Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting

Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting Shine a Light:
An Introduction to Object Source Lighting
with James Brown

If you take much of an interest in the world of miniature painting, chances are you will have seen examples of miniatures employing painted light effects – what is most commonly called ‘object source lighting’ or OSL for short. Whatever you call it, it involves using paint to create the illusion that light is emanating from part of a model and reflecting off the areas around it. This is easy to describe of course, but harder to achieve.
Even though it was virtually unheard of before the start of the 2000s, OSL is now quite commonplace in fantasy and sci-fi gaming. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be just as popular with gamers of a more historical bent.

I should start by pointing out that OSL is not a trick for novice painters. If you are not confident with the basics of mixing and applying paint, you will struggle to create the right look. But you don’t have to be the an award-winning painter. Assuming you have a decent grasp of the fundamentals of miniature painting, you should find that it is not as difficult as it looks. It is more about planning and patience than highly skilled brushwork.

OSL has generally tended to be something you see on display miniatures, rather than in gaming armies – and for
good reason. It is the sort of thing which plenty of gamers will immediately dismiss as not worth the effort. It is potentially quite time-consuming, and it would certainly be daunting to try to use it on a whole army. But there is no reason you shouldn’t consider it as an option for one or two centerpiece models in your army, such as commanders.

Below: The intensity of the light source determines how far the light will spread. Both the brightness and the intensity of transferred colour decrease, the further the ‘target’ is from the light source.
Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting
How Does It Work?
Firstly, it is quite important to have a basic grasp of how light works. You certainly don’t need to be a physicist, but it helps to observe some basic principles of how light behaves in the real world. Light travels in a straight line from the source, and objects reflect more light the closer they are to the source. Everywhere the light hits will be brighter, and will appear to take on some of the colour of the projected light.

The colour of the light will depend on the nature of the source. Light from flames will be mostly yellow, tending towards oranges and reds. For artificial light, though, the light may be closer pure  white. And for sci-fi or fantasy subjects, who knows? The colour applies to the light source itself, and to the reflected light shining on the objects around it. The interaction between the colour of the projected light and the natural, unmodified colour of the target object (what visual artists call the ‘local colour’) can lead to some interesting effects, and you will probably find yourself experimenting with mixing odd colours together. It will also pay to read a bit about basic colour theory.

Below: Audie Murphy earning his Medal of Honor during fierce fighting in the Colmar Pocket.
Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting
How Do You Do It?
Some painters plan each paint job exhaustively before they start, while others are more haphazard, more or less making it up as they go along. Both approaches are usually fine. But with OSL, your ability to plan is just as important as your ability to paint neatly. Start by thinking about the brightness and colour of your light source. For most historical subjects the light source will be a flame, so orangey yellows will predominate. Remember, the brighter the light source, the further the light will spread. You might like the idea of bathing the entire miniature in an intense, radiant glow, but for practical purposes, ‘less is more’. It doesn’t take much to create the illusion of illumination, and the smaller the spread, the easier it will be to paint.

Look very carefully at the miniature. As long as nothing blocks it, the light will travel equally in every direction, so try to picture a sphere, centred on the light source. In other words, when examining your model, look for all of the areas within your light’s ‘spread’ where light would land. If you miss any spots where light should land, the credibility of the lighting effect might be lost - it might just instinctively ‘feel’ wrong to the viewer.

Assuming you have had a reasonable amount of experience at painting miniatures, you should be quite comfortable with the principles of painting highlights. OSL employs these same familiar principles, but uses them in a more specific and controlled manner than usual. One of the key factors in making light effects look convincing is a smooth transition between colours. The look you want is a soft aura of light, gently fading out at the edges. For gaming miniatures, you don’t have to spend dozens of hours painstakingly creating subtle gradations, as a competitive painter might do for a display model. But it just won’t look convincing if there is a defined border at the point where the pool of light ends.

Below: A historic example of artillery firing at night.
Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting
There are plenty of ways of actually applying the paint to achieve this effect. Drybrushing could be somewhat useful, but probably only as an aid to another technique; it tends to be too uncontrolled on its own.. Washes can be effective, but in a more controlled application than overall shading washes – more a thin, transparent application of paint (this is sometimes called ‘glazing’).
Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting Layering, or building up successively lighter colours over the top of each other, working inward to the middle of the aura of light. Finally, there is ‘wet’ blending – mixing paint colours, while still wet, on the surface of the model itself. Blending is a very effective at giving smooth transitions, but it is quite difficult to master, so you probably shouldn’t be trying it for the first time on an OSL model without practising first. Really, though, the best technique or combination of techniques is whatever comes naturally to you.

