If there’s one bit of technical advice I could give to people wanting to paint miniatures, it’s that you need good light. I’m not talking about lots of light or expensive contraptions with magnifying glasses. I mean good light.
The not-so-secret secret of art is that we’re at the mercy of our lighting and that not all light is created equal. All light has color, even when it seems like it doesn’t. Our eyes need light to see, so whatever light color is going on alters the colors around us. This can be really subtle, as in the case of a standard light bulb’s yellowish lighting, or it can be drastic, like when you’re using colored bulbs.
Light color has a scale, measured in Kelvins. There’s all sorts of science stuff which I’m not particularly qualified to explain, but it’s a measure of what’s called color temperature. This isn’t actual heat in the way we think of it, but a scale where low Kelvin light is translated by our eyes to red and high Kelvin light is translated to blue. The colors range from there, with a good daylight white settling right around the middle.
The best light for painting miniatures is right at that sunlight range, between 5000 and 6000 K. White light equals less color distortion, meaning better painting for very little effort.
This seems like common sense, but most painters I know just plop their paints and minis on a dining room table and go to work under a standard wattage incandescent light bulb. This is a bad idea. As stated above, this type of lighting keeps your eyes from seeing the “real” colors you’re working with. It also casts more shadows than sunlight, which is the type of white light you want to go for. But, really, who paints outside? And isn’t it complicated to get proper lighting?
Nobody paints outside (much), but the good news is that it’s cheap and easy to get the right kind of lighting set up. I’m not a man of means, but here’s a picture of my setup, which I managed for around 40 bucks.
A few things should jump out at you immediately. First, my desk is a mess, which I insist you not judge me for. The second, though, is that I have a lot of light for a small space.
I’m using two lamps. The first, a little higher up, is a LED lamp with various settings, including a max setting of bright white light. It’s the Lampat LED Desk Lamp (Google it), and you can get it for about $24. Importantly, it has a nice overhang, meaning I get white light from above whatever I’m painting as well as from ahead and to the right of me.
The other lamp is just a plain, old desk lamp with a daylight bulb. Daylight bulbs are just LED bulbs which put out the 5000-6000 K light we want. They run a little more than standard incandescent bulbs, but last longer and get the right type of light.
Why two light sources? White light helps with shadows but doesn’t eliminate them, so you want to have light coming from as close to 360 degrees as possible. Remember: you’re emulating the sun, which is all around you. It’s the same principle as a lightbox, whereby you get the best pictures with surrounding light.
With the LED lamp giving me light from above and in front of me, I can use the smaller, flexible desk lamp to give me light from the other side, where and when I need it. The result is white light with no color distortion and no shadows obscuring the small details while I paint.
Again, this is cheap and easy, but nothing I’ve done over the past few years has helped my painting technique more. It’s not just quality, either, but speed, with fewer mistakes to go back over and less time squinting at a spot covered by my hand’s shadow, trying to figure out what the heck I’m looking at. And once it was set up, it was effortless—no elaborate new techniques or strange paints, no real maintenance. Just light.
- Light matters more than anything after paints and brushes.
- Getting a basic setup is cheap and easy.
- At least two sources of light is necessary to eliminate shadows.
- You’ve got a lot of variety in lamps and bulbs once you commit; it’s as complicated or simple as you want it to be.
Already have your lighting set up? Share pictures in the comments below!
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Image Credits: CineLight.com, Ian Williams