Dragon and Stocking – 12 Days of Reaper

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

Dragon and stocking, front view

Dragon and stocking, face view

Dragon and stocking, back view

Dragon and stocking, second face view

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

Stocking Dragon grayscale primer front

Stocking Dragon grayscale primer, back

Stocking Dragon grayscale primer left

Stocking Dragon grayscale primer right

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

Stocking Dragon colour block in front

Stocking Dragon colour block in, back

Stocking Dragon colour block in, left

Stocking Dragon colour block in, right

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

Stocking Dragon refining step, front

Stocking Dragon refining step, back

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

Stocking dragon completed greens, front

Stocking Dragon finished greens, back

Stocking Dragon completed greens, face

Stocking Dragon completed greens, right

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

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

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

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

12 days promo

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

 

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

Mylk and Cookies – 12 Days of Reaper

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mylk and Cookies front

Mylk and Cookies back

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

Yeti grisaille front

Yeti grisaille back

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

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

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

Yeti pre front 450

Yeti pre back 450

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

2018HolidayPromoMarquee960x480

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

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

AdeptiCon 2019 – Registration Opens Monday November 18

I’ve written before about why I recommend that miniature painters and enthusiasts attend conventions. I’ve also previously talked about ReaperCon in particular. It remains my favourite miniature-focused convention, but AdeptiCon runs a close second, and it offers some features I have not found elsewhere. (See the bottom of this post for links to previous articles and other sites/companies/people mentioned in this post.)

Registration for AdeptiCon passes, events, and hobby classes opens on Monday, November 18 at 1pm Central time. For more information on the convention in general, start with the following below. To see a preview of classes and events, select the Register option at the top of that page. I’ll share some information about the classes that I am teaching here, but for full details, check out the events on AdeptiCon’s site. There are a wealth of classes with lots of different instructors.

https://www.adepticon.org

Hobby Classes – Painting, Sculpting, Scenics

AdeptiCon offers an impressive array of hobby class topics and instructors. The focus is on painting topics, but there are also classes for sculpting, and for scenics like terrain and bases. One interesting feature of AdeptiCon classes that started just last year is they have variable length classes. The short class this year is 1.5 hours long. There’s a medium length of 3.5 hours, and a long format of 5.5 hours. As both an instructor and a student of miniature painting classes, I love this idea! Some topics just can’t easily be squeezed down to 90-120 minutes, especially if you want to teach them as hands-on classes where people get a chance to practice concepts and techniques during the class.

Painting class with Raffaele PiccaTaken during a class with Raffaele Picca at AdeptiCon 2016.

Another notable thing about AdeptiCon’s class schedule is that it typically features sessions with international painters. Every year several international artists travel to AdeptiCon to participate in the Crystal Brush painting contest (more on that below). Most of them also take the opportunity to share their wisdom in painting classes. I don’t think there is another convention in North America with as much access to international artists.

As if all of that weren’t enough, the AdeptiCon hobby team works very hard to make the experience as positive as possible for everyone involved. The class rooms are large and decently lit. Each holds only one class at a time and doors can be closed, so it’s a quiet, focused environment. Where instructors request it, access to airbrushes or computer projection screens and the like is provided. Classrooms are also furnished with basic paints, brushes, and related supplies. Damon Drescher is the current lead of the hobby team, and he and all of the other volunteers do a wonderful job with the coordination, logistics, and on-site help with this event.

If you do want to take a class, I recommend that you consider bringing a few supplies of your own, however. In particular, bring your own brushes, and bring good quality ones if you’re taking intermediate or advanced classes. You will need a quality sable brush with a good point to be able to execute most techniques taught in anything other than basics classes. Hotel/convention center lighting isn’t always the best, so if you use magnification at home, bring your visor or reading glasses with you. In a similar vein, if you can squeeze a small battery powered lamp into your travel kit, I highly recommend that. Every class I teach I have at least one person frustrated about not being able to see as well as they’d like. It’s not feasible to expect the convention or instructors to be able to provide lighting (or magnification) for every student in every class. A variety of cheap battery operated or rechargeable lamp options is available via avenues like Amazon.

Rhonda Bender’s Classes for AdeptiCon 2019

This year I am teaching one shorter lecture/discussion class, and two mid-length hands-on classes.

Level Up Your Painting From Intermediate to Advanced
Thursday, March 28 from 2:30pm to 4pm CET
A survey of a lot of topics aside from technique that can help painters progress from intermediate to advanced level painting – understanding critique and assessing your figures with a more critical eye, improving contrast, improving use of colour, composition, referencing real life, balancing visual interest with realism, and many more. Includes a 12 page handout, but I recommend you bring paper and pen to take additional notes.

Painted Ladies
Friday March 29 from 1pm to 4:30pm CET
What characteristics make a person look more feminine or more masculine, and how can we apply that to small miniature figures? We’ll start with the body and howto  place shadows and highlights on those tricky curves. Then we’ll work on how to render a face and its features in a way that appears more feminine, even at gaming scale. This longer class format will allow us plenty of time to both discuss the theories and practice hands-on.

Transparent Cloth
Saturday, March 30 from 1pm to 4:30pm CET
How do you make a solid material like metal or resin look like filmy transparent cloth? I’m excited to have this longer class format to show people. It will give us time to discuss the theory and then practice hands-on with the various areas of a miniature that need to come together to create this illusion. 

I would like to thank Dark Sword Miniatures and Reaper Miniatures for their support of my classes, at both this event and over many long years. I couldn’t offer what I do without their generousity and assistance!

James Wappel in the Hobby lounge at AdeptiConThe legendarily speedy and creative painter James Wappel is a prominent fixture in the hobby lounge. He is always very generous with his time in explaining and demonstrating his unique techniques, use of oil paints, and his general creativity. His wife Cathy is also a great painter and often found nearby. A lot of the luminaries of miniature painting who attend AdeptiCon will spend some time painting here and may be willing to share some tips and information.

