So you want to paint a miniature
You may have toyed with the idea of trying your hand at flats but let them be because of a number of reasons, one being that they are not readily available. However, with patience, you should be able to obtain them. There are a growing number of dealers in Great Britain and the United States who offer flats. Keep a lookout for their ads in the magazines. Then there are the makers, or “editors”, as they call themselves, that are willing, under certain circumstances, to deliver overseas.
Probably the greatest advantage of flats is the vast number of different figures available. Estimates run to 200,000 and new ones are added almost daily. You can choose from a multitude of poses. There are civilians and soldiers, running, sitting, walking, sleeping, fighting, eating their food (and disposing of it). There are animals, trees and houses. Practically all eras are covered from Adam and Eve to the landing on the moon, among them themes that are only scantily, if at all, covered by round figures, such as scenes from the Old Testament, from the Nibelungenlied or the Turkish wars, of Lands-knechts and Indians (the Asiatic as well as the American kind), of kings and beggars, of nobles and peasants. There is practically no theme in history not covered by flats, though there is a certain overrepresentation of Ancients, the Middle Ages, the Thirty and Seven Years Wars and Napoleonic’s.
In their home countries flats still are often used by collectors to represent historical events with vast numbers involved. It is not uncommon to find dioramas with several thousand figures. This is possible because the raw, unpainted figure is relatively inexpensive. However, since the lifetime of a collector is limited, many people paint flats in a hasty manner. Personally, I consider this barbaric. The figure is the result of careful historic research and an artistic work of design and engraving. And in the end some painter comes along and covers it all with careless blots of paint, spoiling it thoroughly. Don’t let this happen! Quality should never be given up in favor of quantity.
What tools and accessories do you need?
If you have been painting round figures, you will probably have at home most of the supplies you need.
One item that deserves your highest care in choice and treatment is the brush. Only the highest quality is fitted for the kind of work you will want to do. Trying to save a few pennies on brushes will result in hours spent in vain and frustration. The size should be 00 or 000 (some-limes also named 2/0 and 3/0 respectively).
However, more important than the size is the point. It should be long and extremely sharp. When buying a brush, make the following test-Remove the protective piece of Walter Fisher, picplastic tube, draw the brush softly across the back of your hand, moisten it and see whether the point is sharp again without single hairs standing off sideways. This test is necessary because some producers treat their brushes with spray, similar to that which women use on their hair. Don’t worry, if the shopkeeper knows his business, he won’t mind the little procedure.
Even with careful treatment a brush will not last eternally; the point will eventually blunt but you can use it for less fine detail work or under-coating and finally discard it.
Your other tools need not be chosen with similar care. For cleaning the figures you need a sharp, pointed craft knife and a small file, preferably flat on one side, slightly rounded on the other. It is best suited to reach into the narrow corners of the figure.
In addition, you’ll need a palette with a smooth surface like glass or china to mix the paints on. Any tile or dish will do.
For the thinner you need a small cup with a capacity of two to three cubic centimeters.
To get a good hold on the figures while painting, prepare a few small pieces of wood, about half an inch square and four to five inches long and some tape, sticky on both sides.
Last, but not least, you should not forget to spread some sheets of newspaper on the table, not only to protect the tabletop and thus keep out of domestic trouble, but also to clean your brushes on.
Paints and Thinner
Unfortunately, sitting here in Europe and writing for fellow collectors in the U.K. and U.S. 1 cannot recommend a certain brand of oil paint, since I do not know what brands are on the market in your countries. Let me, however, recommend this much: seek out the finest-ground, highest quality oil paints you can find. First-class paints are as important for the quality of your work as are the brushes. Don’t shy away from the somewhat higher prices. One small tube of paint will last you for years, since you use very small amounts for a figure, nor will the paints be spoiled by time, if you keep the tubes closed.
