Drybrush Brush Tests #1: Billowing Cloak Folds

When I started my Beyond the Kit stream on the Reaper Miniatures Twitch channel, one of my goals was to encourage a spirit of exploration both in my viewers, and in myself. The Core Skills learn to paint kit that I wrote for Reaper includes the technique of drybrushing, so I thought experimenting with it would be a great way to literally explore beyond the kit. The first experimental question that came to mind is: Does the brush you use make much of a difference to your drybrushing result?

Malcolm groupSix figures and a bunch of brushes stepped into the ring.

I designed an experiment to see whether different types and sizes of brushes might give different kinds of results on different types of sculpted surfaces.  Drybrushing is generally considered a good technique for strongly textured surfaces like rocks, chainmail, wood grain, and so on. It can be more frustrating to use on smoother surfaces like cloth and skin since the results often look uneven, streaky, or chalky.

I’m sharing the results of my experiments in case they’re useful to others, but also to encourage you to explore and experiment with your own hobby materials. Experiment with brushes you already have but haven’t used for drybrushing before you buy new ones. Also, consider how the results might differ if you use different application techniques or approaches to lighting.

The other main technique that I cover in the Cores Skills kit is washes. I’ve conducted a couple of previous tests with washes, mainly focused on the effect of combining different wash colours with a more or less saturated base colour. (Wash test one, wash test two.)

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A Note on the Video(s)

I had hoped to be able to link to the YouTube upload of the video so you could see the brushes in action and how I used them. Unfortunately the save files of the videos for both the first and second experiments had issues and cannot be uploaded. The video for the third experiment is available. This experiment was on a textured stone wall, so it’s a different kind of surface, but you can at least see the tools and my approach to using them.

If you’d like to see me make a new video testing drybrushing on smooth cloth, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to put one together!

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The Seed of the Experiment

For a while I’d been hearing that soft makeup brushes were a great tool for drybrushing. A year or so ago I got curious enough to buy a cheap set off Amazon. I didn’t have time to explore them in depth, but I was encouraged by my initial use. The larger, softer brushes seemed both easier and quicker to use than the smaller, stiffer flats typically recommended for drybrushing miniatures. I did a quick test with my favourite blending test subject, Anirion the elf wizard. The version on the left was painted with smaller flat brushes, and the figure on the right was painted with a huge fluffy makeup brush.

Ani flat vs makeup backLeft side: small flat brush, right side huge fluffy makeup brush. Brush 4 in the list below.

The right side isn’t wildly smoother, but it has a more even distribution of colours, is slightly smoother, and was much quicker to paint. It got me thinking that there is something to this makeup brush idea!

Ani flat vs makeup frontLeft side: small flat brush, right side huge fluffy makeup brush. Brush 4 in the list below.

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Setting Up the Experiment

When I decided to put together some drybrushing test episodes for Beyond the Kit, I wanted to include as broad a range of brushes as possible. Between my general art interests and my habit of collecting a lot of art supplies, I have a lot of brushes! My curiosity also drove me to purchase a new style of brush that is advertised as being specifically designed for drybrushing miniatures.

I selected the cloak of Malcolm Lightbringer as my first test surface. This cloak is a mix of flatter and rounded surfaces, with some well-defined recesses and peaks. I also already have smoothly blended versions of it to compare the drybrushing versions against. After the mixups during my previous wash experiments, I labeled both the figures and their holders so it would be easy to identify which figure was painted with which tool during and after the experiment!

Malcolm group holderThe test figures right after completing the experiment.

I chose to use the same paint colours I had used on my smooth blended copies of Malcolm for easier comparison. I’ll discuss more specifics of the paint mixes in the process section below. I used Reaper MSP paints. These are a fairly fluid consistency paint. Paint viscosity would be another variable to experiment with for drybrushing. Even with these more fluid paints I might find I need to add a little water or medium to pale opaque colours that have a lot of white in them to help avoid a chalky look, or if I’m using older paints that have thickened up a little.

I used a wet palette for this painting session. I use a dry palette in the second experiment.

Since this was a test of drybrushing, I did not use any washes. I basecoated the figures with the darkest shadow colour. I do not think the shapes of this cloak are very amenable to an attractive result when adding shadows with uncontrolled washes.

I used the same general process and approach with each of the figures and brushes. I found that it was optimal to use a larger brush for the main area of the cloak, and a smaller brush on the smaller folds on the hood and shoulders. However, in some cases I had only one size of a type of brush, or I had to use a different shape for a smaller brush, so the comparison of the effect on the hoods isn’t as accurate as the comparisons between the results on the main cloak area.

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My Painting Process

I think a lot of us view drybrushing as a simple technique without much variation. I think there are definitely some variations to how you can load, unload, and in particular, apply the paint, so I want to be clear about the approach that I used in testing the various brushes on these figures. (I have written a more hands-on how to for washes and drybrushing in the Core Skills learn to paint kit if you’re new to these techniques.)

Proof of Concept Approach
With these tests I was aiming to get an idea of how the brushes work and the kind of results that might be possible with them. I was not trying to paint each figure to the best possible standard I could. I think of this as a proof of concept approach, and often use it to do tests for colours or textures I want to paint before applying them to a miniature I plan to spend a lot of time on. With this approach I’m trying to get an idea of the best result that might be possible, not actually achieve that result. At the end of the general experiments I may take a few of the most successful brushes and paint a few miniatures with more care to see what quality of a result I can achieve.

Paint Loading and Unloading
Dipping the brush into paint is referred to as loading the brush. My aim was to load paint on the bottom third of the bristles, and avoid getting paint near the ferrule. For unloading, I wiped and tamped the brush on a piece of textured paper towel. I aimed for a paint load level where the paint was visible on the tops of the paper towel texture but not filling the depressions of the paper towel texture. I also checked to see that it didn’t seem too streaky when I did test strokes. However, I tried not want to wipe the brush on the paper towel to the point where the paint would be super dry, chalky, or dusty. 

Brush Handling
I applied light pressure to the brush in a sweeping or dusting motion. I did not vigorously scrub it around the surface with strong pressure. I tend to use this approach even when drybrushing sculpted textures. It’s gentler on the brush and is less likely to result in a chalky, dusty look. It also allows me to make some painterly decisions instead of leaving everything up to the sculpt and the brush.

Paint Mixes
I painted four lighter layers of paint on top of my darkest shadow basecoat. I mixed these in advance for this test, but did on the fly mixing for my second test. If necessary, I applied multiple coats of a single colour mix to build up the colour intensity. Using more intermediary mix steps between the darkest and lightest colour values results in smoother transitions with drybrushing, just as it does with layering. And just as with layering, applying multiple layers of a mix that is more transparent can also help create smoother transitions.

Paint Application
I applied paint with intention by changing the angle of brush and/or miniature as necessary. I tried to apply the first couple of paint layers further down the slopes of the cloak folds, and restrict the lightest value layers to small areas on the peaks of the folds. I also applied the values of paint with the idea of simulating light shining from above. Part of my assessment for how well each type of brush worked include how much it allowed me to control the application of the paint.

And now on to the actual test result pictures!

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The Test Results

For each test figure I’m including a photo of the figure, and of the brushes used to paint it. Since there are so many different brands of brushes and differing availability of brands depending on location, I’m including a photograph of the brushes used on each figure next to a ruler that includes both metric and imperial units. This should allow you to see the general size and shape of the brush you might be interested in rather than trying to match my exact brand choices.

