Face Highlights and Darker Skin Tones

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 In this article I outline where to place highlights when painting faces on miniature figures. This information is applicable to all skin tones, but since highlights are the key to painting great looking faces with darker skin tones, my examples focus on those. I am also including recipes and suggested paint colours you can use to paint darker skin tones. I discussed where to paint shadows on faces, and the importance of shadows to faces, particularly with lighter skin tones, in a previous article. I recommend reading that article first, as it has additional information on lighting and contrast that is relevant to painting all faces.

Ds faces square

There are videos that accompany this article, since I did the bulk of the painting on some demonstration figures on my Beyond the Kit stream on the Reaper Miniatures Twitch channel. In this video, I discuss the specific challenges of painting darker skin tones and demonstrate a cool and a warm dark skin tone recipe on female faces. I painted an example of a slightly cool dark skin tone on a male face in this earlier video, but there were some technical difficulties.

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Highlights on Faces

The typical lighting scenario for a painted miniature is that the light is coming from above (the sun, ceiling lights) or from above and to one side (the sun, gas lights on walls, street lights). The locations where shadows fall on faces are pretty consistent. While shadow location is affected by the location of the light and the position of the head, the overall placement guidelines hold true unless either the light direction or head position is shifted to a fairly extreme degree. 

As an overall guide for where to paint highlights, areas appear lighter in value (have highlights) where the light shines more brightly on them. This includes areas that are located higher on the face and thus closer to the light, like the forehead and the tops of the cheekbones. Areas which protrude outwards from the main mass of the face also receive more light, like the nose, the lower lip, and often the top of the chin.

That guideline is all you need as a beginner or for quick paints of gaming scale figures. If you are aiming to paint a display quality figure or are painting a larger scale figure, there is a bit more nuance to highlights, because our skin is a little shiny. Human skin has a natural sheen to it due to our skin oils. Strong emotion and physical activity make us sweat and adds to that sheen, which is particularly apparent on the face.

We can visually distinguish the matte appearance of wool cloth from the sheen of human skin from the extreme reflectivity of chrome. Whether or not we are consciously aware of it, we identify these surface textures based on the appearance of shadows, midtones, and highlights on the surface of items The way the highlights on a surface look influences whether we perceive it as shiny or matte. The value range between the darkest shadows and the lightest highlights on a shiny surface is much more dramatic than on a matte surface. A shiny surface also has a lighter highlight/reflection. The transition area between the shadow/midtone on a shiny surface is more abrupt, and the bright highlight/reflection appears in a smaller area.

Hardesty skin texturesThese texture exercises were painted by Jonathan Hardesty. Compare the two skin examples in the middle to the other two spheres. The skin spheres are not as shiny as the material on the right, but they have elements in common, including a bright highlight of reflected light. Jonathan Hardest has made a study of textures. He has several skin texture study videos on YouTube. He teaches a textures class on Schoolism, and occasionally paints live on Twitch.

For a variety of reasons, this is a very brief overview of the properties of shiny materials. The reason I’m mentioning it at all is because the shininess of a surface affects where the highlights are located as well as how bright they are. If your imagined light source is coming from a different direction than above, the location of the highlights shifts towards the direction of the light. If the head is tilted to one side, the highlights also shift towards the direction of the light. Shadows are affected by both of these factors as well, but to a lesser degree.

Lighting combo crThe direction of the light changes which areas appear shadowed or well-lit. Notice how the shift in the location of the highlights is more dramatic. There are some areas that remain shadowed in all three lighting scenarios.

If your lighting situation or the position of your model is more complex, remember that you can create your own reference photos to identify the location of shadows and highlights on your figure! Use a single bulb lamp to simulate larger light sources like the sun or distant lights, or a small single point light source to simulate something like a candle or torch.

To sum up, here are some short guidelines for painting highlights on faces:

1. Don’t be afraid of painting strong highlights on faces, it looks natural because our skin is a little shiny.

2. Confine the brightest highlights to very small areas if you can.

3. Start with the guidelines for highlight placement outlined below. If your light source is coming from a direction other than above, shift the highlights on the specific miniature you’re painting towards the direction of where the light is coming from.

Faces angles crThe figure on the left is looking straight forward as if standing under light from above, like sunlight. The light is coming from above and to the left of the centre figure, and she has her head tilted, so one side of her face is lit and one side is shadowed. The light is coming from above and to the right of the figure on the right, and her head is slightly tilted, so one side of her face has a lot more highlights than the other.

