to show from such a span of years. Painting with more contrast doesn’t have that much to do with tools – I was using the same set of quality tools throughout that timespan. It doesn’t even have much to do with specific techniques or brush skills. My painting ability did improve over that span – I would not have been able to paint the freehand details on the 2015 figure in 2008. But there I was making the same old lack of contrast mistake in 2015 as in 2008. 

The root causes have more to do with my failure to stay focused on the necessity of contrast, and the need to better train my artist’s eye to judge whether or not something has enough contrast. I’m a slow learner sometimes! One of the reasons I’m sharing these kinds of things on this blog is that I am hoping to spare other people some of the time and annoyance I’ve spent along the path of learning. And the previous post has a lot of helpful tips on this topic!

More contrastSeeing these at this smaller size is a good reminder of why we need to paint with contrast – gaming figures are small! We need to add dramatic shadows and highlights for their details to be visible to the viewer, and to make them more interesting to look at. Click over to this post for larger versions of these pictures: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/10/06/how-to-paint-contrast-mind-games/

NOTE: I am going to use the word value a lot. When talking about colour, value refers to the lightness or darkness of the colour. White is the lightest value, and black is the darkest value. Pale pink is a light value of red, brick is a midtone value of red, and a deep wine colour is a dark value of red.

Check and Reflect

A simple but important thing that leads us astray with contrast is that you can’t accurately judge the level of contrast on the various areas of your figure until you have mostly finished painting it. Both black and white primers are extremes of contrast that will throw off your perception of the contrast as long as any primer remains in view. (For example, try painting the same midtone colour like a tanned Caucasian skin colour onto a black primed and a white primed figure. It will look pretty pale on one, and fairly dark on the other.)  Even after you put in all your base coats and cover up all the primer, the contrast level on the miniature will look different with shadows and highlights painted into all areas. So my first tip is to  paint to the point where you’re finished or almost finished and then take a final look at the figure. And be willing to do touchups and adjustments as necessary.

It can be helpful to leave the figure to sit for a day or three before making that final assessment. It can also help to take photos, and then look at those scaled to a smaller size as well as a larger size so you can check both contrast and look for stray paint strokes or other detail level mistakes. This is a big part of what went wrong with the figures above. I declared them done and didn’t really take a moment away from them and then come back for a close look to assess the overall effect. When I did take a close look some time later, it became obvious to me that the level of contrast was far too weak.

Now let’s discuss some methods you can use earlier in the painting process in order to try to minimize how much you need to adjust at the end. These are going to be a quick overview – each of these tips could be expanded to be a blog post in their own right!

Make a Photo Reference

If you have trouble visualizing where to place the shadows and highlights, take a picture for reference. If possible, take it in a dimly lit room. Position a small bright light close to the figure in the direction you’d like to have your imagined light source. I use a small and inexpensive LED light. Experiment with different sizes and brightness of lights for different effects. Remember to take pictures from a few different angles so you’ll have something to refer to as you paint all the areas of the figure. Keep the light in the same orientation to the miniature when taking the photos from different angles – if you turn or move the figure, you’ll need to turn or move the light. If the miniature is metal or a very light or dark coloured plastic, you might want to prime it in a more neutral gray colour before taking your reference photos. These kinds of pictures make an excellent guide, but remember that different materials reflect light in different ways, so some will have higher levels of contrast than what appears in your pictures. Metal or hair, for example, are very shiny, so you will need to exaggerate the lights and shadows even more on areas you want to have look as if made of those materials.

Lighting on primed figure compared to painted figure.Photos like these are a helpful helpful reference. They can help you keep areas of light and dark in mind even while you’re distracted by other concerns like blending, and thus help you paint with more contrast. Notice the difference between the leg nearer the light and the one further back. Also note that there is less contrast in a more matte material like the leather, but I painted a higher degree of contrast on the shiny metal armor plates and dagger.

Zenithal Priming

Zenithal priming is a way to apply a reference to the location of your light source directly to the miniature itself. With this method you prime or paint the entire figure black. Then you spray white primer/paint ONLY from the direction of your light source. (Some people do an intermediary step of spraying gray paint/primer to add the midtone values.) The result allows you to easily see where light hits the figure strongly (white areas), or doesn’t hit the figure much at all (black areas), as well as the in between sections that should be midtone values . You can use this as a ‘map’ for where to apply colour by applying opaque layers of paint in the correct value over the zenithal prime. Or you can glaze transparent colours over the established values to add colour to the figure. (A glaze is paint heavily thinned down with water, but applied in a controlled fashion rather than allowed to pool as with a wash.)

