Can I See the Light (to Paint)

I’d like to share some general thoughts on how to tackle projects that are ambitious or intimidate you, as well as a few tips on painting object source lighting (OSL). These are based on my recent experience in painting the Ghost of Christmas Past. Check the end of the post for information on how to get this miniature as a free gift with purchase.

Ghost of Christmas Past with OSL effectThe Ghost of Christmas Past sculpted by Bob Ridolfi.

If this short article isn’t enough information on the subject of OSL, I will be teaching a class on object source lighting at AdeptiCon in 2020 where I will dive into it in a lot more depth. I will also be teaching classes on a quick and easy blending method, and understanding common critique terms and issues. Dozens of other terrific painters and hobbyists will be teaching classes on a wealth of topics. AdeptiCon is a great convention to attend if you want to skill up, and if you enjoy playing games with your figures. AdeptiCon passes and class and event tickets go on sale December 8, 2019. You can check out all the classes and other events by going to this link and selecting the Event List option from the left side menu.

Study and Research

When trying something outside of your comfort zone, it can be very helpful to study some video and/or text tutorials by more experienced painters. Oftentimes there are some guidelines or approaches that you just might not have thought of.

Since I teach a class on it, I had already done a fair amount of study into elements that can contribute to more successfully creating the illusion of reflected light on a miniature. And that study is why I had trepidation about painting this figure. The character in the book A Christmas Carol is described as wearing a white robe. I advise people not to use white on the clothing/hair/etc. of a figure painted with OSL. We can’t paint a glow or nimbus of light around a light source the way someone could on a two dimensional painting. So it is advisable to reserve bright white for use only on the light source, and maybe just a touch for highlights on areas of reflected light right next to the light source. 

OSL Mages ComparisonThe mage on the left was my first attempt at OSL. I studied what worked and what didn’t (almost everything) and tried to do a more effective version with the figure on the right. If I painted this figure again today there are yet more changes I would make.

Another recommendation I make for painting effective OSL is to reserve highly saturated colours for use only on the light source and the reflected light, and to use less saturated colours for the clothing and equipment of the figure. As with using white on the light source, this technique helps further the illusion that the light source is brighter and lighter than the rest of the scene. The Christmas Past miniature sculpt also includes holly leaves and berries, which are typically fairly saturated green and red in colour, so that would be a second guideline I’d be breaking to paint it.

So why did I decide to paint this figure with an OSL effect? Since I am preparing to teach a class on the subject in a few months, I was intrigued by the challenge of whether I could pull it off! If you are newer to painting OSL, I recommend that you follow the guidelines I’ve suggested for the use of white and saturated colours, at least on your first few experiments.

Plan and Experiment

Study is helpful, but a lot of us have the tendency to put off the intimidating project by burying ourselves in videos and tutorials. It is far more helpful to dive in and get some practical experience.

One way to more actively study is to look at specific figures. Pick out some that you feel do a good job of the effect or technique you’re trying, and also some that are less successful. Including your past attempts, if any. Study both groups with an analytical eye. Dissect the colour choices in detail. Evaluate where areas are lighter and darker. Try to come to some conclusions about concrete things you can do to improve your chance of success when you try.

Test colour scheme ideas on paper or on a test figure. Look up reference photos for materials and textures. Not just how other people have painted them, but looking at the materials themselves. Think about how you’d replicate that in miniature and test some of your ideas.

One of the things I do to prepare to paint a single point light source figure is to make my own reference photos for where areas will appear darker and lighter. I use a mini Maglite bulb to simulate the light source. I primed Christmas Past with Reaper’s white, black, and grey brush-on primers. This allowed me to prime areas of the miniature at roughly the same value as the colours I intended to paint them – white robe, light grey skin, black hair, and dark grey on the red and green areas. (Both colours tend to be darker than you’d think.) You could also do basecoats of your midtones and then take a reference picture to really get a good idea of how the light affects the various colours and values.

Christmas Past light referenceYou can make your own reference photos for less extreme lighting, too.

Just Do It!

The most important element is to get your butt into the chair and do it. Don’t procrastinate too long or psych yourself out of even trying. This is not life and death stuff. It’s not the end of the world if you mess up. You never have to show anyone if you don’t like how it came out. It’s just paint, and you can always paint over it and try again. Whether it’s a rousing success or not at all what you hoped for, you can study your end result to learn more to apply to your next attempt.

Problem Solving

I am trying to learn to do a better job of finding and solving problems during the painting process, and as I have with a few other figures, I will share my experience with that on the Ghost of Christmas Past.

In this first WIP picture, I’ve completed painting the skin, the hair, the base, and the accessories. (Or so I thought.) The robe and candle are still only primer.

The first thing I painted was the skin, and it was a frustrating experience. I kept feeling like it looked wrong and kinda rough. And I think that’s something that happens to a lot of people when they’re trying more advanced techniques. A lot of effects and some techniques do not really look good until the final stages. Some don’t even look right until the painting on the figure as a whole is almost finished. Non-metallic metal doesn’t really start to ‘shine’ and look good until you have your darkest and lightest values painted on. Initial passes of a texture can look rough and unconvincing. The first few stages of how I paint transparent cloth look almost silly.

