Contraints and Conundrums – Part II

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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.

You Can’t DO that in Miniature Painting! (Constraints Part I)

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It is common and in many ways helpful to use other forms of visual communication as inspiration and ideas for what we might do with miniature figures. Traditional artwork, film and television scene setting, comic art, even advertising and packaging are often masterful examples of how to use colour, lighting, etc. I often find myself drawing on other visual forms for examples as I work on writing articles discussing core concepts of miniature painting.

However, it is critical to understand that there are some things that we can’t do in miniature painting (or can’t easily do) that are a standard part of other visual forms. There are other things we’re pretty much required to do to successfully paint tiny sculptures that may not be required in other media. So I think it is useful to take some time to discuss what I am calling the constraints of miniature painting – the limitations and requirements imposed by this form of visual communication.

IMG 0675A preview of some constraints.

Identifying these constraints can help us better understand the reasoning behind the most common recommendations and critiques in miniature painting, like the emphasis on high contrast. It’s also helpful to keep in mind what’s different about our form of art as we study other forms. Some ideas and effects may transfer easily from one to another. Others might not transfer at all, or might need to be adapted to work within our constraints.

Every form of communication has constraints. These are things that are difficult or impossible to do based on the medium. The stories you can explore and how you can explore them are very different between a graphic novel, a four panel comic strip, and a one panel comic. There are often conventions of style or subject expectations in different genres or time periods. The stylistic conventions of ancient Egyptian art are a clear example, but there are conventions to every form of communication. The types of acting (and makeup) that are most effective in a stage production are very different to those used in a close-up movie scene. Some forms of communication might even be said to be defined by their constraints, like the poetry forms of haiku and sonnets.

Please note that it is not my intention to say we need to impose rigid limitations on miniature painting! 20 years ago almost everyone painted metal areas on miniatures with metallic paints. Today is it commonplace to see the non-metallic metal technique from 2D painting and illustration used on miniatures. I myself am not a boundary pushing painter, but I love to see the work of those who are, and I hope I’ll continue to be surprised and delighted by the innovations of other miniature painters for years to come. I just think it’s helpful to define the boundaries of our art form so we have a better understanding of what we’re working with.

A lot of these constraints are going to seem obvious. The manner and degree to which they affect what we can’t do and what we need to do may not be as obvious. When I sat down to write this, I kind of knew most of it in the back of my head. But I didn’t really understand how much it affects some of what we can and can’t do until I starting really thinking about it and finding examples to help illustrate it to you. 

There’s a lot to think about and I wanted to use plenty of examples, so I have divided this article into two sections. Part II is now available

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Constraint #1: Miniatures are Small

Miniatures are small; it’s right in the name! And that small size is definitely a constraint. Nuance and subtlety are difficult to pull off successfully. Contrast needs to be bold and effects need to be exaggerated to be clear to the viewer. The smaller size of miniatures is the reason we have to add shadows and highlights in the first place – our real world large scale lighting is too diffuse to illuminate the forms and contours that make up the shapes of our tiny sculptures.

We can see similar constraints in other forms of visual expression. Visual communication that is small, viewed briefly, and/or seen most often from a distance generally uses simpler design and bolder colour than visual arts that are viewed larger, more closely, and for longer periods. As an example, you’ve likely seen a billboard that had print too small or too long to read while driving, or displayed a picture that was too complex and you couldn’t really tell what was happening. That is poor design for that visual format, and miniatures have similar constraints. 

I’ve grouped some types of visual communication into those that are more and less like miniature painting below. Think about elements that the members in each group share in common, and how those differ from the other group, and then consider how you might apply those ideas to painting miniatures.

Less Like Miniatures

Magazine ads
Movie posters
Book covers
Comic books/graphic novels
Standard scale paintings/drawings
Movie/TV makeup and acting

More Like Miniatures

Billboards
Bumper stickers
Smart phone icons
Single panel comics
Stage makeup and acting
Nail art

I’m going to spend a minute talking about phone icons as an example in more detail. On the left below is a screen of app icons straight from my phone. (Are they organized, do I use any of these… that’s not the topic right now! ;->)

Phone icons

If you look at the bottom row of icons, the function of three out of four of the icons is immediately clear. (The ones in black squares in the photo on the right.) Even people who never seen a smartphone would easily be able to deduce what those apps do – telephone functions, mail functions, and music. None of those three icons realistically portray any of those concepts; they each use simple symbols for them. But being simple and clear makes them more useful than if they were complex photorealistic representations. 

Now look at the icons in the upper portion of the screen. Few of them are as immediately clear as to function as the ones at the bottom, but most are simple and legible. You can tell from the icons that Flow and Sketches probably have something to do with drawing or taking notes. You can likely see at a glance which icons are for games and which are for more utilitarian types of apps.

In my opinion some of the icons are not very visually effective for their function as icons. Study the icons in red squares. Two of these have more text than can be easily read in a small icon, and exacerbate the issue by using script type fonts. Two of them include images that are too complex and nuanced to work on this small of a scale. 

Our miniatures have a lot of the same constraints. A user looking at a smartphone screen would know these are all apps. What the viewer needs from the icons is as much simple, clear information as the designer can provide as to what that specific app’s function is. For miniatures, the viewer knows it’s a miniature. What they need is simple, clear information that tells them what the story/character of the figure is. We need to make choices in our miniature painting that give them that information. A super high degree of contrast or use of darklining is not always strictly ‘realistic’, but in the context of how miniatures are viewed and used, those approaches are often more effective than strict realism.