The Hobby Lounge

The hobby team sets up the the lobby of the classrooms area as an open painting area. Tables are provided so that people have a place to sit down and paint. Which many do! Many people hang out here to swap tips and tricks, meet new friends or catch up with old, so don’t be shy. Some people just stop by for a moment to touch up their armies before heading to a tournament. And there are always some frantically trying to finish up their Crystal Brush entries! (In fact if you find the hobby lounge too crowded the first day or two of the convention, check back after the contest entry deadline and you should have much less trouble getting a seat.)

The hobby lounge may make a few lights available, but apart from that you will need to bring your own supplies.

Vendor Area

If you’re interested in miniatures, the vendor area of AdeptiCon is tough to beat. Many miniatures companies set up booths, of course, but there is much more than that. There are companies selling brushes, paints, and other hobby paraphernalia. There are booths filled with amazing buildings, terrain, and other scenic elements. It’s a great place to try out a new game or pick up some dice. And there are always a few non-miniature cool geek booths that might sell jewelry or drinking horns, or who knows what else?!

Games Workshop fans will also want to check out the bitz vendors in the hallways near the vendor hall. There are additional scheduled bitz exchanges for players.

A vendor selling cool Western buildingsBuildings, ships, terrain, I’ve seen just so many cool things for sale at booths at AdeptiCon!

Vendor selling diceIt’s not a geek convention without dice, is it?

Happy AdeptiCon shoppersSave up your pennies and then spend them at AdeptiCon, and you too can be as happy as Rex Grange and Jen Greenwald!

Reper Miniatures paint and take tablesReaper Miniatures is one of the vendors at AdeptiCon. Every year they set up tables where you can sit down and paint one of their Bones figures. They supply the paint, brushes, and other materials, and you keep the figure. The placemats on the tables also have a small preview of the material I wrote for Reaper’s Learn to Paint: Core Skills kit.

Gaming!

While the hobby offerings have grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, AdeptiCon has always been a convention for gamers. The primary gaming focus is on miniatures war games, of course. These include casual play events and tournaments for a wide variety of game systems. Check out the events preview for more information.

Board Game library at AdeptiConApologies for the blurry picture! This is the board game library for AdeptiCon. There are more games than in the photo. See a link to a complete list of games in the library at the bottom of this post.

If you’d like a break from miniatures games, there is also a small variety of scheduled role-playing and board game events. And a board game library where you can borrow one of the provided games to play with your friends in between scheduled events.

Other Activities

AdeptiCon is a pretty focused convention, so there aren’t a ton of other activities, but there is some costuming. There is also a contest for army board displays that is separate from the Crystal Brush. These are huge displays that often feature light and sound effects in addition to amazing scenics. I am impressed by the creativity on display every year. In previous years these army displays get set up in the main hallway on Saturday evening. To see them at other times you will need to wander the various gaming areas where the armies are being put to use and not just on display. (It’s worth a little side trip to see!)

A costumer at AdeptiCon 2018.Costuming isn’t a big focus at AdeptiCon but at the same time, there are always at least a few really amazing costumes at the show.

Army display board at AdeptiCon.This is just a small part of one of the fantastic display boards that I have seen at AdeptiCon. Some of them take all the year between one con and the next for their builders to complete!

The Crystal Brush Painting Contest

The Crystal Brush is pretty legendary in the miniature painting hobby. The prize for the best in show figure is $8,000, with prizes of $3,000 and $2,000 for second and third. There are also Gold, Silver, and Bronze prizes for the best three miniatures in each category. These receive smaller cash prizes of $200, $100, and $50. There may also be additional manufacturer prizes awarded.

Given the purse, you can imagine that some pretty top talent throws a hat into the ring each year. It is definitely a very competitive contest. If that type of environment spurs you to greater heights, this is the contest for you! If you prefer more of an open show environment, you might find that you’d get more enjoyment as a viewer than as an entrant. I myself have gone one way some years, and the other direction in other years. 

Crystal Brush contest cases at AdeptiConThe cases fill up with entries as the contest deadline draws closer. Painters submit their entries at the white table to the far right.

One other thing that is unique about the Crystal Brush is how the winners are selected. There is an on-site judging team coordinated by the fantastic painter Jennifer Haley. The guest judges each year are well-known painters and hobbyists. But they decide only a half of the score for an entry. The top 10-12 first cut entries are posted on the CMON site for live voting during the convention. The scores they receive make up the other half of the voting. So an entrant needs to paint to appeal to both a team of highly skilled judges, but also consider the popular tastes of voters and making an entry that photographs well to succeed. If you do want to enter, make sure that you read all of the rules and guidelines on the page linked below. You don’t want to accidentally disqualify yourself for having the wrong size of base or having shown pictures in advance in the wrong venue. (This is a far more common occurrence at contests than you might imagine.)

http://www.crystalbrush.com

Even if you don’t want to enter the contest yourself, it is definitely worth taking some time to look at the entries. The level of craftsmanship and creativity on display is always impressive. Unfortunately the miniatures are displayed in cases in the vendor hall, so you can only access them during vendor hall hours, and there can be small crowds of viewers at times, but it is well worth the effort. The miniatures being in cases also makes them a little tricky to photograph, so the pictures below definitely do not capture the pieces to best advantage.

Bust entries at Crystal BrushBust is an increasingly popular category at Crystal Brush.

Chibi entries at Crystal BrushChibi style figures are one of the categories, and often the most fun and creative one!

Large size entries at Crystal BrushOther categories include large figure, monster/vehicle, and more And of course single gaming scale figures in a couple of different themes. There are also generally some nice historical themed entries, too.

