How to Paint OSL Better than Me

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What’s up with the clickbait title? I know that not every painter can (nor wants) to duplicate my smooth blending approach. But the key to successful source light (OSL) is not brushwork, it’s choosing the right colours and putting them in the right places. OSL is one of the few paint effects that is more about knowledge than dexterity – you can paint OSL with drybrushing! And you can paint source light effects more striking than what I painted on these two figures.

9party osl chars

I made compromises (and mistakes) in how effectively I painted the source light on the adventuring party. If you read through this guide, you should have the tools you need to paint these or other characters with better OSL than I did. I have written other articles with more information about other aspects of painting the adventure party, including the colour recipes used on each character: overview, halfling fighter, human rogue, dwarf cleric, elf wizard.

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How to Paint Great Source Lighting (OSL)

The art director of Reaper (Ron Hawkins) was excited about the possibilities for painted light effects with this set of figures. The human thief is carrying a torch, and the elf wizard is casting a spell effect. However, since people would first be acquiring these figures as random selections of the individual characters, it was also important that each figure be painted in such a way as to look great on its own. Both of those ideas make sense, so why would painting them be a challenge?

To answer that question, and to understand the keys to painting great OSL, we need to consider how we normally use (or should use) contrast. Contrast is a critical tool in our painter toolbox. We use contrast between different values (light, medium, dark) in highlights and shadows to make figures look more three dimensional. Contrast of values is also a major element to successfully simulating different textures. Shiny objects like metal often have shadows as dark as black and as light as white, while a more matte surface like wool cloth has a smaller range of contrast between its darkest shadows and lightest highlights. Contrasts of different hues of colour and the saturation level of those colours are also useful tools to help define the different areas of the figure, and make it more interesting to look at. These are just a few of the reasons we constantly harp on the need for more contrast in miniature painting.

Let’s look at the following figure as an example. The version on the right has additional value and saturation contrast between the shadows and highlights. The lighter highlights on the hair of the more contrasted version help create the texture of strands and give it a little shine. Lighter highlights on the green material help you better see the shapes – there are wrinkles and folds all along the arms, and a zipper down the front that are not very apparent in the version on the left. Lighter highlights and darker shadows on the red material also definite the shapes of the cloth, but more importantly, better help you see the shapes under the cloth – her legs and stomach look more rounded in the version with more contrast. The more saturated colours in the highlights of the red and the green create stronger contrast between those two complimentary colours and help move your eye around the scene and keep things more interesting to look at.

Dionne before after cr

I have several more examples of figures with less and more contrast that you can study: Victorian lady, tabletop blacksmith, beach beauty digital edit, backwards contrast thief.

The challenge in painting light effects (OSL) is caused by the limitations of paint colour. In life, when we’re looking at something like a candle in a dark room or a blazing sunset, the light has properties beyond its colour. It’s not just colour, it’s… light. Light can be so bright it hurts our eyes. There is no paint that duplicates this effect. All we can do is use the properties of paint to simulate that effect. The best way to create the illusion of light is to do the following:

* Paint the brightest areas of the light itself white, regardless of its overall colour, and do not use pure white elsewhere on the figure.

* Paint areas directly illuminated by the light source with lighter value and higher saturation colours.

* Paint areas in shadow (not directly illuminated by the light) with darker value and duller saturation colours.

But remember what I said earlier? We usually use the colour properties of value, saturation, and hue for lots of other purposes in our painting, including breaking up areas of the figure, simulating textures and surfaces, creating a focal point for the viewer, and making the figure look more three dimensional. The challenge is that it’s difficult to use paint colours for all of that and also create the illusion of light.

When rendering a scene with light effects, whether in two dimensions or three, we have to make decisions about what is more important – the strength of the light effect, or the other needs of the piece. The more you use value and saturation in the same way you would when painting under general lighting, the less powerful your light source will appear. If you want to paint a strong light effect, you need to limit the overall value contrast range used on shadows and highlights to emphasize the contrast between lit and shadowed areas. You also need to reduce the saturation of colours used in the shadowed areas.

To put it another way – when painting areas that are well lit, don’t paint shadows as dark as you should in general lighting, and use higher saturation colours. When painting shadowed areas, don’t paint highlights as light as you should in general lighting, and use lower saturation colours. The end result of painting this way is quite visually striking when the piece is viewed as a whole. However, depending on the location of the light source, it is likely that there will be view angles or portions of the figure that look kind of dull or are less visually distinct because they don’t have the same level of contrast as they normally would.

Here’s a figure painted with source lighting that demonstrates the effect of the constraints. To make it look as though areas of the figure are being lit by the candle, I had to paint those areas mostly with light values, and paint areas that are in shadow mostly with dark values. If you look just at the shadow areas on the back, there’s a very small range of contrast, with the darkest areas being effectively black, and the lightest areas being dark grey. On its own this would be way too little contrast. But put this adjacent to the areas painted in light colours, and it is the key to creating the illusion that the candle is casting light.

Xm past combo cr

Note that these colour choices have reduced the definition of some of the shapes on the figure. Look at the dress. There are a few folds on the sleeves where the light colour is on the top of the fold and the dark colour is underneath, and those are very well defined in shape, as well as dramatic to look at. Compare those with the folds only in the light areas, or only in the dark areas. In the bright light area, you can’t really see that Bob Ridolfi has sculpted the cloth to drape over the arm holding the candle in such a way that you can ‘see’ the shape of the arm underneath the cloth. In the back view, the folds of the skirt and shadowed sleeve don’t look nearly as large or dramatic as they are on the sculpt, because I have painted so little contrast between the shadows in the depths and the highlights on the peaks.

It is also very helpful to pose source lighting figures against a dark background for maximum effect. I used a photo taken on a more neutral background for the explanation above because I think the colours and values are more accurate to the painted figure, and I want you to be able to see those as well as possible for the purpose of this article. In the picture below, you can see the same figure posed on a black background. The other two figures in the picture were painted using the more typical soft light from above lighting scenario. If you study these figures you can compare the differences in how I used value and saturation in the typical lighting scenario versus the source light scenario. The light effect is very eye catching, but you see less information overall about the various areas and colours of the figure than with the other two.

Xm ghosts bk full

If you want to paint OSL with a really strong light effect, I think it’s helpful to think of the areas in light and those in shadow of as two different distinct things. For example, rather than thinking of ’the shirt’, think of the area of the shirt in light, and the area of the shirt in shadow as two distinct areas. Paint each section with a compressed value range compared to what you would (and should) use when painting a figure to appear as if lit by normal diffuse/from above lighting. You can enhance the effect even more by choosing more intensely saturated colours for the light areas, and making the shadow area colours duller as well as darker. Often I will use the same paints for both areas, but mix a dark dull blue or purple colour into each colour I use on the light side to create the shadow side colour mixes.

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Note that the OSL colours on the bottom vary in saturation, not just in value. The colours for the light side are more intense blues, and those for the dark side are duller blues.

You can see an example of this in practice in my article used on how I painted the figure holding a candle, which includes a picture of the palette colours used to paint the dress.

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Adventure Party Source Light

Okay great, so how does all of that theory relate to that adventuring party I painted? Ron wanted OSL. Two of the figures have light sources, and I just told you the ‘secret’ to painting effective OSL. So what’s the problem? Ron also told me he wanted each figure to look good on its own. When the figures are in group formation, the dwarf cleric is somewhat illuminated by the light sources, but there is not much light light falling on the natural focus of the figure – her face. There also isn’t much light on the front of the figure in general. There is even less light falling on the halfling fighter. All of the light sources are behind him. If I painted the figures to achieve the most dramatic OSL effect, the fighter’s face and the front of his body would be dark and dull. In addition to looking kind of boring, there would be no context as to why he looked like that in the pictures of him as a standalone figure.

2party prime2

As I described in my first post about these figures, I used primer to create a reference for the areas that would be lit by the in-scene light sources. I primed all of the figures black. For the last step of priming, I arranged the figures together in their tableau. I sprayed bright white ink through my airbrush from the direction of the two light sources. This allowed me to see which areas would be receiving a lot of light from the light sources. This is all I would have done if I wanted to paint a very dramatic light effect.

Note that you don’t have to have an airbrush to do this type of thing! You can instead use a single small bulb light to take similar reference photos. This is the first lighting effect I’ve painted with figures primed in this manner, usually I use lighting reference photos. I did find that the primer helped me avoid the cognitive dissonance I experienced when painting the figure holding a candle.

