Ghools Graveyard – Increasing the Drama: A Model for Contest Entry

Welcome back to my Graveyard!

This article series is for those of you looking for critiques and ways to improve your miniature painting. If you just want praise and awe of your fantastically superior paint jobs, then this article series might not be for the likes of you! I will keep my critiques constructive, and positive, so that anyone submitting models to the Graveyard will be able to learn something. It won’t be a bash-fest, nor will I cut you apart for making an honest effort. What I will do is offer suggestions for improvement, and detailed advice on what works, and what doesn’t. I will delve into tips on using colour theory, tonal contrast, and a lot of technical artistic expertise in this series (which of course, will be defined, and explained).

Together we shall unearth the eternal secrets of excellence in miniature painting!

The Rules for getting your models in the Graveyard:

  1. Models must be in focus, and well lit. I should be able to clearly see what you’ve painted. No blurry phone camera submissions please.
  2. Backgrounds preferred are neutral: gray, blue gradient, light brown, or white. No background clutter, patterns or busy backgrounds please.
  3. Photos must be full colour, and not re-touched with any photo editing software. Snap the photos, and send them to me; no resizing please.
  4. Several angles must be included. Single angle submissions will be discarded. A minimum of three angles must be included in your submission.

Send all submissions to:

This time around, I have used another one of Hand Cannon’s authors’ models. This one is from Arlaharen, and one that he’s wanting to enter into a painting contest. I will be critiquing this one very critically, as judges will be looking at miniatures entered into these types of contests with great scrutiny.

A lot of what painting judges look for are contrast, proper lighting, smooth blending, proper placement/use of colour, and creative painting/basing/modeling. This has to do with making your models look dramatic, yet not over-doing it so they appear cartoony.

So, the first thing we’re going to do is take a look at Arlaharens’ Reckoner in grayscale. Establishing the proper amount of contrast on the model should be of the utmost importance when painting for a contest, and secondly, proper lighting.

The model has some nice blending, and for the most part, proper placement of highlights. There are some that are improperly placed, but I’ll delve into those details later. What we’re looking for here is a nice varied Tonal Contrast (see the first article in this series for a definition of this term). If you take a good look, there is very little complete black, and complete white on the model when seeing it in grayscale.

This is evidence of a lack of Tonal Contrast. Overall, the model appears to be largely in the middle gray section of the tonal spectrum. this means right off the bat, it needs a good push with the highlighting, and the shading.

I find a lot of painters are pretty timid when it comes to shading white, or lighter colours; they are extremely afraid of going too dark. Don’t be. You can take the shadows to almost black on a white/light part of the model, and as long as the majority of that surface is left the underlying colour (see the 50-50 Rule), the eye will still see it as the colour it’s meant to be. Never be afraid of having rich, deep shades on your lighter surfaces. All this will do is make your models really pop, and stand out very well from two feet away on the table top.

Lacking enough tonal contrast on a model is the largest issue with entering it into a contest. It’s also one of the easiest problems to fix. All Arlaharen has to do here is add one or two more highlights to the white armour plates, and bring that up to nearly white. Secondly, he needs to add one or two more shades. This will greatly increase the amount of visibility the model has, and will give it a more Dramatic Presence.

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Dramatic Presence:
When you see a model with really well painted Object Source Lighting (meaning light coming from a single, direct source), everyone always drools and slobbers over that particular paint job. Did you ever wonder why?
When viewing an object that is presented with a single light source, the contrast becomes amplified. When something is visually amplified like this, it ‘feels’ more dramatic, simply because of the source of light. Nothing special has been done to the object, except the artist has emphasized a single source of light, creating very bright highlights, and very dark shadows.
Thus, when the eye is faced with such extremes of contrast, it forces the object to be more visually appealing. This is because we’re creatures of emotion (like it or not), and dramatic, single pointed light sourcing creates a stronger sense of feeling. This is why movies like Apocalypse Now! feel so dramatic, and intense; the lighting (well, the acting as well, but watch it with the sound off, and I assure you, the movie will still feel dramatic, and intense).
Now, in this case, when we’re faced with a three dimensional object, and we’re not attempting to create a single dramatic light source, we have no need to create an extreme sense of single pointed light sourcing. But, it does help to create a more visually pleasing effect when we enhance the light sourcing a little, and give our models a bit more dramatic presence by creating extremes of highlight, and shadow where they would normally occur, using the standard above-right (1 or 2 o’clock) light sourcing for miniatures.