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Guidelines for Highlights Placement


If you ignore the features, the human head is shaped like an egg. Or you can think of the upper half of the head as a sphere. Either way, the top of the head is the dome of a spherical object. In standard lighting you will see a circular highlight in the centre and near the top of the forehead. If the head is bald, the circle may appear a little higher. (A similar circle will be visible on the back of a bald head.) If the head is tilted, or if half of the forehead is obscured by hair/hat/hood, the circular highlight will appear shifted towards the direction of the light.

Faces forehead crBoth of these figures have hair hanging over their foreheads on the right side, so the placement of the highlight is shifted to the left.

Brow Ridge

The brow ridge can be fairly prominent, especially on male characters. Often the brow ridge is covered by sculpted eyebrows, but depending on the severity of the slope and location of the eyebrows, there may be some highlights above the brow ridge.

Quinn face 300This figure has prominent brow ridge, so I added highlights above his eyebrows. I painted this several years ago, if I were to paint it today I would have added small and lighter value highlights on the bulb of his nose and on top of his cheekbones.


The cheekbones protrude slightly from the face and are located higher up on the face, so the tops of the cheekbones often catch a lot of light and appear strongly highlighted. If the light is directional or the face is tilted, one cheekbone may receive more light than the other. (You can see a few examples in the photos in the previous section.) For gaming scale characters I place the highlight just under the character’s eyes. The strong contrast between the dark eye lining and light cheekbone highlights draws the viewer’s eye to the face, which is almost always an important focal point of the figure or scene. If you are painting a larger scale figure or a bust, study some high quality reference photos of faces like those included below – the placement of areas of light under the eyes and on top of the cheekbones is more nuanced than that.


The nose protrudes out from the egg shape of the face, so it catches quite a bit of light. I use moderate highlights on the upper plane of the nose slope. I apply bright highlights in a circle on the bulb at the end of the nose. If the sculpt accommodates, I highlight the wings over the nostrils, but not with the lightest highlights. If the nose is tilted, the line of highlight along the slope of the nose shifts towards the direction of the light, and the wing over the nostril further away from the light is less highlighted.


Humans do not have the prominent muzzle of many animals, but the overall area of the mouth protrudes slightly from the face. On many people the area of skin between the nose and the upper lip slants outward from the face, and receives more light. However this area is lower down the face, and it does not protrude significantly, so I use moderate highlights at most. Occasionally highlighting the area between the nose and lip on a female figure can kind of look weird and give a bit of a moustache effect. If you have painted this area on a female gaming scale figure and find that something looks a little off, try painting the midtone of the face over it and see if that helps.

The lower lip protrudes outwards. Because the lips are often a little moist, there can be a fairly strong reflection highlight on the lower lip. For a natural lip, paint the highlight a little lighter than the brightest highlights on the rest of the face. If the person is wearing shiny lipstick, the highlights can be close to white.

Tara face full cu2This figure is representative of the typical highlight locations. She is looking straight ahead and was painted as if standing under an overhead diffuse light source. She has a highlight on the top of her forehead bulge, on top of her cheekbones, tip of her nose, and just a little bit of highlighting on the upper lip and chin.


The chin is often a sphere or egg shape that protrudes out from the face. The top of the chin usually has a highlight. If the light is directional or the face is tilted to the side, the location of the highlight will shift towards the light. However, look at a face in profile. The chin extends roughly as far out as the forehead, but it is lower down on the face, and so receives less light. I usually paint some highlights on the top of the chin, but I do not paint these with as light a value as I will use on the forehead, tops of the cheekbones, or the end of the nose. The chin can vary with the sculpt, so if the sculpt has a prominent chin I may add more highlights, or less if the chin appears inset, as is the case with the female face I painted for dark skin demonstrations below. The chin also needs less highlighting if the face is tilted downwards.


The jawline is the line of bone from the chin to the side of the face. A prominent jawbone is considered a masculine characteristic. I rarely highlight this area on female faces. If the face is tilted to one side the jawline on the side facing the light might need a little bit of highlighting. Even on male characters I generally only apply a little highlighting to this area. The jawline is surrounded by the shadow of the cheek hollow above, and the under chin area below. It should appear lighter than both of these, but often just the midtone skin value or slightly lighter in value is all that is required to make it appear so. It may appear more highlighted in reference photos or miniatures you study than it actually is because of the darkness of the areas around it.

