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.
Who 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.
Photo 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.
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.
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.
On 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.
This 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.)
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.
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.
I 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.
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?
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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Some 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.
Left: 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.
Left: 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!
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.