Freehand – How to Practice and Other Tips

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In the miniature community we use the term freehand to describe using paint alone to create patterns/pictures/textures on flat surfaces. (In contrast to when those details are sculpted directly into the surface and we are using paint to bring out the sculpted details.) I have a previous article on freehand that discusses considerations for subject and colour choices.

Today I want to share some suggestions for how to prepare to paint freehand, and some tips for the actual process. I’ll also give an example with some work-in-progress pictures from the Baran Blacktree figure. (In a previous Baran Blacktree article I talked about weathering and colour temperature in non-metallic metal.)

Baran s shield fullThe black tree is the symbol of Baran’s family.

Before you get too intimidated about even the idea of freehand, consider that chances are, you already have painted some. So don’t get too in your head about not being able to do it before you even try. Have you painted pupils on a figure’s eyes? You’ve painted freehand. An animal pattern like stripes or spots? Freehand. Camo? Freehand. Painted in a strap or other detail that was sculpted on the original but the outline isn’t well defined on the miniature cast that you have? That is freehand, too.

Now at the same time, there’s no question that painting freehand images and patterns can be challenging to do. It requires a decent level of brush control. (And a good brush to use that control with!) In fact, practicing freehand is a great way to improve your brush control. It also requires a certain amount of patience. There are likely to be moments of tension and frustration, and with large scale freehand projects, also tedium.

Dancers front fullThis took some patience, and a whole lot of time. Also note these are 75mm figures.

A note to those who know that I also do 2D drawing and painting The two figures with freehand dragons and the two scenes that include painted text were all painted prior to when I started to study traditional art as an adult. I had taken art class in high school, but that was many years before I started painting miniatures.

Practice Before Painting

Practice and preparation greatly improve your chances for successfully painting freehand. However, I have at times also found practice to be discouraging, so I think it might be worth sharing some tips for how to practice in ways that will give you the most benefit.

Pencil/Pen on Paper Practice

In my early days as a painter, when I started to practice to work up to painting freehand, I began with pencil on paper. While there is some value to that, my experience was that it can also lead you astray or be discouraging.

Painting freehand on a miniature involves using a brush to apply liquid paint to a non-absorbent surface. This is a completely different set of tools from using dry pencil or pen on paper. Drawing on paper is of no benefit in learning how paint acts, nor in developing muscle memory to use paint on a brush. Note that painting directly on paper is also not the same experience as painting on a miniature, since paint behaves differently on the absorbent paper than on the non-absorbent surface of a primed/painted miniature.

Another issue is that the kind of simple line art you’re likely to draw with pencil practice does not reflect what a fully rendered piece of painted freehand can look like. Line art is flat, with no shading or highlighting. It’s very easy to start with some simple drawing practice and get discouraged before you even try painting freehand because your practice drawing looks flat and boring and crappy and not at all like what was in your imagination, so clearly you just aren’t ready to paint freehand yet.

Freehand that incorporates different colours and/or shading and highlighting to match the shapes of where it is applied on the figure is going to look different than simple pencil lines on paper. Don’t give up on the idea of even trying before you get past this point!

Even with paint instead of pencil, a tiny freehand design can look a lot different on a flat background with no context than it might on a miniature in the context of the pose of the figure and the various colours used to paint it. The Asian style dragons I painted below don’t look like much. Even the most finished looking of them, the topmost above the 3, is nothing too great.

IMG 0547

Below is a photo of what the dragon I painted on the figure looked like. The difference in the practice and final dragons isn’t that I suddenly improved in skill in the minutes between painting the practice dragon and painting the dragon on the actual figure. The difference is that you’re seeing the dragon in the context of the overall figure and with the intended colour background. (And of course I put a lot more effort into painting precisely and fixing errors with the dragon on the actual figure.)

Misaki dragonThis is an older photo taken with an older camera. I painted this in 2006. It was one of the first figures I ever sold!

That’s not to say that practicing with a pen/pencil on paper has no value, just that you need to understand that what you draw will not look the same as fully rendered freehand you see on a figure.

The big value of practicing on paper is that you can work out how to simplify your image/pattern. It will be easier to paint freehand if you first figure out how to break it down into basic shapes to replicate it. If you’re modifying an image/pattern to fit a particular size and/or shape of space, it’s also a quicker way to iterate options than using paint would be. 

Consider the following as an example. The pencil practice on the left was on an index card, and definitely not at scale. I had started by looking at some dragon tattoo designs for reference. You can see how rough the initial drawings were, and how they look completely different from the painted version. I needed to work out the basic shapes I could use and how to connect them, and quick pencil sketches were great for that. The bottom right dragon is very similar to what I painted on the figure. It’s made up mostly of lines rather than having a snake-like body like in the initial attempts. I tweaked the final pencil version a little further to apply to the unusual shape of this miniature’s shield. (More on painting this shield below.)

