How to Paint Miniatures

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Miniature paintings have been created for hundreds of years.

It was common for people to have tiny portraits of their loved ones created which they could carry with them, much like carrying a snapshot in a wallet today.

This type of painting is still being produced, and the genre now includes all styles and subject matter.

How Tiny Is Miniature?

The standard for miniature painting varies from country to country, and even from location to location in the United States. It generally requires that the piece be contained on a surface area of 25 inches or less. With some exceptions, the scale of the subject matter is 1/6th or less. Exceptions may include very small subjects such as butterflies or hummingbirds.

The artisanship should stand up to close scrutiny and details should be tightly rendered. Perspective, balance and color must meet high standards of craftsmanship. The framing will be consistent with the size of the artwork.

This means that any small painting is not necessarily a miniature. Aside from the scale issue, a big difference between a small painting and a miniature is the attention to detail that a miniature requires. The observer must be able to look at the piece under magnification and not observe flaws or lack of detail. Magnifying the image should enhance and point out detail and technical attention to the subject. Obviously, impressionistic or abstract art is not going to be considered in this style of painting.

Creating a small painting does not have stipulations attached. The artist can use any style or technique and create a pleasing piece. There are no limitations or guideposts to observe. However, if the artist wishes to challenge his skill and patience, a true miniature is a labor of love and commitment to the advancement of his skill and technique.

Throughout the world, there are many societies that promote miniature painting. They hold juried shows and exhibitions that have applications available for members, and some take entries from non-members. Since there are variations in accepted standards, an artist must research the guidelines of each individual organization before submitting work.

Miniatures, Mediums And Supports

Traditionally, miniatures were done in oil or watercolor. Vellum, ivory and watercolor paper were commonly used as the support. In the miniature societies today, all medium is welcome and various supports are used, including Ivorine and Ivorex and other specialty supports. Gessoed Masonite would work well with acrylic, oil and egg tempera. Hot pressed watercolor paper, or other papers with no texture would be acceptable for watercolor or other water based mediums.

Since miniatures require so much detail, the support used will be very smooth, with no texture and little tooth. The artist may also use wood, Tagua palm ivory, Lumitex or Polymin. The ivory-like supports are quite popular, as the luminosity resulting from multiple glazing is typically used in this form of painting.

Whatever medium the artist chooses for his work, he will be using it in a glaze version of his paint. The paint straight from the tube will be far too thick to apply without thinning. Texture is not acceptable in this type of painting, as details would be spoiled by any globs of paint.


Traditionally, miniatures were portraits. A father, anxious to see his daughter well wed might send a courier with a miniature of his daughter to a potential future son-in-law. Women had miniatures of their husbands, who may have been away for years in a war. The traveling husband and father would carry small portraits of his wife and children. Sometimes multiple copies of the miniatures were created for various family members.

Although all subjects are acceptable for miniature paintings, the standard is 1/6th scale, or less. This would mean that a portrait of a person, whose head is typically about nine inches, could be no more than 1-1/2”.

Miniature wildlife paintings have been growing in popularity, as well as landscapes in general. Many artists have added miniature art to their repertoire, and a number of galleries feature miniature art as part of their ongoing showings.

What To Paint?

Attempting miniature art is not for the impatient or jittery. This type of painting requires a great deal of effort, and if an artist gets nervous legibly signing his name to a painting, miniature art may not be his wisest choice.

Unless the artist is familiar and comfortable painting the human face, a miniature portrait would certainly be a challenge. If he is comfortable creating a likeness, this would be a classic way to immerse himself in the traditional miniature style.

The bulk of artists and art students are not experienced painting a likeness. When a student is ready to tackle portraiture, he should be prepared to learn some anatomy and study how a face is created. There are endless lessons and classes in portraiture, and this skill will develop only with intense study and practice.

Perhaps that is why many artists choose to paint wildlife when beginning to paint miniatures. They have an opportunity to paint familiar objects that are rich in detail, but still have enough latitude for artistic license.

Simpler still are landscapes. This would give a student a taste of the kind of labor-intensive work he has to do, without the need for advanced skills required for portraiture. He can be as detailed as he wishes with this type of subject matter. He has more leeway in what to focus on, and what to minimize or eliminate altogether.

Whatever an artist decides to paint, when he chooses to paint miniature art he is selecting a style and technique that will truly test his patience and skill. It is fun to paint as the muse guides, creating a masterpiece in record time, or just general messing about with paint. It is also greatly satisfying to take one’s time and give in to the need to paint every detail down the last eyelash. Alternatively, for the person who has never painted a detail in their life, it is an opportunity for growth and learning patience.

Whatever the impetus is, creating a miniature is never a small accomplishment.

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