Colour Matching is Not the Secret Code to Realism

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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? 

I don’t think the one on the left is not 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 to add deeper shadows to the skin and hair, and that’s about value, not matching or changing colour hues.

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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.)

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

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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 right 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 would look 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.)

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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.

Contrast!
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.

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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.

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?

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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.

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The Catalog of Contrast

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When miniature painters talk about contrast, we most often talk about one very specific type of contrast – painting a sufficient range of contrast between dark shadows and light highlights. That is a critical element to successful miniature painting, and one that I’ve covered extensively

However, that is just one variety of visual contrast! There are many other kinds. Understanding the other types and considering ways to use them in our painting can help us more easily accomplish goals in our own work, and better understand how the artists we admire create the paint jobs we love.

If you’ve received feedback that your miniatures need more contrast (or pop), bear in mind that our critique language in miniature painting can be pretty limited. You probably do need darker shadows and brighter highlights (most of us do, always), but the problem might be that the various areas of the figure are not visually distinct enough from on another and everything kind of blurs together if you look at the figure from  more than a few inches away. If your concern is to paint in a more realistic way, I encourage you to read my article Contrast Versus Realism, and also to read the comments on it from other painters who have struggled with this.

This article is an introduction to the types of visual contrast we can use in painting miniatures. Like the Anatomy of Colour article, it is intended more as a broad overview. I will expand on how to use these tools and provide additional examples in future articles. Since so many elements of contrast relate to colour, you may find it helpful to read the Anatomy of Colour as well.

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 What is Contrast?

At the simplest level, visual contrast occurs when you place two elements with opposing properties in close proximity to one another. The difference between the two elements draws the eye and attention of the viewer.

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We tend to think of contrast as being the extremes of difference – black vs white. However, it may be more useful to think of contrast properties as existing on a scale from absolute or extreme difference on one end, to very little difference on the other. There are visual design uses for all points on the scale. 

Contrast comp

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Why is Contrast Important?

Contrast is a very effective tool to attract, focus, or divert the viewer’s attention. Contrast is usually what draws people to look at a miniature (or billboard, or poster, or food label, or book cover or…) in the first place. Skilled artists use areas of high contrast to pull people’s eyes to the elements of the piece that are most important and convey the most character and story. They use lower contrast on sections that are less important, to give the viewer’s eyes a place to rest, or to divert attention from poorly sculpted/constructed sections. People like to look at contrast, so it also has the general effect of making what you paint more interesting to look at.

At the most fundamental level, using principles of contrast throughout your figure helps the viewer figure out the basic aspects of the figure – race/species, job/role, gender, and current action. Miniature figures are very small and can be difficult to interpret from even a relatively short distance. Use of contrast helps make them easier for viewers to read from further away. Contrast is equally important to the display painter who wants to win contests as it is to the tabletop painter who wants their figures to look great in games. The only difference is the techniques used to apply it and the amount of time spent.

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Types of Contrast for Miniature Painters

The varieties of contrast below are listed roughly in order of their importance and effectiveness. Strong value contrast and colour contrast are very eye catching and attention grabbing. You can paint a visually effective piece with clever use of these and only minimal application of technique. 

Note that the effects of contrast compound by using multiple types. Juxtaposing a light peach colour against a dark teal colour employs both value and hue contrast. It is very visually effective, as a great many designers and movie makers are already aware. Conversely, if you want to paint freehand that doesn’t pull a lot of attention from other areas of the figure, use lower hue and value contrast to keep it more in the background.

If you are unable to use strong value and/or hue contrast in your piece, you will find it helpful to use as many of the other types as you can. A simple example would be painting a figure in a monochromatic colour scheme. In addition to losing the cues to material/surface provided by colour, you also lose a major type of contrast. To paint monochromatic colour schemes most successfully, you need to be highly attentive to value, and put more focus on creating texture and detail to create additional contrast.

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1. Contrast of Values – Between Different Sections

Value is how light or dark something is. The most eye-catching and effective type of contrast is high contrast of value – when something very dark is placed in proximity to something very light. You will generally see text presented as very dark value text on a light value background, or the reverse. Value is easy to see in shades of grey, but can be more difficult for many people to correctly assess when looking at colours.

Value contrast rec crNotice how the graphics that use the extremes of white and black attract your attention more, particularly when the black and white are directly adjacent.

With this type of contrast, I am referring to contrast between adjacent areas of your miniature – pale skin next to dark hair, or polished non-metallic steel armour next to dark brown leather belt and gauntlets. Contrast within an area between shadows and highlights is critical to create three dimensionality. Contrast between areas is a critical element of good design/composition of the piece.

Quick tips: Try to use the strongest value contrast(s) near the most important or more interesting area(s) of the figure, like the face and/or whatever action is it performing. Avoid using strong value contrast in less interesting areas. An example for most figures would be to use high value contrast between the figure’s face and its hair/hood/hat, and use lower value contrast between a figure’s feet and its legs/skirt/pants. Take a black and white photo of your figure to check your value contrast. 

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2. Contrast of Hues (Complements, Triads)

Hue describes the main family of a colour  – orange, blue, green, etc. (The term ‘colour’ encompasses several colour properties that are also types of contrast, so I’m using hue to avoid confusion.) Each of the main hue families are more or less similar to other hues – orange is similar to red, but very different than blue. Placing hues that are more different than one another in proximity creates stronger contrast. Using hues that are more similar to one another creates less contrast.

For example, yellow, orange, and red are more similar to one another, and less similar to blue and green. Placing red next to blue or orange next to green creates more visual contrast than placing red next to orange.

