Monday, October 17, 2011

How to paint miniature portraits

This post is about the art materials, equipment and set-up used by an experienced miniature artist.  

It doesn't literally show you how to paint miniature art but it does walk you through some of the kit and layout that you might need and the options open to you if you want to develop your skills in the execution of miniature art.

Jenny Brooks demonstrating how a portrait miniature is painted

The artist featured in this post is Jenny Brooks who was demonstrating at the Annual Exhibition of The Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers (see REVIEW: Miniature Art Society Annual Exhibition 2011). She very kindly allowed me to have a good look at the set-up and tools she uses to complete her work and we discussed some of the items and alternatives.

The Annual exhibition continues until lunchtime on Sunday 23rd October at the Mall Galleries in London.

Jenny Brooks Dip.AD ATC RMS HS SWA

As you can tell from the signature initials after her name Jenny Brooks has been painting and painting miniatures for quite some time.  You can see her art on her website - Miniature Masterpieces and also can see all the awards she has won too.
Below I highlight some of her important kit and tools and indicate the choice of suppliers where relevant.

I also did a little research after discussing art materials and toolkits with Jenny and this is also reflected below.

This is an image of Jenny's set-up for her demonstration.  Right click it and open it up in a new tab to see it properly - or view on Flickr.  Most of the items are discussed below.

Jenny Brook's set-up for a demonstration of miniature art
annotated with names of items in her toolkit
(right click and open in new tab to see larger image) 


Top quality artists paints are, of course, an absolute necessity.  The following paints are used by miniature artists - in alphabetical order:
  • acrylic
  • egg tempera
  • oil
  • watercolour
Watercolour paint:  Artists will know that:
  • tube colours are most used by watercolourists for creating washes for larger areas and 
  • pan colours are more often used by those wanting rather more control over their paint.
At the end of day it's always a question of individual preference as to both brand and type of paint.

Jenny uses Winsor & Newton Artists' Watercolour Paint in pans.  The quantity of paint used is very small so it was no surprise at all that some of the pans appeared little used.

Colour palette and paint records

Skin tones chart:  Jenny has developed a skin tones chart to help her with selecting the right paints for the tones and shades she needs for a miniature portrait.  You can see a photograph of it below.  The actual chart has softer colours.

Jenny Brooks' chart of flesh tones and colour mixes
  • The top third of the chart displays six tones of one colour.  The tones are produced by layering glazes of unmixed watercolour paint.  
  • The middle third is devoted to the colour mixes produced using any two of the five colours at the top in various strengths
  • The bottom third of the chart demonstrates different tonal greys of a colour mix of two or three colours.  These are sometimes used as a grisaille
Colour Palette Record:  Jenny keeps a record in a sketchbook of the colours used for every single portrait she does.  She makes a note of the name of the colours used, creates a sample of the colour and tints.  Where mixes are being used she also makes a record of these too. The advantage of this is that you can refer back when painting a new subject with similar skin tones or clothing of a similar colour.

Below is the page used for her portrait of the miniature portrait of the Princess of Wales

Record of the colour palette used by Jenny Brooks
for a miniature portrait of the Princess of Wales
Support for the painting

Miniatures artists generally choose a very smooth surface.  There are a number of options which are summarised below.

Vellum:  There are two types of vellum:
  • traditional vellum is made from the skin of very young calves or the skin of the foetus of an aborted calf.  It is treated and stretched under tension to produce a smooth and very durable surface which accepts and displays colour well.  It is most appropriate for those wanting an archival surface as it can last for centuries - medieval manuscripts are written on vellum and still survive while later paper documents have deteriorated. The word vellum is derived from the Latin vitulus (calf), and its diminutive vitellus. Calf skin is both smooth and durable because it doesn't have hair follicles which create dimples in the skin. The treated skin of young/unborn goat (kidskin) or lamb (lambskin) is sometimes also referred to as vellum.  The finest vellum is "uterine vellum" made from the skin of stillborn or unborn calves.  In the UK this very fine vellum is known as Kelmscott (the home of William Morris who was a strong proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement).
  • modern-day vellum is vegetable vellum.  Basically this is plasticised cotton.
  • Vellum should not be wetted as it will buckle. 
  • Getting hold of vellum is a bit of a problem as there are very few suppliers of genuine traditional vellum.  The standard sheet size is 6" x 4" or 7" x 5" and typically costs in excess of £11
  • See Vellum for more information
Ivory:  This is no longer used for legal and ethical reasons (the killing of animals for the ivory trade).  Antique ivory piano keys are sometimes used to produce a surface for miniature art.  Mammoth ivory recovered from the Russian permafrost is also used to produce ivory for artistic use without any concerns about the animal being killed to produce it - as it's been dead for over 10,000 years!

