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 quick visual example of grisaille underpainting covered over with colour, click here: http://www.artopiamagazine.com/artopia-magazine/make-your-paintings-pop-with-grisaille-and-underpainting

And another example here: 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: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/01626/latest/01626
Deadlands Noir Occult Detective by Reaper: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/deadlands%20noir/sku-down/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: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/andriessa/sku-down/77386
Andriessa, Wizard in metal by Reaper: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/andriessa/sku-down/03734

Contrast versus Realism

My previous post about the need to paint miniature figures with more contrast resulted in a fair amount of discussion on Facebook and some forums. (Feel free to make questions and comments right here on the blog so more readers will see them!) Previous post link: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/09/27/compare-and-contrast/

People seemed to have two main groups of issues related to contrast. One set of could be summarized as HOW issues – technique related questions of how to build up a lot of contrast while still keeping transitions between highlights and shadows looking good, for example. The other set of comments were more WHY type issues. These are people who feel uncomfortable with a lot of contrast. Most often this is expressed as a desire to paint in a fashion that looks as realistic as possible. So I’m delaying my post of some tips on how to push yourself to paint with more contrast since I think it’s important to make the case for WHY it’s important to do so in the first place.

On the topic of realism… absolutely there is a spectrum of contrast, and there are methods of painting that might be too cartoony or extreme for a particular genre or painter. The image I posted previously might be a level of contrast too extreme for some people to enjoy. (Although I will note that 1 – I was trying to make a clear visual point so I exaggerated a little, and 2 – that is a work-in-progress image. The perception of it will change when all parts of the figure are completed, and it’s very likely that I will do glazing that softens the level of contrast slightly.) I’ll include the figure in question below so you can reference it without going back to the previous post.

Vic1 combo faceExample of a figure painted with low contrast and with high contrast.

It’s okay to think that the image on the right is too highly contrasted. There is a spectrum of contrast between the left and the right. But it’s entirely possible to get overly concerned about the idea of keeping things ‘realistic’, and I think that this is something that absolutely holds back the painting of a lot of the people I talk to who are striving their hardest to improve. It is definitely something that holds people back from painting enough contrast. (And can affect their painting in other ways, as well, with colour choices, for example.)

So why DO so many instructors and higher level painters keep telling everyone (including ourselves) to push their contrast? The primary reason is that miniature figures are very small. They are so small, in fact, that when viewed under our normal light sources (ceiling lights, light coming through a window, etc.), they do not actually look completely three dimensional. If you hold a small bright light over a miniature, it will cast the type of shadows and highlights on the figure that a normal light will cast on a normal scale person. Since it’s not very practical to carry a light around with every figure, we instead need to paint in the way shadows and highlights appear under that kind of light in order to make a small figure appear fully three dimensional in normal lighting. So when we paint on shadows and highlights, we ARE in fact attempting to be realistic by mimicking the reality of how light and form interact.

Lighting comboLeft: Bright but distant ceiling room light. (My photo backdrop is attached to my photo cube, so he didn’t get the same background with this lighting.)
Center: Light positioned 13-14 inches above the model, and diffused by a photo cube.
Right: Small LED light positioned 5-6 inches above the model, not diffused.

In the first view you can see a decent amount of shadow. In the other views there is even deeper shadow, and much brighter highlights. It is easier to see the details like what the individual elements of the axe are and that his buckle is a lion’s head in the views with the light source closer (more in scale) to the figure. I think those views are also a lot more interesting to look at, precisely because of the higher level of contrast. The figure is a Bones model painted a mid-tone matte gray. In reality shinier textures like metal and hair would have even stronger light reflections and areas of shadow.

Another way to look at that is to think of miniature figures as something in between a two dimensional and a three dimensional piece of art. The best miniature painters borrow a lot of techniques that artists use on flat artwork like paintings and drawings to make their depictions look three dimensional. (Although maybe it would console some of us to realize that plenty of student painters and sketchers have a lot of trouble going as dark as they need to do in their work – lots of them need more contrast, too!)