In the Where to Shade Faces article I shared some examples of repainted dolls heads to demonstrate the effectiveness of adding shadows. I found a photo of dolls heads taken with fairly flat lighting, and digitally edited them to add highlights. The top photo is the original. The middle has a modest amount of highlights, and the bottom one has a higher level of highlight/shadow contrast. The bottom edit is the minimum level of highlight/shadow contrast I would recommend for a dark skin tone. There are reference photos of real people further in this article. I have isolated colours of various values and hues beside each picture so can see just how much contrast there is between the lightest highlights and darkest shadows.


IMG 1332

IMG 1337

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Colour Variation, Makeup, and Features

Detailed information on painting the eyes and mouth is beyond the scope of this article. For the demonstration figures, I painted the lips with the same colours used on the rest of the skin. Most people have more colour variation than that in their lips, but using the same colours as the rest of the skin often works well for gaming scale masculine figures. For a more feminine lip, add some red or pink and use more contrast, even if you’re not going for a shiny lipstick appearance. Other areas of the body may have colour variations, like the ears, the palms of the hands, and soles of the feet. Hopefully I’ll be able to delve into skin variation in more detail at some point in the future, but you should be able to look at reference photos of people to get ideas. For gaming scale figures it will likely not look odd if you use one overall skin tone for all of the figure.

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Dark Skin: Highlights are the Key

Highlights are the key to painting faces with dark skin that look vibrant, realistic, and interesting. Strong highlight/shadow contrast is always desirable in miniature painting. Even in fairly even lighting conditions, the range of contrast on a face with dark skin between the darkest shadows and the brightest reflection highlights is quite large, due to the natural sheen of skin. You can see examples of that in the following reference photos.

IMG 1338Photo by Ema Studios on Unsplash.

IMG 1340Photo by Naeim Jafari on Unsplash.

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Technical Challenges of Painting Dark Skin

Painting an attractive and realistic looking dark skin tone can be challenging. To maintain the overall dark tone of the skin you need to confine the light highlights to small surface areas. If they expand over too wide an area, as often happens when we are working on the technical challenge of painting smooth blends, the overall colour of the skin tone becomes lighter than you intended. To appear dark, at least 60-70% of the area of the surface needs to be painted with the midtone or shadow colours. Gaming scale miniatures are small objects. To paint bright highlights, blend them out smoothly, and also keep them confined to as small a surface area as possible can be quite challenging! The good news is that you will get better and better the more you practice challenging tasks like this.

The photos below are the demonstration figures I painted on stream. This first one shows how the faces appeared at the end of my streaming sessions. You can see that the blending is a little rough, and the highlights aren’t quite light enough. I find it very challenging to paint fine detail on stream. Attempting to keep the miniature in the viewing area, describe what I’m doing, do it well, and keep an eye on the chat for questions taxes the limits of both my eyes and brain!

Ds group before cr

After the stream concluded I did some touch ups on these faces. I used the same colour mixes, and I focused on two tasks: confining the highlights to small areas of the face, and trying to blend everything out as smoothly as possible. I stippled dots and fine lines over the transition lines to soften them. I painted basic lips and eyes and painted the hair black so you can get an idea of how the faces would look in the context of an overall figure.

Ds group after crThe highlights of the warmer skin tone on the left cover a little too much area, and it has lightened up the overall value of her skin compared to the version from right after the stream above.

I often paint dark colours in a similar way – I start with the darkest colour and work up through my lighter colour layer mixes applying highlights. I concentrate on trying to place these in the correct places and with an appropriate amount of contrast. Then I work back down though the layer mixes from lightest to darkest. As I paint back down through the value mixes I’m trying to tighten up the size of the highlights and smooth out the blending. 

I chose figures with larger faces in hopes of making it easier for people to see what I was doing on the video, but you may also find it easier to practice on larger faces. The male is a halfling character, but has a larger face. This is true of many gnome, dwarf, and halfling characters. You can see a comparison with some human gaming scale figures below.

Face practice

In the photo below, I’ve painted out swatches of the value mixes I used on each of the demonstration faces. Note that other painters who use the layering method might use fewer steps but thin their paint more, and there are other methods to apply paint than layering. Regardless of how you apply the paint, the key is to keep those highlights small but high contrast! I have more paint colour suggestions for dark faces in the next section of this article.

Ds recipes full crThe recipe for the cool female face is on the left, the male face in the centre, and the warm female face on the right. I’ve added the product numbers of the Reaper paints I used next to the appropriate swatches.

