How to Practice Painting

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Is the way you look at your work when you’re trying to study or practice something new different than when you assess your work generally? Should it be? I think the answer is yes! It can be challenging to make that mind shift, but failing to use different metrics to judge our study results means we may not be learning as much or as well as we could.

Banner fullTara the Silent at different stages in the painting process.

In a previous Problem Solving series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), I talked through my mental assessments of my work throughout the process of painting a miniature where I was making colour and lighting choices on the fly. My goal for the Tara the Silent figure was to paint a miniature that was as attractive and successful a paint job as I could manage after a bit of a rough start.

When I was painting Anushka, my aim was to practice a new painting approach and demonstrate to myself that I had successfully learned and implemented new information. It may not seem like it on the surface, but that is actually a very different goal than trying to paint a good looking miniature! In both cases I repeatedly reviewed and then revised my paint work. But in each case I was working towards a different goal, and I was using different criteria to judge my success in reaching the goal. 

Anushka comp crAnushka at different stages in the painting process.

I’d like to talk about why it’s useful to approach a study piece differently than general painting, using my experiences painting the Anushka figure as an example. I also want to remind myself about this! I don’t think I do enough focused study like this.

I actually painted Anushka as a study piece in Spring 2019. I edited the WIP pictures and wrote a first draft of this article soon after the painting, but for various reasons it got put aside for a while.

Tsukigoro front 500My painting of Tsukigoro, a larger scale resin figure that we worked on in the workshop I took with Sergio Calvo Rubio.

In the Spring of 2019 I took a weekend workshop with Sergio Calvo Rubio, a fantastic Spanish painter. In addition to his feedback on my figure throughout the workshop, he kindly shared his thoughts on a few other miniatures I had painted. He felt I was a technically proficient painter, but that I wasn’t painting with enough contrast. In particular, I wasn’t painting enough of the small, bright highlights that really help a paint job pop. I have been receiving similar criticism from painters I admire for years! I do try to push for more pop, but in the struggle between a refined result and pop, I find it very challenging to not go overboard refining or smoothing the highlights, which usually dilutes the effect of the pop.

After the workshop, I painted a few practice figures to try to cement what I learned, and to try to figure out how best to apply his approach to the gaming scale figures I paint most often.

Important Note: I will be referencing some of the principles and techniques Sergio teaches in this series, but only insofar as is necessary for readers to understand the gist of what I’m saying. It is not my goal to share all of the material from Sergio’s workshop, and I will not answer questions about his techniques or methods. If you’re interested in learning more about how Sergio paints, I highly recommend checking out his Patreon or his YouTube channel, or attending one of his workshops if you have the opportunity. 

My reference materials when practicing included my notes and practice figures from the workshop and a couple of previous classes I had taken with Sergio at AdeptiCon. I also have the good fortune to have in my possession a couple of demo figures that Sergio painted as examples for classes. This allowed me to take comparison photos of Sergio’s examples and my practice figure, which will also allow you to compare my attempt to his demos so you can make your own assessment of how well my study went.

You can see a few steps of Sergio’s process to paint the figure on the left. There is a video demonstration of how Sergio painted the non-metallic sword on the figure on the right.

Sergio figures fullThese two figures were painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio for class demonstrations.

When I painted Tara the Silent, my goal was to paint as good looking a figure as I could in a fairly tight deadline (for me). My initial colour selection didn’t work, so I got off to a bit of a rough start. Some of painting process involved trying to salvage as much of my previous work as I could, and tweaking things to look as good as possible. So my analysis concentrated on this question: does this look good, or do I need to change or tweak something? I think many of us paint day-to-day with that kind of mindset.

However, I don’t think assessing our work with the question does this look good is a helpful approach to take when to studying something new. Maybe you’re studying a new method, like I was with this figure. Maybe you’re trying to learn a new technique like wet blending or layering. Maybe you want to simulate a texture like worn leather or woven cloth. Maybe you’ve seen a particular colour or overall look on another figure that you like and you want to figure out how the artist did it. In all of those cases, you’re trying to model your work after a specific reference point.

I think the question you need to ask yourself when judging your success with that kind of study is not whether your work looks good, but rather: Does this look like my reference? If not, what are the differences?

If the answer is your work doesn’t really look much like your reference, you need to try to do a deeper comparison between your reference and your practice paint to try to analyze exactly what the differences are. You will likely find differences in the level of darkness and lightness, or in the location and size of the darkest and lightest areas. You might notice differences in shapes and patterns of texture. You might discover that the instructor you’re studying uses paint that is more or less fluid than yours for blending, or uses a different size or shape of brush. Training your eye to spot those differences and training your brain to analyze them more deeply can help you make bigger leaps in your skills than any specific technique.

We are so used to assessing our work by the standard of whether something looks good (enough) and whether we like it (or at least can we live with it) that it can be really challenging to shift how we analyze our work. It’s really easy to fall back into just painting as we always do instead of pushing ourselves to be sure we’re actively learning and experimenting and studying. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time learning, and teaching, I experienced exactly that problem while painting Anushka!

I think it’s entirely possible to paint a study piece that successfully demonstrates your understanding and application of something, but which doesn’t look super attractive, polished, or finished. It really is two different metrics.