The strongest contrast is between complementary colours. In classic colour theory the complementary pairs are: blue/orange, yellow/purple, and red/green. In the CMY system the complementary pairs are: cyan/red, yellow/blue, and magenta/green

Triadic colour schemes are those with three hues that are equidistant apart from each other on the colour wheel. They do not contrast each other as strongly as two complementary colours, but they do provide effective contrast, and make for harmonious colour schemes. Simple triadic schemes are the three primary colours or the three secondary colours. In classic colour theory the primary triadic schemes are red-yellow-blue, and the secondary are orange-purple-green. In CMY the primary triadic schemes are cyan-magenta-yellow and the secondary are blue-red-green.

Contrast hue rec cr2Two complementary pairs on the left, and two triadic schemes on the right.

The examples of hue contrast above may not look very attractive to you. When you use contrasting hues together that are all roughly the same value and saturation, the contrast can be so strong that the hues almost seem to fight one another. These hues will appear more harmonious if you vary the value and/or saturation between them. So you might have a vivid blue for your cloak, combined with a reddish skin tone and gold metallic trim.

Contrast hue rec cr desat2The same colour choices as above, but varying the saturation and/or value of some of the colours.

Quick tips: Hue contrast can be a great partner to value and used in a similar way. Or it can lend a helping hand when you aren’t able to make the point with value alone. For example, if the clothing and accessories of your figure are pretty similar in value, you can use hue contrast to help one stand out from other, like pairing green clothing with reddish brown leather armour.

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3. Contrast of Form (Higher Highlights, Darker Shadows)

We only see objects in light. Areas of objects that face the light and receive more illumination appear lighter to our eyes. Areas that face away from the light or are blocked from receiving light are shadowed and appear darker. When we paint shadows and highlights on our miniatures, we make them look more like objects appear to us in the real world. Because miniatures are so small, very strong contrast between the dark value of shadows and light value of highlights makes a painted miniature more interesting to look at. It also helps the viewer more quickly and easily distinguish the various areas of the figures to better interpret what areas are and what the figure is doing.

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Compare these with the flat value versions below. There are ways that the shading and highlighting enhance the examples that have lower value contrast between areas, but the benefit of starting with strong value contrast between areas is apparent.

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All of these same principles are true in traditional artwork, and understanding that may help us better understand why it is important for miniature painters. On a flat surface, the thing that turns a two dimensional circle (shape) into appearing like a three dimensional sphere (form) is applying shadows and highlights. This may not seem necessary on a miniature since it starts out three dimensional, but miniature figures are so small we need to use paint values to duplicate the way light and shadow would appear on the shapes of a figure lit by an in-scale light source.

Compare the two photos below. The photo on the left was taken with a bright overhead ceiling light. The photo on the right was taken with a lamp placed a few inches above the miniature. The light placement on the right is more in scale with the small size of the figure. The way the light and shadow fall on the right figure not only allows you to see the details more clearly, but also gives the shapes of the figure much more form and dimension. You can see that his chest muscles and belt buckle protrude forward, while other shapes recede back from view. The goal in applying shadows and highlights is to use paint to make a figure look like the one on the right does even when it is viewed in lighting like that on the left.

Standard vs inscale lighting crThis barbarian is available in Bones plastic.

Why is this type of contrast third on my list if it’s the contrast miniature painters talk about the most? Partly this is a function of the conventions of critique in our hobby. Our vocabulary is limited. We do talk about value and hue contrast, but that conversation is wrapped up with the omnipresent discussion of shadow/highlight contrast. Whether we talk about it or not, and whether they’re doing it consciously or by instinct, the best painters of both display and tabletop miniatures use these others kinds of contrast. Skilled display painters start with an overall composition of the figure based more on value, hue, temperature and so on, and then layer shadows and highlights on top of that. Clever tabletop painters realize they need not spend as much time on laborious shading and highlighting if they skillfully employ value and hue contrast.

Also note that the other types of contrast can be used within shadows and highlights to make them more effective. We talk about using value in shadows and highlights a lot – darker shadows and lighter highlights is the mantra! However, you can increase contrast of form by using less saturated colours in shadows and more saturated colours in midtones and highlights. You can also increase it by using hue or temperature contrasts. For example, using cooler colours or a complementary colour in the shadows. When you look at work by skilled painters that you feel uses a lower shadow/highlight contrast than what you’re being told to do, the reality is that even if the value contrast is lower, they are using additional types of contrast in their shadows and highlights. If you feel higher contrast is not realistic or you’re perturbed about being told to increase the contrast in your work, I encourage you to read this article and the comments on it – Contrast Versus Realism.

Quick tips: I’ve got a whole series of articles on this topic, including lots of how-to tips.

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4. Contrast of Saturation

Saturation is a property of colour – how vivid or intense the colour is. Cherry red is a highly saturated red. Brick red is a lower intensity red. Neutrals are low or desaturated colours – purplish taupe, yellowish beige, orangey brown, grey, black, white, etc. Our eyes are drawn to intense colour. But too much intense colour can be jarring and discordant. We can use both of those facts to our advantage when choosing what colours to put where on our figures.

Contrast saturation rec crWhen you look at these, the light saturated green area and then the bright red area are probably the the two that draw your attention most. You probably spent the least time looking at the on the far right since it has low saturation colours.

Quick tip: If you are limited in the contrast of value you can use between areas, saturation is an effective tool to use to intensify contrast. Use high saturation colours on or near the most important part of your piece, and use lower saturation colours in areas you don’t want viewers to spend a lot of time on. You can use glazes/washes or mix more intense colour in and do touch ups to increase or decrease the saturation in particular areas. For example, if you were painting a Santa Claus figure, you could use more orange/yellow in your highlights on his suit near his face. You could dull down the red on his sides or legs a little with glazes of duller reds or other colours in the shadows to make those areas a little less distracting to the viewer.