Some types of painting techniques and effects start to look good pretty quickly, and you can assess whether there are issues you need to fix as you go along. Drybrushing or sidebrushing texture is an example. With many other effects, it can be very difficult to tell in the early and middle stages. When you try techniques like this, you need to take a leap of faith and follow through until the end. And then finish the figure. Only then can you take a step back and get an idea of whether or not you’ve been successful. If you try to judge and adjust a lot in the beginning and middle stages, you are making your life more difficult and might even be undoing things that would look better in the end if left as they were. 

My frustration in painting the skin was related to this. The figure I was holding was being lit by my room lights, which cast highlights and shadows on that big expanse of dress that match the zenithal lighting approach we usually use when painting miniatures. I was painting shadows and highlights on small areas of the figure to match the lighting in my reference photo. The location of those lights and shadows contradicted both years of habit for where to visualize and place light and shadow, and what my own eyes were telling me based on the room light. I had to just have faith that it would all come together as more of the miniature got painted and resist the urge to dial back or alter the effect.

Xpast wip1 front 600

In this next WIP picture, I had finally gotten colour on most of the miniature. My concern was getting everything in the right place and working on the right level of contrast within the light area and within the shadow area. If I started with trying to soften the edges I’d probably have had to do it over a few times while fiddling with one of those other aspects.

This is where I left off in painting the night before Thanksgiving. We were hosting people in our home, so I just put her up on a shelf and studied her now and then when passing through the room. I felt like things were coming together and working more than in the beginning stages, but I also felt like something just wasn’t quite right. I had to step away and then study the figure a bit more to figure out what. As eager as I was to finish since I was cutting pretty close to the deadline, the break ended up being helpful for getting a little distance and being able to solve the problem.

Christmas Past WIP 2

Late Thanksgiving night I realized what was bothering me – there wasn’t much value difference between the lit areas and the shadow areas on the far arm and skirt of the dress. If I squinted, the whole right side looked pretty much the same in value. I was trying to create the illusion that the light was much brighter closer to the source and fell off in brightness as it moved away from the source, but had I gone too far?

As you can tell from the photo below, yep, I had gone too far. There is virtually no difference in value between the light and shadow on the right side and bottom of the skirt on the left side. I had a warmer colour and a cooler colour, but they were the same value of grey, so couldn’t really create an impression of light and shadow.

Christmas Past WIP 2 in grayscaleConverting your photo to grayscale by desaturating it is a good way to check whether or not you’re actually painting the appearance of reflected light.

Since the shadow areas were already pretty dark, I felt the best remedy for the issue was to lighten up the areas reflecting the candle light. I did that over all of the sections of the figure – skin, hair, dress, and accessories.

Christmas Past WIP 3 Colour

Christmas Past WIP 3 grayscale

The final steps were to paint the buttons, candle, candle flame and candle holder, and to soften the transition edge between the areas of shadow and areas of light. Oh, and to add in the colour of the light. You might not have noticed it, but I didn’t really paint in the colour of the light as I went along. I used warm colours for the lit areas – more yellow in the greens and reds, and a tan colour for the shading of the white. I mixed a dark purple into the light area colours to create darker, cooler, and more muted colours for the various areas of the shadow side. For the shadow areas of the dress I just used pure neutral greys since I have a spectrum of those pre-mixed for easy blending, and then added the purple via a glaze at the end.

This is what everything looked like prior to painting on the light and shadow colour, painting the flame, and softening the edge transitions.

Christmas Past WIP 4

I thinned some red and yellow paint way, way, way down and painted glazes of the colours over the areas of light. I thinned down the dark purple I used in the shadow areas in the same way and painted it over the neutral grey parts of the dress to integrate them in with the rest of the shadows. I used the brightest white paint I have to paint the base of the candle flame. Here’s what the finished figure looks like on the same flat gray background I used for my WIP pictures.

Christmas Past on Grey Background

Below is a picture of the palette I used to paint the dress and glaze in the colours on the light side. The lit areas of the dress were painted with the top row of colours. The shadow areas were painted using the darker greys mostly on the bottom row of the palette. The red and yellow pools were my glaze colours. The colours in the centre of the second row were the mixes I used to soften the edges between the lit areas and the shadowed sections. (Which literally were mixes of the neutral and warm greys in various values.)

Christmas Past Palette

I used a wet palette for the majority of the painting, but I wanted to be able to preserve my paint mixes for the dress to be able to do touchups and alterations. I preserved the paint by placing almost dripping wet sponges on top of the ceramic palette when it was not in use. I’ll post more about that trick another time.

And here are a few more pictures of the completed figure, along with her compatriots from A Christmas Carol.

Christmas Past Back

Christmas Past Left

Christmas Past Right

Christmas Ghosts Front

Figures Featured in this Post

The three Christmas Ghosts are available until December 13, 2019. You can choose from one of these figures or another nine holiday options as a gift with $50 (or in other currencies) purchase from the Reaper website. For each $50 worth of your purchase(s) during the promotional period, you’ll be able to choose one of the 12 Days of Reaper figures for this year. If your purchase is over $60, you will also receive a sampler bag that includes a couple of festive paint colours, a Christmas ornament, and a few Bones miniatures. Each $40 of qualifying purchase throughout the month of December also receives a free Bones Black figure that you likewise choose from a selection of options.

The mage casting magical lightning is based on a classic piece of Larry Elmore art, and is available from Dark Sword Miniatures. I’ve used this figure in the past for my OSL classes, but this year’s class at AdeptiCon is going to mix it up and use another fun Dark Sword figure. They have a lot of miniatures that would make for great OSL practice – I had a hard time choosing the figure for this class!

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 paining 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 future 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!