2party prime1

Since these figures also needed to look good viewed individually, I needed to paint the figures as if there were a decent amount of ambient light in addition to the in-scene light sources. So I added a step between the black primer and bright white paint. After the black, I used the airbrush to apply dark grey primer from above on each figure, in the zenithal priming fashion. This gave me the information I would need for where the ambient light would create areas with more or less light. Then I assembled the group and applied the white paint to identify the areas lit by the in-scene light sources.

2party prime5

Below is a series of photos where you can compare the primed figures to the final painted versions. I’ve converted the photos to black and white to make it easier to see differences in value between the two.

9party prime face bw cw

Note that while this priming technique provides an excellent overall feeling for the location of light and shadow, it does not take into account the way different textures and materials appear, and how they react to light – matte cloth versus somewhat shiny leather versus reflective metal. To best evoke the qualities of those materials requires the painter to use the primer (or lighting reference photos) as a guide, but to then extrapolate and tweak value ranges and value placement to match various types of materials. For example, if you compare the areas I painted as metal on the figures to the photos of the primer stage, you’ll see a number of differences in where the lightest and darkest colours are placed because I was trying to simulate the reflective appearance of metal.

These photos also demonstrate that I missed some opportunities to enhance the light effect. I could have used much stronger highlighting on the back of the helmet and backpack flap of the halfling fighter. I should have had much stronger highlights on the lit portion of the human rogue’s hair. It’s can be challenging to see value correctly in many colours, and the orange and red glazes added on top to create the colour of the light also darkened everything a little, which is important to keep in mind if you use glazes to add hints of the colour of the light to the lit areas.

9party prime right bw cw

Using your own judgement as a painter is also important. Even had I been painting this scene as a much stronger light effect, I would still make judgements about making some parts a little lighter or darker. In this case, I would have painted the sides of the faces pointed towards the light in a lighter value on both the wizard and the rogue, even though they don’t show a lot of light in the primer reference photos. There may also be areas that should be receiving light that may not have received much white paint due to being awkward to reach with the airbrush. One example is the arm of the rogue that is holding the torch. Her arm is the closest object to the torchlight, and would appear lighter than it ended up in the primer photos, so I painted it accordingly.

9party prime back bw cw

To make these figures look more interesting when viewed apart from the group, I extended the contrast value range of the areas that were not receiving much light from the in-scene light sources. This is particularly true on the halfling fighter and the dward cleric. Compare the cleric sabatons and the halfling’s green clothing in the primer photos above.  You can see details in the final versions that you cannot in the primer versions. Painting those areas darker and less distinct would have strengthened the light effect, but made those individual figures less interesting to look at.

I digitally edited one of my photos to help give you an idea of how the tableau might look if I had painted it with a stronger light effect. I increased the saturation in the areas receiving light. I decreased both the value and the saturation of areas that should appear in shadow. My digital editing skills are pretty rudimentary, but hopefully this gives you an idea of how the scene might look if only the torch and the spell effect were illuminating the gloomy dungeon scene.

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Here’s a comparison with the original:

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And converted to greyscale:

9party dig edit comp bw cw

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More Examples of Painting Light

I’m going to compare some 2D paintings to further illustration how colour use differs in well-lit versus source lit scenarios, and then show you some terrific examples of OSL miniatures.

Judith Leyster was a Dutch Golden Age painter. Many painters of this time period focused on painting scenes with dramatic lighting, a continuation of the interest in chiaroscuro that began in the Renaissance. These painters also lived in a time when interiors were lit only by daylight, candles, and lamps, so I think their paintings are a good example of the kind of pre-Industrial lighting that would be seen in a fantasy/steampunk world. I’m going to compare the value range of two of Leyster’s paintings that depict bright daylight lighting (top), and two painted with with interior source light style lighting (bottom).

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These images are from Wikipedia, and you can see large scale copies of them on Leyster’s paintings page.

The scene of the Jolly Topper is well lit, suggesting that the figure is facing one or more windows. The skin overall is a lighter skin tone, but as you can see in the colour samples from the painting, the darkest shadows are close to black. These are sparingly applied in areas where the face turns away from the light. Likewise, the clothing of the figure is a somewhat dark grey in value overall, but in a few spots the highlights on wrinkles of cloth are close to white. (This painting is also a good example of why you should use more contrast in highlights and shadows in regular lighting than miniature painters often think we need!)

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The painting Two Children with a Cat depicts a scene of even brighter daylight. Perhaps the children are sitting outside in front of a building on a bright sunny day. The child holding the cat has very pale skin and is facing directly into the light, but note that areas of his skin facing away from the light still have strong dark shadows. The child wears a jacket of a golden brown colour. Although it is a fairly matte cloth, the shadows are close to black, and there are a few spots of fairly pale highlights. 

IMG 0050(For the sake of my sanity I’m going to assume a supervising adult rescued the cat soon after the moment depicted in this painting…)

In both of the daylight paintings, Leyster has used a fairly broad value range from light to dark to paint the various materials in the painting. Let’s compare those to the paintings with interior light sources.

In The Proposition, Leyster has used two different value ranges for each material depending on whether it is being lit by the lamp or is on the shadow side. Although the wrinkles in the white shirt appear to have fairly deep peaks and valleys, the value range of the material is compressed – it is painted with mostly light values on the lit side, and mostly dark values on the shadow side. Combined together they create the overall impression of light coming from the lamp. The contrast is even more apparent on the skirt. The fabric falling across her lap is being lit by the lamp, and is painted mostly light in value. (There is a dark shadow line in this area next to a particularly tall fold of cloth.) The side of the skirt that is in shadow is painted in variations of dark grey, with very little detail of wrinkles and folds apparent. Leyster creates the strong sense of light by sacrificing some details in the most well lit and the most deeply shadowed areas. (Which is also accurate to how our eyes perceive objects in super strong and very dim lighting.)

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The last painting is The Serenade. Here the light source is ‘off screen’, and the overall dimness of the lighting suggests the musician is sitting a little further away from the light source than the figures above. Compare the two cuffs. If you were not seeing those within the context of the painting, you would say the sets of colours used to paint them depict two completely different objects. The viewer might not perceive it consciously, but within the context of the painting, the viewer understands that both of the cuffs are white or cream in colour, but one appears much darker because it is further away from the light. To paint light effects successfully, we need to be conscious of this. We have the impression that there is light coming from the left side of the painting because objects on the left are painted with lighter colours, and objects on the right are painted with a smaller value range of darker colours.

Study the collar for a similar example. There’s no actual white used on any of it, and the side of the collar furthest from the light is painted in dark greys, but you as a viewer understand it to be white from the overall context of the painting.

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The values and saturation of the colours Leyster uses in all of these paintings are what create the impression of the different kinds of lighting, And we can do the exact same thing on miniatures.

David Colwell is a highly skilled painter who regularly explores painting light. I recommend following him if you’re interested in OSL or just more dramatic lighting of miniatures in general. Below is one of his pieces, Seeking Refuge. The light source isn’t part of the scene, but she’s been painted as if there is a light just off screen above and to one side. This is also a great example of a light source that is cool and not strongly coloured compared to the warmer orange/red light often used for OSL. Cool light colours work too!

David colwell seeking refuge frontPainted by David Colwell.
Observe how the light appears brightest in the upper left, and much softer further down and to the right. David is using values of paint to convey this impression.

David colwell seeking refuge backPainted by David Colwell.
Note how dark the back view is! It takes courage as well as skill to be willing to paint like this in the dark areas in order to make the light areas appear lit.

Mephiston: Revenant Crusade was painted by the very talented Erik Swinson, and if you look at his page you’ll see he’s explored light on others of his painted figures. Mephiston was sculpted by Joaquin Palacios, based on concept art  by Lie Setiawan. This piece was an entry in the Golden Demon Chicago 2022 contest, and placed Gold in the Open category. I’d love to see the back view, but judging from the front alone, Erik intended to paint a slightly less extreme version of light than in the David Colwell piece above. Mephiston’s sword appears on fire and if it is casting light, but Erik has used a little more value contrast in the areas receiving less light so you can still see a lot of detail and form. Note that there is still a wide level of contrast between the darks and lights, however! And Erik has painted very dark shadows, even on objects that are meant to be perceived as lighter in value. Look at the shadowed areas of the hair and skin. Both are very dark, but because of Erik’s overall use of value, hue, and saturation, we still read the hair and face as suitably pale and deathly.

Erik swinson revenant crusadePainted by Erik Swinson.
Winner of Gold in Open category at Golden Demon Chicago 2022.

