Underpainting Grayscale Example: Barglemore and Camille

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Underpainting is using an initial layer of paint to establish some element(s) of a paint job. Zenithal priming is a great example of this – it establishes the direction of the light falling on the figure.  Zenithal priming is just one of many types of underpainting that we can use to improve our painting, however! For the pair of miniatures in this article I used a more traditional greyscale (grisaille) sketch underpainting technique. I think this approach can be much more helpful to creating (and understanding) the necessary contrast on a miniature figure than zenithal priming alone. Another benefit is that it does not require any supplies other than a brush and paint.

Zombie servants front full

Barglemore the zombie butler and Camille the zombie maid are great subjects for the technique. Their clothing is sculpted to resemble the traditional/stereotypical butler and maid uniforms, which are black, white, and shades of grey, and I wanted to paint them that way as well. I wasn’t able to find any freely useable reference images to include in this article, but you will find plenty of examples if you do an image search on ‘butler’ and ‘French maid’. Note that this greyscale sketching technique absolutely works with more colourful figures, I just think the more subdued colour schemes on these zombie servants help demonstrate the principle and application of the technique more clearly.

Value scale bw

Value refers to how light or dark a colour is. Value contrast is the most fundamental type of contrast we can use. Miniature painters tend to think of value contrast as referring to the contrast between the darkest shadows and the lightest highlights. Shadow/highlight contrast is crucial to making miniature figures look fully three dimensional, but there is another type of very useful value contrast – contrast between the values of adjacent areas. This is a strong tool we can use to make figures easier to read for the viewer, especially from a distance. It’s also a valuable tool to creating focus, mood, and conveying story/character. Note that every colour has a value scale, such as navy blue to baby blue. A full value range for blue and yellow would include black and white on the extreme ends of the value scales below.

Valuescale combo

When we are actively painting it is very challenging to juggle all of the elements we need to think about at the same time – choosing colours, selecting the appropriate value for each of those colours, painting sufficient shadow/highlight contrast, depicting the light source correctly – all while trying to create smooth blends or texture strokes with our brushes and paints. To try to do all of that at once is expecting a lot of ourselves, and it’s no wonder we often fail to get all of that right! In my study of traditional art I have found that traditional artists often break these tasks up into separate steps. This allows them to focus on one or two challenges at a time, which makes it more likely to achieve a successful piece. I think adopting a similar approach in miniature painting would be helpful to most of us.

The purpose of starting with an underpainting layer is to separate out a few of our tasks. For example, a zenithal prime underpainting establishes the overall direction of the light and creates areas of light and shadow so we don’t have to constantly stop to visualize where those should be. The greyscale sketch underpainting approach that I use here also establishes the direction of light and the rough range of contrast between shadows and highlights. The difference is that it also establishes the overall value of each area on the figure in comparison to each other area. So on the butler below, each area has some shadows and highlights applied with the direction of the light source in mind, but it also defines the value contrast between areas: the head is very light, the coat is very dark, the pants are somewhere in the middle, and so on. I think of this as mapping out my values over the surface of the figure, so I often refer to it as value mapping. The term value sketch would also apply.

11a sophie18 barglemore blockin frontThe underpainting stage on Barglemore the zombie butler.

I combined my underpainting step with my priming step by using Reaper’s brush-on primers. They’re available in white, black, and gray. I usually mix one or two more shades of grey so I have a value scale of four or five steps including black to white. These are metal figures, so it is necessary to prime them for the paint to adhere well. I live in a fairly humid climate, so I often use brush-on primer instead of spray cans. But if you’ve already spray-primed your figure or you’re working with a Bones plastic figure that doesn’t need priming, you can do this same step with black, white, and grey paints instead of primer.

Maid blockin front 400The underpainting stage on Camille the zombie maid and her ‘feather’ duster.

