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Tutorial: Object-Source Lighting

This tutorial is quite old. Please check out my new one instead!

Really! The new one is much better!

One of the most eye-catching effects in miniature painting is source lighting, where a glowing object casts light on the rest of the miniature. Especially in the fantasy and science-fiction genres, it’s a great way to show that a sword is imbued with magical energy, or a plasma cannon is charged and ready to fire. Let’s face it: glowing weapons are just cool. This technique is often called “object-source lighting” (OSL) by figure painters, as the source of the light is represented on the miniature (an “object-source”).

Pulling off believable glow effects is tricky, however, and there are many examples of poorly done lighting effects on the internet. In this article, I will show a step-by-step sequence of how I paint source lighting effects, using a Cryxian Slayer by Privateer Press as the demo mini. I’ll also provide plenty of tips and additional examples to help you give your models that eye-catching glow.

The Cardinal Rule

When a light source such as a torch, magical sword, or glowing plasma cell casts light on surrounding areas, they light up. Obvious, right? And yet, violating this simple rule is the number-one most common mistake people make when trying to portray lighting effects on their figures. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone try to represent a glowing object by changing the color, but not the lightness, of the nearby areas. So be sure to follow this rule.

The Cardinal Rule of OSL: Areas hit by a light source must appear lighter than surrounding unlit areas.

Step 1:

Unless the light source I have in mind is so strong that it lights up a large portion of the miniature, I generally wait until the end to tackle light source effects. This works very well if the light is just going to be caught by a few relatively small surfaces and edges, but less well if large areas of the model will be strongly lit. For the Slayer, I plan for the furnace vents to be glowing, and the eyes. The way the model is posed, this means that only small areas will be strongly lit, so the model is nearly finished by the time I’m ready to start on the glowing necrovents.

Step 1: paint the background for the lighting effect—it's easiest on a dark background

The easiest and most effective way to create a believable glow effect is to start with an otherwise dark model. This doesn’t mean to paint the model black—you still want good contrast—but it does make life easier if you choose a darker than average palette. Remember the cardinal rule. It’s not impossible to pull off a lighting effect on a white model, but it is extremely difficult. (Retribution players, you have been warned.)

If you want to see how I painted the battle damage, check out my tutorial from two weeks ago.

Step 2:

Before tackling the cast light, start with the light sources. This helps to gauge how strong to make the reflected light. It should be lighter than the surrounding areas, but not quite as bright as the source of the light. It’s most effective to make the light sources be a bright color, for a strong visual. Base-coat the light sources with a nice solid white—multiple thin coats. This makes it easy to cover with a bright color and have a believable light source. Don’t worry too much about mistakes, as they can be fixed in the next step.

Step 2: paint the light sources white

Step 3:

Painting OSL on metallic and non-metallic surfaces is a bit different. For non-metallic surfaces, you can just paint the glow color over whatever is underneath, but if you do this on metallic surfaces, you will lose the shine. For this reason, I prefer to do OSL on metals using inks.

However, you can’t simply paint ink on the lit areas of a metallic surface and expect it to look like light is being case. Remember the cardinal rule: lit areas must appear lighter than unlit areas. For this reason, an important step when painting OSL cast on metal surfaces is to highlight the metal surfaces to portray light being cast from the source(s) on the figure. Use a lighter, neutral metal color such as GW Chainmail to highlight, as you want to be able to tweak the color using inks.

Step 3: highlight metal areas which will be hit by the cast light with a bright silver

Here I’ve only done this on the areas immediately adjacent to the light sources. The reason for this is that when I color the light sources green, I will actually spread color over a slightly larger area than what I painted white in step 2.

If your figure has a lot of metal on it, this is a good opportunity to go over mistakes made in step 2, as the areas you accidentally painted white are likely the same areas you need to highlight in step 3.

Step 4:

It’s time to add some color! Start with thin glazes of a bright color, covering both the white-painted areas which are the source of the glow, and also nearby areas which would be affected by the glow. Use two-brush blending or your preferred blending method to smooth the edges of the glazed area. Because bright colors cover white easily, a thin glaze of paint is all you need.

For the Slayer, I used P3 Cygnus Yellow with a drop of P3 Necrotite Green for the glow color. (I use ordinary acrylic paints for glazing over non-metallic colors, and inks for glazing over metallics. In this section I will focus on the non-metallics, and later I will do the same steps on the back, focusing on the metallics.)

Step 4: add glazes of color over the light sources and areas which will reflect the light

Together, steps 1-4 cement the overall look of the miniature, which helps put everything into perspective. From here on it’s all about refining the details. At arms length, the differences between this point and the final result will be fairly subtle, but from up-close, those refinements will make a world of difference.

Step 5:

From here on, go area by area, sharpening the details of the OSL effect. For each light source on the miniature, try to picture where light from the light source would shine, how strongly it would illuminate the surrounding area, and how colored light would affect the underlying colored area. Remember that light tends to catch on raised edges, and will affect shiny surfaces (such as metals or enamel armor) more strongly than matte areas (such as cloth or dirt). It will also affect shiny surfaces more sharply, so for a shiny surface, focus on edges, and do lots of strong edge highlighting. For a matte surface, the reflected light will be more diffuse, so do thin glazes to color a larger area with more subtlety.