Dragonshield practice

Paint on Paint (or Plastic) Practice

The best way to become more comfortable and skilled with the tools you will use to apply freehand to a miniature is to practice with those tools – use a brush to apply paint to a painted or non-absorbent surface. You have a few options here.

Practice Miniature
Practice painting on something with surfaces similar to the area where you will be applying the freehand is ideal. So another figure with a flowing cloak if you’re trying to paint a line of trim on the edge of a flowing cloak.

Sk wip freehandPracticing on a similarly sculpted area was very helpful.

Practice Before Painting
You can also use your actual miniature for practice. Before you start painting the area you plan to add freehand to, do a little bit of practice by painting your intended freehand design in the appropriate area to get a feel for it. This will help you see if your design is too complex or not quite the right shape, or if the area is too small for your current level of brush control. Make sure you use slightly thinned paint so you don’t build up any texture on the surface.


Dragon shield practice2In this case I had an extra copy of this figure from teaching a skin painting class. I tested some initial ideas, and then once I decided on the dragon design painted a practice run. This also let me test the paint colours I proposed to use. Looks like I was playing around with some ideas for tattoo freehand, as well. In the final version on the figure I added more shading and highlighting to both the shield and the dragon symbol.

Paint on Plastic
Plastic practice surfaces can work well, as plastic is non-absorbent. I often use black miniature bases or the bottoms of Bones miniatures for a little quick freehand practice. Plastic like blister packs and washed sour cream container lids is also a good practice surface, though you may need to add a coat of paint or primer to some plastics for them to take in the same way a painted miniature does.

Paint on Painted Paper
You can prime heavy weight paper like watercolour paper or index card. Or even just put a coat or two of paint on it and then practice over that. Cheap watercolour paper like Canson XL is great for purposes like swatches, colour tests, and freehand practice. You should be able to find it in big box craft stores. In general heavier weight paper will work better, but I’ve practiced on paint swatches on printer paper and index cards. Other than a good brush, you don’t need fancy or special tools to practice!

IMG 0542I first painted swatches on printer paper to test the colour scheme. Later I used a brush and paint on that to practice freehand for the piece.

Lmp topLucky for me the freehand in this case was supposed to look like it was drawn by a kid. :->

On versus Off Miniature Practice

Whichever practice surface you use, if it is not the actual miniature, you will have to work to keep in mind the size and shape of the area. It’s super easy to think you’re working at a size that fits the miniature, only to discover that you’ve been practicing at a much larger size than the area on the figure.

It can be helpful to actually measure/trace the area on your figure and copy that onto your practice surface. The tick marks on the practice sheet for the tiny dragon above are 5mm apart so I could keep the size of the area on her shawl in mind. The black stripes in the following image are the size of the street sign I wanted to paint.

Bsophie practice

Most practice surface options are flat, which may not be true of the area of the miniature you plan to paint on, so that’s something else to keep in mind. If you’re newer to painting freehand I recommend painting freehand on flatter or gently rounded surfaces at first.

Step by Step Freehand on Baran Blacktree

Now let’s look at a step by step example of me painting  a simple freehand image on the shield of Baran Blacktree.

In reality I did not do a ton of advance practice prior to painting the shield images, but keep a few things in mind before you judge me for not practicing what I preach. At the time I painted this I had painted all of the above figures and several more with freehand and precision detail painting. I had also been studying traditional art for a few years, so was practicing in other ways. And most importantly, I was on a tight deadline and willing to roll the dice a little. ;->

Step One

In the photograph below you can see my practice surface and the shield prior to any freehand. My practice surface was the bottom of a Bones miniature. I practiced making the basic shapes, and worked out the steps I would use to apply those shapes to the miniature. The black border section was drawn with Sharpie, based on measurements of the smaller area on the shield, to ensure I did a practice run at the same size area as I would be working on the figure.

The silhouette tree design was inspired by some clipart tree drawings. Silhouette style art can be tricky in that it does not have shading and highlighting applied, or any other colours. Part of why I practiced was to feel confident that the basic shape of the tree I had designed was clear and interesting enough to work well as a silhouette.

Shield wip1

Step Two

I used poster tack to attach my practice figure to the painting handle holding Baran. This kept it very close by so I could easily reference it while painting. In this step I have laid in the initial tree shape. I did not use super thin black paint for this step. I used slightly thinned light grey paint. It can take a lot of coats of paint to cover over mistakes or bits you’re not happy with on a light colour like white. I wanted to make sure I was happy with the basic overall shape before applying true black paint. Slightly thinned rather than super watery paint was easier for me to work with. Though if you find you feel like the paint is a little ‘sticky’ and doesn’t feel like it’s coming smoothly off the brush, add a bit of Flow Improver to it. (Learn more about paint additives and mediums in my upcoming free class!)

Shield wip2

Step Three

Next I painted in the initial shape on the second tree. It was more efficient to work on similar stages for both images at the same time instead of painting one to completion and then painting the second. It also helped me keep them in sync and as similar as possible. However, the shield areas are slightly different shapes and sizes. And I’m human. So I could not exactly duplicate the tree. The medieval crafter who would have applied something like this in real life would have been in the same situation, so I didn’t stress that too much.

