Where to Shade Faces

Ko-fi tips help keep this content free. Patreon supporters receive PDFs with high res photos.

Painting shadows on faces can be a challenge. Many painters paint shadows too light in value on faces because they aren’t confident about where to place them. Others are reluctant to paint deep shadow values on lighter and even medium skin tones thinking that if complexion of someone’s skin tone is quite fair, how can it have much shadow on it? This hesitancy is misplaced. Shadows are our main tool for adding definition to the faces of gaming scale miniatures. They help add visual interest to busts and larger scale figures. Shadows can create or shift expressions on faces. In the real world, shadows are even a key component of how we identify the faces of different individuals. (There is a companion article that outlines where to paint highlights and how to paint darker skin tones.)

A few years ago I started to study portrait drawing and painting. One of the approaches to capturing the likeness of a person that I learned is to begin by blocking in the big shapes of shadow and light on the face. If you get the big shapes of shadow and light in the right places and in the right proportion to one another, you will capture the likeness of the person. Nailing the shape and proportion of shadow and light is far more important than getting the exact colour of someone’s eyes, or the texture of their beard stubble, or all the other details we tend to focus on when drawing or painting a face. Getting details right doesn’t matter if you’ve get the basic shape and structure of someone’s face wrong. (I will include some links to related traditional art tutorials near the bottom of this article for those interested.) 

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some examples. Below are drawings of a few faces. These drawings are rough, unblended, and have absolutely no details. None of them even have eyes, those supposed windows to the soul. Depending on your age and cultural background you might not recognize all of them, but I suspect most of you will recognize at least one of them.

Famous faces shadowWho are these people? Answers down at the very bottom of the post.

Another example to consider is yearbook and group graduate photos. Or any other small photo of a large group of people. The faces are basically just dark and light shapes, but you can recognize them as individuals, and even pick out people you know if there are any.

Jerry zhang CPmrdbbpnXg unsplashPhoto by Jerry Zhang on Unsplash.

How does this relate to miniature painting? The sculptor creates the facial features like eyes and nose. It’s their job to get these in the correct places to capture a likeness or evoke a particular expression. We’re just here to add a little colour by putting paint on top of that, right? Nope. If we want our minis to pop off the tabletop or resemble those painted by people we admire, we have to understand that our job is to use paint to simulate the effect of light shining on various surfaces, including faces. We have to do this with paint because our miniatures are too small for standard room lights to affect them enough. Painting the appropriate areas to be lighter and darker helps the viewer see the work the sculptor has done. We can also use light and shadow to shift facial expressions, create mood and characterization, or even just make our figures more interesting to look at.

Grey divider edit

Where to Place Shadows on Faces

There are a few shadows that are particularly important to create both a likeness and just the general impression of a face. Most of the time we view people when they have a light source positioned above their head or slightly to one side, like the sun or a ceiling light. This creates areas of shadow beneath (and/or to the side of) the features of our face that protrude, like our noses, brows, lower lips, and chins. The placement, shape, and size of the various facial features is unique to every individual, and so the pattern of shadow that they cast is also unique.

We’re so used to seeing people in this kind of lighting that one of the reasons it looks spooky when someone puts a flashlight under their chin is that it lights the face in the complete opposite of the way we are accustomed to seeing and interpreting facial features.

The key shadow lines/areas for typical lighting scenarios are outlined below. If you are trying to paint extreme light from an odd direction or add a source light glow from a different than typical direction, you should create references for yourself to know where to paint areas of light and shadow.

Eye Socket

In the rough portraits above, the eye sockets are filled with shadow on most of the faces, and there is no detail about the eyes. If the majority of the light is coming from above the face and there is only a small to moderate amount of diffuse light or light from other sources, this is what the eye area of most people will look like when viewed from a distance. The next time you’re out at a restaurant with mood lighting, look at someone three or four tables away, and you will likely see just a large shadow area in their eye sockets, and maybe just a few details of their eyes and eyelids.

There is more light from in front falling on the face in the upper right of my examples above. You can see more details in the eye area – you see the upper eyelid crease (or the bottom of the brow ridge), and then the eye and under eye area blend into a smaller dark shape. If there is a lot of light from the front  or ambient light you might see the line under the brow, the line of the upper lashes, and then a darker area under the lower rim of the eye. We usually paint miniatures in this way, as if some diffuse light were illuminating the eye area of the face and making details more apparent, and it can look effective to do that, even if you have to ‘cheat’ the light a little. You can see some examples closer to that in the examples of doll heads that I’ve included near the end of this post. But if you’re painting tabletop miniatures and want to simplify your life, paint them with simple shadowed eye sockets. It’s actually pretty realistic to what we often see when we look at people from a distance away.

It is rare for a gaming scale miniature sculpt to include all of the anatomical details of the eye socket area because of the small scale. (The eyes of gaming scale miniatures are already scaled way up compared to the proportions they have on a real face, or we’d barely see them at all!) Usually the face of a smaller miniature will have a defined brow or brow ridge, a defined upper eye lid edge, and a defined lower eye lid edge. That defined lower eye lid edge is actually an amalgamation of the lower eyelid and the area of shadow and darker tinted skin that is found directly beneath the eye. As you move up in scale through figures and busts, you will find an increasing amount of anatomical detail, and I recommend referring to reference photos to see the nuances of shadow, light, and skin tone variation for painting larger busts.

Male brow ridges usually protrude more than female ones, so the shadow below the brow ridge will often be more noticeable on a male face. For female gaming scale figures I often just paint a bit of shadow under the brow ridge and do not even paint in eyebrows, but it depends on the figure and the level of paint job I’m going for. Bold eyebrows can add a lot of character to a more masculine or monstrous face, so I will sometimes paint eyebrows on if they weren’t sculpted.

Sophie18 face hair fullOn this figure you can see the typical simplification of the eye area on a gaming figure sculpt. This is also an example of a nose painted with the light direction coming from one side. In this scenario the side slope of the nose facing away from the light should appear darker than the other. Although one side of her nose is closer to the light, there is still a line of shadow beneath the entire nose because of how far it protrudes from the face.

Under the Nose

Our noses protrude out from our faces quite a bit. The skin on the bottom of the nose and the nostrils are obscured from the light. That area will appear quite dark on most faces, even if the face is turned to the side or tilted up. I paint the under nose area on most miniatures with one of my darker shade mixes. There are usually some softer shadows on the sides of the nose where it slopes towards the cheeks. You can help capture this is by leaving that area the midtone skin colour and applying highlights to the top of the nose and the tops of the cheekbones. I typically apply a light shadow layer mix to the side slopes of the nose, but it can be tricky to do and depends a bit on the sculpt. Note that if you want to paint your light source as if coming from one side as in the example above, the opposite side of the nose will be more heavily shadowed than in a light from above scenario.