The underpainting looks rough, and that’s okay! My goal is to establish the big picture of the figure by answering a few questions. Which areas are darker, lighter, or in between? What is the value range between the highlights and the shadows on each area? Where should the main highlights and shadows be placed to establish the light direction I have chosen for the figure? I completely ignore all detail elements like the eyes, buttons on the butler’s vest, edge highlights like around the rips in the cloth, the crevices in between the tiles on the floor, and so on. I just want to make the overall big picture decisions so I don’t have to think about those when I am concentrating to paint tiny details, refine blending, or add textures. It’s easier to get more elements correct if you are only concentrating on one or two at a time.

That said, it may be that some of you look at those photos and feel that my underpainting is actually pretty detailed. Or you might be wondering if you have to address all of those factors at once with underpainting. It is a flexible technique. Just blocking in your basecoats for each area is a form of underpainting that lets you assess your colour and value choices for the figure as a whole. You could rough in just the direction of light and the main areas for highlights and shadows. You don’t even need to try to paint smoothly at all! In the example below, I used only three colours – black, grey, and white. The grey represented the midtone for each area. I painted black in the location of shadows, and white in the location of highlights. When I applied colour paint over the value map I applied it in a similar way. I applied highlight colours over the areas of white, shadow colours over the areas of black, and midtone colours over the areas of grey. (This is kind of a brush painted version of zenithal priming.)

Tara map final front crThis underpainting example does not include establishing values between areas or being at all smooth. It was still helpful to achieving the end result. You can see more steps of how I painted this figure and other forms of underpainting.

Since the next step involves applying paint over the value map, I recommend taking some pictures of your figure at this stage so you can refer back to your value map stage if you need to. You don’t need a fancy camera set up like I use for many of my pictures. Most cellphones made in the past few years take good photos. Pose the figure against a plain background if your camera has trouble focusing, and try to take the picture in a well-lit area.

Butler cellThis cellphone picture is blurry and a little overexposed, but since the value map is not about details, it gives me all the information I need.

 

My next step is to apply coloured paint. Even though these figures are dressed in shades of black, grey, and white, I still painted over the primer with opaque paint colours. Black and white primers are not as dark or light as black and white paints, and they sometimes have a different finish than matte paints. I also wanted greys that were not true neutral greys for the butler’s vest and pants. Both are warmer greys, and the vest has just a hint of purple in the shadows.

For each area I created mixes of paint similar in value to the primer mixes, with a few additional mix steps to allow me to make smoother transitions. When applying the paint, I used the underpainting as a road map for where to apply the various value mixes of the colour. Let’s look at the knee on Barglemore’s left leg as an example. I applied a lighter mix on the top of the knee, and a dark value underneath that, then smoothed the transition line between the two sections as necessary with midtone value mixes.

11 sophie barglemore front combo cr

Once I establish the main highlights and shadows and smooth the blending between them, then at that point I work on the details. For these figures that stage included such tasks as adding highlighting to the edges of the cloth tears and deep shadows within the recesses of the tears, lining around the buttons and other areas, adding detail to the facial features, and painting highlights and shadows into the smaller details of folds and wrinkles on the cloth.

12 sophie camille face combo cr

The front side of Camille demonstrates how the value mapping stage can help – if you remember to follow your map! When working with the black, white, and grey paint/primer colours, the only thing I need to think about is where areas of the figure should look darker or lighter based on my imagined light source. For this figure I pictured the light as coming from the upper right corner and slightly in front of the figure. If you look at the value mapping stage, you can see some nice highlights on the stomach area of the bodice that evoke that light. Unfortunately, I did not follow the map that I had laid down when I applied the final paint colours on top of the primer. I did highlight some wrinkles on the cloth in that area, but in a way that was less interesting and less true to the light source I was trying to evoke.

12 sophie camille front circle

It is also possible to make mistakes during the underpainting stage, or to change your mind about some of the decisions you made. My underpainting of the back side of Barglemore was really quite dull. When I started applying paint over it, I decided I needed to increase the value of the highlights on the folds of cloth to better accentuate the deformity of the shoulder and to just generally add more visual interest. The areas of shadow should probably be a little larger/darker in my final version, but I felt it was better to sacrifice the light direction and dark ambiance a little in this area to better bring out all the lovely sculpted details on the figure.

