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In this article I outline where to place highlights when painting faces on miniature figures. This information is applicable to all skin tones, but since highlights are the key to painting great looking faces with darker skin tones, my examples focus on those. I am also including recipes and suggested paint colours you can use to paint darker skin tones. I discussed where to paint shadows on faces, and the importance of shadows to faces, particularly with lighter skin tones, in a previous article. I recommend reading that article first, as it has additional information on lighting and contrast that is relevant to painting all faces.
There are videos that accompany this article, since I did the bulk of the painting on some demonstration figures on my Beyond the Kit stream on the Reaper Miniatures Twitch channel. In this video, I discuss the specific challenges of painting darker skin tones and demonstrate a cool and a warm dark skin tone recipe on female faces. I painted an example of a slightly cool dark skin tone on a male face in this earlier video, but there were some technical difficulties.
Highlights on Faces
The typical lighting scenario for a painted miniature is that the light is coming from above (the sun, ceiling lights) or from above and to one side (the sun, gas lights on walls, street lights). The locations where shadows fall on faces are pretty consistent. While shadow location is affected by the location of the light and the position of the head, the overall placement guidelines hold true unless either the light direction or head position is shifted to a fairly extreme degree.
As an overall guide for where to paint highlights, areas appear lighter in value (have highlights) where the light shines more brightly on them. This includes areas that are located higher on the face and thus closer to the light, like the forehead and the tops of the cheekbones. Areas which protrude outwards from the main mass of the face also receive more light, like the nose, the lower lip, and often the top of the chin.
That guideline is all you need as a beginner or for quick paints of gaming scale figures. If you are aiming to paint a display quality figure or are painting a larger scale figure, there is a bit more nuance to highlights, because our skin is a little shiny. Human skin has a natural sheen to it due to our skin oils. Strong emotion and physical activity make us sweat and adds to that sheen, which is particularly apparent on the face.
We can visually distinguish the matte appearance of wool cloth from the sheen of human skin from the extreme reflectivity of chrome. Whether or not we are consciously aware of it, we identify these surface textures based on the appearance of shadows, midtones, and highlights on the surface of items The way the highlights on a surface look influences whether we perceive it as shiny or matte. The value range between the darkest shadows and the lightest highlights on a shiny surface is much more dramatic than on a matte surface. A shiny surface also has a lighter highlight/reflection. The transition area between the shadow/midtone on a shiny surface is more abrupt, and the bright highlight/reflection appears in a smaller area.
These texture exercises were painted by Jonathan Hardesty. Compare the two skin examples in the middle to the other two spheres. The skin spheres are not as shiny as the material on the right, but they have elements in common, including a bright highlight of reflected light. Jonathan Hardest has made a study of textures. He has several skin texture study videos on YouTube. He teaches a textures class on Schoolism, and occasionally paints live on Twitch.
For a variety of reasons, this is a very brief overview of the properties of shiny materials. The reason I’m mentioning it at all is because the shininess of a surface affects where the highlights are located as well as how bright they are. If your imagined light source is coming from a different direction than above, the location of the highlights shifts towards the direction of the light. If the head is tilted to one side, the highlights also shift towards the direction of the light. Shadows are affected by both of these factors as well, but to a lesser degree.
The direction of the light changes which areas appear shadowed or well-lit. Notice how the shift in the location of the highlights is more dramatic. There are some areas that remain shadowed in all three lighting scenarios.
If your lighting situation or the position of your model is more complex, remember that you can create your own reference photos to identify the location of shadows and highlights on your figure! Use a single bulb lamp to simulate larger light sources like the sun or distant lights, or a small single point light source to simulate something like a candle or torch.
To sum up, here are some short guidelines for painting highlights on faces:
1. Don’t be afraid of painting strong highlights on faces, it looks natural because our skin is a little shiny.
2. Confine the brightest highlights to very small areas if you can.
3. Start with the guidelines for highlight placement outlined below. If your light source is coming from a direction other than above, shift the highlights on the specific miniature you’re painting towards the direction of where the light is coming from.
The figure on the left is looking straight forward as if standing under light from above, like sunlight. The light is coming from above and to the left of the centre figure, and she has her head tilted, so one side of her face is lit and one side is shadowed. The light is coming from above and to the right of the figure on the right, and her head is slightly tilted, so one side of her face has a lot more highlights than the other.
Guidelines for Highlights Placement
If you ignore the features, the human head is shaped like an egg. Or you can think of the upper half of the head as a sphere. Either way, the top of the head is the dome of a spherical object. In standard lighting you will see a circular highlight in the centre and near the top of the forehead. If the head is bald, the circle may appear a little higher. (A similar circle will be visible on the back of a bald head.) If the head is tilted, or if half of the forehead is obscured by hair/hat/hood, the circular highlight will appear shifted towards the direction of the light.