An easy example of that is contrast. If you’ve been told you need to push your shadow/highlight contrast, you will likely find that when you try to practice doing that, your work may not look as good to you. The transitions may look rough, or even stark. If you are only looking at your practice piece(s) with the question does this look good in mind, you will feel as if you failed. If you painted darker shadows than usual and lighter highlights than usual, you did not fail, you achieved your stated goal! You might need to continue practicing painting with higher contrast for a while to accustom your eye to it, and then set your next goal to be painting higher contrast with more attractive transitions between values. To ask yourself to apply higher contrast values of paint AND do so with flawless transitions on the first few miniatures you try it with is unrealistic! When you study and work to learn something new, make sure you’re assessing your progress in understanding and applying the something new, not judging every single thing about the figure.

The flip side of that is that you can paint something that does look good but which does not demonstrate that you have understood and applied the thing you’re trying to learn. This is what happened to me while painting Anushka.

Grey divider edit

In the workshop, Sergio had us paint from dark to light. I have very rarely painted this way. Just a few times in other classes I’ve taken, with certain colours like black, and when painting areas that are recessed and hard to reach. The advantage of starting with the darkest colour is that you create your deep shadows and lining with your basecoat. (Assuming you have the brush control to not slop into the crevices, which I have not always had.)

Most of the time when I paint I start with the midtone, then paint the shadows, and then paint highlights. I have found that it is easier for me to identify the correct placement for shadows and highlights with this method. It also makes it easier for me make sure I leave enough of the midtone colour apparent, which is important to establishing the texture and overall colour of the material, and can also help create more contrast.

Another reason I prefer starting with the midtone colour is that I worry that if I start with the darkest shadow colour, I will be more more likely to paint most of the areas in a similar midtone value instead of separating sections of the miniature by starting with different value midtones for each. Even when using the method I’m used to I don’t always get this right, as you can see in the example below.

Erli original cr 1000

One of the reasons the paint scheme on the right is more effective than that on the left is that adjacent areas of the figure differ in the value of their midtones. You can see that more clearly when the picture is converted to black and white as below. A deeper analysis of the differences between these two figures is available.

Erli original cr bw

To better understand and study Sergio’s method, I followed his approach and started with the darkest colours for each area of the figure. I forgot to take the photo until after I had painted the green pantaloons, but it should still show the overall idea.

Anushka wip1a basecoat front fullAnushka painted with the darkest shadow colours for each area.

One of the things that distinguishes many high level paint jobs is a strongly painted light source. Often these are painted with the common light from above direction, but with stronger contrast between deepest shadows and brightest highlights. Others may be painted with a more directional light source shining more brightly on one side of the figure, which creates darker shadows on the other side. Sergio’s usual approach is less fussed about painting a precise light source direction than some high level painters. He aims for more of a stage light effect, as if the figure is standing on stage with a spotlight aimed at them. He paints stronger light and brighter saturation on the figure’s head and the centre of its torso, and uses duller, darker colours on the sides and extremities. He prioritizes creating a strong focal point and making the figure interesting to look at, rather than aiming for a super realistic rendition of the light and shadow.

I mention this because it is a great example of how there is not only one style or approach to painting that is recognized and rewarded in the miniature world. I often see comments from people complaining that only one painting approach gets recognition, particularly after the results of a painting contest are announced. There have been times or specific contests when there may have been a grain of truth to that, but for years now I’ve seen a very diverse range of styles recognized both by contests and miniature enthusiasts. In most contests I’ve seen, the elements that factor into top level recognition include the obvious factor of advanced paint manipulation skills, but also a well developed artistic eye, and the courage to commit to one’s vision. In the case of light, whether a painter is trying to replicate real light source reference pictures or aiming for more of a ‘make it look cool’ illustrative approach, they need to commit to their vision for the light and create a high level of contrast. Painting a high level of contrast while also painting smooth blends, or cool textures (including comic book style), or cel shading or whatever other approach challenges both your hand and your courage.

Please note that I am definitely not saying that there is no point to exploring more creative styles of paint application and/or lighting approach if a painter’s skills are more beginner or intermediate level, or if working on a quicker tabletop piece! I just think it’s helpful to understand that the competition side of our hobby rewards skill of execution as much or more as creativity of concept. The highest level painters have literally spent years studying traditional art and/or learning through experience. It’s not really reasonable to expect that the first few pieces someone tries to paint with an advanced lighting technique or textures or whatever is going to instantly catapult them to gold level.

In the year or two preceding the workshop, I had spent a lot of time practicing painting more directional light. I also focused on portraying my light source both more correctly and more evocatively. One example of that is the way I painted Ziba the Efreeti. I created lighting reference photos and I followed them to the extent of painting the cast shadows on her. What I had been focused on prior to the workshop was in many ways a completely different approach to what Sergio was teaching us, so it was a bit of a mind shift for me.

Grey divider edit

First Study Session

Regardless of your approach to the light, when working on a textured surface (or one you’re painting to appear textured) the goal is to build up both the appearance of the texture AND the placement of lighter and darker areas that will evoke your imaginary light source. I painted the green pantaloons as a smooth cloth texture with a moderate level of contrast. They’re in a low interest area and mostly to the sides of the body, so with Sergio’s approach they shouldn’t stand out particularly. Next up was the top and overskirt. I decided to paint these areas as one piece of clothing, and with a worn leather texture. I decided that, but that’s not what I painted…

Anushka wip2b front full

Anushka wip2 back full

The top ended up looking like a different colour and material than the skirt. That did not have a lot of bearing on the lessons I was trying to learn, so I decided not to worry about it. Sergio’s main critique of my work was that it was technically very proficient, but it did not have enough contrast. In particular, it completely lacked the strong edge and spot highlights that help a figure pop off the shelf/tabletop and grab the viewer’s attention. These are also an important tool a painter uses to draw the viewer’s eye to the key focal points the painter wants them to zero in on.

