It’s not You, it’s Your Brain: Observation vs Knowledge

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Do you think artistic ability is a talent that you have or you don’t? Do you put most of your miniature painting study emphasis on what your hands can do in terms of executing and learning new techniques? Do you curse your eye’s inability to match colours, or even see colours?* There’s something I think you need to know – many of your problems are not a lack of talent, not your hand, and not your eye. Much of the reason you struggle in artistic endeavours, including miniature painting, is all in your brain!

We are literally of two minds. Each mind observes and interacts with the world in a different way. The mind that is large and in charge for most of us does some amazing things, but the way it works regularly sabotages artistic attempts, in several ways. A better understanding of how our two minds work can help us paint and learn more effectively, but it can also help us treat ourselves less harshly when our artistic attempts don’t turn out as we’d hoped.

This is the first in a series of articles to uncover some of the mysteries of how our minds work in terms of visual art endeavours. But before I start delving into that, first I’m going to ask you to humour me and do this little exercise. I think the exercise it will make it easier to understand the points I’m making. I promise that this does relate to miniature painting, and that I will talk about miniature painting specifically further into the article. It’s just easiest to explain the basic issue with drawing.

I’d like you to draw a quick sketch of a cup using the reference photo included in this article. It shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes at most. Try to capture the overall shape of the object, and if possible some of the variation of values on it. You don’t need anything fancy – just a basic pen or pencil and a piece of paper, or even a napkin. You don’t have to show me or anyone else what you draw, this is just for you, so there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

I did a similar exercise using pencil, felt-tip pen, and ballpoint pen. You can see my drawings and the reference photo I used below.

Ornament exampleOrnament – Photo by Charlie Solorzano on Unsplash.

Here is the reference photo I’d like you to use for your quick drawing:

Cup reference

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One of our minds is often referred to as the right brain. It is in charge of observing, sensing, feeling – often on an unconscious level. It places you in space and performs other tasks based on its observation of the shapes, values, and colours around you. It is thanks to this mind that you can successful reach out to grasp an object, or raise your leg the right distance to step up onto a stair. It can do these things because it has been observing aspects of the world around you since you were an infant, when it drove you to look at, touch, and even taste everything in your surroundings to gain more information about the shape, colour, and location of objects based on how they look, feel, and sound.

When people talk about the artist’s eye, they’re largely referring to this part of the brain. It has access to a lot of the information you need to better perform artistic activities, and it can be trained to perform them even better. As learners we put so much emphasis on the physical aspects of our hobby – the right techniques to apply paint smoothly, the best tools to use. But there are artists who make stunning works of art with finger-paints. There are artists who have made representational art from Jello, sunflower seeds, Post-It Notes and sand. They are able to do this because a key component of making art is observing and recreating or evoking the shape, value, and colour of objects. While the hobby of miniature painting by its nature may require more dexterity and precision than many other art forms, it benefits from accessing and improving your artist’s eye as much as any other.

Our other mind is often called the left brain. It is conscious, analytical, and calculating. It is the mind of math, language, and logic. It identifies and interacts with the world around you through names and symbols. It makes the to-do lists, and figures out how to do the tasks on them. Or it rationalizes why you shouldn’t bother with those tasks and go play some video games instead. Most of the formal teaching and training we receive focuses on this mind, whether it’s our parents teaching us how to tie our shows, our schools teaching us algebra, or our workplaces training us how to use the equipment required to do our jobs.

The terms left brain and right brain are gross simplifications of how our brains actually work. Multiple parts of the brain are involved in most of what we do. But they’re convenient short term labels, so I will be using them. I also like the terms observational mind and the analytical mind.

Because of the way we’ve been educated and the tasks we need to consciously perform in our day-to-day lives, the analytical mind is the dominant one for most of us. And for most of us, it’s very dominant. When we try to perform a task that is better served by accessing information perceived by our observational mind, our analytical mind often gets in the way. Sometimes it gets in the way a lot.

It’s helpful to understand some of the specific ways our analytical minds sabotage us. One way they mess us up is because of how knowledgeable they are. Let’s look at the exercise from the beginning of this article for an example. I’ve started with a drawing example because it’s easier to explain and see, but all of this also affects miniature painting and how we approach colour use, colour matching, value, textures, lining, and of course – contrast! Later in the article you’ll find examples of how this same issue affects us in painting.

Earlier I asked you to draw a cup. Unless you’ve had some training in drawing, you probably made at least one of two common errors. That is not because you suck at art! It’s actually because of how much you know about the world around you. This sketch is an example of the common problems. 