Noses protrude from the face to such a degree that they often cast a large shadow area onto the area of skin between the base of the nose and the upper lip. Miniature painters rarely paint much cast shadow, so this is unusual to see on figures, but it is something to consider, especially for larger scales.

The Upper Lip

The upper lip slants inward and downward towards where the lips meet, so it usually appears much darker and shadowed than the lower lip. For a gaming scale miniature the best way to approach this in most cases is just to paint a dark line where the lips join. In the example above I’ve added a tiny bit of additional paint to the upper lip area to create the appearance of a cupid’s bow lip, but that can be challenging to do! I recommend using colours that are lighter and more in the brown colour family if you want to paint a face that appears more traditionally masculine. Painting anything above the line where the lips join, using a darker colour, or using a reddish/pinking colour will tend to create more of a lipstick look.

Under the Lower Lip

The lower lip protrudes out from the face and casts a small shadow on the skin just beneath it. The appears as a line just under the lower lip. Usually I achieve this by painting the lip with a pretty dark value colour. I then highlight the lower lip, but leave a small line of the darker colour at the bottom to create this shadow.

Under the Chin

The neck is set far back and the chin and jaw protrude. This puts the entire area of the skin under the chin is in shadow, and often large portions of the neck as well. Natural light will shadow this area somewhat even on gaming scale figures, but I think you will get the best look when you apply dark shadow paint to the area under the chin, and some lighter shadows on the neck area. Painting these areas darker helps pop the face out, which is both realistic (look at the neck areas of the sketches at the top of the article), and also helps to put focus on the face of your figure. You can add additional shadow to either side of the neck where it slopes away to make it look rounder, like the cylinder it is, as you can see in the example below.

Efreet black faceThis figure has fairly dark skin, but it’s a good example of the dark line between the lips, under the bottom lip and shadow under the chin and on the neck. An article about how I painted Ziba the Efreeti is available.


Even when a person’s hair and skin colour are fairly similar, there is often a line of shadow where the hair hangs over the face. Although our hair is one of the easiest things for us to change about our appearance, memory studies show that the hairline is a key factor in recognizing and identifying faces. Using strong hue and/or value contrast between the skin of the face and the hair on a figure is a very effective way to create visual interest and make the figure easier to read for the viewer. It is particularly important to paint a bit of a shadow line around the hairline when the face and hair colours are similar in value and/or hue. (I have an article and accompanying video about how to paint hair.)

Grey divider edit

I’ve shared examples of painted figures above, and include some additional examples to share below. However, I know that it can be challenging to separate out the effect of light and shadow from colour variations in the skin tone, cosmetics, etc. Below are three pictures of the same bust taken under different kinds of lighting, so you can assess the way light and shadow falls on a face that is a uniform colour. 

Face light combo cr

In this picture the bust is lit with even light. While you can make out most of the facial features, you can’t really distinguish much personality, and it’s not particularly interesting to look at. Note that even though I tried to make the lighting as flat as I could, you can still see a line of shadow between the face and the hair, and between the neck and the cowl. Lining is not unrealistic! It replicates the line of shadow that occurs when one object or surface overhangs another.

Here the light is located above and slightly in front of the face. Notice that the face seems more dramatic, more alive, and more three dimensional than in the left photo. That is all because of the shadows! I would consider this the minimum level of shadow contrast to paint. You might prefer to paint some of the shadows a little smaller (like a smaller cast shadow under the nose and beside the lower eye), and you might not feel comfortable painting the neck shadow as dark as in the photo, but overall this is a good guide to the placement and minimum depth of shadows.

In this photo the light is placed directly above the bust, and there is less ambient room light. This gives the bust a more dramatic mood and a more intense expression. The eye sockets, neck, and downward facing cheek are heavily shadowed. A miniature painter would likely paint a little more light into the eye socket area than appears here to bring out the details, and would also likely reduce the size of the cast shadow under the nose. However, as a general guide this is the kind of lighting that many admired high level painters are using to make their figures more expressive and eye-catching!

The face on this bust is 24mm long from the top of the forehead to the bottom of the chin, so this is a much larger face than the average gaming scale figure. As a result, the sculpted features are much higher relief, so even flat lighting will have some effect on them. It is also much more detailed than a gaming scale figure could be. The smaller the scale of the figure, the less you can rely on natural light and the more you need to paint in high contrast of light and shadow.

The photo below compares the colour of the resin bust to a fair human skin tone. I also sampled some of the shadow areas to show how dark in value those appear even on a lighter value surface like this. To put it another way – the demonstration photos of the bust in different lighting scenarios reflect how dark in value shadows can look on a skin tone at the lighter end of the spectrum.

Skin values crI used the eyedropper tool to isolate some of the values in this photograph.

My focus today is on the face, but the need for shadow depth is true across the entire figure, of course. Here’s an example of a gaming scale figure with flatter lighting on the left, and more dramatic light in the centre and right photos. The right two are more interesting to look at, and you can better distinguish the figure’s anatomy and his various items of gear.

Lighting combo cr

Grey divider edit

I suspect there are a couple of reasons that people think darker shadows on light and medium skin tones are unrealistic. One is that we increasingly see people in very even lighting. A lot of photos and videos of celebrities, Instagram models, and advertisements use a soft front light or diffuse overall bright light on faces, because it minimizes the appearance of wrinkles and blemishes. (Flat light flatters!) Pro photographers photoshop faces to appear even smoother, and selfie takers follow suit by using filters. You still see the facial features, but this is largely because of cosmetics and just the scale of them as real people. Well, ‘real’ people. Photos that have been heavily manipulated with professional lighting, lenses, photoshop, and filters may be affecting our judgement of what appears realistic. They are a terrible reference to use for how people actually appear in reality.

A lot of candid cellphone camera photos actually have a similar problem, although they are usually less flattering. We spend a lot of time indoors in very even lighting, in our well-lit offices, homes, and schools. So those photos may be more realistic, but they’re often also pretty dull. They’re also not the only kind of realistic.

I encourage you to actively look at people in different lighting situations and see if dark shadows on skin are as unrealistic as you think. Look at faces outdoors in bright sunlight. Study faces when you’re in more mixed lighting situations like restaurants. Also remember that if you are painting fantasy characters, they do not live in our evenly lit environments! Torches, campfires, and gas lamps are all going to cast stronger shadows than our modern ceiling lights.