The paints you will need to start with are: Titian White, Ebony Black, Scarlet, Chrome Yellow, Ultramarine or Cobalt Blue, Prussian Blue, Burnt Siena, Burnt Umber, Dark Ochre, Flesh Ochre (a kind of light Reddish-Brown), English Red, Naples Yellow. You will note that I didn’t mention green. You can mix all shades of green out of Prussian Blue, Chrome Yellow and different reds or browns.
For undercoating you can use matt paints as Humbrol, Airfix, etc. Of these you need white, black, red, blue and chocolate-brown. You don’t have to be squeamish about the exact hue, since these priming colors are just to provide the underground for the oils.
For thinner I use a painting medium sold at art shops, which I mix with turpentine in a ratio of one part medium to two parts turps. This gives a fine silky finish, not too matt and not too glossy. You can increase the gloss by reducing the turpentine in the mixture and vice versa. Pure turpentine will give you a completely matt finish. Again, I’m afraid, you’ll have to find out the correct painting medium yourself, since the one I use, “Mussini — Malmittel III”, will probably not be for sale in your country.
Of course, it’s not sensible to mix up medium and turps for every painting session; it’s better to prepare a somewhat larger amount in advance.
Preparing the Figure for Painting
Having cleaned the figure of all flash with your craft-knife and file, fasten it to one of your square wood pieces with tape. This will give you a good handhold and by laying it on its side you can paint the figure as if it were a piece of paper without the backside touching the tabletop.
Now, using one of your second-class brushes, prime the figure with matt white. Do this by taking out a small lump of the pigment, which has collected at the bottom of the tin, with a toothpick or the end of your brush handle and put it on the palette. Thin it down well with your thinner mixture, then undercoat the figure with it. Take care not to clog up the fine details. The primer is only to take away the metal sheen and thus prepare the figure for the oils. It is not necessary that the priming give a shining white surface. It should be applied very thinly and it’s quite alright if you see the gray metal shining through.
After this first priming has dried thoroughly, which will take at least two hours, apply another coat, in the proper colors this time. Undercoat all larger areas (not the fine details) that are to be painted red, blue, black or Burnt Umber in their final stage with the matching matt colors. This will allow you to apply very thin oil colors later on, thus enabling you to bring out soft shades without an edge.
Let this second coating dry for at least two hours before entering the final stage of painting.
Painting with Oils
Press a very small amount of oil color onto your palette (you need very little and unfortunately nobody has succeeded yet in finding a method to put paint back into the tube). Now moisten the brush with plenty of thinner and start thinning the paint to a creamy to watery consistency before applying it to the figure.
It is a common mistake with beginners to apply paints too thickly. When you can see brush marks on the figure, the paint positively needs more thinning. It is next to impossible to achieve soft shading with a paint not sufficiently thinned.
So put in thinner until you are sure that it’s absolutely too thin, then put in some more and now, maybe, it’s almost thin enough.
However, if the paint should suddenly run off by itself and the undercoating look up at you — well, do you have to take my advice that literally?
I stress this point so strongly because I know that the consistency of the color presents a stumbling block for many a beginner. The larger the area to be painted, the more fluid the color should be. The very fine details of a face, for instance, have to be painted with almost unthinned colors, just with a moist brush, while the relatively large area of a jacket needs an almost watery consistency. Keep these points in eye and do a bit of experimenting. You’ll quickly get the knack.
Try to take as little paint on your brush as possible and try to keep it to the point. Not only will this save paint, it also helps to draw fine details and the brush is easier to clean.
When finished with one color, dip the brush into the thinner without touching the bottom of the cup. Then, having sucked up fluid, pull it, flatly and softly across the newspaper on your tabletop. The paint is drawn out of the brush, together with the thinner, and sucked up by the paper. Repeat this four or five times until only clear thinner is left on the paper. Now you can use the brush for another color. Do not wash out he brush in the thinner, as this will leave surplus color in the cup and thus force you to change the fluid more often. There also is danger of damaging your precious brush in the process. Take care to pull the brush really very flatly across the paper, as this avoids bending the hairs sideways and also helps to draw the unwanted color to the point and from there to the paper.