So how well did I do with the study goals of painting strong texture and using strong contrast to make the figure pop? I did not make this assessment immediately after painting. I waited until the next day. I think it is very helpful to step away from something you’re working on overnight, or at least for several hours. It allows your eyes to reset, and gives your brain a chance to shift from creation mode to editing mode. As you’ll see below, my impressions of my work while I was painting versus my impressions of it the next day were very different!

The top, while painting: I felt like I was really pushing the highlights and going quite bright, and doing a good job concentrating the brightest areas in the centre of the figure’s cylinder as Sergio does. 

The top, next day: Huh, where did those bright pops of highlight go? I swear I worked on them! (And as a side point, I realized that if the back of something is armour, so is the front, so I needed to paint the chest plate area to match the armour sections, not the skirt or the sleeves.)

The skirt, while painting: I think I’m getting a texture that is less fiddly and small than I usually paint for leather. It’s a little darker overall than the top, but since the skirt is on the bottom half of the figure and attention should be focused on the face and upper torso, that should work out well.

The skirt, next day: This texture part looks pretty good. But I almost completely failed to create any overall sense of light or bring out the forms of the different skirt folds.

My assessment of the skirt is an example of the difference in analyzing success in studying something versus success in achieving an attractive result. If this were something I was painting on deadline, I would probably leave the skirt basically as it is and just build up a few more highlights on it to create a little more form. The texture looks pretty good, it photographs well, and it fits the character and colour scheme.

For a piece that was intended a practice of a specific approach, I needed to assess whether I demonstrated that learned and understood the lesson. The way I painted the skirt at this stage did not demonstrate that, so I needed to try again, possibly even repainting the area to start from scratch. (If you are incorporating practice into a project like painting an army, another option is to call it good on this figure and then try again with the next one.)

I also took a moment to ask myself how did I go so wrong with this attempt, and I think those thoughts are worth sharing with you as well.

Fuzzy Goal/Intention
I just sat down and started painting. It would have been a good idea to study my reference figures and photos right before and even while I was painting, so the result I was aiming for was fresh in my mind.

Distractions
I had an episode of a TV show running in the background while I was painting. When I’m doing routine tasks and things I’m proficient at, it is helpful to listen to a video or audiobook. It distracts me if my back is sore or I’m getting bored, and keeps me painting longer. But if I’m trying something new or working on a technique I find challenging, I need to minimize distractions so I can keep my brain actively focused and concentrating on the task at hand.

The combination of those two factors made it very easy to go into autopilot and just paint the way I usually do. Painting on autopilot is useful for routine tasks, but it’s a dangerous trap if you’re trying to learn something new.

For those who might be having difficulty seeing what I’m talking about, here’s the figure I’m working on next to a couple of Sergio’s WIP figures from classes he’s given.

Anushka wip2d comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip2c comps back full

Don’t despair if you’re having trouble seeing everything I’m pointing out. It takes time, practice, and concerted effort to start building your critical eye. There is very little material related to training critique ability in our hobby. I did not have a strong eye at all when I started out, and I know that there is a lot that I still miss. Being conscious of the importance of an artist’s eye and trying to cultivate it has immensely helped me in my quest to improve my painting level, and I am confident it will continue to help me. I wish I had been more deliberate about practicing things I’d learned in classes and workshops and aiming to build up my eye much earlier in my painting career.

Grey divider edit

Second Study Session

For my second attempt, I set my intention and reviewed my examples before beginning to paint, and minimized distractions while painting.

I think I was much closer to goal this second time. I don’t know if it’s perfect by any means. It might even be overly textured, and there is still more emphasis on texture over value and form, but I think it’s better. The form of the skirt in the back view particularly is much more apparent.

Anushka wip3 back full

I thought I should go in and glaze in some more contrast and/or tone down the texture on the skirt, but I decided that it would be best to work on more of the figure and see how it came together as a whole before making that decision. Sometimes one of the hardest things for me in painting is to just let something be until the figure is almost finished and I can assess how the colours, values, and other decisions work together before trying to tweak anything. I find it can save a lot of time if I can resist that temptation! If I am painting one section at a time and trying to make each individual section ‘perfect’ while I working on it, I may end up fixing something that doesn’t need it or applying the wrong fix and end up having to spend more time at the end making tweaks than I would have otherwise.

This is one of the reasons that many artists start with an initial quick sketch of the main areas of the figure before preceding to refining individual areas. That is the approach that Sergio took in his class demonstration goblin figure. He started with the basic colours of the figure, then roughed in some highlights, and then continued to refine them. This approach allows painters to assess the success of their colour choices and overall approach for the miniature after a relatively short investment of time, so they aren’t losing a lot of work if they have to make adjustments.

In the workshop and with Sergio’s demonstration figure on the right in the picture below, he painted section by section, but I suspect this was for teaching reasons, and that it is not his usual approach. It’s easier to talk about the specifics of how to paint non-metallic leather, worn leather, and so on if you paint each section individually.