At the beginning of this article, I said that painting OSL is more about colour use than super fancy brushwork. These next two examples were painted in 2001 and 2003, a somewhat simpler time in the hobby of miniature painting. Also, in contrast to the two pieces shown above, these scenes use gaming scale figures. Both were painted by talented painter and sculptor Victoria Lamb, of Victoria Miniatures. I don’t know if she was the first person to paint OSL on miniatures, but I’m not alone in considering The Rescue of Saint Joan one of the first really iconic OSL figures in the miniature world. Victoria’s work blew our minds back then, and it still demonstrates of how deft use of value and saturation can create the illusion of light! It is not really a surprise to learn that Victoria Lamb is a skilled theatre set designer.

Victoria rescue of sister joanPainted by Victoria Lamb.

The Rescue of Sister Joan won the Slayer Sword (best in show) of Golden Demon Australia 2001. The background is the key element to conveying the OSL in this scene. The area of the wall reflecting light from the torch is more saturated and lighter in value than areas further away from it. That OSL effect is not really carried through to the figures, but the scene and action are so strong that it still works. And Victoria was just getting started. She painted the duel scene Fiery Angel for Golden Demon Australia 2003.

Victoria fiery angelPainted by Victoria Lamb.
Winner of Bronze demon in the Duel category at Golden Demon Australia 2003.

Here’s a look at Fiery Angel on a grey background.

Victoria lamb fiery angel greyPainted by Victoria Lamb.

Victoria also painted this diorama scene for George R. R. Martin’s extensive miniature collection. I do not know the year this one was painted.

Victoria lamb grrPainted by Victoria Lamb.

And here is another one of my much more humble efforts. I think the way I contrasted saturation of the shadow versus the light areas is effective, but I could have pushed the value contrast even more and gone darker in the shadow areas for a more dramatic light effect.

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Miniatures Featured in this Article

Dionne is available in metal from Hasslefree Miniatures.

The three Christmas Ghosts are special edition holiday miniatures. They sometimes made available are to purchase or as a gift with purchase in late November and/or early December from the Reaper website

The adventure party figures and a dungeon dwelling goblin are teasers for Reaper’s Bones 6 Kickstarter: Tales from the Green Griffin, which is running until the end of April. A random selection of one of the five figures is still being added to most Reaper Miniatures orders. One of the five was included in the swag bags for AdeptiCon, and there may be other giveaway opportunities where you can obtain one or more of these figures. If you are interested in these figures but are not able to receive a free one, or you’d like to ensure you get all of them, they are included in the Kickstarter core pledge level. I expect that they will go into retail sales channels at some point after the Kickstarter pledges have been fulfilled, but it will be several years until that happens.

Seeking Refuge is a larger scale resin bust available from Robot Rocket Miniatures.

Mephiston: Revenant Crusade is a scratch sculpted figure and not available for purchase. Other versions of Mephiston are sold by Games Workshop.

The figures in the first two Victoria Lamb scenes are out of production Games Workshop figures. I’m not very familiar with the line so I don’t know the exact names, sorry.

The figures in the diorama for George R. R. Martin are from Dark Sword MiniaturesGeorge R. R. Martin Masterworks line – Stannis Baratheon, and a converted Melisandre.

Bourbon Street Sophie is currently available in metal. A Bones plastic version is available in the Core pledge of the Bones 6 Kickstarter, and should come to retail within a few years of Kickstarter fulfillment.

Face Highlights and Darker Skin Tones

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 In this article I outline where to place highlights when painting faces on miniature figures. This information is applicable to all skin tones, but since highlights are the key to painting great looking faces with darker skin tones, my examples focus on those. I am also including recipes and suggested paint colours you can use to paint darker skin tones. I discussed where to paint shadows on faces, and the importance of shadows to faces, particularly with lighter skin tones, in a previous article. I recommend reading that article first, as it has additional information on lighting and contrast that is relevant to painting all faces.

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There are videos that accompany this article, since I did the bulk of the painting on some demonstration figures on my Beyond the Kit stream on the Reaper Miniatures Twitch channel. In this video, I discuss the specific challenges of painting darker skin tones and demonstrate a cool and a warm dark skin tone recipe on female faces. I painted an example of a slightly cool dark skin tone on a male face in this earlier video, but there were some technical difficulties.

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Highlights on Faces

The typical lighting scenario for a painted miniature is that the light is coming from above (the sun, ceiling lights) or from above and to one side (the sun, gas lights on walls, street lights). The locations where shadows fall on faces are pretty consistent. While shadow location is affected by the location of the light and the position of the head, the overall placement guidelines hold true unless either the light direction or head position is shifted to a fairly extreme degree. 

As an overall guide for where to paint highlights, areas appear lighter in value (have highlights) where the light shines more brightly on them. This includes areas that are located higher on the face and thus closer to the light, like the forehead and the tops of the cheekbones. Areas which protrude outwards from the main mass of the face also receive more light, like the nose, the lower lip, and often the top of the chin.

That guideline is all you need as a beginner or for quick paints of gaming scale figures. If you are aiming to paint a display quality figure or are painting a larger scale figure, there is a bit more nuance to highlights, because our skin is a little shiny. Human skin has a natural sheen to it due to our skin oils. Strong emotion and physical activity make us sweat and adds to that sheen, which is particularly apparent on the face.

We can visually distinguish the matte appearance of wool cloth from the sheen of human skin from the extreme reflectivity of chrome. Whether or not we are consciously aware of it, we identify these surface textures based on the appearance of shadows, midtones, and highlights on the surface of items The way the highlights on a surface look influences whether we perceive it as shiny or matte. The value range between the darkest shadows and the lightest highlights on a shiny surface is much more dramatic than on a matte surface. A shiny surface also has a lighter highlight/reflection. The transition area between the shadow/midtone on a shiny surface is more abrupt, and the bright highlight/reflection appears in a smaller area.

Hardesty skin texturesThese texture exercises were painted by Jonathan Hardesty. Compare the two skin examples in the middle to the other two spheres. The skin spheres are not as shiny as the material on the right, but they have elements in common, including a bright highlight of reflected light. Jonathan Hardest has made a study of textures. He has several skin texture study videos on YouTube. He teaches a textures class on Schoolism, and occasionally paints live on Twitch.

For a variety of reasons, this is a very brief overview of the properties of shiny materials. The reason I’m mentioning it at all is because the shininess of a surface affects where the highlights are located as well as how bright they are. If your imagined light source is coming from a different direction than above, the location of the highlights shifts towards the direction of the light. If the head is tilted to one side, the highlights also shift towards the direction of the light. Shadows are affected by both of these factors as well, but to a lesser degree.

Lighting combo crThe direction of the light changes which areas appear shadowed or well-lit. Notice how the shift in the location of the highlights is more dramatic. There are some areas that remain shadowed in all three lighting scenarios.

If your lighting situation or the position of your model is more complex, remember that you can create your own reference photos to identify the location of shadows and highlights on your figure! Use a single bulb lamp to simulate larger light sources like the sun or distant lights, or a small single point light source to simulate something like a candle or torch.

To sum up, here are some short guidelines for painting highlights on faces:

1. Don’t be afraid of painting strong highlights on faces, it looks natural because our skin is a little shiny.

2. Confine the brightest highlights to very small areas if you can.

3. Start with the guidelines for highlight placement outlined below. If your light source is coming from a direction other than above, shift the highlights on the specific miniature you’re painting towards the direction of where the light is coming from.

Faces angles crThe figure on the left is looking straight forward as if standing under light from above, like sunlight. The light is coming from above and to the left of the centre figure, and she has her head tilted, so one side of her face is lit and one side is shadowed. The light is coming from above and to the right of the figure on the right, and her head is slightly tilted, so one side of her face has a lot more highlights than the other.

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Guidelines for Highlights Placement


If you ignore the features, the human head is shaped like an egg. Or you can think of the upper half of the head as a sphere. Either way, the top of the head is the dome of a spherical object. In standard lighting you will see a circular highlight in the centre and near the top of the forehead. If the head is bald, the circle may appear a little higher. (A similar circle will be visible on the back of a bald head.) If the head is tilted, or if half of the forehead is obscured by hair/hat/hood, the circular highlight will appear shifted towards the direction of the light.

Faces forehead crBoth of these figures have hair hanging over their foreheads on the right side, so the placement of the highlight is shifted to the left.

Brow Ridge

The brow ridge can be fairly prominent, especially on male characters. Often the brow ridge is covered by sculpted eyebrows, but depending on the severity of the slope and location of the eyebrows, there may be some highlights above the brow ridge.