13 sophie barglemore back cr

Think of an underpainting is a useful road map, not a cage locking you in. You can reinterpret and enhance your vision as necessary when painting your colour paint over the underpainting. The rear view of Camille shows a mix of following the value road map from the underpainting and also making some changes. Overall the values are pretty true to my initial value map – look at the location of the highlights and shadow in the hair, and the bright spots on the elbow and side of the hand on the arm to the right, which are present in both the underpainting stage and the final painted version.

 

 

14 sophie camille back combo cr

I did make two major changes, however. During the painting stage I decided I wanted the skirt to look like more of a gauzy type of fabric, so I painted it as grey instead of black, and applied the highlights with vertical brush strokes to indicate ruffles in order to try to convey that texture. I think the colour switch and additional texture adds a spot of interest that the underpainted sketch lacked. I had painted the stockings more grey than black in the underpainting, and switched to black with hints of transparency during the painting stage. I think this helps keep more focus on the top half of the figure and breaks up the areas in a more visually interesting way.

Related Articles

My article about painting ReaperCon Sophie 2018 provides another example of this process with a more vibrant colour scheme. I used both greyscale and colour value mapping on this Christmas dragon.

The Contrast Series links to all of articles about contrast available on this site, some of which use different methods than that demonstrated here to help you achieve more contrast on your figures.

The How to Paint Faster article explores the idea of starting with a rough colour block-in or sketch to get paint on the figure faster.

My testing colour schemes article is an example of a way to separate out the task of choosing and composing colours before you begin painting, which traditional artists would call doing colour studies.

This short video from Zumikito Miniatures demonstrates three different methods of value sketching and how to proceed from the initial point to a fully painted figure.

 

History and Variations of Underpainting in Miniature Painting and Traditional Art

The underpainting technique that I demonstrated here is the process of blocking in the major areas of dark, light, and midtone using greyscale. This is similar to longstanding traditional art concepts. Value studies and thumbnails are common methods traditional artists use to determine the value composition of a piece as a whole, and they are often done in greyscale.

Traditional underpainting can be fairly roughly applied in order to figure out the big picture values, similar to what I have done on my figures in this article. This type of underpainting is not done only in greyscale (grisaille), however! Artists may use brunaille (browns) or verdaccio (greens), or any other colour. An initial rough sketch layer can also be done in the colours intended for the final piece. Miniature painters often refer to this as sketching. Benjamin Kantor has a video demonstrating greyscale sketching and another demonstrating colour sketching on a bust.

Sergio sketch comboThis is an example of making the initial sketch of hue and value choices and then refining the blending and textures once the painter is satisfied with the colour composition. This figure was painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio during a painting class.

Traditional underpainting, particular grisaille, can also be applied in a much more detailed and complete fashion. Detailed grisaille painting is sometimes also called the dead layer. Painters then glaze transparent colour on top of that, adding additional opaque highlights and making other tweaks as necessary.

Zenithal priming is a form of underpainting popular amongst miniature painters. It can be done with either an airbrush or spray can primers. You begin by priming/painting the entire figure black. Then you spray white from the direction of your light source. Adding a step between the black and white by spraying grey from a roughly 90 degrees can give a more refined result. Alternatively, you might used white paint to smooth areas and paint on the very brightest highlights. The painter Matt DiPietro popularized using the term sketch style for this slightly refined version of zenithal underpainting, though as I mentioned above, some miniature painters have been using the concept and the term sketching for a while now to refer to underpainting in colour and greyscale.

I mention the terms above so that if you’re interested in more information on the traditional use of underpainting or the way miniature painters are incorporating it into their process, you have some starting points for web search terms.

Zombie servants back full

 

Barglemore and Camille Paint Colour Guide

Barglemore and Camille are available in metal. All paints are from Reaper Miniatures. Some of the paints listed may be discontinued or special edition colours and not currently available on the Reaper Miniatures site. The dirt and stains were added with weathering powders.