Both of these figures have hair hanging over their foreheads on the right side, so the placement of the highlight is shifted to the left.
The brow ridge can be fairly prominent, especially on male characters. Often the brow ridge is covered by sculpted eyebrows, but depending on the severity of the slope and location of the eyebrows, there may be some highlights above the brow ridge.
This figure has prominent brow ridge, so I added highlights above his eyebrows. I painted this several years ago, if I were to paint it today I would have added small and lighter value highlights on the bulb of his nose and on top of his cheekbones.
The cheekbones protrude slightly from the face and are located higher up on the face, so the tops of the cheekbones often catch a lot of light and appear strongly highlighted. If the light is directional or the face is tilted, one cheekbone may receive more light than the other. (You can see a few examples in the photos in the previous section.) For gaming scale characters I place the highlight just under the character’s eyes. The strong contrast between the dark eye lining and light cheekbone highlights draws the viewer’s eye to the face, which is almost always an important focal point of the figure or scene. If you are painting a larger scale figure or a bust, study some high quality reference photos of faces like those included below – the placement of areas of light under the eyes and on top of the cheekbones is more nuanced than that.
The nose protrudes out from the egg shape of the face, so it catches quite a bit of light. I use moderate highlights on the upper plane of the nose slope. I apply bright highlights in a circle on the bulb at the end of the nose. If the sculpt accommodates, I highlight the wings over the nostrils, but not with the lightest highlights. If the nose is tilted, the line of highlight along the slope of the nose shifts towards the direction of the light, and the wing over the nostril further away from the light is less highlighted.
Humans do not have the prominent muzzle of many animals, but the overall area of the mouth protrudes slightly from the face. On many people the area of skin between the nose and the upper lip slants outward from the face, and receives more light. However this area is lower down the face, and it does not protrude significantly, so I use moderate highlights at most. Occasionally highlighting the area between the nose and lip on a female figure can kind of look weird and give a bit of a moustache effect. If you have painted this area on a female gaming scale figure and find that something looks a little off, try painting the midtone of the face over it and see if that helps.
The lower lip protrudes outwards. Because the lips are often a little moist, there can be a fairly strong reflection highlight on the lower lip. For a natural lip, paint the highlight a little lighter than the brightest highlights on the rest of the face. If the person is wearing shiny lipstick, the highlights can be close to white.
This figure is representative of the typical highlight locations. She is looking straight ahead and was painted as if standing under an overhead diffuse light source. She has a highlight on the top of her forehead bulge, on top of her cheekbones, tip of her nose, and just a little bit of highlighting on the upper lip and chin.
The chin is often a sphere or egg shape that protrudes out from the face. The top of the chin usually has a highlight. If the light is directional or the face is tilted to the side, the location of the highlight will shift towards the light. However, look at a face in profile. The chin extends roughly as far out as the forehead, but it is lower down on the face, and so receives less light. I usually paint some highlights on the top of the chin, but I do not paint these with as light a value as I will use on the forehead, tops of the cheekbones, or the end of the nose. The chin can vary with the sculpt, so if the sculpt has a prominent chin I may add more highlights, or less if the chin appears inset, as is the case with the female face I painted for dark skin demonstrations below. The chin also needs less highlighting if the face is tilted downwards.
The jawline is the line of bone from the chin to the side of the face. A prominent jawbone is considered a masculine characteristic. I rarely highlight this area on female faces. If the face is tilted to one side the jawline on the side facing the light might need a little bit of highlighting. Even on male characters I generally only apply a little highlighting to this area. The jawline is surrounded by the shadow of the cheek hollow above, and the under chin area below. It should appear lighter than both of these, but often just the midtone skin value or slightly lighter in value is all that is required to make it appear so. It may appear more highlighted in reference photos or miniatures you study than it actually is because of the darkness of the areas around it.
In the Where to Shade Faces article I shared some examples of repainted dolls heads to demonstrate the effectiveness of adding shadows. I found a photo of dolls heads taken with fairly flat lighting, and digitally edited them to add highlights. The top photo is the original. The middle has a modest amount of highlights, and the bottom one has a higher level of highlight/shadow contrast. The bottom edit is the minimum level of highlight/shadow contrast I would recommend for a dark skin tone. There are reference photos of real people further in this article. I have isolated colours of various values and hues beside each picture so can see just how much contrast there is between the lightest highlights and darkest shadows.