If you’re unsure where light would hit or how it would affect the underlying colors, a good tip is to grab an LED light (or an electronic device with LED lights on it) and shine it on your miniature from the direction of the light source. If you can find an LED of the same color as the glow effect you want, that is perfect, but even a differently-colored LED can give you the right idea.

If you don’t have the right colored LED, and don’t know what color would best represent light of one color landing on a surface of a different color, a good approximation is to simply mix the two colors of paint. This isn’t perfect, since the way colors of paint mix is a bit different from how colored light interacts with colored materials, but it’s a pretty good approximation as long as the paint you’re using for the glow is lighter than the paint you used for the underlying surface.

Step 5: sharpen the effect with bright highlights on edges which catch the light

For the Slayer, I started with the eyes, as they were the smallest, and quickest to finish. First, I did sharp edge highlights on nearby edges facing the eye, where the light from the eye would catch the edge, using my glow color (Cygnus Yellow + Necrotite Green) mixed with white. Then, to define the edges of they eye and separate it from the reflected light, I went back with a darker color (P3 Iosan Green + black) and lined the creases.

Steps 6-8

For steps 1-5, I concentrated on the front and top. Now I need to repeat the same basic strategy on the rear off the model.

Step 5 (rear view)

Here’s the Slayer from the back, as it looked after step 5. From this angle, it’s clear that many areas will be illuminated from the rear furnace.

Step 6:

Just as I did in step 3, I’m highlighting metal areas which will be illuminated by the light source with a light silver color (GW chainmail).

Step 6: highlight metal areas which will be hit by the cast light with a bright silver (step 3 applied to the back)

Step 7:

Add color to metal areas illuminated by your light sources. This is very similar to step 4, except now I’m mostly hitting metals rather than gray areas, so I’m using inks rather than paints. Try to match the hue of your glow using inks as closely as possible. (For the Slayer, I mixed P3 Yellow Ink and Green Ink.) Don’t worry if the inks appear darker, as long as they match in hue – most of the lightness of your color will be provided by the underlying metal. Using thin glazes with ink, color the metal areas you highlighted in step 6. Again, use two-brush blending or another blending method to smooth transitions.

Step 7: add glazes of color over areas which will reflect the light (inks are best for coloring metallic areas)

Step 8:

Add color to the non-metal areas illuminated by your light source. Using controlled glazes of your glow color and blending, color each area where the light would hit. If the glow color is very different from the underlying color (such as a green glow on a red surface), mix the glow color with a bit of the highlight color for the underlying color and use that as a glaze. Start subtly, since it’s easier to add more of the glow color than to restore what you had before you started glazing.

Where there are sharp edges that would catch the light, do thin line highlights using the glow color mixed with white.

Step 8: sharpen the effect with bright highlights on edges which catch the light, and intensify the effect on areas which are most illuminated

Step 9:

After step 8, I was pleased with the areas illuminated by the light, but not quite happy with the light sources themselves, as I thought they looked a bit monotone. To fix this, I painted a lighter color (mixing white into the glow color) in the center of each vent, and a darker color (mixing Iosan Green into the glow color) at the ends to break them up a bit.

Step 9: refine the light sources themselves—large light sources should be brightest in the center, and darker towards the edges







Other Examples

Asphyxious, painted to match the slayer

Asphyxious, the Iron Lich (Privateer Press): Asphyxious is from the same battlegroup as the Slayer, so the colors are the same. Notice how the glow from his ribcage is reflecting off of the chains holding his soul cages.

Nemo is an example of source lighting combined with non-metallic metals (NMM)

Nemo (rear view)

Commander Adept Sebastian Nemo (Privateer Press): OSL is actually a bit easier with non-metallic metals (NMM), since NMM provides you greater control in portraying how light reflects off of metal. The OSL I had in mind is actually the reason that I chose to paint the model using NMM, even though I normally prefer metallics.

Lorian was an attempt to push my OSL painting to the next level

Lorian, rear view

Lorian, Son of Bezelay (Tale of War): I painted this model to practice a strong single-source OSL effect, and some of the mistakes I made are clearly apparent. The darker area on his cheek is wrong, and the light effect from his open palm is poorly done. Nevertheless, the overall effect works fairly well.

Celberum was one of my early attempts at OSL

Celberum, Dark Rune (Enigma): This was another of my early attempts at OSL. What mistake did I make with the muscles on the arm holding the flame? (Answer obscured: V ivbyngrq gur pneqvany ehyr bs bfy.)

I originally posted this on Hand Cannon Online, but now that I have my own blog, I wanted it here.

This tutorial is quite old. Please check out my new one instead!


  1. Matthew Hipkin

    June 10, 2016 at 4:40 am

    Thank you for the clearly explained tutorial. I look forward to experimenting with this technique on my next batch of miniatures.

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