IMG 1286

In comparison to the reference photo, the sketch has a much bigger opening for the mouth of the cup, and the bottom edge is much flatter than the cup appears in the photo. Below is a comparison with the original. In the picture on the right, the blue lines represent the contours on the reference photo, and the pink lines are the same areas from the sketch.

Cup errors cr

Several kind volunteers did this exercise for me to use in this article, so you can see additional sketch examples at the end of this article.

Issue 1

Without artistic training, many people who draw something like a cup, cylinder, vase or similar object will draw the opening much larger than it should appear based on the reference they’re using. (Or if they are drawing from imagination, they are likely to draw the opening larger than it should appear in comparison to the perspective used in the rest of the picture.) Why do so many people make the same mistake instead of a variety of mistakes?

We make this mistake because our analytical mind knows that the opening of a cup or the top of a cylinder is round. We may see it as an ellipse (oval), but we know that it’s round. Usually our analytical mind is sort of aware that there is a contradiction between what we currently see on this specific object and what we know about cylinders in general, so it compromises by drawing an oval, but one that is wider than in our reference.

If you look at the examples at the end of the article, there is a huge variety in the differences between the angles people used for the sides of the cup in comparison to the reference, with some drawing the two sides more parallel than they appear in the reference, and others drawing them with a much greater angle than in the reference. The knowledge we have stored about the sides of cylinders is much less fixed than the knowledge we have stored about the tops/openings of cylinders. Almost all openings are circles, but the sides of some cups taper, some are straight, and some bulge outwards in the middle. 

Issue 2

Most people without training draw the bottom of a cup, cylinder, vase or similar as a flat or nearly flat line. Again, this happens because our left brain barges in with all its knowledge and overrides what we see. I mean, we all know that the bottoms of most cups and cylinders are flat. If they were curved they’d tip over on the table. But if you look at a cylinder from any angle other than straight on, both the top and bottom will appear curved. The bottom of a cylinder is a circle too, after all!

You can see how unhelpful our left brain can be – it can make us draw the top wrong because we know it’s a circle, and then it can ignore that the bottom is also a circle and makes us draw it too flat!

If you made either of these mistakes, trust me, you are in good company. Here are a couple of examples of medieval artwork with the same kinds of errors. In this first one the artist drew the plates as if we are looking down on them from above – they’re not even just too-large ovals, they’re completely circular! But then the artist drew the jug as if it were viewed from the side. The perspective of the jug is somewhat similar to the perspective of the people. The perspective of the plates doesn’t match anything else in the painting.

Last supper by Alexander Master from Europeana CollectionsThe Last Supper by Alexander Master from the Europeana Collections.

This unknown artist below has made exactly the same mistakes – the plates appear as if viewed from above, the cups and jugs appear as if viewed from the side.

Unknown

Those errors reflect the things our analytical minds know about each type of object – plates are round; the tops and bottoms of jugs and cups look flat when viewed from a direct side angle. I took a section of the above painting and edited the three objects on the right to appear closer to how they should look given the angle of the table to create an example of how focusing on depicting only what we see creates more realism than if we allows our left brains try to inject additional facts.

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I want to stop and point out that the paint application technique and the overall rendering is pretty well done in both of the above paintings – the cloth has smoothly blended peaks and folds, there are textures and freehand pattern details. The paint is highly pigmented and was applied with appropriate tools. These aren’t the magnificent paintings of an artist like DaVinci or Vermeer, but they’re painted to a better standard than most quick tabletop miniatures. ;-> The big problems with the paintings are not problems with techniques of paint application or quality of tools. (Which are the kinds of issues that miniature painters focus all of our attention on.) The issues with these paintings are mistakes in the drawing of objects that result from failing to see them correctly. The mistakes are in the training of the artist’s eyes and brains, not their tools and skills. The same exact kind of issues affect most miniature painters, as I’ll explain below. You can look at a wide variety of paintings of the Last Supper, many of which have similar errors.

So the first Art vs Brain issue that affects us is:

Your analytical brain prompts you to include more or less information about an object based on what you know, rather than allowing you to try to replicate only what you see.

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Now I want to focus on two questions. The most important is – how does this drawing example relate to miniature painting? But I think it’s also important to consider how knowing why we mess up can help us.

How does Knowledge Overriding Observation Affect Miniature Painters?