Anushka wip3 comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip3 comps back full

Grey divider edit

Third Study Session

After finishing up the non-metallic metal and the hat (still trying to adhere to Sergio’s principles), I decided to revisit the skirt yet again. I painted a number of glazes on the skirt. Some of the glazes were lighter colours, intended to bump up the overall contrast in the highlight areas. I also added some orange tones to saturate the colour a little more, and I used some of the same blues I used in the hair in to glaze in more shadows. The overall intent was to build up the value contrast a little more, and tone down the texture. I think it has a bit more of a buckskin hide look now, and the level of texturing is more appropriate to the character.

Anushka wip4 back full

Anushka wip4 comps front full

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka wip4 comps back full

Here’s a compilation photo of the three phases I went through trying to work out how to do the skirt.

Anushka comp cr

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The Finished Figure

So did I accomplish my goals and successfully study Sergio Calvo’s approach? Let’s take a look at the completed miniature.

Anushka front

I think I did focus attention in the centre of the figure and put a lot of light around the face. I painted a different sort of leather texture than Sergio had, but my practice was focused on how Sergio approaches painting light overall, not that specific leather texture. (That might be a good subject for another practice session, though!

I achieved more pop highlights than I usually do, but still probably not enough.  Also some of the pop is coming from the non-metallic filigree. I’m generally comfortable going up to white on NMM, so that might not be a true test. To be thorough, it would be good for me to paint some additional miniatures with different materials and review how I did with those. In my opinion Anushka is a reasonable success, but I still have work to do to internalize and consistently apply the approach. What do you think?

Anushka back

Here are some comparison pictures with the reference figures. Note that in some ways this comparison isn’t fair to either of us. My figure is completed and has been worked on for several hours, while Sergio’s demo figures are quick demonstration pieces.

Anushka done comps front light edit

My practice figure is in the centre. Class demo figures painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio are to the left and right.

Anushka done comps back light edit

So that’s where I was after a couple of study pieces. Did I go on to incorporate principles of what I learned into my working process? Did anything stick? I’ve been thinking about that as I finish this article, and I think I’ll be working on a followup…

Figures Appearing in this Post

Tara the Silent is currently available in metal. She will be released in Bones Black plastic in the near future.
Tsukigoro is a 75mm scale (or 100mm?) figure from the Hirelings of Asura Kickstarter. I am unsure if the Hireling figures are currently for sale.
The goblin is Bocanegra the Little Tyrant.
Anushka Female Fighter is available in metal.
Mavaro, Iconic Occultist is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Beach Babe Libby is available in metal.
Eriu Champion with Greatsword is available in metal.

How to Mix and Test Washes

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

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

It depends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dilution paints colour

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

Dilution palette colour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 drop paint + X drops water = wash consistency

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dilution paints black

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

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

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

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

BWAB OpenScreen Cream

Go Beyond the Kit

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Beyond the Kit is the name of my new video live stream show on the Reaper Miniatures Twitch channel! Episodes will also be archived on Reaper Miniature’s YouTube channel. Beyond the Kit airs live on Mondays from 2-4pm Central time starting on May 24, 2021. Episodes are available for Twitch on demand viewing for two weeks, and are uploaded to YouTube a few days after airing.

Paint case openCome with me beyond the kit!

Part of the inspiration for the name is that I am the author of the current generation of Reaper Learn to Paint kits. I crammed as much information as I could fit into the kits, but there wasn’t a lot of space to talk about how to take the techniques or paint recipes from a kit or a class and make them your own. That’s the thread that will weave through many of my episode topics – how do you go beyond the kit, or the video tutorial, or beyond the tips you’ve read online and start learn how to figure things out for yourself?

The medium of video allows me to explore some of these ideas in a hands-on visual way. I’m also excited about the immediacy of exchanging ideas with viewers via the chat. I hope you’ll check out the show and see if it’s something you might enjoy. My interests in miniature painting and teaching are pretty diverse, so I expect episodes will encompass a wide range of topics of interest to different levels and types of painters.

Please be assured that there is still a lot in this vein that I want to continue to discuss right here with words, and pictures, and ideas. In fact, let’s talk about some ideas for how to move beyond the kit right now, with a few examples from my own painting experience. I’m also working on a more detailed article with an example of how to ask yourself the right questions and perform tests to get the information you need to improve your painting experience.

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I think many of us approach miniature painting in a similar way to something like cooking. We start with some basic instruction and simple recipes, like one of the Learn to Paint kits or similar instructions from a friend/video. As time goes by, we see something that looks tasty, and we try to get our hands on the recipe to try it ourselves. What technique did the artist use? What exact paint colours and brushes? We gather up as much of that information as we can, and try to replicate their results. We memorize the recipes we like the most or find the easiest to make, perhaps customizing a little by swapping an ingredient or two.

There’s another level of cooking. The kind that generates new recipes or reverse engineers how to make your favourite restaurant dishes. These cooks learn general principles of how best to prepare various ingredients, and which flavour profiles pair together nicely. They have a foundation of knowledge to help guide their efforts, but they still have to experiment to successfully recombine ingredients together and create new recipes. Undoubtedly a lot of those experiments fail. Some spectacularly, some in more mundane ways. Those that seem promising require iteration and refinement to perfect into a successful replicable recipe.