I don’t think any of these brushes would allow you to achieve a flawless smooth blend without as much time and effort as layering or wet blending, regardless of how many paint mix layers you use. However, I do think that some of them would allow you to get a more attractive result than standard drybrushing with just a little more time and attention.

1. Classic Synthetic Flats

I believe these are the most common choice for miniature painters when drybrushing. Used as I described in the Painting Process section, they performed much better than I had expected! However, size really matters. You need a larger brush to get a smoother effect on large curved folds of cloth like on a cloak or robe. The smaller size worked better for the finer folds of the hood. I found that I needed to reload the paint on these brushes more often compared to some of the others. Likewise, paint application took more time with these than most of the others.

1 flat classic

The brush on the left is a size 4 Reaper Miniatures flat. This is a larger brush than the one included in the Core Skills learn to paint kit. I know less experienced painters are often nervous about using larger brushes, but I encourage you to give them a try! If I spent a little more time and effort on applying the paint to build up the colour and depict the light, I think I could get a pretty good looking result. I believe synthetic filberts would achieve similar results, possibly with a little more control. Filbert brushes are also called cat’s tongue brushes. They’re similar to a flat but rounded off on the corners.

Malcolm crop 1

2. Large Soft Bristle Flat

Since the softness of the bristles seems to be part of what makes the cosmetic brushes work well, I had some hopes for this one. It’s a type of brush that is available at a low cost in craft stores. (In the United States at least.) Sadly it did not perform well at all. I think it was either too big or too flat. I did not have a comparable smaller brush to use on the hood, so everything was painted with this one brush.

2 flat large

I did not enjoy the experience of painting with this brush, and I also don’t think the results are very attractive. It was challenging to aim the brush exactly where I wanted. I could see streaks where the bristles touched down to paint a layer on the sides of the folds. The overall result is streaky and stark. I think part of the issue is the size of the brush, but given the streaky issue, I’m not sure a smaller version of this brush would give an attractive result.

Malcolm crop 2

3. Art Store Oval Mop (Inexpensive Brand)

I purchased these brushes from my local art store. Watercolour mop brushes are usually larger and more expensive. They’re also most commonly round, where these are a bit more like filberts in shape. The hair on these brushes is very soft, which is part of what I think makes the makeup brushes work well. This hair may be too soft, however. It has no spring, so the shape quickly deforms, and you can’t use the edge of the brush to get in smaller sections as you can with a stiffer brush. It’s also not stiff enough to push paint into areas when that is necessary for successful application. So although they seemed similar to the makeup brushes, they don’t really work the same way at all. Watercolour detail brushes are a great choice for miniature painters because they work well with our more fluid acrylic paints for general painting. However, watercolour mop brushes are designed to apply watery washes of paint, so I guess it’s not too surprising that these didn’t work well for drybrushing.

3 oval mop

I think even the larger of the brushes was too small and maybe too short. They were very frustrating to use, even more so than brush 2. It might be possible to spend time and effort to get a bit more of an attractive result, but if the aim of drybrushing is to make painting easier and/or quicker, this brush is no help at all. I have used this for small areas of sculpted texture with some success, but we’ll see how it does in comparison to others vis a vis texture in future drybrushing tests.

Malcolm crop 3

4. Makeup Brush: Pointed Round

The makeup brushes I’m using came as part of a large inexpensive set I purchased from Amazon. In the US, you can look for inexpensive makeup brushes in big box stores and pharmacies. ELF is a common brand, and Walgreens in house brand has a variety of options. Cosmetic stores like Sephora and Ulta will have a much larger selection, but the brushes seem to be much more expensive. I purchased this set of brushes prior to doing these tests. The large brushes work surprisingly well even for gaming size miniatures, but if I were buying another set or looking for individual brushes, I’d probably prefer to have brushes that are a half inch diameter rather than these full inch diameter ones. The larger brushes would be great for working on vehicles and terrain, however. 

4 makeup pointed roundThese tests make me I wish I had a brush in between the size of these two.

The larger brushes have very soft, dense hair, which I think is what makes them work so well for drybrushing. The shorter hair and smaller diameter on the smaller brushes makes them feel firmer, closer to how a standard flat brush like Test Brush 1 feels. I think a half inch diameter version would be the sweet spot between control and softness/density. I wasn’t able to get down into the lower areas of the folds for the first few layers as well as I would have liked. The shape of the pointed round worked pretty well for the larger folds. I would probably switch to the smaller brush for the lightest highlight layers to have better control in applying paint to smaller areas. The bristles cut into a point shape style brush did not work well for the smaller, sharper folds on the hood. Even when I switched to the smaller brush it was hard to keep paint out of the crevices of the hood folds.

Malcolm crop 4

5. Makeup Brushes: Flattop and Filbert

When I had talked about makeup brushes on stream, someone mentioned that the ones with flattops work well. I checked my Amazon set and discovered I did have a couple of those in the larger size. I did not have anything comparable in a smaller size, so I used smaller filberts for the hood. The comments on the Test Brush 4 section all apply to these brushes as well – the larger ones are soft and dense, the smaller ones are a little closer to a standard flat in terms of being stiffer due to the crimp of the ferrule and the shorter length of the hair. And as with the above comment, I’d love to have one about a half inch in diameter rather than these larger one inch diameter ones.

5 makeup flattop filbert

For the Malcolm figure below, I only used the straight flattop brush directly adjacent to the ruler on the right. I tried the slanted flattop in my second drybrushing test. I was impressed with how these worked. They filled in some of the shadow areas a little more softly so that there is a less stark transition between the deepest shadows and the first few values of highlights. On the downside, the size of the brush and the flatness made it hard to control, so it was much more difficult to confine the lightest values of highlights to small areas on the peaks of the folds. It was difficult to keep the large brush away from the hood, so the painting on the hood isn’t a great test of these filberts really.

It might work well to start with the flattop and then transition to the pointed round makeup brushes to get a combination of the softer starting point and more control for the later layers.

Malcolm crop 5

6. Dome Shape Drybrush

The last brush type I tried is a new type of brush that is marketed as being specifically made for drybrushing. The vast majority of tools and techniques in our hobby are repurposed and often repackaged from other types of arts or crafts. I have seen dome brushes with longer brush heads made both with this goat hair and also other types of hair sold for both makeup and fine art purposes that pre-date this brush. The first place I saw this shorter bristle style of brush was from Artis Opus. Their brushes look lovely to work with, but they are fairly expensive, and I was reluctant to spend that much money for conducting experiments in a technique I probably won’t use that much in every day painting. The Army Painter has come out with a similar looking brush for a lower price, so I decided to give those a try. I suspect that the Artis Opus version has more densely packed and higher quality hair so it’s likely to last longer and perform perhaps a little better.

NOTE: Both brands of these brushes use goat hair. If you’d prefer a synthetic alternative I would look for dome makeup brushes. Less expensive ones are more likely to be made of synthetic hair.

6 dome drybrush

The brushes pictured are from the Army Painter Masterclass set. Artis Opus has two additional sizes – one even smaller, and one even larger. One interesting thing about these brushes is that you can apply paint with them in two different ways. You can use a sweeping/dusting motion as with the other brushes I tested, or you can use them in a dabbing, stippling motion. The effect you get with each is slightly different. 

When painting the figure below, I wiped off a little less of the paint for the initial layers to try to build up some colour in some of the lower areas as the flattop brush 5 had done. I used the largest brush for the main area of the cloak, but I think the medium size might have been a better choice to have a little more control in some sections. I was pleasantly surprised by these brushes. They were easy and enjoyable to use. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the dome shape makes it easier to control where you are applying the paint, and also easier to avoid getting paint in areas where you do not want it to go. I suspect there are a few nuances to learning to use these for optimum result, but overall they’re pretty easy and low stress to use.

