Freehand – How to Practice and Other Tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practice Before Painting

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

Pencil/Pen on Paper Practice

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

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

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

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

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

IMG 0547

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

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

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

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

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

Dragonshield practice

Paint on Paint (or Plastic) Practice

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

On versus Off Miniature Practice

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

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

Bsophie practice

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

Step by Step Freehand on Baran Blacktree

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

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

Step One

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

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

Shield wip1

Step Two

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

Shield wip2

Step Three

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

Shield wip3

Step Four

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

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

Shield wip4

Step Five

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

Shield wip5

Patron Spotlight: Lana Tessler

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

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

In Lana’s words:

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

Lana tessler1

Lana tessler2

Lana tessler3

Lana tessler4

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Figures in this Post

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

Study Guide for Painting Tutorials: Sketching in Highlight and Shadow Placement on a Face

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

I just watched a terrific video I think many people would find it very useful to view. In addition to linking to the video so you can go watch it too, I’m also going to share some information related to the topics of the video, and suggest a sort of study guide for how you might put the material from the demonstration into practice.

Still from Miniature Painting Masterclass videoA still from the video on how to paint a face by starting with a sketch of highlights and shadows. Painted by Jaume Ortiz.

The video is called Painting a Face in 75mm Part 1: Creating a Sketch of Highlights and Shadows, and it is a painting demonstration by Jaume Ortiz. It is produced by Miniature Painting Masterclass in partnership with Vallejo paints and FeR Miniatures, but the principles demonstrated are applicable to most figures, painted using any kind of paints. There are several points in the video that I think people may find useful to consider in their own painting.

Mixing Layers and Paint Transparency (Consistency)

How to mix layers, how many, and how much to dilute the paint to use the layering techniques are all very common questions among miniature painters. At the start of the video Jaume demonstrates the paint mixes he will use to paint the highlight and shadow layers. He mixes these onscreen. All paint colours used are clearly listed, but he does not detail the precise ratios of one paint colour to another for the layer mixes beyond what you can see him place on his palette. Since paint colours are unique in strength, transparency, etc., you can’t use a universal guide of X to Y drops for all mixes. You need to judge by the visual results with your specific paint colours. If you look at Jaume’s palette once the paints are mixed, you can use that as a tool to get an idea of the appropriate value steps between the highlight and shadow mixes.

Likewise, Jaume indicates that he’s added a little water to his mixes, but he’s not specific about how much. Some paint colours are much more transparent than others, so the amount of dilution you need to add to a paint to make it the right transparency for a particular function varies from paint colour to paint colour. Instead, take a look at the way the edges of the paint look on his palette. You can see some of the palette through the paint, but it’s also still opaque enough to make noticeable strokes when he layers one paint over another.

Sketching (also known as Roughing In or Blocking In)

Caerindra sketch NMM and finished NMMI used the sketch approach to paint the non-metallic metal on Caerindra. On the left, you can see that I roughed in the main shadows and highlights on the armour. I ignored blending, and I also ignored details like the rivets and lining between panels. My goal was to establish the key areas of light and shadow. In the finished version on the right, I refined the blending and added details. I wrote a blog post about painting Caerindra, and my post about painting an Efreeti includes another example of blocking in highlights and shadows on NMM.  

Roughing in colour or doing a sketch is basically what you see in the above pictures – the highlights and shadows are painted in with no concern for blending smooth transitions. This accomplishes several goals:

* Quick application of highlight and shadow colours allows the painter to verify that the colours they’ve selected work well and provide enough contrast without investing a lot of time in painting everything to a high standard and THEN discovering you need to change your choices.

* The painter can concentrate their focus on precise placement of where areas should appear darker or lighter. (More on that below.) Breaking a task down into separate elements increases the chance of you performing each of those elements well. (In contrast to trying to manage placement and blending simultaneously, which is more challenging and thus more likely to run into issues.)

* The painter can customize their vision of where light and shadow appears based on different types of lighting. The video demonstrates placement in a zenithal lighting scenario. You can photograph a figure under a small bright light to customize your light direction and know where to place lights and shadows. I’ve got an example of such photo reference here and here

* The painter can use this approach to push themselves to create a more dramatic level of contrast. It’s easier to do that using a completely different method of paint application than you usually do. It’s easy to vow to push your usual approach, but easier to fall back into usual habits and do what you always do.

Ingrid sketched in different lightingThe sketch on the left was painted with the light imagined as coming from above (zenithal lighting). The sketch on the right imagines the light coming from the upper right angle.

Placement of Highlight and Shadow Layers

Even you aren’t interested in learning more about the sketching approach, the way it is applied in this video provides valuable information for painters. When you look at something painted with smoothly blended transitions, it is quite difficult to deconstruct it to determine where the painter applied each of the specific levels of highlight and shadow mixes. When you watch this sketch approach video, it is very easy to see exactly where Jaume is putting each of the highlight and shadow mixes.

The demonstration figure in the video is 75mm scale. The general location of highlights and shadows under zenithal light is the same on gaming scale figures, but there may be cases where the highlights and/or shadows need to be simplified a little to read well at scale. (Or you may need to simplify if you have trouble applying them to some of the more detailed elements at smaller scale.) Jaume’s knowledge of anatomy is impressive, and encourages me to hurry and get to that point in my study of drawing!

