A few years ago I took a drawing class at the Art Institute in Chicago. Doing the class taught me quite a lot that has influenced the way that I paint miniatures. One of the primary things I learned, though, is that it is easier to draw or paint something if you have a good, real reference. It is easier to see how light, shadow, color, and form all work together on a particular model if you are actually looking at a live model. Eventually, you get enough practice that you can work from memory, but having that reference can help make things feel a lot more accurate to a viewer.
My process is a lot like a painter building a maquette or model for something they want to paint. It gives a solid visual reference that you can use to add verisimilitude to something you're creating. To give you a little idea how it works for a painter, check out this video by James Gurney of Dinotopia fame:
In the case of miniatures, you can see the texture of the model because you're holding it in your hands. With a strong directional light, you can see how particular areas are highlighted or shaded by simply positioning the light where you want it to source. For colors and gradations, though, it helps to have some visual reference.
I use a lot of paintings, photographs, and drawings as inspiration for colors and gradations. Often, doing a search for something common using the image search on Google turns up several different ways that I could paint something on a model. Seeing a lot of ideas laid out at once gives me a chance to compare and choose the ones that give me the best reference for a particular model. If I find several that give me different ideas, I can save the images, chop out the parts I like, and rearrange them into a final reference image using GIMP.
Here's a reference I put together to get some ideas for painting the squirrel on the Brownies for my Fanticide Fae. You can see the different colors of the fur, and the way that the coloring changes on the belly and interior of the legs. I used these as I painted the figure to decide on the colors to use and to make it a bit more life-like.
|A gathering of squirrels|