I’m not sure there’s a feasible way to paint something that looks similar with quick paint techniques like drybrushing and washes. It is difficult to apply these techniques with the kind of precision you need to keep the highlights confined to small areas. Using drybrushing to apply highlights will likely mean that the highlights are applied to a larger surface area and the face overall will appear lighter in value. If you’re comfortable applying washes in targeted areas (which is essentially the layering technique but using more transparent glaze consistency paint), you could start with the light value of your highlights and then use layers of semi-transparent paint to darken the midtone and shadow areas considerably. Applying an overall wash will either not be dark enough for the shadows, or would darken the highlights too much.

You can see some of these issues with these figures I painted for the Bones 5 Learn to Paint Kit. I used only three drybrush steps to keep my instructions accessible to novice painters. The value difference between the deepest shadows and lightest highlights is too low to bring out the features of the face, so these faces don’t stand out well at arm’s length view or on the tabletop. Had I drybrushed a few additional lighter value steps, the faces overall would look lighter in value than I wanted since I wouldn’t be able to confine those light highlights to very small areas. 

Faces ltpk

Faces db vs layer crThe version on the left was painted with layering, and the one on the right with drybrushing and washes. (While I aimed for a similar value skin tone, these skin tones are also different colour palettes.)

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Dark Skin Paint Colour Choices

If we look at the reference photos of people with dark skin in this article, you can see a wide range of skin tones. And this is just a small sample of what you might see on real world people! You should be able to find many more examples through a web search or via the photo sites I use to find reference photos for these articles. (Unsplash, Pexels, Morguefile)

One variation in skin tones will be in the value range of colour. Dark skin tones can range from very dark in overall value to moderate or even fairly light in overall value. Another variation is the overall colour temperature of the skin. Some people might have a very warm colour skin tone with a lot of orange or yellow apparent in the highlights of their skin. Others may have a much cooler skin tone with highlights that appear a little grey, purple, or pink. The colour cast of photographs/light temperature also factors into this.

IMG 1342 2Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash.

IMG 1343 2Photo by Olawale Munna on Unsplash.

IMG 1344 2Photo by Wadi Lissa on Unsplash.

One of the strengths of the Reaper Miniatures paint lines is the wide variety of skin tone paints available. Reaper has paints specifically designed to emulate the appearance of real world skin tones, and I used several of these on my demonstration figures. If you have not yet tried their paints and you’re wondering what to try, some skin tones would be a great place to start.

If you use other brands that do not have paints that are obviously intended to be used to paint darker skin tones, do not despair. Human skin tones are basically variations of browns and tans, and every miniature paint line has some of those! They won’t all be suitable to paint human skin, but many will.  You can also try mixing a little of a middle value skin tone into a darker brown paint colour to create your own custom mixes.

I painted swatches of some paints suitable to paint dark skin into a chart that I have included below. The chart is organized in two different ways. The darkest paints are on the left, moderately dark paints in the middle, and the paints for the lightest highlights (or that you can use to mix lighter highlights) are on the right.

The paints are organized top to bottom to reflect their colour temperature. The cooler colours are at the top, and the warmest colours are at the bottom. You can pick a spot on the chart and use colours to the left of it to shade and those to the right of it to highlight. You can use the furthest left paints as a starting midtone for a very dark skin, and then use black for the darkest shadows. (Or a contrasting colour, which I’ll discuss more below.)

Since I recently reorganized my paints, I am including colours from two brands in addition to Reaper. Paint numbers that start with P are Privateer Press P3 paints. Those that start with N are Nocturna N-Paints. If you don’t have any of the brands on the chart, you can print it out and test swatches of paints that you do have (or custom mixes) against the colours to find the closest colours in your collection.

Ds paints full cr

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Adding Creative Colours to Dark Skin Tones

One of the really fun things about painting darker colour skin tones is that you can really get creative with colours.Scroll back up through this article and look at the colours I isolated from the reference photos. Some of them are pretty saturated oranges and pinks! I often paint slightly thinned down glazes of bold colours into the shadows of dark skin. I used a rich purple colour in the shadow areas of my cool temperature dark skin demonstration. I used a saturated teal colour in the shadows of the warm temperature skin example. Using a contrasting colour/temperature in the shadows can add depth to the shadows and pop the highlights even more. I often add thin glazes of other colours (purple or green most commonly) to medium or somewhat fair skin tones as well, but it’s a little trickier to do than with darker skin tones. I have to thin the colour down a lot more and proceed carefully.

Faces with dark skin tones usually look great with saturated makeup colours, as well, which can be very fun! I’ve seen rich greens, bright oranges, and even yellows for both eye makeup and lipstick that look terrific on dark skin tones, as well as the more typical reds and browns. Adding some saturated colour to a face will help draw the viewer’s eye to this important focal point of your figure. You can see fun examples of bright eye makeup and bold lipstick on these links, and many more with image searches.

