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Highlighting and Shading

By Anthony Karl Erdelji

Highlighting and shading is without a doubt the most difficult and most important painting techniques to master. It is this that separates painters from people who simply put paint on their models.

          Before I go into this long and complicated process of highlighting and shading we need to understand why it is necessary. First off, all painters are basically tricksters working in a miniature world trying to bring a breath of reality. We are fooling the viewer through the use of highlights and shades to see depth that is not truly there. Just as a canvas painter can bring to life people and places on a flat canvas, to make them appear to have depth by using highlights and shades, we are doing the same thing, yet we have the added benefit of working from a three dimensional figure instead of a one dimensional canvas.

Let's take these two figures for example. The figure on the left appears to be a one-dimensional trapezoid. However, with some color, highlighting, and shading  the same figure shown on the right appears completely different. The left side of the figure appears closer to you and the right side is further away and hidden in shadow. What once appear just as a flat trapezoid now appears to have some depth to it. (I'm no computer artist, but you get the general idea.)
Taking this same concept to the extreme, we can see how Leonardo da Vinci used highlights and shades to give a sense of depth to his masterpiece, Mona Lisa. Without highlights and shades this masterpiece would look as realistic as a cartoon character.

          Now lets take a look at a typical miniature. Every miniature has the exact same folds and curves as a life size object and thus reflects light and has recessed areas that appear in shadow. However since the miniature is just that, a miniature, these folds and curves are also in miniature and can be quite faint and difficult to see with the naked eye. Through the use of highlighting and shading we can increase the visibility of the contours of the miniature and recreate the reflection of light that we would be able to see if the miniature was life sized.

By studying a figure lit from above we can see the play of light and shadows. We now must recreate this through the use of paint.

Mixing Highlights and Shades

           We can recreate the effects of light by mixing up a lighter value of our base color for highlights, or in the case of shade, a darker value. Simply put, if you want to highlight blue, use a light blue. If you want to shade blue, use dark blue. Between our light blue and dark blue we need to create a subtle transition with the base color of blue in the middle.  This is done by mixing small portions of each color into the base color until we reach light blue for the final highlight and bark blue for the last shade.

           For highlighting, I usually use four steps, more or less on the importance of the model. The first highlight will be 75% blue and 25% light blue. The next 50% blue and 50% light blue. The third highlight 25% blue and 75%. The final highlight will be 100% light blue. Each corresponding highlight is applied in a smaller area than the one before moving closer to our light source until we reach the final highlight, which is sparingly applied at the areas where the light is the most intense.

            Our shade is applied the same way only is reverse. Instead of working from our base color to a lighter shade, we go from our base color to a darker shade. I use two steps for shade and rarely waiver from that number. The lack of light means our transition to our shade color is quicker than with the highlights. The first shade step will be a mix of 50% blue and 50% dark blue. The second and final shade will be pure dark blue, which is placed in the deepest, darkest areas of the model.

Here we have every highlight and shade colors laid out.

          Some of you may wish to additional contrast to your models. In the blue example above it is possible to add white and black to our mix. By keeping the same number of highlighting and shading step, but making the transition between colors quicker, we can get a stronger contrast which is prevalent in the Games Workshop style of painting many people prefer. For example, our first highlight could be 66% blue and 33% light blue, the second 66% light blue and 33% blue, the third pure light blue, and the forth 50% light blue and 50% white.

On the left is an excellent model by Dominic Heutelbeck of Miniature On the right is one of my pieces. Notice how Dominic's priest has bold, strong contrast while mine has less contrast. Neither one is right or wrong, its just two different styles of painting. Choose whichever style suits you.

Thinning Your Paint  

          So now we got all of our colors picked out and we're ready to do some serious highlighting and shading. This is where is gets difficult. If we were to simply brush on our highlights and shades onto the model there would be an obvious jump between each shade of color where one color ends and the other begins. We need to soften the lines between each shade of color so the transition is smooth and unobvious. This is known as blending. Blending is accomplished through the use of transparent layers also know as glazes. Each of our highlight and shade colors must be thinned so a portion of our base color will show through. We want not to paint over the previous coat, but tint it to a lighter or darker value.

         The amount of water to add to your paints to thin them depends on the consistency of the paint your using. You'll need to thin the paint until it become transparent. For highlighting, most hobby paints such as Coat d'arms or Citadel will require a 2:1 water to paint ratio for most applications, but you may need to play around with this ratio. 