Another way to think about it is to compare the lighting in a sitcom versus a movie. Sitcom sets are evenly lit so the cameras can capture the actors from any angle and position and they’ll look pretty much the same. Movies are lit for specific scenes to evoke emotion and tell stories. Do you want your figures to have bland sitcom faces or dramatic movie scene faces?

Grey divider edit

I’d like to give you a few more examples of where to place shadow on faces. I think these examples demonstrate that increasing the amount and depth of shadow areas on a face is not cartoonish, but rather increases the level of realism and helps make the face more interesting to look at. The following pictures are before/after of dolls that have been repainted and restyled by the talented artist Noel Cruz. I believe most of these are Barbie dolls or of similar size. The size of a Barbie doll face is a pretty similar size to many miniature figure busts.

The faces of all of these dolls are based on real people. They have been sculpted in the likeness of various celebrities. The faces are sculpted very well, with placement and proportion of features that matches the celebrity. This is not always apparent from the factory paint, however. The accuracy of the sculpt becomes much more obvious in Cruz’s repaints. The repaints include subtleties of skin colouration, and better matches to eye colour and such. But one of the most striking things Cruz does that improves the likeness and makes the faces look more lifelike is… add shadows. 

Compare the before and after pictures below carefully. You’ll see more shadows in the eye socket area. Often the whites of the eyes are darker. You’ll see shadows in the areas I mentioned above – under the nose, darker upper lip, a shadow under the lower lip. Often there is additional shading on the sides of the nose and the hollows of the cheeks. If you’re having trouble seeing exactly what the differences are, try squinting your eyes as you compare the before and pictures, and the areas of darkness on the repaints should become apparent. Cruz has done a lot of repaints if you’d like to study more than the ones I’m showing here.

Sheldon juen12The overall skin tone is still very fair, but you can see a lot more shadow around the eyes and in the other areas I outlined above. The mouth area looks a lot more three dimensional and interesting due to the dark line between the lips and under the lower lip, as well as some subtle shadows on the skin above the corners of the mouth. If you look closely at the factory doll you can see that there are pouches sculpted under the eyes, but they look much more realistic and dimensional once Cruz adds shadow beneath them. Painted by Noel Cruz.

Diana june12The most noticeable aspect of this repaint to me is how much the increased the darkness in areas improves the likeness and the realism. The teeth and whites of the eyes are noticeably darker, and there is more shading around the eyes. The darkness at the corners of the mouth makes it look much more three dimensional. If you study the end of her nose in both pictures, you can see that the sculpt is accurate, it is asymmetric and slightly turned to the viewer’s right. You are able to see that shape more readily in Cruz’s version because of the subtle highlights and shadows he’s painted in that area. Painted by Noel Cruz.

Celebrity dolls repainted noel cruz 40 594b5f30b367b 880The eyes of the repaint are much more shadowed and have even been painted to look smaller. The shadows added under the brow ridge make it appear to protrude more, and thus make the eyes look more inset. A strong brow ridge and smaller eyes are very traditionally masculine facial features. On this face they balance out the mouth and high cheekbones, which are more traditionally feminine in shape. As a result the repaint appears as a very attractive man, but one with more masculinity and even a bit of menace, whereas the flat skin of the factory paint kind of has a teenage boyband member look. Note that the dark thin line for the upper lip looks more masculine than the lighter, fuller lip of the factory paint. The sculpt is the same between them, the only difference is the location and value of the paint. This is a pretty light value skin tone for a man, but the deep shadows are necessary for the face to look realistic. Painted by Noel Cruz.

Jennifer Lopez 2 594b6a23bc9ca 880Some of the darkness around the eyes of the repaint is meant to mimic the effect of cosmetics, but not all of it. The deep shadows on the sides at the top of her nose up to her eyebrows are painted to mimic the effect of lighting. Her nose looks much more three dimensional on the repaint. Note the darkness of the upper lip and the shadow under the lower lip, even though she’s painted as wearing a nude or natural lipstick colour. Also note that Cruz has either painted in or glued on fine baby hair along the hair line. This is quite dark, which helps frame the face and make the head look more three dimensional. On a gaming scale miniature you would simulate this by painting a dark line between the hair and the face. Painted by Noel Cruz.

Based on comments I’ve received on past comparison pictures, it can be hard for some people to distinguish specific differences in cases like this. And that’s understandable if you haven’t spent much time studying art or analyzing visual material! When you look at the Noel Cruz repaints above, you may have trouble separating out the effects of the increased shadows versus the the effects of changing the skin tone and lip colour, adding a flush to the cheek, vastly improving the hair styles, and all the other things Cruz has done to create his super realistic doll repaints. (Note that the more you practice doing this type of comparison and the more you critically analyze paint jobs on miniatures that you like, the better your artistic eye becomes, and that can have immeasurably benefit for your miniature painting.)

I thought it might help if I created some simpler examples. I took a couple of the original factory paint pictures and digitally edited them to add more shadows. I only added shadows and darker areas, and I only used colours based on the colours that were already on the factory paint version. So there are no painted pores or added cheek flushes or drastic makeup changes or anything else, just areas with more darkness in the places that should appear shadowed in typical lighting. 

Monroe digital comLeft: factory paint. Middle: additional shading I added digitally. Right: Noel Cruz repaint. Note that although Marilyn’s hair and face are both quite light in value, there is a shadow line of separation between them. (Aka lining) Cruz has once again enhanced that by painting or gluing on baby hairs around the hairline.

Pattinson digital compLeft: factory paint. Middle: additional shading I added digitally. Right: Noel Cruz repaint

I focused my digital shading additions on the areas I mentioned previously – under the brow bone, under the eye, under the nose, the top lip, and under the bottom lip. Then I added some subtler shading on the sides of the nose and under the chin, and in the case of Robert Pattinson, on the sides of the face. I darkened both the whites and iris of the eyes, and also darkened Marilyn Monroe’s teeth. My digital edits don’t look anywhere near as nice as Noel Cruz’s repaints, but the addition of just a little more shadow makes them look a little more realistic and three dimensional than the flat factory paint versions. (And these aren’t terrible factory paint jobs really!)

Wait a minute, you may be thinking. If these shadows are created by light shining onto the features of the face, why is Noel Cruz painting them on these dolls? And why do I have to paint them onto my miniature? That goes back to scale. Distant ceiling lights and ambient light are not strong enough to make the features on small scale faces cast realistic looking shadows. If you place the doll or a miniature directly under a desk lamp you’ll see darker and more realistic shadows. If we want our figures to look great when viewed in a variety of lighting scenarios, we need to take the place of the light and paint those shadows onto them!