Our miniatures often share something else in common with this icon example – they’re not being viewed and judged in isolation. They’re on a gaming table, or a contest table, or a display shelf, or a Facebook group/forum/Discord channel/store page where they are surrounded by other miniatures that compete for viewer attention and comparison.

It’s not impossible to add detail and subtlety to miniatures, but this needs to be layered on top of the simple, clear visual presentation that gives the viewer the information they need. Studying how other forms of visual communication with similar constraints balance that can be valuable to us – app icons, billboards, sprites/avatars in video games, user/channel pictures in forums/Discord/Facebook/YouTube.

Detail is not impossible at miniature scale, but bear in mind that, like stage makeup, it’s actually got to be exaggerated quite a bit to read at all. Sculptors have always done this, and painters are increasingly doing it as well. If you look at a person from far enough away that they would appear to you as the size of a standard gaming figure, you would not see woodgrain on their bow or the stock of their gun, and you wouldn’t be able to pick out the wool weave texture on their clothing. When those things are sculpted or painted onto figures it’s not truly realistic, but if we emulate the shapes of the texture and how light and shadow behave on it, most viewers will find it feels realistic enough to accept it without thinking about the scale issue. Here’s an example with chainmail.

Chainmail realLeft by Dariusz Wielec from Wikimedia. Right by Moss Photography from Unsplash.

The size of the rings and the overall texture the linked rings create on examples of real chainmail is quite fine. From a distance you can’t even really see that the material is made up of rings, it’s more an impression of rows of lines. The chainmail on the miniatures below is sculpted with a fine degree of detail, but would look enormous if the figures were scaled up to actual life size.

Chainmail miniI have an article about painting the ranger in the centre. And another about painting the warrior to the right.

Let’s look at the real life and miniature examples again, but scaled down to be closer to the size a miniature would be viewed in the hand. The texture of the real chainmail is barely apparent. That would be the most ‘realistic’ way to portray it, but it would also be dull and not give the viewer much information about the material. The texture is still apparent on the figures, because the information and visual interest is more important (and fun!) than strict adherence to realism. We need to do the same kinds of exaggerations with paint as the sculptors are already doing.

Chainmail example cr

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Constraint #2: No Background

Unless a figure is placed into a scene that includes a backdrop, it stands alone with no background. The reality of this has a much more profound effect than you might imagine on what we can do, can’t do, and need to do with our paint choices.

Backgrounds in Art Inspiration

If you take inspiration from artwork/photos/movie scenes, you need to evaluate the colours and effect of the background as well studying the main subject(s). We tend to to focus on and respond consciously to the main subject(s), but the background is very much a part of the colour scheme, mood, and even story of the work as a whole, and often integral to its success. It is very common for one or more key colours in a colour scheme to appear in the background and not on the main subject, for example.

Let’s look a specific example I think will be familiar to most of you – Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer painting. There have also been several miniature figure and model versions of the character. (I have a previous article with some thoughts about painting a figure to match artwork for a different example.)

Frazetta paintingsReproductions of the Death Dealer paintings by Frank Frazetta. The colour of reproductions can vary wildly, as you see here.

There’s not a lot of ‘content’ in the background in terms of objects or people. Frazetta was a master of abstraction, particularly in his backgrounds. But that doesn’t mean that the background isn’t important. In both of these reproductions of the painting, all of the saturated colour is primarily in the background. Those background colours affect the colour of the reflected light on the metal and shiny hair of the horse, so you can bring those colours into a free-standing figure a little, but the majority of the figure is desaturated grey and black. If you remove the figure from its surroundings, you lose a lot of the colours in the colour scheme, and it affects the impact and mood conveyed by the main figure. The background establishes the scene as set in a fiery battleground wasteland. The lighter values and more saturated colours of the background also enhance the Death Dealer himself because they contrast with his darkness and lack of vibrant colour. He looks more menacing and creepy because of the lighter and and more saturated colours in the background.

(If you’re confused by terms like saturated and value, check out my Anatomy of Colour article for definitions.)

Death dealer minisLeft: Kabuki Studio’s Death Dealer, painted by Marc Masclans. Right: Moebius Model’s Death Dealer, painter unknown.

Compare the painting with the two versions of the Death Dealer as a three dimensional figure/model displayed on a plain white background shown above. The paint jobs are terrific, and the looming menace of the Death Dealer figure is very much apparent, but there are definitely elements that are lost in comparison to the original painting. (Link to additional views of Marc Masclans painting

Now let’s compare these two versions of the Kabuki Studio Death Dealer below. They both great looking figures. One is posed in front of the background of the painting, and you can see how much of a difference it makes to include even some of the background elements from the original painting.

Death dealer minis bgLeft painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro, Right painted by Marc Maslans.

I edited out the background from the picture, so we can make more of an apples to apples comparison between these two figures. I did not alter the pictures in any other way.

Death dealer minis nobgLeft painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro, Right painted by Marc Maslans.

You may not have noticed significant differences between the way the two figures are painted apart from the background in the first image, but looking at them both on white backgrounds makes it easier to spot the different approaches in painting. The left figure is painted with a much lower level of contrast than the right. The brighter highlights and variation of contrast on the right figure brings some of the colour scheme from the background surroundings into the figure. Keeping those areas of highlights small on the Death Dealer himself keeps him looking shadowed, dark, and dangerous.