When painting the actual light source itself, the brighter it is, the better. If the model is primed black, underpaint the ‘glowing’ areas with a few coats of white before adding colour.
Colour Selection
Intensity of colour is important. Using paints or inks with strong, rich pigments is the best way to make flames or other light sources ‘pop’. Even fluorescent colours can be very effective, if used sparingly.
Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting
Audie Murphy’s M10 Objective
Because contrast between light and shade is vital, think about the model’s overall palette. The darker the nonilluminated areas of the model, the brighter the illuminated parts will appear in comparison. Conversely, if you make the model’s overall colour scheme very bright and vibrant, this will make it a lot harder to ‘sell’ the illusion.

Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting
I painted Audie Murphy’s M10 slightly darker than usual, to help emphasise the contrast of the OSL effect.
Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting
Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting My SAS Raiding Force
Employing a darker palette is all very well for a single miniature, but it’s not so easy to darken a whole army. Unless you decide to do something silly like painting your whole force as it might look at night, as I did with my SAS force for Raiding Aces. Inspired by the artwork from the cover of Burning Empires, I imagined an attacking patrol of SAS jeeps speeding across a desert landscape at night, illuminated only by pale moonlight and the bright muzzle flashes from their machine-guns.

Left: The cover artwork from Burning Empires.
I put a lot of thought into the colour palette for the force. I could perhaps have just mixed a dark bluish grey into each colour and achieved approximately the right result. But I wanted to take a more scientific approach, to remove the guesswork. Most importantly, I didn’t want to simply use a selection of greys, because that might look more like a black-and-white photograph, undermining the illusion of full-colour models under low-light conditions. Remembering the old film-making trick of shooting ‘day for night’, I used a bit of digital trickery to help me design an appropriate colour palette. I took a photograph of some SAS jeeps from Battlefront’s studio army, and adjusted it in Adobe Photoshop, making it darker and more blue, until I felt I had achieved a suitably nocturnal look. I then used the colour-picker tool to isolate the correct adjusted colour for specific areas.

Right: The 'Before & After' shot.
Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting
Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting The results were interesting, and not altogether intuitive. For example, the pale, warm yellow of the jeeps became a very neutral mid grey, while the pinker skin tones became more of a dull purple. Then I worked out a matching paint colour and made some rough notes for future reference. I was able to restrict the palette to a small selection of colours. This was fortunate, because I planned to paint the force quite quickly, as part of a 24-hour painting marathon with some other Battlefront studio members.

Left: My colour palette.
Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting
Finding A Light Source
For OSL lighting to be possible, the model needs to actually include a suitable light source. There is no reason you can’t suppose an imaginary light source, external to the model, and shade the figure accordingly. But this really just amounts to a fancy form of highlighting - something which could easily fill an article in its own right, but not really what I want to talk about here. In the exotic worlds of sci-fi and fantasy miniatures, plenty of models feature sculpted flames or other items which make perfect light sources. Historical and military miniatures are generally less fanciful, so your options will be more limited. But look around – you never know what you’ll find.

Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting
Converting is always an option. For anyone who doesn’t mind wielding a sculpting tool and putty, it would be a
fairly simple task to turn an upraised sword or axe into a torch, for example. And it can even be easier than that.

For my SAS jeeps, I made muzzle flashes by gluing on scraps of foam ‘foliage’ with super glue. This could work just as well for any gun or firearm. You will probably need to drill out the barrel and insert a small pin, to help strengthen the flash, or it will be too fragile for gaming. I designed the Audie Murphy figure with a built-in muzzle flash, to make it easy for people to attempt OSL painting. Of course, the model will also look pretty good without the projected light ‘aura’, with the muzzle flash alone painted in suitably bright fiery colours. And the flash is easily snipped off, for anyone who doesn’t like the look of either flamey option.
Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting
Most wargamers will readily acknowledge that there is a ‘tabletop standard’ of painting, which doesn’t necessarily represent the pinnacle of their full abilities, but is instead a compromise between speed and aesthetic effect. And you can certainly apply the same thinking to special tricks like OSL. This is not to say that you should try to rush it, by any means. But remember, the finished model does not have to meet the same standard of excellence as a display miniature or competition paint job. After all, I am no expert, having only attempted OSL a few times myself, but I was pretty happy with the results, and look forward to experimenting further.
Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting Shine a Light: An Introduction to Object Source Lighting
If you think OSL looks like something you would like to try, I advise you to plan, practise, and plan some more. Do your homework – there are numerous detailed tutorials to be found online, written by much better painters than me. Object source lighting is definitely not for everyone, and it might not be for you. But you won’t know if you don’t try it. It’s a fun challenge, and if you can get the hang of it, it might be the perfect thing to elevate your army to the next level. We all like to hear, ‘Gee, that’s a nicely painted army.’ But what’s even better is, ‘That’s amazing! How did you do that?’ It might just make an interesting new addition to your painting repertoire.

~ James.