Understanding Critique: a Visualization of Lining and More Contrast

This is an excerpt from a class I’ve been working on. In the class I critique miniatures I’ve painted throughout my career from beginner to advanced, terrible to award winning. I want to give people a better understanding of the terms we often use in critique, and to explore common issues in miniature painting with the aim of helping painters of all levels better assess and determine how to improve their own miniatures. I hope this also helps to illustrate some of the issues I outlined in my previous post Suggestions for Contest Entries, as I know people are already painting entries for this years ReaperCon MSP Open!

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. Whatever 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. I digitally edited the photograph of Eriu to remove a lot of the contrast, dull down the NMM, and soften the lining, 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 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, 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, 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. 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, but if you want to see more about that you’ll need to come out to my class at AdeptiCon!

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.


Problem Solving: Tara the Silent Part 4 – A Sisterly Comparison

In the previous instalments of this series (links later in the article), I walked through my work-in-progress steps of painting the figure Tara the Silent. My aim was to share the way I try to identify and solve issues during the process of painting a miniature. Progressing your painting skills has as much or more to do with improving your critical eye as it does with improving your brush and paint use skills. I think many people do not understand just how valuable it is to improve your ability to really see and analyze a figure (or other types of visual arts)! I know that I would have improved much more quickly and consistently had I been working on that as much as I focused on blending and other brush tricks.

It occurred to me that I could use Tara for one more exercise to try to help others build their critical eye. This exercise is one of comparison between two figures. Comparison can be as instructive as assessing a single work, whether that is a comparison of more recent work against older work, or comparing one artist’s interpretation of a figure against another’s. This exercise could also give you some insight to the challenges that contest judges face. You can imagine that these two figures are the final cut for a contest award, and determine which which you would choose and why. I will not share my analysis/thoughts until the section after the last picture. So if you want you can test your eye first, and then read my thoughts.

Anwyn and Tara, face viewsAnwyn the Bard is on the left, Tara the silent on the right. 

Although I have never before painted Tara, I have painted her ‘sister’, Anwyn the Bard. Reaper sculptors occasionally take a figure and do a significant conversion of it to create a different character. Werner Klocke first sculpted Tara, and then did a resculpt of the miniature to create the character of Anwyn. Even apart from the fact that the figures aren’t identical, this is more of a lemons to oranges comparison than an apples to oranges one. The colour schemes are quite different, even the cameras used to take the photos aren’t the same. But comparing like to like is pretty rare in comparison critique, and definitely rare in contest judging, so while the exercise is a little more challenging than a direct like to like comparison, it is an opportunity to practice the type of thing you’re likely to do more often.

If you’d like to review the previous instalments in this series, here are links:
Part 1: Colour scheme creation (and correction) on the fly.
Part 2: Spotting and solving conundrums of contrast.
Part 3: Giving the figure a thorough once over before calling it done.

Tara and Anwyn, front views

So what kind of factors could you look at when making a comparison? Likely the first elements that will jump out to many people relate to the colour scheme. We are very responsive to colour, and our initial reactions to colour tend to be visceral and subconscious. Building your eye requires a more conscious and critical assessment in addition to that emotional response. As a judge, I have often been a position of awarding high honours to something I might not personally ‘like’ in terms of colour selection or subject, but which is very skillfully done.

* Do the colours work together in a pleasing and effective fashion? (Depending on the subject and the intended scene, ‘effective’ may mean garish or gross colours that aren’t ‘pleasing’ in the traditional sense!)

* Does the colour scheme fit the character and the story/mood that the painter is aiming for with the figure/scene?

* What is the level of contrast between the colours of different areas, and within the shading and highlighting of individual areas? Is the level of contrast sufficient to visually separate different areas of the model and help the viewer identify what the various items on the figure are?

* What is the level of nuance and complexity in the colours? Are there subtle variations of hue within areas? Is there harmony in the shadow and highlight colours over the whole of the piece? Do the colours of the main figure(s) and the scenic element(s) work together and look like parts of a consistent whole?

Tara and Anwyn, right views

Brush skills are another key area to compare. 

* Precision of paint application, both in larger areas, and within areas for placement of sharp highlights and darklining as appropriate.

* The success of execution of details like eyes, small sculpted details, or pure painted details like freehand.

* Rendering of different surface textures – skin vs cloth vs leather vs metal vs wood vs dirt vs stone, etc. Is everything painted in a pretty similar way, or do these different textures stand out from one another in realistic and/or interesting ways?

* Consistency of rendering – is the overall level of the painting on the figure uniform? If you’ve ever wondered why something that looks fairly ‘plain’ scored higher in a contest than something with really great freehand or source lighting, consistency is often the reason. Doing an area or effect on a miniature spectacularly can fall short if the rest of the miniature is not up to a similar standard. That doesn’t mean that everything needs to have the exact same level of contrast or be super detailed! That is usually counter productive. You want to have areas of interest where the viewer focuses, and have areas that are less important fade into the background a little. But a miniature covered in detailed freehand standing on a base that’s had a quick wash and sloppy drybrush treatment isn’t as consistent as one with high quality but less flashy brushwork throughout the whole piece. 

(I will admit that consistency is an area where highly skilled artists can and have gotten away with doing things I just stated should not be done. Figures with errant brushstrokes, or areas that are barely base coated. Those of us of more modest talents are still well advised to aim for consistency as much as possible! I’ve also heard stories of people scoring lower or missing out on awards for having bits they ran out of time to paint to the standard of the rest of the figure.)

Tara and Anwyn, back views

Quality of preparation and the treatment scenic elements can make a bigger difference to a figure than it might seem. They might not jump out at first viewing the way colour and brush skills do, but they’re a critical foundation to those elements.

* Prep work – the figure itself is your ‘canvas’. No amount of brush skill can completely overcome a poorly prepared canvas. Removing mould lines is just the beginning. You may also need to fill in pock marks on surfaces meant to be smooth, accentuate textures, file or carve weapons to look a little more sharp or pointed, etc. 