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5. Contrast of Temperature

Temperature is another colour property. Each colour can be described as being a warm colour or a cool colour. Warm colours juxtaposed with cool colours create contrast. Part of the reason complementary colours contrast so highly to one another is that one in the pair is warm and the other is cool.

Identifying colours as cool or warm is easy in the abstract – colours with more yellow/orange in them are warm colours, and colours with more blue in them are cool colours. In practice it can be more challenging, as the temperature of a colour is always relative to the other colours used around it. If you compare multiple shades of blue, some will be cooler and some will be warmer. In the far right example below, the orange is a warmer colour than the dark pink. 

Contrast temperature rec crThe effect of temperature contrast works well in partnership with other forms of contrast.

Quick tips: Temperature contrast is another helpful partner if you are limited in the value contrast you can use. Use one temperature on the focal point of your figure, and the other in areas surrounding it. Temperature contrast is a very useful tool for creating stronger contrast between your shadows and highlights, as well. Using cooler colours in the shadows and warmer colours in the highlights (or vice versa) can add to three dimensionality and increase the impression of the value contrast between those areas.

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6. Contrast of Finish – Gloss/Matte/Metallic

This type of contrast relates to the way the paint reflects physical light rather than its hue or other colour properties. The finish of paint can vary from super matte, to satin, to very glossy, to metallic shimmer. Some painters use only matte paints, and paint metal surfaces with the non-metallic metal technique. Others use metallic paints to paint metal objects, and matte paints for everything else. It is also possible to use other finishes of non-metallic paints for additional contrast. You might use a satin or glossy finish paint to paint leather accessories or silk or satin cloth, for example. 

Finish based contrast can look great in person, but it does not photograph well. Which one of the following paints is a metallic?* Yeah, I can barely tell either. I could have photographed them in different lighting, but then I’d just get spots of white glare. 

Rve paint sample feb2

Quick tips: Using metallic paints in tabletop painting is a quick and effective method of contrast because of the finish difference between glittering metallic paints and flatter matte paints. Effects based on different finishes, like adding shiny blood or saliva, can also add a lot of visual interest to a piece, and glints of reflecting light help draw the viewer’s eye. However, don’t rely on finish as a primary source of contrast for miniatures that will largely be viewed in photographs.

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7. Contrast of Texture (Detail vs Smooth/Quiet)

We love details in our figures – sculpted textures like chainmail and fur, painted textures like woven cloth, freehand, weathering, delicate filigree, and so much more. Detail, texture, and pattern can draw the eye and make a piece more interesting to view. But our eyes can also get overwhelmed by too much. It is helpful to remember that smooth is also a texture. Smooth areas contrast well with areas of painted or sculpted detail, and you can use the contrast between smooth and detailed to help direct the viewer’s eye or keep it on your story. If nothing else, you need to be sure to give the viewer’s eye a few places to rest in between taking in all the details.

Contrast texture rec crThe sections on the leftmost example are not visually distinct from one another. The plain areas of the middle examples stand out because they are contrasted with the sections of detail and texture that surround them and with strong value contrast. Although the rightmost example has lower value contrast between all the sections, the plain area still stands out most because it is different than the surrounding areas.

Quick tip: For display/contest figures, don’t think of texture/freehand as a method to demonstrate painting skill. Only paint bold or bright freehand and texture in situations where it helps direct the viewer’s eye and tell the story/character of your piece. Keep it more subtle in other areas. For tabletop pieces where speed is of the essence, use lots of shadow/highlight contrast on sculpted texture to bring out the details. If you’re going to spend a little extra time to paint some some super smooth blends, prioritize the face and skin and areas in proximity to the face, and don’t worry about more distant and unimportant objects like the boots.

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8. Contrast of Opacity (and/or Paint Texture)

These types of contrast relate to the paint itself, and how it is applied.  Many darker paint colours are somewhat to very transparent due to the nature of the pigments they’re mixed with. White is a fairly opaque colour, so most light value colours with white added are usually opaque. Painters can use those properties by using opaque lighter value paints for lights and highlights. Opaque colours appear more solid and substantial, and thus appear as if are closer to the viewer. Contrasting that against darker more transparent colours used in the shadows enhances the effect. Miniature painters explore aspects of this when they use washes and glazes in shadow areas and then more opaque paint applied in layers or drybrushing for highlights.

Some traditional painters use paint texture in a similar way. They use smoother strokes and and thinner coats of paint on shadow areas or objects in the distant background to keep them unobtrusive and receding from the viewer. Painters can contrast that with thickly applied strokes and dabs of paint in areas of light and on objects that are closer to the viewer so they leap out to the eye and grab attention. 

You can see an example below. The white highlight reflections on the peppers have been painted with paint strokes several millimetres thick. The darker areas are flatter and the paint is a bit more transparent. (This is not a great painting, but it’s the best example I had to hand. The dabs of white would look better supported by stronger strokes or a little more general paint build up in the area of the lights.)

For a much better example, look at this self-portrait of Rembrandt. Zoom in and you can see thick textured strokes in the light areas of the skin. Texture also helps describe the hair and moustache. Areas of the shadow in the skin are painted with thinner, less textured paint, which is also true of the large dark areas in the rest of the painting. As a result, the face jumps out at the viewer. I imagine the effect is even more pronounced when it is viewed in person. You can see some video footage and compare the effect against other painting styles in this short video

Impasto highlights cr

Texture prokoThis second example is by Stan Prokopenko. He is a talented artist, and a fantastic art instructor. This image is was posted on his Instagram, but he has a wealth of resources and a supportive community of artists on his website.

Use of these types of contrast is uncommon among miniature painters. Miniature paints are formulated to be fluid and self-levelling specifically to minimize the appearance of brush strokes, and painters are often admonished to thin their paints. However, there are miniature painters who use heavy body tube acrylic paint to add physical dimension and texture to highlight paint mixes. There are also painters like Alfonso “Banshee” Giraldes who are exploring use of more visible brush strokes in miniature painting. This is most commonly done on larger scale figures and busts, like this Van Gogh inspired bust by Anthony Rodriguez.