Miniature Painting Example: Contrast Issues

So how does this relate to miniature painting? The challenge of drawing the correct perspective of a cup or plate is just one example of how our analytical mind barges in and causes us to make mistakes. One of the biggest issues for most miniature painters is contrast. There are a variety of reasons that we find contrast so challenging, but one big cause for it is this contradiction between what we see and what we know. Let’s say we want to paint some cloth on our figures like the following examples.

Clothes1

Clothes2

The first thing we ask ourselves is “what colour is that cloth?” We come up with answers like forest green, rust orange, sage green, and white:

Clothes baseMidtone colours sampled from the clothing pictures above, displayed on a 50% grey background.

That answer doesn’t tell us everything we need to know to paint cloth like that. We actually aren’t even asking the right question. Your left brain likes simple, direct questions. And it’s great at coming up with simple, concise answers. While that approach is effective in a lot of scenarios, it is too simplistic for good painting. In this case your analytical mind stripped away a bunch of information it considers unimportant to boil things down to the essential answer. It knows that the answer to “what colour is this” is the average or midtone colour of the object under a neutral colour light. (In art terms, this is called the local colour.)

If your goal is to buy a shirt or pick out a rug in the same colour as something you’re looking at, your left brain is correct. The simple question and the simple answer of the midtone colour is the only piece of information you need. If your goal is to paint fabric on a miniature that realistically represents how a piece of clothing looks, your left brain has led you astray. The pieces of clothing in those pictures are not just one flat colour. There are areas where light hits the cloth and makes it appear lighter, and there are other places that are obscured from the light and appear darker. You may be thinking of course there are, that’s why we paint shadows/washes and highlights/drybrushing on miniatures, why is she telling me this?

I’m telling you this because I can almost guarantee that you don’t paint dark enough shadows and/or light enough highlights. One reason you don’t is because your brain is experiencing the same kind of contradiction as people experience when drawing the cup. You can see that there are dark shadows on that white shirt, but you know that the cloth is white, and you’re trying to paint white cloth.  So your left brain says okay, let’s compromise and paint some shadows, but don’t make them very dark, because this object is white.

Your left brain is so good at factoring out ‘unimportant’ information in favour of what it knows to be true that some of you reading this may not even be consciously aware of the range of contrast in the reference photos I chose. Below you can see the photos again, along with samples of colours as they appear on each piece of clothing, from lightest to darkest. You can see that there is quite a range of values between the lightest highlight and darkest area of shadow. This article discusses why dramatic lighting makes a better miniature than flatter lighting. (My example pictures aren’t flat lighting, but they’re also not super dramatic lighting.)

Clothes1 values crLeft: photo by MariaBeatrice Alonzi on Unsplash. Right: photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.

You can see another example of a large range of contrast on a deep forest green in different lighting scenarios.

Clothes2 values crLeft: photo by cottonbro on Pexels. Right: photo by Lisanto 李奕良 on Unsplash.

We often fail to see the full value range of an object even when looking directly at it or a photograph of it. The problem is exacerbated for most miniature painters because we rarely use reference photos or direct observation of real life objects to guide our painting. Our left brain tells we don’t need to look at reference. After all, we see cloth, and leather, and metal, and other materials all the time, we already know what they look like! Think about the experiment of drawing the cup. If what our analytical mind knows can mess us up when we’re looking right at a picture of a simple object, imagine how many problems it can cause when we’re relying on our memory of what things look like! Our left brain knows that a plain piece of cloth is dyed one flat colour, so it resists the idea of applying shadows and highlights that are much darker or lighter than that flat colour. Then our left brain compounds the problem by telling us that stronger contrast isn’t even realistic, even though it often is, as you can see from the reference photos above.

When I give people critiques that their painting needs more contrast, they often tell me that they choose to paint with lower contrast because they want to paint in a more realistic style. While it is certainly the case that there are people who paint miniatures in a cartoony or dramatic style that pushes contrast past the point of reality, I think a lot of people who resist the idea of painting higher contrast are doing so on the basis of what their left brain thinks things look like, rather than studying how things really look. I think they also like a higher level of contrast when viewing the work of others than they feel comfortable applying to their own. Their right brain sees the higher contrast on other other people’s work and recognizes it as realistic. When they’re painting their own figures, their left brain yells at them to keep the colour flatter and more uniform.

Note that there is also a wide range of contrast on the skin in the photo examples I used, even though skin is not as shiny a material as the cloth. I also would not say that either of these pictures were taken in super dramatic lighting conditions.

Clothes skin values crLeft: photo by cottonbro on Pexels. Right: photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.