Malcolm crop 6

A little while after the tests I had occasion to paint something I wanted to look a little speckled – a Gingerbread Knight. I used these brushes for the bulk of the painting on the cookie area.

Gb front

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Here’s another picture of all the figures together, lined up in order from 1 through 6.

Malcolm group crop

Coming soon – the results for tests two and three!

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Patron Spotlight: Ward Shrake

This blog is made possible by the generous support of my patrons, and I want to share more about them and their work with the world!

Ward’s primary hobby work has been model kits, and he has years of kit bashing and scratch sculpting experience, particularly in the genre of vehicles. But his hobby interests range far beyond that. He has dipped toes into many facets of modelling, and sees interesting areas of overlap of which those of us who specialize more intently might be unaware. He also loves sharing his knowledge and experience and has had numerous articles published in modelling magazines.

Ward SFFM Horror and Monster Modeller Special Issue by Ward Shrake Eddie from Aces High 06 jpg a3c1d9b042444e5fd0b7db4a5bbba9bfEddie from Aces High. You can read more about how Ward painted this figure and fitted it with lights.

The following are Ward’s words, accompanied by some photographs of his work and links to where you can see more and read more about how he made his creations. Thank you Ward for the support, and for sharing your thoughts!

Hello, fellow blog readers, and fans of figure modeling!

Like many of you, I enjoy reading about various aspects of this craft or hobby — the art, the science, and/or the philosophy and psychology of the figure modeling world.

I have to admit, though, that it’s not all I ever read about. I am a life-long “book-a-holic”. I have spent many years happily reading about many areas within the overall scale modeling world. Figure sculpting, painting, and vignette or diorama creation always interested and even fascinated me, as a reader. But I mostly “stopped at reading,” with figure models. It wasn’t just figure modeling that I read about, but “did not do”. There are many areas within the scale modeling hobby that I mainly “read about” but wasn’t actively involved in, in a hands-on kind of way. There’s only so much time, money, and energy available to anyone. If you are easily inspired by art, when you see examples of it, you’re simply not going to be able to “do” everything you want to. Being a “multi-potential-ite” is fun, sometimes: but it’s hard to force myself to focus on only doing one specific “new” thing!

Ward article by ward shrake sffm vol 17 01 remodelling max sized lYou can see more of this piece and others Ward has done on his Putty & Paint page.

I knew about gaming minis since the days when companies like Grenadier and Ral Partha were creating and selling lots of awesome little sculptures. I still have a few minis I purchased in the 1980s; and I’ve added a lot more minis to my collection since then. I haven’t painted them, mind you: I mainly like marveling at the sculpting work! (It took me far too long to realize I was attracted to the idea of being able to do figure sculpting work, myself!) In my local hobby shop, in the 1970s, I saw Aurora’s “Monster Scenes” and back then, I wanted all I could get. Which was none of them: I had a parent who thought all such things were evil. (Any of those I brought home, would have been trashed in hours, and I would have never heard the end of it.) I finally got most of those kits, when they were re-issued, about ten years ago. But to be honest, as a kid I was more sorry that I didn’t have more of that company’s “Prehistoric Scenes” kits: those kits were majorly cool!

Ward steampunk modeller volume 3 hornethopter 04 article by ward shrake sized lWard’s diorama with a Steampunk Hornethopter.

As a youth, of elementary and junior high school age, I built (but at first, rarely painted) injection molded plastic kits of any subject that was within my price range, as long as it had “cool shapes and colors”. World War One bi-planes and tri-planes were favorites of mine back then. By the time I was about 16, I had built 200 plastic model kits. I became more interested in figure models, in various scales, in the early to mid-1980s: but I became distracted by other hobbies, including computers and auto mechanics.

Ward 234397760 132348599055529 2250407868523966301 nSome of the fun details inside the Steampunk Hornethopter. You can see additional photos and read more about the construction of the piece.

I am sort of “circling back” to figure modeling now. It wasn’t planned. What happened was that, several years ago, a publication I used to love writing for (“Sci-Fi & Fantasy Modeller” from England) decided to stop publishing. I had done fifteen articles with them, as a writer and builder, over time. That publication was very “in-depth” with most of their articles, and I had loved being able to share what I knew, with others. When that writing gig stopped being an available option to me, it was devastating to me, hobby-wise. I had very much wanted to simply keep doing what I had done with them: but it was not possible, any more. So I sort of “had to find another hobby,” in a way. It took me several years to begin to visualize what that might be.

Ward steampunk modeller volume 2 hpls fish submarine 02 article by ward shrake sized lWard’s Steampunk Fish Submarine diorama.

I had learned that I truly loved to learn! I also knew from writing about my projects, that I loved to be able to share things like what people in one hobby were doing, to folks in a seemingly unrelated hobby. (“Cross Pollination”.) But opportunities for doing that seemed quite slim, at least in “printed publications”. I wanted to explain techniques, but most publications only wanted to show completed projects.

Ward steampunk modeller volume 2 hpls fish submarine 01 article by ward shrake sized lA closer view of the Steampunk Fish Submarine itself.

So I mainly focused on my love of reading and of learning, after that writing gig ended. When I realized, with a bit of a shock, that what I had been doing with SF&FM was sort of like “sculpting vehicular models,” I realized I already had a little sculpting knowledge (of a kind). I signed up for the (free!) Shiflett Brothers’ Sculpting Forums, on Facebook. That fascinated me! It put me deep into “artistic overload”! Seeing so many talented sculptor’s art works, so often, made me want to study harder about the “how to” of sculpting various figures. At least for me, it is nearly impossible to see that many inspiring sculptures, without eventually having a strong urge to want to learn more about “adding cool colors” to the “cool shapes” I was seeing.

Ward steampunk modeller volume 2 hpls fish submarine 03 article by ward shrake sized lSome of the details inside the Steampunk Fish Submarine. You can view additional photos and read more information about how this was built.

Due to how much time I had spent studying it, and doing it, I am more comfortable with vehicular scale modeling than with figure modeling; and “building” versus “painting”. But I love to learn! So now I am studying what “real painters” are doing, in places like this (and others). I’m buying up more tools and equipment and supplies, related to working on scale figures. And I’m enjoying being on this journey!

Ward has some additional project folders in this gallery where you can see more of his great work.

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Figures and Paints in this Article

Anirion the Elf Wizard is available in Bones USA plastic, clear plastic, and metal.
Malcolm, Lightbringer is available in Bones plastic and metal.
Paints: 9076 Deep Ocean, 9077 Marine Teal, 9078 Surf Aqua
The Gingerbread Knight will be available for individual sale in January 2022 from the Reaper website.
I have the impression that the kits Ward worked on are no longer available, but if you have questions about any of those ask in the comments and I’m sure he’ll be happy to answer.

Ghost Bride Betty: Then and Now

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I first painted Betty for a Reaper Miniatures special promotional sale in October 2015. Reaper has re-released some of the rare Bonesylvanians for October 2021, and I thought it would be fun to  paint a second copy on an episode of my Beyond the Kit episode. Now that I have, I think it would be interesting to compare the two and see what difference six years (and two hours) can make. The paint colours I used on both versions are listed further down in this article. The video recording includes information on painting a monochromatic colour scheme, how I mixed the new colour scheme, my complete painting process on the figure, and a demonstration of my reverse wet palette system.

Ghostbride comp frontThe left figure was painted in 2015, the right in 2021.