In the event that you hadn’t realized it yet – surprise, this article is about contrast! You can read more the struggle between contrast and realism, and then consult the Contrast Series Guide for tips on how to shift your thinking and try different techniques to increase the contrast in your miniature painting.

Note that of course all of these same shadows occur on people with darker skin tones! And would appear on humanoids with fantasy skin tone colours. I have focused this article on medium and light skin tones because people are particularly hesitant to add much shading to them. Painting dark skin tends to present more challenges with highlights than with shadows. In brief, because skin has a sheen and reflects light in spots, dark skin needs to be painted with small bright highlight spots to look most realistic and visually interesting. It is challenging to keep these small enough that the overall skin still reads as dark, but also have them look a little blended and natural on the skin. This is something I’m still working on myself, and I definitely need to make an effort to practice some more!

Darker skin faces

If you’re interested in some resources that demonstrate traditional art approaches to shadow and light, here are a few. The first video discusses how we recognize people and the features of the face, and how to draw them with big blocks of shadow. This artist talks about the five essential shadows to create a likeness. I went over where to place shadows in this article, though his approach and mine are not identical. Here you can watch a time-lapse of an artist who begins a painting with large rough blocks of shadow and light and then refines those down. The first 20% of his painting time is spent getting those darks and lights in the right place because that is the foundation upon which likeness and realism are built. He ends up with a very tight and polished painting, but he starts with something closer to my examples at the top of this article. This series of articles outlines a method of painting portraits that starts with the big shapes of light and dark.

Who were those faces at the top of the article? From top left to bottom right: Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, and the Mona Lisa.

Miniatures in this Post

Masquerade Ball Sophie is available in metal.
Ziba the Efreeti is available in Bones Black plastic.
The Teutonic Knight is available in resin.
Brand the barbarian is available in Bones plastic.
Quinn is available in metal or Bones plastic.
The Demonkin Warrior with sword is available in metal.
Tara the Silent is available in metal or Bones Black plastic.

Underpainting Grayscale Example: Barglemore and Camille

Ko-fi tips help keep this content free. Patreon supporters receive PDFs with high res photos.

Underpainting is using an initial layer of paint to establish some element(s) of a paint job. Zenithal priming is a great example of this – it establishes the direction of the light falling on the figure.  Zenithal priming is just one of many types of underpainting that we can use to improve our painting, however! For the pair of miniatures in this article I used a more traditional greyscale (grisaille) sketch underpainting technique. I think this approach can be much more helpful to creating (and understanding) the necessary contrast on a miniature figure than zenithal priming alone. Another benefit is that it does not require any supplies other than a brush and paint.

Zombie servants front full

Barglemore the zombie butler and Camille the zombie maid are great subjects for the technique. Their clothing is sculpted to resemble the traditional/stereotypical butler and maid uniforms, which are black, white, and shades of grey, and I wanted to paint them that way as well. I wasn’t able to find any freely useable reference images to include in this article, but you will find plenty of examples if you do an image search on ‘butler’ and ‘French maid’. Note that this greyscale sketching technique absolutely works with more colourful figures, I just think the more subdued colour schemes on these zombie servants help demonstrate the principle and application of the technique more clearly.

Value scale bw

Value refers to how light or dark a colour is. Value contrast is the most fundamental type of contrast we can use. Miniature painters tend to think of value contrast as referring to the contrast between the darkest shadows and the lightest highlights. Shadow/highlight contrast is crucial to making miniature figures look fully three dimensional, but there is another type of very useful value contrast – contrast between the values of adjacent areas. This is a strong tool we can use to make figures easier to read for the viewer, especially from a distance. It’s also a valuable tool to creating focus, mood, and conveying story/character. Note that every colour has a value scale, such as navy blue to baby blue. A full value range for blue and yellow would include black and white on the extreme ends of the value scales below.

Valuescale combo

When we are actively painting it is very challenging to juggle all of the elements we need to think about at the same time – choosing colours, selecting the appropriate value for each of those colours, painting sufficient shadow/highlight contrast, depicting the light source correctly – all while trying to create smooth blends or texture strokes with our brushes and paints. To try to do all of that at once is expecting a lot of ourselves, and it’s no wonder we often fail to get all of that right! In my study of traditional art I have found that traditional artists often break these tasks up into separate steps. This allows them to focus on one or two challenges at a time, which makes it more likely to achieve a successful piece. I think adopting a similar approach in miniature painting would be helpful to most of us.

The purpose of starting with an underpainting layer is to separate out a few of our tasks. For example, a zenithal prime underpainting establishes the overall direction of the light and creates areas of light and shadow so we don’t have to constantly stop to visualize where those should be. The greyscale sketch underpainting approach that I use here also establishes the direction of light and the rough range of contrast between shadows and highlights. The difference is that it also establishes the overall value of each area on the figure in comparison to each other area. So on the butler below, each area has some shadows and highlights applied with the direction of the light source in mind, but it also defines the value contrast between areas: the head is very light, the coat is very dark, the pants are somewhere in the middle, and so on. I think of this as mapping out my values over the surface of the figure, so I often refer to it as value mapping. The term value sketch would also apply.

11a sophie18 barglemore blockin frontThe underpainting stage on Barglemore the zombie butler.

I combined my underpainting step with my priming step by using Reaper’s brush-on primers. They’re available in white, black, and gray. I usually mix one or two more shades of grey so I have a value scale of four or five steps including black to white. These are metal figures, so it is necessary to prime them for the paint to adhere well. I live in a fairly humid climate, so I often use brush-on primer instead of spray cans. But if you’ve already spray-primed your figure or you’re working with a Bones plastic figure that doesn’t need priming, you can do this same step with black, white, and grey paints instead of primer.

Maid blockin front 400The underpainting stage on Camille the zombie maid and her ‘feather’ duster.

The underpainting looks rough, and that’s okay! My goal is to establish the big picture of the figure by answering a few questions. Which areas are darker, lighter, or in between? What is the value range between the highlights and the shadows on each area? Where should the main highlights and shadows be placed to establish the light direction I have chosen for the figure? I completely ignore all detail elements like the eyes, buttons on the butler’s vest, edge highlights like around the rips in the cloth, the crevices in between the tiles on the floor, and so on. I just want to make the overall big picture decisions so I don’t have to think about those when I am concentrating to paint tiny details, refine blending, or add textures. It’s easier to get more elements correct if you are only concentrating on one or two at a time.