* Assembly is also important. Gaps between limbs will break the illusion pretty quickly! A common issue is the attachment of the figure to the base. If the feet look like they’re floating slightly above the surface rather than firmly planted, the miniature does not look like it’s part of the scene and doesn’t look like it has weight and substance.

* It is important to paint basing materials and most vegetation type flock. It seems like you should be able to put small rocks or sand or whatever on a base and have it look like rocks and sand, right? But unpainted basing materials do not look in scale to a painted figure. They also don’t look like they’re part of the same scene lit by the same light source. Painting the elements of the base, and using colours you used on the figure in those elements makes everything look unified and more realistic.

The last comparison picture is below, so don’t scroll past it if you don’t want to read my analysis yet!

Tara and Anwyn, left views

I’ll be honest – I hesitated to post these comparison pictures. I painted Anwyn in 2006! I’ve improved in the last dozen years, but not nearly so much as I might have hoped or expected. I wish I had understood the concepts of deliberate practice and focused self-critique so much earlier than I did! (And truthfully I’m still struggling with incorporating those ideas completely into my painting process.) I worked hard to ‘get better’, but in such an unfocused and haphazard way. 

In the end I have decided to take my lumps and share this in hopes that it may help some of you get where you want to be faster and more efficiently. I know the lure of chasing the right brush, painting, blending technique, etc. is hard to resist. But it really is only half the puzzle. Training your eye to see better so you can identify specific issues in your work and iterate through working to improve them is immensely important.

The Photos!

I can’t help but be struck by the difference in the photo quality. My camera in 2006 was a $400-500 mid-range digital camera. The one I used to take photos of Tara is just a little better in quality (it’s a new technology class of camera, but it was also in the $500 range at time of purchase, so fairly comparable.) It’s now six years old and I am considering replacing it. Partly due to mechanical issues, partly in hopes of being able to add video to my repertoire. Both cameras allowed for setting white balance, f/stop, and other features useful to taking pictures of miniatures. Some of the difference is also down to my improving my photo taking set up with more lights, and use of a tripod, as well as using a grayscale card to help with editing the colours to look truer to life. I did re-edit the pictures from 2006 to try to make the comparison between photos a little fairer.

Colour Comparison

I quite like the colour scheme on Anwyn, and suspect many people will prefer it to that used on Tara. I’ve been thinking about having another go of that colour scheme for a while now, and I hope a figure it will suit presents itself soon. Tara’s colour scheme is fairly well suited to the character, but lacks a little oomph from an artistic point of view.

Although there are some nice areas of highlight on Anwyn, I think I have improved my level of contrast over time. There are much deeper shadows on Tara than on Anwyn, as well as stronger contrast between some colour areas. I think the contrast difference is most noticeable in the hair and the non-metallic metal. That said, Tara has some contrast issues and needs stronger and more small top level highlights throughout most of the figure. The level of contrast isn’t that noticeably problematic in a photo, but viewed at tabletop distance she lacks the desired level of ‘pop’.

When it comes to nuance and complexity in colour, there I feel I have made noticeable improvement. Anwyn’s colours play it straight, and that results in a bit of a plastic, artificial look. Shadows and highlights are just darker and lighter variations of the midtones. There is no added complexity of colour in the face like blush or interesting shadow colours. The lack of colour complexity/variation is particularly noticeable in the difference between the two bases. Both are pretty simple, but Tara’s seems much more ‘real’ and related to the figure, largely because of the way it’s painted more than the types of scenic elements used.

Brush Skills Comparison

I don’t think it’s particularly evident in the areas of detail in these two figures (eyes, darklining, and so on), but I am confident that my brush skills overall have improved. The end result may not be strikingly different, but at least the level of frustration and effort required to achieve it has changed!

I am much more conscious of painting different types of textures and surfaces now, and I think that is pretty evident in comparing these two figures. Every area on Anwyn is painted in the same smoothly blended fashion, with the possible exception of her hair. I was obsessed with achieving smooth blends, and I think that shows. Tara demonstrates a lot more of an understanding of different materials having different textures – rough stone, worn leather, wood grain, shiny hair, etc. The transitions on the NMM are a little more varied and better represent the way reflected light can appear than the perfect smoothness on Anwyn’s NMM.

Preparation and Scene Setting

Both of these figures are presented on very simple bases, so there’s not a huge amount to assess there. I do think that my ability to make a decent looking simple base has improved, though that may not be saying much. ;-> Anwyn’s base is very simple, and lacks a bit of variety that would make it more pleasing to look at. The flowers very much look stuck on instead of being a bit more naturally part of the rest of the foliage.

I’ve always been a bit fussy about prep, so there’s not a bit change to look at as far as that goes, either.

Conclusion

The end of the month crept up on me, so I’ve had to write this a bit more quickly than I usually prefer to do. Likely many of you will have spotted lots of issues with both of the figures or differences between them that I did not see. Feel free to share those in the comments. I am putting these figures out there to give people a chance to exercise their critique skills, so I have no problem with you tearing them apart. :->

The Bones Black plastic version of Tara was available as a promotion. It may become available again in the future. A metal version of Tara is currently available. Or you can buy a version of Tara sculpted by Sandra Garrity in metal. Anwyn the Bard is available in metal, or in classic Bones plastic.

Measuring Progress – More than “Better”

I think many of us tend to judge our progress of improvement in miniature painting by indicators like making first cut or placing in a contest, going from a bronze to silver then silver to gold medals in open shows, scores on sites like CMON or Putty & Paint, or even just getting a lot of likes and comments posting to social media sites like Facebook or Instagram.

Portraits combo1You probably think that the portrait on the right was drawn after the portrait on the left. (And some time after, at that!) You would be wrong. I drew them both last month, and the poorly drawn one was drawn after the better one. Yet overall I still feel pretty positive about my progress in learning to draw, and I think that I am improving. How can that be so? Read on to find out!