Miniature painting is kind of like cooking in this regard. Many painters look online for techniques to paint wood or marble or whatever other texture. They look for colour recipes for blond hair or red cloth. They ask for advice about the best colour to use to wash or shade this particular paint. You can learn a lot this way! I’ve looked for a lot of information like this, and I try to repay the miniature community’s knowledge bank by sharing my colour choices and other information. If you’re happy painting in this manner, that is great! That is absolutely how I cook. (At best!)

However, if you sometimes get frustrated with this approach to painting, you might want to pursuing learning a little more in depth and shifting how you think about your tools and techniques.You might want to learn more about the properties of colours and principles of colour theory instead of following the recipe of other people’s colour schemes. You might want to try to figure out for yourself how to simulate a particular kind of fabric or plastic, or explore effects from the real world or other art forms. Maybe you just want feel more confident making your own decisions about what colours to use for washes. In ways small or large, there may be ways that you want to be figure things out for yourself.

Velvet research crA few years ago I wanted to paint the texture of crushed velvet on a figure. I began by studying reference pictures of the fabric both worn as clothing and plain fabric swatches. I came up with a paint approach I thought would work, and tested it on a figure.

I think the most important step you can take to move beyond the kit is simple. And free! But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. That step is to reconsider your attitudes about failure and success. It’s also very helpful to try to find ways to reframe the questions you ask and figure out how to explore those answers on your own.

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Idea #1: You Can’t Out-Study Failure or Risk

Most of us spent a lot of time in school learning facts and knowledge. We may have a very study-based approach to learning. Our experience has been that if you read/watch/think about the subject enough, you’ll memorize enough facts and internalize enough ideas  to be able to pass a test, or write a great essay.

That is not how skills with a physical component work. You can’t watch videos or read articles and learn how to throw a perfect pass or handle the steering wheel of a car. You have to get out on the field or in the driver’s seat and practice. The same thing is true of miniature painting. Studying what other artists do can be very helpful, but you will make a lot more progress with a little study and a lot of painting than you will with a lot of study and a little painting.

Velvet painted crThe next step in my crushed velvet experiment was to try it on my intended figure. My first attempt is on the left, and represents several hours of applying paint. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t look quite right. I had to compare to my references and identify what was different, and then think about how to better represent what I saw in my painted version. My revised attempt is on the right. The fact that I am an experienced painter who knows how to paint textures was helpful, but it did not mean instant automatic success.

You will never be able to watch enough videos or read enough articles to ensure that the first time you try something you will get a fantastic result and know how to do that thing well every future time you try. It just doesn’t work that way. Beating yourself up for getting a poor result when you do try something new or try to push the boundaries of something you know how to do does not make you more likely to succeed in the future. It only makes you less likely to want to even try.

The way to learn a skill like miniature painting is to sit down and do it. Sometimes you’ll get great results, sometimes not so great. Success is not the outcome. Success is doing the work and trying to learn from your experiences.

I have written some additional tips about embracing failure, and also about unhelpful attitudes to try to root out of your hobby.

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Idea #2: Think Like a Scientist

Although I said you can’t study your way out of failure, be assured that the left-brain analytical skills you may have learned in school are not useless to miniature painting! They can be immensely helpful. Often you just need to reframe the way you’re thinking about things. That can involve figuring out the right questions to ask, and/or conducting tests and experiments.

One way to think like a scientist is recalibrate your mindset about trying new things and experimenting. Experiments are not pop quizzes where you pass or you fail. The results of experiments may be surprising. Often they may not be the desired results. But the nature of the results doesn’t make the scientist a success or a failure.

Whether it was a wild success or a dismal failure, the results of an experiment are always useful information. If you study the results and what you did, you will get ideas for ways to adjust the experiment and try again. Sometimes the failures can be more instructive than the successes. Sometimes the failures can even give you ideas for how to do something completely different than what you were trying to do! Viagra was initially developed as a drug to treat angina. The man who invented acrylic paint was trying to invent a glue. Your attempt to try a certain technique for smoother blending may not work well for you for that function, but maybe those streaky results would be a great technique to use apply to weathering and mud stains! 

IMG 0915Left: Some of the colour tests I did to choose the paint colours for the Bones 5 Learn to Paint kit.
Right: Colour tests made during painting of the Bones 5 Learn to Paint kit figures.

Even though I had been painting and teaching for a while when I wrote the first learn to paint kit, I didn’t create it by grabbing a handful of colours and slapping on paint on some randomly selected miniatures. I did test mixes of colours to see if I could get the range of colours I wanted. I carefully considered whether the figures I chose were good options for practicing the skills taught in the kit. I painted a test version of each figure to make sure that my overall colour scheme ideas worked. I did tests with paint mixes to see if the black wash for this area worked better thinned with three drops of water or with four.

I also do tests like that all the time in my own painting. I get stuff wrong and need to tweak it all the time in my own painting. It helps a lot to think of that as just part of the process. Sure, sometimes it gets annoying or takes time I don’t have. The fact that I don’t intuitively know all the answers doesn’t make me a bad artist, or a bad person, or bad in any other way. It’s just a challenge to me to find ways to figure out the answers.

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Idea #3: Ask More Questions to Find More Answers

When you work to solve problems or figure things out on your own, I think it is helpful to ask a lot of questions that are specific and detailed.