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*The metallic paint is the second from the right.

The Contrast Series Guide

Patreon supporters receive a PDF copy with high res photos!

The most common advice miniature painters receive is to paint with stronger contrast between their shadow and highlight areas. I’ve written several articles over the years on this topic. This post collects those articles together for easier reference, and for the benefit of those who missed reading them as they first released.

More contrast

One article in that series is far and away the most popular page on this site: How to Paint Contrast – Hands On*. I’m pleased so many people like it and find it useful! But I think you will find it most useful if you also read the articles that explain more of the theory and psychology behind why we like looking at contrast (more than we realize we do), but nonetheless still find it difficult to paint.

I also took this opportunity to add additional links to the older articles, clean up the formatting on them, and add additional examples.

Defining Contrast

The Catalog of Contrast
There are actually many different kinds of contrast you can use in miniature painting. This is an overview with some suggested tips for use.

Understanding Shadow/Highlight Contrast

Compare and Contrast
A visual comparison of a miniature painted with fairly low contrast, and the same figure painted with much higher contrast. This introduction to the subject gives a detailed look at the difference between various areas of that figure with more and less contrast.

Before and After Feedback Example
What would implementing feedback look like? I critique a figure, and then touch it up using value, colour, and texture to address the issues. This example uses less complex painting techniques and a lower contrast level than the above. A video version is also available.

Contrast versus Realism
Miniature painters receiving the criticism that they need to paint with more contrast often object because they feel that high contrast isn’t realistic. Take a look at the real world a little more closely and you’ll see there’s often more contrast than you think. And even when there isn’t, there are reasons we need to exaggerate it on our figures.

Painting Shadow/Highlight Contrast

Prepare your Mind and your Eye
Understanding why it’s so hard for you to paint with more contrast can help you push yourself to do it more successfully. This article also includes additional before and after examples of figures I have revised to add more contrast.

Paint Methods
This is an overview of several methods of applying primer and/or paint that you can use to help you push the contrast between your shadows and highlights. Several of these methods can also help you figure out where you want to put those shadows and highlights.

Vic1 wip combo 800

Supplemental Information

The Constraints of Miniature Painting
These articles aren’t about contrast specifically, but they can help you better understand why miniature figures need it. We don’t control the background of our figure. We also have much more limited tools to use to direct viewer attention than illustrators, movie makers, or photographers. Part I includes a comparison of two painted versions of a Death Dealer figure with higher and lower amounts of contrast. Part II discusses additional issues.

Visualizing Contrast and Lining
I compare two similar figures I painted to one another, and explain why one is a stronger figure. I also compare the painted figures to digitally edited photos of what they would look like with stronger contrast and darklining between sections.

Before and After Blacksmith Touchup
I critique a miniature to highlight common issues you might receive as feedback, and then do paint touchups to address those issues so you can visualize what they look like. Includes link to the video where I paint the touchups live.

The Power of Light
I observed strong contrast in an everyday scene in my home. In this article I have photo examples that demonstrate the powerful effect light can have in creating strong value differences between dark shadows and light highlights.

More Contrast can be Subtle
This article includes a more subtle comparison of painting more contrast. I revised an area I had painted to have slightly darker shadows and slightly lighter highlights. 

Character/Story versus Visual Impact
How can we approach the conflict between a character concept or story of a figure that is dark or blends into the background, but also create a miniature that attracts the viewer’s eye to look at it? Here are some ideas for handling this issue that often holds people back from painting with more contrast.

Study Guide for a Video Example
I wrote a guide for how you might study and practice from a great video that demonstrates how to apply highlights and shadows to a face. In the article (and the video) you can see the level of contrast between shadows and highlights.

Use Your Primer to Add Contrast
For Sophie 2018, I used grayscale brush-on primer mixes to rough in the shadows and highlights on the miniature. I applied paint to the figure using the primer values as a guide to where to place darker and lighter areas.

Lighting Reference Photo and Colour Block In
To paint Caerindra Thistlemoor I took lighting reference photos of the primed figure. I first roughly blocked in the areas of light and shadow, and then refined the blends and added details.

Lighting Reference Photo and the Types of Shadows
I angled a light into position and took photos of Ziba the Efreeti to have a guide for where to paint areas of shadow and light. This article also include information about cast vs form shadows and how we approach those in miniature painting.

Primer Contrast and Colour Block In
For this Dragon and Stocking figure, I started by using greyscale primer to rough in the location of shadows and highlights on the figure. Then I applied the main colour paint in a similar way using the primer as a guide. Includes WIP photos from the rough block in to finished figure.

Erli original cr

* At time of writing the Hands On Contrast page has had almost 9000 hits.

Contraints and Conundrums – Part II

Patreon supporters receive a PDF copy with high res photos!

This is the second part of an article discussing the constraints of miniature painting – things that we can’t do, or can’t easily do, that are common in other forms of visual communication that we might study for inspiration and examples, like illustration or film. There are also things miniature painters may need to do to create a visually effective small object that are more optional in other types of media. I recommend reading part one for a longer introduction and explanation of why I think it’s useful to be aware of these constraints and challenges

I refer to some aspects of colour like value and saturation repeatedly in this article. If you find these terms confusing, the Anatomy of Colour article is here to help!

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Constraint #4: Miniatures are Concretely Defined

A lot of art forms direct the attention of viewers to focus on certain elements by minimizing or eliminating unimportant information. Composition and cropping allow artists to direct focus by literally removing some information from the scene. Film and photography can use lighting to focus interest on a face and fade to black on objects more distant from the face. Painters and draftsmen can blur or fade out areas of a painting or drawing in a similar way. 