Value and Colour Differences

I think comparing these two figures is a good example of the power of contrast! (I’ll circle back to the idea that this character is a ghost later on.) I used the original photo as inspiration for my second version, so the overall value choices are pretty similar in terms of white dress, medium skin, dark hair, etc. However, in each individual area I used darker shadows overall in the 2021 version than in the 2015 version. Compare the shadows on the face, dress, and bouquet. In particular look at the lining around the bodice ties and lace trim as examples. You can even see it in the stone of the base, which has much darker shadows than the v2015, but roughly the same value of highlights.

Quick reminder: value refers to how light or dark a colour appears. It can be more difficult to see in full colours, so I’ve converted the photo to black and white below.

Ghostbride comp front bwIf you view Betty 2015 and Betty 2021 converted to grayscale, the contrast difference is even more apparent.

While the shadows are darker overall, I also increased the value range between darkest shadows and lightest highlights significantly in a few areas. The highlights on the hair of v2021 are almost white, and the shadows are almost black. The highlight and midtone colours of the two faces are very similar in value, but the shadows of v2021’s face are darker. The contrast of the darker shadows help make the highlights appear lighter. (I also applied some of the lighter highlights to a broader area on v2021.)

To help you compare the two, I have isolated samples of the highlight, midtone, and shadow colours from an area of the skin and hair on both figures in the picture below. The grey background is 50% grey, exactly halfway between the lightest and darkest possible values. These swatches also help isolate some of the differences in colour tones between the two. The colours are pretty similar, but those used on v2021 are a little more saturated and have a touch more green in the midtones and highlights.

Ghostbride comp value range

I’ve converted the swatch picture into a grayscale version below. There is a swatch in v2015’s skin and another in v2021’s hair that are exactly the same value as the 50% grey background, so they disappear in the grayscale version of the photo. The grayscale comparison confirms that highlights and midtones on the skin of both figures are similar, but v2021 has darker shadows. The shadows of the hair on both are similar, but v2021 has much lighter highlights. This larger value spread is part of what makes the hair of v2021 appear shinier.

Ghostbride comp value range bw

The back view is predominately just the white dress and veil. Here the colour differences between the two versions become the most notable difference. That colour difference enhances the appearance of value differences. The more saturated greenish blue used on the white of v2021 stands out to your eye more. Using strongly saturated colour in shadows can be tricky for that reason. In this instance I think the shadows drawing attention and glowing a little works since the figure represents a ghostly character.

Quick reminder: Saturation refers to the intensity of colour, whether it is very vivid, or duller and greyed out.

Ghostbride comp back

When the back view photos are converted to black and white, you can see that there is actually a little less value difference than it might appear. v2021 has deeper shadows on the veil and darker lining colours, but the overall shadow colours are not that much darker than on v2015.

Ghostbride comp back bw


When considering the contrast levels, remember that you are likely viewing these pictures at several times larger than the actual figure. It is critical to hold miniatures at arm’s length and consider how a colour scheme and level of contrast works at arm’s length on a shelf or table as well as thinking about the close-up details. I’ve shrunken the photos down to simulate that here. When viewed at a smaller size, the various elements of the figure are more clearly distinguished in the higher contrast v2021 than on the original v2015.

Ghostbride comp front tiny

Ghostbride comp back tiny

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Personality Differences

I was a bit surprised at how much a few small changes to the way the facial features were painted altered the expression and characterization of the figure. The deeper shadows around the chin in v2021 make the face look a little pointier. The slight changes to the mouth make her look a little snarkier. Most significant is the difference between the eyes. Betty v2015 is painted with eyes facing forward and larger areas of white in the eyes showing, which combine to make her look more innocent and guileless, whereas Betty v2021’s slightly narrowed eyes that are looking off to the side give her a bit more sinister of an air.

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But She’s a Ghost?

While I think the stronger contrast on Betty v2021 makes her the more visually effective of the two, I just want to note that the painting on Betty v2015 was lower contrast by design. I felt that using softer contrast and very subtle lining would help convey the characterization that she is an insubstantial being. The hair in particular is painted with much lower contrast than I would have used even in 2015. I wanted her to look a little different than the other tangible Bonesylvanians when they were viewed as part of a group. She was released the same week as Jake and Maddie and displayed with them in promotional material. I think the hints of green on Betty v2021 have a bit of a spectral glow, but I suspect many viewers may feel that the lower contrast of the the 2015 version better conveys the idea of ghostliness. I’d love to hear which one you think looks more like a ghost in the comments!

During the painting process I did not expect the value and colour differences between the two to end up as differently as they did. I was not referring to the original photo very often while painting, so once I had the main colours blocked in I painted as I would normally rather than trying to copy the original. Painting while streaming means I devote all of my focus to the painting task, and I’m more apt to go into auto-pilot mode instead of stopping to ask myself questions about what and why I’m doing something before I do it. Not that I’m always so great at that when I’m not streaming, either! But in this case it meant I defaulted to my standard level of contrast instead considering whether a ghostly character should be painted differently.

Based on some assessments of other figures that I’ve painted lately, I’ve been concerned that I have not been pushing my contrast and ‘pop’ levels as much as I though. This figure suggests I have certainly pushed my threshold past how I used to paint, even if it isn’t exactly where I want to be yet.

Since I did approach Betty a little different than the others Bonesylvanians, I thought it might also be useful to do a quick comparison with one of the other figures I painted in 2015, Mary. When I posted pictures of Mary the other day I was a bit disappointed by my paint job. In particular the non-metallic metal, particularly on her crown, does not have as much contrast as it should either for general NMM principles, nor to fit the cartoony type of character. Were I to paint her today, I would add more contrast not just to the NMM, but also a few areas of the blue, the pearls, and just overall. I did a quick digital edit example of how I might paint Mary today that you can see below, but I suspect I would push it even further if I did a physical repaint like with Betty

Mermaid combo crThe original 2015 version of Mary is on the left, my quick digital edit is on the right.

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Colour Schemes

Both of the Betty figures use a monochromatic colour scheme, similar to a black and white movie or a sepia tone photograph, but using values of blue instead of grayscale or brown. One of the reasons that I chose this figure to paint on stream is that a monochromatic colour scheme is pretty quick to paint once you have all the paints mixed up, so I was pretty confident I could get it mostly finished in one stream. Painting monochromatically is also a great exercise to help force yourself to push contrast, and to explore painting textures. I talk about the fun and challenges of a monochromatic scheme more on the stream.

Below is a photo showing the paints I used and the mixes I made with them to paint the 2015 version of Betty. One of these paints is a sample colour, two are from the canceled MSP HD line, and Maggot White was canceled this year. So unfortunately the only one currently available is Pure White! 

Ghostbride palette

One of the reasons I wanted to paint a new version of Betty was to work out a variation of the colour scheme using more accessible paint colours that I could share so other people could paint something similar if they wished. I started by doing some tests on paper comparing the original colours to some other paints.

Gb colour tests edit

After testing I settled on these colours:

9039 Pure White with a tiny dab of 9410 Dragon Green to substitute for Maggot White. (If you have the swag box 29137 Vampire Pallor, that is pretty similar to Maggot White.)

9056 Templar Blue mixed with various ratios of 9039 Pure White to substitute for both Sample blue and Winter Blue.

9422 Nightsky Indigo mixed with 9066 Blue Liner to substitute for Nightsky Blue. This mix has a little more purple than Nightsky Blue, but I thought that would complement the touches of green in the highlights well. This darkest shadow colour was mixed with Templar Blue to create additional shadow mixes. (You can mix a very close colour match to Nightsky Blue by mixing Templar Blue with swag box 9507 Kraken Ink if you have it.)