Compare the way the bases are painted. One is fairly uniform. The other is lighter and has more saturated yellow near the front hooves, and is darker towards the back, just like the painting. It evokes the idea of a nearby fire. Compare the painting of the horse itself, particularly the rear end. There are strong highlights with reflection colours painted in on one (like the painting), and much softer highlights in the other. The one posed against the background is painted with less contrast and less colour, and does not match the original artwork as well. Chances are you didn’t notice that on first glance. I didn’t. I think the higher level of contrast works better, particularly for a figure standing alone with no background.

It takes time to tune your eye to consciously spot differences like this, so for the benefit of those who might be having a little trouble seeing the areas where there is a strong difference in contrast, I’ve indicated them on the picture below.

Death dealer minis contrastLeft painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro, Right painted by Marc Maslans.

Contrast Through Backgrounds

I described above how the lighter and more saturated colour of the background in the Death Dealer painting contrasts against the Death Dealer character and adds to the story and emotion of the painting. But it also adds literal contrast. He looks darker and stands out to your eye better when he is set against a lighter background. Using colour and value in the background of a movie scene, painting, etc. is a very common way to direct the viewer’s attention and focus. One reason we need to use so much contrast on our miniature figures is because we do not have that tool at our disposal. For a single freestanding figure, all of our contrast, colour, mood, and story has to be built into our paint job of the figure and its base, because that is all we have. 

Here’s another example. Disney’s Cinderella is the stereotypical ‘fair maiden’ – very pale skin, blond hair, and wearing a white dress. And a lot of people paint figures in a similar way. Without the addition of some contrast and definition, a figure painted like that will not stand out well on a tabletop or shelf. It will be difficult for the viewer to parse the various parts of the figure to see the character/story. The figure needs deeper shadows in the folds of the cloth and contours of the face, hair, and limbs. Adding lining where areas meet, like between the skin of the arm and the edges of the gloves and sleeves, is another way to help people better see the various areas of the figure and how they fit together.

Note that the constraint of size exacerbates the issues. A life size real person or a cartoon one drawn with the intention of being shown on a giant movie screen are working with different parameters than we are working on figures that are an inch and a half tall. These issues are apparent in comparing the two examples of Cindarella on the left below. The far left is a still from the 1950 Walt Disney movie. Although Cinderella herself lacks contrast and definition at this scale, the rich dark colours surrounding her help attract the gaze of the viewer and make the image interesting and pleasing to look at. While the animation style of the version second from the left is more modern and detailed, it looks like a pale coloured barely differentiated blob on a white background at this small scale.

Cindarella contrastThe centre left is an example of issues I often see in judging and critiquing people’s figures. The centre right is an example of how to use slightly stronger contrast and more definition to create a more visually effective miniature paint job, while still maintaining the desired characterization.

I think Disney itself has recognized the issues that arise when using the character design originally created for huge movie screens on smaller screens and in marketing materials. The newer animated version of Cinderella is shown in the centre right. She now wears a blue gown, and is drawn with a more strongly defined choker and headband. The shadow areas are a little darker, too, providing additional contrast. The design for the live action version of the character has undergone similar modification. The dress is a deeper shade of blue, which contrasts more strongly with Lily James’ fair skin and hair. Note that the deep folds and shadowed area of the bodice are actually pretty dark in value, as are several areas of the skin, like her neck. I would incorporate even stronger contrast in painting a miniature figure. In the original movie, Cinderella’s gown is white, and only appears blue in scenes where she is in heavy shadow. In evolving the character for modern uses, Disney has had to make decisions related to colour and value contrast for the same reason we do – to make sure she’s visually effective in different sizes, on different backgrounds.

Let’s look at the Death Dealer figures again for a miniature-based example. Here I’ve converted the backgrounds to black, which is quite different to the background in the original painting, and is an example of how that can affect our perception of the main subject. The Death Dealer on the left is painted with more even lighting and lower contrast. The overall contours of the figure stand out better against the background – there aren’t many areas that are so dark they fade into the background and you can’t quite tell where one begins and the other ends. (In traditional art parlance that is a ‘lost’ edge.) But the piece overall does not quite pop in the same way that it did against the original background or the plain white one.

IMG 0676Left painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro, Right painted by Marc Maslans.

The figure on the right is painted as if it is being lit with stronger light sources, and has higher contrast between highlights and shadows. There are lost edges here – areas where you can’t see the exact border between the horse or rider against the background. However, I think the stronger contrast makes it easier to distinguish the various elements within the figure itself. You can easily pick out the horse vs the saddle vs the base, the helmet vs the armour, etc. You can tell which legs of the horse are the ones closest to you the viewer because they are painted as if more light is falling on them since they’re facing outwards. I think this strong contrast also evokes the mood of the original painting quite well. The more reflective NMM helmet, shield, and weapon contrasted with the deeply shadowed face of the rider gives him a mysterious and ominous air, as do the bright highlights on the axe head compared to the darker blood on its tip. (There’s also a cool/warm contrast between the blue NMM shadows and the red blood.)

Backgrounds in Photographs

When taking photographs of miniatures, we can try to consider this aspect of background. It is usually best to choose a simple, uncluttered background for your figure. (It makes it easier for your camera to focus on it, too!) But you can go beyond that and make colour or texture choices that enhance its appearance. If you have suitable terrain pieces, those can make fun and atmospheric backdrops for photos. Experiment a little, you may be surprised to find out how much of a difference it makes. 