Let’s get into the full colour shots now, as the need for contrast has been given enough detailed coverage. Now onto the details.

Going with was said above, I feel this models needs some more punch in the highlighting department. The shading also needs a little extra push, but if you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, highlights will give the model what it needs without too much effort.

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The upper carapace, which is the highest point on the model has the same amount of light hitting it as the rest of the model. The area circled in orange can use another highlight or two, and can afford to be brought to white, or very close to it. The edging on the maroons (all marked in blue) is where I would add more highlighting. Right now, the reds need the most work, and can afford to come two or three steps brighter on the edges and tops. As they are right now, they are coming off as pretty flat, with very little sense of directional light. Adding a few more levels of highlight will fix that problem, and will take about 15 minutes to fix.

The metals have the same issue; flatness, and a very diffuse sense of lighting. By just adding a bit of a silver highlight to where I’ve marked in blue will remedy the lighting, and give the model a greater directional light source, and give us some more dra-ma!

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From this angle, we can see a bit more of the shoulder pad, and the problem area that has it’s shading and highlighting flipped.

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The area circled on the club (in blue) is where we can get the most out of adding some deep shading, and bright highlights. The square, orange areas should have opposite lighting to get the most of making that surface to appear shiny. The top two areas will have the lighting placed in a standard manner; highlights at the top, inside the orange areas. You could add a further shade, under these areas as well. The bottom orange square (in the middle section) is where the highlight should go. Since the surfaces are at an angle to one another, you can increase the dramatic presence by flipping the light source on this middle surface, which will give the metal club a more reflective appearance.

I’ll cover this method in more detail in a future article; for now, realize that this will work. Right now, we’re remaining focused on increasing the drama with this particular model (Covering too many artistic concepts in one go tends to make people glaze over, or have their brains overload with information.).

The Menofix’s on the shoulder, and the groin could use some tidying up, and again, like most of the model, needs just one more highlight or two along the top edges.

The left shoulder, just above the Menofix is a little flat. The highlights again, can be bumped up another level or two on the top, and the plate facing the front could use one more level of highlight to give that sense of light a more definite direction; towards the top. Both areas could have the shades pushed a bit darker, but again, we’re going for the easiest solution that will provide the best result vs. effort.

The top smokestack looks (for the lack of a better term) sloppy. I’m not 100% sure if it’s supposed to look like soot, and if that effect was intentional. As with dramatic presence; make sure that it looks intentional if it’s supposed to be a sooty smokestack. If it’s covered in soot, then get it grimy. Get it dirty. And don’t be afraid. The more intentional it looks, the less confused your judges are going to be, and a higher score/medal/trophy you will receive.

And last, but certainly not least; the armour plate on the gun arm there. The shadow is on the wrong side.

When painting flat, featureless surfaces, treat them completely separate from the rest of the model. This means that you shouldn’t try and imagine a realistic light source (and I know Arlaharen was trying to create one on this particular surface). Treat each armour plate that is exposed to the light as though it were completely independent of the model itself. Thus, the light source will start at the top of this plate, and darken towards the outer edge. The bottom plate underneath it will do the opposite (light at the outer, top edge, and darkening as it slopes under the gun). This will create the maximum amount of contrast on these two surfaces, and will emphasize the edge by having the shade of one surface butting up against the highlight of the next. This will give the bent armour plate more dimension, and what else? More Dramatic Presence.

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Looking from this angle, we can see much clearer the armour plate that needs fixing to increase that drama. We get a better view of the smokestacks, and some of the rear boiler sections. Again, most of these areas just need some more lovin’ in the highlighting department.

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The back side of the right shoulder needs the same treatment as the front; sharper highlights towards the top of each surface. Like the above, treat each bend in the metal armoured shoulder plate as it’s own, separate, and independent surface for maximum contrast, and dramatic effect. Light towards the top, and dark towards the bottom, so that the darkest area at the top surface is sitting directly against the lightest part of the armour plate underneath it.

