A miniature may be of any subject, painted on a small scale using any medium. The technique was handed down by illuminators of 15 and 16Century manuscripts who worked with red lead or vermillion. The word miniature is from the Latin for red pigment used in medieval manuscripts. Originally miniatures were known as limnings and the painters limners because they embellished manuscripts and ancient books with their tiny illustrations and decorations. They also provided their patrons with small portraits and reduced versions of larger artworks which were able to be carried when traveling. These words are based on the old English limn, derived from the Latin word lumunare. It was not until the 17th Century that they were called miniatures.
Today there is a renewed interest in this art form. It is very challenging, requiring the artist to produce detailed works of art in which the brush strokes can bear very close scrutiny and hold up well under. Ideally a miniature should lose none of its detail or appeal if enlarged. All other criteria forassessing any other work of art must apply also to the miniature.
Foremost in importance in contemporary miniature art is that the highly skilled and painstaking techniques should be evident upon viewing the artwork. It should draw the viewer's eye deeper and deeper into itself with amazement at the gemlike details of the tiny treasure where the subject is painted at less than one sixth of the real life size.
Miniature art normally fits into your pocket so it's not hard finding a place for it in any home, and for discriminating collectors who prefer to purchase originals it affords a one-of-a-kind quality at the same price of other types of work in print format. This differentiates the miniature from confusion with ‘small paintings’. A Miniature painting normally takes many hours to complete, portraits often taking much more time
1000's - 1400's Miniature art is found throughout Persia, India, Turkey and other Far Eastern Countries in the form of manuscript illumination. European scribes also embellish their lettering and sometimes add artwork including a portrait of the wealthy benefactor commissioning the work. The red pigment often used by the scribes has the Latin name “minium” which many believed led to the derivation of our contemporary word “miniature”.
1500’s: Miniature paintings begin to be found apart from manuscripts. Hans Holbein is attributed with being one of the first miniature portrait painters in Europe. He is commissioned by Henry the 8th to paint miniature portraits of the King and his wives.
1600’s: Miniature portraiture becomes more popular and refined. Two notable artists are Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. Hilliard writes the first treatise on miniature painting techniques in 1660. Subject matter is dominated by portraiture with any landscape or still life being relegated to the background of the composition.
1700’s: The peak of miniatures popularity. Business booms for miniature artists. Charles Peale opens a gallery in the in the USA in1782 specializing in miniature portraits.
1800’s: The introduction of the Daguerreotype in 1839 starts the photography age and ends the business boom for miniature artists. Hope comes in May 1895 when miniature artist, Alwyn Williams forms The Society of Miniaturists in England at an exhibition above Simpson's on Piccadilly with the attendance of much of London nobility including Edward the then Prince of Wales.
- 1895: There was a more lively breakaway group who were part of the Prince of Wales circle, who moved away from the Society founding their own group in September of 1895 entitled the Miniature Society.
- 1905: The Miniature Society (breakaway group above) were then granted the Royal prerogative by the Prince (as of 1901 - King Edward the 7th), officially recognizing the new society and giving the title The Royal Miniature Society (RMS).
- 1933: Alwyn Williams travels to the USA and forms the Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers Society iWashington, DC. The MPSGS is the oldest contemprary American Society.
- 1974: The Miniature Art Society of Florida is formed by the late Bede Zengle. MASF is the largest association of miniaturists in the world with a membership near 500. They host the largest annual miniature exhibition in the world each January in the Clearwater region. The show typically has about 1000 miniature works of art on display. The MASF also has the largest permanent collection of miniature art from contemporary artists.
- 1981:The Hilliard Society of England is formed. The HS is the foremost active online Society with the most comprehensive website pertaining to contemporary miniature art.
- 1985: The Miniature Artists of America is formed to honor outstanding practioners of contemporary miniature art in America.
- 1995: Under the leadership of the MAA the World Federation of Miniaturists is formed. The WFM hosts a world exhibition of miniature art every four years.
- 1995: 1st World Exhibition of Fine Art in Miniature, London nd World Exhibition of Fine Art in Miniature,
- 2000: 2nd World Exhibition of Fine Art in Miniature, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
- 2004: 3rd World Exhibition of Fine Art in Miniature, Washington DC. USA
- 2008: 4th: World Exhibition of Fine Art in Miniature, Burnie, Tasmania, Australia
The contemporary revival in miniature art has been marked by a clear move towards including size in the general description of the works. Partly due to the vague usage of the term ‘miniature’ or small work and in an effort to encourage and further define the work most contemporary societies have adopted a one-sixth scale guideline. This rule states subjects should be rendered one-sixth their life size or smaller with some leeway given to naturally small subjects (hummingbirds, butterflies and delicate flowers). Portrait heads and larger subjects must be limited to a size of 2 inches. Most societies encourage the use of delicate frames matching the proportions of the artwork. (The framed artwork or sculpture should fit in an open hand)
LIMITS SET BY PRINCIPAL MINIATURISTS SOCIETIES
Australian Society of Miniature Art (Victoria)
4 x 4
Australian Society of Miniature Art (Tasmania)
10 x 8
The Hilliard Society (England)
35 incl. frame
5 x 7
The Israel Miniature Society
6 x 6
The Society of Limners (England)
35 incl. frame
5 x 7
Miniature Art Society of South Africa
6¾ x 6¾
Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers Society of WashingtonDC
7 x 8
Royal Miniaturist Society of Painters, Sculptors and Gravers (England)
Overall size: 4½ x 4½; 4½ x 6or 4½ diameter.
Some Societies also have strict rules about frame moulding sizes, generally less than 1 inch wide. Mat sizes are often also restricted to less than 1½ inches on all sides.
A subject that is always guaranteed to create much debate and discussion!