That said, it may be that some of you look at those photos and feel that my underpainting is actually pretty detailed. Or you might be wondering if you have to address all of those factors at once with underpainting. It is a flexible technique. Just blocking in your basecoats for each area is a form of underpainting that lets you assess your colour and value choices for the figure as a whole. You could rough in just the direction of light and the main areas for highlights and shadows. You don’t even need to try to paint smoothly at all! In the example below, I used only three colours – black, grey, and white. The grey represented the midtone for each area. I painted black in the location of shadows, and white in the location of highlights. When I applied colour paint over the value map I applied it in a similar way. I applied highlight colours over the areas of white, shadow colours over the areas of black, and midtone colours over the areas of grey. (This is kind of a brush painted version of zenithal priming.)

Tara map final front crThis underpainting example does not include establishing values between areas or being at all smooth. It was still helpful to achieving the end result. You can see more steps of how I painted this figure and other forms of underpainting.

Since the next step involves applying paint over the value map, I recommend taking some pictures of your figure at this stage so you can refer back to your value map stage if you need to. You don’t need a fancy camera set up like I use for many of my pictures. Most cellphones made in the past few years take good photos. Pose the figure against a plain background if your camera has trouble focusing, and try to take the picture in a well-lit area.

Butler cellThis cellphone picture is blurry and a little overexposed, but since the value map is not about details, it gives me all the information I need.


My next step is to apply coloured paint. Even though these figures are dressed in shades of black, grey, and white, I still painted over the primer with opaque paint colours. Black and white primers are not as dark or light as black and white paints, and they sometimes have a different finish than matte paints. I also wanted greys that were not true neutral greys for the butler’s vest and pants. Both are warmer greys, and the vest has just a hint of purple in the shadows.

For each area I created mixes of paint similar in value to the primer mixes, with a few additional mix steps to allow me to make smoother transitions. When applying the paint, I used the underpainting as a road map for where to apply the various value mixes of the colour. Let’s look at the knee on Barglemore’s left leg as an example. I applied a lighter mix on the top of the knee, and a dark value underneath that, then smoothed the transition line between the two sections as necessary with midtone value mixes.

11 sophie barglemore front combo cr

Once I establish the main highlights and shadows and smooth the blending between them, then at that point I work on the details. For these figures that stage included such tasks as adding highlighting to the edges of the cloth tears and deep shadows within the recesses of the tears, lining around the buttons and other areas, adding detail to the facial features, and painting highlights and shadows into the smaller details of folds and wrinkles on the cloth.

12 sophie camille face combo cr

The front side of Camille demonstrates how the value mapping stage can help – if you remember to follow your map! When working with the black, white, and grey paint/primer colours, the only thing I need to think about is where areas of the figure should look darker or lighter based on my imagined light source. For this figure I pictured the light as coming from the upper right corner and slightly in front of the figure. If you look at the value mapping stage, you can see some nice highlights on the stomach area of the bodice that evoke that light. Unfortunately, I did not follow the map that I had laid down when I applied the final paint colours on top of the primer. I did highlight some wrinkles on the cloth in that area, but in a way that was less interesting and less true to the light source I was trying to evoke.

12 sophie camille front circle

It is also possible to make mistakes during the underpainting stage, or to change your mind about some of the decisions you made. My underpainting of the back side of Barglemore was really quite dull. When I started applying paint over it, I decided I needed to increase the value of the highlights on the folds of cloth to better accentuate the deformity of the shoulder and to just generally add more visual interest. The areas of shadow should probably be a little larger/darker in my final version, but I felt it was better to sacrifice the light direction and dark ambiance a little in this area to better bring out all the lovely sculpted details on the figure.

13 sophie barglemore back cr

Think of an underpainting is a useful road map, not a cage locking you in. You can reinterpret and enhance your vision as necessary when painting your colour paint over the underpainting. The rear view of Camille shows a mix of following the value road map from the underpainting and also making some changes. Overall the values are pretty true to my initial value map – look at the location of the highlights and shadow in the hair, and the bright spots on the elbow and side of the hand on the arm to the right, which are present in both the underpainting stage and the final painted version.

14 sophie camille back combo cr

I did make two major changes, however. During the painting stage I decided I wanted the skirt to look like more of a gauzy type of fabric, so I painted it as grey instead of black, and applied the highlights with vertical brush strokes to indicate ruffles in order to try to convey that texture. I think the colour switch and additional texture adds a spot of interest that the underpainted sketch lacked. I had painted the stockings more grey than black in the underpainting, and switched to black with hints of transparency during the painting stage. I think this helps keep more focus on the top half of the figure and breaks up the areas in a more visually interesting way.

Related Articles

My article about painting ReaperCon Sophie 2018 provides another example of this process with a more vibrant colour scheme. I used both greyscale and colour value mapping on this Christmas dragon.

The Contrast Series links to all of articles about contrast available on this site, some of which use different methods than that demonstrated here to help you achieve more contrast on your figures.

The How to Paint Faster article explores the idea of starting with a rough colour block-in or sketch to get paint on the figure faster.

My testing colour schemes article is an example of a way to separate out the task of choosing and composing colours before you begin painting, which traditional artists would call doing colour studies.

This short video from Zumikito Miniatures demonstrates three different methods of value sketching and how to proceed from the initial point to a fully painted figure.


History and Variations of Underpainting in Miniature Painting and Traditional Art

The underpainting technique that I demonstrated here is the process of blocking in the major areas of dark, light, and midtone using greyscale. This is similar to longstanding traditional art concepts. Value studies and thumbnails are common methods traditional artists use to determine the value composition of a piece as a whole, and they are often done in greyscale.

Traditional underpainting can be fairly roughly applied in order to figure out the big picture values, similar to what I have done on my figures in this article. This type of underpainting is not done only in greyscale (grisaille), however! Artists may use brunaille (browns) or verdaccio (greens), or any other colour. An initial rough sketch layer can also be done in the colours intended for the final piece. Miniature painters often refer to this as sketching. Benjamin Kantor has a video demonstrating greyscale sketching and another demonstrating colour sketching on a bust.

Sergio sketch comboThis is an example of making the initial sketch of hue and value choices and then refining the blending and textures once the painter is satisfied with the colour composition. This figure was painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio during a painting class.

Traditional underpainting, particular grisaille, can also be applied in a much more detailed and complete fashion. Detailed grisaille painting is sometimes also called the dead layer. Painters then glaze transparent colour on top of that, adding additional opaque highlights and making other tweaks as necessary.

Zenithal priming is a form of underpainting popular amongst miniature painters. It can be done with either an airbrush or spray can primers. You begin by priming/painting the entire figure black. Then you spray white from the direction of your light source. Adding a step between the black and white by spraying grey from a roughly 90 degrees can give a more refined result. Alternatively, you might used white paint to smooth areas and paint on the very brightest highlights. The painter Matt DiPietro popularized using the term sketch style for this slightly refined version of zenithal underpainting, though as I mentioned above, some miniature painters have been using the concept and the term sketching for a while now to refer to underpainting in colour and greyscale.