Contest placements and viewer responses absolutely can be valid markers of progress, and there’s nothing wrong with a little competitive spirit pushing you to strive and try new things! But when we rely only on those kinds of external judgments, we risk getting discouraged if they don’t come when we expect or when we feel like we need a little boost.  It’s also possible to plateau for a while in terms of the objective ‘quality’ of your paint job, but still be improving by other measures. It’s not necessarily that we don’t value these other measures, but often other types of improvement are subtle enough that we overlook them, or dismiss their value.

So today let’s talk about how ‘getting better’ at an artistic skill encompasses a lot more than just generating a more attractive looking end result.

Faster

Speed is definitely an area to consider. If you can paint a figure of the same quality today in half the time or 75% of the time, or even 90% of the time that it used to take you, then that is definitely getting better. Faster means you’re can paint more figures within your allotted hobby time, or that you have some additional time to spend on each figure to work on pushing your skills with techniques and effects that eventually will drive your quality up a notch.

For my fellow super slow painters, the reverse is also true! If you are still taking 10 or 20 or however many hours to paint a figure, but you’re also gradually improving the quality of each, that still means you’re getting better and making progress. Do not despair!

And an important note – I’m talking about improving your speed using techniques/paints/tools with which you are familiar. When you try new things, you have to accept that it’s going to take you longer with them than with your usual methods and materials! I mention this because I’ve definitely been in the position of feeling like I should be able to just pick up something new and run with it because I’ve been painting for X amount of time or at Y level. There’s always a learning curve. If anything, the more practiced you are with one method and set of tools, the more of an initial hurdle of time and discomfort that you might have when trying something new.

6m man better stronger fasterThey didn’t just rebuild Steve Austin to be BETTER. They also rebuilt him FASTER and STRONGER.

Stronger (or Easier)

When you first started to paint, almost everything seemed like a challenge and required a lot of focused concentration. Just figuring out how to hold the brush and the miniature and then getting the paint to go close to where you wanted it (and not on top of something else you just painted.) Then you start learning next steps like making washes or applying drybrushing, or maybe painting layers or wetblending. If you’ve been painting a while, likely you then tried your hand at trickier effects, like non-metallic metal or source lighting or whatever else.

Whatever stage of the miniature painting journey that you’re on, the elements you’re trying to master right now are challenging and often it may often seem like you take one step forward and two steps back. But very likely you’re forgetting how much you’ve learned in previous stages.

When you first started painting everything was challenging and required concentration. But if you stop and think about it, I bet there are skills that you’ve mastered so well that you now perform them almost unconsciously. Think back to the first few miniatures you painted or tasks that you really struggled with when you first started painting. Maybe you still struggle with lining or freehand, but isn’t it easier overall to get the brush where you want it than it was at first? Is it as tough to choose wash or shadow colours as it was before? Do you need to go back over sections making as many corrections for brush slips as much as you used to?

Whatever you’re working on now might still feel really difficult, but give yourself credit for all the skills that you’ve already mastered. That genuinely does count as ‘getting better’! If you really hadn’t improved at all, you’d still have to concentrate and work hard at every single element of prepping and painting a figure.

Hand versus Eye

You may not have a bionic hand and eye like Steve Austin, but the concept of the hand and the eye, or sometimes, the hand versus the eye, is very pertinent to building art related skills.

The ‘hand’ refers to the mechanical type skills related to painting – methods of manipulating the brush and the paint and similar things. People learning art skills tend to get really hung up on this aspect of it. We spend the majority of our learning efforts concentrating on elements related to the hand.

We spend much less time thinking or talking about the ‘eye’ part of the equation, which is unfortunate, because it’s a lot more important than we often think. The ‘eye’ element encompasses the idea of being able to look at something and really see it. This is a more complex concept that it might seem, and I imagine I’ll make blog posts that delve into this in more detail in the future.

One example of being able to truly see things is referencing life. If you want to paint leather or hair or metal that looks convincing, you need to study those things in the real world. You have to assess where they look darker or lighter, the proportion of darker to lighter, what the natural colours of those things are in different lighting circumstances, and a number of other factors, and then try to figure out how to apply that information to a figure in a way that looks both pleasing and somewhat realistic.

Looking at something and really seeing it also applies to looking at our work and the work of others and assessing its strengths and weaknesses, as well as making comparisons. A person newer to painting can look at a really world class figure and a fairly good figure and genuinely not see major differences between them. Or they might see some differences, but not really be able to identify what those are.

The ability of your artistic eye grows just as your manual dexterity skills do. One of the things that can throw us is that they don’t always level up at the same time. If you are going through a period where you feel like everything you paint looks worse than usual, it’s very likely that your eye has improved. You are able to assess your figures more critically and see your weaknesses more clearly. This very likely does not feel like positive progress! But it can be, if you use your improved eye to try to identify specific weaknesses in your work and then put together a plan of action for ways to possibly address them.

Conversely, if you go through a period where you think everything you paint looks pretty fantastic, it’s possible that your abilities to manipulate brush and paint have improved, but your critical eye is lagging a little behind.

Portraits combo2I was pretty unhappy with the drawing on the left. I do feel like I should know better at this stage of practice and training. But rather than beat myself up about it, I decided to just try again and push myself to do better. It is definitely pretty mortifying to be sharing something I consider a failure publicly, but it if helps other people learn or be kinder to themselves, then it is well worth a little public embarassment.

So if I know how to draw a decent portrait, how did I end up drawing a bad one like the above? Unconscious mastery and the importance of the eye are two of the pieces of that puzzle. The poor portrait was drawn at an art store demo. I knew I had limited time with the materials and was eager to try them out. I am still learning to draw, and getting proper proportions and correct shapes as well as placing the features of the face in the right places takes a lot of concentration and effort for me. In other words, I need to consciously put my eye (observation skills) into artist mode and check and recheck my work. With the poor portrait, I rushed through the steps of forcing my eye to do its job to get to the fun hands-on stuff of doing the shading and colouring in the drawing.