For example, say you try to paint something to match a reference photo or following someone else’s tutorial and your results don’t look the same. It’s not helpful to say ‘I hate it it looks terrible, I’m an awful painter’. It is much more helpful to look at it and say what are the differences? Where did I place light parts and dark parts in comparison to the reference? Is there a difference in the proportion of the sizes between the dark and parts and the light parts. Are my darkest areas as dark as the reference or are they darker or lighter? Is there a texture that is noticeable?

Perez nmm attempts crAfter watching the tutorial video from his Patreon, I attempted to copy the style of non-metallic metal on Arkaitz Pérez’s Uther bust. My first version (left) wasn’t terrible, but it also didn’t look quite right. I analyzed and compared my results, got some opinions from a few painting friends, and then tried again. The second version (right) is a lot closer. Feel free to test your eye and try to spot the differences.

A couple of years ago I spent some time doing some experiments and following tutorials of a couple of Spanish painters – Sergio Calvo Rubio, and Arkaitz Pérez. I am an experienced painter conversant with several different painting techniques. My first attempts in both cases were not successes. It wasn’t necessarily that my results looked terrible, but they were different from my inspiration material in ways that demonstrated I had not grasped some of the main points of the instruction. I want to emphasize this point – my goal wasn’t to get an attractive result. My goal was to understand and internalize an approach. So even though I got an attractive result with practice on the following figure, I painted that section completely over to practice again with the approach I was trying to learn.

Anushka comp crI painted this figure after taking a weekend workshop with Sergio Calvo Rubio. I wanted to practice the approach he had shown us. My first attempt (left) had an interesting worn leather look. But I had not really painted in the style from the workshop. I painted it over completely again to get the roughed in sketch version (centre), and then once I was happy with that refined it for the final version (right).

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Keep your eye on this blog and on my Twitch show Beyond the Kit for more information now how to ask questions and do experiments and tests to answer questions and expand your techniques. In the meantime, you might enjoy this suggestion for how to study a face painting tutorial. Or my video analysis of something I painted that I didn’t like.

BWAB OpenScreen Black

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Miniatures in this Post

Two of the Learn to Paint kits I’ve written are available.
The Castle of Deception Female Mage is available in metal.
I believe the medieval dancing woman is out of production.
The Battleguard Golem is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Anushka, Female Fighter is available in metal. 

Many thanks to Gene Van Horne for the Bird with a Brush character and Ron Hawkins for the Beyond the Kit graphics.

Photo of woman wearing crushed velvet by Tiffany Combs on Unsplash.

Reference for How to Analyze and Solve Problems Video

Ko-fi tips help keep this content free. Patreon supporters receive PDFs with high res photos.

Attention left brain painting enthusiasts! Success at artistic activities like miniature painting is not open only to those with innate skill or intuitive art sense. Critical thinking skills like analysis, devising and testing theories, and conducting tests and experiments are all tools you can use to paint a better miniature and improve your overall mini painting abilities. 

Snake badThis didn’t quite work out how I’d hoped.

Recently I painted something I wasn’t very happy with. You can see a picture above. I know that is a pretty common experience! I decided to use it as an opportunity to demonstrate how you can use critical thinking skills to identify and solve painting issues and grow from mistakes instead of just beating yourself up about them. And because I’m testing some new video equipment, I also decided to do it as a video instead of written blog post!

Link to video example of using critical skills to analyze and improve figure painting.

In the video, I compared the figure I didn’t like to a couple of other figures that had similarities to try to help me identify the issues. Here’s a still picture of the main comparison figures.

Snakes bad compThe riddle of the Sphy…snakes.

After I came up with some theories about what the problem(s) could be, I got out some paints and couple of more snakes and did some tests based on my theories. In the picture below, the original snakes is in the middle and the tests of two theories are to either side.

Snakes bad testI learned some things!

The first snake I painted was a test colour scheme for a class I’m working on for Reaper Virtual Expo, which is coming up March 5-7, 2021. One of the classes I’m teaching is on scales. I ended up going with the colour scheme below for the class figure. I’ll post more about that once the class schedule comes out. Reaper Virtual Expo classes will be free! The event will also include free games, panels, paint challenges, and other activities. I hope you’ll hop online and join us.

Snake rust rve

I’ve written several articles in the past that discussed ideas of problem solving during process of painting a miniature, so if you prefer written material or want to see some more complex examples of the ideas discussed in the video, you may enjoy reading these.

Bones 5 Goblin band – evaluating and adjusting colour choices

Seated Succubus from Demonic Temptations – adapting paint application process to respond to frustrations and challenges

Problem Solving series on Tara the Silent – part one, part two, part three, part four
Part Four may be of particular interest if you enjoyed the video as it outlines factors to consider when comparing figures. 

Figures Included in this Post

The Giant Cobra is available in plastic or in metal. (The one on the largest base is metal, the others pictured are Bones plastic.)
The snakeman is in the Nagendra Swordsmen pack in plastic. Also sold individually in metal.

Succubus Too Skin Too

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

I’ve been working on the skin of a second succubus from the Infernal Desires add-on of Bones 5. I asked myself what I might write about that, and two very different lines of thought came up. So I’m dividing this into two different posts.

One line of thought was a reflection on the differences in the experience between painting the skin of the first succubus and the second. You might imagine that those experiences would be pretty similar, and in a lot of ways they were. But there were also a lot of differences both in the process and in my feelings of success or frustration at various points during the process. (Pictured below are two of three succubi you can order by adding the Demonic Temptations add-on to your Bones 5 pledge. Also includes three incubi.)