Shield wip3

Step Four

I started to build up the flat black colour on the trees. I did this in multiple slightly thinned coats. Again, better to go slowly and carefully than have to spend a lot of time and effort fixing mistakes.

The effect in the WIP picture below is a little like shading and highlighting with some depth and variation in the trees, so this also gives you an idea of how something painted with a little variation of colour/shading can look different than a flat shape or simple line art.

Shield wip4

Step Five

Once I was happy with the shapes painted with the lighter grey paint, I painted several coats of slightly thinned black paint over each tree shape to build up the black silhouette appearance. 

Shield wip5

Patron Spotlight: Lana Tessler

This blog is made possible thanks to the generous support of my patrons. The Patron Spotlight is an opportunity for me to share their work and philosophy with the world! 

Lana sent me her photos just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post. By sheer coincidence her figures include some fantastic examples of painting freehand, so they’re very topical to the post! The rest of her painting is terrific, too! You can check out more of Lana’s work on her Instagram page.

In Lana’s words:

I am largely a hobby painter but always working to improve. I’ve been mini painting for about two years but I have over twenty years of 2D art experience and love applying that to miniature painting.

Lana tessler1

Lana tessler2

Lana tessler3

Lana tessler4

Lana tessler5

Figures in this Post

Baran Blacktree is available in metal. Coming soon(ish) in Bones plastic.
I do not know who manufactured the Dancing Couple or if they are still available.
The metal version of Misaki from Wyrd Games is no longer in production. There is a different plastic sculpt available.
The Female Warrior with Sword is available in metal from Dark Sword Miniatures.
Masquerade Ball Sophie is available in metal.
Little Miss Pigtails and her dragon friend Smokey are no longer in production. Nor is the table item. The open book and the closed book are available in metal.  
Bourbon Street Sophie is available in metal
The Frost Giant Queen is available in Bones plastic.
Father Christmas is a seasonally available Reaper figure.
Doctor Oronotius and his owl companion are available in metal.
The Christmas Hugs dragon is available seasonally from Reaper.
Kelainen Darkmantle is available in Bones plastic and in metal.

Some Thoughts on Freehand

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Freehand refers to patterns, pictures, text, or similar elements that are painted on a flat surface, as opposed to decorative elements that are sculpted into a figure and enhanced by paint techniques like washes. Freehand is a way to individualize your interpretation of a sculpt, and reflects the universal human urge to decorate ourselves and our surroundings.

Freehand vs sculpted exampleThe top shield is an example of sculpted detail. the design and letters are sculpted in strong relief on the shield. The quarters are sculpted into the bottom shield, but the trees were added with freehand – flat paint painted over flat paint.

Many types of freehand can be quite challenging to do on a miniature figure since it involves both drawing and doing it at a very small scale. As a result, miniature painters understandably tend to focus on the technical aspects of executing freehand. But sometimes that focus distracts us from taking more general artistic considerations into account. (These same considerations also apply to use of decals.)

What do I mean by artistic considerations? Your figure/scene should work together as a whole to illustrate a character or tell a story. This means choosing colours, textures, and elements like freehand that work together, and applying them in a way that enhances the whole. I think a lot of us don’t think of the figure as a whole that way. We want the whole thing to look cool, but we might start by thinking we want to paint the cloak this colour and the hair in that way without a lot of consideration into whether all of that would come together to a pleasing whole. Even when we do think more holistically, it is very easy to forget that big picture when you start working on the individual elements. Freehand is definitely something that can end up being a distraction or looking showy or unnatural.

Dancers front 800The sculpture/castings of these 54mm figures is a little rough. I chose to use a lot of freehand partly to distract from the rough spots, and also because it was germane to the character types. But to keep it from being too noisy I painted most of the freehand/texture as tone-on-tone. Although the silver trim on the man’s tunic is sculpted, it is an example of a distracting element. It is painted with a high level of contrast and in a colour much different than its surroundings so it draws the eye too much and becomes a bit of a distraction. Compare it with the more subdued gold trim on the woman’s sleeves and belt that better fits in with that figure overall.

Detail tends to draw the eye. On a simple humanoid figure that often works to our advantage. You have larger plain areas like clothing, armour, and weapons for the bulk of the figure. The face with its features becomes an area of detail that focuses the eye in the correct place for appreciating a character’s personality. (We also have a part of our brain that specifically looks for faces, so we’re naturally drawn to look for and at them and the effect is magnified.)

Freehand is detail, and outside of an occasional face tattoo, it tends to be applied to areas outside of the face. It takes one of the plainer areas like a piece of cloth and adds a lot of detail to it. That detail can draw the eye quite a bit. It can even compete with the face. I have talked to contest judges who dislike freehand that seems applied just to demonstrate the brush skills of the painter that ended up detracting from the piece being appreciated as a whole.