Links and Information

I hope you’ll consider coming out to AdeptiCon 2019! If you are thinking of coming and have any questions about my classes, please just let me know and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Some Prose on Cons – why I think miniature painters should attend conventions: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/08/09/some-prose-on-cons-conventions-and-shows/
ReaperCon – not Just for Reapers (my description of ReaperCon specifically. Not too early to plan!): https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/08/15/reapercon-not-just-for-reapers/
AdeptiCon main page: https://www.adepticon.org
AdeptiCon events page: http://www.cvent.com/events/adepticon-2019/agenda-7822dab492fa4ed0bde10d960366d97c.aspx
AdeptiCon vendor list: https://www.adepticon.org/sponsors/
AdeptiCon board game library game list: https://www.adepticon.org/librarium/
Reaper Miniatures: http://www.reapermini.com
Dark Sword Miniatures: https://www.darkswordminiatures.com/
Crystal Brush main page: http://www.crystalbrush.com/
Raffaele Picca web page: http://www.raffaelepicca.com
Damon Drescher’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/damon_drescher/?hl=en
James Wappel’s blog: https://wappellious.blogspot.com
Jen Greenwald’s blog: https://minipainterjen.blogspot.com

Workshops and Bootcamps

Miniature painting and sculpting classes at conventions are a wonderful resource. Typically they are an hour and a half to two hours long, though occasionally you will find three or four hour classes. That is enough time to get some insight into a particular technique or effect, like wet blending or non-metallic metal, and it is invaluable to see how other painters handle their paint and tools in person. Many classes are hands-on, which gives you the opportunity to get direct feedback on your efforts with the subject of the class. But convention painting classes also have their limitations. If you think of painting like a puzzle, you get an in-depth look at one piece or section of the puzzle, but you may not get a good sense of how that piece relates to the whole picture. And generally you only have 40 minutes or so to practice before you go on to the next class or convention activity, which may not be enough time to fully internalize the new information.

There is another type of in-person miniature painting (and sometimes sculpting) instruction that you might not be as familiar with – workshops and bootcamps. These are all-day intensive instruction from a single painter that might run for one, two, or occasionally even three days. The instructor has a lot more time to go over their general painting process, as well as their approach to specific techniques or effects. Students have more time to practice, and more opportunities to get feedback. You still might not completely finish a figure in a workshop, but you tend to get much more of a sense of how that painter approaches painting a figure as a whole. 

Alfonso In April 2018 I attended a workshop on colour theory with Alfonso “Banshee” Giraldes. He has toured the United States several times giving workshops.

The challenge with workshops is that they tend to take place only in large cities, as a minimum number of attendees is necessary to make it feasible for the instructor to do. So unless you are fortunate enough to live in the cities where they are often organized, you will likely need to travel to attend one. That is an added expense on top of the cost of the workshop itself. (Though I will note that these events in the miniature painting world tend to be less expensive than similar ones in the traditional art realm.)

If you live in the United States, you have the opportunity to attend a workshop next year with the fantastic Spanish painter Sergio Calvo Rubio. Not only is he an excellent painter, he has also worked to develop a process for painting quickly. I took a couple of classes with him at AdeptiCon 2017, and just those few hours really jumpstarted me on finding a way to paint with more directional lighting. I am very excited about what I might be able to learn from him in a full two day workshop!

You can look at Sergio’s lovely miniatures here: https://www.puttyandpaint.com/sergiocalvo

Below is a list of the dates and locations for the Sergio Calvo workshops in the United States in 2019. 

Sergio Flyer Spring 2019 FINALIf you can find a way to get to one of these events, I highly recommend that you do it! Contact miniaturemonthly@gmail.com for more information or to sign up.

I have previously attended two weekend workshops. The first was with renowned Russian painter Kirill Kaneav in 2017. I highly recommend taking a workshop with him if you ever have the opportunity. He really opened my eyes to the value of using photo reference in miniature painting, and showed us some fantastic techniques for creating shadows and highlights to build three dimensional form with texture strokes instead of just smooth blending, and showed us several other things in addition.

Bust I painted in Kirill Kanaev workshopThis is the bust I worked on in the Kirill Kanaev workshop. The cloth texture work is on the back. 

Below is a pair of figures I painted after the workshop to practice with the texture techniques. I also used photo references for the faces, as we had in the workshop. I referenced a picture of Helen Mirren for the woman, and one of Sean Connery for the man. These sculpts are pretty rough, particularly given that they are 54mm scale. Smooth blending looked awful on them, but building highlights and shadows with textures looked much more attractive.

Textured cloth examples on male and female dancersI maybe went a little nuts with the textures…

This year I took a workshop with Alfonso “Banshee” Giraldes, a Spanish painter and sculptor. He is well-known for his bold use of colour. He is a strong champion for a more painterly style to be used in miniature painting. (In a painterly style, the aim isn’t necessarily a perfectly smooth or photo realistic finish, but rather one where the hand and intent of the artist are visible through brushstrokes and colour transitions.) The workshop I took was specifically focused on colour theory and colour use. So it was less focused on painting an entire miniature, and more about exercises and experiments with colour. (Although we did also work on a miniature bust.) I recommend this workshop to people who would like to learn more about colour theory and how to apply it to miniatures, and who would like to mix colours from a small set rather than using a huge collection of pre-mixed paints. 

My painted figure: PromenadeI painted this figure to practice colour mixing after taking the Banshee workshop. You can read more about my painting process here: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/09/14/a-critique-filled-promenade/

The best way to hear about upcoming workshops is to participate in the miniature painting community via Facebook groups and website forums. It is also pretty common for the historical painting shows to be preceded by a one or two day workshop with a renowned painter. So it might be worth finding out if there is an historical painting show near enough to you to attend. I’ve listed the shows I know of near the bottom of this post: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/08/09/some-prose-on-cons-conventions-and-shows/.

Have you ever attended a workshop? Are you thinking of going to one of Sergio’s next year? Let me know your experiences and thoughts in the comments!