Succ1 2 wip1 front 600Paint desk WIP pictures – good camera, meh lighting.

If I were writing an essay or a scholarly paper, that would be the introduction of my thesis. Then I would run through evidence and citations, and finish by summing up my conclusions. I assume blog readers are more interested in getting straight to the punch. :-> So I’m going to start with my general thoughts and then get more into the specific work-in-progress experiences that lead to them.

Here’s the TL:DR – sometimes you will find it challenging to do tasks you think you should be able to do easily. It is not helpful to beat yourself up for ‘failing’ to get the drybrushing or whatever correct in this instance. No technique, tool, or artist performs exactly the same all of the time. Instead of giving up or trying to force things, it is much more productive to try to adjust what you’re doing to increase your chance of getting a good result and/or to better enjoy the experience.

There are scores of variables that go into a painting experience – specific shapes of that figure, the brushes and paints, the weather and climate, the physical and emotional condition of the painter, I could go on and on. The main point I want to make is – we don’t consciously think about how much some of those factors can vary. We spend a lot of effort on finding the ‘right’ tools, but apart from an occasional bad brush or weird pot of paint, once we select our tools we assume they’re always pretty much the same and focus our attention on the process. If we find a process that works for us for how to put the paint on the figure, whether for a result like smooth blending or an effect like non-metallic metal (NMM), then we have learned how to do that thing and should be able to do it with relatively the same level of difficulty every time. (Or in fact believe it should get easier over time because we’re practicing so we should be getting better at it.)

Succ2 wip1 front 600Started with the legs again. But I felt like I couldn’t really judge whether the location and brightness of the highlights was correct.

In practice we find that is not always the case. Sometimes we sit down to paint and the process seems smooth and easy and the end result comes out well. Other times are a mire of failure and frustration. Most of the time is somewhere in the middle. But we’re doing everything the same! So the only variable we see is ourselves. Somehow we’re bad at this – bad at learning it, bad at doing it, just bad in some way or other. If you give a good painter their preferred tools and methods they surely have a much more uniform experience when working on familiar techniques or effects, right?

I think the only ‘bad’ thing you’re doing in this scenario is setting up a false expectation of how learning and performing a complex skill works. Absolutely the painter is a variable! But that’s not just about your ability to have learned the thing. How well rested and fed are you? Are your muscles sore from moving furniture yesterday? How much caffeine have you had lately? How’s your mood? Are you distracted with excitement over a happy event or frayed with worry over an unfortunate one? All of those things may or may not affect the end result of how what you paint looks that day, but they definitely will affect how you feel about the experience of painting.

Succ2 wip2 faceComing together a little more, but still having trouble judging value and placement of those highlights.

Then you have the question of variations in your environment. Some days the paint takes more or less time to dry. On those days you may have challenges with layering or wet blending or other techniques that require the paint to be at a certain level of wet or dry to work most successfully. People who travel to out-of-town conventions often notice the paint behaving differently since it’s a big change in environment, but there are smaller changes happening at home all the time, too.

The difference in shapes on miniatures is also not an inconsiderable variable. Painting a large relatively flat area with a smooth blending technique is going to be a lot more challenging than painting an area that is small and/or has more jagged shapes. If you’ve successfully painting NMM on jewelry, small weapons, and small armour plates but found it challenging on large flat swords or big armour plates, you’ll have experienced this. (Or the reverse with metallic paints, where they often look great on larger surfaces but don’t bring out fine detail of jewelry or filigree and such well.) The same is true for a lot of techniques and effects – some work better or worse on different kinds of texture and different sizes of area.

Succ2 wip3 face 600Blocking in all the areas and painting the hair dark helped make it much easier to see what range of values I needed and where to put them. Compare how much brighter and broader the highlights are between this and the preceding photo.

People tend to think of a line of paint as being very uniform in its properties, but paint can vary widely in how it feels, acts, and looks based on the pigments used to mix it. It’s not your imagination that it feels different to paint red versus white versus blue or whatever. (And there are many pigments of various hues, so it’s also not your imagination if this blue is easier to paint than that one.)

Succ2 wip3 front 600Different angle of the stage with blocked in values.

To me the takeaway from this is that the goal in learning should not be to expect to learn a process for something like painting skin and expect to be able to apply it the exact same way and obtain the exact same results every time. As you learn a process, learn it with the expectation that it is something that can be tweaked to adapt to conditions or the desired result. If you start painting and something about the process isn’t going well, don’t berate yourself for being ‘bad’ or grit your teeth that you have to accept it’s just going to suck this time.

Instead, think about ways to tweak and adapt the process. I think I was particularly aware of this idea in this situation because of the similarities. I was painting the same area of two very similar figures one after another. It seemed like it should have been a very similar experience. And in many ways, it was. In many other ways, it was interesting how many differences I noticed.

Succ2 wip3 top 600Bit of a closer view of the blocked in values. It’s not super rough, but it’s also not the level of smoothness I would want as an end result for this project.

One difference was how I felt about my paint colour recipe/choices. (More specifics about how I arrived at those are the other line of thought that will be in a different post.) I loved the skin colour I came up with for the first succubus. I was much less sure about the colour choices for the second. I kept going back and forth liking this but disliking that, not being sure if the value range went bright enough, etc.