Rivani front 450The freehand detail on the sash and its bright white and red colours are both elements that draw the eye away from the face or appreciating the miniature more as a whole. I painted this to match artwork, but the artwork does not suffer from this issue. One reason is because Wayne Reynolds dulled the white down to more of a grey in his drawing, which kept the pattern lower contrast. Also because he’s Wayne Reynolds and pretty awesome at this art thing.

This was my dilemma painting the second succubus. She is seated on a cushion. It seemed like it would be visually interesting and appropriate to the character to have that be a decorated cushion. But how could I be sure to add freehand that would accent but not overpower the character?

One way is to give careful consideration to the question of colour, and this is a reason to spend a little time learning colour theory. Warmer colours draw the eye. More saturated colours draw the eye. The figure has warm reddish-pink skin. It is somewhat saturated but not a pure strong saturated colour. There is a touch of blue in the non-metallic metal jewelry. It is both less saturated and cooler. Since I already have red and blue, yellow would make a logical third main colour to add for a red-blue-yellow triadic colour scheme. I also have the loincloth to paint, so I need to figure out colours for that and the cushion. Golden yellow and a bit more blue seem like good choices, but I have to be careful. Yellow is warm colour, and in context to the figure a lot of yellows, even duller, darker yellows, would look very saturated.

Freehand practice and testsI often do tests and practice for trickier work like freehand. I practice first on a flat surface, and then on something similar to the surface I’ll be painting on the miniature. (Blog post on painting this figure.)

Here’s where relying on recipes can get you into trouble. I do have a gold non-metallic metal ‘recipe’ I use quite often. A satin or brocade cloth is also shiny so similar paints to NMM would seem to suit. My standard recipe is Mahogany Brown, Chestnut Gold, Palomino Gold, Buckskin, Linen White. Chestnut Gold and Palomino Gold are both less saturated than pure yellow. But they are also both as or more saturated than the colours I have on the main figure. In context they would look more intense and more yellow than they do in a general context. (I did not use this recipe as the gold for the jewelry on the first succubus for a similar reason.) If I don’t want the pillow to draw all the attention, it would be advisable to choose colours that are more brown with a touch of yellow than yellows that are a little muted. 

I might also want to keep the freehand subtle. Choosing a colour/value for the freehand that strongly contrasts to the fabric of the pillow will make the freehand stand out more. Letters, numerals, and identifiable symbols also strongly attract the viewer’s eye, and will distract them with wanting to read/interpret any symbols. Pictorial representations of faces, human(oid) figures, or even objects that are human made also tend to draw the eye.

Succ2 wip freehand1 600On the left is the initial stage of laying in the freehand pattern. Stage two is cleaning up the curving patterns. Stage three on the right is adding some dots to make the pattern look more complex and interesting.

Keeping all of that in mind, if I want to add a freehand element in this situation I might do well to use a more abstract design, and to make colour choices that are lower in contrast within the freehand, and/or lower in contrast to the main figure. I went with a tone-on-tone gold, using the same mixes of paints to paint both the cushion background fabric and the decorative design.

Succ2 wip freehand2 600While I didn’t want the pillow too saturated or bright a gold, it was a little dull as initially painted. For a final step I glazed with a yellow-brown colour to add richness and a bit more colour.

It helps to have in mind your purpose in adding freehand to a figure. Sometimes it might be required to fully expression your ideas for a character or scene – insignia or text on military and sci-fi characters, richly decorated clothing or scenic elements for a noble character. Sometimes we might wish to add it as a way of demonstrating our skills to the viewer, like for a contest entry. Occasionally we may even use it to obscure an area that is poorly sculpted or where we missed some divots or mould lines. Some of these purposes require specific types of freehand in specific areas of the figure, which we may need to balance by making other kinds of choices for the figure elsewhere.

Punk pattern comboExamples of freehand added to areas where it would have looked odd and more distracting to leave it off!

Colour Scheme for the Pillow:

Midtone basecoat: 9200 Harvest Brown
Shadow: 9137 Blackened Brown
Highlights: 29826 Desert Tan (out of production, 9256 Blond Shadow would likely work as well), 9257 Blond Hair, 9258 Blond Highlight
Glaze: 9314 Heartwood Brown

Figures in this Post and Where to Get Them

Sprout von Harvest II (metal) – Charity fundraiser figure for Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee
Baran Blacktree, Veteran Warrior (metal) – there’s a painting guide for this figure
Dancing couple – I do not know the manufacturer of these figures or if they are currently available for purchase
Rivani, Iconic Psychi (metal)
Masquerade Ball Sophie (metal) – Painting to Match Artwork, general Painting Process
Sir Malcolm, available in metal or in plastic.
The seated succubus is available for preorder in plastic by adding the Demonic Temptations add-on to your Bones 5 late pledge. The add-on includes three succubi and three incubi. Previous post on painting her skin.
Inspector #3 – Camille Van Towe
Inspector #2 – Johnson
Sid the Rockstar

How to Paint Fur Patterns – Again

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One of my first posts on this blog was a look at how to paint animal fur patterns. This is helpful to know not only for painting animal figures, but also for painting clothing or scenic elements made from fur. I recently finished painting another personified tabby cat figure, and I took some in progress pictures to talk a little more about the process I used for painting the fur.