Links to figures and people mentioned in this blog post:

Miniature Monthly Patreon (organizers of the Sergio Calvo workshop tour in the US): https://www.patreon.com/miniaturemonthly
Sergio Calvo Putty and Paint gallery: https://www.puttyandpaint.com/sergiocalvo
Sergio Calvo Miniatures page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sergiocalvominiatures/
Sergio Calvo Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/sergiocalvominiatures
Alfonso Giraldes Putty and Paint gallery: https://www.puttyandpaint.com/BansheeArtStudio
Banshee page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Alfonso.Giraldes.Banshee/
Banshee Miniature Art Academy on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/miniatureartacademy
Kirill Kanaev Putty and Paint gallery: https://www.puttyandpaint.com/Yellow_one
Angelface bust – sculpted by Kirill Kanaev and used in his workshops, but I can’t find a link to buy it, sorry.
54mm dancing couple – these were a commission for a client. I’m pretty sure you can buy these, but I don’t know where, sorry.
Dark Sword Shaman figure: https://www.darkswordminiatures.com/shop/index.php/miniatures/elmore-masterworks/female-shaman.html

How to Paint Contrast – Hands On

In this post about how to paint miniatures with more contrast, I’m going to discuss technique and paint application ideas for how to increase the level of contrast that you paint into the shadows and highlights of your miniature figures. 

If you haven’t read the previous post about how to paint with more contrast, you will find it here: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/10/06/how-to-paint-contrast-mind-games/

The blog reader stats tell me that a lot of you haven’t read that post. I would like to strongly encourage you to do so. The mental goal to push contrast is as important or more so as anything you will find here. One of the things you’ll find over in that other post is larger pictures of the following figures. The before/after pictures on the left date from 2008-2009. Those on the right date from 2015. I didn’t just try to paint with more contrast once or even over the span of a year or two and then it just clicked and I started to be able to paint that wayon every figure. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have photos to show from such a span of years. Painting with more contrast doesn’t have that much to do with tools – I was using the same set of quality tools throughout that timespan. It doesn’t even have much to do with specific techniques or brush skills. My painting ability did improve over that span – I would not have been able to paint the freehand details on the 2015 figure in 2008. But there I was making the same old lack of contrast mistake in 2015 as in 2008. 

The root causes have more to do with my failure to stay focused on the necessity of contrast, and the need to better train my artist’s eye to judge whether or not something has enough contrast. I’m a slow learner sometimes! One of the reasons I’m sharing these kinds of things on this blog is that I am hoping to spare other people some of the time and annoyance I’ve spent along the path of learning. And the previous post has a lot of helpful tips on this topic!

More contrastSeeing these at this smaller size is a good reminder of why we need to paint with contrast – gaming figures are small! We need to add dramatic shadows and highlights for their details to be visible to the viewer, and to make them more interesting to look at. Click over to this post for larger versions of these pictures: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/10/06/how-to-paint-contrast-mind-games/

NOTE: I am going to use the word value a lot. When talking about colour, value refers to the lightness or darkness of the colour. White is the lightest value, and black is the darkest value. Pale pink is a light value of red, brick is a midtone value of red, and a deep wine colour is a dark value of red.

Check and Reflect

A simple but important thing that leads us astray with contrast is that you can’t accurately judge the level of contrast on the various areas of your figure until you have mostly finished painting it. Both black and white primers are extremes of contrast that will throw off your perception of the contrast as long as any primer remains in view. (For example, try painting the same midtone colour like a tanned Caucasian skin colour onto a black primed and a white primed figure. It will look pretty pale on one, and fairly dark on the other.)  Even after you put in all your base coats and cover up all the primer, the contrast level on the miniature will look different with shadows and highlights painted into all areas. So my first tip is to  paint to the point where you’re finished or almost finished and then take a final look at the figure. And be willing to do touchups and adjustments as necessary.

It can be helpful to leave the figure to sit for a day or three before making that final assessment. It can also help to take photos, and then look at those scaled to a smaller size as well as a larger size so you can check both contrast and look for stray paint strokes or other detail level mistakes. This is a big part of what went wrong with the figures above. I declared them done and didn’t really take a moment away from them and then come back for a close look to assess the overall effect. When I did take a close look some time later, it became obvious to me that the level of contrast was far too weak.

Now let’s discuss some methods you can use earlier in the painting process in order to try to minimize how much you need to adjust at the end. These are going to be a quick overview – each of these tips could be expanded to be a blog post in their own right!

Make a Photo Reference

If you have trouble visualizing where to place the shadows and highlights, take a picture for reference. If possible, take it in a dimly lit room. Position a small bright light close to the figure in the direction you’d like to have your imagined light source. I use a small and inexpensive LED light. Experiment with different sizes and brightness of lights for different effects. Remember to take pictures from a few different angles so you’ll have something to refer to as you paint all the areas of the figure. Keep the light in the same orientation to the miniature when taking the photos from different angles – if you turn or move the figure, you’ll need to turn or move the light. If the miniature is metal or a very light or dark coloured plastic, you might want to prime it in a more neutral gray colour before taking your reference photos. These kinds of pictures make an excellent guide, but remember that different materials reflect light in different ways, so some will have higher levels of contrast than what appears in your pictures. Metal or hair, for example, are very shiny, so you will need to exaggerate the lights and shadows even more on areas you want to have look as if made of those materials.

Lighting on primed figure compared to painted figure.Photos like these are a helpful helpful reference. They can help you keep areas of light and dark in mind even while you’re distracted by other concerns like blending, and thus help you paint with more contrast. Notice the difference between the leg nearer the light and the one further back. Also note that there is less contrast in a more matte material like the leather, but I painted a higher degree of contrast on the shiny metal armor plates and dagger.

Zenithal Priming

Zenithal priming is a way to apply a reference to the location of your light source directly to the miniature itself. With this method you prime or paint the entire figure black. Then you spray white primer/paint ONLY from the direction of your light source. (Some people do an intermediary step of spraying gray paint/primer to add the midtone values.) The result allows you to easily see where light hits the figure strongly (white areas), or doesn’t hit the figure much at all (black areas), as well as the in between sections that should be midtone values . You can use this as a ‘map’ for where to apply colour by applying opaque layers of paint in the correct value over the zenithal prime. Or you can glaze transparent colours over the established values to add colour to the figure. (A glaze is paint heavily thinned down with water, but applied in a controlled fashion rather than allowed to pool as with a wash.)