Miniatures painted with glazes over zenithal priming have good contrast within each area, but can lack contrast between each of the areas. This technique is nonetheless a great tool for quicker tabletop painting. And you can compensate slightly by adding other types of contrast, like using complementary colours on adjacent areas. (I’ll cover colour contrast in future posts.) If you try this technique, you may find that you need to apply some opaque highlights in the brightest areas to get maximum pop and contrast. (Note that you can also take pictures of the miniature after zenithal priming but before applying paint so you still have a reference in case you lose track of where the shadows and highlights should be while painting.

If you’d like to know more about methods of zenithal priming using spray primer, airbrush, or brushing by hand, check out this excellent video by Metalhead Minis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=88rMH25y-2E&feature=share. NOTE to painters of Bones miniatures: I do not recommend using spray primer on Bones. It often fails to cure and remains tacky to the touch. Applying paint via an airbrush is the best way to zenithal spray ‘prime’ Bones figures.

Example of glaze painted over zenithal priming.This figure was zenithal primed with spray primers. Use of spray cans creates a speckled appearance of the white over black in the midtone areas. You can reduce that appearance a little by adding grey in the middle step, or smooth it out by touching up the figure by hand with some thinned white and thinned black. Spraying with an airbrush has a smoother look. For the next step, layers of transparent paint were glazed over the underlying values on the cloak – dark reddish-purple in the shadows, red in the midtones, and a little orange in the highlight areas. Then a more opaque highlight was added in just a few spots that would be receive a lot of light. This figure is from a painting class I took with Eric Louchard many years ago.

Underpainting: Value Mapping

Zenithal priming is a method of underpainting, but there are other options for underpainting. Sometimes I roughly block in the midtone, shadow, and highlight values of the major areas on my figure using black, white, and grey brush-on primer. I do this to create a ‘value map’ for myself to follow when I start applying the colour. During the value mapping stage I am just concentrating on contrast and value – trying to make the midtones of adjacent areas different enough from one another, and blocking in the appropriate shadow and highlight contrast based on the location of the light and the texture of the material in each area. Then I apply opaque colour directly over the map, matching the placement of my shadow, midtone, and highlight colours to the locations I picked out for them in the value map stage. Once the primary values are placed where they should be, then I can concentrate on blending, and after that worry about the fine details.

Value map and fully painted version of a figure.In the value map version on the left, you can see that I am not very worried about blending, and I’m completely ignoring details. My goal is to establish the midtone, shadow, and highlight values on the large areas of the figure. This method does rely on you following the map, which I can see now that I failed to do on the bodice area. But it also leaves you the freedom to adjust and embellish as you see fit – I altered the midtone colour on the skirt from my original map, as well as painting it as more of a gauzy textured material.

For more details on my value mapping method, please see my post on painting ReaperCon Sophie 2018: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/09/06/reapercon-2018-sophie-painting-process/

I also have written a PDF that will be released by Reaper that goes into a little more detail on the process I used with Sophie and a few other figures. I’ll link it here once it’s available, as well as mention it in the comments and likely in a future post.

In the traditional art world, what I’m doing is equivalent to a value study. A value study is a quick sketch or painting of a subject or scene that concentrates on the values (the darks and lights) of the subject. This is done as a way to familiarize yourself with the subject and to assess if the composition is eye-catching. The artist can refer to the value study during the drawing/painting process of the final work to ensure that they are capturing the full range of shadow and light they saw on their subject. It forces the artist to look at the big picture of the contrast before they get lost in painting colour and details. My use of brush-on primer to map values is a similar thing, I’m just doing it on the same surface that I will do my final painting over. (Again, taking photos of the value map stage is probably a good idea since I’ll be painting over the reference on my miniature. You could also have two copies of the figure and paint the value study on one and the full colour paint on the other.)

Here is a site with a good visual example of a simple value study: https://www.dorian-iten.com/value-study/

This site demonstrates how even something that looks super sketchy and rough can be valuable to a well-executed end result: https://www.davidmkessler.com/blog/23789/value-studies-the-artists-essential-tool

Underpainting: Notan

Notan is a Japanese word meaning ‘light-dark balance’. (Supposedly, honestly I have no idea how much of the interpretation I’m discussing of the concept is appropriation by the Western art world, but there is certainly a strong tradition of black and white traditional art and graphic elements in Japan.) In its purest form, Notan interprets a scene or subject in black and white only. This Blues Brothers graphic is an excellent example: 

The Blues Brothers in black and whiteClassic Notan – everything in the image is either black, or white.