Korben front view

Korben back view

The warrior cat above is an anthropomorphic imagining of one of my own cats, Korben. It is one of a line of terrific anthropomorphic animal figures from Dark Sword Miniatures. Korben is a large and beefy cat and a deadly hunter, so he was envisioned as a burly, but mischievous, fighter character. Once the concept artist and sculptor finished their fantastic work, it became my job to bring my orange tabby goofball to life. One important part of that was to study photos of the real Korben to determine good colours to use, where there were variations in his fur colour, and where to place the stripes.

Korben looking innocent. He's not.

One thing that’s apparent from these photographs is that the lighting conditions can have a significant appearance on the colour of objects. The fur appears more red/auburn in the first picture than the one below. I aimed for something in between the two in the painted version of Korben.

Korben profile2

I tend to start by painting the lighter colour(s) on an animal with patterning. It’s usually easier to paint a darker colour over a lighter colour than vice versa. Let’s study the lighter areas of the fur on my reference cat. One important element to note is that the lighter areas of fur are not uniform in colour. The variations are affected by several factors:

Natural Variation
The fur is a lighter colour in some areas than others. Most notably, the lower jaw, the tip of the tail, and narrow stripes under the eyes. The fur is almost white in places. It is very common for animals to have lighter coloured fur on their bellies than they do on their sides and backs.

Skin Showing Through
The number of fur strands is much less dense in the areas in front of the ears and above the eyes. More white skin shows through, which makes the fur appear lighter in colour here.

Light and Shadow
The way that light falls on the animal creates shadows depending on the shape of its body and limbs. Areas of fur will appear lighter where they are facing towards the light, and darker where the forms of the animal curve away from the light and create shadows. On the full body picture of Korben, you can see a dark ridge of shadow on the lower side of his flank above the tail, and quite a dark shadow under his jaw. 

His chest fur appears darker where it curves down towards his belly. This can create one of the challenges of painting animals. As mentioned above, fur is often lighter coloured on the underside of an animal. But in most poses this is also an area that is facing away from the light and thus shadowed. Where this occurs you need to paint the fur the shadow colour of your lighter belly fur colour. You might have belly fur that would appear pure white if it were viewed in good lighting, but you will need to paint it more of a tan or grey because it should appear as if it’s in shadow.

It can be difficult to depict both the natural variation of fur AND the play of light and shadow over the fur simultaneously in a way that makes sense on a small miniature figure. Sometimes you need to make choices about which aspect is most important to your vision for that figure.

In the case of Korben the miniature, my thinking was along the following lines. The lighter areas of fur on his face are part of what makes Korben look like Korben, so they are important to include to capture the likeness, even if I have to sacrifice creating the three dimensional form a little. Luckily those areas are mostly in the light, apart from the lower jaw. The colour shift of his tail from light to near white is interesting and also a distinctive feature of his appearance, so I wanted to capture that, but still add some shading throughout the tail to make it look round.

On the arms, the emphasis of the sculpt is on Korben’s muscular strength. (He is a mighty hunter!) In terms of capturing the vision for the figure, accuracy of the fur patterning or even whether the stripes are very visually apparent is less important than bringing out the rounded curves of the muscles so those are very visible to the viewer.

For the purposes of painting a more effective miniature, I increased the level of contrast between his light and dark colours of fur. Miniatures are small (even though this one is super sized compared to the other anthropomorphic cats in the Dark Sword line!), and a lot more of the body area is covered than in an unclothed cat. So it seemed like a good idea to exaggerate the contrast a little to ensure that the tabby patterning would be easy for the viewer to see in the display case at a busy convention, since that will be the function of this miniature.

I did a quick test of some colour options on another figure. Doing tests like these might seem like wasted time. But it is more efficient to spend a few minutes working out my colour choices on a test figure than to it would be to try something, discover it doesn’t work, and then have to spend a lot more time repainting the main figure. If I were not already practiced at painting stripes from painting anthropomorphic Archer and Ella, I might also have spent a little time practicing the techniques I planned to use to make the stripes look less painted on. The one downside of this test is that now I’m trying to resist the urge to paint this as a Pippi Longstocking wolf…

Korb wolf test photoI love the Bones figures from Reaper for quick tests like this. No prep or primer needed, just grab the fig and start testing. 

The following is a picture of what the Korben figure looked like after I finished painting the areas of light coloured fur, including the shading and highlighting as well as the areas that appear lighter due to other factors. Normally I would have finished painting all of the fur areas before painting his gear and weapons. In this instance I circled back to the fur later when I had time to take photos for this article.

Korben light fur before patterning

Now it was time for the stripes. How did I approach painting those, and how did I make them look more like natural fur stripes rather than painted on? I discussed some of this in the previous fur post, but it’s worth talking about again with some additional examples.