Consider the portrait photographs below. The entire figure of the model is included in the portrait to the left, but the photographer has used smoke or mist combined with the lighting and her pose to make most of her body look faded and insubstantial. This focuses your attention on her face and arm. The darker value colours of her hair and shirt contribute to the effect. In the middle portrait, the photographer has used tightly focused lighting combined with dark value clothing on the model to create an image where you can literally only see the areas he wants you to focus your attention on. The model in the rightmost photograph is standing in front of a busy street, but the background is blurred out to keep attention on her. Colour choices (likely enhanced in editing) and cropping of the photo further direct your focus.

Portrait comboLeft to right photo credits from Unsplash: Ilona Panych, Drew Hays, Cesira Alvarado.

Below are some similar techniques that I employed in painting portraits. In the portrait on the left, viewer attention is focused on the areas that are more rendered and in colour, and less attention is given to the sections that are just simple line drawing. All areas of the centre portrait are in colour, but they have not be developed to the same level of detail and nuance. The most detailed areas are the face. Objects around the face are blurrier and have little detail. I initially rendered the torso more precisely, and then later decided to make it blurry to put more focus on the face. In the portrait on the right, the face and ears are rendered with a lot of details and to a high degree of finish. The hair and neck are more roughly blocked in. The shirt is even less rendered. The background is abstract and not painted over the whole of the picture plane. At least part of the goal of all of those choices to keep the bulk of viewer attention on the face.

Portrait combo3

Miniature painters do not have most of these tools at our disposal. Our figures are tangible objects. How defined they are is largely determined by the sculptor. We can’t easily crop them down like a photographer composing an image. We don’t control the atmosphere around them to make some parts look less substantial. Unless we’re doing a backdrop/box diorama, we don’t even control the background, so we can’t artfully blur it out or abstract it. Most viewers are unlikely to accept the idea that since the message of our miniature was the face, we decided to leave the shoes plain plastic or metal. We need to paint the entirety of the miniature and approach it as a whole, that’s just a constraint of our art form.

While we may have fewer tools to use than in other visual forms, it is just as important for us to create focal points that help the viewer discern the story/character of our figures. We need to paint all of the figure, but we should not paint every area of it in the same way and to the same degree of finish. We can make choices with the colours, values, and techniques we choose to use to concentrate viewer attention in the more important areas and spend less time distracted by unimportant sections.

Exactly how to do that is a topic for another day. Right now I just want to make the point that we are trying to accomplish the same goal as artists in other forms in terms of having a main focus, but we have a much more narrow range of tools to use to accomplish that goal. So it is critical that we use the tools we do have as thoughtfully and effectively as we can. I have a few previous articles where I talk about making choices for a figure related to focus: leprechaun figure, Christmas goblin, wings for some succubi

As a side note, for standard gaming scale miniatures the need to paint the whole thing includes basing materials. Even if you are using small rocks and such for basing and they’re already rock coloured, you still need to paint them so that they look in scale with the figure and like they’re part of the same world that it’s in. The OOAK (one of a kind) figure world is more multi-media, and those figures are generally larger in scale than classic miniature figures. To put this tip another way – viewers in the miniature figure world, particularly contest judges, have the expectation that multi-media materials used in miniature scenes should be painted whenever possible. If you prefer a more multi-media OOAK approach, go for it! Just understand how the choices you’re making will be received by your chosen audience.

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Constraint #5: Our Canvases aren’t Blank

Many of us enjoy the fact that miniature painting is a collaborative art form. However, it does mean that our figures are not blank slates, and that is something of a constraint to bear in mind. Whether it begins with a directive from a game company or art director, a piece of concept art, or an idea in a sculptor’s mind, an unpainted miniature already has a lot of elements determined before we put any paint on it.

The gender, setting/time period, job role, and personality are often well-established by the sculpt. It is possible to nudge some of these in another direction through paint, but significant changes generally require conversion or sculpting. Even something as simple as facial expression is more structural than you might imagine. You might be able to shift a face between neutral, pleased, or angry, but you can’t easily paint a closed mouth so that it appears as if it is open to create expressions like surprise or screaming.

Expressions ingrid cuExamples of shifting expression and facial appearance with just paint. The right and centre examples are painted kind of starkly to make things more visible in convention classroom lighting.

Even if you don’t need to alter a figure to fit into a specific diorama or story, it’s valuable to take a moment to consider the aspects that are ‘baked in’ to the sculpt before deciding how to paint it.  We tend to associate certain colours and textures with certain jobs, genders, personalities, etc. We can emphasize sculpted elements by making choices that ‘fit’ with them. We can shift them by making different choices. For example, the typical way to paint a rogue character would be with dark clothing to help them blend into the shadows when skulking, but perhaps you envision your thief as more of an entertainer or someone who acts as a distraction, and bright colours would be more appropriate.

Note that I am absolutely not saying that you need to follow stereotypes for characterization in your painting! Nor am I saying that we must always paint to match the way a figure has been conceptualized and sculpted! Interpreting sculpts in unexpected new ways is fun and a great way to create work that might grab people’s attention. The key point I’m trying to make is that you need to be aware of what’s established by the sculpt and you need to make conscious, deliberate choices to reinforce, shift, or invert that. To be successful, these choices generally need to be made throughout the process of designing the figure, not tacked on here and there. For the rogue example, you could paint a skulking robe with overall dark clothing, but add a flash of colour or decoration to the inside of their cloak for personality and contrast. Whereas a rogue painted with dark armour that blends into the shadows and a bright blue and red checkered cloak would be a bit confusing.