Note that the general principles for where to paint highlights (and shadows) apply to fantastic skin colours as well. You can see an example with a pinkish-red skin tone below.

Succ sit front2

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Figures Featured in this Article

Elmore Female Sorcerer is available in metal.
Tillie, Fighter Pilot is available in metal
Quinn, Rogue is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Tara the Silent is available in Bones Black plastic or metal.
Brand, Barbarian is available in Bones plastic.
Masquerade Ball Sophie is available in metal.
Elmore Female Shaman is available in metal.
The Drunken Mermaid is available in Bones USA plastic.
Frost Giant Queen is available in Bones plastic.
Chop, Halfling Cook is available in Bones USA plastic.
Ogana, Ranger is currently available in metal, and will also be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.
Ingrid, Gnome Rogue is available in Bones USA plastic, Bones plastic, and metal.
Gisele, Sorcerer is available in Bones USA plastic.
Thregan, Fighter is currently available in metal, and will also be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.
Noblewoman is currently available in metal, and will also be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.
The Succubus will be released in Bones Black plastic sometime in 2021.

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.


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

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.

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.

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.

Flesh (Tones) for Fantasy

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In choosing colours for the third succubus, I wanted to includes elements from the other two to help draw them together as a group. My aim was to paint her skin as sort of a middle ground between the other two. The colour selections were darker and a little pinker than the kneeling succubus, but lighter in value than the seated succubus. The golds and blues used for clothing and accessories were used in various areas of the other figures as well.

Since I would also be painting a transparent cloth effect on this figure, I decided it was worth the time to test the colours I proposed to use, and I painted a quick experiment on one of the figures I previously used in a hair painting demonstration. The blond hair colours wern’t exactly the same recipe I used for the jewelry of the succubi, but they’re in the ballpark.

Succ3 test fullTest of skin and cloth colours for the standing succubus.

This was the easiest of the three skin tones for me to paint. I imagine that was largely due to being well in practice at that point after having painted two other similar figures. But I suspect that the fact that the midtone value of the skin was more of a middle value colour also made it easier. It’s tricky to judge highlights and keep them small enough on a very dark colour. Shadows painted on to very light value colours can easily look sloppy or unnatural, or be very challenging to achieve smooth blends with. 

Succ3 wip1 face 600 cropIn doing a rough block in the main concern is where lighter and darker values are placed. It’s not meant to look smooth or perfect at this stage.

I once again decide to start with a rough block-in for the major highlights and shadows on the flesh. I do mean rough, as is probably more apparent in the close-up below. During this stage I was regularly holding the figure out at arm’s length and looking at it without magnification. I wanted to see whether the various masses of the body standing out as identifiable and looking three dimensional from a distance. I was not particularly concerned about how it looked up close at this stage. 

Succ3 wip1 front 600 crop cu

The next stage was to go back in and refine the placement and the blending. For me this refinement step includes three elements, but it’s certainly possible to break these down into sequential steps instead of combining them if that makes it easier to manage.

Firstly, I was fine-tuning the initial block in by making a highlight a little brighter here, or shifting the placement location of a shadow, that sort of thing.  If you compare the two stages, you can see that the highlights are shifted a little lower on the breasts in the refinement stage.

Secondly, I was making sure I had addressed smaller or subtler areas. This includes checking that I addressed all of the smaller shapes within a bigger one, like on the knee, which is this case is sculpted in such a way that some of the complexity of the knee bones are apparent. You can also see that the area of the bellybutton is more refined in the second stage.

Thirdly, I was smoothing out rough blending transitions by taking half-step mixes between colours and stippling them along the edges until I got the blends as smooth as I possibly could.

Succ3 wip2 front 600 crop cu

The face, hands, and feet are areas with a lot more detail. I worked on those after I had completed the main body areas. Partly this was just a question of time management. I knew I would be working on this over multiple painting sessions, so I concentrated on the body the first day, and the other areas the second. (The hand on the chest would also be most easily painted after the neck and upper chest area were completed) For these more detailed areas I painted a little more precisely. There was still a small amount of roughing in and refining, but I didn’t want to cake up any detail with paint or make my life too difficult, so I painted up a little more cleanly than I had on the body block in. 