Manmade pattern examplesExamples of painting insignia and other manmade patterns.

If you think of the symbols on traffic signs, or many clothing designs, or other examples of patterns of that type, the edges of the elements are crisp and well-defined. (There are a few softer spots on the punk rocker’s t-shirt above, but I was trying to create the impression that it was stained and worn.) These symbols and designs are painted with hard edges in traditional drawing terminology. In your mind you might think of the stripes of a tiger or spots of a leopard as being pretty similar, since the patterns are well-defined, but if you take a closer look, you’ll see that is not the case.

Tiger and Leopard larger viewTiger photo by William Low. Leopard photo by Uriel Soberanes. Both courtesy of Unsplash.

In the photographs of a lion and a leopard above, you can see that their stripe and spot markings are very clearly defined. But even at this distant size/scale, the edges do not have the same kind of sharp definition as you would see on most printed or painted designs like signs and logos. Let’s take an even closer look at these animal markings.

Tiger and leopard markings close upTiger photo by William Low. Leopard photo by Uriel Soberanes. Both courtesy of Unsplash.

In a close up, it’s easy to see that the edges of the markings are not really sharply defined. There are light hairs that poke into the areas of dark fur, and dark hairs that push into the light fur sections. The overall shape of the stripe or spot is well established, but the edges of them are more diffuse. In traditional art terminology this is a firm rather than a sharp edge. That’s the end result we want in a miniature, but how do we get there?

I think sometimes we can make our lives as painters more difficult by trying to accomplish the end result immediately in as few steps as possible. A lot of effects and techniques actually benefit from breaking things up into steps, and that is what I did with the fur pattern here. 

My first step was to start laying in the darker stripes. My goal here was to focus on the placement of the stripes. I studied photos of his face very closely to determine where to place the stripes, and the same with his tail. I got a little more creative with placement on the arms since the anatomical structure of the limbs between the actual cat and the anthropomorphic cat is fairly different. When I say my focus was on placement I mean that my aim was to paint a stripe of roughly the correct width and length in the correct location. I didn’t worry if I had excessively sharp edges or even if the paint was streaky, I didn’t worry about highlights and shadows. Step one was just looking at my reference and placing stripes as accurately as I could. Mostly I used one colour of paint for this stage, but there were a few shadow areas where I used a slightly darker mix to make sure I could see where I put the stripes.

Korben stripes layin frontInitial lay-in of the stripes.

Korb back wip2 700h

You can see from the above photos that my stripes are a little rough. Some have edges that are way too defined. Some are wobbly. Some don’t have full coverage of colour. My next step was to correct any placement issues, clean up the wobbly lines, and make sure that the centres of the stripes have a solid coat of colour. I also added some shading and highlighting to the stripes, and made them a little darker in the centres. 

The next step in my process was to work on softening and diffusing the edges of the stripes so they looked more like natural fur and less like something I painted on. I mixed a colour in between the light fur colour and the darker stripe colour. Using a small brush with a very fine point, I painted tiny lines and dots along the edge transition to blur it. In essence, I’m making strokes to create the light bits of fur on the close-up photo of the tiger stripes above. There were times when I overdid it and needed to tidy a little with either the darker stripe colour or lighter background fur colour, so I kept both those paint colours to hand on my palette.

Striped tail painting process

The above photos demonstrate the three stages of the process I used to paint the stripes. The top photo is what the tail looked like after the initial stripe lay-in. In the middle of the tail on the bottom, you can see where I painted in some extra coats of paint on the stripes to build up the colour coverage. I have started the process of diffusing the harsh edges of the stripes on both ends of the tail in the bottom photo so you can see what that looks like in areas of higher and lower contrast between stripes and background colour. 

Korben face stripes work in progress

The photos above give you an idea of how the process worked on the smaller stripes on the face. The picture of the face on the left is the initial lay-in of the stripes. In the picture on the right, I have corrected the placement of the stripes on top of the head. I also realized that I had made the area of lightness above his eyes too large and dramatic, and I toned that down a bit, as well as painting the ears to better match my reference photos. The picture on the right was taken mid-way through the process – I still had a bit of work to do on softening the stripes on the cheeks and chin. 

This is just one method for painting fur patterns! If you’re not painting a larger figure or one intended for display, you might be more interested in one of the other methods I described in my original post about painting fur patterns.

Thank You Dark Sword Miniatures!

I would like to say thank you very much to Dark Sword Miniatures for adding our third furry goofball to the anthropomorphic critters line up! Now he definitely feels like he’s a part of the family. We only planned to have two cats, but when we realized that the friendly orange cat that had been hanging around the neighbourhood was a stray, how could we resist? Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into!

Archer bl front 500Our tyrannical overlord, Archer, depicted as a grumpy warlock. He’s a lot skinner now that he’s quite an old man cat. We think he’s working on becoming a lich.

