How to Paint Miniature Watercolors to Brainstorm Ideas.

How to Paint Miniature Watercolors to Brainstorm Ideas.

How to Paint Miniature Watercolors to Brainstorm Creative Ideas.

As an artist, I’ve struggled with keeping things simple and not getting too time involved in areas of a painting. All pieces of work deserve attention in certain necessary areas. But it can be frustrating to decide where and when to spend that time. That’s where painting small can benefit you and your methods! Painting small offers quick executions without laboring on too much detail. It forces me to “get to the point” when executing a subject. It is a great way to zero in on formulating ideas or approaches to building out bigger concepts. I’m able to draw out smaller sketches in 4×4 to 6×6 inch size. This comes with practice! Painting small in color offers a lot of exploration to discover things like texture, blends, line weight, and color pallet choices.

What are miniature paintings?

Miniature paintings are finely designed and executed works of art. Today miniatures are created on all sorts of surfaces from stamps, the heads of pins, or feathers to name a few of the uncommon canvases. In the past, these works of art were traditionally done on leaves, vellum, copper, ivory, or prepared card. The mediums used range vastly from red dye on metal, traditional paint, pencil, engraved, and sculpture. Miniature paintings vary in size in history but the Miniaturists Society has set the official size at no larger than 25 square inches. Where some artists consider 12×12 a miniature based on the size of work they normally produce.

Mini watercolor paintings on canvas.

What should I paint my miniature on?

I have painted miniatures on several surfaces and there are many to choose from. I have listed many surfaces that can be painted on in watercolor. Some are ready to paint on and others need some sort of preparation or priming.

Note* Consider your end result! How do you want to frame your work? Canvas without glass or paper with a matte, glass, and frame? No frame at all? All these factors into how you will treat the paint in the end and it can change how the finished work looks.

  • Watercolor Paper – paper comes in many weights. The most common are 90,140 and 300. 90 and 140 will need to be stretched. 300 can be heavily wetted with minimal warping.
  • Crescent Illustration Board – This artboard also comes in hot and cold press and can take a fair amount of water and scrubbing techniques without worry of damage.
  • Ampersand Aquaboard – this a wood material that is primed by the manufacture. It comes in several profiles and types of primer options.
  • Canvas panels – These are a canvas material mounted to a board with glue. These blanks are offered primed and unprimed.
  • Canvas stretched – This is the traditional mounted canvas on a wood frame. These also come primed and unprimed.
  • Masonite – Untempered Masonite can be sanded to accept a primer to the surface this is a hardwood board like a panel. 
Watercolor Paper
Illustration Board
Stretched Canvas and Canvas Panels.
Example of watercolor on Masonite.
Example of watercolor on Masonite.

Why would I paint watercolor on canvas or masonite? 

Where watercolor traditionally is done on paper it can be executed on other properly primed surfaces. I have done this on canvas, and masonite. A watercolor ground or aqua primer product is used to achieve this and with it, you can discover new behaviors of water-based techniques. Also by preparing your own canvas, you can say that you did.  As well as stylize your primer application on your chosen surface.

How do I begin a miniature painting?

Draft to Discover, Craft to Design.

To begin, you’ll need to decide what your subject is. Drawing in a sketchbook or however you want to approach an idea is a key starting point. However, depending on your level of skill you can skip directly to drawing on your chosen canvas for painting on.

The whole principle of doing a miniature is to represent a gesture of some subject. How intricate and detailed do you want to make this work of art? How much time are you going to devote to one small original?  Is this for fun or is this for an income or commission? These factors dictate the time spent on a piece of work. Not just a miniature but any task, goal, or obstacle.

Primer medium.


If you are painting with watercolor on a canvas or some sort of panel or board that is not primed, you will need to use a gesso acrylic primer first!

Two coats is the trick with everything. After your acrylic primer, you’ll need to apply an aqua ground primer, again two coats are best!

Some Ampersand boards are pre-primed by the manufacturer for watercolor. 


Heavy watercolor paper adhered to hardboard.

Paper prepping 

If you’re painting on a watercolor paper you want to follow the steps to prepare your paper. 

Even small paper can warp. The method for painting on paper is to bind it to a table or some sort of board like masonite.  Use a craft tape or a heavier painters tape and tape around all four edges, you will want to tape in a quarter inch on your paper. You can make your paper size bigger and cut it down later if you want to tape in further. 

How do I transfer a drawing to a canvas?

Once you have your design or idea planned you can transfer your image on the chosen canvas a number of different ways.

Transfer paper

Transfer paper is a quick and easy way to transpose a drawing or trace a photo(s) to a canvas.

Transfer paper is handy to get your drawing to the canvas.

Freehand in Pencil

The quickest and most organic means of putting an idea on a canvas.  Given you’re comfortable enough to do this or maybe you’ve drawn the subject a number of times.

Draw in paint

This method you skip the busywork. You may have painted the same thing a number of times and you’re comfortable to gesture draw the subject elements in a light mid-tone. This will eliminate pencil marks from drawing on the canvas which is not bad. Again, you’re the creator. What is the feel and style you want to bring to the finished piece?

Practice in a sketchbook.