Consider this figure from Dark Sword Miniatures as an example. The sculpt is based on Larry Elmore artwork, and she’s clearly designed as a peaceful, angelic type of character. Several artists interpreted her that way. And others did not. You can see that the most extreme reinterpretation from angel to demon required a conversion as well as different paint choices. (You can also see additional interpretations and the original art on the store page for this figure.) If you had a figure with the wings, face, and hair painted like either of the top two but the dress painted like either of the bottom two, the figure wouldn’t quite make sense to most viewers. (Unless there were some kind of context for the dichotomy provided in the basing and scene setting.)

Angels squareUpper left: Jen Haley; Upper right: Rhonda Bender
Lower left: Jérémie Bonament Teboul; Lower right: Alison Bailey Liu

The sculpt in the picture below was designed as a skulking thief type, but the elements that contribute to that in the sculpt are not as strong or fixed as with the angel, so shifting interpretations can be accomplished simply with colour and paint techniques alone. 

Tara comp front full

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Constraint #6: Miniatures are Three Dimensional

The fact that miniatures are tiny three dimensional sculptures is one of the things most of us love about them! But it definitely imposes some constraints on our art form. Most of the constraints I’ve been mentioning are things that we fail to consider enough. When it comes to three dimensionality, I think we impose more constraints on ourselves than we need to. The issue is more in our minds than in our figures

We worry too much about the three dimensionality of our figures and struggle to paint them in a way that ‘works’ from every angle. I think this is a major barrier to people pushing themselves to paint with greater contrast. You sit down with the intention to paint higher contrast, and everything is looking good. But then you have to turn the figure sideways or upside down to reach something. You look at it from a different angle and suddenly what you painted looks harsh and rough, so you smooth it out and lose the contrast.

You have to remember that viewers are not going to look at your figure sideways or upside down very often! It is most important to paint a figure so it looks good from the angles at which it will most often be viewed. If viewers do look at your figure from an odd angle, they will likely expect and understand that your painted lighting won’t look correct. If you get the opportunity, I highly recommend looking at painted figures from artists you admire at odd angles. It will help you see much better exactly how much contrast they are using, and also how they might be using colour in unusual ways that may not be obvious from the usual angles or photographs.

This is one of the issues that comes up with non-metallic metal (NMM). In the real world, the places where shiny objects reflect light change based not only on the position of the object, but also based on the position of the viewer. The painted reflections of the NMM technique are fixed in place and do not move with the viewer. The light reflecting from real metallic paints does shift with the viewer. That may seem like a compelling argument to only use metallic paints. However, it’s important to realize that shifting light reflections occur on all kinds of shiny materials that might be depicted on miniatures – hair, polished leather, vinyl, shiny silk, sweaty skin, shiny plastic, etc. Most of us paint these materials with matte paints, and to do so we have to choose a few angles and paint the way light and shadow would appear on those angles. The more we apply paint with a mind to replicating how light and shadow react on different textures, the more realistic and interesting our figures look.

Hair has similar properties to metal. In this video you can see how light in value the reflective shine can be even on dark hair, and how the exact locations of those shiny areas shift when the person or camera moves. When we paint hair we can choose to emphasize the sculpted texture, or we can try to use lighter and darker values of paint to simulate how light and shadow play on the hair. Below you can see some examples of how I’ve painted hair over the years. The middle and bottom rows have more of a realistic hair shine to them, with a larger range of values between shadows and highlights. Those are placed in such a way as to try to mimic the way light reflects from hair rather than based on the strand or lock texture of the sculpt like the top row.

Hair combo cr

So it’s reasonable to take the same approach to metal objects and use the NMM technique. Metal just stands out as something different or exceptional because it’s at the furthest extreme of a shiny reflective surface appearance, but in reality when painting we make this kind of choice all the time. The shaded metallic technique is a way to sort of split the difference and paint in fixed matte shadows, but have some movement on the metallic paint reflections. (I have an article and associated video available about painting hair more realistically. A video of Michael Proctor’s shaded metallic class from ReaperCon 2019 online is available if you’d like to learn more about that technique.)

I am aware that some painters use satin finish paint or glossy varnishes to enhance painted texture of leather, wet eyeballs, etc. There’s a spectrum of options from painting everything with matte paints to using effect paints. My point is that it’s entirely possible to paint everything with matte finish paint, just as illustrators and other 2D artists do. In fact, I would go so far as to say my point is that it helps a lot to think of miniatures as more similar to 2D art than less. Most of the effects that people really love on figures and think make them look really cool, are all co-opted or adapted from traditional 2D painting techniques –  strong lighting, source lighting, non-metallic metal, painted cloth textures, scratches and battle damage, etc. As I mentioned in part I, our figures are too small for our large diffuse light sources to illuminate correctly. The more we use paint to simulate the effects of light and shadow for both for form (shape) and texture, the more dynamic, dramatic and just plain cool our figures look. That is really the difference between the figures you admire from your favourite ‘pro’ artist and the average tabletop figure. (Well, that and the prowess to apply those kinds of effects well on tiny surfaces, of course, but you need both the dexterity and the eye to see and apply light. It is really not just all about fancy brushwork.)

The fact that miniatures are three dimensional means we do not have complete control on the viewing angle from which viewers will choose to look at our figures. However, we can use paint and basing choices to try to guide viewers to concentrate their attention on specific viewing angles. Because of the way miniatures are moulded and cast, many have a defined front and back plane. People are drawn to look at faces, so a turned head or a face on a shield or familiar might add another angle or two. Some figures are much more in the round than others. With those you’ll have to just choose a few to focus on. 

Try to identify these main viewing angles, and then make paint and basing choices that reinforce them. Place lighter and darker values and brighter and duller saturation colours in such a way that they entice the viewer to look at the figure from your main viewing angles and spend less time looking at other angles. Try to use your paint in the same way that a stage play uses a spotlight. Concentrate lighter and more saturated colours in the main area of interest of your main viewing angle. Use darker and duller versions of your colours away from that spotlight of interest. Place scenic elements like debris or vegetation to block viewing angles that aren’t your focus, or draw lines towards the areas that are important.