I mention the terms above so that if you’re interested in more information on the traditional use of underpainting or the way miniature painters are incorporating it into their process, you have some starting points for web search terms.

Zombie servants back full


Barglemore and Camille Paint Colour Guide

Barglemore and Camille are available in metal. All paints are from Reaper Miniatures. Some of the paints listed may be discontinued or special edition colours and not currently available on the Reaper Miniatures site. The dirt and stains were added with weathering powders.

Midtones: Ghoul Skin + Tanned Highlight
Highlights: Bloodless Skin + Tanned Highlight, Bloodless Skin, Pure White
Shadows: Ghoul Skin, Twilight Blue, Midnight Blue
Glazes painted in selective areas of skin shadows: 9602 Bruised Purple, 9667 Rattlesnake Leather, Icy Violet + Nightsky Indigo – experiment with dull purples, greens, and blues on zombie skin!

Barglemore’s Black Coat and Camille’s Black Corset
Midtone: Solid Black
Highlights: Dusky Skin Triad
Shadows: Blue Liner

Camille’s Skirt
Midtone: Dusky Skin
Highlights: Dusky Skin Highlight, with a dab of white added to it for brightest highlights
Shadows: Dusky Skin, Dusky Skin Shadow, Solid Black

Barglemore’s Vest
Midtone: Vampiric Shadow
Highlights: Vampiric Skin, Vampiric Highlight, Pure White
Shadows: Stone Grey, Shadowed Stone, Grey Liner

Barglemore’s Pants
Midtone: Stone Grey
Highlights: Vampiric Shadow, Vampiric Skin, Vampiric Highlight
Shadows: Shadowed Stone, Grey Liner

Camille’s Hair
Midtone: Shield Brown
Highlights: Driftwood Brown, Terran Khaki
Shadows: Woodstain Brown, then add a touch of Blue Liner for final highlights

White Accessories (Barglemore’s Ascot, Camille’s Apron and Hat)
Midtone: Creamy Ivory
Highlight: Pure White
Shadow: Terran Khaki

Metal Tray and Buttons
Midtone: Honed Steel
Highlight: Polished Silver
Shadows: Midnight Blue, Blue Liner

Midtone: Sunburn Flesh
Highlight: Tanned Highlight, Bloodless Skin Highlight, Pure White
Shadows: Bruised Purple

Floor Tiles
Midtone: Chestnut Gold
Highlights: Burnt Orange, Creamy Ivory
Shadows: Woodstain Brown, add Blue Liner for darker shadows

Same colours as the floor, with a bit of white mixed into highlight colours.

Floor Marbling
Streaks of colours used on the figures include Ghoul Skin, Sunburn Flesh, Bruised Purple, Twilight Blue, and Midnight Blue

Ghost Bride Betty: Then and Now

Ko-fi tips help keep this content free. Patreon supporters receive PDFs with high res photos.

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

Grey divider edit

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.

Grey divider edit

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.

Grey divider edit

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.

Colour Matching is Not the Secret Code to Realism

Ko-fi tips help keep this content free. Patreon supporters receive PDFs with high res photos.

One of the things that’s been interesting about studying more traditional art forms after learning to paint miniatures is discovering that there are common issues and areas of mistaken focus for learners of all forms of visual media. One area that less experienced artists in every media put a heavy focus on is trying to choose or match colours to achieve greater realism. Maybe you want to figure out the best colour recipe to use for skin, or wood, or rocks. Maybe you just want to know the ‘right’ colour to shade this other colour you’re using. Maybe you love a colour you saw on someone else’s figure or book cover art. Maybe you’re looking at a reference photo of a suit of armour or leather boots and trying to match the colour. (I encourage you to use reference photos and study real life objects, it’ll help your painting a lot!) Whatever the reference point, a lot of us stress ourselves out trying to find the ‘right’ or ‘best’ colour for something.

I want to talk about why matching colours isn’t as important to achieving realism as we think it is, and outline the element that is much more important than colour.

First I would ask: do we even need colour to perceive something as realistic? This is a drawing I’ve been working on for a while now. It’s not quite done, but would you say that the face looks realistic?

IMG 1102

In stark contrast to the focus learners put on matching colours, teachers emphasize another factor as being far more important. Tutorials by experienced artists and art teachers (including miniature painters) very often say the colours don’t really matter, use whatever paints you have, exaggerate or tweak the colour. What they emphasize instead is the importance of learning to see and apply to your work the full range of value and contrast found on objects in the real world, reference photos, and the work of people you admire. An uncounted number of instructors across all of the various medias that I’ve studied repeat basically the same message: 

The key to effective art, especially realistic art, is to accurately represent the natural range of dark, midtone, and light colours that would be seen on that material/object.

Absolutely colour can be important! It contributes a lot to mood and atmosphere and is just plain pleasing to look at. It’s also true that we see the world in colour, so colour is an important element of making something feel realistic to most of us. And it’s fun to work with! What I’m getting at here is that concentrating your focus on choosing/mixing an exact ‘right’ colour is not really that helpful to improving your skills. If you think that painting more realistically or more successfully is primarily a matter of choosing the right colours, you are overlooking other much more important issues that will slow down your progress.

Below you can see a more accurate photo of the painting I’m working on. Does the face still look realistic? I used wacky colours, so it’s not as realistic as it would look if painted with more naturalistic colours. You as a viewer may prefer art that is painted with naturalistic colours. But whether this is to your taste or not, the face looks like a real person. You can still identify the features and the expression. You can tell where the light is coming from. You can see which areas of the face protrude, like the nose and lips, and which are dips and depressions, like the hollows under the cheeks and the nostrils. You can probably even identify the subject’s ethnic background and what his natural skin tone might look like, despite the fact that I deliberately didn’t use any natural skin tones in painting this.

IMG 1103

Black and white and other monochromatic colour schemes work on miniatures too! In fact, painting figures using a monochromatic colour scheme is an excellent way to push your understanding of the importance of value and texture, which are skills that will improve your painting on full colour figures.

Noir detective front 2000

Of course there are other important elements to achieve realism in drawing and painting! In this article I am primarily focused on the idea of rendering, in its definition of of painting in the colours and the shading and so on. This is what we do in miniature painting. If someone is drawing or sculpting their subject from a blank slate, they need to start with accurate proportion and perspective to make something look realistic and correct. If you’re painting a miniature figure, the sculptor has done all that work for us. Our focus is on rendering colour and the effect of light to look realistic and interesting. (And texture, but for the most part that is a topic for another day.)