Miniatures painted with glazes over zenithal priming have good contrast within each area, but can lack contrast between each of the areas. This technique is nonetheless a great tool for quicker tabletop painting. And you can compensate slightly by adding other types of contrast, like using complementary colours on adjacent areas. (I’ll cover colour contrast in future posts.) If you try this technique, you may find that you need to apply some opaque highlights in the brightest areas to get maximum pop and contrast. (Note that you can also take pictures of the miniature after zenithal priming but before applying paint so you still have a reference in case you lose track of where the shadows and highlights should be while painting.

If you’d like to know more about methods of zenithal priming using spray primer, airbrush, or brushing by hand, check out this excellent video by Metalhead Minis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=88rMH25y-2E&feature=share. NOTE to painters of Bones miniatures: I do not recommend using spray primer on Bones. It often fails to cure and remains tacky to the touch. Applying paint via an airbrush is the best way to zenithal spray ‘prime’ Bones figures.

Example of glaze painted over zenithal priming.This figure was zenithal primed with spray primers. Use of spray cans creates a speckled appearance of the white over black in the midtone areas. You can reduce that appearance a little by adding grey in the middle step, or smooth it out by touching up the figure by hand with some thinned white and thinned black. Spraying with an airbrush has a smoother look. For the next step, layers of transparent paint were glazed over the underlying values on the cloak – dark reddish-purple in the shadows, red in the midtones, and a little orange in the highlight areas. Then a more opaque highlight was added in just a few spots that would be receive a lot of light. This figure is from a painting class I took with Eric Louchard many years ago.

Underpainting: Value Mapping

Zenithal priming is a method of underpainting, but there are other options for underpainting. Sometimes I roughly block in the midtone, shadow, and highlight values of the major areas on my figure using black, white, and grey brush-on primer. I do this to create a ‘value map’ for myself to follow when I start applying the colour. During the value mapping stage I am just concentrating on contrast and value – trying to make the midtones of adjacent areas different enough from one another, and blocking in the appropriate shadow and highlight contrast based on the location of the light and the texture of the material in each area. Then I apply opaque colour directly over the map, matching the placement of my shadow, midtone, and highlight colours to the locations I picked out for them in the value map stage. Once the primary values are placed where they should be, then I can concentrate on blending, and after that worry about the fine details.

Value map and fully painted version of a figure.In the value map version on the left, you can see that I am not very worried about blending, and I’m completely ignoring details. My goal is to establish the midtone, shadow, and highlight values on the large areas of the figure. This method does rely on you following the map, which I can see now that I failed to do on the bodice area. But it also leaves you the freedom to adjust and embellish as you see fit – I altered the midtone colour on the skirt from my original map, as well as painting it as more of a gauzy textured material.

For more details on my value mapping method, please see my post on painting ReaperCon Sophie 2018: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/09/06/reapercon-2018-sophie-painting-process/

I also have written a PDF that will be released by Reaper that goes into a little more detail on the process I used with Sophie and a few other figures. I’ll link it here once it’s available, as well as mention it in the comments and likely in a future post.

In the traditional art world, what I’m doing is equivalent to a value study. A value study is a quick sketch or painting of a subject or scene that concentrates on the values (the darks and lights) of the subject. This is done as a way to familiarize yourself with the subject and to assess if the composition is eye-catching. The artist can refer to the value study during the drawing/painting process of the final work to ensure that they are capturing the full range of shadow and light they saw on their subject. It forces the artist to look at the big picture of the contrast before they get lost in painting colour and details. My use of brush-on primer to map values is a similar thing, I’m just doing it on the same surface that I will do my final painting over. (Again, taking photos of the value map stage is probably a good idea since I’ll be painting over the reference on my miniature. You could also have two copies of the figure and paint the value study on one and the full colour paint on the other.)

Here is a site with a good visual example of a simple value study: https://www.dorian-iten.com/value-study/

This site demonstrates how even something that looks super sketchy and rough can be valuable to a well-executed end result: https://www.davidmkessler.com/blog/23789/value-studies-the-artists-essential-tool

Underpainting: Notan

Notan is a Japanese word meaning ‘light-dark balance’. (Supposedly, honestly I have no idea how much of the interpretation I’m discussing of the concept is appropriation by the Western art world, but there is certainly a strong tradition of black and white traditional art and graphic elements in Japan.) In its purest form, Notan interprets a scene or subject in black and white only. This Blues Brothers graphic is an excellent example: 

The Blues Brothers in black and whiteClassic Notan – everything in the image is either black, or white.

For me, at least, that idea is a little challenging to apply to miniatures. Luckily people also create Notan using three or four values. So if using only two values seems to challenging, consider using white, black, and one or two values of gray to create a Notan on your figures. This is very similar to the idea of value mapping, but you don’t worry about blending in even a rudimentary way. You just make notes on the figure with paint about where you want to apply highlights, shadows, and midtones. I put my the lighting reference photo shown earlier into a Notan app and applied a three value filter to give you an example of what that would look like.

Reference photo of Tara the Silent with three value Notan applied by Notanizer app Note that I did not have the app at the time of painting this figure, I just wanted to give you an example of what using the app on a reference lighting photo might look like.

The following is an example of my attempt to apply Notan underpainting to a miniature figure. After taking pictures illuminating the figure with an in-scale light, I applied areas of black and white over the gray primer to block in a Notan value map. Notice that there is no attempt to blend whatsoever. I’m just trying to establish where I want things much lighter and much darker. After that I applied blocks of opaque colours over those maps, placing my highlight colours over the white, midtone colours over the gray, and shadow colours over the black. Then I worked on blending the edges where each section met.

