Effective Highlights and Painting Different Material Finishes

The great David Powell joins us for this guest tutorial, explaining highlights and surface reflection. Though David is a sublime figure painter, he’s also a remarkable teacher who always translates his ideas into practical advice.  Read on for David’s tips that will immediately improve your mini painting. Oh, and to see some of his incredible work, too!



When I work with other painters, an area I often try to stress is how to properly paint highlights. A mistake that I see people make is to paint their highlights over too large an area. Just because you’re painting a lighter shade than your base coat does not necessarily make it a highlight. When you paint your highlights over too much of the figure’s surface, what you’re really doing is just creating a lighter midtone. As you get lighter, you need to keep reducing the area your highlight is applied to and just focus on the topmost part of each shape (or whichever direction your light is coming from).


I was looking at this orc bust I just completed and thought it provided a good example of what I aim for. Ignore the OSL and just focus on the main light source. Notice on the top of the head the highlight essentially shrinks down to a point or dot of light. You can see a similar shine point on the nose and, to a lesser extent, the cheek. Those are more spherical shapes. On his shoulder or trapezius, you can see how the highlight becomes a line as the underlying shape is more like the side of a cylinder.


I’m doing something similar on the skin of a Celt (still a work in progress). On the face and the various shapes on the body I’m bringing those highlights to a point.

Now, how rapidly you transition from the midtone to the highlight and how strongly you make that final reflection point can also be used to mimic the finish of whatever material you’re painting. In this case, I’m aiming for something like a satin sheen for the skin. If I were painting a matte cloth like wool or cotton, I’d make the transition more gradual and the reflection point not very strong at all. If it were a glossy material I’d make the transition more dramatic and the shine/reflection point much stronger.


Take the work in progress image of this pirate orc and see how the finish changes on different materials. The skin appears shinier than the cloth on his forearms and legs. The leather has a bit of sheen to it, though I wanted more of a weathered leather than a new bright shiny effect.

Lastly, you can also think about the shape of the reflection. It’s affected by the shape of the figure as I’ve already mentioned. But it’s also based on the shape of the light source. Typically your light source will be a sphere, so circles make sense. But say your figure was inside and the light was coming through a window (more distributed outdoor light as opposed to the sun shining straight through glass). In that case, those reflections on the head/nose would be shaped like a square. For the trapezius, since it’s the side of a cylinder, the highlight I painted is actually (or should be) a circle stretched into a very long ellipse. So the shape of the light source is still there.

Okay, perhaps we got into the finer details a bit too much there at the end. Just something to keep in mind down the road. But my main point is about making sure to reduce the area your highlights are applied to as you get brighter and brighter and that you can use the transition and strength of the reflection to imply the finish on whatever you are painting. That last part can be especially effective if you’re painting a figure with different materials and finishes. The juxtaposition of a strong shine on one part next to a more subtle matte section can make the effect even more apparent to the viewer.


David Powell first got into miniature painting as a kid when his father found him a box of old Ral Partha miniatures at a garage sale. That, and stumbling upon Warhammer, got him hooked. About ten years ago he got back into miniature painting with a focus on painting for display and competition. While continuing to learn and improve, David has managed to win awards at a number of competitions, including the Crystal Brush. He also enjoys working to help other painters improve through writing tutorials and teaching classes. These days he prefers to work on slightly larger scales, from 54mm to busts. Though perhaps better known for his work on historical miniatures, he still has a love of fantasy miniatures.

David also updates his blog every so often…

One thought on “Effective Highlights and Painting Different Material Finishes”

  1. Too many painters paint every material the same way, especially those painting GW miniatures. The ‘eavy Metal team has their style of edge highlighting EVERYTHING, whether it should be or not, and doing so strongly. People see that and mimic it, not realizing the mistakes in doing so.

    Now, at the end of the day it’s all personal preference and style. I’ll never tell someone their painting something wrong, but a lot of painters just don’t realize what they’re doing, nobody ever taught them.

    Anyway, good stuff 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s