Barbarian finished in colour vs black and white sketchCan you tell where I placed the third level highlight in the finished version? It’s a lot easier to see where the various layers are placed in the black and white sketch version on the right.

Suggestions for Practice and Study

These suggestions for how to practice and study miniature painting pertain to this video specifically, but also instructional tutorials in general.

Following a step by step example using the same figure and paints as in the demonstration can be very helpful for many people. It allows you to just focus on following the steps, rather than having to improvise to work around differences in materials. You can find the figure from this video at FeR Miniatures, and the specified Vallejo paints through many local and online merchants. (The Face Painting Set used in the video is available from US Amazon, and likely international Amazons as well.)

If you don’t have access to the same figure and paints (or you want to jump in practicing while waiting for supplies to arrive), search through your figures for a male figure with a head similar in size, pose, and expression. If possible, you want a larger than gaming scale figure – a giant or ogre or something else with a larger than 32mm face for your first time practicing. The closer your supplies are to those used by Jaume, the easier you’ll find it to obtain results similar to his. You also want a figure with the head facing forward and not tilted to one side or the other. (If the head is tilted, you can remove the head from your figure and place it on a holder so you can paint it as if it is posed straight up and facing forward like the demonstration figure.) The location of highlights and shadows would be different if the head were tilted in a different position.

For paints, it is most important to match the value – the relative lightness or darkness of the colour. If your colour choices are a little more yellow or a little less red or whatnot, that will present far less of an issue than using paint which is much lighter or darker than the paints Jaume uses to mix his layers. Once you understand the principles of mixing and applying layers in this fashion you can use crazy colours to paint fantastical skin tones, but I do recommend practicing with natural human skin tones the first few times. The fewer variables you have that differ from the example you’re following, the more likely you are to obtain similar results and come to a better understanding of the principles. And if your results do differ, fewer variables make it easier for you to try to isolate and resolve the problems you might be having.

Still from Miniature Painting Masterclass video of paletteThis is a still from the video isolating the highlight, mid-tone, and shadow paint colours. (On the mid-tone, look at the edges of the pool for the best look at the colour, the centre of the pool looks lighter due to paint separation and/or reflection of the studio lights.)

B&W still of the palette from Miniature Painting Masterclass video.I converted the palette image to black and white to give you a better view of the values of the paint colours. You can lay out drops of your own colours and then take a black and white picture of them to check how well the values match. Notice how dark that shadow colour really is! Reddish colours are often much darker than we perceive them to be.

Once you have your supplies in hand, I recommend that you start by watching the video all the way through at least once. When you’re ready to paint, it is handy if you can put the video up on  a tablet or PC near where you paint so you can pause the video and restart it as necessary for you to follow along completing each step. You may also find it helpful to take screen shots to reference where to place each highlight or shadow layer as you paint.

After you finish each step, stop and compare your work with the example. Do they look roughly similar? If not, spend some time studying your work against the reference to try to identify what’s different – do you have a layer in the wrong place? Did you make a highlight too wide or too narrow? If you don’t get it correct straight away, don’t beat yourself up! The purpose of practice is to learn. Think of an error as an opportunity to build your eye’s ability to identify issues, and your brain’s ability to come up with potential solutions for them. Both are very helpful skills to improving as a painter.

After you’ve finished painting through the tutorial, put your work aside for a day or two. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and compare again. You may find that your level of contrast is much less than you thought it was while painting, or you might spot new errors in layer placement. This is a very common experience! I often walk away from a session of painting with an impression of what I did, and when I come back to look at the miniature find that my impression was pretty off and I need to adjust the very thing I thought I was doing well while I was painting.

Once you’ve practiced the demonstrated technique as closely as possible to how it’s demonstrated, spend some time thinking about the experience. Did the method seem to work well for you and you might like it better than your current approach? It can take more than once practicing something to get a good sense for whether or not the technique or approach works for you.

However it’s also the case that instead of adopting a new technique or approach whole cloth, you might find that it works better for you to incorporate it into the way you work. I normally paint the shadows first, and I normally work down from my lightest shadow to my darkest. In this video, Jaume Ortiz paints the highlights first, and then begins painting the shadows with his darkest shadow, then a step lighter, and then a step lighter again. If I try this approach, I might find that it works very well for me. If it does not, I can still incorporate valuable lessons about where to place the shadows and highlights and how to use a sketch approach into my normal approach to painting shadows and then highlights.

Coming Soon

I haven’t always worked to improve my miniature painting with this kind of study and deliberate practice. I wish I had, as I think it would have helped me learn things much easier and more quickly than I have. But I still have a lot to learn, so I am trying to take more of this kind of approach now. I’ll have a few experiments and experiences of my own to share in upcoming posts.

If you want to see how Jaume Ortiz turns his sketch into a beautifully painted face, part 2 of this video series is available.

Additional Resources

Follow Miniature Painting Masterclass on Facebook for links to more great videos, and also galleries of step-by-step picture and text instruction.

I included some information about how I sketched in initial highlights on a black cloak in this PDF.

I sketched in both black and white and then colour on this Christmas dragon figure.

Figures Referenced in this Post

Officer of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Regiment 1862 by FeR Miniatures
Caerindra Thistlemore by Reaper Miniatures
Ingrid the Gnome by Reaper Miniatures is available in metal or Bones plastic
Tyrea Bronzelocks by Reaper Miniatures is available in metal or Bones plastic