Succ2 wip4 front 600For comparison, this is what it looked like after I smoothed out the transitions. (And added lining.)

My experience with how easy it was to paint those two skin colours was the reverse. While I loved the look of the first succubus skin, it felt annoying to paint those blends. Looking back on it, I’m not sure if there really was a big difference in the paint colour mixes. I’d have to paint the two them again the same day to really know I guess. It may just have been the case that I was out of practice with fiddly detail blending and not in the mood for it. It can be sort of zen if I get in the right frame of mind, but it’s slow and somewhat tedious and I suspect I would have been happier doing a quicker but more imperfect kind of painting on those days. (So switching to a different project or task is another way to adapt to circumstances!)

The experience of painting the skin on the second succubus felt much less onerous. But just the act of painting at all was a little challenging. I have been very fortunate in a lot of ways during this time of isolation, but I have days where I have a lot of trouble focusing on anything to any depth and for any length of time. I had a couple of days like that while working on the second succubus. I had to figure out what kind of video/audio I could listen to that would work to keep the unfocused part of my mind distracted enough to keep my butt in the chair.

Succ2 wip4 face 600Another view of the skin finished and with lining.

I’m taking the time to comment on my emotional response to painting the figures because it can help to remember that our feelings about the process of creating something can have a big impact in our feelings about that thing overall. You might feel more attached to something you’ve struggled over and judge it with a kinder eye. Or you might be so frustrated by something that felt like a chore to paint that nothing about it seems right to you. A viewer with no emotional attachment might look at those two figures and see not a great deal of difference in the painting skill demonstrated on them, but to you they can look very different. (This is one reason why it is so hard to accurately critique our own work!)

I used a pretty similar process to paint both – the layering technique using a lot of small steps between values of shadows and highlights with paint only slightly thinned from out of the bottle consistency. I used similar brush handling to make the smooth blends – stippling tiny amounts of paint of intervening values along visible transition lines. But I found myself making changes to how and where I applied that paint with those brushstrokes between the two figures. There were enough variables between them that it made sense to make some changes to my process to maximize my chances of success.

Succ2 wip4 back 600Finished skin, back view.

I started off painting the darker skin succubus in a similar way to the pale one. I started with the legs. Legs (and arms) are fairly simple structures, so they’re often a simpler surface to paint in terms of figuring out where the highlight and shadow areas would be located. They’re also less detailed, so if I had the colours wrong and needed to paint several more coats until I was happy with the colour selection, there was no danger of filling in detail as there might be with a face or hands. 

But I found myself feeling like I was unable to make good judgements of the paint on the first leg. Darker colours, including darker skin, generally require smaller and sharper highlights to keep the surface appearing dark overall. I started that way with the first leg, and I felt like the small highlights did not convey the form very well. An additional problem is that I was having trouble judging my value range. Were the highlights bright enough? It’s always hard to be completely sure on a partially painted miniature (another argument in favour of the sketching approach to painting), but I felt much less sure than I had with the pale skin version.

Succ2 wip4 left 600Finished skin, left view.

What form is and what we do with paint to create/enhance it is very much a topic for its own post. For now here’s a brief definition: Form is the three dimensional shape of an object. So in the case of the thigh, the general form is a cylinder. Bringing out the form of a cylinder involves painting shadow where it recedes (or you want it to appear to recede) from the viewer, and highlights where you want it to appear closest to the viewer. (As well as in a way that reflects the imagined lighting scenario.) And then within that general concept bringing out the forms of smaller muscle groups that are part of the thigh in a similar fashion. Basically I felt like the way I was painting didn’t really show the viewer the shape the thigh had been sculpted.

When I sat down to paint again I thought it might be helpful to shift my approach a little. I would take more of a sketch approach. I applied shadows and highlights over the entire body, but painted them in a looser way. The aim was to get the values placed approximately where I wanted them, but not stress the blending. (Which was the complete opposite to the pale skin succubus where I stressed the blending through the entire skin painting process!) I found that the lighter area of primer on the hair was a distraction so I painted it over with a dark value of paint. I might end up changing my mind on the actual colour of the hair, but having the intended dark value painted there was very helpful to being better able to assess the shadows and highlights on the skin.

Succ2 wip4 right 600Finished skin, right view.

Once everything was roughed in I could take a step back and assess the overall effect. Did the value range of dark to light seem sufficient and attractive? Did the placement of areas of light and areas of dark look good? Only once I could answer yes to those questions did it seem reasonable to spend the time and effort to create super smooth blends.

Since I would be working over a few days I once again used the palette and paint keeping process described in the previous succubus post. I used a similar number of layer step mixes. With this figure, I did use all of the shadow mixes, with only the very darkest being for lining.

Succ2 skin palettePalette of layer mixes used to paint the skin. Brightest pink in the top row used very sparingly. 

Skin base colour: 9602 Bruised Purple (this colour is not currently available, but can be ordered through a Bones 5 late pledge)
Skin shadow colours: 9307 Red Liner, 9066 Blue Liner
Skin highlight colours: 9283 Old West Rose, 9503 Sinspawn Pink

Now I just have to figure out how to paint the skin of the third succubus…

If you’d like to try your hand at these figures, join in the Bones 5 pledge manager and pick the Demonic Temptations add-on, which includes three succubi and a trio of incubi.