You can see the contrast ranges I used on a figure with light skin, and one with darker skin. I also have an example from another artist with an accompanying instructional video. I have a contrast range example with blond hair that also has an accompany video. In all cases scroll down the articles to nearer the bottom to see the paints used to compare the darkest with the lightest values.

This is far from the only issue keeps us from painting with sufficient contrast, but I think it’s a big contributing factor to the reluctance to even try. I have written a number of articles about contrast, including one that discusses some other mindset issues, and one that suggests some hands-on methods for successfully increasing the contrast on your figures.

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Miniature Example: Lining

Painting dark lines in between different areas (where skin meets shirt, shirt meets trousers, etc.) is the most effective thing a novice or basic level miniature painter can do to improve their work. Painting instructors give feedback to add lining all the time. And just as with contrast, we get a lot of pushback from people who feel that lining isn’t realistic. Thick black lines may not be strictly realistic, but the concept of lining in general is actually a way to simulate something we see in reality all the time.

When objects overlap or are directly adjacent to other objects, they usually cast a small line of dark shadow onto the underlying surface. Our right brain recognizes this. If you look at a piece of artwork that doesn’t have at least small shadow lines in the appropriate places, you’ll often feel like it’s floating in space and not a real solid object. Some of you may not have drawn any of the shadow cast by the cup in the reference photo at the start of this article. After all, I said the task was to draw the cup, not draw the photo or the scene. So your left brain may have focused on just the cup. In a similar way, many people paint areas of a miniature as individual objects – the robe, and the belt, the quiver, and so on. They are not thinking about how the figure is a whole where one object might affect another, such as by casting a shadow onto it.

Here are a couple of photo examples of this type of shadow in the real world. You can see that it looks more realistic and natural to have these shadow lines, even when the light is fairly diffuse and objects aren’t casting dramatic shadows. (Note that the dark line often seen underneath an object sitting on a surface even has a name – the occlusion shadow. This area is occluded from directional and even most ambient light.)

In this first example, I digitally removed the shadow line beneath the orange on the right. The orange on the left is unedited. Note that this is a very brightly lit photo, so there isn’t a dramatic value range between the highlights and the shadow on the oranges themselves, but even in this lighting situation there is a pretty dark occlusion shadow beneath them.

Lining example oranges crPhoto from Pixabay on Pexels, digitally edited to remove shadow under orange on the right.

In the example below, the original picture is on the left, and my edited version is on the right. I removed all of the shadow lines that miniature painters would replicate with lining. I also removed most the cast shadows, since miniature painters rarely paint these. The effect of shadow lines (lining) in adding detail and making objects look three dimensional is particularly obvious around the bottom of her shirt, the hand on her hip, and the front of her pants. The front side of this woman is well lit in this photo. Even though there actually isn’t that wide a value range between the highlights and shadows on the front areas of her clothing, the shadow lines that we would replicate with lining on miniatures are still very much in evidence.

Lining example woman crLeft: photo by Kai Gabriel on Unsplash. Right: photo digitally edited to remove shadows.

I have another article with more examples of lining type shadows in the real world

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How Does Understanding what is Happening Help?

So now that you know about this issue, you should be able to paint the perfect amount of contrast and lining on every figure, right? Alas no. But being aware of the issue can help in a couple of different ways.

First, if you have been resisting using lining or higher contrast because you feel they’re unrealistic, I encourage you to make your own study to see whether that is really the case. Observe people and objects around you as you go through your day, and look at pictures on your phone or camera. Study the range of values on textures like cloth and metal. You can export pictures into an image editing program and use the eyedropper colour sampling tool to isolate values in different sections. Next look for dark thin lines where two items touch or overlap. You won’t find strong contrast and shadow lines in every example – they occur less when lighting is very diffuse or flat. But hopefully you will find enough examples of higher contrast and lining type shadows to convince you that it’s worth experimenting with pushing contrast and lighting on your figures. Try it on a few figures (more than one!), and then assess what you think of the results. Ask friends for opinions. If you try it for a while and you still don’t like it, you can always return to how you painted before!

Second, if you are someone who already is trying to push your contrast but finding it challenging – keep trying, it’s worth it! And don’t beat yourself up too much when you don’t succeed. There are reasons why it is challenging, but those reasons are not that you suck! The issue I’ve explored here isn’t even the only issue that makes pushing contrast hard; there are multiple reasons that your eyes and brain tell you’ve got enough contrast or even too much.