The need to simulate an in-scale light source illuminating our tiny figures is the essential idea behind why we have to add shadows and highlights. But the fans of realism are also correct that a lot of miniature painters push that past the point of how the light you might see in many ‘real’ situations behaves. We are exaggerating the effect. The goal in miniature painting is to bring a character, or even a scene, to life. We’re trying to convey not only factual information about the character (the colours and materials of the surfaces on the figure), but also emotional information about personality and story.

Given that we have the goal of bringing stories and characters to life, it might help to study how other types of art do the same thing – stage plays, movies, even commercials. Most of of the time the makers want their productions to feel as real as possible to the audience. They don’t want to ruin our suspension of disbelief by distracting us with elements that are obviously out of place or unrealistic. But at the same time, you don’t have to analyze even a very gritty and realistic seeming movie or play too deeply to start finding things that aren’t 100% ‘real’. The action of something like a fight scene is often compressed into a much smaller space than it might really take up. (Which as it happens is a pretty good rule of thumb for dioramas and vignettes in miniatures!) Likewise, the colours and designs of the costumes might be rigorously researched to fit an historical time period, but they are also chosen with colours, patterns, and styles in mind that bring out characterization and help tell the story. Which is also a pretty good idea to try to when painting miniatures.

So where does contrast come into that? The lighting and makeup used in stage plays and movies is chosen in a similar way. It is intended to feel as real as possible, but is actually skillfully manipulated and exaggerated in whatever way is necessary to tell the story and convey character. Consider the makeup used in stage plays. The eyes are outlined in large rings of black, and the lips are bold colours. Age and character lines might be drawn quite starkly. It’s actually a lot like how we paint miniature figures! And it happens for the same reason. A play takes place on a stage, and most of the audience is sitting some distance away from the actors. The actors appear much smaller, just like miniature figures. So the production needs to use bright lights, strong colour in costumes, and very exaggerated makeup in order for the audience to be able to distinguish each of the characters and their personalities. Just as the actors have to talk much more loudly and project their voices in order for everyone to hear them, the production has to find a way to make the visual elements ‘louder’ so they can be projected for the audience to clearly see.

If you’d like a more detailed example of what I’m talking about, have a look at this video where the costumer for an historical TV program breaks down the costume choices and how those contributed to defining the characters and the scene. There was even a lot of thought put into what the background extras were or weren’t wearing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5cK0aWxJg3w. For examples related more directly to contrast, you might also do some Google searches for ‘stage makeup’ or ‘theater makeup’.

My final argument is… have you looked at reality lately? I’m not trying to be snarky when I say that. Most of us miniature painters have not really studied reality. While it is commonplace for most traditional artists to look at references when creating art, it is much rarer for miniature painters to have that habit. What I mean is, traditional artists often draw/paint from life or photographs. Over years of doing that, they build extensive ‘visual libraries’ and can more easily draw what a variety of things look like accurately from imagination. But even then most will study a texture like leather or shiny metal or whatever when depicting it. Some even make up maquettes to study scenes and creatures in order to depict them more accurately. The highly respected paleoartist and fantasy realist James Gurney frequently uses maquettes to be able to visualize how extinct animals would move and look. David Petersen is the author and artist of the Mouse Guard comic series. And he has built scenes and buildings to be able to render them well. In a comic. One of the best miniature painters today is Kirill Kanaev, and he uses reference photos extensively. (I was lucky enough to take a workshop from him, and we worked from photos for every element of the bust that we painted.)

James Gurney (search ‘James gurney maquette’ on YouTube for many more videos): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6VozAf1vpc
David Petersen on why he builds models: http://davidpetersen.blogspot.com/2008/12/model-building-like-many-artists-i-find.html
Kirill Kanaev’s page on Putty & Paint. Prepare to drop jaw: https://www.puttyandpaint.com/Yellow_one

I bring this up because I took some pictures to use as illustrations for my points in this post, and some of them surprised me! My aim was to show you pictures of real people scaled to the size of a gaming scale miniature to demonstrate that things like facial features and other detail are almost absent from a person standing far enough away from you to be the same size as a miniature figurine is. And I think these pictures do demonstrate that. But guess what else I found? Some pretty dramatic shadows and highlights! These include pictures taken outside on a fairly sunny day, and a few pictures taken indoors.