Xmas osl comboIt’s particularly obvious with a lighting effect figure like this one, but can make more of a difference than you might expect with many figures.

Viewing Miniatures Live

When making colour and painting choices while painting your figure, remember that you have no control over the background of a miniature when it is used on a tabletop or viewed on a contest shelf. There is going to be a lot of visual clutter around it – other figures, terrain, other objects and people. That’s just one more reason to use strong contrast in value and colour, definition like lining and edge highlights, and to go big rather than subtle with effects.

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Constraint #3: No Atmosphere/Air

In three dimensional space, objects might exist at varying distances behind and around the main subject(s). A two dimensional work like a painting can depict these as part of the painting of the background. If you look back at the Frank Frazetta paintings as an example, we understand that each of the three birds in the painted sky is a different distance away from the Death Dealer, with the largest bird positioned closest to him and the smallest bird being the furthest away.

Even if you were to paint a backdrop for a miniature, there are materials and effects that are very difficult or impossible to convey in our medium. Smoke, clouds, and mist are great examples. You can have smoke or clouds sculpted onto a figure, and then it is a very solid object made of metal/resin/plastic that you’re trying to paint to appear as insubstantial air. Another alternative is to use cotton wool or other materials to try to evoke the appearance of these effects. How well that works can vary widely depending on the nature of the effect, skill of the modeller, and tastes of the viewer. 

It’s a little less obvious, but our lack of control over the atmosphere around a figure also significantly impacts our ability to depict light. We can paint a light source, and we can paint how the the light reflects on the actual figure and any basing and scenic elements that exist in our scene. But in the real world an actual light also illuminates the atmosphere around itself. And while this is most readily apparent in dramatic source lighting scenes, any direct light we depict is part of this effect. This is yet another reason why we have to exaggerate our painting of light and shadow on our figures. We have to exaggerate the elements that we can control to help compensate for the areas we can not depict due to the limitations of our medium.

IMG 0418

I have digitally altered the light source photographs I posted above to add a sense of illumination to the area directly around the candle. In the case of the picture on the right, I accomplished this mainly by adding shadows to the background areas distant from the candle. This is exactly what I did on the figure: I painted the areas of shadow quite dark to make the light source stand out more. This is something to take note of for general painting, too. You generally want your main area of focus to be lighter in value or brighter in saturation. Making the less important areas around it darker and duller is a great way to achieve that!

While I can add this kind of digital manipulation to a photograph of my miniature, when the miniature is viewed live the issue is not just with the area behind the figure, but the volume of air surrounding it. It is difficult or impossible to add atmospheric or light effects to that volume of air using paint alone. 

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Part 2 – Constraints and Conundrums

Ready for more? Part II is now available

I’m sure I didn’t think of everything, so please feel welcome to give us some more food for thought by leaving a comment. If I get enough suggestions, I’ll put together a part III some time!

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Image Credits

Some of the images included in this article are not mine. Some are freely made available for use, others are not. I have included them here for educational purposes, which I feel falls under the Fair Use doctrine. 

Smoke picture from Pexels, artist uncredited.
iPhone screen and app icons created by a number of different designers.
Chain armour photo by Dariusz Wielec from Wikimedia.
Chain armour photo by Moss Photography from Unsplash.
Original Death Dealer painting by Frank Frazetta.
Kabuki Death Dealer figure painted by Marc Maslans.
Moebius Models Death Dealer figure painted by unknown artist.
Kabuki Death Dealer figure painted by Bosio Giovanni Pietro.
Incarnations of Cinderella by Disney.

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Figures in this Post

The Orc Slicer is available in Bones plastic.
The Female Ranger with Bow is available in metal, and will release in plastic in a year or two.
I believe the Kabuki Studio Death Dealer is available here
The Moebius Models Death Dealer is available here.
The Ghost of Christmas Past is a seasonal figure occasionally available in early December from Reaper Miniatures.

Flesh (Tones) for Fantasy

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In choosing colours for the third succubus, I wanted to includes elements from the other two to help draw them together as a group. My aim was to paint her skin as sort of a middle ground between the other two. The colour selections were darker and a little pinker than the kneeling succubus, but lighter in value than the seated succubus. The golds and blues used for clothing and accessories were used in various areas of the other figures as well.

Since I would also be painting a transparent cloth effect on this figure, I decided it was worth the time to test the colours I proposed to use, and I painted a quick experiment on one of the figures I previously used in a hair painting demonstration. The blond hair colours wern’t exactly the same recipe I used for the jewelry of the succubi, but they’re in the ballpark.

Succ3 test fullTest of skin and cloth colours for the standing succubus.

This was the easiest of the three skin tones for me to paint. I imagine that was largely due to being well in practice at that point after having painted two other similar figures. But I suspect that the fact that the midtone value of the skin was more of a middle value colour also made it easier. It’s tricky to judge highlights and keep them small enough on a very dark colour. Shadows painted on to very light value colours can easily look sloppy or unnatural, or be very challenging to achieve smooth blends with. 

Succ3 wip1 face 600 cropIn doing a rough block in the main concern is where lighter and darker values are placed. It’s not meant to look smooth or perfect at this stage.

I once again decide to start with a rough block-in for the major highlights and shadows on the flesh. I do mean rough, as is probably more apparent in the close-up below. During this stage I was regularly holding the figure out at arm’s length and looking at it without magnification. I wanted to see whether the various masses of the body standing out as identifiable and looking three dimensional from a distance. I was not particularly concerned about how it looked up close at this stage. 