Quinn face 300This figure has prominent brow ridge, so I added highlights above his eyebrows. I painted this several years ago, if I were to paint it today I would have added small and lighter value highlights on the bulb of his nose and on top of his cheekbones.


The cheekbones protrude slightly from the face and are located higher up on the face, so the tops of the cheekbones often catch a lot of light and appear strongly highlighted. If the light is directional or the face is tilted, one cheekbone may receive more light than the other. (You can see a few examples in the photos in the previous section.) For gaming scale characters I place the highlight just under the character’s eyes. The strong contrast between the dark eye lining and light cheekbone highlights draws the viewer’s eye to the face, which is almost always an important focal point of the figure or scene. If you are painting a larger scale figure or a bust, study some high quality reference photos of faces like those included below – the placement of areas of light under the eyes and on top of the cheekbones is more nuanced than that.


The nose protrudes out from the egg shape of the face, so it catches quite a bit of light. I use moderate highlights on the upper plane of the nose slope. I apply bright highlights in a circle on the bulb at the end of the nose. If the sculpt accommodates, I highlight the wings over the nostrils, but not with the lightest highlights. If the nose is tilted, the line of highlight along the slope of the nose shifts towards the direction of the light, and the wing over the nostril further away from the light is less highlighted.


Humans do not have the prominent muzzle of many animals, but the overall area of the mouth protrudes slightly from the face. On many people the area of skin between the nose and the upper lip slants outward from the face, and receives more light. However this area is lower down the face, and it does not protrude significantly, so I use moderate highlights at most. Occasionally highlighting the area between the nose and lip on a female figure can kind of look weird and give a bit of a moustache effect. If you have painted this area on a female gaming scale figure and find that something looks a little off, try painting the midtone of the face over it and see if that helps.

The lower lip protrudes outwards. Because the lips are often a little moist, there can be a fairly strong reflection highlight on the lower lip. For a natural lip, paint the highlight a little lighter than the brightest highlights on the rest of the face. If the person is wearing shiny lipstick, the highlights can be close to white.

Tara face full cu2This figure is representative of the typical highlight locations. She is looking straight ahead and was painted as if standing under an overhead diffuse light source. She has a highlight on the top of her forehead bulge, on top of her cheekbones, tip of her nose, and just a little bit of highlighting on the upper lip and chin.


The chin is often a sphere or egg shape that protrudes out from the face. The top of the chin usually has a highlight. If the light is directional or the face is tilted to the side, the location of the highlight will shift towards the light. However, look at a face in profile. The chin extends roughly as far out as the forehead, but it is lower down on the face, and so receives less light. I usually paint some highlights on the top of the chin, but I do not paint these with as light a value as I will use on the forehead, tops of the cheekbones, or the end of the nose. The chin can vary with the sculpt, so if the sculpt has a prominent chin I may add more highlights, or less if the chin appears inset, as is the case with the female face I painted for dark skin demonstrations below. The chin also needs less highlighting if the face is tilted downwards.


The jawline is the line of bone from the chin to the side of the face. A prominent jawbone is considered a masculine characteristic. I rarely highlight this area on female faces. If the face is tilted to one side the jawline on the side facing the light might need a little bit of highlighting. Even on male characters I generally only apply a little highlighting to this area. The jawline is surrounded by the shadow of the cheek hollow above, and the under chin area below. It should appear lighter than both of these, but often just the midtone skin value or slightly lighter in value is all that is required to make it appear so. It may appear more highlighted in reference photos or miniatures you study than it actually is because of the darkness of the areas around it.

In the Where to Shade Faces article I shared some examples of repainted dolls heads to demonstrate the effectiveness of adding shadows. I found a photo of dolls heads taken with fairly flat lighting, and digitally edited them to add highlights. The top photo is the original. The middle has a modest amount of highlights, and the bottom one has a higher level of highlight/shadow contrast. The bottom edit is the minimum level of highlight/shadow contrast I would recommend for a dark skin tone. There are reference photos of real people further in this article. I have isolated colours of various values and hues beside each picture so can see just how much contrast there is between the lightest highlights and darkest shadows.


IMG 1332

IMG 1337

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Colour Variation, Makeup, and Features

Detailed information on painting the eyes and mouth is beyond the scope of this article. For the demonstration figures, I painted the lips with the same colours used on the rest of the skin. Most people have more colour variation than that in their lips, but using the same colours as the rest of the skin often works well for gaming scale masculine figures. For a more feminine lip, add some red or pink and use more contrast, even if you’re not going for a shiny lipstick appearance. Other areas of the body may have colour variations, like the ears, the palms of the hands, and soles of the feet. Hopefully I’ll be able to delve into skin variation in more detail at some point in the future, but you should be able to look at reference photos of people to get ideas. For gaming scale figures it will likely not look odd if you use one overall skin tone for all of the figure.

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Dark Skin: Highlights are the Key

Highlights are the key to painting faces with dark skin that look vibrant, realistic, and interesting. Strong highlight/shadow contrast is always desirable in miniature painting. Even in fairly even lighting conditions, the range of contrast on a face with dark skin between the darkest shadows and the brightest reflection highlights is quite large, due to the natural sheen of skin. You can see examples of that in the following reference photos.

IMG 1338Photo by Ema Studios on Unsplash.

IMG 1340Photo by Naeim Jafari on Unsplash.

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Technical Challenges of Painting Dark Skin

Painting an attractive and realistic looking dark skin tone can be challenging. To maintain the overall dark tone of the skin you need to confine the light highlights to small surface areas. If they expand over too wide an area, as often happens when we are working on the technical challenge of painting smooth blends, the overall colour of the skin tone becomes lighter than you intended. To appear dark, at least 60-70% of the area of the surface needs to be painted with the midtone or shadow colours. Gaming scale miniatures are small objects. To paint bright highlights, blend them out smoothly, and also keep them confined to as small a surface area as possible can be quite challenging! The good news is that you will get better and better the more you practice challenging tasks like this.

The photos below are the demonstration figures I painted on stream. This first one shows how the faces appeared at the end of my streaming sessions. You can see that the blending is a little rough, and the highlights aren’t quite light enough. I find it very challenging to paint fine detail on stream. Attempting to keep the miniature in the viewing area, describe what I’m doing, do it well, and keep an eye on the chat for questions taxes the limits of both my eyes and brain!

Ds group before cr

After the stream concluded I did some touch ups on these faces. I used the same colour mixes, and I focused on two tasks: confining the highlights to small areas of the face, and trying to blend everything out as smoothly as possible. I stippled dots and fine lines over the transition lines to soften them. I painted basic lips and eyes and painted the hair black so you can get an idea of how the faces would look in the context of an overall figure.

Ds group after crThe highlights of the warmer skin tone on the left cover a little too much area, and it has lightened up the overall value of her skin compared to the version from right after the stream above.

I often paint dark colours in a similar way – I start with the darkest colour and work up through my lighter colour layer mixes applying highlights. I concentrate on trying to place these in the correct places and with an appropriate amount of contrast. Then I work back down though the layer mixes from lightest to darkest. As I paint back down through the value mixes I’m trying to tighten up the size of the highlights and smooth out the blending. 

I chose figures with larger faces in hopes of making it easier for people to see what I was doing on the video, but you may also find it easier to practice on larger faces. The male is a halfling character, but has a larger face. This is true of many gnome, dwarf, and halfling characters. You can see a comparison with some human gaming scale figures below.

Face practice

In the photo below, I’ve painted out swatches of the value mixes I used on each of the demonstration faces. Note that other painters who use the layering method might use fewer steps but thin their paint more, and there are other methods to apply paint than layering. Regardless of how you apply the paint, the key is to keep those highlights small but high contrast! I have more paint colour suggestions for dark faces in the next section of this article.

Ds recipes full crThe recipe for the cool female face is on the left, the male face in the centre, and the warm female face on the right. I’ve added the product numbers of the Reaper paints I used next to the appropriate swatches.

I’m not sure there’s a feasible way to paint something that looks similar with quick paint techniques like drybrushing and washes. It is difficult to apply these techniques with the kind of precision you need to keep the highlights confined to small areas. Using drybrushing to apply highlights will likely mean that the highlights are applied to a larger surface area and the face overall will appear lighter in value. If you’re comfortable applying washes in targeted areas (which is essentially the layering technique but using more transparent glaze consistency paint), you could start with the light value of your highlights and then use layers of semi-transparent paint to darken the midtone and shadow areas considerably. Applying an overall wash will either not be dark enough for the shadows, or would darken the highlights too much.