The better version of this same face was drawn with the opposite focus. I spent about the same amount of time overall, but a lot more of the time was spent on the basic drawing and checking proportions and placements. So it’s not rendered to the same degree, but it’s overall a much better drawing. But even the poor portrait isn’t cause to beat myself up as a total failure. I was a lot more comfortable with the tools and doing the shading and rendering than I was the first few times I did those things. I was a lot less phased by the limited colour selection of the tools offered in the demo than I would have been years ago before learning general colour theory. (In the event that anyone is curious, the pencil portrait up at the top is more finely rendered, and probably took 2-3 times as long to do as each of the colour portraits.)

The Big Picture

When assessing your progress, try not to focus on a single event or metric. And try to make note of improvements in your process and comfort level, rather than looking only to external markers like positive feedback or contest results. There are going to be moments when you try something new and don’t succeed as well as you’d like, or even at all. There are even going to be moments where you backslide on things you thought you mastered. Those are just individual points on a graph. If your overall graph line is moving upwards, you’re still making progress!

Have you had any moments where you heard a ding! and you felt like you’d leveled up? Or moments when you stepped back and realized that you were getting better in ways you hadn’t thought about before? I hope you’ll share your experiences in the comments, I’d love to hear!

How to Paint Contrast – Hands On

In this post about how to paint miniatures with more contrast, I’m going to discuss technique and paint application ideas for how to increase the level of contrast that you paint into the shadows and highlights of your miniature figures. 

If you haven’t read the previous post about how to paint with more contrast, you will find it here: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/10/06/how-to-paint-contrast-mind-games/

The blog reader stats tell me that a lot of you haven’t read that post. I would like to strongly encourage you to do so. The mental goal to push contrast is as important or more so as anything you will find here. One of the things you’ll find over in that other post is larger pictures of the following figures. The before/after pictures on the left date from 2008-2009. Those on the right date from 2015. I didn’t just try to paint with more contrast once or even over the span of a year or two and then it just clicked and I started to be able to paint that wayon every figure. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have photos to show from such a span of years. Painting with more contrast doesn’t have that much to do with tools – I was using the same set of quality tools throughout that timespan. It doesn’t even have much to do with specific techniques or brush skills. My painting ability did improve over that span – I would not have been able to paint the freehand details on the 2015 figure in 2008. But there I was making the same old lack of contrast mistake in 2015 as in 2008. 

The root causes have more to do with my failure to stay focused on the necessity of contrast, and the need to better train my artist’s eye to judge whether or not something has enough contrast. I’m a slow learner sometimes! One of the reasons I’m sharing these kinds of things on this blog is that I am hoping to spare other people some of the time and annoyance I’ve spent along the path of learning. And the previous post has a lot of helpful tips on this topic!

More contrastSeeing these at this smaller size is a good reminder of why we need to paint with contrast – gaming figures are small! We need to add dramatic shadows and highlights for their details to be visible to the viewer, and to make them more interesting to look at. Click over to this post for larger versions of these pictures: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/10/06/how-to-paint-contrast-mind-games/

NOTE: I am going to use the word value a lot. When talking about colour, value refers to the lightness or darkness of the colour. White is the lightest value, and black is the darkest value. Pale pink is a light value of red, brick is a midtone value of red, and a deep wine colour is a dark value of red.

Check and Reflect

A simple but important thing that leads us astray with contrast is that you can’t accurately judge the level of contrast on the various areas of your figure until you have mostly finished painting it. Both black and white primers are extremes of contrast that will throw off your perception of the contrast as long as any primer remains in view. (For example, try painting the same midtone colour like a tanned Caucasian skin colour onto a black primed and a white primed figure. It will look pretty pale on one, and fairly dark on the other.)  Even after you put in all your base coats and cover up all the primer, the contrast level on the miniature will look different with shadows and highlights painted into all areas. So my first tip is to  paint to the point where you’re finished or almost finished and then take a final look at the figure. And be willing to do touchups and adjustments as necessary.

It can be helpful to leave the figure to sit for a day or three before making that final assessment. It can also help to take photos, and then look at those scaled to a smaller size as well as a larger size so you can check both contrast and look for stray paint strokes or other detail level mistakes. This is a big part of what went wrong with the figures above. I declared them done and didn’t really take a moment away from them and then come back for a close look to assess the overall effect. When I did take a close look some time later, it became obvious to me that the level of contrast was far too weak.

Now let’s discuss some methods you can use earlier in the painting process in order to try to minimize how much you need to adjust at the end. These are going to be a quick overview – each of these tips could be expanded to be a blog post in their own right!

Make a Photo Reference

If you have trouble visualizing where to place the shadows and highlights, take a picture for reference. If possible, take it in a dimly lit room. Position a small bright light close to the figure in the direction you’d like to have your imagined light source. I use a small and inexpensive LED light. Experiment with different sizes and brightness of lights for different effects. Remember to take pictures from a few different angles so you’ll have something to refer to as you paint all the areas of the figure. Keep the light in the same orientation to the miniature when taking the photos from different angles – if you turn or move the figure, you’ll need to turn or move the light. If the miniature is metal or a very light or dark coloured plastic, you might want to prime it in a more neutral gray colour before taking your reference photos. These kinds of pictures make an excellent guide, but remember that different materials reflect light in different ways, so some will have higher levels of contrast than what appears in your pictures. Metal or hair, for example, are very shiny, so you will need to exaggerate the lights and shadows even more on areas you want to have look as if made of those materials.

Lighting on primed figure compared to painted figure.Photos like these are a helpful helpful reference. They can help you keep areas of light and dark in mind even while you’re distracted by other concerns like blending, and thus help you paint with more contrast. Notice the difference between the leg nearer the light and the one further back. Also note that there is less contrast in a more matte material like the leather, but I painted a higher degree of contrast on the shiny metal armor plates and dagger.

Zenithal Priming

Zenithal priming is a way to apply a reference to the location of your light source directly to the miniature itself. With this method you prime or paint the entire figure black. Then you spray white primer/paint ONLY from the direction of your light source. (Some people do an intermediary step of spraying gray paint/primer to add the midtone values.) The result allows you to easily see where light hits the figure strongly (white areas), or doesn’t hit the figure much at all (black areas), as well as the in between sections that should be midtone values . You can use this as a ‘map’ for where to apply colour by applying opaque layers of paint in the correct value over the zenithal prime. Or you can glaze transparent colours over the established values to add colour to the figure. (A glaze is paint heavily thinned down with water, but applied in a controlled fashion rather than allowed to pool as with a wash.)