Succ3 wip1 front 600 crop cu

The next stage was to go back in and refine the placement and the blending. For me this refinement step includes three elements, but it’s certainly possible to break these down into sequential steps instead of combining them if that makes it easier to manage.

Firstly, I was fine-tuning the initial block in by making a highlight a little brighter here, or shifting the placement location of a shadow, that sort of thing.  If you compare the two stages, you can see that the highlights are shifted a little lower on the breasts in the refinement stage.

Secondly, I was making sure I had addressed smaller or subtler areas. This includes checking that I addressed all of the smaller shapes within a bigger one, like on the knee, which is this case is sculpted in such a way that some of the complexity of the knee bones are apparent. You can also see that the area of the bellybutton is more refined in the second stage.

Thirdly, I was smoothing out rough blending transitions by taking half-step mixes between colours and stippling them along the edges until I got the blends as smooth as I possibly could.

Succ3 wip2 front 600 crop cu

The face, hands, and feet are areas with a lot more detail. I worked on those after I had completed the main body areas. Partly this was just a question of time management. I knew I would be working on this over multiple painting sessions, so I concentrated on the body the first day, and the other areas the second. (The hand on the chest would also be most easily painted after the neck and upper chest area were completed) For these more detailed areas I painted a little more precisely. There was still a small amount of roughing in and refining, but I didn’t want to cake up any detail with paint or make my life too difficult, so I painted up a little more cleanly than I had on the body block in. 

Succ3 wip3 face 600 crop

I had thought I would paint the transparent cloth immediately after finishing the skin, but it occurred to me it would be very tricky to paint the jewelry without getting paint on the cloth. You can just barely see it in the picture above, but she has jewelry on both ankles, and the inner leg is quite inset behind the cloth. For the non-metallic metal on this figure, I decided to use the colours I used to paint the freehanded pillow on the second succubus, which were adapted from the jewelry colours on the first succubus.

Succ3 wip3 front 600 crop

The blue cloth incorporated colours that I had used on the other figures, but I also added more of a teal blue. I had a similar issue with saturation as came up with the freehand pillow on the second succubus. I liked the value and general colour tone of several teal blues, but they all looked garish when placed next to the more subdued colours used on the figure. There are a number of different ways to desaturate colours. If you only have the budget or room for a small number of paints it is better to buy highly saturated ones and learn how to use colour mixing and colour theory to adapt them as necessary. In this situation, I chose to add one of the purplish colours used on the skin to the teal. 

Succ3 cloth nmm cu 600

The photo above shows the palette of colours I used to paint the gold NMM and the teal cloth. You can see that there is not a true saturated yellow in the colours I used to paint the gold up towards the top. The teal that I picked to paint the cloth with is the blob in the far upper right. You can see how bright it looks next to everything else on the palette. Had I painted that directly on the miniature the cloth would have stood out in a way that wouldn’t look natural. It would have looked as if it existed under different lighting than the rest. The row of less saturated teal paints near the bottom are the colours I mixed using that teal that were used to paint the cloth.

The two pools at the very bottom left are glazes that I used. These were small amounts of paint to which I added a lot of medium (in this case Reaper’s brush-on sealer) to make them very transparent. I painted the heavily thinned down blue over the areas of flesh seen through the cloth to create the impression of the cloth colour acting as a filter on the skin colour. After I finished painting the blue cloth it still seemed a little more saturated than I wanted, so I painted a thin glaze of the purplish skin colour I had mixed into the pools over the whole surface to tone it down even more. That did fix the colour, but it also subdued the value of the highlights, so I painted some of those back on.

Succ3 wip3 back 600 crop

Following the picture above, I painted her hair and also did some work on the figures’ bases. I thought it would be good to take pictures of the three together to see how they work as a group.

Wip1 succubi front 1000

Wip1 succubi back 1000

When I took a look at the group pictures, and then compared the figures on the shelf, I felt I wasn’t sure if the standing figure ‘matched’ the other two in terms of contrast. I had painted her hair with a softer sort of texture and wanted the robe to look filmy, but overall she seemed to have less oomph than the other two. I shared the pictures with a friend who recommend that I bump up the highlights in the hair and the focal area of the skin, and also on the robe. (My helpful friend was Jen Greenwald, who also has a blog!) The other change in the later photos is that I added some glazes of colours used on the figures to the base stones to help tie those in a bit more and give them a bit more variation and visual interest.

Wip2 succ front 1000

Wip2 succ back 1000

And a look at the changes on just the standing succubus figure alone:

Succ3 wip5 front 600

Succ3 wip5 back 600

Below is a picture of the layer mixes I used to paint the skin of the standing succubus. The darkest two colours on the middle row were only used for lining. (I line fingers and toes with a slightly lighter value than the main lining.) The three lightest colours (including the pale green-white in the upper right) were not really used in my initial pass. I did use a tiny amount of those light values when I went back in to add in some additional highlights in the focal area. IIRC the midtone was the center pool on the bottom row.