Colour Variation, Makeup, and Features
Detailed information on painting the eyes and mouth is beyond the scope of this article. For the demonstration figures, I painted the lips with the same colours used on the rest of the skin. Most people have more colour variation than that in their lips, but using the same colours as the rest of the skin often works well for gaming scale masculine figures. For a more feminine lip, add some red or pink and use more contrast, even if you’re not going for a shiny lipstick appearance. Other areas of the body may have colour variations, like the ears, the palms of the hands, and soles of the feet. Hopefully I’ll be able to delve into skin variation in more detail at some point in the future, but you should be able to look at reference photos of people to get ideas. For gaming scale figures it will likely not look odd if you use one overall skin tone for all of the figure.
Dark Skin: Highlights are the Key
Highlights are the key to painting faces with dark skin that look vibrant, realistic, and interesting. Strong highlight/shadow contrast is always desirable in miniature painting. Even in fairly even lighting conditions, the range of contrast on a face with dark skin between the darkest shadows and the brightest reflection highlights is quite large, due to the natural sheen of skin. You can see examples of that in the following reference photos.
Photo by Ema Studios on Unsplash.
Photo by Naeim Jafari on Unsplash.
Technical Challenges of Painting Dark Skin
Painting an attractive and realistic looking dark skin tone can be challenging. To maintain the overall dark tone of the skin you need to confine the light highlights to small surface areas. If they expand over too wide an area, as often happens when we are working on the technical challenge of painting smooth blends, the overall colour of the skin tone becomes lighter than you intended. To appear dark, at least 60-70% of the area of the surface needs to be painted with the midtone or shadow colours. Gaming scale miniatures are small objects. To paint bright highlights, blend them out smoothly, and also keep them confined to as small a surface area as possible can be quite challenging! The good news is that you will get better and better the more you practice challenging tasks like this.
The photos below are the demonstration figures I painted on stream. This first one shows how the faces appeared at the end of my streaming sessions. You can see that the blending is a little rough, and the highlights aren’t quite light enough. I find it very challenging to paint fine detail on stream. Attempting to keep the miniature in the viewing area, describe what I’m doing, do it well, and keep an eye on the chat for questions taxes the limits of both my eyes and brain!
After the stream concluded I did some touch ups on these faces. I used the same colour mixes, and I focused on two tasks: confining the highlights to small areas of the face, and trying to blend everything out as smoothly as possible. I stippled dots and fine lines over the transition lines to soften them. I painted basic lips and eyes and painted the hair black so you can get an idea of how the faces would look in the context of an overall figure.
The highlights of the warmer skin tone on the left cover a little too much area, and it has lightened up the overall value of her skin compared to the version from right after the stream above.
I often paint dark colours in a similar way – I start with the darkest colour and work up through my lighter colour layer mixes applying highlights. I concentrate on trying to place these in the correct places and with an appropriate amount of contrast. Then I work back down though the layer mixes from lightest to darkest. As I paint back down through the value mixes I’m trying to tighten up the size of the highlights and smooth out the blending.
I chose figures with larger faces in hopes of making it easier for people to see what I was doing on the video, but you may also find it easier to practice on larger faces. The male is a halfling character, but has a larger face. This is true of many gnome, dwarf, and halfling characters. You can see a comparison with some human gaming scale figures below.
In the photo below, I’ve painted out swatches of the value mixes I used on each of the demonstration faces. Note that other painters who use the layering method might use fewer steps but thin their paint more, and there are other methods to apply paint than layering. Regardless of how you apply the paint, the key is to keep those highlights small but high contrast! I have more paint colour suggestions for dark faces in the next section of this article.
The recipe for the cool female face is on the left, the male face in the centre, and the warm female face on the right. I’ve added the product numbers of the Reaper paints I used next to the appropriate swatches.
I’m not sure there’s a feasible way to paint something that looks similar with quick paint techniques like drybrushing and washes. It is difficult to apply these techniques with the kind of precision you need to keep the highlights confined to small areas. Using drybrushing to apply highlights will likely mean that the highlights are applied to a larger surface area and the face overall will appear lighter in value. If you’re comfortable applying washes in targeted areas (which is essentially the layering technique but using more transparent glaze consistency paint), you could start with the light value of your highlights and then use layers of semi-transparent paint to darken the midtone and shadow areas considerably. Applying an overall wash will either not be dark enough for the shadows, or would darken the highlights too much.
You can see some of these issues with these figures I painted for the Bones 5 Learn to Paint Kit. I used only three drybrush steps to keep my instructions accessible to novice painters. The value difference between the deepest shadows and lightest highlights is too low to bring out the features of the face, so these faces don’t stand out well at arm’s length view or on the tabletop. Had I drybrushed a few additional lighter value steps, the faces overall would look lighter in value than I wanted since I wouldn’t be able to confine those light highlights to very small areas.