Miniatures painted with glazes over zenithal priming have good contrast within each area, but can lack contrast between each of the areas. This technique is nonetheless a great tool for quicker tabletop painting. And you can compensate slightly by adding other types of contrast, like using complementary colours on adjacent areas. (I’ll cover colour contrast in future posts.) If you try this technique, you may find that you need to apply some opaque highlights in the brightest areas to get maximum pop and contrast. (Note that you can also take pictures of the miniature after zenithal priming but before applying paint so you still have a reference in case you lose track of where the shadows and highlights should be while painting.

If you’d like to know more about methods of zenithal priming using spray primer, airbrush, or brushing by hand, check out this excellent video by Metalhead Minis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=88rMH25y-2E&feature=share. NOTE to painters of Bones miniatures: I do not recommend using spray primer on Bones. It often fails to cure and remains tacky to the touch. Applying paint via an airbrush is the best way to zenithal spray ‘prime’ Bones figures.

Example of glaze painted over zenithal priming.This figure was zenithal primed with spray primers. Use of spray cans creates a speckled appearance of the white over black in the midtone areas. You can reduce that appearance a little by adding grey in the middle step, or smooth it out by touching up the figure by hand with some thinned white and thinned black. Spraying with an airbrush has a smoother look. For the next step, layers of transparent paint were glazed over the underlying values on the cloak – dark reddish-purple in the shadows, red in the midtones, and a little orange in the highlight areas. Then a more opaque highlight was added in just a few spots that would be receive a lot of light. This figure is from a painting class I took with Eric Louchard many years ago.

Underpainting: Value Mapping

Zenithal priming is a method of underpainting, but there are other options for underpainting. Sometimes I roughly block in the midtone, shadow, and highlight values of the major areas on my figure using black, white, and grey brush-on primer. I do this to create a ‘value map’ for myself to follow when I start applying the colour. During the value mapping stage I am just concentrating on contrast and value – trying to make the midtones of adjacent areas different enough from one another, and blocking in the appropriate shadow and highlight contrast based on the location of the light and the texture of the material in each area. Then I apply opaque colour directly over the map, matching the placement of my shadow, midtone, and highlight colours to the locations I picked out for them in the value map stage. Once the primary values are placed where they should be, then I can concentrate on blending, and after that worry about the fine details.

Value map and fully painted version of a figure.In the value map version on the left, you can see that I am not very worried about blending, and I’m completely ignoring details. My goal is to establish the midtone, shadow, and highlight values on the large areas of the figure. This method does rely on you following the map, which I can see now that I failed to do on the bodice area. But it also leaves you the freedom to adjust and embellish as you see fit – I altered the midtone colour on the skirt from my original map, as well as painting it as more of a gauzy textured material.

For more details on my value mapping method, please see my post on painting ReaperCon Sophie 2018: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/09/06/reapercon-2018-sophie-painting-process/

I also have written a PDF that will be released by Reaper that goes into a little more detail on the process I used with Sophie and a few other figures. I’ll link it here once it’s available, as well as mention it in the comments and likely in a future post.

In the traditional art world, what I’m doing is equivalent to a value study. A value study is a quick sketch or painting of a subject or scene that concentrates on the values (the darks and lights) of the subject. This is done as a way to familiarize yourself with the subject and to assess if the composition is eye-catching. The artist can refer to the value study during the drawing/painting process of the final work to ensure that they are capturing the full range of shadow and light they saw on their subject. It forces the artist to look at the big picture of the contrast before they get lost in painting colour and details. My use of brush-on primer to map values is a similar thing, I’m just doing it on the same surface that I will do my final painting over. (Again, taking photos of the value map stage is probably a good idea since I’ll be painting over the reference on my miniature. You could also have two copies of the figure and paint the value study on one and the full colour paint on the other.)

Here is a site with a good visual example of a simple value study: https://www.dorian-iten.com/value-study/

This site demonstrates how even something that looks super sketchy and rough can be valuable to a well-executed end result: https://www.davidmkessler.com/blog/23789/value-studies-the-artists-essential-tool

Underpainting: Notan

Notan is a Japanese word meaning ‘light-dark balance’. (Supposedly, honestly I have no idea how much of the interpretation I’m discussing of the concept is appropriation by the Western art world, but there is certainly a strong tradition of black and white traditional art and graphic elements in Japan.) In its purest form, Notan interprets a scene or subject in black and white only. This Blues Brothers graphic is an excellent example: 

The Blues Brothers in black and whiteClassic Notan – everything in the image is either black, or white.

For me, at least, that idea is a little challenging to apply to miniatures. Luckily people also create Notan using three or four values. So if using only two values seems to challenging, consider using white, black, and one or two values of gray to create a Notan on your figures. This is very similar to the idea of value mapping, but you don’t worry about blending in even a rudimentary way. You just make notes on the figure with paint about where you want to apply highlights, shadows, and midtones. I put my the lighting reference photo shown earlier into a Notan app and applied a three value filter to give you an example of what that would look like.

Reference photo of Tara the Silent with three value Notan applied by Notanizer app Note that I did not have the app at the time of painting this figure, I just wanted to give you an example of what using the app on a reference lighting photo might look like.

The following is an example of my attempt to apply Notan underpainting to a miniature figure. After taking pictures illuminating the figure with an in-scale light, I applied areas of black and white over the gray primer to block in a Notan value map. Notice that there is no attempt to blend whatsoever. I’m just trying to establish where I want things much lighter and much darker. After that I applied blocks of opaque colours over those maps, placing my highlight colours over the white, midtone colours over the gray, and shadow colours over the black. Then I worked on blending the edges where each section met.