You can see some of these issues with these figures I painted for the Bones 5 Learn to Paint Kit. I used only three drybrush steps to keep my instructions accessible to novice painters. The value difference between the deepest shadows and lightest highlights is too low to bring out the features of the face, so these faces don’t stand out well at arm’s length view or on the tabletop. Had I drybrushed a few additional lighter value steps, the faces overall would look lighter in value than I wanted since I wouldn’t be able to confine those light highlights to very small areas. 

Faces ltpk

Faces db vs layer crThe version on the left was painted with layering, and the one on the right with drybrushing and washes. (While I aimed for a similar value skin tone, these skin tones are also different colour palettes.)

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Dark Skin Paint Colour Choices

If we look at the reference photos of people with dark skin in this article, you can see a wide range of skin tones. And this is just a small sample of what you might see on real world people! You should be able to find many more examples through a web search or via the photo sites I use to find reference photos for these articles. (Unsplash, Pexels, Morguefile)

One variation in skin tones will be in the value range of colour. Dark skin tones can range from very dark in overall value to moderate or even fairly light in overall value. Another variation is the overall colour temperature of the skin. Some people might have a very warm colour skin tone with a lot of orange or yellow apparent in the highlights of their skin. Others may have a much cooler skin tone with highlights that appear a little grey, purple, or pink. The colour cast of photographs/light temperature also factors into this.

IMG 1342 2Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash.

IMG 1343 2Photo by Olawale Munna on Unsplash.

IMG 1344 2Photo by Wadi Lissa on Unsplash.

One of the strengths of the Reaper Miniatures paint lines is the wide variety of skin tone paints available. Reaper has paints specifically designed to emulate the appearance of real world skin tones, and I used several of these on my demonstration figures. If you have not yet tried their paints and you’re wondering what to try, some skin tones would be a great place to start.

If you use other brands that do not have paints that are obviously intended to be used to paint darker skin tones, do not despair. Human skin tones are basically variations of browns and tans, and every miniature paint line has some of those! They won’t all be suitable to paint human skin, but many will.  You can also try mixing a little of a middle value skin tone into a darker brown paint colour to create your own custom mixes.

I painted swatches of some paints suitable to paint dark skin into a chart that I have included below. The chart is organized in two different ways. The darkest paints are on the left, moderately dark paints in the middle, and the paints for the lightest highlights (or that you can use to mix lighter highlights) are on the right.

The paints are organized top to bottom to reflect their colour temperature. The cooler colours are at the top, and the warmest colours are at the bottom. You can pick a spot on the chart and use colours to the left of it to shade and those to the right of it to highlight. You can use the furthest left paints as a starting midtone for a very dark skin, and then use black for the darkest shadows. (Or a contrasting colour, which I’ll discuss more below.)

Since I recently reorganized my paints, I am including colours from two brands in addition to Reaper. Paint numbers that start with P are Privateer Press P3 paints. Those that start with N are Nocturna N-Paints. If you don’t have any of the brands on the chart, you can print it out and test swatches of paints that you do have (or custom mixes) against the colours to find the closest colours in your collection.

Ds paints full cr

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Adding Creative Colours to Dark Skin Tones

One of the really fun things about painting darker colour skin tones is that you can really get creative with colours.Scroll back up through this article and look at the colours I isolated from the reference photos. Some of them are pretty saturated oranges and pinks! I often paint slightly thinned down glazes of bold colours into the shadows of dark skin. I used a rich purple colour in the shadow areas of my cool temperature dark skin demonstration. I used a saturated teal colour in the shadows of the warm temperature skin example. Using a contrasting colour/temperature in the shadows can add depth to the shadows and pop the highlights even more. I often add thin glazes of other colours (purple or green most commonly) to medium or somewhat fair skin tones as well, but it’s a little trickier to do than with darker skin tones. I have to thin the colour down a lot more and proceed carefully.

Faces with dark skin tones usually look great with saturated makeup colours, as well, which can be very fun! I’ve seen rich greens, bright oranges, and even yellows for both eye makeup and lipstick that look terrific on dark skin tones, as well as the more typical reds and browns. Adding some saturated colour to a face will help draw the viewer’s eye to this important focal point of your figure. You can see fun examples of bright eye makeup and bold lipstick on these links, and many more with image searches.

Note that the general principles for where to paint highlights (and shadows) apply to fantastic skin colours as well. You can see an example with a pinkish-red skin tone below.

Succ sit front2

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Figures Featured in this Article

Elmore Female Sorcerer is available in metal.
Tillie, Fighter Pilot is available in metal
Quinn, Rogue is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Tara the Silent is available in Bones Black plastic or metal.
Brand, Barbarian is available in Bones plastic.
Masquerade Ball Sophie is available in metal.
Elmore Female Shaman is available in metal.
The Drunken Mermaid is available in Bones USA plastic.
Frost Giant Queen is available in Bones plastic.
Chop, Halfling Cook is available in Bones USA plastic.
Ogana, Ranger is currently available in metal, and will also be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.
Ingrid, Gnome Rogue is available in Bones USA plastic, Bones plastic, and metal.
Gisele, Sorcerer is available in Bones USA plastic.
Thregan, Fighter is currently available in metal, and will also be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.
Noblewoman is currently available in metal, and will also be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.
The Succubus will be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.

Where to Shade Faces

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Painting shadows on faces can be a challenge. Many painters paint shadows too light in value on faces because they aren’t confident about where to place them. Others are reluctant to paint deep shadow values on lighter and even medium skin tones thinking that if complexion of someone’s skin tone is quite fair, how can it have much shadow on it? This hesitancy is misplaced. Shadows are our main tool for adding definition to the faces of gaming scale miniatures. They help add visual interest to busts and larger scale figures. Shadows can create or shift expressions on faces. In the real world, shadows are even a key component of how we identify the faces of different individuals. (There is a companion article that outlines where to paint highlights and how to paint darker skin tones.)

A few years ago I started to study portrait drawing and painting. One of the approaches to capturing the likeness of a person that I learned is to begin by blocking in the big shapes of shadow and light on the face. If you get the big shapes of shadow and light in the right places and in the right proportion to one another, you will capture the likeness of the person. Nailing the shape and proportion of shadow and light is far more important than getting the exact colour of someone’s eyes, or the texture of their beard stubble, or all the other details we tend to focus on when drawing or painting a face. Getting details right doesn’t matter if you’ve get the basic shape and structure of someone’s face wrong. (I will include some links to related traditional art tutorials near the bottom of this article for those interested.) 

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some examples. Below are drawings of a few faces. These drawings are rough, unblended, and have absolutely no details. None of them even have eyes, those supposed windows to the soul. Depending on your age and cultural background you might not recognize all of them, but I suspect most of you will recognize at least one of them.

Famous faces shadowWho are these people? Answers down at the very bottom of the post.

Another example to consider is yearbook and group graduate photos. Or any other small photo of a large group of people. The faces are basically just dark and light shapes, but you can recognize them as individuals, and even pick out people you know if there are any.

Jerry zhang CPmrdbbpnXg unsplashPhoto by Jerry Zhang on Unsplash.

How does this relate to miniature painting? The sculptor creates the facial features like eyes and nose. It’s their job to get these in the correct places to capture a likeness or evoke a particular expression. We’re just here to add a little colour by putting paint on top of that, right? Nope. If we want our minis to pop off the tabletop or resemble those painted by people we admire, we have to understand that our job is to use paint to simulate the effect of light shining on various surfaces, including faces. We have to do this with paint because our miniatures are too small for standard room lights to affect them enough. Painting the appropriate areas to be lighter and darker helps the viewer see the work the sculptor has done. We can also use light and shadow to shift facial expressions, create mood and characterization, or even just make our figures more interesting to look at.

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Where to Place Shadows on Faces

There are a few shadows that are particularly important to create both a likeness and just the general impression of a face. Most of the time we view people when they have a light source positioned above their head or slightly to one side, like the sun or a ceiling light. This creates areas of shadow beneath (and/or to the side of) the features of our face that protrude, like our noses, brows, lower lips, and chins. The placement, shape, and size of the various facial features is unique to every individual, and so the pattern of shadow that they cast is also unique.

We’re so used to seeing people in this kind of lighting that one of the reasons it looks spooky when someone puts a flashlight under their chin is that it lights the face in the complete opposite of the way we are accustomed to seeing and interpreting facial features.