If you’re aware of the challenge, you can take steps to check your work. It helps to take breaks, step away, and come back to view it with fresh eyes to double check whether it was really as contrasted as you thought while you were painting. I still have to do this sometimes despite more than a decade of actively pushing my contrast. You can see lots of examples of me going back to add more contrast to figures!

I have found that the situation is pretty similar in learning traditional art. Knowing that I will want to draw the ellipse of a glass or jar larger than it should be doesn’t keep me from ever making mistakes. But knowing I’m likely to do this does prompt me to check my work and correct issues sooner in the process. It also helps me figure out what I did wrong when something doesn’t turn out that well.

It may be helpful to know that people studying many traditional art forms also have trouble with contrast! Newer artists are often hesitant to use strong contrast, and the need for to add darker shadows is common feedback from instructors. I’ve had fewer problems than many novices do because I spent years wrestling with it in painting miniatures. But even so, I still mess up sometimes, like I did in the drawing below.

On the left is my original drawing. The right is a digitally edited version of the picture. The only change I made to the features was to move the location of the eyebrows up slightly. Everything else is in the same place and the same shape in both drawings, but some things look like they’ve moved or changed because the darker shadows define them better. (I’m not able to share the reference photo, but the higher contrast version is also a lot closer to levels of light and shadow in it than the original.)

Green 6 crLeft is my original drawing. The right side is digitally edited to add more contrast. You can read about where to shade faces on miniatures.

Here’s another example of an historic painting. The painting has fairly realistic colour which was applied with precision. It has smooth blending where appropriate, lots of freehand pattern details, more realistic face proportions, and depiction of different texture surfaces like marble, cloth, and fur. The artist painted the glasses and jugs correctly, with small ellipses at the top and some gentle curves at the bottom that fit with the perspective of the tables and floor. Now look at the plate in the centre of the rectangular table – it’s drawn as if viewed almost from directly above! Even though the two glasses to either side of it are drawn with correct perspective to the rest of the painting and the artist got so many other things right. Even the other plate at the far end of the table is more correct.

Unknown2

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Caveats and Notes

The book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards is the classic reference for people looking to understand why drawing what you see is so much more challenging than it sounds. I like the book Your Artist’s Brain by Carl Purcell as well or better. I am indebted to both of these for helping me begin to understand these kinds of issues.

You may feel that the photos I chose for reference are cherry picked to have stronger shadows and highlights than what you might see around you on a day to day basis. And that’s a fair comment. I did look for photos with a good distinction between well lit and shadowed areas. I’d like to quote a section of a previous article to explain why I think the diffuse or flatter lighting we’re used to seeing in in indoor locations like offices and stores is not the optimal choice for miniatures.

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

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

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

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

EllipsesContrary to how it appears in my drawing on the left, our cats have very ordinary food bowls. The perspective on the bottom of the bottle on the left is correct. The top of the lid is drawn much wider than it should appear.

I made the error of drawing ellipses far too round for years after I started to work on traditional art, as you can see above. I asked several volunteers to draw the cup in the reference photo. Many of them are already more in tune with their artist’s eye, and they made this mistake to a much lesser degree! Their drawings were so good, in fact, that I ended up drawing a deliberately wrong example to use at the beginning of the article. Thank goodness I had the medieval artists to fall back on to demonstrate that this really is a common error!

Here are the pictures drawn by my very kind volunteers. Congratulations to them on being too good to use as bad examples! And my hearty thanks to all of them for taking the time and effort to do this. In the comparison pictures on the right, the reference photo cup contours are drawn in blue, the contours from the volunteer sketch are outlined in pink. I laid each of the photos over the reference cup image to line up the tops and bottoms of reference and drawing, and I trimmed a few drawings for the comparisons. I adjusted the whiteness level of the paper on a few as well. I know from experience that it’s harder to take pictures of sketches than you’d think!

Cup comp1

Cup comp2

Cup comp3

Cup comp4

Cup comp5

Cup comp6

Cup comp7

*If you are colourblind you have a physical impediment to how you see and match colour, but you may also experience some of these two mind conflicts, as they can relate to value and other aspects of colour than hue. But alas neither this article nor any other can fix colourblindness.

Where to Shade Faces

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

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

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

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

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

Jerry zhang CPmrdbbpnXg unsplashPhoto by Jerry Zhang on Unsplash.