Skin
Midtones: Ghoul Skin + Tanned Highlight
Highlights: Bloodless Skin + Tanned Highlight, Bloodless Skin, Pure White
Shadows: Ghoul Skin, Twilight Blue, Midnight Blue
Glazes painted in selective areas of skin shadows: 9602 Bruised Purple, 9667 Rattlesnake Leather, Icy Violet + Nightsky Indigo – experiment with dull purples, greens, and blues on zombie skin!

Barglemore’s Black Coat and Camille’s Black Corset
Midtone: Solid Black
Highlights: Dusky Skin Triad
Shadows: Blue Liner

Camille’s Skirt
Midtone: Dusky Skin
Highlights: Dusky Skin Highlight, with a dab of white added to it for brightest highlights
Shadows: Dusky Skin, Dusky Skin Shadow, Solid Black

Barglemore’s Vest
Midtone: Vampiric Shadow
Highlights: Vampiric Skin, Vampiric Highlight, Pure White
Shadows: Stone Grey, Shadowed Stone, Grey Liner

Barglemore’s Pants
Midtone: Stone Grey
Highlights: Vampiric Shadow, Vampiric Skin, Vampiric Highlight
Shadows: Shadowed Stone, Grey Liner

Camille’s Hair
Midtone: Shield Brown
Highlights: Driftwood Brown, Terran Khaki
Shadows: Woodstain Brown, then add a touch of Blue Liner for final highlights

White Accessories (Barglemore’s Ascot, Camille’s Apron and Hat)
Midtone: Creamy Ivory
Highlight: Pure White
Shadow: Terran Khaki

Metal Tray and Buttons
Midtone: Honed Steel
Highlight: Polished Silver
Shadows: Midnight Blue, Blue Liner

Brain
Midtone: Sunburn Flesh
Highlight: Tanned Highlight, Bloodless Skin Highlight, Pure White
Shadows: Bruised Purple

Floor Tiles
Midtone: Chestnut Gold
Highlights: Burnt Orange, Creamy Ivory
Shadows: Woodstain Brown, add Blue Liner for darker shadows

Chicken
Same colours as the floor, with a bit of white mixed into highlight colours.

Floor Marbling
Streaks of colours used on the figures include Ghoul Skin, Sunburn Flesh, Bruised Purple, Twilight Blue, and Midnight Blue

Winter Elf – 12 Days of Reaper

Before I highlight the next of the 12 Days of Reaper miniature that I painted (and my grayscale priming example of it), I’d like to talk about a limited time opportunity to own a very special miniature for a very good cause.

Jason Wiebe is one of the sculpting greats of the miniature industry. He does a lot of work for Reaper Miniatures, but has also worked for Dark Sword and many other companies. He’s suffered some health problems recently that required several major surgeries. He’s on the mend, but now his wallet is hurting badly. Bobby Jackson, another sculpting legend, has created a wonderful dwarf miniature that bears more than a passing resemblance to Jason. Reaper has cast 1000 of these in metal, and Trenchworx is working on some in resin. The metal copies are up for sale right now, and Reaper will put the resins up for sale next week. 100% of all monies received from this miniature will be sent to Jason Wiebe. Hop on over to the Reaper website if you’d like to get a copy for yourself and help out a sculptor in need.

http://www.reapermini.com

Johun rumblegutsJohun Rumbleguts is a proud dwarf, though some of his fellows find him odd for preferring cider over ale.

And now on to the 12 Days of Reaper figure for December 14. This figure premiered as a 12 Days figure last year. Bob Ridolfi did a lovely job with this one. I really enjoyed painting her with a bit of a twist on the traditional colour scheme by making white and blue the dominant colours, and the red, green, and gold accent colours. I won’t lie, the white is a little frustrating to paint at times because it takes quite a while to get smooth shadows on such a pale colour, but I loved the way it looked so much I didn’t mind. I have a small display wall shelf unit in my home, and she just glowed in there even though the light isn’t the greatest in that room.