The key shadow lines/areas for typical lighting scenarios are outlined below. If you are trying to paint extreme light from an odd direction or add a source light glow from a different than typical direction, you should create references for yourself to know where to paint areas of light and shadow.

Eye Socket

In the rough portraits above, the eye sockets are filled with shadow on most of the faces, and there is no detail about the eyes. If the majority of the light is coming from above the face and there is only a small to moderate amount of diffuse light or light from other sources, this is what the eye area of most people will look like when viewed from a distance. The next time you’re out at a restaurant with mood lighting, look at someone three or four tables away, and you will likely see just a large shadow area in their eye sockets, and maybe just a few details of their eyes and eyelids.

There is more light from in front falling on the face in the upper right of my examples above. You can see more details in the eye area – you see the upper eyelid crease (or the bottom of the brow ridge), and then the eye and under eye area blend into a smaller dark shape. If there is a lot of light from the front  or ambient light you might see the line under the brow, the line of the upper lashes, and then a darker area under the lower rim of the eye. We usually paint miniatures in this way, as if some diffuse light were illuminating the eye area of the face and making details more apparent, and it can look effective to do that, even if you have to ‘cheat’ the light a little. You can see some examples closer to that in the examples of doll heads that I’ve included near the end of this post. But if you’re painting tabletop miniatures and want to simplify your life, paint them with simple shadowed eye sockets. It’s actually pretty realistic to what we often see when we look at people from a distance away.

It is rare for a gaming scale miniature sculpt to include all of the anatomical details of the eye socket area because of the small scale. (The eyes of gaming scale miniatures are already scaled way up compared to the proportions they have on a real face, or we’d barely see them at all!) Usually the face of a smaller miniature will have a defined brow or brow ridge, a defined upper eye lid edge, and a defined lower eye lid edge. That defined lower eye lid edge is actually an amalgamation of the lower eyelid and the area of shadow and darker tinted skin that is found directly beneath the eye. As you move up in scale through figures and busts, you will find an increasing amount of anatomical detail, and I recommend referring to reference photos to see the nuances of shadow, light, and skin tone variation for painting larger busts.

Male brow ridges usually protrude more than female ones, so the shadow below the brow ridge will often be more noticeable on a male face. For female gaming scale figures I often just paint a bit of shadow under the brow ridge and do not even paint in eyebrows, but it depends on the figure and the level of paint job I’m going for. Bold eyebrows can add a lot of character to a more masculine or monstrous face, so I will sometimes paint eyebrows on if they weren’t sculpted.

Sophie18 face hair fullOn this figure you can see the typical simplification of the eye area on a gaming figure sculpt. This is also an example of a nose painted with the light direction coming from one side. In this scenario the side slope of the nose facing away from the light should appear darker than the other. Although one side of her nose is closer to the light, there is still a line of shadow beneath the entire nose because of how far it protrudes from the face.

Under the Nose

Our noses protrude out from our faces quite a bit. The skin on the bottom of the nose and the nostrils are obscured from the light. That area will appear quite dark on most faces, even if the face is turned to the side or tilted up. I paint the under nose area on most miniatures with one of my darker shade mixes. There are usually some softer shadows on the sides of the nose where it slopes towards the cheeks. You can help capture this is by leaving that area the midtone skin colour and applying highlights to the top of the nose and the tops of the cheekbones. I typically apply a light shadow layer mix to the side slopes of the nose, but it can be tricky to do and depends a bit on the sculpt. Note that if you want to paint your light source as if coming from one side as in the example above, the opposite side of the nose will be more heavily shadowed than in a light from above scenario.

Noses protrude from the face to such a degree that they often cast a large shadow area onto the area of skin between the base of the nose and the upper lip. Miniature painters rarely paint much cast shadow, so this is unusual to see on figures, but it is something to consider, especially for larger scales.

The Upper Lip

The upper lip slants inward and downward towards where the lips meet, so it usually appears much darker and shadowed than the lower lip. For a gaming scale miniature the best way to approach this in most cases is just to paint a dark line where the lips join. In the example above I’ve added a tiny bit of additional paint to the upper lip area to create the appearance of a cupid’s bow lip, but that can be challenging to do! I recommend using colours that are lighter and more in the brown colour family if you want to paint a face that appears more traditionally masculine. Painting anything above the line where the lips join, using a darker colour, or using a reddish/pinking colour will tend to create more of a lipstick look.

Under the Lower Lip

The lower lip protrudes out from the face and casts a small shadow on the skin just beneath it. The appears as a line just under the lower lip. Usually I achieve this by painting the lip with a pretty dark value colour. I then highlight the lower lip, but leave a small line of the darker colour at the bottom to create this shadow.

Under the Chin

The neck is set far back and the chin and jaw protrude. This puts the entire area of the skin under the chin is in shadow, and often large portions of the neck as well. Natural light will shadow this area somewhat even on gaming scale figures, but I think you will get the best look when you apply dark shadow paint to the area under the chin, and some lighter shadows on the neck area. Painting these areas darker helps pop the face out, which is both realistic (look at the neck areas of the sketches at the top of the article), and also helps to put focus on the face of your figure. You can add additional shadow to either side of the neck where it slopes away to make it look rounder, like the cylinder it is, as you can see in the example below.

Efreet black faceThis figure has fairly dark skin, but it’s a good example of the dark line between the lips, under the bottom lip and shadow under the chin and on the neck. An article about how I painted Ziba the Efreeti is available.


Even when a person’s hair and skin colour are fairly similar, there is often a line of shadow where the hair hangs over the face. Although our hair is one of the easiest things for us to change about our appearance, memory studies show that the hairline is a key factor in recognizing and identifying faces. Using strong hue and/or value contrast between the skin of the face and the hair on a figure is a very effective way to create visual interest and make the figure easier to read for the viewer. It is particularly important to paint a bit of a shadow line around the hairline when the face and hair colours are similar in value and/or hue. (I have an article and accompanying video about how to paint hair.)

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I’ve shared examples of painted figures above, and include some additional examples to share below. However, I know that it can be challenging to separate out the effect of light and shadow from colour variations in the skin tone, cosmetics, etc. Below are three pictures of the same bust taken under different kinds of lighting, so you can assess the way light and shadow falls on a face that is a uniform colour. 

Face light combo cr

In this picture the bust is lit with even light. While you can make out most of the facial features, you can’t really distinguish much personality, and it’s not particularly interesting to look at. Note that even though I tried to make the lighting as flat as I could, you can still see a line of shadow between the face and the hair, and between the neck and the cowl. Lining is not unrealistic! It replicates the line of shadow that occurs when one object or surface overhangs another.

Here the light is located above and slightly in front of the face. Notice that the face seems more dramatic, more alive, and more three dimensional than in the left photo. That is all because of the shadows! I would consider this the minimum level of shadow contrast to paint. You might prefer to paint some of the shadows a little smaller (like a smaller cast shadow under the nose and beside the lower eye), and you might not feel comfortable painting the neck shadow as dark as in the photo, but overall this is a good guide to the placement and minimum depth of shadows.

In this photo the light is placed directly above the bust, and there is less ambient room light. This gives the bust a more dramatic mood and a more intense expression. The eye sockets, neck, and downward facing cheek are heavily shadowed. A miniature painter would likely paint a little more light into the eye socket area than appears here to bring out the details, and would also likely reduce the size of the cast shadow under the nose. However, as a general guide this is the kind of lighting that many admired high level painters are using to make their figures more expressive and eye-catching!

The face on this bust is 24mm long from the top of the forehead to the bottom of the chin, so this is a much larger face than the average gaming scale figure. As a result, the sculpted features are much higher relief, so even flat lighting will have some effect on them. It is also much more detailed than a gaming scale figure could be. The smaller the scale of the figure, the less you can rely on natural light and the more you need to paint in high contrast of light and shadow.

The photo below compares the colour of the resin bust to a fair human skin tone. I also sampled some of the shadow areas to show how dark in value those appear even on a lighter value surface like this. To put it another way – the demonstration photos of the bust in different lighting scenarios reflect how dark in value shadows can look on a skin tone at the lighter end of the spectrum.

Skin values crI used the eyedropper tool to isolate some of the values in this photograph.

My focus today is on the face, but the need for shadow depth is true across the entire figure, of course. Here’s an example of a gaming scale figure with flatter lighting on the left, and more dramatic light in the centre and right photos. The right two are more interesting to look at, and you can better distinguish the figure’s anatomy and his various items of gear.

Lighting combo cr

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I suspect there are a couple of reasons that people think darker shadows on light and medium skin tones are unrealistic. One is that we increasingly see people in very even lighting. A lot of photos and videos of celebrities, Instagram models, and advertisements use a soft front light or diffuse overall bright light on faces, because it minimizes the appearance of wrinkles and blemishes. (Flat light flatters!) Pro photographers photoshop faces to appear even smoother, and selfie takers follow suit by using filters. You still see the facial features, but this is largely because of cosmetics and just the scale of them as real people. Well, ‘real’ people. Photos that have been heavily manipulated with professional lighting, lenses, photoshop, and filters may be affecting our judgement of what appears realistic. They are a terrible reference to use for how people actually appear in reality.

A lot of candid cellphone camera photos actually have a similar problem, although they are usually less flattering. We spend a lot of time indoors in very even lighting, in our well-lit offices, homes, and schools. So those photos may be more realistic, but they’re often also pretty dull. They’re also not the only kind of realistic.

I encourage you to actively look at people in different lighting situations and see if dark shadows on skin are as unrealistic as you think. Look at faces outdoors in bright sunlight. Study faces when you’re in more mixed lighting situations like restaurants. Also remember that if you are painting fantasy characters, they do not live in our evenly lit environments! Torches, campfires, and gas lamps are all going to cast stronger shadows than our modern ceiling lights.

Another way to think about it is to compare the lighting in a sitcom versus a movie. Sitcom sets are evenly lit so the cameras can capture the actors from any angle and position and they’ll look pretty much the same. Movies are lit for specific scenes to evoke emotion and tell stories. Do you want your figures to have bland sitcom faces or dramatic movie scene faces?

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I’d like to give you a few more examples of where to place shadow on faces. I think these examples demonstrate that increasing the amount and depth of shadow areas on a face is not cartoonish, but rather increases the level of realism and helps make the face more interesting to look at. The following pictures are before/after of dolls that have been repainted and restyled by the talented artist Noel Cruz. I believe most of these are Barbie dolls or of similar size. The size of a Barbie doll face is a pretty similar size to many miniature figure busts.

The faces of all of these dolls are based on real people. They have been sculpted in the likeness of various celebrities. The faces are sculpted very well, with placement and proportion of features that matches the celebrity. This is not always apparent from the factory paint, however. The accuracy of the sculpt becomes much more obvious in Cruz’s repaints. The repaints include subtleties of skin colouration, and better matches to eye colour and such. But one of the most striking things Cruz does that improves the likeness and makes the faces look more lifelike is… add shadows. 

Compare the before and after pictures below carefully. You’ll see more shadows in the eye socket area. Often the whites of the eyes are darker. You’ll see shadows in the areas I mentioned above – under the nose, darker upper lip, a shadow under the lower lip. Often there is additional shading on the sides of the nose and the hollows of the cheeks. If you’re having trouble seeing exactly what the differences are, try squinting your eyes as you compare the before and pictures, and the areas of darkness on the repaints should become apparent. Cruz has done a lot of repaints if you’d like to study more than the ones I’m showing here.

Sheldon juen12The overall skin tone is still very fair, but you can see a lot more shadow around the eyes and in the other areas I outlined above. The mouth area looks a lot more three dimensional and interesting due to the dark line between the lips and under the lower lip, as well as some subtle shadows on the skin above the corners of the mouth. If you look closely at the factory doll you can see that there are pouches sculpted under the eyes, but they look much more realistic and dimensional once Cruz adds shadow beneath them. Painted by Noel Cruz.

Diana june12The most noticeable aspect of this repaint to me is how much the increased the darkness in areas improves the likeness and the realism. The teeth and whites of the eyes are noticeably darker, and there is more shading around the eyes. The darkness at the corners of the mouth makes it look much more three dimensional. If you study the end of her nose in both pictures, you can see that the sculpt is accurate, it is asymmetric and slightly turned to the viewer’s right. You are able to see that shape more readily in Cruz’s version because of the subtle highlights and shadows he’s painted in that area. Painted by Noel Cruz.

Celebrity dolls repainted noel cruz 40 594b5f30b367b 880The eyes of the repaint are much more shadowed and have even been painted to look smaller. The shadows added under the brow ridge make it appear to protrude more, and thus make the eyes look more inset. A strong brow ridge and smaller eyes are very traditionally masculine facial features. On this face they balance out the mouth and high cheekbones, which are more traditionally feminine in shape. As a result the repaint appears as a very attractive man, but one with more masculinity and even a bit of menace, whereas the flat skin of the factory paint kind of has a teenage boyband member look. Note that the dark thin line for the upper lip looks more masculine than the lighter, fuller lip of the factory paint. The sculpt is the same between them, the only difference is the location and value of the paint. This is a pretty light value skin tone for a man, but the deep shadows are necessary for the face to look realistic. Painted by Noel Cruz.

Jennifer Lopez 2 594b6a23bc9ca 880Some of the darkness around the eyes of the repaint is meant to mimic the effect of cosmetics, but not all of it. The deep shadows on the sides at the top of her nose up to her eyebrows are painted to mimic the effect of lighting. Her nose looks much more three dimensional on the repaint. Note the darkness of the upper lip and the shadow under the lower lip, even though she’s painted as wearing a nude or natural lipstick colour. Also note that Cruz has either painted in or glued on fine baby hair along the hair line. This is quite dark, which helps frame the face and make the head look more three dimensional. On a gaming scale miniature you would simulate this by painting a dark line between the hair and the face. Painted by Noel Cruz.

Based on comments I’ve received on past comparison pictures, it can be hard for some people to distinguish specific differences in cases like this. And that’s understandable if you haven’t spent much time studying art or analyzing visual material! When you look at the Noel Cruz repaints above, you may have trouble separating out the effects of the increased shadows versus the the effects of changing the skin tone and lip colour, adding a flush to the cheek, vastly improving the hair styles, and all the other things Cruz has done to create his super realistic doll repaints. (Note that the more you practice doing this type of comparison and the more you critically analyze paint jobs on miniatures that you like, the better your artistic eye becomes, and that can have immeasurably benefit for your miniature painting.)

I thought it might help if I created some simpler examples. I took a couple of the original factory paint pictures and digitally edited them to add more shadows. I only added shadows and darker areas, and I only used colours based on the colours that were already on the factory paint version. So there are no painted pores or added cheek flushes or drastic makeup changes or anything else, just areas with more darkness in the places that should appear shadowed in typical lighting. 

Monroe digital comLeft: factory paint. Middle: additional shading I added digitally. Right: Noel Cruz repaint. Note that although Marilyn’s hair and face are both quite light in value, there is a shadow line of separation between them. (Aka lining) Cruz has once again enhanced that by painting or gluing on baby hairs around the hairline.

Pattinson digital compLeft: factory paint. Middle: additional shading I added digitally. Right: Noel Cruz repaint

I focused my digital shading additions on the areas I mentioned previously – under the brow bone, under the eye, under the nose, the top lip, and under the bottom lip. Then I added some subtler shading on the sides of the nose and under the chin, and in the case of Robert Pattinson, on the sides of the face. I darkened both the whites and iris of the eyes, and also darkened Marilyn Monroe’s teeth. My digital edits don’t look anywhere near as nice as Noel Cruz’s repaints, but the addition of just a little more shadow makes them look a little more realistic and three dimensional than the flat factory paint versions. (And these aren’t terrible factory paint jobs really!)

Wait a minute, you may be thinking. If these shadows are created by light shining onto the features of the face, why is Noel Cruz painting them on these dolls? And why do I have to paint them onto my miniature? That goes back to scale. Distant ceiling lights and ambient light are not strong enough to make the features on small scale faces cast realistic looking shadows. If you place the doll or a miniature directly under a desk lamp you’ll see darker and more realistic shadows. If we want our figures to look great when viewed in a variety of lighting scenarios, we need to take the place of the light and paint those shadows onto them!

In the event that you hadn’t realized it yet – surprise, this article is about contrast! You can read more the struggle between contrast and realism, and then consult the Contrast Series Guide for tips on how to shift your thinking and try different techniques to increase the contrast in your miniature painting.

Note that of course all of these same shadows occur on people with darker skin tones! And would appear on humanoids with fantasy skin tone colours. I have focused this article on medium and light skin tones because people are particularly hesitant to add much shading to them. Painting dark skin tends to present more challenges with highlights than with shadows. In brief, because skin has a sheen and reflects light in spots, dark skin needs to be painted with small bright highlight spots to look most realistic and visually interesting. It is challenging to keep these small enough that the overall skin still reads as dark, but also have them look a little blended and natural on the skin. This is something I’m still working on myself, and I definitely need to make an effort to practice some more!