Photo of Tara the Silent with Notan value mappingThis was my attempt to apply the Notan concept to a figure. This was my interpretation of the placement of light and shadow based on my lighting reference photo, I did not have an app that could apply Notan filters at the time. Notice that there is no blending in this kind of value map, just a very clear indication of where things should be lighter, darker, or somewhere in the middle.

A discussion of classic Notan: https://blog.mitchalbala.com/the-wisdom-of-notan/

Using three and four value Notan: https://www.finearttips.com/2017/05/using-japanese-notan-design-principles-for-plein-air-painting/

There is an app for that! The app that I mentioned, Notanizer, is available for various operating systems. This site shows you how the app works and includes links. Try it out on some photos of miniatures painted by painters you admire to give you a better idea of how to apply better contrast to your miniatures: https://blog.mitchalbala.com/compositional-studies-with-the-notanizer-app/

Underpainting: Grisaille

It is also possible to apply the idea of zenithal priming/value mapping in a much more finished way. With this method you use a wide range of grays as well as black and white to paint the figure to a high level of polish and detail, and then apply thin coats of transparent paint over that to introduce colour. Given the nature of acrylic paint and how pigment colours behave, you would likely also need to apply some more opaque layers of paint, particularly for the top level highlights, but also possibly in other areas. 

Noir detective front 450This figure was painted as a black and white noir detective, but you could also use this approach as a grisaille under painting. After completing this step, I could add transparent layers of paint to introduce skin tone, hair colour, etc. 

Grisaille is also a well-established technique in the traditional art world, particularly for oil painting. Again, the purpose is exactly the same as what we’re trying to do with our figures – ensure that the contrast level range between the darkest and lightest values is large enough enough and pleasing to look at. 

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

And another example here: http://www.muddycolors.com/2017/08/what-lies-beneath/

If you’re interested in studying more about how this is used in the traditional art world, here are some search terms: underpainting, grisaille, brunaille, verdaccio, verdaille. (Grisaille is when it’s done with grayscale, brunaille with brown colours, and verdaccio/verdaille with greens, which can be quite effective under skin tones.

Underpainting: Sketching and Sketch Style

In the miniature painting world painters have recently begun using terms like sketching or sketch style to describe variations of underpainting applied to miniatures. Alfonso Giraldes (Banshee) often paints with a sketch approach, and Matt DiPietro has adapted that approach into what he calls sketch style. For tabletop painting I believe Matt uses zenithal priming or something very similar. For display level work, I think Alfonso and Matt more often sketch in colour, something more like a colour block in or ebauche. (Discussed more below.) 

Block in Values with Colour

I recommend trying some of the monochrome underpainting methods out because separating the stage where you work on values out from working on colour and blending helps to make it much easier to keep your focus on building higher contrast in your values. But it is possible to do something similar with colour. The idea with this is to rough in your values similarly to the value mapping or Notan methods above, but using mixes of various values of your colours. At this stage you do NOT worry about blending or details. Just try to get the shadows, midtones, and highlights roughed in to their correct locations on the major areas of the figure. Then you can get a better idea of how things work as a whole and whether you need to tweak some areas to be lighter or darker before you put a lot of work into blending and detail painting. This is a way around the issue I mentioned up at the top in the Check and Reflect section – you can’t really judge whether the contrast range of your values is correct until you get the majority of them painted on your figure. 

This kind of blocking in is the idea behind the technique called sketching that Alfonso Giraldes, Matt DiPietro, and other miniature painters often employ, particularly the European painters. Get an overview of your big picture blocked in quickly to make sure the colour and value choices work before investing a lot of time into the work. This can also be a useful method for speed painting or tabletop painting. You work on the big picture, then start to refine blending and details, stopping at any point where you’ve invested as much time into that miniature as you can afford.

EDIT TO ADD: I have an example of blocking in that I did in this PDF from Reaper, which also includes more information on painting lights and shadows to match a directional light source: http://www.reapermini.com/images/dungeondwellers/07002_BaranBlacktree_PG_low.pdf

Life Miniatures has some excellent tutorials demonstrating one kind of block in approach for major shadows and highlights followed by blending the transitions. (This particular approach is called planar painting, where each plane of the three dimensional object is painted the appropriate value based on the direction of the light source.) I recommend scanning through all of the tutorials, as each demonstrates some of the points better than the others in some respects. Each of the tutorials has a ton of photos. https://www.lifeminiatures.com/step-by-step

And at this point it probably won’t come as a shock to learn that this is something else practiced in traditional painting. You can get an overview with some nice examples of block in compared to finished painting here: https://seattleartistleague.com/2016/10/21/blocking-in/

You can also read about a traditional art technique of underpainting with colour called the ébauche here: https://www.jeffhayes.com/techniques-of-painting/ebauche-underpainting-dulled-colors/ (The videos linked from that page seem to have been taken down unfortunately.)

Additional Resources

Whew, that is a lot of information to parse! So I think that I should bring this post to a close. I have had some questions in response to my first post about contrast that were really more related to blending. It is definitely more challenging to create smooth transitions when you have a more extreme range between your darkest shadow and lightest highlight. So you aren’t necessarily doing anything ‘wrong’ if you find that happening! I am considering whether to write a post with some tips for blending. I generally reserve extensive discussion of blending for convention painting classes where I can easily demonstrate the techniques and brush handling that I use. In the meantime, here are some additional resources you might find useful.