The version on the left was painted with layering, and the one on the right with drybrushing and washes. (While I aimed for a similar value skin tone, these skin tones are also different colour palettes.)
Dark Skin Paint Colour Choices
If we look at the reference photos of people with dark skin in this article, you can see a wide range of skin tones. And this is just a small sample of what you might see on real world people! You should be able to find many more examples through a web search or via the photo sites I use to find reference photos for these articles. (Unsplash, Pexels, Morguefile)
One variation in skin tones will be in the value range of colour. Dark skin tones can range from very dark in overall value to moderate or even fairly light in overall value. Another variation is the overall colour temperature of the skin. Some people might have a very warm colour skin tone with a lot of orange or yellow apparent in the highlights of their skin. Others may have a much cooler skin tone with highlights that appear a little grey, purple, or pink. The colour cast of photographs/light temperature also factors into this.
Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash.
Photo by Olawale Munna on Unsplash.
Photo by Wadi Lissa on Unsplash.
One of the strengths of the Reaper Miniatures paint lines is the wide variety of skin tone paints available. Reaper has paints specifically designed to emulate the appearance of real world skin tones, and I used several of these on my demonstration figures. If you have not yet tried their paints and you’re wondering what to try, some skin tones would be a great place to start.
If you use other brands that do not have paints that are obviously intended to be used to paint darker skin tones, do not despair. Human skin tones are basically variations of browns and tans, and every miniature paint line has some of those! They won’t all be suitable to paint human skin, but many will. You can also try mixing a little of a middle value skin tone into a darker brown paint colour to create your own custom mixes.
I painted swatches of some paints suitable to paint dark skin into a chart that I have included below. The chart is organized in two different ways. The darkest paints are on the left, moderately dark paints in the middle, and the paints for the lightest highlights (or that you can use to mix lighter highlights) are on the right.
The paints are organized top to bottom to reflect their colour temperature. The cooler colours are at the top, and the warmest colours are at the bottom. You can pick a spot on the chart and use colours to the left of it to shade and those to the right of it to highlight. You can use the furthest left paints as a starting midtone for a very dark skin, and then use black for the darkest shadows. (Or a contrasting colour, which I’ll discuss more below.)
Since I recently reorganized my paints, I am including colours from two brands in addition to Reaper. Paint numbers that start with P are Privateer Press P3 paints. Those that start with N are Nocturna N-Paints. If you don’t have any of the brands on the chart, you can print it out and test swatches of paints that you do have (or custom mixes) against the colours to find the closest colours in your collection.
Adding Creative Colours to Dark Skin Tones
One of the really fun things about painting darker colour skin tones is that you can really get creative with colours.Scroll back up through this article and look at the colours I isolated from the reference photos. Some of them are pretty saturated oranges and pinks! I often paint slightly thinned down glazes of bold colours into the shadows of dark skin. I used a rich purple colour in the shadow areas of my cool temperature dark skin demonstration. I used a saturated teal colour in the shadows of the warm temperature skin example. Using a contrasting colour/temperature in the shadows can add depth to the shadows and pop the highlights even more. I often add thin glazes of other colours (purple or green most commonly) to medium or somewhat fair skin tones as well, but it’s a little trickier to do than with darker skin tones. I have to thin the colour down a lot more and proceed carefully.
Faces with dark skin tones usually look great with saturated makeup colours, as well, which can be very fun! I’ve seen rich greens, bright oranges, and even yellows for both eye makeup and lipstick that look terrific on dark skin tones, as well as the more typical reds and browns. Adding some saturated colour to a face will help draw the viewer’s eye to this important focal point of your figure. You can see fun examples of bright eye makeup and bold lipstick on these links, and many more with image searches.
Note that the general principles for where to paint highlights (and shadows) apply to fantastic skin colours as well. You can see an example with a pinkish-red skin tone below.
Figures Featured in this Article
Elmore Female Sorcerer is available in metal.
Tillie, Fighter Pilot is available in metal.
Quinn, Rogue is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Tara the Silent is available in Bones Black plastic or metal.
Brand, Barbarian is available in Bones plastic.
Masquerade Ball Sophie is available in metal.
Elmore Female Shaman is available in metal.
The Drunken Mermaid is available in Bones USA plastic.
Frost Giant Queen is available in Bones plastic.
Chop, Halfling Cook is available in Bones USA plastic.
Ogana, Ranger is currently available in metal, and will also be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.
Ingrid, Gnome Rogue is available in Bones USA plastic, Bones plastic, and metal.
Gisele, Sorcerer is available in Bones USA plastic.
Thregan, Fighter is currently available in metal, and will also be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.
Noblewoman is currently available in metal, and will also be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.
The Succubus will be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.