Inauspicious Beginnings: Painting Spanish Part One

Sometimes a journey of learning begins with great enthusiasm and an ambitious roadmap of goals. Sometimes it begins with faltering steps and only the vaguest idea of a direction to head. In March 2017 I began an adventure of learning in a pretty lacklustre way. The journey continued throughout 2018, but it also continued to be fairly unfocused and haphazard.

As 2019 has progressed, I’ve been finding more pieces of a map. By sharing thoughts about learning how to paint miniatures better on this blog, I’ve also discovered ways to be a better learner myself! In hopes that it might help someone else, I thought I would share some moments from my journey, both the successes and the failures. Today I’m sharing the not very noteworthy beginning.

Orc painted at Sergio class in April 2018How it began. Not great.

I rarely have the opportunity to choose classes I take at conventions based solely on my topic interests at the time. My interests certainly come into play, but the options available to me have to work around my own schedule for teaching. At AdeptiCon 2017, it worked out that I was able to take several classes with talented Spanish painters. My first class was a hands-on with Big Child Creatives. Sergio Calvo Rubio was with them then and provided the painting demonstration, and Jose Manuel Palomares Nunez provided additional explanation and translation, as well as helpful feedback on our attempts. 

This was not at all a successful class for me. I was struggling to understand the principles, and naturally that made it challenging to try to apply them hands-on. Jose wasn’t quite sure what to make of my attempt, and neither was I. I’m sure it didn’t help that the class started at 10pm after what was a long day for all of us, but where other students seemed energized and excited by what they were learning, I just felt lost.

The next day, I had a class with Raffaele Picca, another Spanish painter. This class was a demonstration of his painting approach. Being a demonstration, it allowed me to just focus on what he was doing to try to understand it. I’m sure it also helped that I took this class earlier in the day, before my old brain was tired out.

On the last day of the convention, I had another class with Sergio and Jose. This one was also a demonstration. So Sergio and Jose had time to demonstrate and explain the painting process much more thoroughly and cohesively. The figure was passed around at the end of each major stage so I was able to take work-in-progress pictures of the process. People tend to have a very strong preference for hands-on classes, but there are a lot of valid reasons to consider attending demonstrations. If a painter’s process is quite different from what you normally use, it is helpful to see it in an overview before attempting to apply it yourself. I felt like I had a much better understanding of what Sergio and Jose were teaching after this class than in the hands-on one.

Sergio goblin 400Sergio’s demonstration figure from one of his classes at AdeptiCon 2018.

I also lucked out in that final class. They gave the figure away to one of the students, and I was the lucky one! So I have been able to use it for reference as I study this approach in more detail.

While I enjoyed the class better, it wasn’t a magic moment that turned into me knowing exactly what and how to proceed with studying this approach or the Spanish style in general. Mainly what I grasped was that both painters advocate working in a similar big picture first, small details later way. Many people in the miniature community have been calling this approach ‘sketching’ or similar terms. It’s also a concept that most of the traditional artists I’ve been studying advocate. Traditional artists often describe it as working from general to specific.

Working general to specificAn example of working general to specific from an oil painting workshop I took recently. 

The basic idea of working general to specific in traditional art is that in the early stages you should concentrate on getting the correct proportions and placement of the general shapes before you start refining, and definitely before you start adding any sort of detail. Look at the picture on the far left and then compare it to the others later in the process to the right. The area of light on the chin and the shape of the forehead are different in the first picture. The light area of the nose is shorter. If I had started to put in the deep shadows and bright highlights on the nose before fixing that shape, I would have had two choices when I noticed the problem later – leave everything as it was to preserve the time I had put in but have a less correct painting, or fix it and lose all that time I had put into painting the details. It makes a lot more sense to work on getting all of the big stuff right first.

Sergio sketch stagesSergio Calvo Rubio sketch stages from a class at AdeptiCon 2017.

Painting miniature figures does not involve drawing overall shapes, but the idea of working general to specific can still be applied. You can see an example in the figure above, which is the figure Sergio Calvo Rubio painted in the demonstration class I took with him and Jose Manuel Palomares. In the first step, he’s worked out the colour for all the main area of the figures, and the colours he plans to add to them to create highlights. He’s also worked out the broad area of highlight and shadow placement. This was in the first 10-15 minutes of the class. Applying all of the paint colours and working out the big picture location for shadows and highlights in this way allows him to test a lot of his concept for the figure with a pretty minimal investment of time and effort. If one of the colours doesn’t fit or something looks off about the lighting, it’s just a few minutes of time lost in fixing it.