Winter Elf front

Winter Elf back

This is another figure that I started off with grayscale primer. I used mixes of white, black, and gray brush-on primer to block in my areas of shadows, highlights, and midtones. And as usual, my focus is figuring out the big picture for those things. I’m not worried about blending, and I’m not worried about details. I think the following pictures are a pretty good example of how little I’m worried about those things. I’ve put in the highlights and shadows on her gold bodice piece, but completely ignored the stitching. The top half of her face is bright highlight colour, with no regard for smaller elements like the eyes and eyebrows or her forehead jewelry. And you can see just what I mean about rough blending on the back view.

Winter Elf grayscale back

Winter Elf grayscale front

Here are a couple of additional views of the Winter Elf.

Welf left full

Welf face full

Reaper Miniatures is running their 12 Days of Reaper promotion from December 5  through December 16. During the promo, one special holiday figure of the day is included free with every purchase of $40 or more from the online Reaper site. And for the first time ever, they are making the 12 Days figures available for purchase separately, for two weeks following December 16.

The 12 Days promotion stacks with the promotion to include a free Dungeon Dweller of the month with each $40+ worth of order. So for every $40+ you order at this time, you’ll receive two free metal figures. And if your order totals more than $65, you also receive a Christmas Sampler package that includes Bones miniatures, candy, a postcard with cool art by Talin, and a naughty or nice surprise. There are a fixed amount of Samplers, so those are while supplies last.

Here is the schedule of figures for each of the 12 Days of Reaper. 

12 days promo

The Dungeon Dweller of the month is Caerindra Thistlemoor. I posted pictures and information about her last week, including some work-in-progress shots with lighting reference pictures and some information on how I rough in the lights and shadows. You can read that here: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/12/03/caerindra-thistlemoor-roughing-in-lights-and-shadows/

 

You’ll find the Reaper website here: http://www.reapermini.com/

Dragon and Stocking – 12 Days of Reaper

Next up in the 12 Days of Reaper is a figure brand new this year – the Dragon and Stocking. He is the figure free with $40 purchase for December 10. I love Julie Guthrie’s sculpting on this, he has such a mischievous expression. In my mind he’s not filling up or handing out that stocking, he’s pilfering it for his tiny hoard of Christmas goodies!

Dragon and stocking, front view

Dragon and stocking, face view

Dragon and stocking, back view

Dragon and stocking, second face view

As I have been doing with a lot of figures lately, I started by roughing in my shadows, highlights, and midtones with mixes of grayscale brush-on primers. This allows me to concentrate on where things should be darker and lighter based on my light source as a separate step. I was aiming to paint the light as coming from above and to the left when we’re looking at him in front view. (I discuss this and other approaches to painting with more contrast in this post – https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/10/16/how-to-paint-contrast-hands-on/)

Stocking Dragon grayscale primer front

Stocking Dragon grayscale primer, back

Stocking Dragon grayscale primer left

Stocking Dragon grayscale primer right

My next step is to begin to apply colours over that value map. I work wet in wet drying to make rough blends. So I’ll place a shadow colour in the correct location, then a lighter shadow or midtone next to it trying to blend a little, and then the next lighter colour, etc. Sometimes with a little more back and forth than that. At this stage I am concentrating on the big picture only in considering where things should be lighter or darker over all. Look at the shoulder of the wing and arm on the left side of the front photo as an example, and compare with a a later step and the end result. At this point I’m just blocking in a light colour green for highlights over the entire shoulder and neck area since the light would be falling strongly on that section. I’m not worried about the shallow crevices or the small mounds of individual muscles. And similarly with the shadows that become darker under the shoulder and where the wing is slanted downwards. Since green is a somewhat translucent colour, I needed to do two or three passes of block in to build up the colour.

Stocking Dragon colour block in front

Stocking Dragon colour block in, back

Stocking Dragon colour block in, left

Stocking Dragon colour block in, right

Only once I have those big picture shadows, highlights, and midtones in place do I start to worry about pulling out detail and refining the appearance of the blending on the figure. Compare the shoulder and neck in the following pictures to the ones above. I’ve added additional highlighting on the curves of the small muscles, and a little shading in between the muscles to add definition. And a similar process on the wing. In these photos I’ve just worked on that shoulder/neck/arm area, and the back of the wing. The detail is applied on top of and in a way that supports the big picture shadows and highlights.