The edging on the reds, most notably the gun arm (marked in orange) needs some more punch with highlighting. This is because the arm is sitting out very far from the body, and will be receiving quite a bit of light.

The armour plate on the gun mentioned above is more visible here (marked in blue), and just needs that lighting flipped; highlight at the top, and shadow on the bottom (farthest out) edge.

The smokestacks, like I mentioned above, just needs some more deliberate sooty-ness added to them. Right now, it appears as though Arlaharen got some of the shading he was using on the silver tops onto the white and tried to fix it by painting over it. If it’s soot, get it black, and make it look dirty like coal smoke would do to white. If it’s not, clean it up so it looks pristine. Otherwise, it’s going to lose you some points with the judges.

The boiler section marked in blue needs a brighter highlight to further emphasize the rounded surface and give it some more dimension. I would add a much brighter highlight to the section marked in orange.

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From the back, we can see a few of the flat surfaces look too flat and featureless. Just because a surface is flat, doesn’t mean that it won’t also need to be shaded an highlighted. Treat these flat surfaces like any other, and we’ll increase the presence this model has in the showcase and the table incredibly. It’s all about presence.

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The boiler is shaded quite nicely, and all it needs is a slightly darker shade towards the bottom. It certainly won’t hurt to hit the rivets with a nice, bright highlight either. The two circles above the main section are actually pressure dials. Arlaharen has left them silver. Painting details like this will make all the difference. Taking care of the fine details, and scrupulously attending to them will give your models that extra Wow! factor that contest judges are seeking.

The flat surfaces on the rear of the gun just need a dark shading where I’ve marked in orange. Like everything else, this will give them a stronger sense of lighting, and make them feel less ‘flat’.

The right shoulder plates need the exact same treatment as the left ones; more highlights towards the top. All the areas marked with blue will require a stronger highlight at the top, and a nice deep shade on the bottom.

[singlepic id=1901 w=320 h=240 float=center]

The right forearm plate has the same problem as the left. It needs a stronger sense of light, and more emphasis on the edge that creates the bend across the middle of the forearm. From this angle, we can also see the very diffuse lighting on the club, and how the reds on the right shoulder suffer from the same deficiencies as the left.

There’s also a few unpainted details visible from this angle as well! This is why I will always photograph a model before calling it finished; it will help you see anything you miss, and errors will blare out like trumpets on a cold, clear morning. We’ve all missed things, and sometimes just seeing the model in a different light, like in a photograph will help you see the missed areas and your errors much clearer. Trust me, when you’ve stared at the same model for 30 hours, it becomes very easy to miss a few details.

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The Menofix on the shoulder needs to be painted. This is something we can all admit to doing. I’ve done my fair share of missed areas, so it’s nothing major. All it needs is 5 minutes of work, and it’s taken care of.

The boiler gauges need to be painted, and I have circled these in orange. viewing them directly from the back, one doesn’t fully realize what they are. From this angle it becomes obvious, and it’s a little detail that will really help you master your brush control, and make your models stand head and shoulders above the rest.

The arm bits, circled in blue, just need an extra bit of highlighting, and maybe a shade.

The club section, circled in blue, is like the left forearm plate; the lighting needs to be flipped. The shade should be at the bottom, and the highlight at the top.

The forearm plate needs to be treated exactly the same as the opposite side, and needs some good solid highlights and shading. Right now, it’s the worst offender on the model for looking flat and featureless! Get some highlights on the top, and a good deep shade on the bottom of each section of the plate, and watch that armour plating come alive with feeling.

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The metals from this angle look like they need the most touching up. Again, like everything else, a little highlighting will go a long way.

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The Menofix on the groin needs some highlights, but the little section of armour it’s on needs a smoother blend. Right now, it’s pretty abrupt, and could use some softening between the highlight and shadow.

The golds, all circled in blue need some stronger shading, and brighter highlights, which will help give those surfaces some good dimension, and pop. The ‘beak’, circled in orange, needs a stronger shade on the bottom, and a nice bright highlight on the top, as it’s receiving a lot of light, being stuck out so far from the body.

The small area I’ve circled in orange on the loincloth is another little detail that will help your entry stand out from the rest. Instead of leaving that area gold, paint it in with a nice, contrasting gem.