Succ3 wip3 face 600 crop

I had thought I would paint the transparent cloth immediately after finishing the skin, but it occurred to me it would be very tricky to paint the jewelry without getting paint on the cloth. You can just barely see it in the picture above, but she has jewelry on both ankles, and the inner leg is quite inset behind the cloth. For the non-metallic metal on this figure, I decided to use the colours I used to paint the freehanded pillow on the second succubus, which were adapted from the jewelry colours on the first succubus.

Succ3 wip3 front 600 crop

The blue cloth incorporated colours that I had used on the other figures, but I also added more of a teal blue. I had a similar issue with saturation as came up with the freehand pillow on the second succubus. I liked the value and general colour tone of several teal blues, but they all looked garish when placed next to the more subdued colours used on the figure. There are a number of different ways to desaturate colours. If you only have the budget or room for a small number of paints it is better to buy highly saturated ones and learn how to use colour mixing and colour theory to adapt them as necessary. In this situation, I chose to add one of the purplish colours used on the skin to the teal. 

Succ3 cloth nmm cu 600

The photo above shows the palette of colours I used to paint the gold NMM and the teal cloth. You can see that there is not a true saturated yellow in the colours I used to paint the gold up towards the top. The teal that I picked to paint the cloth with is the blob in the far upper right. You can see how bright it looks next to everything else on the palette. Had I painted that directly on the miniature the cloth would have stood out in a way that wouldn’t look natural. It would have looked as if it existed under different lighting than the rest. The row of less saturated teal paints near the bottom are the colours I mixed using that teal that were used to paint the cloth.

The two pools at the very bottom left are glazes that I used. These were small amounts of paint to which I added a lot of medium (in this case Reaper’s brush-on sealer) to make them very transparent. I painted the heavily thinned down blue over the areas of flesh seen through the cloth to create the impression of the cloth colour acting as a filter on the skin colour. After I finished painting the blue cloth it still seemed a little more saturated than I wanted, so I painted a thin glaze of the purplish skin colour I had mixed into the pools over the whole surface to tone it down even more. That did fix the colour, but it also subdued the value of the highlights, so I painted some of those back on.

Succ3 wip3 back 600 crop

Following the picture above, I painted her hair and also did some work on the figures’ bases. I thought it would be good to take pictures of the three together to see how they work as a group.

Wip1 succubi front 1000

Wip1 succubi back 1000

When I took a look at the group pictures, and then compared the figures on the shelf, I felt I wasn’t sure if the standing figure ‘matched’ the other two in terms of contrast. I had painted her hair with a softer sort of texture and wanted the robe to look filmy, but overall she seemed to have less oomph than the other two. I shared the pictures with a friend who recommend that I bump up the highlights in the hair and the focal area of the skin, and also on the robe. (My helpful friend was Jen Greenwald, who also has a blog!) The other change in the later photos is that I added some glazes of colours used on the figures to the base stones to help tie those in a bit more and give them a bit more variation and visual interest.

Wip2 succ front 1000

Wip2 succ back 1000

And a look at the changes on just the standing succubus figure alone:

Succ3 wip5 front 600

Succ3 wip5 back 600

Below is a picture of the layer mixes I used to paint the skin of the standing succubus. The darkest two colours on the middle row were only used for lining. (I line fingers and toes with a slightly lighter value than the main lining.) The three lightest colours (including the pale green-white in the upper right) were not really used in my initial pass. I did use a tiny amount of those light values when I went back in to add in some additional highlights in the focal area. IIRC the midtone was the center pool on the bottom row.

Succ3 palette 600 cu

Paint Recipes

Skin base colour: 9679 Drow Nipple Pink 
Skin shadow colours: 9602 Bruised Purple, 9307 Red Liner
Skin highlight colours: 89503 Sinspawn Pink, 9282 Maggot White

Cloth base colour: 89522 Grindylow Blue desaturated by mixing in 9679 Drow Nipple Pink
Cloth shadow colour: 61127 Waveform Aquamarine desaturated by mixing in 9602 Bruised Purple (using 9077 Marine Teal would also work, or just mixing Blue Liner into the base colour), 9066 Blue Liner
Cloth highlight colour: 9282 Maggot White, 9039 Pure White

The paint colours in italics are not currently available for purchase. Waveform Aquamarine was from a licensed line of paint and thus very unlikely to be reissued. Bruised Purple is coming back, and is currently available for preorder in a Bones 5 pledge. Drow Nipple Pink was a special event colour available at a few ReaperCons. I have heard rumours it might make a reappearance someday…

Figures in this Post

The work-in-progress succubus figures are not currently for sale. They are available for preorder as part of the Bones 5 Kickstarter late pledge. Look for the Demonic Temptations add-on.