I have written two Learn to Paint kits for Reaper Miniatures. The first covers the core skills of drybrushing and washing. The second is an overview of my methods for blending – layering and glazing.  You can find that kit at this link, from your local retailer, or numerous online shops: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/learn%20to%20paint/sku-down/08907

Layering is not the only method for blending, though for a variety of reasons I do think it is useful for every painter to learn. Anthony Rodriguez (Pirate Monkey Painting) has a good overview of the major blending techniques (including layering) on this site. His full length videos have been lost (he’s recreating these on Patreon I believe), but the text articles under the Brushwork Technique Articles heading include animated gifs that are great illustrations of the techniques: https://piratemonkeypainting.wordpress.com/2017/01/21/pirate-monkey-painting-basics-layering/

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

Figures Appearing in this Post:

Dionne, Werewolf Hunter by Hasslefree Miniatures: https://www.hfminis.co.uk/shop?product=dionne~hfa015&category=modern-%26%0D%0Apost%252dapoc~modern-adventurers
Wood Elf Goddess Avatar Form by Dark Sword Miniatures: https://www.darkswordminiatures.com/shop/index.php/miniatures/visions-in-fantasy/wood-elf-goddess-avatar-form.html
Tara the Silent by Reaper Miniatures, special edition figure not currently available: http://www.reapermini.com/Miniatures/Special%20Edition%20Figures/sku-down/01602
Unknown figure by Sandra Garrity (possibly an Adiken figure)
Camille from the Barglemore and Camille pack, special edition figure currently available for a limited time by Reaper Miniatures: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/01626/latest/01626
Deadlands Noir Occult Detective by Reaper: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/deadlands%20noir/sku-down/59039

How to Paint Contrast – Mind Games

My previous blog post was an argument for why we need to paint miniatures with a lot of contrast, and for why painting in a more contrasted fashion is not only more artistically interesting (and better for game play use), but also more realistic than you might think. Assuming you were persuaded by my argument, you might now be wondering just how to go about doing that in practical terms. (If you’d like to catch up on that previous post, you’ll find it here: https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/10/01/contrast-versus-realism/)

When we think about working to learn a new technique or effect, or working on getting to the next level with the techniques we already use, we tend to focus on how to handle the brush and dilute the paint, and other practical matters of that nature. No doubt those are issues that can hold us back or cause frustration. But our mindset and expectations can also hold us back, and we don’t always think about how important the mental aspect of striving to improve is. 

Change is Hard

If you’d like to paint with more contrast, begin by thinking of that as a technique or effect. You are going to need to focus on it as an end goal and practice with it just as you would with learning a method of blending or trying non-metallic metal or painting hair or whatever else. It is also helpful when you are learning or aiming to improve to put most of your focus on just one or two areas at a time. Starting to paint a miniature with the expectation that you’ll paint it with a lot of contrast, perfect blending, a fantastic colour scheme, etc. is putting too much pressure yourself. It will be more effective if you keep contrast as your main goal until you feel comfortable painting with a higher level of contrast. Achieving your goal on just one or two figures isn’t really enough, it’ll be easy to slide back into old habits unless you’ve made your new approach into a new habit.

To help you keep the focus on pushing your contrast, I recommend that you choose figures you like and find easy to paint. Pick paint colours you enjoy and find easier to work with. Accept that your blending might look a little worse than usual because you’re painting it over a greater range of contrast than you usually use, which makes it more likely that you’ll see rough spots. Work on getting the contrast for a few minis, then work on the blending, then contrast, and then back to blending, and hopefully you’ll get the two working in harmony before too long.

Dionne front beforeI painted this in 2008. I was aiming for a shiny leather/rubber look. I thought I had painted it with plenty of contrast.

Our minds tend to resist change. You are going to be sitting there painting the figure and your brain will start to scream at you that the contrast looks ridiculous. You should pull it back, glaze it down, do something to make it look like what you’re familiar with seeing when you paint. Resist that urge! Remember that what you’re familiar seeing while you work is a miniature painted with insufficient contrast. You’re trying to paint the opposite of that. If you start feeling uncomfortable, chances are that means you’re doing something right, because if nothing else, you’re trying something new. Never make a sudden decision right after you’ve painted something new like that. Paint until the end of your session then walk away from the miniature. (Or stop right then and walk away if it’s just tempting you too much to ’tone it down’.) Come back the next day and give it a good look (using some tricks I’ll outline below). Think about it for a while. If you still think it’s too much, then go ahead and make some adjustments.  (Though it doesn’t hurt to wait until you get closer to finished and look over the figure as a whole when considering whether certain areas have too much or too little contrast.) This approach gives you time to get used to the new thing that you’re trying and to assess it with fresh eyes. If you ‘fix’ it right after you’ve painted it, you risk covering up a lot of hard work that actually achieved some of the goals you set for yourself.

Dionne before afterI took a second look at it in 2009. Nope, not remotely enough contrast for a shiny leather/rubber suit look. Also not enough contrast on the hair. And note how the deep shadows under the stomach and between the legs make the shapes look like they have more volume and are more rounded. This is what I meant in the last post when I said we need to use contrast to make miniature figures look fully three dimensional. If I were to paint this today or touch it up again I would probably add very small even brighter highlights to areas of the suit.

I’m definitely speaking from experience with that one. I’ve been working on painting something like contrast, or an animal pattern or whatever. It’s late, and I’m tired, and it just seems way too exaggerated and ridiculous looking. I’ve given into the impulse and painted over it, and regretted it the next day. I’ve also put the figure down and walked away, and come back the next day to realize that no, it doesn’t look so bad after all. 

Real Time

Remember that the viewer approaches your miniature in a much different way than you do. First the viewer gives your figure a quick look. You have a few moments to capture their attention to make them want to look closer. Even when people love a figure and want to study it for a while, I think few people are likely to look at a miniature for more than five, maybe ten minutes. As the painter, you spend a lot longer on it than that. Even a speed painted miniature takes 30-60 minutes to paint. Many of us spend hours looking at a figure. We come to know every fold of the cloth, every curve of the muscle and so on. Because of that, what you do will always look more extreme to you than it does to other viewers. If you want to see what I mean, go back and have a good look at figures that you painted a few months ago, or even better, a few years ago. Do they look as highly contrasted and exaggerated as you felt like they were when you were painting them?