Gb new colours

I liked the effect of the slightly darker test mix of Pure White and Dragon Green, so when I sat down to mix up my paints before the stream, I mixed up some white and green mixes with the intention of using those in some different areas than the white and blue mixes. I ended up only using them on the face highlights. However, I did decide to mix a little bit of the white and green mixes into the lighter four or so blue highlight colours, so the colours on my palette and the figure are shifted a little bit teal compared to the colours on my test swatch paper above. Use the colours as listed beneath the swatch sheet if you want a colour scheme closer to Betty from 2015. Add tiny dabs of Dragon Green into the mixes if you want a colour scheme closer to Betty from 2021.

Here is a picture with all the mixes. Again, I didn’t paint much with the green mixes on the left, just a bit in some of the highlights on the face, but I did mix some of these into the blues.

Gb new colours mixes

You can buy a copy of Betty and some other Bonesylvanians until October 21, 2021. You can see pictures of the other re-release Bonesylvanians and get information on the promotional gift items available from the Reaper site in my previous post.

How to Practice Painting

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Is the way you look at your work when you’re trying to study or practice something new different than when you assess your work generally? Should it be? I think the answer is yes! It can be challenging to make that mind shift, but failing to use different metrics to judge our study results means we may not be learning as much or as well as we could.

Banner fullTara the Silent at different stages in the painting process.

In a previous Problem Solving series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), I talked through my mental assessments of my work throughout the process of painting a miniature where I was making colour and lighting choices on the fly. My goal for the Tara the Silent figure was to paint a miniature that was as attractive and successful a paint job as I could manage after a bit of a rough start.

When I was painting Anushka, my aim was to practice a new painting approach and demonstrate to myself that I had successfully learned and implemented new information. It may not seem like it on the surface, but that is actually a very different goal than trying to paint a good looking miniature! In both cases I repeatedly reviewed and then revised my paint work. But in each case I was working towards a different goal, and I was using different criteria to judge my success in reaching the goal. 

Anushka comp crAnushka at different stages in the painting process.

I’d like to talk about why it’s useful to approach a study piece differently than general painting, using my experiences painting the Anushka figure as an example. I also want to remind myself about this! I don’t think I do enough focused study like this.

I actually painted Anushka as a study piece in Spring 2019. I edited the WIP pictures and wrote a first draft of this article soon after the painting, but for various reasons it got put aside for a while.

Tsukigoro front 500My painting of Tsukigoro, a larger scale resin figure that we worked on in the workshop I took with Sergio Calvo Rubio.

In the Spring of 2019 I took a weekend workshop with Sergio Calvo Rubio, a fantastic Spanish painter. In addition to his feedback on my figure throughout the workshop, he kindly shared his thoughts on a few other miniatures I had painted. He felt I was a technically proficient painter, but that I wasn’t painting with enough contrast. In particular, I wasn’t painting enough of the small, bright highlights that really help a paint job pop. I have been receiving similar criticism from painters I admire for years! I do try to push for more pop, but in the struggle between a refined result and pop, I find it very challenging to not go overboard refining or smoothing the highlights, which usually dilutes the effect of the pop.

After the workshop, I painted a few practice figures to try to cement what I learned, and to try to figure out how best to apply his approach to the gaming scale figures I paint most often.

Important Note: I will be referencing some of the principles and techniques Sergio teaches in this series, but only insofar as is necessary for readers to understand the gist of what I’m saying. It is not my goal to share all of the material from Sergio’s workshop, and I will not answer questions about his techniques or methods. If you’re interested in learning more about how Sergio paints, I highly recommend checking out his Patreon or his YouTube channel, or attending one of his workshops if you have the opportunity. 

My reference materials when practicing included my notes and practice figures from the workshop and a couple of previous classes I had taken with Sergio at AdeptiCon. I also have the good fortune to have in my possession a couple of demo figures that Sergio painted as examples for classes. This allowed me to take comparison photos of Sergio’s examples and my practice figure, which will also allow you to compare my attempt to his demos so you can make your own assessment of how well my study went.

You can see a few steps of Sergio’s process to paint the figure on the left. There is a video demonstration of how Sergio painted the non-metallic sword on the figure on the right.

Sergio figures fullThese two figures were painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio for class demonstrations.

When I painted Tara the Silent, my goal was to paint as good looking a figure as I could in a fairly tight deadline (for me). My initial colour selection didn’t work, so I got off to a bit of a rough start. Some of painting process involved trying to salvage as much of my previous work as I could, and tweaking things to look as good as possible. So my analysis concentrated on this question: does this look good, or do I need to change or tweak something? I think many of us paint day-to-day with that kind of mindset.

However, I don’t think assessing our work with the question does this look good is a helpful approach to take when to studying something new. Maybe you’re studying a new method, like I was with this figure. Maybe you’re trying to learn a new technique like wet blending or layering. Maybe you want to simulate a texture like worn leather or woven cloth. Maybe you’ve seen a particular colour or overall look on another figure that you like and you want to figure out how the artist did it. In all of those cases, you’re trying to model your work after a specific reference point.

I think the question you need to ask yourself when judging your success with that kind of study is not whether your work looks good, but rather: Does this look like my reference? If not, what are the differences?

If the answer is your work doesn’t really look much like your reference, you need to try to do a deeper comparison between your reference and your practice paint to try to analyze exactly what the differences are. You will likely find differences in the level of darkness and lightness, or in the location and size of the darkest and lightest areas. You might notice differences in shapes and patterns of texture. You might discover that the instructor you’re studying uses paint that is more or less fluid than yours for blending, or uses a different size or shape of brush. Training your eye to spot those differences and training your brain to analyze them more deeply can help you make bigger leaps in your skills than any specific technique.

We are so used to assessing our work by the standard of whether something looks good (enough) and whether we like it (or at least can we live with it) that it can be really challenging to shift how we analyze our work. It’s really easy to fall back into just painting as we always do instead of pushing ourselves to be sure we’re actively learning and experimenting and studying. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time learning, and teaching, I experienced exactly that problem while painting Anushka!

I think it’s entirely possible to paint a study piece that successfully demonstrates your understanding and application of something, but which doesn’t look super attractive, polished, or finished. It really is two different metrics.

An easy example of that is contrast. If you’ve been told you need to push your shadow/highlight contrast, you will likely find that when you try to practice doing that, your work may not look as good to you. The transitions may look rough, or even stark. If you are only looking at your practice piece(s) with the question does this look good in mind, you will feel as if you failed. If you painted darker shadows than usual and lighter highlights than usual, you did not fail, you achieved your stated goal! You might need to continue practicing painting with higher contrast for a while to accustom your eye to it, and then set your next goal to be painting higher contrast with more attractive transitions between values. To ask yourself to apply higher contrast values of paint AND do so with flawless transitions on the first few miniatures you try it with is unrealistic! When you study and work to learn something new, make sure you’re assessing your progress in understanding and applying the something new, not judging every single thing about the figure.

The flip side of that is that you can paint something that does look good but which does not demonstrate that you have understood and applied the thing you’re trying to learn. This is what happened to me while painting Anushka.

Grey divider edit

In the workshop, Sergio had us paint from dark to light. I have very rarely painted this way. Just a few times in other classes I’ve taken, with certain colours like black, and when painting areas that are recessed and hard to reach. The advantage of starting with the darkest colour is that you create your deep shadows and lining with your basecoat. (Assuming you have the brush control to not slop into the crevices, which I have not always had.)