Then he proceeded to add more highlights and refine his overall vision for the figure. This was a two hour class. Jose was providing much of the explanation, but with time taken to pass the figure around, I’d say Sergio painted for only a little more than an hour to get to the end point pictured above. (Only on the front of the figure as shown, granted.) That would be a fine stopping point for a tabletop miniature. If he intended it as a display miniature, he could spend as much time as he wanted refining the blends and textures and adding fine details. So it’s also a great system for painting within a tight time limit or to a desired level of finish. 

Raffaele Picca class demo figureRaffaele Picca demo figure from a class at AdeptiCon 2017. My pictures are even more terrible than the usual convention class pictures and don’t do his work justice.

The other painter I took a class with at AdeptiCon used a similar approach in terms of working out the big picture of light direction and shadow/highlight placement before refining and working on details, but Raffaele Picca used different techniques to get there. Sergio Calvo Rubio does all of the early and mid sketching and refinement with a standard brush. He uses an airbrush only in the final stages of painting to smooth blending transitions and unify his lights and shadows. Raffaele used an airbrush to lay in the broad sketch of the lighting and highlights and shadows, and then refined and added detail with a brush. Sketching is an approach to how to add colour and contrast to the figure. There isn’t just one technique you can use to explore doing that.

Taking these classes did not transform my painting overnight. I didn’t fly home full of enthusiasm to start slapping paint on minis in whole new ways. These painters did expose me to new ideas, but they were planted as tiny seeds. I had to nurture them, and then once they sprouted a little, take some time to observe them to figure out how to get the most out of them with the way I paint.

This was a not particularly noteworthy beginning. In future chapters I’ll explore where I went from here.

Figures, People, and Events Referenced in This Post

Now is a great time to start planning to attend AdeptiCon 2020! Read more about why I recommend the convention here. (The Crystal Brush contest is no longer continuing. Next year AdeptiCon will host the first US Golden Demon contest in some years.)

The orc in the first picture is from the Storm Coast Marauders fantasy football team, but I don’t seem to be able to find it online, so I’m not sure it’s available for purchase currently.

The goblin is Bocanegra the Little Tyrant.

Big Child Creatives has lots of other cool figures for sale in their shop.

Sergio Calvo Rubio’s webpage

Raffaele Picca’s webpage.

I don’t have any information on the figure from the Raffaele Picca demo. Sorry!

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

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

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

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

Mixing Layers and Paint Transparency (Consistency)

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

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

Sketching (also known as Roughing In or Blocking In)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Placement of Highlight and Shadow Layers

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

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

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

Suggestions for Practice and Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Soon

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

And I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing how Jaume Ortiz turns his sketch of a face into a beautifully painted face when part 2 of this video series comes out!

Additional Resources

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

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

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

Figures Referenced in this Post

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

ReaperCon 2018 Sophie: Painting Process

A couple of weeks ago I posted pictures of my completed paint job on ReaperCon 2018 Sophie. (https://birdwithabrush.com/2018/08/22/painting-figures-to-match-art-reapercon-2018-sophie/) She is now available for purchase online at this address. You can also purchase Barglemore and Camille (I’ll share more about painting those soon), the convention mouslings, and a few other figures. And even a swag bag from the convention! I haven’t unpacked mine yet, or I’d show a few pictures here. Maybe next post. Anyway, if you’d like to get your hands on any of that, run, don’t walk, to this link, they’ll only be available for a few days: http://www.reapermini.com/NewReleases

Now that lots of other people can get their hands on this fabulous Sophie sculpt, I thought it might be nice to share some insights into how I painted her. Lately I have really enjoyed using a process that I am calling value mapping. In art world terms, value refers to how light or dark a colour is. Every colour has versions in different values – a light sky blue, a medium value royal blue, and a dark navy blue, for example. Value is one of the major forms of contrast. It is critical to all of the visual arts, but is particularly useful for miniature painters. It is helpful to us to paint adjacent areas on a miniature to have different values. On Sophie, for example, the middle value blues and purples of her dress stand out against the paler colours of her skin and underskirt. So it’s easier for you the viewer to see which parts are which right away. 

Value is also a very useful tool to build contrast within an area. If I really want Sophie’s underskirt to look like it has peaks and valleys the way that Izzy “Talin” Collier drew it and Bob Ridolfi sculpted it, I need to make the peaks appear like they’re receiving more light, and the valleys appear as if they’re shadowed and receiving less light. It is always hard for we miniature painters to push our contrast like this, but we need to do this to make our figures look truly three dimensional!

