Forget Blending: How Light Really Works
Every painting tutorial, ever artist Q&A, every miniature critique I read seems to always focus on the same thing: Blending. How do I blend? Wet-blending, glazes, loaded brush. I bet there isn’t a single way to blend paints that haven’t been covered in some tutorial somewhere. I’ve even written some of my own.
In reality blending is completely independent of the success of a paintjob. Miniatures with good blending are not more realistic than those with stark transitions. It is the quality of light which the painter wishes to represent that informs the blending. In addition to wargaming, boardgames, cardgames and rpgs I’m also interested in photography. This interest has been inspired by and has inspired my miniature painting hobby. My biggest motivator to buy a camera was wanting to share images of my miniatures. Exploring how light shapes objects through photography has given me a greater understanding of what I am trying to accomplish with my paint.
Soft Light vs. Hard Light
Soft light is the kind of light most painters are trying to show on their miniature, although most probably aren’t aware of this enough to even question why we do this. Representing soft light is done by smoothly blending the transitions between the highlights, midtones and shadows of the miniature. This is the most attractive light because it shows the full volumes of the miniatures. As the tone of the light changes across the entire surface it add visual interest. Compare two filled circles, one solid, on with a gradient. We are attracted to the gradient because it is harder to digest quickly. The solid block of colour in the solid circle is easily digested.
This type of light is created when the relative size of the light source is large compared to the the subject. Imagine yourself at looking out a window at sunset. The sun is on the horizon and you are illuminated by the entire face of the sun. Imagine ducking your head below the windowsill so that only three quarters of the sun is visible. Keep dipping until the sun is completely gone. How far did you have to move your head to go from full sun to none? Not very much. Although the sun is very large it is also very far away, making it appear small to us.
Overcast days give us an example of with light. The clouds scatter the light from the sun so that the entire sky is a source of illumination. No matter how far you duck down you will still see the sky. On extremely overcast days you may find that most objects aren’t casting a discernable shadow at all.
Most of the time a miniature is painted with a soft light. This is what we are used to indoors where light is designed to be soft. It also looks best on miniatures.
What it means
The point to all of this is that if we see the world in both hard and soft light we don’t need smooth blending to paint a miniature realistically. The important thing for our brains to see a miniature as well painted is that the highlights have to be in the right position. Where this is depends on the scene we are trying to represent. This is why object source lighting gets the reaction it does. Often the light isn’t realistic as far as colour and blending is concerned but the painter has paid attention to where the light should hit the miniature.
When I paint a wargame miniature I like a soft overhead (or zenithal) light with nice smooth transitions from highlights to shadows but the most important thing is where the highlights go. When I paint I like to block in my highlights and shadows using opaque paint. Once I have everything positioned properly I begin to blend.
Unrelated to the post above I’ve been thinking about trying to add smaller posts giving my reactions and opinions to various hobby related news items in order to post more frequently. Please leave a comment below whether you like this sort of thing or you prefer only original articles. You can also reach me on Google+ and Twitter. Don’t forget to subscribe for more articles.