Technique Tuesdays: Painting in Miniature

Technique Tuesday MINIATURE

What is it?

Painting in miniature is more than just painting a small work. The word “miniature” originally came from a Latin term for the red pigment that was used in the creation of illuminated manuscripts. Because the decoration and illustration in these old (and even ancient) manuscripts was necessarily small, techniques for creating them influenced the later creation of small, extremely detailed artworks outside of manuscripts, and the name “miniature” stuck with these as well. The truth is, miniature paintings come in a variety of sizes–it’s really more about the precision, detail, quality of brushwork, and smoothness. No matter what size, a miniature work will be painted on a very smooth surface, with a very fine brush, and a great amount of time and attention will be paid to each small detail. A miniature work is, as we think of them, typically small, but the diminished size will never sacrifice the details of what is being portrayed in the piece.

Examples from art history:

Very small, detailed paintings can be found as far back as Egyptian manuscripts on papyrus scrolls. The tradition of written works being created accompanied by a variety of decorations, borders, and illustrations is one that continued for many centuries across many cultures. In the Persian tradition, these miniature works are especially unique. As portrayal of the human figure was not condoned in mainstream Islamic art, Persian miniatures were able to circumvent this rule due to the personal, private nature of these small pieces, which were kept in a small album and seen only by their owner. In India, as well as Europe, very small paintings were initially created as part of religious texts, to decorate and illustrate the passages being written–this was particularly useful in a time when many people still could not read. The clarity and detail of these works was therefore as useful practically as it was aesthetically pleasing.

(left to right) page from an Egyptian manuscript, Indian miniature maharaja painting, Persian miniature painting, a page from the Book of Kells, and a page from a European illuminated manuscript

As time went on, people began to cut the pictures from illuminated manuscripts, and this inspired the development of independent small paintings created in their own right. The Flemish excelled at painting in miniature and had developed a signature style featuring an exquisite smoothness in the brushwork. Here’s an example of an early Flemish miniature:

“The Future Emperor Charles V Enters Bruges”

This style was largely influential in the later trend of miniature portrait painting. Miniature portraits, usually painted using gouache, watercolor, or enamel, became very popular in Europe for several centuries before the invention of photography and daguerrotypes. Much like we use wallet-sized photos today, the Europeans enjoyed carrying miniature portraits, painted initially on stretched vellum and later often on metal.

Nineteenth century miniature portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte

Examples from Principle Gallery:

One of the artists from this year’s International Guild of Realism Juried Exhibition is Rebecca Latham, an artist from Minnesota with a passion for painting wildlife in the traditional miniature style. Rebecca studied Flemish miniature painting techniques alongside her mother and sister from Flemish master Carl Brenders. Today, Rebecca enjoys using those techniques to create smooth, beautiful works in watercolor with an extreme degree of realism. If you’re in the area and you haven’t yet checked out the exhibition, it’s worth it just to see up close what Rebecca Latham can do with watercolor! These exquisite pieces are among 91 phenomenal paintings and drawings included in the exhibition, so be sure to check it out! The show will be hanging at the gallery through September 18th, and you can see all the works on our website here.

Rebecca Latham - Evening Formal - 11 x 14 - Opaque and Trans W Color72
Rebecca Latham, “Evening Formal” 11×14
Rebecca Latham - To The Nines - 7 x 14 - Opaque and Trans W Color on Board72
Rebecca Latham, “To the Nines” 7×14

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