The constraint of three dimensions fall more heavily on sculptors than painters. Using two dimensional drawings and photos as reference to sculpt three dimensional objects can be quite challenging. There may not be enough information to easily figure out how to sculpt the areas not depicted in the drawing. Sometimes illustrators play a little loose with apparel or anatomy in drawings and paintings, but those issues have to be resolved to make sense when sculpting a three dimensional figure. I know from discussions with sculptors that they also consider the issue of primary viewing angles when sculpting figures.

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Constraint #7: Photograph or Physical Object?

As anyone who’s ever struggled to take pictures of their miniatures knows all too well, they just don’t look the same in photographs. It’s hard to see and appreciate some aspects of a three dimensional object in a flat picture. Photographs tend to amplify some things, minimize others, and distort colour.

However, it’s also true that the miniature painting hobby has flourished alongside the rise of accessible digital close-up photography over the past 20 years. It’s ever easier to share what we work on, and enjoy looking at the figures others have done. In fact, it’s probably the case that many of us mostly see miniatures painted by other people in photographs rather than in person. We might only see miniatures painted by other artists in person a few times a year, unless we’re lucky enough to be part of a miniature painting club/group or an active gaming community supported by multiple painters. 

So things look different in photos, but for many of us, our hobby viewing largely consists of photos. I think this is leads to or contributes to a situation where we make painting decisions to prioritize what looks good in photos over what looks good in person. 

I talked about the constraint of miniatures being small in the first part of this article. That small size means we need to exaggerate effects and textures, push contrast, and simplify to make our tiny figures readable to the viewer at a quick glance. Billboards and icons versus illustrations and movies. As makers we already have a tendency to forget that big picture and focus in on the details as we stare at our figures close-up and magnified for hours while we paint them. We hold ourselves back from pushing contrast or trying blacklining or similar things because it looks too stark in that close-up view. 

Viewing miniatures primarily as photographs only amplifies that. Photos often show miniatures at several times life size, emphasizing details that are barely noticeable in live viewing at actual size. This affects sculpts, as well as painting. I increasingly see figures festooned with details that look great in large close-up photographs or renders, but the actual production figures are disappointing. The fancy detail is too shallow or too complex to paint effectively, and the more delicate features and proportions lack clarity and definition at gaming scale. 

Take a look at the wrapping paper in the picture below. I first painted this kind of pattern a few years before this, and was pleased that I had improved my brush control to the point that I could paint it at an even smaller and more realistic size. It looks pretty nice in the photo, I think.

Xpenguin fade front 300

But then I put the penguin in my display case next to my first try at painting candy cane wrapping paper, and I noticed something.  Scaled down as in this photo or viewed in real life, the pattern on the penguin’s wrapping paper doesn’t stand out very well, especially compared to the candy cane wrapping paper on the diorama. The larger size of the candy canes on the diorama paper plus the higher contrast between the white of the candy canes and the darker green is much more visually effective. It’s an example of how sometimes it’s better at our small scale to simplify and exaggerate than to dive into super realistic fiddly detail.

Xmas paper comparison crop

This doesn’t just apply to detail, either. I think viewing miniatures in photographs is a big barrier to pushing contrast for a lot of people. You take a photo and see all the blending issues. So you smooth out the blending and lose some of the contrast. Or you pull back from even trying much contrast in the first place. If you look at this post, you can see a comparison of the same figure with more or less contrast, including a comparison picture scaled down to the smaller size you’d look at a figure in real life, where the contrast makes even more difference.

The ideal painting of a miniature is something that works both at arm’s length and close up. The best figures you see do this, whether or not you’re aware of it. You may think the part that wows you is the intricate freehand or subtle facial expression, and those are impressive. But to win the contest, to leap off the shelf at the viewer, to get lots of likes, all of that has to be built on top of a solid foundation of visually effective use of contrast and colour choices. The figure needs to stand out to the judge/viewer at a distance to get a closer look, and then that closer look needs to wow, as well. It’s easy to think that all the detail and fancy brush work is the only thing that matters, but it simply isn’t the case. 

Even in a non-contest situation, figures viewed in person are competing. They’re competing for the attention of the viewer against the other figures around them, or against the poor lighting in your game room, or just against the busy background of things that surround them. They need to be visually effective at a quick glance, and from a distance. Almost the opposite of the kinds of characteristics photography emphasizes. 

To try to simulate the effect of size and figures competing on a shelf, scale pictures down. Look at thumbnails on a webstore. Scroll through posts in a Facebook group on your phone. Take a look at this image search, which is a selection of different paint schemes on the same figure. Think about why. Sometimes it’s issues related to the photography, but often it will be because there is strong value or colour contrast that makes the shapes of the figure easier to read so you can quickly see who it is and what it’s doing. 

Now click through some of those you liked best and see what you think of the figure looking at larger scale photos. You’ll find some don’t have the level of detail and polish you had expected from the thumbnails. But they already accomplished something significant in getting you to click through and look closer. Try this same experiment with some of the thumbnails that least drew your attention. Some of these may be painted with more detail and nuance than you expected. You are also likely noticing that picture quality is a big factor – well-lit, appropriately cropped pictures on suitable backgrounds are much easier to look at, and something to look into if you want to post pictures of your work. But if you’re trying to address how your figures do at in person events, remember you can’t control the background. 

Cool Mini or Not is an effective site to use for this exercise. You can enter specific miniatures, manufacturers, or just look at all the submissions. I wasn’t able to link to a specific search, but here’s the general browsing page.