Every artist has their own opinions on the quastion of what materials to use, how to use them and when they are apporpriate. All this knowledge is aquired as a result of experiment to form a knowledge base of experience.
A miniature can be painted on any material that has a surface appropriate for the fine detail required and facilitates the use of the selected paint medium without a chemical or other attack. Traditionally miniatures have been painted on polished ivory because it was found to be a surface with ideal properties - easily cut, polished and prepared and had sufficient tooth for the paint to adhere well. Now we all agree that it was a mistake to use such material and there has been a growth is the use of old recovered mammoth tusks as an alternative. Whatever the base material chosen it is abolutely essential to maintian a very high standard of cleanliness and freedom from dust.
Base materials in common use today by miniature artists include:
Ivorine – a synthetic plastic (cellulose nitrate) material that has been in use since the 1930’s. There is much debate on the life of this material as like most synthetic materials it is susceptible to undergoing change is the presence of ultra violet light, changes in temperature and oxidation by contact with air. If stored carefully these effects can be minimised. It is not an easy material to keep clean and is susceptible to grease even from contact with fingers! Ivorine is favoured by many artists because of its inherent luminescence which enhances the colour of the thin layers of applied paint.
Paper – the most stable choice of base material. That is always reliable. Paper made from rags and hot pressed is the most popular for water colour with its smooth surface. Of course errors are not so easily corrected unless only non-staining colours are used. But paper is relatively cheap with a wide selection of manufacturers.It also offers the artists the opportunity more scope to experiment with technique. In addition the surface finish can be enhanced to improve the smoothness that at the same time improves it’s versatility and ease of use to allow oils and acrylics to be used successfully.
Copper – a surface traditionally used by enamellists and still used by miniaturists working in oils. It is essential to prime the surface and coat the reverse side and edges to prevent corrosion. Chemical attack through the edges over a long period could seriously damage a painting!
Aluminium – a very stable smooth surface ideal for oils and less susceptible to corrosion than copper. It should be primed both sides before painting and the primer smoothed when dry with fine wet and dry paper.
Hardboard – a compressed fibre board with one smooth surface and a rough reverse. It must be sealed with a diluted PVA glue or equivalent before priming with a lead oil primer or acrylic gesso. The dry surface can then be smoothed with fine sandpaper. Ideal surface for oils and acrylics. The rough reverse must also be sealed and painted to avoid moisture intake.
Medium Density Board (MDF) – same material as hardboard but considerable higher density and made in thicknesses of 2mm, 3mm, 4mm, 5mm, 6mm and more for larger panels if required. 2mm is perfect for miniatures but it must be sealed and primed on both sides for stability of the panel. It is advisable to cut to the required size after the priming and then seal the edges also. The surface can be smoothed with fine sandpaper and wet and dry paper. Ideal surface for oils and acrylics. When primed with gesso can be used with water colours but the finished painting should be varnished
Fabrics – numerous fabrics can be used including silk, linen, cotton and very fine canvas. All have their own characteristics and require treatment to seal the fibres and appropriately primed before use as a painting surface. For miniature paintings it is usual to back the fabric with a sealed board of card, hardboard or MDF and stretch the fabric across the board before fixing firmly with adhesive.
Paints – should always be the best artists’ quality you can get. Select the most lightfast pigments and as only small amounts get used then the highest quality can be in the budget! Unfortunately in these days of bureaucratic control some older pigments are disappearing due to so called safety regulations. So guard your old favourites well.
Water colour is available in pans or tubes or you can buy empty pans and fill them from tubes. The disadvantage of pans is they dry out and have a habit of attracting dust particles. Cleanliness is essential and keep the paint surface in pans moist by sealing your pan tray in a plastic box when not in use. Lay the pan on a piece of flannelling wet through with water. This will keep the pans moist at all times. All manufacturers have different pigment density levels so only experiment will find the one you favour most for each colour you use. Thinning is always clean water although some artists add a few drops of Gum Arabic to enhance colour and wetting.
Oil paints fall into two types – oil based and the newer water based. Both have their adherents although the oil based are the traditional type. They do take longer to dry even with the use of accelerators but the water based type has some advantages for the miniaturists – no thinners except water is required! However it is advisable to use a special thinning liquid that helps flow, speeds drying and is useful for glazes.
Acrylics – have the advantage they can be used like oils or water colour as it only depends on the type of thinning medium employed. They use many synthetic colours so they are bright and generally light stable. The pigments are easy to use but do dry on the palette fairly quickly so the real skill is keeping the paint workable on the palette. Again keep your palette in a sealed plastic box with a wet sponge or flannel underneath and the paint will stay workable for several days. Acrylic inks are also available and useful for fine detail work.
Pastel – not a common medium for miniatures but used by a few artists. Made easier today by the range of hardness of pastel pencils available that can be sharpened to a fine point.
AND FINALLY – THE BRUSH
The key to everything!! I have watched Indian miniaturists making their own brushes, a tradition several hundred years old. Today we can select a wide range of brushes both by hair length, size (5/0 upwards) and type of hair or fibre from Kolinsky Sable through various squirrels to different synthetic fibres. All have their uses but really it is more important to ensure the points are carefully protected at all times and the brush is cleaned well. Dry paint is the easy way to ruin an expensive brush. Hair brushes can be kept in good condition for storage by carefully dipping in a dilute hair conditioner and then rinsing well before restoring the point.
As always use the best quality - it will more than pay for itself in quality of work and long life.
All images on this web site are the copyright of the artist and must not be copied or reproduced without the written permission of the artist. Purchase of any painting does NOT give the purchaser copyright and the artist reserves the right to procure and sell quality prints of any painting purchased unless the purchase and ownership of the copyright has specifically been negotiated and agreed.