Like the title says, I literally had to think about it because I'd forgotten, and suddenly remembered the method I used to use to paint highlights. By way of explanation, I've only gotten back to painting again after about a year off, which started shortly before the birth of our son in 2/2009. I've painted a few miniatures in the past few months, but when doing touch-ups on the Plaguebearer I've posted pictures of recently, I ran into a problem - all my highlights (especially edge highlights) turned out looking a little "off." I'd forgotten what technique I used exactly to highlight and get nice, neat lines and couldn't for the life of me get any of them to come out looking the way I wanted them to.
I realized what the problem was in a sudden flash of insight - I was applying to much pressure and needed to slacken up a bit. Trying my "newly remember" old method, I was back to painting highlights properly on that figure and the commission I'm also working on simultaneously. (Not exactly like riding a bike, but more like getting back into an old "groove.") I figgered since it had "come back to me" pretty clearly as to how I should be approaching highlighting, and in a way that I can (relatively) easily explain in words, and I've taken a picture of my painting in the past to explain a related concept, I figgered that I'd dig up my old tutorial picture and write something up for the site. Enjoy!
The problem I realized I was having was that I was applying too much pressure on the brush. Ideally what you want to have is thinned paint - something along the lines of a 1:3 or 1:4 paint-to-thinner ratio, or to throw the phrase out that everybody seems fond of, about the consistency of "skim milk." The reason for this is that you want your brush doing most of the work - it's a tool like any other, and if you're working harder than your artist's tool, then you're doing something wrong. The biggest thing to painting highlights (other than thinned paint) is the amount of pressure you apply on your brush. What you ideally want to do is practice applying as little pressure as possible - if you can, try applying so little pressure that barely even the tip of the brush would touch. Do this without paint if you like to get the feel for it, but practice just barely skimming the surface of something with a feather touch and nothing but the very tip of your brush. Got that down after endless repetition? Good! (Realistically speaking, a skilled painter has had lots of practice doing light brush strokes and with a lot of not-so-good painted miniatures back in the past as trial and error - if you're lucky, you can skip all the bad parts and cut straight to painting good highlights!)
Now to apply some paint - dip the brush into your thinned paint no more than halfway. Any more than that and you risk getting thinned paint up into the metal ferrule holding your brush hairs in place (and we all know that's a good way to ruin a perfectly good brush). If you're comfortable with this paint consistency and you're painting on a broad area, that's fine, but it's generally a good idea just to lay the brush point flat on a paper towel (or give it a quick swipe along a fingernail, by preference) just to wick some of the excess liquid away - what you're doing is loading up with diffused color due to the added thinner and then taking some of the excess liquid off - you're still going to have the same diffusion of color but just not as runny. Now with as light a touch as you can, draw the brush back towards you slowly - it's the slowness here that matters, by the way. The longer you keep the very point of the brush in contact, the more of your color will unload onto the figure, and by keeping a bare minimum of contact you're letting the brush and the thinned paint do the work. Applying pressure won't do anything to help lay down a highlight, all that will do is make it thicker by bringing more of the brush hairs in contact with your painting surface by force.
Here's the final light purple highlight on a broad span of purple, drawn up towards the top of the shoulder pad:
If you've done it right and let minimal pressure on the brush do all the work, you should ideally end up with a nice, narrow line. Straightness comes with practice, as does the ability to know how "far away" to hold the brush so that you're not pressing on the surface of the figure at all, but simply letting the bristles touch it with their built-in "springiness." If you approach highlights obliquely - that is, head-on - you're going to end up with fine lines. If you approach them with a slight twist to your brush, so that instead of drawing the very tip along you're drawing more of the side of the tip slightly sideways back toward you, you're going to end up with a slightly more diffuse highlight. I prefer the latter, but it's all a matter of style.
If you've got highlights down, how's about something a little more tricky? Sharp edge highlights? Sure! Essentially, what you want to be doing now with the same consistency paint and the same wicking off of excess moisture, is drawing the side of the brush along a hard edge instead of using more of the tip. If a picture's worth a thousand words, this might help:
Using thinned paint, drag the side of the brush along the sharp edge of the surface you want to have a crisp narrow highlight at roughly a 45° angle. Rather than the bristles of the tip splaying and making a fuzzy highlight, the side of the brush which doesn't splay (well, at least not so that it affects the highlight overly much) is what you want to be making all the contact. Between the thinned concentration of your color and the positioning of your brush, with a couple careful passes you'll end up with a nice, crisp edge highlight. Same technique as regular highlights and with the same light touch, it's just applied to the hard edges of things rather than straight and with the (side of) the tip.
Any more questions? Feel free to ask! Now that I've remembered how to highlight again, I'll do my best to answer. This actually helped someone? I'd love to hear that, too!
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