Most of the time when I paint I start with the midtone, then paint the shadows, and then paint highlights. I have found that it is easier for me to identify the correct placement for shadows and highlights with this method. It also makes it easier for me make sure I leave enough of the midtone colour apparent, which is important to establishing the texture and overall colour of the material, and can also help create more contrast.

Another reason I prefer starting with the midtone colour is that I worry that if I start with the darkest shadow colour, I will be more more likely to paint most of the areas in a similar midtone value instead of separating sections of the miniature by starting with different value midtones for each. Even when using the method I’m used to I don’t always get this right, as you can see in the example below.

Erli original cr 1000

One of the reasons the paint scheme on the right is more effective than that on the left is that adjacent areas of the figure differ in the value of their midtones. You can see that more clearly when the picture is converted to black and white as below. A deeper analysis of the differences between these two figures is available.

Erli original cr bw

To better understand and study Sergio’s method, I followed his approach and started with the darkest colours for each area of the figure. I forgot to take the photo until after I had painted the green pantaloons, but it should still show the overall idea.

Anushka wip1a basecoat front fullAnushka painted with the darkest shadow colours for each area.

One of the things that distinguishes many high level paint jobs is a strongly painted light source. Often these are painted with the common light from above direction, but with stronger contrast between deepest shadows and brightest highlights. Others may be painted with a more directional light source shining more brightly on one side of the figure, which creates darker shadows on the other side. Sergio’s usual approach is less fussed about painting a precise light source direction than some high level painters. He aims for more of a stage light effect, as if the figure is standing on stage with a spotlight aimed at them. He paints stronger light and brighter saturation on the figure’s head and the centre of its torso, and uses duller, darker colours on the sides and extremities. He prioritizes creating a strong focal point and making the figure interesting to look at, rather than aiming for a super realistic rendition of the light and shadow.

I mention this because it is a great example of how there is not only one style or approach to painting that is recognized and rewarded in the miniature world. I often see comments from people complaining that only one painting approach gets recognition, particularly after the results of a painting contest are announced. There have been times or specific contests when there may have been a grain of truth to that, but for years now I’ve seen a very diverse range of styles recognized both by contests and miniature enthusiasts. In most contests I’ve seen, the elements that factor into top level recognition include the obvious factor of advanced paint manipulation skills, but also a well developed artistic eye, and the courage to commit to one’s vision. In the case of light, whether a painter is trying to replicate real light source reference pictures or aiming for more of a ‘make it look cool’ illustrative approach, they need to commit to their vision for the light and create a high level of contrast. Painting a high level of contrast while also painting smooth blends, or cool textures (including comic book style), or cel shading or whatever other approach challenges both your hand and your courage.

Please note that I am definitely not saying that there is no point to exploring more creative styles of paint application and/or lighting approach if a painter’s skills are more beginner or intermediate level, or if working on a quicker tabletop piece! I just think it’s helpful to understand that the competition side of our hobby rewards skill of execution as much or more as creativity of concept. The highest level painters have literally spent years studying traditional art and/or learning through experience. It’s not really reasonable to expect that the first few pieces someone tries to paint with an advanced lighting technique or textures or whatever is going to instantly catapult them to gold level.

In the year or two preceding the workshop, I had spent a lot of time practicing painting more directional light. I also focused on portraying my light source both more correctly and more evocatively. One example of that is the way I painted Ziba the Efreeti. I created lighting reference photos and I followed them to the extent of painting the cast shadows on her. What I had been focused on prior to the workshop was in many ways a completely different approach to what Sergio was teaching us, so it was a bit of a mind shift for me.

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First Study Session

Regardless of your approach to the light, when working on a textured surface (or one you’re painting to appear textured) the goal is to build up both the appearance of the texture AND the placement of lighter and darker areas that will evoke your imaginary light source. I painted the green pantaloons as a smooth cloth texture with a moderate level of contrast. They’re in a low interest area and mostly to the sides of the body, so with Sergio’s approach they shouldn’t stand out particularly. Next up was the top and overskirt. I decided to paint these areas as one piece of clothing, and with a worn leather texture. I decided that, but that’s not what I painted…

Anushka wip2b front full

Anushka wip2 back full

The top ended up looking like a different colour and material than the skirt. That did not have a lot of bearing on the lessons I was trying to learn, so I decided not to worry about it. Sergio’s main critique of my work was that it was technically very proficient, but it did not have enough contrast. In particular, it completely lacked the strong edge and spot highlights that help a figure pop off the shelf/tabletop and grab the viewer’s attention. These are also an important tool a painter uses to draw the viewer’s eye to the key focal points the painter wants them to zero in on.

So how well did I do with the study goals of painting strong texture and using strong contrast to make the figure pop? I did not make this assessment immediately after painting. I waited until the next day. I think it is very helpful to step away from something you’re working on overnight, or at least for several hours. It allows your eyes to reset, and gives your brain a chance to shift from creation mode to editing mode. As you’ll see below, my impressions of my work while I was painting versus my impressions of it the next day were very different!

The top, while painting: I felt like I was really pushing the highlights and going quite bright, and doing a good job concentrating the brightest areas in the centre of the figure’s cylinder as Sergio does. 

The top, next day: Huh, where did those bright pops of highlight go? I swear I worked on them! (And as a side point, I realized that if the back of something is armour, so is the front, so I needed to paint the chest plate area to match the armour sections, not the skirt or the sleeves.)

The skirt, while painting: I think I’m getting a texture that is less fiddly and small than I usually paint for leather. It’s a little darker overall than the top, but since the skirt is on the bottom half of the figure and attention should be focused on the face and upper torso, that should work out well.

The skirt, next day: This texture part looks pretty good. But I almost completely failed to create any overall sense of light or bring out the forms of the different skirt folds.

My assessment of the skirt is an example of the difference in analyzing success in studying something versus success in achieving an attractive result. If this were something I was painting on deadline, I would probably leave the skirt basically as it is and just build up a few more highlights on it to create a little more form. The texture looks pretty good, it photographs well, and it fits the character and colour scheme.

For a piece that was intended a practice of a specific approach, I needed to assess whether I demonstrated that learned and understood the lesson. The way I painted the skirt at this stage did not demonstrate that, so I needed to try again, possibly even repainting the area to start from scratch. (If you are incorporating practice into a project like painting an army, another option is to call it good on this figure and then try again with the next one.)

I also took a moment to ask myself how did I go so wrong with this attempt, and I think those thoughts are worth sharing with you as well.

Fuzzy Goal/Intention
I just sat down and started painting. It would have been a good idea to study my reference figures and photos right before and even while I was painting, so the result I was aiming for was fresh in my mind.

I had an episode of a TV show running in the background while I was painting. When I’m doing routine tasks and things I’m proficient at, it is helpful to listen to a video or audiobook. It distracts me if my back is sore or I’m getting bored, and keeps me painting longer. But if I’m trying something new or working on a technique I find challenging, I need to minimize distractions so I can keep my brain actively focused and concentrating on the task at hand.

The combination of those two factors made it very easy to go into autopilot and just paint the way I usually do. Painting on autopilot is useful for routine tasks, but it’s a dangerous trap if you’re trying to learn something new.

For those who might be having difficulty seeing what I’m talking about, here’s the figure I’m working on next to a couple of Sergio’s WIP figures from classes he’s given.

Anushka wip2d comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip2c comps back full

Don’t despair if you’re having trouble seeing everything I’m pointing out. It takes time, practice, and concerted effort to start building your critical eye. There is very little material related to training critique ability in our hobby. I did not have a strong eye at all when I started out, and I know that there is a lot that I still miss. Being conscious of the importance of an artist’s eye and trying to cultivate it has immensely helped me in my quest to improve my painting level, and I am confident it will continue to help me. I wish I had been more deliberate about practicing things I’d learned in classes and workshops and aiming to build up my eye much earlier in my painting career.