The spellcaster holding up an orb is available in plastic or in metal. She was repurposed from my article/video on how to paint hair.

Succubus Too Skin Too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Succ2 wip4 back 600Finished skin, back view.

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

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

Succ2 wip4 left 600Finished skin, left view.

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

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

Succ2 wip4 right 600Finished skin, right view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problem Solving: Succubus Skin

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I’m working on painting the succubi and incubi in the Demonic Temptations add-on from the Bones 5 Kickstarter (late pledges available). Since painting great looking skin can be a challenge in miniature painting, I thought I’d share some of my progress and process.

Succ1 wip camcomp face full wm

The photos above are of the same figure at the same stage of painting. Each picture was taken with a different camera. I’m experimenting with ways to take progress photos at my paint desk as it’s not always possible to use my photo station. These photos are using just my painting lamp. The one on the left is with my good quality camera, the one on the right is with an iPhone X. I will probably write a later post about taking WIP paint desk photos and share more camera comparison pics.

I consulted with Reaper’s art director and the sculptor of these figures (the wonderful Gene Van Horne) for how to approach the skin on these figures. We agreed on more supernatural colour choices. Which is fun, but also covers a lot of ground! I had in mind to do different skin tones for each, incorporating sunset colours like peaches, magentas, and purples, at least for the succubi. I tested several different options, as you can see from the photo below. (The pirate’s vest and head kerchief are two more options. I’d worked on him a bit as a warm-up and decided he could handle being a more colourful pirate.)

Succ skin tests 1000 wm

Vibrant orange and magenta paint colours are often transparent. It’s just a property of the pigments that create those colours. I’m getting a later start on this project than I had hoped, so part of my testing was to try to eliminate colour schemes that would be unforgiving to touch up or would take a really long time to paint. 

Pirate test

In the end I decided to start with a fair skin option and went with the colours I tested on the pirate’s vest. (The black leather is a colour I tested to use on the succubus’ skirt.) These were fairly opaque (and just the purples rather than oranges and magentas), but the colours turned out to be a little fussy to blend. On the palette below you can see the colour steps I mixed to paint the skin with the layering technique. The darkest two or three were really only used for lining the edges where an area of skin meets another limb or a different object, and for lining in between toes and fingers. I’ve discussed a bit about why lining is a powerful technique and how I paint lining in previous posts. Insufficient lining is a common issue for contest entries that I judge at ReaperCon.

Succ1 palette 1000 wm

You can see from the above colour mixes that there is a wide range of contrast within the skin. Although I was aiming for something on the paler side, there are areas of the body that would appear to be in deep shadow. So that’s an example of what teachers and judges mean when we talk about needing more contrast or going deeper with shadows! (Go to the Home page and scroll down to the Painting Contrast on Miniature Figures section for links to all my previous articles about contrast.)

Just a quick note on my palette and the sponges before I get to more work-in-progress pictures. That is a ceramic palette, the same one that Anne Foerster (designer of the Reaper paint lines) uses on her free Reaper Toolbox Pro Tips videos. I bought several of these from Cheap Joe’s. I have seen a similar palette (and another similar palette) on Amazon for a higher cost. The wells are fairly small, so pools of paint evaporate more slowly than on a flat surface (or a shallow pool of paint in a larger well). When using a welled palette, I am able to control the dilution of the paint pretty precisely. Some water evaporates over time as I’m painting, so I occasionally need to stop and add a drop of water to the paint, or add paint if the pool is getting shallow. I use the sponges to keep the paint workable over several days. I add water to the sponges once or twice a day until they are not quite dripping wet. In between painting sessions I cover the paint wells with the sponges. While I’m painting, if I’m working primarily with shadows, I’ll cover the highlights area with a sponge and vice versa to minimize evaporation.

I usually need to add a little water before I begin to paint the next day, but this method keeps the paint better for me than a wet palette. I do use often use a wet palette for easy mixing and to keep paint in good shape during a painting session, but I rarely use paint on it the next day for anything other than small touch ups. The welled palette approach does use more paint than the wet palette approach, even with conserving paint over several days, but that can be an acceptable trade-off if you need to control the mix colour and/or dilution of the paint very precisely. Welled palettes are also great to have around to mix watery washes and glazes that can make a mess on a wet palette.