Ella front 450Our second cat, sweet Elasund or Ella, depicted as a rogue. She could also have made a good cleric, she’s the only creature in the house with a high Wisdom score. (But very low Int.)

Korben family 1000The whole furry family. You can see that Dark Sword went the extra mile to capture the true scale of Korben the Warrior.

Korben v archer1Real life size comparison of Korben and Archer.

Figures Featured in this Post

Korben the Fighter is available from Dark Sword Miniatures

The test warg is available in Bones plastic, or in metal

Inspector #3 from Heresy Miniatures

Inspector #2 from Heresy Miniatures

Sid the Rock Star from Reaper Miniatures

Painting Figures to Match Art – ReaperCon 2018 Sophie

If you like the work I do on this blog, please consider supporting it via my Patreon or a Ko-fi tip.

We may not always think of it this way, but one of the cool things about our hobby is that it is such a collaborative process. Unless you sculpted the miniature you painted, you are in a sense working with at least one other artist – the sculptor. And they often base their sculpting on a character design drawing or painting, or a concept idea from an art director or game. Often the miniature painter is the last link in a long chain of creativity!

Often we painters choose figures to tell our own stories or purposes and we do not aim to follow along with the colour scheme or characterization concept that the people who made the miniature thought up. It is a lot of fun to just let your imagination run free in bringing a character to life. It can also be fun, and instructive, to paint to match a painting or drawing. One of the most interesting parts of working for miniature manufacturers is the opportunity to do that now and again. But you can give it a try, too! You can paint a figure like this Sophie that I am going to discuss, where you have access to the concept artwork and ‘official’ colours. Or you might find a figure whose pose and characterization kind of reminds you of a piece of favourite art. Even though the figure might not be exactly the same, you can still paint it to try to match the artwork.

Sketch sculpt 800

ReaperCon Sophie 2018 began as a sketch by Izzy “Talin” Collier. The figure was deftly brought to life by Bob Ridolfi, who I think captured both the pose and the mischievous spirit of Reaper’s succubus mascot very well. While Izzy was working on adding colour to the original sketch, she ended up taking it a step farther and drew a whole new piece of artwork showing the same figure in a seated position. Had I world enough and time, I would have loved to be able to try to add some of the new elements like the mask to my conception of the miniature, but alas it was not to be.

What I did have to work to match was the specific colour palette. Painting to match 2D art can be a very interesting and instructive exercise, and I recommend it to anyone looking to stretch their painting skills. One element is simply matching the colours. Picking out or mixing colours to match colours in a picture or photograph is a great exercise for getting to know your paints better and start to learn colour mixing. Before I put any paint on the figure at all, I spent some time testing various mixes of the main colours. I tested shades and highlights, not just the midtone, as these can have a lot of impact on the mood of a piece, and it is preferable to make choices that can be included in several areas to try to create more unity. 

Colour swatches 600Since I was on a tight deadline, I wanted to use premixed colours as much as possible to keep things simple. I didn’t have too much trouble finding colours for some of the areas like skin and hair, but I tested a lot of different blues to see which would best match Talin’s colour artwork. For each of the blues I added a little water to part of the swatches. Often you can better see the intensity of a colour when you thin it down.

Another consideration to make is whether you can, or should, copy the colour scheme of the inspiration art precisely. The inspiration art may not have enough variation in value (lightness and darkness), or the way that the colour scheme works so successfully may depend on elements that are included in the source art but not in the miniature representation of it. For example, you might have art with multiple figures and you’re painting only one. Or even just the effect of the colours in the background can have a lot of impact on your perception of the colours on the figure. Your end goal is to make an effective piece of three dimensional art that captures as much as possible the appearance and spirit of the two dimensional art it’s inspired by, and sometimes you have to make tweaks and choices to accomplish that goal.

In this case, the artwork and figure are pretty closely matched, so I didn’t have to make a lot of tough decisions. But I did still choose to make a few tweaks. The most obvious one is that I added a much stronger directional light effect. That’s something I’ve been working on in general, and which I think helps a 3D piece be a lot more interesting to look at. The second is a lot more more subtle. I’ll put the artwork and figure side by side below so you can see if you can spot it.

Color versions

My change is pretty subtle, don’t feel bad if you missed it! In the seated artwork, Sophie has a goblet of red wine (or is it wine…), she’s seated in a red chair, and there’s some red text over her shoulder. The only element that is red that is part of the sculpted figure is a small gem on the silver bat on her bodice. Have one tiny thing a completely different colour than the rest of the figure is not a good choice to make for strong colour composition. So my choices were to change the colour of the bat, or find ways to add more red. I chose the latter, and used the same reds on her lipstick, blush, and nail polish. In the artwork those are coloured more to match her hair. Very likely I should have painted some of the bracelet elements with reds as in the original art to tie in a bit more red again. Alternatively, I could have chosen exclude all use of the colour red and instead used the green from the flower leaves for the bat’s gem and painted her lips and nails the same colours as in the artwork. Since there were so few areas to work the red into available to me, this might have been the better choice from the point of view of colour composition.

