Foundation painting techniques

Basic concepts


Shading is the key to a successful paint-job on a model figure. The goal is to paint the figure in such a way that it enhances the three dimensional qualities of the model; making it a more vivid – though not necessarily more “realistic” – representation of whatever the sculptor has created.

In real terms, this means employing a kind of trompe l’oeil or “trickery of the eye”. The illusion of depth or perspective is created by painting light and shadows as they fall on an object.

Painting a three dimensional model, you strive to artificially recreate an invisible light source that is shining on your object. Areas where the light falls will be lighter in shade whilst the areas is cannot reach will be correspondingly darker.

This sounds weird but it actually works.

Why? It’s a question of scale. Because the model is smaller than life size, the contrast between light and shade will obviously be less in a natural setting. So what you are doing, in effect, is “turning up” the contrast with your paints. It is a bit like setting up miniature invisible spotlights to illuminate your figure and draw the eye.

If you do this with enough subtlety, the observer is hardly aware of it. He or she only knows that the model seems much more “alive”.

The Cone of Light

StopSignFor most purposes, it’s helpful to imagine your model suspended under a “cone” of soft light. Hold it under a lamp, if you wish, and note the way the light falls; generally brightest on the highest and raised areas and darkest where it is overshadowed or underneath something.

After a while it will become second nature to analyse your model this way and this in turn will dictate the shade of paint you use on an area.

The “Stop sign” Approach

Sheperd Paine’s excellent book “Building & Painting Scale Figures” (Kalmbach) contains one of the best and most practical analytical models when it comes to shading. He suggests that you should think in terms of five shades to create a realistic shading effect, ranging from the highlight colour (1), to (3) which would generally be the base colour, then the ‘undercuts’ darkening to the darkest shadow tone (5).


David Clough©2003

Directional lighting

A lot of painters use directional lighting, a type of chiaroscuro effect, to heighten the dramatic impact of their painting. By placing the figure under strong lighting, it’s possible to see where the shadows fall according to the light source and use a painting scheme that accords with this. Here is an example of the technique (photos from the Facebook page of Faust Miniature Painter)

Foundation painting techniques

This is a selection of tutorials I found online that I have found particularly interesting or helpful. Some are simply linked to other pages on the web, others are so useful I have transcribed their basic content.

With all these tutorials, you can click on the link embedded in each title to go to the original source material –  or, if you wish, in some cases, download a PDF backup of the page they are on.

(I created these backups as an insurance because I have been disappointed to find in the past that some of my favourite tutorials suddenly disappeared from the web. Also a few of the backups have been translated (with varying degrees of success) into English from their original language – saving you the trouble of doing it).

Contrast and Scale by Myrddin, Minicreaturs

This tutorial is not intended to teach you how to paint a face, but to understand the importance of lighting and contrast to bring out facial expressions.


Look at this picture of an average person. It is clear that this joyous character is in the midst of big smile and he also has good cheeks (and yes our average person is greedy), in short we can say that the face is well defined, and that each part is legible.

The problem for a figurine of a few centimeters high, is that the figure is smaller while the ambient light is the same, the model receives less light and consequently it has less contrast. The face will seem flat and mostly indistinct, as can be seen in the following photo which has been reduced to the nearest scale of figurine proportions.


It’s obvious immediately that we can not see anything. The eyes are just two black dots. The smile we guess at, but the facial features are all melted one into the other, so he loses all expression and personality (which is a shame as our average person is very nice).

I was amused to just tweak the image with a photo editor. At this stage we can not say that I am particularly good at using this type of software, or that the lights are all I accented perfectly placed. The advantage of this hack is mainly to show that, once returned to a small scale, it is necessary to push the contrasts of light and shade (amongst others) for a face, expressive and captures the eye the viewer.


When we see this picture at “full size” the result is frankly ridiculous. But if we look at the same photo –  this time at the scale of a model – it reads much better.


Okay, I admit that the face is just as ridiculous but the facial expressions are all there. The look, the smile, the right cheeks –  QED.

Now it remains for you to do the same thing when you paint, but using a few more colours than I did to avoid the ‘racoon effect’.

(Auto translated from French)

Checking your contrast by Meg (Arcane Paint Works)

Useful article on using a desaturated photo to check the contrast values of a paint job.

How to blend tutorial from Coolminiornot

A basic but well illustrated article on blending paint.

(As with all these tutorials, you can click on the links embedded in each title to view the original source material or download a PDF backup)

(Download PDF version)


How to feather tutorial from Coolminiornot

(Download PDF version)

Chiarascuro (undershading) technique from Painting Mum

This is a slightly more complex tutorial but worth reading

The 70% rule is nothing precise. It only means you don‘t start with the usual base color (which usually is halfway between highlight and shadow) but halfway between the “normal” base color and the final highlight.

Why? Because shadows cover easier and faster, so it will be easier to build 70% of shadow and 30% of highlight than 50% of shadow and 50% of highlight.

Cover the primer with your base color highlighted to some 70% of the final highlight you want to apply.

Do it in a smooth and even way, with a few layers (the more layers you apply and the thinner they are, the smoother surface you will have for applying your chiaroscuro, and it makes painting much easier).

When you  achieve a smooth surface without smudges, you have a choice: you can highlight to your final color first and shade it later, or do it the other way around.

It’s more convenient for me to shade first and add my highlights in the later stages of painting.  This makes me feel free to build up shadows as deep as I want, and I feel this is the crucial factor in building the ambience of the miniature.

Another method:

When I want to achieve very deep shadows, I paint the model in a monochrome way first.

For example I paint the model in black and white only, and only then apply colors on top of this. It only requires some intuition about how much shadow should be placed and where to place it to be able to squeeze the planned colors over the transition later…. I often feel it’s the easier method for me, but you have to find out what is more enjoyable and easier for you.

My footnote: I believe these techniques relate mostly to brush painting. Painting with an airbrush, it’s easier to work from DARK to LIGHT; because, as David Fisher says, the brush works a bit like a ‘light source’. In theory this means it would be better to start with a (70%) DARKER base colour. I haven’t yet tried this but it makes sense.

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Blending through translucency – using ‘juices’

By Sebastian at OZ Painters

A point just came up on WAU, and I thought maybe it would be useful to speak about it here as well, in more detail.

With painting, one of the things that is most talked and asked about is the consistency of paint, and how it should be applied. Many people – including me – do a lot of their painting, particularly the shading and highlighting, using many successive layers of very dilute paint to gradually build up the colours in certain areas of a mini. Very thinned paints used in this way are often called ‘glazes’.

But I have been very unhappy using the term ‘glaze’ like this for quite a while: talking about a ‘glaze’ implies the painting of a very thin layer of paint over the whole surface, to slightly tint the whole area. So for example, if you were painting a red robe on a mini and the highlights became a little too light and chalky, you might use a glaze of a deep red colour, to paint over the whole surface of the robe and bring back some of the richness to the colours. It’s like adding a thin filter of colour over the top of the whole surface, to change the appearance of the colour underneath. Inks are good for this, because they are very intense in colour, are also maintain their translucency indefinitely – inks will remain ‘see-through’ no matter how many layers you use.

So, this is why there is a problem, because when I am talking about ‘glazes’ I am almost always NOT meaning a glaze as defined above; rather, I am talking about using successive layers of dilute paints in certain section only, not over the whole surface, in order to build up shading or highlights.

And neither am I talking about a ‘filter’ to tint the colours underneath: although the paint should be very dilute and translucent at first, the objective is to build up its opacity with many successive layers, to achieve a smooth transition between colours. This is why it is best to use paints rather than inks for this technique, because the opacity of paint will gradually build up with multiple layers, even if very dilute, whereas inks maintain their translucency. The key is to use only a small amount of paint – just enough to cover the surface. This gives more control and prevents the graininess or ‘tide marks’ that can occur when too much paint is used.

This means that we can’t call it a ‘wash’ either: a wash floods the whole surface so that the paint will collect in the recesses naturally and provide shading, but the technique I am talking about is more controlled than that.

So what on earth should we call it?!

When you read French painting articles, the word they use to describe this technique translates as ‘juices’ – they talk about applying a ‘juice’ of bestial brown, say, to parts of the surface in order to shade them. Calling it a juice may be a little amusing for us haha, but I think the term is actually pretty good – what you should be aiming for with your paint is a juice-like consistency, very watery with a hint of colour. So maybe we should start calling them juices from now on!

