Miniature Painting

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Art Glossary: What is a Miniature?

Miniature paintings
Before photography, portraits were often done as miniatures. Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

A miniature painting is a very detailed, very small painting. We're talking tiny, but exactly how tiny varies between miniature painting societies around the world. A rule many ascribe to is that to qualify as a miniature painting, it must not be larger than 25 square inches and the subject must be painted no more than one-sixth of its actual size. So, for example, an adult head which is typically 9" wouldn't be painted large than 1½".

A traditional-style miniature isn't merely about size, but also the level of detail in the painting. It's the detail that differentiates a miniature from a small painting: if you look at it through a magnifying glass, you'll see extremely fine brush marks with every detail scaled down and miniaturized. Techniques used include hatching, stippling, and glazing. Composition, perspective, and color are as important as in larger paintings.

The origins of the term 'miniature' with regard to a painting have nothing to do with size. Rather it is said to come from the terms 'minium' (used for the red lead paint used in illuminated manuscripts during the Renaissance) and 'miniare' (Latin for 'to color with red lead'). Originally the term applied only to paintings done in watercolor on vellum, part of hand-made books, but expanded to cover any ground and medium. For a survey of the history of miniatures (in Britain), see the Victoria & Albert Museum website.

In the 1520s in Europe, miniature portraits started being used as jewelry, in lockets and brooches, particularly in France and England. Miniatures were especially popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The invention of photography, which provided easy portraits, inevitably led to a decline in the popularity of miniatures and the number of artists specializing in miniatures.

This is not to say that it's an extinct art form, far from it. There are still artists today who specialize in painting miniatures as well as various miniature art societies, including the World Federation of Art Miniaturists and the Hilliard Society of Miniaturists in the UK.

More on Miniatures:

Synonyms: limning

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Miniatures Painting Projects

Miniatures Painting Project
"Alaska" by Deb Griffin. 2 1/8" x 2 5/8". Oils. Photo © Deb Griffin

The theme for a ​miniature project is detailed landscapes. It can be in any style that's representational, though colors need not be realistic. No abstractions or pure abstracts. The challenge is to paint as detailed a landscape as you can in a tiny format, not merely for it to be small painting.

Size: For this project, a miniature is defined as being on a canvas or sheet of paper no larger than 5x5" (25 square inches) or 10x10cm (100 cm2).

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Tips on Tiny Paintings

Tips on tiny paintings
If you staple your tiny piece of paper to something larger, painting it is easier!. Photo © 2011 Shrl

Increase Your Working Area: When painting minis glue or staple the piece of paper, canvas paper or canvas onto a piece of cardboard or other firm surfaces that's an inch or so larger than your painting. The excess cardboard gives you the freedom to move the painting around while working on it and not get you hands into the wet paint. If stapling, be sure the staples are close to the edge so they won't be seen under a frame. When the painting is complete and dry, use a cutter to remove the excess cardboard and you're ready to frame. Tip from Shrl.

Brush: The ideal brush has a very fine point but holds a good quantity of paint so you don't have to keep dipping it into fresh paint. Look not only at how sharp a point the hairs come to but also how fat the belly of the brush is.

Steady Your Hand: If your hand shakes, making painting small detail tricky, try steadying it by resting your little finger or side of your hand alongside the painting. Or hold your other hand beneath it as a support. Because the area you're working on isn't big, you don't need to move your whole arm to paint.

Demo: Step-by-step photos painting a Tiny Urban Abstraction.