When finished with painting, stow the brushes standing vertically in a glass after cleaning them.
Most people are somewhat shy to use artist’s oil colors; the name implies that they are for professionals only and hard to handle. Well, it’s exactly the other way round.
I can’t think of another sort of paint that is easier to use. Everybody who has used watercolors knows how hard it is to get soft shadings without visible borders, because the color dries up so fast. And if you slip up somewhere, the fault is almost impossible to correct. Not so with oils. They stay soft for many hours, which gives you plenty of time to achieve soft shadings by stroking softly with your brush. You can put wet oil paints side by side and they will not run into each other. If you wish them to do so, you have to help with your brush, which means that you have the process under control all the time.
The amount of brushing the border between two shades of color and the consistency of the paints are decisive for the smoothness of your painting. Spend some time exercising!
However, having mastered the technique, please keep in eye the following: It is wonderful to give a fine porcelain-like finish to the face of a beautiful lady, but absolutely unfitting for the coarse features of a hairy landsknecht. What I mean is: Keep in mind the character of the figure you are painting.
If you should have the misfortune of slipping with your brush while painting with oils, this is annoying but no catastrophe. Just wait one or two days and paint it over. Oils are opaque; thank Heaven!
Paint your figures step by step, finishing one small area after the other. Oil paint, although taking more than three days to harden completely, will start to thicken in a matter of a few minutes. It’s better to work on a small part of the figure at a time, not more than half an inch across, better less; finish this completely before starting on the next. Life is much easier that way!
Although oil colors take several days to harden completely, you usually will be able to add small details like buttons and emblems on flags twenty-four hours after you have painted the background on which the detail is to stand. With a round figure you can get away with a minimum of shading or none at all and still have an acceptable result; this is not so with a flat figure. It is up to the painter to add the third dimension with the brush.
We see things in three dimensions because of two reasons. One, because we have two eyes and can see an object from two different points of view at the same time. This effect we cannot copy with the brush. Not so with the other reason. When light falls on a flat surface it is lighted evenly in its whole extent. If it, however, falls on a rounded, three-dimensional body, things are different.
Those parts turned to the source of light shine in bright highlights; those parts lying sideways are grazed by the light and are medium-bright only, while the parts turned away from the light lie in dark shadows. At this point, novices to figure painting should maybe make a small experiment. Put some round object, say a beaker or pot lying on its side, under a lamp and in a moment you’ll see what I mean.
Now back to our figure. First you determine from which direction the light should fall on it. For a beginning I propose that we let the light shine down from above. It is easiest this way to make out which surfaces are turned toward the light and which lie in shadow. Later, when you have more practice, you can get more interesting effects by letting the light come from the side or even from below, from a campfire, maybe. Of course it’s most important that the light come from the same direction for all figures belonging to the same group.
When painting, you can work out the third dimension by brightening the lighted surfaces and darkening those in the shadow. This is done by mixing in a lighter color (usually, but not always, white), or a darker one (usually, but not always, black) into the basic color. The following table shows which lightening or darkening color belongs to which basic color.
Basic Color /Shadows/Highlights
Flesh Ochre / Burnt Siena / White (for human skin) Yellow (for other objects)
Burnt Siena / Black / White (for human skin) / Yellow (for other objects)
Red / English Red or Burnt Siena or Black / Yellow
Chrome Yellow / Flesh Ochre or English Red or Black / White
Ultramarine or Prussian Blue / White
Green / Prussian Blue or Black / White or Chrome Yellow
English Red / Prussian Blue / Naples Yellow
Dark Ochre / Black / White
Burnt Umber / Black / White
There are a few basic colors that need special attention. Highlighting red with yellow is acceptable only if you allow for a slight orange sheen. If not, do not highlight at all but instead, darken the shadows strongly, deepen the medium lighted parts somewhat and leave the basic, unmixed color for the highlights only. This way, the paint will glow in a deep fiery red. Never lighten red with white as this will result in a dull, sick-looking pink.
Things are similar with white and black. How you can highlight white or darken black? The answer is simple: You can’t! There’s no white that’s whiter than white (and don’t let producers of detergents tell you otherwise!) and there’s no black blacker than black.
The trick is to paint the medium-light parts not pure white or black but light or dark gray, leaving white for the highlights or black for the deepest of shadows.
When lightening black by adding white, you may notice that the resulting gray sometimes has a somewhat dull look. This may be all right with some textiles but looks wrong on a fiery black horse or the hair of a beautiful senorita. A small touch of Prussian Blue mixed into the black will work wonders.
Roughly speaking, there are two ways to lighten or darken the basic color.
Method number one: Mixing paints on the figure: You paint the figure in basic color, then mix in white or some other light color for the highlights and black or some other dark color for the shadows. Most beginners find this method easier because it gives them time to think about where to put light and shadow while painting and allows a certain amount of experimenting.
Method number two: Mixing paints on the palette: You determine which parts should be light, medium and dark before you touch the figure with your brush, mix the three shades on your palette, apply them to their proper places on the figure and soften the borders. I prefer this method because it allows me to mix up the exact hue I wish to have. I can mix the paints thoroughly without the danger of smearing them across the figure by accident.
Some colors can be painted by this method only. For instance, when lightening English Red with Naples Yellow (a combination which looks very good on bay horses), you’ll find that Naples Yellow has such a weak coloring power compared to English Red, that it is next to impossible to lighten up the latter. You can solve this problem by mixing a portion of Naples Yellow with just a trace of English Red on the palette and applying it to the highlight zone.
Method two really is the easier painting technique. Its only disadvantage is that it takes a certain amount of practice in abstract thinking to determine which parts are to be lighted or shadowed.
I have written how to achieve soft shading between two colors or two different shades of the same color. But sometimes you will want the opposite effect. The border between, for instance, jacket and trousers of a figure may seem too soft, with too little contrast. In this case use the following trick:
Take the brush with the finest point and draw a thin black line along the border, then carefully integrate the line into the darker of the two adjacent colors. If you leave the line as it is, it will not look bad but it will give your figure the character of a colored ink drawing rather than a painting.
When starting to paint flats, one usually is afraid to put in really strong shadows. If you have trouble overcoming this, take a look at pictures of an old master such as Rembrandt or Rubens. You’ll see that the strong plasticity and depth of their figures results from the bold darkening of shadows. One of the best methods to improve your painting is to study the technique of professionals as often as possible.
Painting the Face
Meeting a person, the first things we usually look at are the face and the eyes; they are the features that turn people into persons. Since most of our figures represent human beings, this also goes for miniatures.
A face is a landscape with hills and ridges, with highlights and shadows. And yet, it is not too hard to paint, when you know where to put highlights and shadows.
If the source of light lies above the head the following parts are to be highlighted: The forehead (if not shadowed by the brim of a hat), the bridge and wings of the nose, the top of the cheek bones, the lips, the tip of the chin, the jaw line and the rim and lobes of the ears.
Shadowed are the temples, the eye sockets, the sides of the nose, the nostrils, the underside of the cheek bones, the mouth, the horizontal fold below the lower lip, the folds that run from the sides of the nose to the sides of the mouth, the neck below chin and jaw line.
Don’t be afraid to paint bold contrasts. The details are so small that you have to overdo things to bring out the desired effect. People in show business exaggerate their makeup strongly for the stage. This is necessary because of the distance to the spectators. It’s similar with our figures. A 30mm figure, viewed from about one foot, is the same size as a life-size person from a distance of 60 feet.
A very important detail of the face is the eyes. Start by painting a deep shadow into the eye sockets. And, if you wish, you may stop right here! Looking at a person from 60 feet, see how much you can see of the eyes at this distance!