Real 150 comboThese pictures are also instructive about some other kinds of contrast, like how basic colour choices can set items apart from one another (or make things blur together visually) and how patterns can stand out or look murky, but those will have to be topics for another day.

Now here are a selection of miniatures that I’ve painted over the years with pictures scaled to the same size. Some are painted with very little contrast, and others with much more. Note that the painting isn’t the only thing exaggerated. If you compare the proportions of the figures to the real people above, you’ll see that the proportions of the figures aren’t ‘real’. In particular, the heads of the figures are much larger in proportion to the bodies than those of real people, which changes all of the proportions. Real people are above 7.5 heads tall. Gaming scale miniatures are often closer to 5 heads tall. Increasing the size of weapons and thin body points like wrists and ankles is a necessity of casting a miniature figure. The difference in overall proportion is largely an exaggeration for the necessity of conveying character. We like looking at and painting faces, and those faces need to be bigger to be seen at this scale. The miniature painter needs to exaggerate in the same way and for a similar reason as the miniature sculptor.

Minis 150 combo

So those are the reasons why so many painters and contest judges that you might ask for advice keep hammering on about contrast. If you consider all of those arguments and still disagree, that is absolutely your right to do as an artist and as a viewer of other people’s art! But you also need to accept that the majority of the miniature painting world has agreed on the necessity of contrast and at least a little exaggeration, and that philosophy is going to be reflected in how we judge contest entries and offer feedback. If you’re happy with what you’re doing, why would you feel the need to ask for feedback? If you do feel like you need to ask for feedback, why is it such a common inclination to disregard the most commonly offered piece of advice as ‘unrealistic’? If you disagree with the standard of contrast pretty universally preferred in miniature contests and shows, why are you entering them? I’m not asking these questions to antagonize anyone, but in hopes of jolting people into thinking about this issue a little more thoroughly.

Note that there may be some painters that you might look at and feel they do not use strong contrast that are still fantastic painters and well respected in the miniature painting community. Jennifer Haley is someone that springs to mind as a possible example. In my last post, you might remember that I mentioned that there are a lot of kinds of contrast, not just contrast between darkness of shadows and lightness of highlights. Jen Haley is fairly restrained in her use of that particular kind of contrast compared to many of the display level painters, but she is a master of several other kinds of more subtle and trickier to master types of contrast. Jessica Rich is another artist I might place in this group. And both of them might be using stronger shadow/highlight contrast than you might think. More on that later in the HOW post…

Does my argument about contrast and exaggeration make sense, or do you think I’ve gone too far? Let’s discuss how we feel about contrast and realism in the comments!

Links to figures featured in this post:
Victorian woman: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/victorian/latest/50327
Brand Oathblood, Barbarian: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/bones%20barbarian/sku-down/77469
Beach Babe Libby: https://www.hfminis.co.uk/shop?product=beach-babe-libby~hfh029&category=fantasy-%26%0D%0Asteampunk~fantasy-humans
Eriu, Champion with Greatsword: https://www.brigademodels.co.uk/Celtos/The%20Gaels/CLT-333.html
Tristan, Loremistress: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/mize/sku-down/03028
Female Shaman: https://www.darkswordminiatures.com/shop/index.php/miniatures/elmore-masterworks/female-shaman.html
Barglemore and Camille (on sale for a limited time only): http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/01626/latest/01626
Tiviel, Hellborn Rogue (also available in Bones): http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/hellborn/sku-down/03315

Compare and Contrast

As a conservative estimate, I’m going to guess that 80% of the miniature painters reading this (and 100% of the person writing it) have received feedback that their miniature ‘needs more contrast’. Contrast is the real bugbear of our hobby, more fearsome by far than the monster so named! I recently worked on a miniature that gave me a perfect example of what more and less contrast look like compared to one another.

Usually when miniature painters refer to contrast, they mean the range of contrast between the darkest value of shadow in an area, and the lightest value of highlight. There are actually upwards of a dozen different kinds of contrast you can use to separate different areas of a figure and draw attention to your focal point(s). I hope to be able to go through most of those in future posts, since many of them are overlooked by miniature painters. But as true as that is, it is also true that the range of contrast between highlights and shadows is vital in miniature painting, and something that is an ongoing struggle for most of us. I’ve been fighting to get more contrast into my painting pretty much since day one!