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

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Where to Place Shadows on Faces

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

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

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

Eye Socket

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

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

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

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

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

Under the Nose

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

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

The Upper Lip

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

Under the Lower Lip

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

Under the Chin

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

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

Hairline

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

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

Face light combo cr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lighting combo cr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darker skin faces

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

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

Miniatures in this Post

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

Colour Matching is Not the Secret Code to Realism

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One of the things that’s been interesting about studying more traditional art forms after learning to paint miniatures is discovering that there are common issues and areas of mistaken focus for learners of all forms of visual media. One area that less experienced artists in every media put a heavy focus on is trying to choose or match colours to achieve greater realism. Maybe you want to figure out the best colour recipe to use for skin, or wood, or rocks. Maybe you just want to know the ‘right’ colour to shade this other colour you’re using. Maybe you love a colour you saw on someone else’s figure or book cover art. Maybe you’re looking at a reference photo of a suit of armour or leather boots and trying to match the colour. (I encourage you to use reference photos and study real life objects, it’ll help your painting a lot!) Whatever the reference point, a lot of us stress ourselves out trying to find the ‘right’ or ‘best’ colour for something.

I want to talk about why matching colours isn’t as important to achieving realism as we think it is, and outline the element that is much more important than colour.

First I would ask: do we even need colour to perceive something as realistic? This is a drawing I’ve been working on for a while now. It’s not quite done, but would you say that the face looks realistic?

IMG 1102

In stark contrast to the focus learners put on matching colours, teachers emphasize another factor as being far more important. Tutorials by experienced artists and art teachers (including miniature painters) very often say the colours don’t really matter, use whatever paints you have, exaggerate or tweak the colour. What they emphasize instead is the importance of learning to see and apply to your work the full range of value and contrast found on objects in the real world, reference photos, and the work of people you admire. An uncounted number of instructors across all of the various medias that I’ve studied repeat basically the same message: 

The key to effective art, especially realistic art, is to accurately represent the natural range of dark, midtone, and light colours that would be seen on that material/object.

Absolutely colour can be important! It contributes a lot to mood and atmosphere and is just plain pleasing to look at. It’s also true that we see the world in colour, so colour is an important element of making something feel realistic to most of us. And it’s fun to work with! What I’m getting at here is that concentrating your focus on choosing/mixing an exact ‘right’ colour is not really that helpful to improving your skills. If you think that painting more realistically or more successfully is primarily a matter of choosing the right colours, you are overlooking other much more important issues that will slow down your progress.

Below you can see a more accurate photo of the painting I’m working on. Does the face still look realistic? I used wacky colours, so it’s not as realistic as it would look if painted with more naturalistic colours. You as a viewer may prefer art that is painted with naturalistic colours. But whether this is to your taste or not, the face looks like a real person. You can still identify the features and the expression. You can tell where the light is coming from. You can see which areas of the face protrude, like the nose and lips, and which are dips and depressions, like the hollows under the cheeks and the nostrils. You can probably even identify the subject’s ethnic background and what his natural skin tone might look like, despite the fact that I deliberately didn’t use any natural skin tones in painting this.

IMG 1103

Black and white and other monochromatic colour schemes work on miniatures too! In fact painting figures using a monochromatic colour scheme is an excellent way to push your understanding of the importance of value and texture, which are skills that will improve your painting on full colour figures.

Noir detective front 2000

Of course there are other important elements to achieve realism in drawing and painting! In this article I am primarily focused on the idea of rendering, in its definition of of painting in the colours and the shading and so on. This is what we do in miniature painting. If someone is drawing or sculpting their subject from a blank slate, they need to start with accurate proportion and perspective to make something look realistic and correct. If you’re painting a miniature figure, the sculptor has done all that work for us. Our focus is on rendering colour and the effect of light to look realistic and interesting. (And texture, but for the most part that is a topic for another day.)

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

They say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. I suggest you add colour to that list. You don’t need to match or find perfect colour hues to paint a decent miniature!

I painted the miniature on the left as part of a limited edition learn to paint kit for Reaper Miniatures. My goal was to try to match the colour scheme of the figure on the right that I had previously painted. Obviously there are differences in both the colours and the sophistication of the applied techniques between these two figures! But is the figure on the left a terrible paint job because it doesn’t match the colours of the inspiration exactly? 

I don’t think the one on the left is not a terrible failure as a colour scheme. The colours don’t clash or look garish or super unrealistic. The colours work together harmoniously and create a similar mood to the inspiration. The colour choices give the mini fairly good definition so you can read it easily even at a distance. The elements I would add to improve this miniature have very little to do with colour. It would benefit from some lining and additional contrast, and maybe painting some of the fine details. It might look a little prettier if it were smoothly blended or had more of a cloth like texture on the skirt. The only item related to colour in the list of things I would do to improve the mini is adding more contrast to add deeper shadows to the skin and hair, and that’s about value, not matching or changing colour hues.