Ivorine:  This is a plastic sheet which is typically 0.5mm.  The sheet is a thick translucent white and has a matt finish on both sides.  This is a technical note about Ivorine, its origins and its chemical composition.  Note that painting on Ivorine requires a different technique to painting on other surfaces.  See Ivorine for more information

Polymin:  This is a plasticised version of Ivorine which in turn was an artificial version of Ivory which is no longer used (unless recycled).  The sheet often needs to be treated Jenny recommends that a wash is laid down before the miniature is started so as to provide some tooth for glazing over the top.  See Polymin for more information

Hot press watercolour paper:  Like paints artists vary as to their preferred choice of watercolour paper for miniature art - but it's generally hot press with a size which means paint does not sink in too much.


Brushes used by miniature artists tend to be shaped differently.  That's because the application and control of the paint comes through the tip and the body is used much less than in normal watercolour.  Hence the special miniature art brushes which are made have a much shorter body because the length of hair is much shorter.  Here's a link to those made by Winsor & Newton so you can see what I mean
we also provide Series 7 Miniatures.  These are available in 9 sizes, from 000 up to number 6 and are made from the same quality hair as our standard brushes.  The length of hair used in these brushes is much shorter to allow the point only to meet the paper surface when working on very small pictures.Winsor & Newton - Series 7 Kolinsky DSable Brushes - Further Information - Miniature brushes
You can see a group of three Miniature art brushes by Winsor & Newton at the front of the image of Jenny's set-up.  See Brushes for more information

Table-top easel

Miniature artists typically do not require full size easels.  Instead it's very common for artists to work at a table and use a table-top easel.  The latter is, of course, also very useful as a portable easel when it comes to demonstrating in exhibitions!

Having a surface which is much bigger than the miniature you are working on allows you to tape up relevant reference material next to it.  You can see in the image that Jenny has:
  • a colour reference photo
  • a mono reference photo - to provide the value pattern
  • a vignette card
  • a diagram of the main features of the drawing
  • a brush wipe - to control the quantity of paint and the point of the brush
Ramekins as palettes:   I was very taken with Jenny's use of white ramekins fixed to her tabletop easel as a way of mixing her paint.  Very innovative and I think we might see a few people copying that!


In order to paint at an intense level of detail, the artist needs to be able to magnify both the reference source for the subject and the miniature artwork they are working on.  That can be problematical if only one source of magnification is used.

Artists deal with the challenge of magnification in different ways.  See Magnifiers for Miniature Artists for more information.  Jenny's solution is to use three items:
  • a normal magnifying glass on a handle (seen on the right of the set-up image)
  • a large magnifying glass, of the sort used by people who do embroidery.  This has lost its orginal fittings which allows it to rest in a horixontal position on the chest but is very useful nonetheless
  • the most original and ultimately satisfying solution is Jenny's special pair of glasses.  She works as a miniature artist so special glasses which provide the required level of magnification are a tool of her trade - even if they cost a bit more money to produce.  These were prepared by an optician for the level of magnification that Jenny wanted.  I tried them on and they're a bit like super duper reading glasses which let you get to the last line on the reading chart!  They are, of course, very easy to wear and use!  I'm only surprised that I haven't heard of more people tackling the magnification problem in this way.

Do let me know if you have any queries and I'll see if I can get Jenny to provide a response.  she was delighted to be featured in this way and she's a very helpful and informative artist!

For more information about Miniature Art and the suppliers of art materials and equipment used for miniature art please see my website Miniature Art - Resources for Artists where I am trying to find a home for links to all the most useful information on the web about miniature art

If you have a useful link to relevant information that you'd like to share with others via this website please let me know.


  1. What a fabulous post! I've wondered about the miniature artists working tools for quite some time and your post about the show whetted my appetite even further.

  2. A wonderful guide to painting, thank you!

  3. Thank Jenny for her very helpful approach to showing me all her equipment! :)

  4. I have always loved her miniatures! Do you by chance know what type paper she uses for her plumbago drawings? Thanks!


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