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It’s all about Dramatic Presence, and getting all those little details when painting for a contest. Getting your details right, and adding that little somthing extra to your models is what will grab the judges attention, and have more adoring fans for your work.

With these two weapons in hand, go out win some contests!


Next time; Some models submitted by our readers!





  1. Forest said:

    I’m curious why you think the lighting should be flipped on both of those arm plates. I know painting miniatures is less about going for realism and more about going for readability and drama, but realistically speaking, the light on those plates is correct, if you assume a top source light. Planes facing the light source will be more brightly lit than those more oblique to the source.

    I realize that in order to enhance the scale of the model we usually tend to favor the light fall off method (where objects closer to the light source are more brightly lit and with higher contrast than those farther from the source) but I’m not really seeing it as the issue you made it out here.

    Of course, I have no experience in painting contests, so maybe the typical judge just doesn’t feel that way, which is why I ask why you were so adamant about flipping the lighting on those parts (especially since you didn’t seem to mind the “flipped” lighting on, for example, his front thigh plates.)

  2. GhoolGhool said:

    It’s not really an issue as far as realism is concerned. That’s most definitely the proper way to light it for realism’s sake.

    The point I’m trying to make, and emphasize is for readability, and maximum contrast. Flipping the light source like I have stated will create the maximum contrast between the bend in the plates, and will define those surfaces for the most readability, and for the article’s focus; Dramatic Presence.

    The thigh plates are highlighted and shaded for maximum effect; the highlights and shades are on opposite sides; the side facing the light is highlighted on top, and the side away from the light is highlighted on the bottom. Thus, you have the deepest shade on one plate against the brightest highlight on the other. This creates a lot of contrast, and emphasizes the shape of the thigh plate.

    This is not the case with the forearm plates, and thus, they are looking flat in comparison. This is why I made it a larger point in the article. The lighting would still be seen as ‘correct’ on the arms if highlighted as I describe, simply because the light is still appearing to come from the top-down. All it will do is give that bend in the forearm high visibility, readability, and drama.

  3. Forest said:

    But couldn’t you achieve the same effect while still being realistic? In this case, if you left the upper plate shading as is (dark at the top, bright at the bottom) and did the same with the lower plate (dark at the top, bright at the bottom), you’d still achieve your maximum contrast (bright top edge against dark bottom edge), while also a) still keeping it realistic (as shadows in real life tend to have be darker and have maximum contrast closest to the object casting the shadow, in this case, the top part of the lower plate, then get less distinct and brighter to the eye at least, the farther from the source) and b) also reinforce the “light side vs. dark side” impression of the plate by having the light side of the upper plate but against the darkness of the lower plate.

    I think this keeps/enhances the drama, but also still maintains realism.

    (I’m really not trying to argue with you, btw, just trying to understand your reasoning and see if this is one place my experience in figurative painting doesn’t translate well, or if it’s just a differing of opinion.)

    Also, this comment box is way too small. 😉 [oh hey, dur, I can resize it in FF]

    • GhoolGhool said:

      If you left that arm plate as-is, then the brightest highlight for the lower half of the plate would be at the very bottom of the model; not at all realistic, unless there’s a very reflective surface under the left arm.

      That wouldn’t be a matter of opinion, but physics.
      By highlighting the very top of the upper half of the plate, and shading the bottom of it, and then highlighting the upper half of the lower part of the plate, and shading downwards, you sacrifice the least amount of realism, and achieve the maximum amount of contrast and dramatic lighting.

  4. Arlaharen said:

    Great stuff! Now that I’ve picked up the pieces of my shattered self-confidence and finished sobbing I’m ready to have another go at the model (or more likely my second Reckoner).

    The flipping of gradients next to each other on the club and the arm plates feel really unintuitive for me from physical standpoint, but I’ll try it out and see what I end up with. It does make sense when you think in terms of contrast instead.

  5. Andreas said:

    Really interesting article. I am going to have to come back to it when I start painting my next jack.

    Highlighting flat featureless surfaces like this on jacks is one of the things I have troubles with.

  6. Mugu said:

    I’m wih Andreas, Its definately one of the harder problems I have as well.

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