Painting for photographs and close-up views has definitely been an issue for me in my painting. If you look through my CMON gallery thumbnails (sadly very out of date), you’ll find lots of figures that don’t jump off of the page as thumbnails. I have spent years worrying too much about that close up view and not giving enough attention to creating a solid foundation. 

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Constraint #8: Character and Story vs Visual Impact

Sometimes the character/story you want to tell is about the skulking sneak thief, the stealthy ninja, the cloaked assassin, the camouflaged soldier, the animals that skillfully blend into their surroundings. So of course you’ll use darker and duller colours, less contrast, and fewer showy techniques, right? That approach generally creates issues if your goal is to paint a piece that people want to look at. The human eye is drawn to bright colours, strong contrasts in value, and other elements that stand out from the background and wave ‘look at me’.  So how do you balance those two competing goals?

Always keep in mind the function of your miniature as an object. Whether for play, display, or a contest, a primary function of your miniature is to be looked at. To perform that function the figure has to draw people’s eyes and make them want to look at it. That function trumps even character and story – it doesn’t matter how compelling your character/story is if no one ever looks closely enough at it to see. So if the function of being eye-catching is at odds with the concept of a character that is trying not to attract attention, we have to explore ways to accomplish both goals if we want to make an effective miniature. 

What attracts the human eye on an initial glance is largely subconscious, and heavily based on contrast. That might be contrast of something dark in value adjacent to something light, bright colours against dull ones, complementary colours, contrast of textures – there are lots of different kinds of contrast, though colour and value are the most compelling to our eye. Again, this is largely subconscious. Whether or not someone is drawn to look at your miniature happens long before their rational mind might say ‘hey, that’s a thief, it’s supposed to blend into the scenery, so those dull colours and low contrast totally make sense.’ Miniatures painted with more effective use of colour and value contrast don’t get more likes and win more contests because that is the ’style’ that is in fashion. They do so because those are the cornerstones of effective visual communication in every media, and they are especially critical when working at such a small scale.

There are a few different ways to balance the two opposing goals. A light effect, a more vividly painted section of the scene that stands on its own and then the viewer discovers the lurking character on a closer glance, the character caught in surroundings that it doesn’t blend into, a few elements of subtle ‘bling’ for contrast, like the embroidered inner cloak of my rogue above. It’s not easy to do, but think of it as an interesting creative challenge!

If you study some illustrations of these types of characters, you’ll find that the artist often uses colour or value contrast in the background, much like I discussed with the Death Dealer in part one. Here are some sample illustrations of assassins, and some of rogues. Having no control over the background and atmosphere surrounding a freestanding figure is one of the biggest constraints and challenges of our art form! We have to adapt and work some of that colour and contrast into our figures, because unless you’re making a diorama/background, the figure and its base are all you have to work with.

You are of course always free to paint exactly to your vision and taste! But when you do that, you need to accept that the world at large may not agree with your choices. Your lurking assassin may lurk just beyond the attention of judges and viewers scrolling Instagram/Facebook/Discord. You can’t talk people’s eyes and brains into responding differently to visual information than they have for thousands of years. If you want to work on a contest entry or display piece that you’re going to invest a lot of time into, you and your audience will likely be happier if you choose to explore a character/story that you feel more comfortable using colour and contrast on.

Below are a couple of pictures taken of miniatures lined up on a shelf. The indifferent lighting and cluttered viewing area are similar to the conditions at most convention contests and game tables. Some of these figures jump out to your eye much more than others. Which ones those are are not necessarily the ones I invested the most time and fancy brushwork in. Some of these figures were painted to a high standard, some to a tabletop standard, and a couple to somewhere in between. This is the kind of first experience most people will have with your figures live or in thumbnail photos. You need to grab their attention here to make them want to look closer and appreciate your freehand or subtle colour transitions and so on!

If you’d like to try to guess the three categories for each of the miniatures, post your guess in the comments! (Tabletop, solid work, and display.) We’ll number them from left to right 1 – 5 for the top row and 6 – 10 for the bottom row. I’ll let a few days go by after first posting this and then verify the categories for the figures in the comments.

Shelf shot1

Shelf shot2

This is very much still something I’m working out how to do myself. And by no means do I always get it right! Sometimes I paint a figure that does its job as a catalog miniature in a photograph, but which would not get many second looks on a contest shelf. I finished one just recently, in fact, and I’ll share some details about that in an upcoming post.

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Miniatures Featured in this Post

Ingrid is available in metal or Bones plastic.
The Elmore angel is available in metal.
This version of Tara the Silent was a special edition miniature. An archer version of this sculpt was included in the Bones 5 Kickstarter and will release in retail at some point.
Lorielle Silverrain is available in metal.
The Crane Courtier is out of production
The Human Greenbond is available in metal.
Witch of the Darkmoors is available in metal.
Jahenna is available in metal.
Lilith of Ptolus is out of production.
Caerindra Thistlemoor is available in metal, and is part of Bones 5 in plastic. (Painting article)
Asandris Nightbloom is available in metal. (Painting article)
Churrusina is available in metal.
The holiday present penguin is occasionally seasonally available from Reaper Miniatures.
Mrs Claus is available in metal.
The mischievous Waggamaeph is out of production. Copies periodically show up on Noble Knight.
The noblewoman is available in metal, and is part of Bones 5 in plastic.
Madame Delia is available in metal, and is part of Bones 5 in plastic. (Painting article)
Alistrilee is available in metal or plastic.
Thregan Helmsplitter is available in metal and is part of Bones 5 in plastic.
The Rum & Bones pirate is a member of the Wellsport crew.
Alec, Young Mage is available in metal, and is part of Bones 5 in plastic.
Romag Davl is coming out in Bones USA in April. Blog post with more info pending!
The Troglodyte is available in plastic.