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Second Study Session

For my second attempt, I set my intention and reviewed my examples before beginning to paint, and minimized distractions while painting.

I think I was much closer to goal this second time. I don’t know if it’s perfect by any means. It might even be overly textured, and there is still more emphasis on texture over value and form, but I think it’s better. The form of the skirt in the back view particularly is much more apparent.

Anushka wip3 back full

I thought I should go in and glaze in some more contrast and/or tone down the texture on the skirt, but I decided that it would be best to work on more of the figure and see how it came together as a whole before making that decision. Sometimes one of the hardest things for me in painting is to just let something be until the figure is almost finished and I can assess how the colours, values, and other decisions work together before trying to tweak anything. I find it can save a lot of time if I can resist that temptation! If I am painting one section at a time and trying to make each individual section ‘perfect’ while I working on it, I may end up fixing something that doesn’t need it or applying the wrong fix and end up having to spend more time at the end making tweaks than I would have otherwise.

This is one of the reasons that many artists start with an initial quick sketch of the main areas of the figure before preceding to refining individual areas. That is the approach that Sergio took in his class demonstration goblin figure. He started with the basic colours of the figure, then roughed in some highlights, and then continued to refine them. This approach allows painters to assess the success of their colour choices and overall approach for the miniature after a relatively short investment of time, so they aren’t losing a lot of work if they have to make adjustments.

In the workshop and with Sergio’s demonstration figure on the right in the picture below, he painted section by section, but I suspect this was for teaching reasons, and that it is not his usual approach. It’s easier to talk about the specifics of how to paint non-metallic leather, worn leather, and so on if you paint each section individually.

Anushka wip3 comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip3 comps back full

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Third Study Session

After finishing up the non-metallic metal and the hat (still trying to adhere to Sergio’s principles), I decided to revisit the skirt yet again. I painted a number of glazes on the skirt. Some of the glazes were lighter colours, intended to bump up the overall contrast in the highlight areas. I also added some orange tones to saturate the colour a little more, and I used some of the same blues I used in the hair in to glaze in more shadows. The overall intent was to build up the value contrast a little more, and tone down the texture. I think it has a bit more of a buckskin hide look now, and the level of texturing is more appropriate to the character.

Anushka wip4 back full

Anushka wip4 comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip4 comps back full

Here’s a compilation photo of the three phases I went through trying to work out how to do the skirt.

Anushka comp cr

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The Finished Figure

So did I accomplish my goals and successfully study Sergio Calvo’s approach? Let’s take a look at the completed miniature.

Anushka front

I think I did focus attention in the centre of the figure and put a lot of light around the face. I painted a different sort of leather texture than Sergio had, but my practice was focused on how Sergio approaches painting light overall, not that specific leather texture. (That might be a good subject for another practice session, though!

I achieved more pop highlights than I usually do, but still probably not enough.  Also some of the pop is coming from the non-metallic filigree. I’m generally comfortable going up to white on NMM, so that might not be a true test. To be thorough, it would be good for me to paint some additional miniatures with different materials and review how I did with those. In my opinion Anushka is a reasonable success, but I still have work to do to internalize and consistently apply the approach. What do you think?

Anushka back

Here are some comparison pictures with the reference figures. Note that in some ways this comparison isn’t fair to either of us. My figure is completed and has been worked on for several hours, while Sergio’s demo figures are quick demonstration pieces.

Anushka done comps front light edit

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka done comps back light edit

So that’s where I was after a couple of study pieces. Did I go on to incorporate principles of what I learned into my working process? Did anything stick? I’ve been thinking about that as I finish this article, and I think I’ll be working on a followup…

Figures Appearing in this Post

Tara the Silent is currently available in metal. She will be released in Bones Black plastic in the near future.
Tsukigoro is a 75mm scale (or 100mm?) figure from the Hirelings of Asura Kickstarter. I am unsure if the Hireling figures are currently for sale.
The goblin is Bocanegra the Little Tyrant.
Anushka Female Fighter is available in metal.
Mavaro, Iconic Occultist is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Beach Babe Libby is available in metal.
Eriu Champion with Greatsword is available in metal.

Problem Solving: Tara the Silent Part 4 – A Sisterly Comparison

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In the previous instalments of this series (links later in the article), I walked through my work-in-progress steps of painting the figure Tara the Silent. My aim was to share the way I try to identify and solve issues during the process of painting a miniature. Progressing your painting skills has as much or more to do with improving your critical eye as it does with improving your brush and paint use skills. I think many people do not understand just how valuable it is to improve your ability to really see and analyze a figure (or other types of visual arts)! I know that I would have improved much more quickly and consistently had I been working on that as much as I focused on blending and other brush tricks.

It occurred to me that I could use Tara for one more exercise to try to help others build their critical eye. This exercise is one of comparison between two figures. Comparison can be as instructive as assessing a single work, whether that is a comparison of more recent work against older work, or comparing one artist’s interpretation of a figure against another’s. This exercise could also give you some insight to the challenges that contest judges face. You can imagine that these two figures are the final cut for a contest award, and determine which which you would choose and why. I will not share my analysis/thoughts until the section after the last picture. So if you want you can test your eye first, and then read my thoughts.

Anwyn and Tara, face viewsAnwyn the Bard is on the left, Tara the silent on the right. 

Although I have never before painted this version of Tara, I have painted her ‘sister’, Anwyn the Bard. Reaper sculptors occasionally take a figure and do a significant conversion of it to create a different character. Werner Klocke first sculpted Tara, and then did a resculpt of the miniature to create the character of Anwyn. Even apart from the fact that the figures aren’t identical, this is more of a lemons to oranges comparison than an apples to oranges one. The colour schemes are quite different, even the cameras used to take the photos aren’t the same. But comparing like to like is pretty rare in comparison critique, and definitely rare in contest judging, so while the exercise is a little more challenging than a direct like to like comparison, it is an opportunity to practice the type of thing you’re likely to do more often.

If you’d like to review the previous instalments in this series, here are links:
Part 1: Colour scheme creation (and correction) on the fly.
Part 2: Spotting and solving conundrums of contrast.
Part 3: Giving the figure a thorough once over before calling it done.

Tara and Anwyn, front views

So what kind of factors could you look at when making a comparison? Likely the first elements that will jump out to many people relate to the colour scheme. We are very responsive to colour, and our initial reactions to colour tend to be visceral and subconscious. Building your eye requires a more conscious and critical assessment in addition to that emotional response. As a judge, I have often been a position of awarding high honours to something I might not personally ‘like’ in terms of colour selection or subject, but which is very skillfully done.

* Do the colours work together in a pleasing and effective fashion? (Depending on the subject and the intended scene, ‘effective’ may mean garish or gross colours that aren’t ‘pleasing’ in the traditional sense!)

* Does the colour scheme fit the character and the story/mood that the painter is aiming for with the figure/scene?

* What is the level of contrast between the colours of different areas, and within the shading and highlighting of individual areas? Is the level of contrast sufficient to visually separate different areas of the model and help the viewer identify what the various items on the figure are?

* What is the level of nuance and complexity in the colours? Are there subtle variations of hue within areas? Is there harmony in the shadow and highlight colours over the whole of the piece? Do the colours of the main figure(s) and the scenic element(s) work together and look like parts of a consistent whole?