Stocking Dragon refining step, front

Stocking Dragon refining step, back

This last set of photos is what the entire green area looked like after I had finished the refining and detailing stage.

Stocking dragon completed greens, front

Stocking Dragon finished greens, back

Stocking Dragon completed greens, face

Stocking Dragon completed greens, right

Hopefully that gives a little insight into the process I’m using when I do a grayscale underpainting in primer.

Reaper Miniatures is running their 12 Days of Reaper promotion from December 5  through December 16. During the promo, one special holiday figure of the day is included free with every purchase of $40 or more from the online Reaper site. And for the first time ever, they are making the 12 Days figures available for purchase separately, for two weeks following December 16.

The 12 Days promotion stacks with the promotion to include a free Dungeon Dweller of the month with each $40+ worth of order. So for every $40+ you order at this time, you’ll receive two free metal figures. And if your order totals more than $65, you also receive a Christmas Sampler package that includes Bones miniatures, candy, a postcard with cool art by Talin, and a naughty or nice surprise. There are a fixed amount of Samplers, so those are while supplies last.

Here is the schedule of figures for each of the 12 Days of Reaper. 

12 days promo

The Dungeon Dweller of the month is Caerindra Thistlemoor. I posted pictures and information about her last week, including some work-in-progress shots with lighting reference pictures and some information on how I rough in the lights and shadows. You can read that here: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/12/03/caerindra-thistlemoor-roughing-in-lights-and-shadows/

 

You’ll find the Reaper website here: http://www.reapermini.com/

Mylk and Cookies – 12 Days of Reaper

Reaper Miniatures has always gone in for holidays in a big way, which is probably why frantic deadline painting has now become one of the ways I celebrate Hallowe’en and Christmas. :-> So to help me get more in the holiday spirit, I’m going to share some pictures of the figures I’ve painted, and some work-in-progress insights.

This year they are once again running their 12 Days of Reaper promotion from December 5 (yesterday as of writing, I missed a day, sorry!) through December 16. During the promo, one special holiday figure of the day is included free with every purchase of $40 or more from the online Reaper site. And for the first time ever, they are making the 12 Days figures available for purchase separately, for two weeks following December 16.

The 12 Days promotion stacks with the promotion to include a free Dungeon Dweller of the month with each $40+ worth of order. So for every $40+ you order at this time, you’ll receive two free metal figures. And if your order totals more than $65, you also receive a Christmas Sampler package that includes Bones miniatures, candy, a postcard with cool art by Talin, and a naughty or nice surprise. There are a fixed amount of Samplers, so those are while supplies last.

Here is the schedule of figures for each of the 12 Days of Reaper. 

12 days promoI painted a number of these figures, and will be trying to upload pictures to my blog on the appropriate days so you can get a better view.

The figure for December 6th is Mylk and Cookies. Mylk is an adorable baby yeti who is just too excited about all these yummy cookies that she’s found. I had a lot of fun painting this, it’s a cute and creative twist on traditional Christmas motifs, sculpted by the incomparable Julie Guthrie.

Mylk and Cookies front

Mylk and Cookies back

I started my experiments with underpainting and grisaille some time last year, and I used that approach with this figure. As usual, my emphasis was on figuring out where to make things lighter and darker. As you can see below, I didn’t worry about details like the eyes or mouth, or shadow lines between each individual cookie or anything like that.

Yeti grisaille front

Yeti grisaille back

The cookie decorations are textures, not just paint. After I painted the cookies plain, I went back and added acrylic medium products to create the decorations. Though if you plan on trying this yourself, it might be just as well to add these touches after or even before priming.

For the poured icing on the stars and trees, I used acrylic modeling paste. Thick acrylic gel medium would also probably work. Experiment with a toothpick and a damp brush and see which you like better. You might use the toothpick to apply and the damp brush to smooth things out. For the decorations on the gingerbread men, I used an even thicker product, Woodland Scenics Water effects. If you get a glob on the end of a toothpick, you can usually pull out a small string of gel. I used these pointed gel strings to ‘draw’ on the stripes and dab on the circular buttons and eyes. Once the acrylic medium product fully cured (which doesn’t take long at all for small things like this), I painted over it with the appropriate colours. I had been dreading painting the decorations, but it was easier and more fun than I had expected. And far less sticky than decorating real cookies!