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

They say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. I suggest you add colour to that list. You don’t need to match or find perfect colour hues to paint a decent miniature!

I painted the miniature on the left as part of a limited edition learn to paint kit for Reaper Miniatures. My goal was to try to match the colour scheme of the figure on the right that I had previously painted. Obviously there are differences in both the colours and the sophistication of the applied techniques between these two figures! But is the figure on the left a terrible paint job because it doesn’t match the colours of the inspiration exactly? 

Tristan front comp cr

I don’t think the one on the left is a terrible failure as a colour scheme. The colours don’t clash or look garish or super unrealistic. The colours work together harmoniously and create a similar mood to the inspiration. The colour choices give the mini fairly good definition so you can read it easily even at a distance. The elements I would add to improve this miniature have very little to do with colour. It would benefit from some lining and additional contrast, and maybe painting some of the fine details. It might look a little prettier if it were smoothly blended or had more of a cloth like texture on the skirt. The only item related to colour in the list of things I would do to improve the mini is adding more contrast by adding deeper shadows to the skin and hair, and that’s about value, not matching or changing colour hues.

In the example below, I was tasked with painting the figure to match the 2D artwork by the talented Izzy “Talin” Collier. The colours between the two are not exact matches. The creepy doll is a pretty close colour match. Sophie’s hair, wings, and red dress trim are not as close of matches, nor is the gravestone nor the zombie hand. I don’t think my painting on this figure is perfect, and five years on there are some things I would tweak or do differently. But I don’t think the painting is terrible because of the colours that don’t match, and I don’t think it completely fails to evoke the atmosphere in the original art. (Some of the non-matching colour choices were deliberate, for reasons I hope to get to in another article.)

Sophie 16 art mini

Here’s a traditional art example. Which of these cherries looks most realistic to you?

Cherries combo3

Cherries combo2

If you thought think these are all the same cherries just shown under different lighting scenarios or with some colour editing, you’re mostly right. The photograph of real cherries is on the bottom left. (The photographer of these cherries is Margo Luc.) The bottom right is a painting I did using the photo for reference. The two top cherry pictures are versions of my painting edited to alter the colours to be more of an orange red or more of a crimson red.  

I don’t think the degree to which these appear realistic is affected by the colour shifts. What makes my painting look like realistic cherries is not whether I matched the exact colours (I didn’t). The paintings look realistic because I was attentive as to where areas appear darker and lighter. Placing the darks and lights correctly captured the texture of the various items (shiny fruit vs matte stems and cloth) and the sense of light. All I needed to do colour wise was stay roughly in the family of colours cherries and cherry stems could be.

The modified version of the photo below is still recognizable to you as cherries, but the colour is far enough out of the family of natural colours cherries and stems might appear that it probably won’t look as pleasing to someone seeking realism. 

Cherries photo pink

My recommendation is to focus less on getting exactly the right colour. Think of it like horseshoes and hand grenades. It’s great if you can hit the target precisely, but most of the time it’s okay if you’re just close and you use something in the appropriate colour family.

Value and Contrast are Key

The aspect that is more important is to try to make things darker where they should be darker, and lighter where they should be lighter. And not only making them darker and lighter, but making them dark enough and light enough.

Yeah, I’m talking about that pesky contrast thing again! 

I’m going to use a couple of quick portraits I’ve done as an example to talk about colour versus value contrast. Both of the portraits below were drawn using the same reference photo. Both were drawn using watercolour pencils as the medium. (You can draw with these like a coloured pencil, then apply a damp brush and they turn into watercolour paint.) With the one on the left, I did the drawing with less time and attention. I also had a very limited colour selection of watercolour pencils for the one on the left, whereas I had a quite wide selection to choose from when I did the drawing on the right.

The drawing on the left is not great. The colour is a little bit strange. The face is mostly skin colour, but the shadows are a pretty strong purple. That said, I don’t think colour is the biggest problem of that drawing. Not by a long shot. The errors in the drawing of proportion and anatomy are far more significant reasons that it doesn’t look very realistic.

Green 1 cr

For this next picture, I did a little digital plastic surgery on the left drawing. It’s not perfect now, but the anatomy looks a little less freaky. I did not alter the colour beyond blending away the cut and paste marks from moving the features around to correct the proportions a little. So the colour is still a little weird, and the blending is pretty rough. I don’t think the colour looks super horrible on its own, though. The one on the right has better colour, but if the blending was a little better, I bet the one on the left wouldn’t look so bad.

Green 2 cr

In the picture below, I used photo editing tools to smooth the blending on the skin of the one on the left. The purple is still a little strong, but overall it’s not looking so bad now! Especially when you consider I only had a few colours of pencil to work with and only one of them was at all close to the colour of the skin in my photo reference. I might have wanted to paint something more like the portrait on the right, but if I’d been able to paint something like the revised version of the one on the left with my limited tools, I would have been fairly satisfied with that. So what if I couldn’t get the exact same shade of green for the hair on this try and the shadows are a little weird, it still conveys the same idea, and the colours go together pretty well.

Green 3a cr

In fact, now that I’m not being distracted by incorrect anatomy and rough blending, I can see an area where the revised left portrait succeeds better than the right one. And that area is… contrast. Both portraits have dark hair and shirt. Both have dark makeup and shadows around the eyes. But the one on the left also has a darker shadow under the nose, between the lips, and under the cheekbones. The features stand out more and you can read the face more clearly, particularly if you look at the pictures at a small size. The face of the portrait on the right looks pretty washed out and flat apart from the eyes.

Maybe the reference photo had light shadows in those areas and the portrait on the right matches better? I dug it out to take another look and… nope, that wasn’t it. The left portrait is a more accurate representation of how dark the shadows appeared in the photo. In this last example, I asked myself what would it look like if I did a little digital editing to add more shadow to the portrait on the right? I didn’t change any aspect of the drawing (the shapes of the face and location and shapes of the features) other than moving the eyebrows up a little. I just added shadows, and a little bit of highlights on the lips. 

Green 6 cr

I’d say it would look pretty good! 

Let me repeat again that the only change I made to the underlying drawing was moving the eyebrows up. I did that so I could add more shadows under the brow ridge like in my reference photo. I did not change the shape of the mouth! That mouth is the same structure as in my original drawing. It looks really different because I added the shadows that were in the reference photo, and I added a little bit more highlight on the lower lip. My original version of the portrait on the left is kind of like what often happens on miniatures that we paint. I drew the underlying anatomy and proportion pretty well, but I didn’t render it with enough contrast, so viewers couldn’t see the shapes very well.