Tristan front comp cr

In the example below, I was tasked with painting the figure to match the 2D artwork by the talented Izzy “Talin” Collier. The colours between the two are not exact matches. The creepy doll is a pretty close colour match. Sophie’s hair, wings, and red dress trim are not as close of matches, nor is the gravestone nor the zombie hand. I don’t think my painting on this figure is perfect, and five years on there are some things I would tweak or do differently. But I don’t think the painting is terrible because of the colours that don’t match, and I don’t think it completely fails to evoke the atmosphere in the original art. (Some of the non-matching colour choices were deliberate, for reasons I hope to get to in another article.)

Sophie 16 art mini

Here’s a traditional art example. Which of these cherries looks most realistic to you?

Cherries combo3

Cherries combo2

If you thought think these are all the same cherries just shown under different lighting scenarios or with some colour editing, you’re mostly right. The photograph of real cherries is on the bottom left. (The photographer of these cherries is Margo Luc.) The bottom right is a painting I did using the photo for reference. The two top cherry pictures are versions of my painting edited to alter the colours to be more of an orange red or more of a crimson red.  

I don’t think the degree to which these appear realistic is affected by the colour shifts. What makes my painting look like realistic cherries is not whether I matched the exact colours (I didn’t). The paintings look realistic because I was attentive as to where areas appear darker and lighter. Placing the darks and lights correctly captured the texture of the various items (shiny fruit vs matte stems and cloth) and the sense of light. All I needed to do colour wise was stay roughly in the family of colours cherries and cherry stems could be.

The modified version of the photo below is still recognizable to you as cherries, but the colour is far enough out of the family of natural colours cherries and stems might appear that it probably won’t look as pleasing to someone seeking realism. 

Cherries photo pink

My recommendation is to focus less on getting exactly the right colour. Think of it like horseshoes and hand grenades. It’s great if you can hit the target precisely, but most of the time it’s okay if you’re just close and you use something in the appropriate colour family.

Value and Contrast are Key

The aspect that is more important is to try to make things darker where they should be darker, and lighter where they should be lighter. And not only making them darker and lighter, but making them dark enough and light enough.

Yeah, I’m talking about that pesky contrast thing again! 

I’m going to use a couple of quick portraits I’ve done as an example to talk about colour versus value contrast. Both of the portraits below were drawn using the same reference photo. Both were drawn using watercolour pencils as the medium. (You can draw with these like a coloured pencil, then apply a damp brush and they turn into watercolour paint.) With the one on the left, I did the drawing with less time and attention. I also had a very limited colour selection of watercolour pencils for the one on the left, whereas I had a quite wide selection to choose from when I did the drawing on the right.

The drawing on the left is not great. The colour is a little bit strange. The face is mostly skin colour, but the shadows are a pretty strong purple. That said, I don’t think colour is the biggest problem of that drawing. Not by a long shot. The errors in the drawing of proportion and anatomy are far more significant reasons that it doesn’t look very realistic.

Green 1 cr

For this next picture, I did a little digital plastic surgery on the left drawing. It’s not perfect now, but the anatomy looks a little less freaky. I did not alter the colour beyond blending away the cut and paste marks from moving the features around to correct the proportions a little. So the colour is still a little weird, and the blending is pretty rough. I don’t think the colour looks super horrible on its own, though. The one on the right has better colour, but if the blending was a little better, I bet the one on the left wouldn’t look so bad.

Green 2 cr

In the picture below, I used photo editing tools to smooth the blending on the skin of the one on the left. The purple is still a little strong, but overall it’s not looking so bad now! Especially when you consider I only had a few colours of pencil to work with and only one of them was at all close to the colour of the skin in my photo reference. I might have wanted to paint something more like the portrait on the right, but if I’d been able to paint something like the revised version of the one on the left with my limited tools, I would have been fairly satisfied with that. So what if I couldn’t get the exact same shade of green for the hair on this try and the shadows are a little weird, it still conveys the same idea, and the colours go together pretty well.