Unfortunately I do not have any photos of the process of applying or painting the decorations as the deadline was looming by that point. I do have some pictures from before I added the decorations, though, so you can see how much it adds to the final look of the figure. 

Yeti pre front 450

Yeti pre back 450

If you aren’t sure what to buy to get to the minimums for free promotion products, Reaper also has a selection of holiday figures available for sale only at this time of the year, as well as a set of holiday themed paints only available in the set. Some of the colours in that set are definite fan favourites, and others are fairly new, having only been introduced last year.

2018HolidayPromoMarquee960x480

I’ll see you back here in a couple of days with some pictures of an adorable dragon hoard!

Link to Reaper Miniatures: http://www.reapermini.com

How to Paint Contrast – Hands On

If you like the work I do on this blog, please consider supporting it via my Patreon.

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. 

This is the second half of this how to paint contrast article. I highly recommend that you start with the first half.

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 way on 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. Larger versions of these pictures.

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. For more examples and information on other aspects of colour, check out the Anatomy of Colour article.

Grey divider edit

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!

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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.

I have an example of using a reference photo for shadow and highlight placement when painting Ziba the female Efreeti.

I also used reference photos to paint Caerindra Thistlemoor.

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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. 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.

I used a zenithal primed roadmap to help paint Romag Davl.

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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.

My post on painting ReaperCon Sophie 2018 has more details on my value mapping method.

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.

I have additional examples of using this value mapping method on a little Christmas Dragon and Christmas Yeti.

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.

This site demonstrates how even something that looks super sketchy and rough can be valuable to a well-executed end result.

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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 loaded 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 ideas

Examples of using three and four value Notan.

There is an app for that! The app that I mentioned, Notanizer, is available for various operating systems, including Android and iOS and Mac. This site shows you how the app works. 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.

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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. 

Marco Frisoni has a great video of using the technique on a miniature. Try doing a search for ‘grisaille miniature painting’ for more examples. 

You can watch a shorter 2D painting video example of glazing a grisaille underpainting with colour. (Technically this is a brunaille since the value painting is in brown rather than gray, but same idea.)

This page has photos of the process with a relatively simple portrait.

And this is an example using a more complex colour scheme.

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.

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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.) 

Vallejo Paints and FeR Miniatures created a video demonstrating how to block in the shadows and highlights on a face. I wrote a study guide for the video with some additional picture examples and links to the video.

Benjamin Kantor has a terrific video demonstrating sketching in black and white on a bust. He follows it up with a colour sketch video.

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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.

However, it is useful to know that you can also block values in 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.

I used the block in method to paint Baran Blacktree, and there’s an example of it in a PDF I wrote for Reaper. It also includes information on painting lights and shadows to match a directional light source.

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. 

Benjamin Kantor has a video of doing a colour sketch on a bust, though in this case he is applying it over a previous black and white sketch.

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.

You can also read about a traditional art technique of underpainting with colour called the ébauche.  (The videos linked from that page seem to have been taken down unfortunately.)

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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.

Layering is not the only method for blending, although 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.

I haven’t watched a lot of blending videos, but will try to keep my eye out. There are a lot of hands-on videos on the Reaper Miniatures YouTube channel. These include actual classes. There are blending classes in both the ReaperCon 2020 and RVE 2021 Classes playlists. The archive videos of the Reaper Twitch shows also include lots of hands-on demonstrations.

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

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Figures Appearing in this Post:

Dionne, Werewolf Hunter by Hasslefree Miniatures
Wood Elf Goddess Avatar from by Dark Sword Miniatures
Tara the Silent by Reaper Miniatures, special edition figure not currently available. A version of this is in Bones 5.
Unknown figure by Sandra Garrity (possibly an Adiken figure)
Camille from the Barglemore and Camille pack
Deadlands Noir Occult Detective by Reaper available in metal or Bones plastic