          Shading is handled a bit differently. For shallow recessed areas of the model we want just a slight shade so thin your paint to 2:1 water to paint. On other recesses we want the shadows darker, so thin them to 1:1.  There is less gradation in areas of shadow so we will need thicker paint than when painting on highlights. 

         These ratios of water to paint should work in a majority of situations, but you many need to adjust them depending on the surface begin painted. Large, gently sloping areas such as the hindquarters of a horse require thinner paint, while areas that go quickly from shadow to light, such as tight folds in clothing require a quicker transition between colors, hence thicker paint.

Paint Control

         One more thing to learn before we begin painting is control. Your highlight and shade are now thinned somewhat like a wash. Dip your brush into this mix and the capillary action draws all of the mix into the bristles of your brush. If you were to begin painting it would flow everywhere and we would have no control of the placement of the paint. After you load your brush with paint, drag it a couple of times across a paper or cloth towel. This will absorb the excess water on your brush. We don't want to remove as much as we would when drybrushing, just enough so the paint will not pool on the model.

         Let take everything you've learned so far and have a go at painting flesh on a Clan War figure. All colors listed below are Coat d'arms.

cwblend1.jpg (31868 bytes) We begin with the basecoat, which in this case is Tanned Flesh. Now is a good time to study the figure and memorize the placement of the highlight and shadows. Notice how the light reflects off of the head, arms, and muscles of the chest and stomach. Also notice the shadows around the neck, below the eyebrows, under the arms, and between the fingers.
cwblend21.jpg (33207 bytes) Next is the shading. I made a mix of Tanned Flesh and Rat Brown. This mix was separated into two portions. The first one is thinned to 2:1 water to paint. This mixture is applied to all of the recesses including shallow areas such as the slight impressions around the muscles of the arms, cheeks, and around the base of the head. The second mixture is thinned to 1:1 and used to define the deeper recess such as around the majority of the muscles. At this stage we don't have to worry about blending. Just block in the areas with color.
cwblend3.jpg (23224 bytes) The second and final shade is next. I used Rat Brown thinned to 1:1 and applied it sparingly to the deepest recesses of the model such as under the eyebrows, under the neck, under the arm pits, around the muscles of the stomach and along the belt line.
cwblend4.jpg (22859 bytes) Next we return to our basecoat of 2:1 thinned Tanned Flesh. This is used to blend the first shade  into the basecoat. Multiple coats are used until the edges of the shade blend smoothly into the basecoat. 
cwblend5.jpg (20249 bytes) Highlighting begins by creating a mix of 25% White and 75% Tanned Flesh and thinning it to 2:1 water to paint. If the shadows were placed correctly, this highlight should cover most of the basecoat that was not shaded, leaving only a thin line of Tanned Flesh between the first highlight and first shade. Successive coats were used to bring this highlight to the desired shade. 
cwblend6.jpg (20970 bytes) The second highlight consists of 50% White and 50% Tanned Flesh again thinned to 2:1. This is applied roughly the same areas as the first highlight, but trimmed back slightly as to leave the first highlight showing between the basecoat and the second.
cwblend7.jpg (27196 bytes) The third highlight is very important since it is out last main highlight. This is a mix of 75% White and 25% Tanned Flesh once again thinned to 2:1 water to paint. This coat is trimmed back even further than the previous highlight. As general rule of thumb, look directly down on the model from above. If you can't see it, don't highlight it. In this case it is applied on the top of the head, top of the shoulders, on the tops of the fingers, and along the eyebrows and tops of the cheeks.
cwblend8.jpg (28845 bytes) The final highlight is slightly different than what is normally called for when highlighting. Using our mixture guild lines this step would call for pure white. However, since this is flesh using pure white would look unrealistic. Instead I made a mix of 90% White and 10% Tanned Flesh. This mix is slightly thicker than the previous highlights, 1:1 water to paint. This is applied very sparingly to the eyebrows, bridge of the nose, and knuckles.  All done!

Final Thoughts

          If your first few attempts at blending do not come out as desired, don't worry. It will take a lot of practice to master blending. I've been painting for well over a dozen years and I still work on my blending skills. Remember that half of blending is placing your highlights and shades in the proper places. Study each miniature before painting and memorize how light reflects off the miniature, replicate this through the use of transparent layers of paints, and your well on your way to being a master painter.


Sigmar Priest photo used on permission of Dominic Heutelbeck of Miniature