So that’s one quick look at the process of painting to match someone else’s colour scheme/artwork. I’d love to hear about your experiences painting to match artwork in the comments!

ReaperCon Sophie 2018! Sophie is a limited figure. You don’t have to go to ReaperCon to buy one, but she will only be available from Reaper’s website for the duration of the show. (Possibly a little later, but I don’t know for sure, so put the dates into your calendar if you want to be sure to get one – August 29 to September 2 2018.) Go to this site to buy one on those dates: In the meantime, here are more pictures of my painted Sophie.

Sophie18 front 500

Sophie face2 500

Sophie18 back2 500

Sophie18 left 500

Sophie18 right2 500

I usually listen to audiobooks or ‘watch’ streaming programs while I paint. I don’t generally make any attempt to match what I’m hearing to what I’m painting, but I enjoyed the coincidence of listening to some scenes featuring Daes Dae’mar, or the great (and deadly) game of politics in the Wheel of Time series while painting this figure. Sophie is dressed perfectly for noble machinations, and I have no doubt she would be great at the Great Game!

Painting Fur Patterns

If you like the work I do on this blog, please consider supporting it via my Patreon or a Ko-fi tip.

Inspired by painting the figures of my cat that I spoke about in my last post, I thought I would make a post discussing some tips for painting fur on animal figures. (Which is also applicable to painting animal fur patterns on fur cloaks and similar equipment for characters.)

My first tip is to study real world animals or photos of your intended fur patterns. Very often we think we know what something familiar looks like, but discover it is a little different than we thought when we really study it. Look for whether the pattern is clustered in certain areas or randomly distributed, the distance between elements of the patterning, how colouration changes on various parts of the body, all kinds of things. Because we’re painting figures that are quite a bit smaller than life, we may also need to look at areas we can simplify or exaggerate. For example, when I painted the figures of Archer, I tried to put key stripes in areas that match his tabby patterning, but there are fewer stripes on the painted figures than the real Archer because it would be difficult to see the actual number of stripes on a miniature – assuming I could even paint them!

So let’s look at some photos of real animals that I took at the local zoo.

Red panda tail

Red panda face

Tiger stripes2

Often when people paint animal patterns that don’t look very convincing, the issue is that they look like they’ve painted on rather than being part of the creature. This occurs when the edges of the painted patterns are defined with fairly sharp lines. Fur is not a solid surface. Even in short fur, each hair lies at a slightly different angle, and this creates the appearance of a softer line. You can see way the line is broken easily on the fluffy tail of the red panda in the first picture above, but if you look closely, you’ll see that the same kind of thing is happening with the stripes on the short fur of the tiger in the picture directly above.

So how can we make an animal pattern that is actually painted on look more like the way it does in reality? Here are some techniques that I’ve used, some of which can be combined. I hope you’ll give some of these a try and find something that makes painting animals a little easier for you!

This is probably the easiest method, particularly for small patterns or when painting onto smaller sculpts like familiars. Paint one colour of your pattern over the entire area. Since lighter colours are often poorer coverage, I tend to paint the light colour as the base coat. You may also find it easier to do some highlighting and shading at this stage, or other value or colour transitions like going from the darker orange to the light cream on the tiger above. Paint on the darker pattern stripes or spots without worrying about the edges. Mix a glaze (heavily thinned down paint) of your original base coat color. Apply this over the entire area of the pattern. This will soften the appearance of the edges. Unfortunately it also softens the entire pattern. So if you can, reapply a thinned layer of your darker pattern color over the central areas of your stripes or spots.

I used this technique on these two tabby cats.

Waiting cat2 cu

Waiting cat1 cu

Thinned Paint:
Another option is to thin down the paint for your pattern so it is somewhat transluscent. Then when you paint a stripe/spot onto your figure, some of the underlying base coat colour will show through and diffuse the edge a little. Then you will need to apply additional coats of the thinned paint in the centers of your stripes or spots to build up the full intensity of colour that they should have. That is the technique that I used on this harp seal. (For the reference picture of seal stripes that I used when painting this figure, see this site:

Xseal fade back full

Go Between:
A third option is to paint your main coat colour, and then paint your patterning colour with fairly opaque paint. Then mix the two together to create a colour between them. Using the tip of your brush, paint that colour along the edges of your stripes/spots. Or dot the colour along the edges to break up the smooth edge. That is the technique that I used on this cat tail. This is a larger anthropomorphic figure, not a familiar size figure.

Ella tail cu

Jagged Little Edge:
The last option (that I’ve figured out so far!) is to use a dotting motion or move the tip of the brush back and forth a little as you paint to create a line that is a little broken rather than even. This requires a decent amount of brush control, and may be most feasible on larger figures.

Figures shown on this page:

Two of the cats from Edna the Crazy Cat Lady pack:
The seal from the Christmas familiars pack. Not currently available, sometimes available in December:
Ella the Cat Rogue: