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.

IMG 0822

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.

Contrast form rec cr

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.

Value contrast rec cr

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.

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.