Another thing to remember is that this is art. You want it to feel real, sure. But you want it to feel real in a way that emphasizes the drama and character of the figure/scene. You are like the producer of a play or a movie. You need to try to keep some elements as real as possible, but you also need to take some dramatic license to tell your story to the audience. (If you aren’t buying this argument, go read the previous blog post, I go into a lot more detail about this issue there. https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/10/01/contrast-versus-realism/)

Here’s another way to look at the realism concern – if you aren’t regularly referring to reference photos, you’re not painting in a truly realistic fashion anyway. You’re trying to match your imagined idea of reality, which is generally a lot more inaccurate than you think it is. And if people keep giving you feedback that your ‘realistic’ painting lacks contrast, your imagined reality isn’t seeing you very well. You and your audience will likely be much happier if you either just paint to look cool, or start studying the real world and using reference photos a lot more often for what you paint. If you do that, you’ll find that shadows and highlights look a lot more dramatic than you think they are under a lot of lighting conditions.

Hb front cu beforeI painted this in 2015. I was pretty sure I painted with loads of contrast.

Leaps and Bounds not Baby Steps

I think when a lot of us get feedback to do something like paint with more contrast, we go back to our paint table and push a little, then seek out more feedback, get told we need to push more, etc. It can take years to make notable progress that way. At least I’ve gone through periods where that is the case. I would like to suggest considering a different approach. Exaggerate. Go nuts. Push it and then push it some more, way past where you think you can stand it. Keep pushing until you get consistent feedback that it’s too much. (By consistent I mean more than one person saying it, and in response to more than one figure.) I think that might be a quicker and more efficient method than the tiny increments method. It’s worth a shot at any rate!

Harvest before afterI took a second look a few months later. Um, I guess there really wasn’t that much contrast after all! When I went back in to rework the figure, I think I overdid it with the hair. Keeping the overall hair darker and having brighter highlights in small areas would probably look better. But I think it’s safe to say that  the dress and non-metallic metal and even the peppers look much better with more contrast.

Everything Old is New Again

If you’re afraid of ‘messing up’ some of your favourite new figures, go back into your archives. Grab a miniature that you didn’t really like how it turned out or something else you don’t have much attachment to, and work on touching it up to push the contrast. This is also a great way to get more comfortable with doing final touch ups and editing a miniature. For a long time I was very reluctant to fiddle with something on a figure once I’d completed that section. But my skills improved a lot once I became more willing to do that. And it wasn’t as difficult to do from a technical standpoint as I had feared. The figures shown earlier in this blog post are a good example of what I mean by touching up a figure once it’s completed and you’ve had a little time and distance to take  a hard second look at it.

If you like all your old miniatures, paint some quick tabletop figures for your role-playing game. Or grab the figures out of a board game and paint those. Because we often play games in less than ideal lighting conditions, gaming figures in particular benefit from high contrast paint jobs. And any paint on a game miniature is cooler than playing with unpainted pieces, so you don’t have to get too stressed out about getting the blending perfect while you work on that high contrast. 

Fresh Eyes

The fact that we get so familiar with a figure while painting it is what makes it hard to see that it needs more contrast. Here are some tips you can use to try to jolt your eyes into seeing it like something less familiar.

When you’re painting and you get up to get a drink and take a break, turn off your painting lights. Take off any magnifiers you might use. Then when you come back from your break, pick up your miniature and study it under the regular room lighting. Try looking at it in different rooms of your house to see what it looks like in different lighting. In between painting sessions, store your miniature in a place in your home with moderate to low lighting. Ideally this is a location where you’ll have an opportunity to see it a few times a day. As you pass by, stop and take a look at your figure. Start by looking at it from a distance of two feet away, and then pick it up and look at it more closely. Ask yourself whether it has nice visual contrast and holds your interest both at arm’s length and closer view. Another way to get a fresh look at a figure is to take a picture of it and then flip the figure to a mirror image orientation. Or hold it up to a mirror and look at the mirror image. 

Dds sorceress mirroredWhoa, it’s a completely new view! (Okay it’s maybe not that dramatic, but this can be a helpful trick to jolt your brain into seeing stuff you might otherwise not notice.)

Angle of Attack

When you paint, you turn the figure around to a lot of different angles to be able to reach various spots that need paint. I think these are often moments when we notice a crevice that looks super dark or a highlight spot that looks ridiculously bright and then we feel like we must have painted those badly and need to fix it. Do not judge the contrast (or any other effect) by what it looks like at a weird angle and fix it to look good at that angle! Always stop for a moment and hold the figure in the orientation in which it will be viewed. It needs to look good and correct from that angle only. If you’re painting the shadows and highlights with enough contrast and in the right locations for your viewing angle, it should look weird if you look at it upside down or turned sideways. If you get the opportunity at a convention or similar event, try to look at the figures of skilled painters you admire from odd angles. You will likely find all sorts of super dark shadows and crazy color placement and other elements that feel very awkward to paint, but which can look great on a miniature from the intended viewpoint.

 

Technical How To Tips Coming Soon

I know there are at least some readers who are hoping for some more practical tips in terms of techniques and the like. When I jotted down notes for this topic it became clear it was too long for one post. I’m also hoping to be able to take a little time to do a few visual examples. So please stay tuned for more!

Do you have any tips for pushing yourself to try new things? Tricks to get a fresh look at something you’ve been working on for a long time? Let’s help each other out and share some ideas!

Links to figures featured in this post:
Dionne, metal miniature by Hasslefree: https://www.hfminis.co.uk/shop?product=dionne~hfa015&category=modern-%26%0D%0Apost%252dapoc~modern-adventurers
Wood Elf Goddess Avatar by Dark Sword: https://www.darkswordminiatures.com/shop/index.php/miniatures/visions-in-fantasy/wood-elf-goddess-avatar-form.html
Andriessa, Wizard in Bones plastic by Reaper: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/andriessa/sku-down/77386
Andriessa, Wizard in metal by Reaper: http://www.reapermini.com/OnlineStore/andriessa/sku-down/03734

Contrast versus Realism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minis 150 combo

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

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

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

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