Photo of Tara the Silent with Notan value mappingThis was my attempt to apply the Notan concept to a figure. This was my interpretation of the placement of light and shadow based on my lighting reference photo, I did not have an app that could apply Notan filters at the time. Notice that there is no blending in this kind of value map, just a very clear indication of where things should be lighter, darker, or somewhere in the middle.

A discussion of classic Notan: https://blog.mitchalbala.com/the-wisdom-of-notan/

Using three and four value Notan: https://www.finearttips.com/2017/05/using-japanese-notan-design-principles-for-plein-air-painting/

There is an app for that! The app that I mentioned, Notanizer, is available for various operating systems. This site shows you how the app works and includes links. Try it out on some photos of miniatures painted by painters you admire to give you a better idea of how to apply better contrast to your miniatures: https://blog.mitchalbala.com/compositional-studies-with-the-notanizer-app/

Underpainting: Grisaille

It is also possible to apply the idea of zenithal priming/value mapping in a much more finished way. With this method you use a wide range of grays as well as black and white to paint the figure to a high level of polish and detail, and then apply thin coats of transparent paint over that to introduce colour. Given the nature of acrylic paint and how pigment colours behave, you would likely also need to apply some more opaque layers of paint, particularly for the top level highlights, but also possibly in other areas. 

Noir detective front 450This figure was painted as a black and white noir detective, but you could also use this approach as a grisaille under painting. After completing this step, I could add transparent layers of paint to introduce skin tone, hair colour, etc. 

Grisaille is also a well-established technique in the traditional art world, particularly for oil painting. Again, the purpose is exactly the same as what we’re trying to do with our figures – ensure that the contrast level range between the darkest and lightest values is large enough enough and pleasing to look at. 

For a short video example of glazing a grisaille underpainting with colour, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYdla_4H-R8
(Technically this is a brunaille since the value painting is in brown rather than gray, but same idea.)

This page has photos of the process with a relatively simple portrait: https://mattharveyart.com/2017/11/28/portrait-painting-step-by-step-glazing-over-grisaille/

And this is an example using a more complex colour scheme: http://www.muddycolors.com/2017/08/what-lies-beneath/

If you’re interested in studying more about how this is used in the traditional art world, here are some search terms: underpainting, grisaille, brunaille, verdaccio, verdaille. (Grisaille is when it’s done with grayscale, brunaille with brown colours, and verdaccio/verdaille with greens, which can be quite effective under skin tones.

Underpainting: Sketching and Sketch Style

In the miniature painting world painters have recently begun using terms like sketching or sketch style to describe variations of underpainting applied to miniatures. Alfonso Giraldes (Banshee) often paints with a sketch approach, and Matt DiPietro has adapted that approach into what he calls sketch style. For tabletop painting I believe Matt uses zenithal priming or something very similar. For display level work, I think Alfonso and Matt more often sketch in colour, something more like a colour block in or ebauche. (Discussed more below.) 

Block in Values with Colour

I recommend trying some of the monochrome underpainting methods out because separating the stage where you work on values out from working on colour and blending helps to make it much easier to keep your focus on building higher contrast in your values. But it is possible to do something similar with colour. The idea with this is to rough in your values similarly to the value mapping or Notan methods above, but using mixes of various values of your colours. At this stage you do NOT worry about blending or details. Just try to get the shadows, midtones, and highlights roughed in to their correct locations on the major areas of the figure. Then you can get a better idea of how things work as a whole and whether you need to tweak some areas to be lighter or darker before you put a lot of work into blending and detail painting. This is a way around the issue I mentioned up at the top in the Check and Reflect section – you can’t really judge whether the contrast range of your values is correct until you get the majority of them painted on your figure. 

This kind of blocking in is the idea behind the technique called sketching that Alfonso Giraldes, Matt DiPietro, and other miniature painters often employ, particularly the European painters. Get an overview of your big picture blocked in quickly to make sure the colour and value choices work before investing a lot of time into the work. This can also be a useful method for speed painting or tabletop painting. You work on the big picture, then start to refine blending and details, stopping at any point where you’ve invested as much time into that miniature as you can afford.

EDIT TO ADD: I have an example of blocking in that I did in this PDF from Reaper, which also includes more information on painting lights and shadows to match a directional light source: http://www.reapermini.com/images/dungeondwellers/07002_BaranBlacktree_PG_low.pdf

Life Miniatures has some excellent tutorials demonstrating one kind of block in approach for major shadows and highlights followed by blending the transitions. (This particular approach is called planar painting, where each plane of the three dimensional object is painted the appropriate value based on the direction of the light source.) I recommend scanning through all of the tutorials, as each demonstrates some of the points better than the others in some respects. Each of the tutorials has a ton of photos. https://www.lifeminiatures.com/step-by-step

And at this point it probably won’t come as a shock to learn that this is something else practiced in traditional painting. You can get an overview with some nice examples of block in compared to finished painting here: https://seattleartistleague.com/2016/10/21/blocking-in/

You can also read about a traditional art technique of underpainting with colour called the ébauche here: https://www.jeffhayes.com/techniques-of-painting/ebauche-underpainting-dulled-colors/ (The videos linked from that page seem to have been taken down unfortunately.)

Additional Resources

Whew, that is a lot of information to parse! So I think that I should bring this post to a close. I have had some questions in response to my first post about contrast that were really more related to blending. It is definitely more challenging to create smooth transitions when you have a more extreme range between your darkest shadow and lightest highlight. So you aren’t necessarily doing anything ‘wrong’ if you find that happening! I am considering whether to write a post with some tips for blending. I generally reserve extensive discussion of blending for convention painting classes where I can easily demonstrate the techniques and brush handling that I use. In the meantime, here are some additional resources you might find useful.