Succ3 palette 600 cu

Paint Recipes

Skin base colour: 9679 Drow Nipple Pink 
Skin shadow colours: 9602 Bruised Purple, 9307 Red Liner
Skin highlight colours: 89503 Sinspawn Pink, 9282 Maggot White

Cloth base colour: 89522 Grindylow Blue desaturated by mixing in 9679 Drow Nipple Pink
Cloth shadow colour: 61127 Waveform Aquamarine desaturated by mixing in 9602 Bruised Purple (using 9077 Marine Teal would also work, or just mixing Blue Liner into the base colour), 9066 Blue Liner
Cloth highlight colour: 9282 Maggot White, 9039 Pure White

The paint colours in italics are not currently available for purchase. Waveform Aquamarine was from a licensed line of paint and thus very unlikely to be reissued. Bruised Purple is coming back, and is currently available for preorder in a Bones 5 pledge. Drow Nipple Pink was a special event colour available at a few ReaperCons. I have heard rumours it might make a reappearance someday…

Figures in this Post

The work-in-progress succubus figures are not currently for sale. They are available for preorder as part of the Bones 5 Kickstarter late pledge. Look for the Demonic Temptations add-on.

The spellcaster holding up an orb is available in plastic or in metal. She was repurposed from my article/video on how to paint hair.

Contrast: The Power of Light

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I’ve talked about contrast a lot in the past. Recently I woke up to a great example of contrast in the real world that I thought might be helpful to share. (I’ll link to the previous contrast articles at the end of this post.)

Window light 1 crop 600Look closer and you might also see the power of cat hair in action.

The picture above is of a wall in my bedroom. The black shape on the right is a blackout curtain. The picture was taken on an overcast day, but you can still see the light sneaking through the curtain to shine on the wall. My bedroom wall is a dark green colour. I’m including the official paint company swatch below, but I’d say it’s even slightly darker than that in real life. Close to the colour of Reaper Paint’s Forest Green if you have that one. (It’s called Night Watch. We didn’t pick it for the nerdy name, but it’s a nice bonus. ;->)

Night watch ppg timeless paint colors ppg1145 7tsg 16 64 1000

So that’s the midtone colour of my wall. If you look at my room picture above, you’ll see that the shadows go down to pure black, and the highlights are much lighter green in colour. You may think they appear almost white right next to the edge of the curtain. We’ll take a look at the exact colours in a minute, but for now just take a minute to appreciate how large that range of contrast is. Probably a lot stronger than the contrast you’re painting on your figures, particularly if you’re a painter who worries that too much contrast will look cartoonish and not realistic.

This contrast is created because light is powerful stuff (and the absence of light is likewise powerful in creating dark shadows.) The effect of the light is particularly dramatic in this scenario because there’s a small bright area of light penetrating into a dark room. 

So if this effect of dramatic contrast actually is realistic, Why do we seem not to be able to ’see’ this dramatic effect in the colour and value (lightness vs darkness) of objects around us?

One answer is that often the appearance of highlights and shadows is not quite as dramatic as this. If there are numerous or larger sources of light, the light bounces around and creates a more diffused lighting effect. Very diffuse light may be a lot easier to paint, but it is not very exciting to look at. If you study movie making or photography at all, you know that photographers and movie makers choose to shoot at certain times of day or use lights and reflectors to light their scenes in very specific ways. They do this to help convey emotion and story, but also just to make their scenes more interesting to look at. Our miniature figures will benefit a lot if we paint them with more interesting and dramatic lighting. If you know anything about movie making or photography, I recommend that you apply everything you know about dramatic lighting in those fields to how you approach painting shadows and highlights on your miniature figures, and you’ll improve your handling of contrast immensely!

The following is a picture in the same room taken with the overhead light turned on and sunlight coming through the window. It is less dramatic, and probably a little less interesting. There is also still a wider range between the value of the lightest colour on the wall and the darkest colour of the wall than many people feel comfortable painting.

Overhead light 600

This next picture is the same scene but using the flash on the camera, which is an additional light source. So it has three light sources – the overhead light, the sun coming through the window, and the flash from the camera. The flash is bright enough that it overpowers the effect of the light coming in from under the curtain so that’s not really visible in this photo. It also creates a pretty dramatic range in value between the brightest highlights and darkest shadows on the wall.

Flash light 600

The other reason we have trouble seeing the level of contrast around us in every day life helps explain why we often fail when we attempt to paint stronger contrast. We are literally ‘of two minds’ about the things we see. (At least two.) Part of our mind looks at things exactly as they are. There’s another part of our mind that adds our general knowledge and experience in to our view of what we see. It interprets the things we see with or into information it thinks we will find useful to performing various activities. That information is useful for a lot of areas of life, but it can be actively unhelpful when trying to create art.

Let’s return to my wall to see what I mean. The paint swatch shown above is the midtone colour. I know that’s the colour of the wall – I went to a bit of effort to pick it out! ;-> So when I look at the wall, part of my mind can see how light the colour of green is next to the window, and how dark the green is next to the corner of the wall. But the other part of my mind knows what colour the wall is. That part is going to give me second doubts and pull me back from trying to paint highlights that stray too far away from that midtone colour by making me feel that they look ‘wrong’. That part of my mind is also the part that tends to be in charge for many day to day activities, so it’s really hard for the part of my brain that accurately sees the correct highlight colour to override the part that knows what colour the wall is. Or to put it in a different way, we spend so much time listening to the part of our mind that knows how things are that we have trouble trusting the part of our mind that more accurately sees things and using that in our art.

I don’t know if I’m explaining it very well, but this is why you have to fight yourself sometimes when you’re painting. First you have to push out of your current comfort zone and be willing to paint with more contrast. And as you do that, you also have to fight the part of your brain that is telling you what you’re painting looks wrong.