I always find all this so hard to explain when writing – my language fails me! So here is a diagram, hopefully it will make this easier to understand:


Example A shows how a glaze should work. On the left we have a surface that has been highlighted. If you felt that the end result was a little to light and chalky, and you wanted to bring back a more ‘green’ aspect to the area, you might apply a glaze over the whole surface. In this example, I have put a layer of a dark green glaze colour with an opacity of 20% over a surface identical to the one on the left – as you can see, the result gives a richer green colour while maintaining – and sometimes even smoothing – the transition from dark to light. A glaze should be painted with very dilute paint – you can always do more layers if you want a stronger tint of colour, but you can’t erase layers if the colour is too strong.

The important thing to remember is not to flood the surface as you would with a wash, because this will result in an uneven spread of the pigment as the paint dries. Instead, you should try to use just barely enough paint to cover the surface, which will prevent the pigment from flowing into the recesses and creating a patchy effect.

Example B shows how the application of ‘juices’ for shading and highlighting is supposed to work. The square on the left has had a mid-tone base colour applied. Then, an identical square on the right has had a series of 5 or 6 juices – very thin layers of paint – applied over the base coat, in order to shade and highlight. The colours of the juices are shown at the top. A dark, more blue-ish green for the shading colour, and a light, more yellow-ish green as the highlight colour.

The juices had an opacity of 20%, so the colour built up to be stronger – more opaque – as the layers were painted on top of each other. Looking at the shading part at the bottom, that I have numbered, you can see that layer 1 – the part that has been painted by the first juice only – has only had a slight darkening in colour. The paint is very translucent so the surface in that section has only been tinted slightly. The second layer is darker, because it has had two layers painted onto it – so the juice colour has become more opaque. And so on with layer 3, 4 etc.

The gradual transition between the base colour and the shading or highlighting colour is achieved by slightly withdrawing the area that is covered by each successive layer of paint. I tried to show this with Example C.

The red layer at the bottom represents the base coat – pretend you are looking at the surface of the mini horiztonally, from side on. The blue stripes represent the layers that we are going to paint onto the surface.

Let’s say we wanted to shade this surface, so that it gets darker as you move to the right.

The first blue stripe represents the first layer of paint. It covers most of the surface, but because it is a dilute ‘juice’ it only slightly tints the area that it covers.

After it dries, we paint the second layer over the top, represented by blue stripe number 2. But this time, we don’t paint over all of the area covered by layer 1; instead, we draw back a little, covering less area. So, only the area covered by stripe 2 gets a step darker, and we have created a more gradual transition between the base coat and layer 2, by having some of layer 1 left in between.

Then the same for layer 3 – it withdraws a little more, getting a step darker, creating a gradual transition. And the same for layer 4 and 5. So, you can see that the right side of the base coat has had 5 layers of paint applied on top of it – so this area will be the darkest. But then the surface steps down to 4 layers, 3 layers, 2 and 1, making a transition from dark to light.

Well, I hope this makes sense to people – the language is still so clunky, but maybe with the visuals you will understand what the hell I am talking about, if you haven’t understood previously. This is of course very simplified – but the important thing to understand is the concept of what you trying to do with the ‘juices’. To obtain super smooth transitions, you can apply many, many layers…I have heard of people painting 70, 80, 90 layers in this way. But because the paint you are using is so dilute, it won’t build up and obscure the detail – most of what you are painting onto the surface is water, which will just evaporate away.

Working with glazes

By Roman (aka Jar) at Massive Voodoo

Glazes, thinned colours, dillution, etc. – let’s talk about it in here. A basic information, which for sure is only from my point of view and there is no promise for its full explanation. You know my brain is sometimes some kind of swiss cheese.

Don’t use the colours straight from the pot – always add a part of water. To get a better hold of my instructions in here I have provided a small introduction to glazes in addition what I mean personally by a glaze.

Don’t use too much colour from your pot when starting, you won’t need as much as you might think in the end, like the same when being hungry and grab for bananas.

What is a glaze?

A glaze is a water-thinned Colour whose watery substance contains the original colour pigments of the tone. I mix up my colours by using a wet palette.

You can use every normal colour as a glaze by adding water to it (not washes and inks, they are already some sort of glazes but always with their unique side effects). Glazes created by normal colours, for example from GW’s Citadel range dry out matt again, sometimes inks and washes don’t. Put your brush in the glaze and when you are able to see the ground of your mixing ground or your wet palette while moving it through the thinned colour you are doing right.


You also may see how thin your glaze is while moving it over a tissue:


How to use a glaze?