I have written two Learn to Paint kits for Reaper Miniatures. The first covers the core skills of drybrushing and washing. The second is an overview of my methods for blending – layering and glazing.  You can find that kit at this link, from your local retailer, or numerous online shops: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/learn%20to%20paint/sku-down/08907

Layering is not the only method for blending, though for a variety of reasons I do think it is useful for every painter to learn. Anthony Rodriguez (Pirate Monkey Painting) has a good overview of the major blending techniques (including layering) on this site. His full length videos have been lost (he’s recreating these on Patreon I believe), but the text articles under the Brushwork Technique Articles heading include animated gifs that are great illustrations of the techniques: https://piratemonkeypainting.wordpress.com/2017/01/21/pirate-monkey-painting-basics-layering/

Remember – ultimately the contrast is more important than the blending!

Figures Appearing in this Post:

Dionne, Werewolf Hunter by Hasslefree Miniatures: https://www.hfminis.co.uk/shop?product=dionne~hfa015&category=modern-%26%0D%0Apost%252dapoc~modern-adventurers
Wood Elf Goddess Avatar Form by Dark Sword Miniatures: https://www.darkswordminiatures.com/shop/index.php/miniatures/visions-in-fantasy/wood-elf-goddess-avatar-form.html
Tara the Silent by Reaper Miniatures, special edition figure not currently available: http://www.reapermini.com/Miniatures/Special%20Edition%20Figures/sku-down/01602
Unknown figure by Sandra Garrity (possibly an Adiken figure)
Camille from the Barglemore and Camille pack, special edition figure currently available for a limited time by Reaper Miniatures: https://www.reapermini.com/search/camille
Deadlands Noir Occult Detective by Reaper: https://www.reapermini.com/search/occul%20detective/latest/59039

How to Paint Contrast – Mind Games

My previous blog post was an argument for why we need to paint miniatures with a lot of contrast, and for why painting in a more contrasted fashion is not only more artistically interesting (and better for game play use), but also more realistic than you might think. Assuming you were persuaded by my argument, you might now be wondering just how to go about doing that in practical terms. (If you’d like to catch up on that previous post, you’ll find it here: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/10/01/contrast-versus-realism/)

When we think about working to learn a new technique or effect, or working on getting to the next level with the techniques we already use, we tend to focus on how to handle the brush and dilute the paint, and other practical matters of that nature. No doubt those are issues that can hold us back or cause frustration. But our mindset and expectations can also hold us back, and we don’t always think about how important the mental aspect of striving to improve is. 

Change is Hard

If you’d like to paint with more contrast, begin by thinking of that as a technique or effect. You are going to need to focus on it as an end goal and practice with it just as you would with learning a method of blending or trying non-metallic metal or painting hair or whatever else. It is also helpful when you are learning or aiming to improve to put most of your focus on just one or two areas at a time. Starting to paint a miniature with the expectation that you’ll paint it with a lot of contrast, perfect blending, a fantastic colour scheme, etc. is putting too much pressure yourself. It will be more effective if you keep contrast as your main goal until you feel comfortable painting with a higher level of contrast. Achieving your goal on just one or two figures isn’t really enough, it’ll be easy to slide back into old habits unless you’ve made your new approach into a new habit.

To help you keep the focus on pushing your contrast, I recommend that you choose figures you like and find easy to paint. Pick paint colours you enjoy and find easier to work with. Accept that your blending might look a little worse than usual because you’re painting it over a greater range of contrast than you usually use, which makes it more likely that you’ll see rough spots. Work on getting the contrast for a few minis, then work on the blending, then contrast, and then back to blending, and hopefully you’ll get the two working in harmony before too long.

Dionne front beforeI painted this in 2008. I was aiming for a shiny leather/rubber look. I thought I had painted it with plenty of contrast.

Our minds tend to resist change. You are going to be sitting there painting the figure and your brain will start to scream at you that the contrast looks ridiculous. You should pull it back, glaze it down, do something to make it look like what you’re familiar with seeing when you paint. Resist that urge! Remember that what you’re familiar seeing while you work is a miniature painted with insufficient contrast. You’re trying to paint the opposite of that. If you start feeling uncomfortable, chances are that means you’re doing something right, because if nothing else, you’re trying something new. Never make a sudden decision right after you’ve painted something new like that. Paint until the end of your session then walk away from the miniature. (Or stop right then and walk away if it’s just tempting you too much to ’tone it down’.) Come back the next day and give it a good look (using some tricks I’ll outline below). Think about it for a while. If you still think it’s too much, then go ahead and make some adjustments.  (Though it doesn’t hurt to wait until you get closer to finished and look over the figure as a whole when considering whether certain areas have too much or too little contrast.) This approach gives you time to get used to the new thing that you’re trying and to assess it with fresh eyes. If you ‘fix’ it right after you’ve painted it, you risk covering up a lot of hard work that actually achieved some of the goals you set for yourself.

Dionne before afterI took a second look at it in 2009. Nope, not remotely enough contrast for a shiny leather/rubber suit look. Also not enough contrast on the hair. And note how the deep shadows under the stomach and between the legs make the shapes look like they have more volume and are more rounded. This is what I meant in the last post when I said we need to use contrast to make miniature figures look fully three dimensional. If I were to paint this today or touch it up again I would probably add very small even brighter highlights to areas of the suit.

I’m definitely speaking from experience with that one. I’ve been working on painting something like contrast, or an animal pattern or whatever. It’s late, and I’m tired, and it just seems way too exaggerated and ridiculous looking. I’ve given into the impulse and painted over it, and regretted it the next day. I’ve also put the figure down and walked away, and come back the next day to realize that no, it doesn’t look so bad after all. 

Real Time

Remember that the viewer approaches your miniature in a much different way than you do. First the viewer gives your figure a quick look. You have a few moments to capture their attention to make them want to look closer. Even when people love a figure and want to study it for a while, I think few people are likely to look at a miniature for more than five, maybe ten minutes. As the painter, you spend a lot longer on it than that. Even a speed painted miniature takes 30-60 minutes to paint. Many of us spend hours looking at a figure. We come to know every fold of the cloth, every curve of the muscle and so on. Because of that, what you do will always look more extreme to you than it does to other viewers. If you want to see what I mean, go back and have a good look at figures that you painted a few months ago, or even better, a few years ago. Do they look as highly contrasted and exaggerated as you felt like they were when you were painting them?