The revised version looks more realistic and much closer to the reference photo. That’s because shadows are realistic. Contrast is realistic! There are lighting scenarios that create more or less shadow, but unless an object is completely surrounded by light from all angles, there will be shadows. And an object completely surrounded by light looks very flat and boring. The shadows on areas that curve away from the light or are obscured from the light help us understand the shapes of objects. You can tell that the face in the revised portrait is closer to the viewer than the neck because of the shadow on the neck. You can tell that the hollows of her cheeks curve in and down from the cheekbones because of the shadows. The lips look so different because the shadows I added give you more information about what shape they are.

Adding these kinds of shadows is as important on a miniature as it is for a drawing or painting on a flat surface! Miniatures are so small that the lighting in our large scale world does not cast shadows on them in the same way as it does on larger objects. To make them look real and as if lit by a light source in their scale, you need to paint shadows, including deep shadow in some areas. If you are practiced with a form of 2D art, I recommend you try to paint a few miniatures thinking of them as if they were as flat as a drawing, and that should help you feel comfortable adding more of the necessary contrast.

Below is an example of a similar situation on a miniature. I took a figure I had quickly painted some years ago and did some touchups on it. Compare the muscles on his back, the folds in his pants, and the boots in the before and after. You can see the shapes of these objects much more clearly in the figure on the right where I added additional shadow contrast. (And a touch more highlights, particularly on the boots.)

Smith ba back cr

I would say the increased contrast on the figure looks both more interesting, and more realistic. I encourage you to spend more of your hobby study effort on learning to see the contrast around us in the real world and applying that to your miniatures rather than getting too caught up in finding the exact right colour recipes for various objects and textures. (As a side note on how colour isn’t the secret key to realism, the shadow colours on both the pants and skin of the revised blacksmith figure include saturated purple.) 

Here’s the black and white version of the blacksmith figure. I know people sometimes find it easier to see contrast in grayscale. I’m going to include a couple of grayscale photos of the portraits at the bottom of this article as well.

Smith ba back cr bw

If you’d like to see some more before and after comparisons, check out my articles on common issues in painted miniatures

If you have a bad habit of beating yourself up about your painting, I encourage you to read my article about measuring progress, where I talk more about the experience of drawing the two portraits and how I didn’t let the bad one get me down.

In a future articles I plan to talk about why it’s so hard to see and match colours, and why sometimes you might choose different colours for artistic reasons.

Below is a black and white version where the left portrait has been edited and the right has not. The placement of shadow areas and their level of contrast is actually more accurate and interesting on the left badly drawn version of the portrait.

Green 4 cr

In the picture below, the portrait on the right has been digitally edited to add additional shadows based on the original reference photo. It now looks more realistic, helps viewers see the shapes better, and is more interesting to look at.

Green 5 cr

Figures in this Post

The Deadlands Noir Detective is available in plastic and metal.
The metal version of Tristan Loremistress was a special edition and no longer available. The plastic version will release sometime in the future. Keep an eye on this link, which also includes previous classic sculpts of Tristan.
Gravestone Sophie (and friends) is available in metal.
The Blacksmith is available in plastic or in metal.

Common Feedback Issues Index

Ko-fi tips help keep this content free. Patreon supporters receive PDFs with high res photos.

Have you ever wanted to pick the brain of a miniature painting contest judge? Or get feedback from an experienced painter and teacher on your painting? While we all love personalized feedback, it has been my experience both as a judge and as a painter that there are a number of common issues that people experience in painting miniatures. I have been working to put together information related to these common issues and their solutions to help painters better understand and visualize them. I am indexing those articles here.

Tristan front comp cr

Common Issues with Painted Miniature Figures

Workmanship, Basing, General Issues
Judges (and viewers) don’t just consider the painting on your piece. They also look at the base, general workmanship, consistency, and other factors.

Painting Related Tips
These are the painting issues that come up most often when I am giving people feedback on their miniatures. And most of these are things I am still aiming to get better at myself!

Suggestions for Contest Entries
An earlier version of the two articles above, but with a few additional points or alternate ways of explaining things.

Read this if You Think High Contrast and Darklining aren’t Realistic
Check these examples to see if what you know is getting in the way of what you see.

MSP Open and Medals FAQ
Answers to questions about the format of the MSP Open at ReaperCon, what kind of entries fit which categories, and some nuances of judging.

It’s not the only issue. But it sure is an issue. Here you’ll find articles with before and after photos, and tips for how to create more contrast in your work.

Colour Theory and Terms
Many of my articles use colour terms like value and saturation, and you can learn more about those here. Understanding colour properties is a critical tool to improving your painting.

Display Painting versus Tabletop Painting
Most of the issues outlined in the articles above apply equally to display and tabletop figures. The big difference between them is the level of finish and the time and techniques it takes to achieve it.

Bugbear ba front cr

Examples and Comparison Studies

Blacksmith: Critique and Touchup
I gave this blacksmith figure I’d painted a very thorough critique, and then did painting touchups to address the critique points. In addition to before and after pictures, the article includes a link to a video version of the critique and painting.

Bugbear: Critique and Touchup
I took a bugbear figure I painted some years ago and gave it a thorough critique. Then I tweaked the paint job to address the feedback. The article includes links to videos of my paint touchups and additional discussion of common painting issues on miniatures.

Beach Libby: Visualizing Lining and Contrast
I compare two figures and digitally edit those figures to help you see the importance of lining and different kinds of contrast. (There’s more than one!)

Victorian Lady: Visualizing Strong Contrast
I took a figure I’d painted with subtle contrast and revised it using much stronger contrast.

Ghost Bride Betty: Contrast and Precision
The original version of Betty is painted with much more precise technique, but softer contrast. The new version of Betty is higher contrast, but more sloppily painted.

Anwyn versus Tara
I compare the strengths and weakness of two figures I’ve painted that are similar sculpts with very different colour schemes, and different levels of painting ability.

The Critique of Promenade
I received detailed critique on my Promenade figure from two of the best eyes for feedback I know. What did they say, and how do I feel about it?

Smith ba front cr

Other Helpful Information

Miniature Contests at Conventions and Shows
This article outlines the general structure of contests, explains some of the terminology, and includes a list of in-person conventions and shows that include a miniature contest.

How to Transport Miniatures
Whether you’re traveling to play games or enter contests, you need to find the way that works best for you to get the figures safely to your destination.

How to Paint Sturdy Miniatures
A good transportation solution helps. Sealer can help. But making your paint jobs sturdy begins before you even apply one drop of paint to the figure.

Dionne before after cr