For me, at least, that idea is a little challenging to apply to miniatures. Luckily people also create Notan using three or four values. So if using only two values seems to challenging, consider using white, black, and one or two values of gray to create a Notan on your figures. This is very similar to the idea of value mapping, but you don’t worry about blending in even a rudimentary way. You just make notes on the figure with paint about where you want to apply highlights, shadows, and midtones. I put my the lighting reference photo shown earlier into a Notan app and applied a three value filter to give you an example of what that would look like.

Reference photo of Tara the Silent with three value Notan applied by Notanizer app Note that I did not have the app at the time of painting this figure, I just wanted to give you an example of what using the app on a reference lighting photo might look like.

The following is an example of my attempt to apply Notan underpainting to a miniature figure. After taking pictures illuminating the figure with an in-scale light, I applied areas of black and white over the gray primer to block in a Notan value map. Notice that there is no attempt to blend whatsoever. I’m just trying to establish where I want things much lighter and much darker. After that I applied blocks of opaque colours over those maps, placing my highlight colours over the white, midtone colours over the gray, and shadow colours over the black. Then I worked on blending the edges where each section met.

Photo of Tara the Silent with Notan value mappingThis was my attempt to apply the Notan concept to a figure. This was my interpretation of the placement of light and shadow based on my lighting reference photo, I did not have an app that could apply Notan filters at the time. Notice that there is no blending in this kind of value map, just a very clear indication of where things should be lighter, darker, or somewhere in the middle.

A discussion of classic Notan: https://blog.mitchalbala.com/the-wisdom-of-notan/

Using three and four value Notan: https://www.finearttips.com/2017/05/using-japanese-notan-design-principles-for-plein-air-painting/

There is an app for that! The app that I mentioned, Notanizer, is available for various operating systems. This site shows you how the app works and includes links. Try it out on some photos of miniatures painted by painters you admire to give you a better idea of how to apply better contrast to your miniatures: https://blog.mitchalbala.com/compositional-studies-with-the-notanizer-app/

Underpainting: Grisaille

It is also possible to apply the idea of zenithal priming/value mapping in a much more finished way. With this method you use a wide range of grays as well as black and white to paint the figure to a high level of polish and detail, and then apply thin coats of transparent paint over that to introduce colour. Given the nature of acrylic paint and how pigment colours behave, you would likely also need to apply some more opaque layers of paint, particularly for the top level highlights, but also possibly in other areas. 

Noir detective front 450This figure was painted as a black and white noir detective, but you could also use this approach as a grisaille under painting. After completing this step, I could add transparent layers of paint to introduce skin tone, hair colour, etc. 

Grisaille is also a well-established technique in the traditional art world, particularly for oil painting. Again, the purpose is exactly the same as what we’re trying to do with our figures – ensure that the contrast level range between the darkest and lightest values is large enough enough and pleasing to look at. 

For a quick visual example of grisaille underpainting covered over with colour, click here: http://www.artopiamagazine.com/artopia-magazine/make-your-paintings-pop-with-grisaille-and-underpainting

And another example here: http://www.muddycolors.com/2017/08/what-lies-beneath/

If you’re interested in studying more about how this is used in the traditional art world, here are some search terms: underpainting, grisaille, brunaille, verdaccio, verdaille. (Grisaille is when it’s done with grayscale, brunaille with brown colours, and verdaccio/verdaille with greens, which can be quite effective under skin tones.

Underpainting: Sketching and Sketch Style

In the miniature painting world painters have recently begun using terms like sketching or sketch style to describe variations of underpainting applied to miniatures. Alfonso Giraldes (Banshee) often paints with a sketch approach, and Matt DiPietro has adapted that approach into what he calls sketch style. For tabletop painting I believe Matt uses zenithal priming or something very similar. For display level work, I think Alfonso and Matt more often sketch in colour, something more like a colour block in or ebauche. (Discussed more below.) 