Another thing to remember is that this is art. You want it to feel real, sure. But you want it to feel real in a way that emphasizes the drama and character of the figure/scene. You are like the producer of a play or a movie. You need to try to keep some elements as real as possible, but you also need to take some dramatic license to tell your story to the audience. (If you aren’t buying this argument, go read the previous blog post, I go into a lot more detail about this issue there. https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/10/01/contrast-versus-realism/)

Here’s another way to look at the realism concern – if you aren’t regularly referring to reference photos, you’re not painting in a truly realistic fashion anyway. You’re trying to match your imagined idea of reality, which is generally a lot more inaccurate than you think it is. And if people keep giving you feedback that your ‘realistic’ painting lacks contrast, your imagined reality isn’t seeing you very well. You and your audience will likely be much happier if you either just paint to look cool, or start studying the real world and using reference photos a lot more often for what you paint. If you do that, you’ll find that shadows and highlights look a lot more dramatic than you think they are under a lot of lighting conditions.

Hb front cu beforeI painted this in 2015. I was pretty sure I painted with loads of contrast.

Leaps and Bounds not Baby Steps

I think when a lot of us get feedback to do something like paint with more contrast, we go back to our paint table and push a little, then seek out more feedback, get told we need to push more, etc. It can take years to make notable progress that way. At least I’ve gone through periods where that is the case. I would like to suggest considering a different approach. Exaggerate. Go nuts. Push it and then push it some more, way past where you think you can stand it. Keep pushing until you get consistent feedback that it’s too much. (By consistent I mean more than one person saying it, and in response to more than one figure.) I think that might be a quicker and more efficient method than the tiny increments method. It’s worth a shot at any rate!

Harvest before afterI took a second look a few months later. Um, I guess there really wasn’t that much contrast after all! When I went back in to rework the figure, I think I overdid it with the hair. Keeping the overall hair darker and having brighter highlights in small areas would probably look better. But I think it’s safe to say that  the dress and non-metallic metal and even the peppers look much better with more contrast.

Everything Old is New Again

If you’re afraid of ‘messing up’ some of your favourite new figures, go back into your archives. Grab a miniature that you didn’t really like how it turned out or something else you don’t have much attachment to, and work on touching it up to push the contrast. This is also a great way to get more comfortable with doing final touch ups and editing a miniature. For a long time I was very reluctant to fiddle with something on a figure once I’d completed that section. But my skills improved a lot once I became more willing to do that. And it wasn’t as difficult to do from a technical standpoint as I had feared. The figures shown earlier in this blog post are a good example of what I mean by touching up a figure once it’s completed and you’ve had a little time and distance to take  a hard second look at it.

If you like all your old miniatures, paint some quick tabletop figures for your role-playing game. Or grab the figures out of a board game and paint those. Because we often play games in less than ideal lighting conditions, gaming figures in particular benefit from high contrast paint jobs. And any paint on a game miniature is cooler than playing with unpainted pieces, so you don’t have to get too stressed out about getting the blending perfect while you work on that high contrast. 

Fresh Eyes

The fact that we get so familiar with a figure while painting it is what makes it hard to see that it needs more contrast. Here are some tips you can use to try to jolt your eyes into seeing it like something less familiar.

When you’re painting and you get up to get a drink and take a break, turn off your painting lights. Take off any magnifiers you might use. Then when you come back from your break, pick up your miniature and study it under the regular room lighting. Try looking at it in different rooms of your house to see what it looks like in different lighting. In between painting sessions, store your miniature in a place in your home with moderate to low lighting. Ideally this is a location where you’ll have an opportunity to see it a few times a day. As you pass by, stop and take a look at your figure. Start by looking at it from a distance of two feet away, and then pick it up and look at it more closely. Ask yourself whether it has nice visual contrast and holds your interest both at arm’s length and closer view. Another way to get a fresh look at a figure is to take a picture of it and then flip the figure to a mirror image orientation. Or hold it up to a mirror and look at the mirror image. 

Dds sorceress mirroredWhoa, it’s a completely new view! (Okay it’s maybe not that dramatic, but this can be a helpful trick to jolt your brain into seeing stuff you might otherwise not notice.)

Angle of Attack

When you paint, you turn the figure around to a lot of different angles to be able to reach various spots that need paint. I think these are often moments when we notice a crevice that looks super dark or a highlight spot that looks ridiculously bright and then we feel like we must have painted those badly and need to fix it. Do not judge the contrast (or any other effect) by what it looks like at a weird angle and fix it to look good at that angle! Always stop for a moment and hold the figure in the orientation in which it will be viewed. It needs to look good and correct from that angle only. If you’re painting the shadows and highlights with enough contrast and in the right locations for your viewing angle, it should look weird if you look at it upside down or turned sideways. If you get the opportunity at a convention or similar event, try to look at the figures of skilled painters you admire from odd angles. You will likely find all sorts of super dark shadows and crazy color placement and other elements that feel very awkward to paint, but which can look great on a miniature from the intended viewpoint.

 

Technical How To Tips Coming Soon

I know there are at least some readers who are hoping for some more practical tips in terms of techniques and the like. When I jotted down notes for this topic it became clear it was too long for one post. I’m also hoping to be able to take a little time to do a few visual examples. So please stay tuned for more!

Do you have any tips for pushing yourself to try new things? Tricks to get a fresh look at something you’ve been working on for a long time? Let’s help each other out and share some ideas!

Links to figures featured in this post:
Dionne, metal miniature by Hasslefree: https://www.hfminis.co.uk/shop?product=dionne~hfa015&category=modern-%26%0D%0Apost%252dapoc~modern-adventurers
Wood Elf Goddess Avatar by Dark Sword: https://www.darkswordminiatures.com/shop/index.php/miniatures/visions-in-fantasy/wood-elf-goddess-avatar-form.html
Andriessa, Wizard in Bones plastic by Reaper: https://www.reapermini.com/search/andriessa/latest/77386
Andriessa, Wizard in metal by Reaper: https://www.reapermini.com/search/andriessa/latest/03734