Tara and Anwyn, right views

Brush skills are another key area to compare. 

* Precision of paint application, both in larger areas, and within areas for placement of sharp highlights and darklining as appropriate.

* The success of the execution of details like eyes, small sculpted details, or pure painted details like freehand.

* Rendering of different surface textures – skin vs cloth vs leather vs metal vs wood vs dirt vs stone, etc. Is everything painted in a pretty similar way, or do these different textures stand out from one another in realistic and/or interesting ways?

* Consistency of rendering – is the overall level of the painting on the figure uniform? If you’ve ever wondered why something that looks fairly ‘plain’ scored higher in a contest than something with really great freehand or source lighting, consistency is often the reason. Doing an area or effect on a miniature spectacularly can fall short if the rest of the miniature is not up to a similar standard. That doesn’t mean that everything needs to have the exact same level of contrast or be super detailed! That is usually counter productive. You want to have areas of interest where the viewer focuses, and have areas that are less important fade into the background a little. But a miniature covered in detailed freehand standing on a base that’s had a quick wash and sloppy drybrush treatment isn’t as consistent as one with high quality but less flashy brushwork throughout the whole piece. 

(I will admit that consistency is an area where highly skilled artists can and have gotten away with doing things I just stated should not be done. Figures with errant brushstrokes, or areas that are barely base coated. Those of us of more modest talents are still well advised to aim for consistency as much as possible! I’ve also heard stories of people scoring lower or missing out on awards for having bits they ran out of time to paint to the standard of the rest of the figure.)

Tara and Anwyn, back views

Quality of preparation and the treatment of scenic elements can make a bigger difference to a figure than it might seem. They might not jump out at first viewing the way colour and brush skills do, but they’re a critical foundation to those elements.

* Prep work – the figure itself is your ‘canvas’. No amount of brush skill can completely overcome a poorly prepared canvas. Removing mould lines is just the beginning. You may also need to fill in pock marks on surfaces meant to be smooth, accentuate textures, file or carve weapons to look a little more sharp or pointed, etc. 

* Assembly is also important. Gaps between limbs will break the illusion pretty quickly! A common issue is the attachment of the figure to the base. If the feet look like they’re floating slightly above the surface rather than firmly planted, the miniature does not look like it’s part of the scene and doesn’t look like it has weight and substance.

* It is important to paint basing materials and most vegetation type flock. It seems like you should be able to put small rocks or sand or whatever on a base and have it look like rocks and sand, right? But unpainted basing materials do not look in scale to a painted figure. They also don’t look like they’re part of the same scene lit by the same light source. Painting the elements of the base, and using colours you used on the figure in those elements makes everything look unified and more realistic.

The last comparison picture is below, so don’t scroll past it if you don’t want to read my analysis yet!

Tara and Anwyn, left views

I’ll be honest – I hesitated to post these comparison pictures. I painted Anwyn in 2006! I’ve improved in the last dozen years, but not nearly so much as I might have hoped or expected. I wish I had understood the concepts of deliberate practice and focused self-critique so much earlier than I did! (And truthfully I’m still struggling with incorporating those ideas completely into my painting process.) I worked hard to ‘get better’, but in such an unfocused and haphazard way. 

In the end I have decided to take my lumps and share this in hopes that it may help some of you get where you want to be faster and more efficiently. I know the lure of chasing the right brush, painting, blending technique, etc. is hard to resist. But it really is only half the puzzle. Training your eye to see better so you can identify specific issues in your work and iterate through working to improve them is immensely important.

The Photos!

I can’t help but be struck by the difference in the photo quality. My camera in 2006 was a $400-500 mid-range digital camera. The one I used to take photos of Tara is just a little better in quality (it’s a new technology class of camera, but it was also in the $500 range at time of purchase, so fairly comparable.) It’s now six years old and I am considering replacing it. Partly due to mechanical issues, partly in hopes of being able to add video to my repertoire. Both cameras allowed for setting white balance, f/stop, and other features useful to taking pictures of miniatures. Some of the difference is also down to my improving my photo taking set up with more lights, and use of a tripod, as well as using a grayscale card to help with editing the colours to look truer to life. I did re-edit the pictures from 2006 to try to make the comparison between photos a little fairer.

Colour Comparison

I quite like the colour scheme on Anwyn, and suspect many people will prefer it to that used on Tara. I’ve been thinking about having another go of that colour scheme for a while now, and I hope a figure it will suit presents itself soon. The colour choices create more of a focal point around Anwyn’s face. Tara’s colour scheme is fairly well suited to the character, but lacks a little oomph from an artistic point of view, and it does not have a strong focal point.

Although there are some nice areas of highlight on Anwyn, I think I have improved my level of contrast over time. There are much deeper shadows on Tara than on Anwyn, as well as stronger contrast between some colour areas. I think the contrast difference is most noticeable in the hair and the non-metallic metal. That said, Tara has some contrast issues and needs stronger and more small top level highlights throughout most of the figure. The level of contrast isn’t that noticeably problematic in a photo, but viewed at tabletop distance she lacks the desired level of ‘pop’.

When it comes to nuance and complexity in colour, there I feel I have made noticeable improvement. Anwyn’s colours play it straight, and that results in a bit of a plastic, artificial look. Shadows and highlights are just darker and lighter variations of the midtones. There is no added complexity of colour in the face like blush or interesting shadow colours. The lack of colour complexity/variation is particularly noticeable in the difference between the two bases. Both are pretty simple, but Tara’s seems much more ‘real’ and related to the figure. This is largely due to the way it’s painted rather than the types of gravel or foliage I used.

Brush Skills Comparison

I don’t think it’s particularly evident in the areas of detail in these two figures (eyes, darklining, and so on), but I am confident that my brush skills overall have improved. The end result may not be strikingly different, but at least the level of frustration and effort required to achieve it has changed!

I am much more conscious of painting different types of textures and surfaces now, and I think that is pretty evident in comparing these two figures. Every area on Anwyn is painted in the same smoothly blended fashion, with the possible exception of her hair. I was obsessed with achieving smooth blends, and I think that shows. Tara demonstrates a lot more of an understanding of different materials having different textures – rough stone, worn leather, wood grain, shiny hair, etc. The transitions on the NMM are a little more varied and better represent the way reflected light can appear than the perfect smoothness on Anwyn’s NMM.

Preparation and Scene Setting

Both of these figures are presented on very simple bases, so there’s not a huge amount to assess there. I do think that my ability to make a decent looking simple base has improved, though that may not be saying much. ;-> Anwyn’s base is very simple, and lacks a bit of variety that would make it more pleasing to look at. The flowers very much look stuck on instead of being a bit more naturally part of the rest of the foliage.

I’ve always been a bit fussy about prep, so there’s not a big change to look at as far as that goes, either.


The end of the month crept up on me, so I’ve had to write this a bit more quickly than I usually prefer to do. Likely many of you will have spotted lots of issues with both of the figures or differences between them that I did not see. Feel free to share those in the comments. I am putting these figures out there to give people a chance to exercise their critique skills, so I have no problem with you tearing them apart. :->

Tara the Silent is an iconic Reaper Miniatures character that there have been a few different sculpts of over the years. I’ve even painted one before! (And then I painted her again, where she provided a good example of ways to paint with more contrast.) Reaper reproduced the classic Werner Klocke version in their new Bones Black plastic material as a promotional miniature for the month of May 2019, and also included it in their Bones 5 Kickstarter. It should go into general retail release in late 2021 or 2022. I painted the catalogue version for the new release of this figure. Anwyn the Bard is available in metal, or in classic Bones plastic.