If, however, your ambitions run to a higher level, paint the eyebrows. Below them paint narrow lines of light skin color. These are the tops of the eyelids. Now paint the eyelashes with thin curved black lines. No matter how hard you try or how sharp your brush tip may be, these lines will probably be too thick. Don’t worry; this will be remedied in the next step. Paint the eyeball white or very light grey and in doing this cover up the black line of the eyelash to such an extent that only a narrow shaving is left visible. Don’t hesitate to paint on the wet color. Colors should be practically un-thinned for the fine details and so they will take the over painting without complaints. And now, finally, put in the black pinpoint that stands for iris and pupil, taking care that it is in contact with the eyelash or, better still, it is only a slightly thicker part of the lash.
Looking somebody in the eye you will see that the iris and pupil usually are partly covered by the lid. Needless to say, the pupils should be aligned parallel (unless you should be painting a miniature of Marty Feldman).
Basic Skin Colors
Europeans: Basic color is a mixture of Flesh Ochre and white; add more white for the highlights, Burnt Siena for the shadows.
For South Europeans, Turks, East Indians, etc., add a bit of violet.
Japanese and Chinese have a little Chrome Yellow added to their basic color.
American Indians have a mixture of Flesh Ochre and Burnt Siena for basic color, white for the highlights, black for the shadows.
Africans come in a multitude of hues from light brown like milk coffee to blue-black. Accordingly, you can use the whole range of brown colors like ochre. Burnt Siena, Burnt Umber to black mixed with Prussian Blue. Make sure to work out strong contrasts with the help of white, brightly shining highlights. Negroes often have rather bright reflexes on their skins.
When painting lips, do not paint them too bright a red; just mix a small amount of red into the basic flesh color. The same goes for cheeks and noses with the exception, maybe, of a certain group of elder gentlemen who bear their lifelong preference for a good glass of Port brightly visible in their faces. Here you may add a touch of reddish blue.
If you have painted figures or models before, you know how hard it is to paint a metal surface so that it gives a convincing impression.
You probably used metallic paints. This also works with flats but the disadvantage of these bronzes, the coarseness of their pigments, is even more visible, since the painted areas are so small. However, the result is quite acceptable if you shade the colors somewhat, using black for silver colored metals and Burnt Umber for gold bronze.
Flats, being made of a brightly shining metal, offer another alternative. After having cleaned the figure from all flash, do not prime it. Instead, mix up a water wash of paint and let it run over those parts of the figure that are to stay metallic. The wash will settle in the deeper-lying parts of the engraving, bringing out the details more distinctly. You can reinforce this effect by polishing the figure softly with a paper napkin after a few hours. Use a wash of black for silver for iron, of black mixed with Prussian Blue for steel, of Burnt Siena for rusty metal, of Indian Yellow for gold. After the wash has dried for some hours you can add shadows in the proper places, then undercoat the surfaces that are to be non-metallic and proceed painting as usual.
There still is a third method.
For centuries shining metal has been painted by great masters of the art without ever using metal bronzes. How did they do it? Take an art print and try to analyze it. The result is surprising. Shining armor is composed of planes of white, black and grey, gold treasures consist of Naples Yellow, orange and brown tones, arranged in such a way that the eye is cheated into seeing bright metal. Have a try at it yourself, see whether you like it and try to copy it. If not, you still have the other two methods.
Painting small details
It is self-evident that small details as buttons, badges, emblems on shields or flags should be painted with the finest brush available and with almost unthinned colors. If painting white or yellow details on a black background or vice versa everything is all right. If you, however, paint yellow buttons in a white tunic or a white eagle on a red flag, the contrast may be insufficient. Use a little trick here. First paint the details in black, then, about 24 hours later, when the paint is dry, paint it over in the proper color, leaving just the slightest idea of black visible around the edges. This procedure takes some patience, but the result is well worth it.