Block in Values with Colour

I recommend trying some of the monochrome underpainting methods out because separating the stage where you work on values out from working on colour and blending helps to make it much easier to keep your focus on building higher contrast in your values. But it is possible to do something similar with colour. The idea with this is to rough in your values similarly to the value mapping or Notan methods above, but using mixes of various values of your colours. At this stage you do NOT worry about blending or details. Just try to get the shadows, midtones, and highlights roughed in to their correct locations on the major areas of the figure. Then you can get a better idea of how things work as a whole and whether you need to tweak some areas to be lighter or darker before you put a lot of work into blending and detail painting. This is a way around the issue I mentioned up at the top in the Check and Reflect section – you can’t really judge whether the contrast range of your values is correct until you get the majority of them painted on your figure. 

This kind of blocking in is the idea behind the technique called sketching that Alfonso Giraldes, Matt DiPietro, and other miniature painters often employ, particularly the European painters. Get an overview of your big picture blocked in quickly to make sure the colour and value choices work before investing a lot of time into the work. This can also be a useful method for speed painting or tabletop painting. You work on the big picture, then start to refine blending and details, stopping at any point where you’ve invested as much time into that miniature as you can afford.

EDIT TO ADD: I have an example of blocking in that I did in this PDF from Reaper, which also includes more information on painting lights and shadows to match a directional light source: http://www.reapermini.com/images/dungeondwellers/07002_BaranBlacktree_PG_low.pdf

Life Miniatures has some excellent tutorials demonstrating one kind of block in approach for major shadows and highlights followed by blending the transitions. (This particular approach is called planar painting, where each plane of the three dimensional object is painted the appropriate value based on the direction of the light source.) I recommend scanning through all of the tutorials, as each demonstrates some of the points better than the others in some respects. Each of the tutorials has a ton of photos. https://www.lifeminiatures.com/step-by-step

And at this point it probably won’t come as a shock to learn that this is something else practiced in traditional painting. You can get an overview with some nice examples of block in compared to finished painting here: https://seattleartistleague.com/2016/10/21/blocking-in/

You can also read about a traditional art technique of underpainting with colour called the ébauche here: https://www.jeffhayes.com/techniques-of-painting/ebauche-underpainting-dulled-colors/ (The videos linked from that page seem to have been taken down unfortunately.)

Additional Resources

Whew, that is a lot of information to parse! So I think that I should bring this post to a close. I have had some questions in response to my first post about contrast that were really more related to blending. It is definitely more challenging to create smooth transitions when you have a more extreme range between your darkest shadow and lightest highlight. So you aren’t necessarily doing anything ‘wrong’ if you find that happening! I am considering whether to write a post with some tips for blending. I generally reserve extensive discussion of blending for convention painting classes where I can easily demonstrate the techniques and brush handling that I use. In the meantime, here are some additional resources you might find useful.

I have written two Learn to Paint kits for Reaper Miniatures. The first covers the core skills of drybrushing and washing. The second is an overview of my methods for blending – layering and glazing.  You can find that kit at this link, from your local retailer, or numerous online shops: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/learn%20to%20paint/sku-down/08907

Layering is not the only method for blending, though for a variety of reasons I do think it is useful for every painter to learn. Anthony Rodriguez (Pirate Monkey Painting) has a good overview of the major blending techniques (including layering) on this site. His full length videos have been lost (he’s recreating these on Patreon I believe), but the text articles under the Brushwork Technique Articles heading include animated gifs that are great illustrations of the techniques: https://piratemonkeypainting.wordpress.com/2017/01/21/pirate-monkey-painting-basics-layering/

Remember – ultimately the contrast is more important than the blending!

Figures Appearing in this Post:

Dionne, Werewolf Hunter by Hasslefree Miniatures: https://www.hfminis.co.uk/shop?product=dionne~hfa015&category=modern-%26%0D%0Apost%252dapoc~modern-adventurers
Wood Elf Goddess Avatar Form by Dark Sword Miniatures: https://www.darkswordminiatures.com/shop/index.php/miniatures/visions-in-fantasy/wood-elf-goddess-avatar-form.html
Tara the Silent by Reaper Miniatures, special edition figure not currently available: http://www.reapermini.com/Miniatures/Special%20Edition%20Figures/sku-down/01602
Unknown figure by Sandra Garrity (possibly an Adiken figure)
Camille from the Barglemore and Camille pack, special edition figure currently available for a limited time by Reaper Miniatures: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/01626/latest/01626
Deadlands Noir Occult Detective by Reaper: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/deadlands%20noir/sku-down/59039