This is a similar idea to the principles and exercises of the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Many of the same issues affect our ability to use colour and value to best effect in our art, it’s not just about literal drawing. I mention that book because I suspect many will have at least some experience with it, but a book I would recommend as much or more is Your Artist’s Brain: Use the right side of your brain to draw and paint what you see – not what you think you see by Carl Purcell. Both of these books help explain what’s going on in our minds that can lead to things like the very common situation that we like miniatures other people paint that use quite a lot of contrast, but we have a lot of difficulty using that level of contrast on our own figures.

If you are already familiar with this idea and successfully pushing your contrast, keep reading for the advanced credit version of this post. Or skip to the bottom for a photo that isolates the main colours and values in the picture, and also links to more information on why you need to paint with more contrast, and some methods to actually do it.

Window light 3 cropSame view, but with some additional objects.

Once you start to get more comfortable with painting a more dramatic effect of lighting, the next step is to consider how different types of surfaces and textures are affected by the light, and attempt to render more of that in your painting.

Above is a view of the room scene that includes additional objects. The wall paint is an eggshell finish. The lampshade is a smooth shiny plastic, and the neck of the lamp is a dull metal. Notice that each of these surfaces reacts to the light in a much different way. The bright areas of highlight are smaller and much more sharply delineated from the midtones and shadows on the lamp than they are on the wall. There is a gentle transition from light to dark on the wall, whereas the light and dark areas appear in sharper bands on the lampshade and lamp neck.

The water sprayer and the fabric piece at the bottom of the photo appear much more evenly lit than either the lamp or the wall. They are made up of more matte materials than the wall paint or the lamp. You can see a subtle edge highlight on the fabric piece, and shadows on the white head of the sprayer, but the effect of light and shadow is not as dramatic.

Two things to note about the water bottle and fabric piece. One is that I would exaggerate the light and shadow on those objects if I were painting this scene on a miniature scale. It would be necessary to do so simply because of the smaller scale. Two, this is also an example of how photographs do not exactly capture real life. (And that I’m no great photographer or photo editor.) I adjusted the exposure and it’s a lot better than what I started with, but both objects appear much lighter in the photograph than they do looking at this scene in person. 

In the final photo below I have isolated the colours from several areas of the photograph so you can see their exact values. It is very likely that you interpreted some of these values as darker or lighter than they actually appear. This is another thing our eyes/brains do that can lead us astray in creating art! Note that the only true white in the following photo is on the captions for what each of the arrows point to. The background behind the text is neutral gray. So both of those give you points of comparison in judging the value of the isolated colour squares.

Window light labels cr 600

Links to Previous Articles on Contrast

More and less contrast demonstrated on the same figure.

Visual comparison of more and less contrast and lining on the same figure and between two figures.

Contrast versus Realism, and Why You Should Choose Contrast.

How to Paint with More Contrast Part I: Mindset.

How to Paint with More Contrast Part II: Visualizing Light and Methods of Paint Application.

Example of using lighting reference photo, then rough colour block-in, then details and refining on Caerindra Thistlemoore.

Example of using value mapping/grayscale (and freehand practice) on Sophie 2018.

Example of using value mapping/greyscale, then rough colour block-in, then details and refining on Dragon and Stocking.

Using a lighting reference photo, and the difference between cast and form shadows.

Understanding Critique: a Visualization of Lining and More Contrast

If you like the work I do on this blog, please consider supporting it via my Patreon.

This article is part of a continuing series on contrast in miniature painting. It also serves as an example of some of the issues discussed in my article Suggestions for Contest Entries.

Libby vs Eriu original paint

On the left side of the above picture is my painted version of Beach Babe Libby. On the right is Eriu, Champion with Greatsword. They have a lot in common apart from wearing bikinis. Both are sculpted by the talented Kev White. I used a similar colour scheme on both – pale skin, and a triadic colour scheme of red-orange, green, and blue-violet. I painted both of them in 2003, only a few months in time apart. Both were painted with the same stock of paints and brushes. Despite all these things that they have in common, I think most viewers would agree that Eriu is the better painted figure. But why is that?

Some might look at Eriu and think it’s a superior paint job because it features bells and whistles like NMM (non-metallic metal) and a bit of freehand. Many would likely note that Eriu is painted with better contrast between darker shadows and brighter highlights. Those are definitely factors, but I think there’s a more fundamental difference than that between these two paint jobs. Below is a digitally edited comparison. I edited the photograph of Eriu to remove a lot of the contrast, dull down the NMM, and soften the lining. My aim was to in effect ‘paint’ Eriu in a manner more like Libby. Let’s compare this edited version of Eriu with Libby.

Libby vs low contrast Eriu

Even though her NMM is flat looking and her hair is dull, I would argue that this version of Eriu is still a better paint job than Libby. If you walked past the two of them on a contest shelf or game table, the Eriu figure would catch your eye more than the Libby figure. This is because Eriu is a better application of another type of value contrast – contrast between different areas of the miniature. If you squint your eyes (or shrink the pictures) and look at Libby, the figure kind of blends together visually. You can’t see a strong separation between the areas like her hat versus her face, her skin versus her bikini, or her feet versus the sand. The midtone colours used for the various areas of the miniature are very similar in value. (Value is a measure of how light, medium, or dark a colour is.)