Usually I paint in the value transitions of lights and shadows as I paint. Lately I’ve been starting by painting a ‘map’ of the major values and the transitions between them by using brush-on primer. (I live in a pretty humid climate, so I often use brush-on primer instead of spray cans anyway.) Reaper makes brush-on primer in black, gray, and white. I usually mix one or two additional values of grey. I didn’t take any pictures of my palette this time, but hopefully you can get the idea looking at these pictures of the miniature. I think I had 4-5 mixes of primer colours in total. I spent somewhere between one to two hours at this at most I think.

Sk wip faceSk wip frontSk wip back

In these first sets of pictures above you can see the main body of the figure after priming on the left, and a work-in-progress shot on the right. You can plainly see on the left version that I am not worried about super smooth blends or picking out every little detail. I’m worried about the big picture of what value do I want on the major areas of the figure, and where are the primary transitions between light and shadow within those areas. Then once I have established the ‘map’, I begin to apply paint on top. I am applying a full coverage of opaque paint on top, I’m just using the value map as a guideline.  You can see that pretty well in the area of her bracers/gloves, I think. 

Hopefully you can also see spots where I refine the initial map. In this second stage I’m working on making smooth blends and adding a bit more detail. So in the value mapping stage I applied the broadest highlights and shadows to areas like the torso plates and the tiny ruffles of her sleeves. When applying colour, I worked a long time on the smooth transitions on the large panels of her dress, and added detail shadow and highlights to the torso plates and ruffles. 

There are variations of this technique that involve layering transparent paint over the value mapping. In the traditional art world, this is known as grisaille if done using greyscale paints, and other terms with different colours. If I were using one of those variations, I would have to take more care in the value mapping stage to make smoother blends and bring out more details. In fact in this case, many of the colours I used were slightly transparent, so it was a bit of an effort to get down nice opaque coats to completely cover my value map over. So why did I take that effort?

I am finding more and more that if I can break up some of the stages of painting a miniature, I’m more likely to get more elements correct. We ask a lot of ourselves as miniature painters. We have to figure out where there would be more light and shadow on a figure based on our imaginary light source. And blend smoothly between those lights and shadows (or correctly apply texture strokes). That’s a lot to try to work on at one time, and it’s really common to have the location of shadows and highlights spread or drift, or to end up with insufficient contrast between them. If I use the value mapping method, I break the task of figuring out where things should be lighter and darker into a separate step. Then I can concentrate on applying the paint as smooth blends or textures to the best of my ability as another separate step. 

In the case of Sophie, things were complicated a little bit by the fact that I could not attach her wings at the beginning, or I wouldn’t have been able to get the paint everywhere I wanted it. I did a little priming on them prior to assembly, then once I glued the wings on (I love that extra attachment point on the skirt, thank you Bob!), I went through the process of value mapping again with the wings, and also with the stone texture on the base.

Sk wip wings frontSk wip wings back

Here on the wings the process may even be more obvious, at least from the front view. I did not bother at all picking out the bony spines of the wings at the value mapping stage. I’m a fairly messy painter, and likely any detailing like that would only have gotten covered over while trying to do the blends. So it saved me time to only worry about the big picture when value mapping. In the picture from the back, you can see that I also can course correct if I haven’t done a great job of all the areas on my map. As I was painting I decided that the top of the wing in the lowered position would be receiving more light than I originally thought, so I added more highlights.

One more picture to share. One of the things I love about Bones miniatures is how useful they are for doing practice and study. In the past I would have practiced freehand shapes on a flat surface like a base or primed piece of plastic. This can easily lead to sizing errors between the practice and the real figure, and doesn’t help you figure out how to apply the freehand to a three dimensional shape. Or I would have had to go through a lot of trouble to prep and prime a metal miniature. Now I just look out for a Bones miniature that has similar shapes to what I’m trying to test, bust out some paint, and get to testing immediately. Below you can see how I was working out how to break down some of the shapes from Izzy’s concept art into patterns I could replicate in freehand painting. If I had had the time time or was a little less practiced at this process, I would spent a lot more time practicing on my test figure.

Sk wip freehand2

So that is my little bit of insight into my painting process for ReaperCon Sophie 2018. As of the date of upload of this blog, she is available on the Reaper website for purchase along with some of the other convention figures, but they are limited release figures that will only be available for a brief time. So if you want to try your hand at painting this lovely figure (and it was fun to paint despite the deadline issues!), go grab one now!

Other figures featured in this post –

Sir Malcolm, Templar Lightbringing (also available in metal): https://www.reapermini.com/search/malcolm/latest/77423
Pre-cast resin base of forgotten origin.