Darker skin faces

If you’re interested in some resources that demonstrate traditional art approaches to shadow and light, here are a few. The first video discusses how we recognize people and the features of the face, and how to draw them with big blocks of shadow. This artist talks about the five essential shadows to create a likeness. I went over where to place shadows in this article, though his approach and mine are not identical. Here you can watch a time-lapse of an artist who begins a painting with large rough blocks of shadow and light and then refines those down. The first 20% of his painting time is spent getting those darks and lights in the right place because that is the foundation upon which likeness and realism are built. He ends up with a very tight and polished painting, but he starts with something closer to my examples at the top of this article. This series of articles outlines a method of painting portraits that starts with the big shapes of light and dark.

Who were those faces at the top of the article? From top left to bottom right: Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, and the Mona Lisa.

Miniatures in this Post

Masquerade Ball Sophie is available in metal.
Ziba the Efreeti is available in Bones Black plastic.
The Teutonic Knight is available in resin.
Brand the barbarian is available in Bones plastic.
Quinn is available in metal or Bones plastic.
The Demonkin Warrior with sword is available in metal.
Tara the Silent is available in metal or Bones Black plastic.

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.

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

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

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

How to Mix and Test Washes

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In my last post I discussed the idea of shifting your thinking and asking different questions to find ways to help you improve your own painting experience and results.

The question of how much water to add to your paint is a great example of conducting tests and experiments to be able to answer a painting question. The correct dilution of paint for various tasks like a wash or a glaze is a vexing issue for many painters. What ratio of water to add to a drop of paint to make a wash/glaze/etc. is a very common question that experienced painters are asked. The usual answers are:

It depends.

3 drops water to 1 drop paint for a wash (or similar specifics.)

People expect answers like the second one. They think that there is a formula, and they just need to learn what the formula is to experience better results and less frustration in their painting:

1 drop paint + 4 drops water = wash
1 drop paint + 1 drop water = layer

If you aren’t very familiar with paint that’s a natural expectation, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. There are variations in paint opacity between manufacturers, and much more critically, there are variations in paint opacity between colours. Almost all yellow or magenta paints are very transparent, whereas darker black or brown paints are much more opaque, and paints with a lot of white in them are more opaque. Even within those broad colour categories there will be differences of opacity and transparency, as we’ll explore below with an assortment of black paints.

You may have already noticed some of these tendencies yourself, perhaps becoming frustrated at how many coats it takes to paint an opaque base coat with some of your paints compared to others. That is the start of learning your materials and making observations! Make notes on your observations when you use new colours or ones you don’t use as often so you won’t forget. If you have paint left over after your session, you can use it to test dilution or study how colours mix together and learn a little more from something you were only going to throw out.

Following are some photos of some tests I did with a few colours. I chose one paint from each brand I own. You can see the tested paints below. The Kimera bottle has the paint name on the back instead of the front. It is called Magenta.

Dilution paints colour

I put the paints out on a piece of palette paper. One pool straight from the bottle/pot, and then one drop mixed with one drop of water.

Dilution palette colour

I painted stripes of each paint onto a piece of paper with text printed on it. Using the paint straight from the bottle/pot allowed me to observe the viscosity of the paint, so I could judge whether it was fluid enough to use straight from the container, or might need a little water added to avoid creating texture when applied. It also demonstrated what is called the mass tone of the paint – the paint’s colour at full strength.

Mixing a little water into the paint allowed me to make additional observations. A lot of darker colours can look pretty similar in mass tone. You often need to thin them down with water or add a little white paint to get a more accurate idea of their true colour. Thinning the paints reveals what is called the undertone. The purple and magenta on the far right both look much more vibrant when thinned down with water and painted out than they did as drops on my palette straight from the bottle.

Dilution swatch colour1 crTop row: One drop of paint diluted with one drop of water.
Bottom row: Paint straight from the container.

Adding water increases the transparency of the paint. But you can see that the degree of that effect is not universal. One drop of water had a much stronger effect on the green paint than the others. It’s pretty much wash consistency already.

I have a lot of general knowledge related to colour and pigments, so I wasn’t too surprised at the results, but it’s still helpful to me to do testing with my actual materials and not rely on theory alone. The transparency of the green with water added surprised me a little. I am sure that other greens from that brand, or similar greens from other brands, might not act the same way, since they will have been mixed from different pigments.

I was lazy and didn’t clean up my desk immediately after, but that ended up being a happy accident. The next day I saw some interesting results in the dried paints. Some of the paints mixed with water had dried surprisingly shiny, and one had a lot of cracking in the wash. I would have to do additional tests to see whether either thing would have any effect when actually used for miniature applications, but it was a graphic reminder that there are also differences in the base formulations of every acrylic paint, as well as differences between pigments. (My guess on the shiny ones is that they had deeper pools and the matting agent sunk to the bottom. You can read more about the characteristics of paint.)

Dilution palette colour dryThe thinned and undiluted paints from my test after drying on the palette paper.

The fact that you can’t follow a standard formula like add 3 drops of water to make a wash doesn’t mean that there are no guidelines for deciding how much to dilute your washes. What you need to do is shift your thinking. What questions could you ask or what tests could you do to find out what you need to know. To my mind the formula for diluting paint looks more like this:

1 drop paint + X drops water = wash consistency

You are looking for the answer to X, and the people who tell you ‘it depends’ are right. The answer for X isn’t fixed, it depends on the characteristics of the paint you are diluting. The first step to solving for X is to understand your desired solution as well as possible. What is wash consistency? It’s a paint mix that is transparent enough to tint underlying paint, but with enough colour/opacity that the colour builds up where it pools in sculpted recesses on your miniature.

So how could you solve for X? You could brainstorm possible ways to test the consistency of your washes, and then try them out to see which works best for you. And the great thing is, there isn’t necessarily only one right answer! If you’ve painted enough to have an idea of the consistency you like in a wash, I invite you to pause reading for a moment and think about ways you could check your paint mixes to see if they match your desired consistency before scrolling down and reading my suggestions.

One way to check your wash dilution is to study the paint behaves on your palette. I often use a welled palette. I can assess paint dilution and consistency by pulling a stroke of paint up the side of a palette well and then observing it. How much of the underlying white surface can I see? How long does it take the paint from the stroke to fall back down into the main pool?

On a flat palette like a wet palette, painters might move the paint around a bit with the tip of their brush and assess how strongly or weakly the paint covers the palette surface. They may also consider other properties, like consistency. It’s pretty common for painters to compare how paint behaves on the brush to other liquids, like you might want to mix paint equivalent to a cream consistency for a basecoat, and to more of a skim milk consistency for a wash. Judging by consistency can work well if you always use the same paint brand and diluent. However, different paints have different consistencies out of the bottle. Water and mediums are equally transparent but differ in consistency. Water is a very fluid diluent, but matte medium or glaze medium are more viscous.

Over years of teaching people miniature painting and trying to come up with a simple but still accurate answer to that question, I finally figured out a way to visually test the paint. I use a piece of paper printed with text. I paint stripes of a paint mix on the paper to assess whether it seems like it is the correct transparency/opacity for my paint task. I am judging the visual appearance of the paint, so it doesn’t matter if I use a paint or diluent that is more fluid or more viscous. (Ben Komets came up with a very similar answer to the question with his Dilution Helper strips.)

You can see me demonstrate mixing and testing a wash in this video, where I also performed more dilution experiments on a selection of black paints. I gathered up nine black paints to test.

Dilution paints black

I painted swatches of each paint straight from the bottle, and then swatches of one drop of each paint mixed with two drops of water.

Dilution swatches black corrected2 crTop row: One drop of paint diluted with two drops of water.
Bottom row: Paint straight from the container.

As you can see from the diluted paint swatches, the opacity of the paints differs a fair bit. Paints that all looked pretty similar out of the bottle look different in a 2:1 mix of water to paint. Some of those paints are ready to use for washes, others would need to have more water added. The diluted paints also demonstrate slight differences in colour, with one black being a little cooler or warmer than another. Those differences are pretty subtle in black paints, but you would find them much more noticeable with darker colour paints. 

If you find this kind of experimentation interesting, you might want to check out my show on Reaper Miniature’s Twitch channel. It airs live on Mondays at 2-4pm Central time. You can also watch on demand on Twitch, or when it is uploaded to Reaper Miniature’s YouTube channel.

BWAB OpenScreen Cream