The Eriu figure stands out better visually because the midtone colours of adjacent areas are also different values. She has very pale skin and very dark hair. The green boots and bikini bottom and the copper armour top are middle values. So the skin, hair, and clothing all stand out from one another and help the viewer quickly spot what and where each area on the figure is. Giving the viewer that kind of information is the most fundamental job of a miniature painter (IMHO at least). Using value contrast in the midtones of adjacent areas on your figures is a simple and very effective tool you can use to make them much more interesting to look at!

Edit to add: I have received a few comments from people who don’t feel like they see any difference in the quality between these two figures, or who prefer the Libby figure. Part of the reason I chose these figures is because they’re so similar. Not just the figures, but the tools and general skill level used to paint them. We get very caught up in having the ‘right’ tools, or developing skills like blending and the ability to paint precise details. Those are important, but they are only half of the equation of creating visual impact. The other half is more to do with our perception and our judgement. Seeing subtle differences like this. Making judgements about which colours to use, in what values, and where to put those. It is just as important to build those skills as it is to work on your skills of handling brush and paint. It took me a long time to understand that and start working on it, but it is something that can be improved. At a certain point it becomes the critical skill that you’ll need to work on to improve your work.

If you are having trouble seeing much difference in some of these images, try this – step back from your screen or shrink the images down until you’re looking at them closer to the size of a miniature (a little over an inch or 30mm or so, these are fairly small.) This is the way most viewers will experience your work, you need to grab their attention and give them as much information about the miniature as you can at small scale/at a distance. This is just as important for display/contest miniatures as it is for gaming figures! You need to grab a judge’s attention at arm’s length to make them want to pick your figure up to look closer. (Or to put it another way – we know it’s tough to paint high contrast and subtle blends and details. That is why minis that pull off both score better!) 

Libby vs Eriu in black and white

Another tip is to look at your work and make comparisons in black and white. We love colour, and it’s very easy for us to get distracted by it. But value usually has the most impact on whether a piece is visually effective. This is true whether it’s using different values between regions of the figure, or using stronger contrast in highlights and shadows. I’ve added a comparison of the two figures in grayscale above. Hopefully it should be easier to see that the midtone colours of most of the Libby figure kind of blend together, whereas the various areas of the Eriu figure stand out more distinctly from one another.

There are times when it is not possible to use strong value contrast between areas. In those situations it is all the more important to use other tools like lining and stronger contrast between shadows and highlights. To add (or increase) lining and contrast are two of the most common pieces of feedback I find myself giving to painters after judging contests like the ReaperCon MSP Open. When possible, I show painters who receive that feedback an example of what I mean by comparing a figure like Eriu to one like Libby. But I think it might help people if they were able to compare what adding contrast and more lining looks like on the same figure. So I have digitally edited this photo of Libby to provide an example of that.

Libby original and revised.

Let’s convert this one to grayscale, too. I think it helps us see how the lining and additional contrast make the figure ‘read’ more clearly.

Libby original vs edit in grayscale

The revised version of Libby isn’t a gold medal paint job, and it would still benefit from stronger midtone value contrast between the different areas of the figure. But it does stand out more visually than the original. If you squint you’ll have an easier time seeing where one part of the figure ends and another begins. But which is more important, lining or contrast?

Libby lining vs contrast

I made my digital edits of the lining and the contrast on separate layers so I could show each of the elements individually. The only change between the original paint job and the picture on the above left is that I added strong lining to separate areas like the skin and the bikini. The figure on the right has only the faint original lining I painted, but I digitally painted in additional highlights and shadows. Both at the lining and additional contrast improve the figure, but I think if you could do only one that the lining is most effective.

I know a lot of people who feel like blacklining/darklining is ‘unnatural’, but it is very helpful to the viewer on gaming scale figures. I would also argue that it is more natural than people often think since clothing or other items that overhang other items create a small line of dark shadow, but that’s an argument for another day. Thick black lines will have a cartoony or graphic novel feel. For a more natural and less obtrusive look, choose a dark value of one of the colours on either side of the area and use that for your lining.

I don’t as yet have a tutorial about executing the technique, but you will find plenty of lining tutorials on YouTube. One thing that helped me a lot was to paint the lining in after I did my basecoat, but before other steps. Then I could easily clean it up with the basecoat colour if I got sloppy in spots. If you do this, you will need to come back at the end and touch up a few spots where you lost some lining doing other stages of painting, but that tends to be a lot less nerve-racking than painting all of the lining at the end. 

In case you’re curious, here’s is a picture of what the edits I made to Libby look like with the original photograph removed, so you can see only the parts I altered. Anything that appears grey is untouched. This might also help you get a better picture of the value range between the highlights and the shadows. My intent with the digital edit was to create something that was a better version of the original figure, not something painted in the style I would paint today. My digital talents are too limited to alter the picture to that degree! In case anyone’s curious, I made these edited versions on an iPad Pro using the Apple Pencil and the Procreate program.

Libby edits only edit cr

I also did a digital edit of improvements to Eriu. Since the figure had a stronger foundation to begin with, the effect is less dramatic.

Eriu original revised

I’ve written a fair bit in past posts about how and why to paint with more contrast. Below are some links you may find helpful. You’ll also find pictures of a few miniatures I ‘edited’ the old fashioned way if you’d like additional examples of what more and less contrast look like on the same figure.

First, an example of what more contrast actually looks like on the same figure.

Let’s talk about the issue of contrast vs. realism.

The way we think as we paint can make it harder to paint more contrast (includes additional examples of what more and less contrast look like on the same figures.)


And finally some hands on tips for painting with more contrast.