Now if you did mix up your glaze bring in your brush and get some of the watery-colour up. Don’t go straight to the miniature with that. The water in your brush will flood your miniature. To work against this just dry the brush a bit off from the water by pulling it over a tissue or your thumb skin. The exact amount of dried off water is for sure a part of practice – my tip is: better more dry than too wet. Thrust me you’ll get a feeling of that while doing and only by doing – only reading this won’t help.

After this you can safely bring the  paintbrush with the glaze to the miniature, the colour pigments are still in it. Start from a bright basic colour with your glaze. I really love to bring shadows in by using glazes. But i guess everyone will make different experiences with that on their own.

The first glaze brings a simple colour change to your area. The second one makes it stronger and the third makes it much stronger. You can paint up to a hundred of glazes to intense a shadow, bring some darker colour in and so on. Here is a graphic (thanks to Raffa) which shows what i mean… it is like layering from dark to bright only in the complete other direction – from bright to dark:


How to use my brush while working with a glaze?

I use a Windsor & Newton Serie 7 long seize 2 brush for most of my painting. This isn’t the smallest brush as you may see when getting one maybe.

Small brushes I only use for the detail work on a miniature. I love ’em BIG 🙂

A bigger brush can save up way more water and liquid pigments than a small one. Painting some small areas with a small brush and you shortly have to refill your brush with colour because it is gone. With a bigger brush you can paint much longer moments without having it to move away from the miniature. And a good big brush can also have a perfect tip. Also the moving of a glaze over an area of a mniature works better with a bigger brush. I did get used to not to bring up a glaze with the tip of a brush – i am using it with the broadside. Therefore you can reach a way bigger area with a big brush instead of using a small one.

You have to think of your colour pigments in your glaze and your brush like cleaning out the backyard with a broom. Your brush is the broom and the colour pigments are the dirt you move in front or your brush.


When moving it with the tip you have to set do more tracks of glazing next to eachother, this will always make a dirty looking area instead of using the long side of the brush were the results you can achieve with a bit of experience can come out way cleaner in the end.

I always try to bring my pigments in while moving them in front of my brush over an edge or in a deeper place on the miniature to avoid them drying on the area, which always makes the area not as clean as wished.

Therefore i guess a explanation picture could make my blabla from above a bit clearer to understand – again muchas gracias to Raffa:


Where to use glazes? What can i do with them?

First you can use a glaze to shade down a colour tone, darken it down as described above. Try to move your shadow glazes in to your shadow areas, bright glazes into the light areas, try to move your brush like this:

T_07Second you can use a glaze to intense a special area with some colour difference, like this nose, click to enlarge (older WIP shot):

01That is what i love glazing for. Making areas intresting by bringing in different tones in skin for example. Here are some more areas where i have used glazes to intense a shadow or change the colour transition – i guess you see what i mean now clearly:

Some people always ask me about my thumb. My left hand thumb is mostly full with colour. When i go outside for a short walk to go to the supermarket my thumb always has some colour left on it… like this:

Let me try to explain – as i am always thinning my colours with water i found out for myself that i don’t want to look away from the miniature while working when i have to clean the brush on a tissue. So i have started to use my thumb of the hand holding the miniature. So i have no time loss, haha. Additional to this i feel how the glazes will work on the miniature when i bring them on. You can feel the condition of your colour through your skin. I do this now for several years, my thumb is still there – you can clean it easily with warm water and soap. I am not sure if this is healthy, so please if you are scared don’t do it. Attention while using colours that are not based on water, like Tamyias or other evil smelling stuff – i am not using this method with dangerous colours. Choose for yourself and try if you like it – i couldn’t paint without anymore…

I hope this Tutorial helps a bit clearing the point of view on a glaze of mine. In fact the combination of glazing the shadows and glazing the lights brings out the so called blending in the end. The more thinned glazes you’ll do in the end the finer the blending will be – but this is worth another Tutorial…

So… what to say – Happy Painting to you all! Let your brushes dance!

Regards, Roman

 Line Highlighting – Ron, From The Warp

This not only covers ‘lining’ but has some good practical advice on holding your brush

linehighlightinstroke” How you hold your brush matters. You want to “pull” your brush along the surface and not stab or poke at the model. We want to be able to apply a slight amount of pressure (like normal) and drag just the tip of the brush along the edge we want to highlight . . .”

(Download PDF backup)