Green 3a cr

In fact, now that I’m not being distracted by incorrect anatomy and rough blending, I can see an area where the revised left portrait succeeds better than the right one. And that area is… contrast. Both portraits have dark hair and shirt. Both have dark makeup and shadows around the eyes. But the one on the left also has a darker shadow under the nose, between the lips, and under the cheekbones. The features stand out more and you can read the face more clearly, particularly if you look at the pictures at a small size. The face of the portrait on the right looks pretty washed out and flat apart from the eyes.

Maybe the reference photo had light shadows in those areas and the portrait on the right matches better? I dug it out to take another look and… nope, that wasn’t it. The left portrait is a more accurate representation of how dark the shadows appeared in the photo. In this last example, I asked myself what would it look like if I did a little digital editing to add more shadow to the portrait on the right? I didn’t change any aspect of the drawing (the shapes of the face and location and shapes of the features) other than moving the eyebrows up a little. I just added shadows, and a little bit of highlights on the lips. 

Green 6 cr

I’d say it would look pretty good! 

Let me repeat again that the only change I made to the underlying drawing was moving the eyebrows up. I did that so I could add more shadows under the brow ridge like in my reference photo. I did not change the shape of the mouth! That mouth is the same structure as in my original drawing. It looks really different because I added the shadows that were in the reference photo, and I added a little bit more highlight on the lower lip. My original version of the portrait on the right is kind of like what often happens on miniatures that we paint. I drew the underlying anatomy and proportion pretty well, but I didn’t render it with enough contrast, so viewers couldn’t see the shapes very well.

The revised version looks more realistic and much closer to the reference photo. That’s because shadows are realistic. Contrast is realistic! There are lighting scenarios that create more or less shadow, but unless an object is completely surrounded by light from all angles, there will be shadows. And an object completely surrounded by light would look very flat and boring. The shadows on areas that curve away from the light or are obscured from the light help us understand the shapes of objects. You can tell that the face in the revised portrait is closer to the viewer than the neck because of the shadow on the neck. You can tell that the hollows of her cheeks curve in and down from the cheekbones because of the shadows. The lips look so different because the shadows I added give you more information about what shape they are.

Adding these kinds of shadows is as important on a miniature as it is for a drawing or painting on a flat surface! Miniatures are so small that the lighting in our large scale world does not cast shadows on them in the same way as it does on larger objects. To make them look real and as if lit by a light source in their scale, you need to paint shadows, including deep shadow in some areas. If you are practiced with a form of 2D art, I recommend you try to paint a few miniatures thinking of them as if they were as flat as a drawing, and that should help you feel comfortable adding more of the necessary contrast.

Below is an example of a similar situation on a miniature. I took a figure I had quickly painted some years ago and did some touchups on it. Compare the muscles on his back, the folds in his pants, and the boots in the before and after. You can see the shapes of these objects much more clearly in the figure on the right where I added additional shadow contrast. (And a touch more highlights, particularly on the boots.)

Smith ba back cr

I would say the increased contrast on the figure looks both more interesting, and more realistic. I encourage you to spend more of your hobby study effort on learning to see the contrast around us in the real world and applying that to your miniatures rather than getting too caught up in finding the exact right colour recipes for various objects and textures. (As a side note on how colour isn’t the secret key to realism, the shadow colours on both the pants and skin of the blacksmith figure include saturated purple.) 

Here’s the black and white version of the blacksmith figure. I know people sometimes find it easier to see contrast in grayscale. I’m going to include a couple of grayscale photos of the portraits at the bottom of this article as well.

Smith ba back cr bw

If you’d like to see some more before and after comparisons, check out my articles on common issues in painted miniatures

If you have a bad habit of beating yourself up about your painting, I encourage you to read my article about measuring progress, where I talk more about the experience of drawing the two portraits and how I didn’t let the bad one get me down.

In a future articles I plan to talk about why it’s so hard to see and match colours, and why sometimes you might choose different colours for artistic reasons.

Below is a black and white version where the left portrait has been edited and the right has not. The placement of shadow areas and their level of contrast is actually more accurate and interesting on the left badly drawn version of the portrait.

Green 4 cr

In the picture below, the portrait on the right has been digitally edited to add additional shadows based on the original reference photo. It now looks more realistic, helps viewers see the shapes better, and is more interesting to look at.

Green 5 cr

Figures in this Post

The Deadlands Noir Detective is available in plastic and metal.
The metal version of Tristan Loremistress was a special edition and no longer available. The plastic version will release sometime in the future. Keep an eye on this link, which also includes previous classic sculpts of Tristan.
Gravestone Sophie (and friends) is available in metal.
The Blacksmith is available in plastic or in metal.