Succ1 wip1 face 600

The first day I painted in the afternoon and evening. I started with one of the legs. I’m a little bit out of the habit of serious painting. The face is the focal point of the figure, so I wanted to paint a section that was less important first to shake off the dust. I noticed straight away that the blending was much fiddlier than I had expected, but I entertained myself with Google friend chats and audiobooks and just settled into it.

Later in the evening I finished the legs and thought to myself why don’t I paint the face and chest while the paint mixes are still on the fresher side? I finished those areas and took the above picture. So in my mind as I cleaned up following my paint session, I had painted the face and the chest area and just had the arms and torso to go in another paint session. I looked at the figure now and then the rest of the night and the next morning in regular lighting, and I realized wasn’t happy with it. The legs looked good, but the face did not at all stand out on the shelf, and the facial expression wasn’t what I had hoped to achieve. 

This is not an unusual experience for me. At least it’s pretty common now. Time was, when I called something done, it was done, and I wouldn’t really study it or return to it unless I had an errant paint stroke or something else like that to fix. Sometimes we do have to call things done and move on rather than fussing over something forever, but a key element to improving in our work is also to look at an in-progress piece when we’re not seated at a brightly-lit desk working on it and see how we think it’s going. You have to give your eyes and your critical judgement skills time to see if there’s a problem, and then do the work of figuring out a solution. It’s very helpful to do that assessment when you’re not in the middle of working on it and in different lighting, and to do that looking at the figure as a whole, not just the part you’re working on at the moment.

Succ1 wip2 face 600

After a little thought I realized that the issue with the face as originally painted is that it was overall much too dark. The lighter areas that had a bit of a ‘glow’ were what I liked about the test paint of the vest on the pirate. I had a bit of that effect going on the legs, but very little on the chest and face. And that’s in addition to the fact that it’s usually very visually effective to paint the face and upper portion of the torso lighter than lower areas of the body on a figure. It helps draw the viewer’s eye to focus on the face. I will often start the skin of a face a step or two lighter than the rest of the figure for that reason, and I would have saved myself a little trouble if I had done that here.

I started my next painting session by painting over all the non-shadowed areas of the face with a colour two steps lighter in value and redoing the highlights and shadows on those areas. I went lighter in value and wider in surface area with my highlights and softer with the shadows on the lit areas of both the face and chest. I de-emphasized the nasolabial fold and emphasized the eyelids to shift the expression to fit the character of the sculpt better as well. 

Succ1 wip comp face full wmHere’s a side by side in case that makes the differences easier to see.

So why did I mess up in the first place? As I mentioned, I haven’t been painting very regularly for a fair while now. I did a bit of painting warm up before starting on these figures, but it was mostly on animal miniatures, so maybe not that great of a choice for a warm-up to painting a lot of skin! I also worked on the face later at night after I’d been painting for hours. I was tired, and I wasn’t putting a lot of deliberate thought into my choices, I was just focused on perfecting all those touchy blends. I should either have called it a night before working on the face, or found a less critical task to work on if I wanted to get more work time in. Either way, it’s nothing to beat myself up about. The important thing is that I listened to the voice telling me something wasn’t quite right and I tried something to fix the problem. Whatever level you’re painting at, you have a lot to remember and try to perform well when painting a figure. It’s not helpful to feel down about yourself if you goof something up!

Succ1 wip comp left full wm

Here’s a view from another angle. There’s a bit of lighting difference between the photos. I didn’t repaint anything on the legs, I think the light was just in a different location for the second photo. You can see that the revised face is a lot more visible and expressive even from this partially obscured side angle.

About the paint colours… I’m happy to share the recipe, but unfortunately the key paints are all out of production/special promotion paint colours. Sorry about that! These are all Reaper paints. The ones in italics are not currently available for purchase.

Midtone/base colour: 1:1 9679 Drow Nipple Pink : 61118 GREL Flesh
Shadows: Drow Nipple Pink, then 9602 Bruised Purple, mixed with 9307 Red Shadow for deepest shadows
Highlights: GREL Flesh, then 9282 Maggot White, with a bit of Pure White for the brightest highlights on the face

Figures in this Post

The work-in-progress succubus figure is not currently for sale. It’s available for preorder as part of the Bones 5 Kickstarter late pledge. Look for the Demonic Temptations add-on.

The hellborn or tiefilng spellcaster in the test colours photo is available in plastic or in metal.

The pirate is part of the Rum & Bones game from CMON.

The spellcaster holding up an orb is available in plastic or in metal. These were repurposed from my article/video on how to paint hair.

The demoness was part of Bones Kickstarter 4. She has delivered to backers, and will be available for retail sale in late Summer or early Fall.