The figure below is a Victorian era miniature that is one of a small set. I started painting her at least three years ago, possibly longer. I was pretty happy with her at the time of painting, particularly with her face. I knew she needed another colour somewhere, but I put that and the figure aside since I wanted to have all of the figures in the set mostly painted so I could work on all of the bases together. While I was at ReaperCon, I started painting one of the other Victorian ladies. And when I came home and put her beside this older one, it really struck me how much duller and less contrasted the older one looked. So I decided to do a little work on the older figure.

Vic1 combo faceOn the left, the figure as painted in 2015 (or earlier). On the right, the figure with a few hours of touching up to add more contrast. Revising the painting of a figure like this is a much less scary prospect than I once thought it was. Once you have your basic values established, it’s not as tricky to go in and fiddle with colour or adjust contrast as you might imagine. 

I’m hoping that this is a pretty good demonstration of what we mean by ‘needs more contrast’ and ‘darker shadows, lighter highlights’. Of course there is a certain amount of to taste with this. There may be those among you who feel that the revised version is too highly contrasted. But I think most of us will agree that the original version is just too blah. The face isn’t too bad, and the contrast between the light colour of the face and dark colour of the clothing really helps it to stand out, but the details of the folds and ribbons in the cloth get lost without the contrast. 

Vic1 wip combo backThe sculpted detail is a lot more apparent with the greater contrast between highlights and shadows.

You might also note that the blending on the revised one isn’t perfect. I’m working on having more than one style of painting. I’m trying to develop a level that I hope still looks good, but takes less time to execute. There are so many things I want to paint! The contrast is more important than the blending. Photographing painted miniatures and sharing them on online makes it easy to forget how miniatures are most often viewed and used – at arm’s length. Whether it’s an entry into the Crystal Brush or your character mini in your favorite role-playing game, the first task of a paint job is to make the character of the figure and the various items and elements of the sculpt visually apparent at two feet away. The photo shown above is 4-5 times larger than life size. Let’s take a look at this figure again at something much closer to life size.

Vic1 combo face smallWell, that really puts things into a different perspective, doesn’t it? Whether you’re entering a figure into a contest or plunking it down on a table, you want the paint job to wave at the viewer from a distance and say hey, look at me closer!

Ideally a paint job will have qualities to be appreciated at both distances – at arm’s length, and up close and personal in the hand or in a photograph. So working on blending for smooth areas and other cool textures for different materials is very important. But if you don’t have enough contrast to grab the viewer’s attention, they’re never going to take a close enough look to fully appreciate all the other things you’ve worked on in the figure.

One more set of pictures that might help view the contrast changes in a different way. I first worked on the face, using paint I had on the palette for another figure. The next session, I touched up the dress. I apparently forgot the colours I originally used and didn’t write them down as I usually do. But since I was in the ballpark and matching values, the fact that I was using different colour mixes didn’t cause me any real trouble in doing the touchups. I could go over it with a glaze to shift it closer to the purple it originally was, but I’m waiting to see what colours I end up using on the third Victorian lady before I take that step. Lastly I went back over the teal portions of the figure. I still need to introduce a third colour and do some final touches, like adding a bit more colour variation to the face, but I figured it was would be more helpful to people to compare the original version with a version painted to the same stage rather than fully completed.

Vic1 wip combo 1000Left: as painted three years ago. Second to left: repainted face. Third to left: repainted dress. Right: repainted hood, ribbons, and underskirt.

Hopefully that is a helpful insight into what a miniature looks like with more (or less) contrast. In my next post (or the one after that), I plan to go over a few suggestions for methods you can experiment with to increase the amount of contrast in your own work. 

What are your experiences battling with the contrast bugbear? Or are you that rare painter who doesn’t get told they need more contrast in their work? Let’s talk about contrast in the comments!

Links

This figure is available in metal along with a second Victorian woman: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/victorian/latest/50327
There is also a pack with a third woman and a Victorian man in metal: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/victorian/latest/50326
Or you can get a pack containing two of the woman and the man in Bones plastic: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/victorian/latest/50326
The base was made using a herringbone brick press mould: http://happyseppukumodelworks.bigcartel.com/product/herring-bone-brick