Having a sketchbook available is essential in having a document of where you went an how you got there. It doesn’t matter if the pages warp! However, there are water media journals available that are much more robust for water media applications.

Painting in a sketchbook is valuable!
Notes taken in a sketchbook.

Wet the surface

Illustration board and paper need to be wet down prior to painting. This prepares the paper to accept paint. 

Work that paint medium!

That picture will not paint itself! Yes, you do need to add some water to get the paint to behave in a transparent way. This creates the illusion of atmosphere and depth. However, you don’t need to flood your plate with water. In contrast to this using the watercolor medium right from the tube with little water can result in a bolder color.


In most cases, in painting watercolor, you’re going to paint the background first. Layering and adding dimension to the body of the background. Moving forward you will work out the midground adding more defined edges or details. Depending on your subject you may reserve a bulk of the detail for the foreground subject.

Highs, Lows, Greys

Tertiary and grey colors are very important in painting. They compliment the primary colors in the painting and help the image by giving the viewer’s eye more content to consume! The highs (brights) and lows (darks) will be strengthened when elements of the image are painted with complimenting greys. What the heck does that mean? The things that “pop-out” to your eyes, the darkest and brightest areas of the painting. These areas will benefit from using a mix of what colors you used throughout the painting when mixed with a Payne’s grey or sepia for example. Mixing a grey usually requires some sort of white. Lastly, highlights and any defined darks are detailed in the foreground. I do not paint with black.  Mix a dark color from your darkest color you’ve used and cut it with a Payne’s Grey, Sepia, or maybe an Indigo Blue, something very dark. Keep it thicker than watered down. I use Chinese white or Titanium White for super high bright details.

Signing your artwork

After completing the background, midground, and foreground elements and details you will want to sign your original. This can be the hardest part of finishing a piece. We are talking about a miniature here. How am I supposed to fit my last name on this thing? Perhaps a shortened version or a symbol would suffice!

Fixative for watercolor.

How do I preserve my miniature painting?

Fixative or Varnish Aerosol

There are a couple of different ways you can preserve artwork without glass. One method is if you have painted on canvas panel or a  hardboard like an ampersand. Use a product called a fixative or varnish. It will bond your painting medium to the board. It is UV protectant and to some degree water-resistant. fixative can be used on paper as well but if you’re going to frame the piece under glass and it’s not necessary. I personally don’t use fixative as it does change paint medium behavior. It will change the tone and look of the art because the fixative solution is binding into the paint. You don’t have to use a fixative all the time. If you plan on framing your work under UV protective glass then you won’t need to use a fixative product.

Resin coating

This is another method that I have used in the past ten years. Resin is an epoxy. It is a two-part mixture that when mixed chemically bonds into a hard high gloss finish. It is thick and magnifies what it covers. The results on the artwork are very radiant and really brings out the colors and behavior of the pigments. However, it also can magnify any foreign debris or mistakes on the surface of the paint.  Resin is also very messy. It must be mixed properly or it will not perform as expected. This method is used on canvas panels, ampersand painting blocks or boards. If you use the proper resin that is UV protectant it will permit the art piece to be hung without glass.

A resin coated mini canvas.
A resin coated watercolor of flowers.


Some more material for you to see in motion. Examples of process and results from painting on different canvases.

What is the history of miniature painting?

A miniature from Vatican Virgil it depicts Aeneid of the flight from Troy. 5th Century

When I began studying the history of miniatures I knew that I would uncover a vast extent of information. What I found was really very incredible. Like with most of man’s pursuits of innovation and interest in this life I found miniatures to be no different. We consume and crave more of what we like until we outgrow its purpose or uncover a more convenient means for the sake of industrialization. This is speaking of terms of use of miniatures to embellish the leading letter of a page in a manuscript.

For thousands of years, miniature paintings have been a part of man’s pursuit to document and preserve spirit and life. Miniature painting goes back in the history of man as early as the 3rd century. I personally would guess earlier than that as early mankind was creative and has always been leaving his mark on things like cave walls, horn, or leather. So it would only make sense he would attempt to minimize the design to something portable or shareable in size. 

Miniature painting really accelerated from the 3rd century forward. Styles and movements were formed that would impact and influence generations of artists and historians to come. Schools were also established just around painting miniatures all over the Eastern Hemisphere, Europe, and India being the largest proprietors of this artistic movement. This continued for centuries until the printed type press made its way into history in the 16 hundreds. Sadly this quickly brought the need of miniatures in manuscript to a proverbial end. However miniature painting continued as a fine art and does today. 

If you read on from here you’ll see a lot of quoted links from sources of factual information borrowed from

The word miniature, derived from the Latin verb miniare (“to colour with minium,” a red lead[1]) indicates a small illustration used to decorate an ancient or medieval illuminated manuscript

Ambrosian Iliad Picta, one of the earliest know preserved miniatures from the 3rd Century.
Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra or "Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines" Artwork created circa 700-1100 CE Nalanda, Bihar, India.

Miniature painting existed as far back in history as the 3rd Century. The Ambrosian Iliad or Ilias Picta is a 3rd-century manuscript on vellum. It depicts the entirety of Homer’s Iliad, including scenes of battle and noble scenes. It consists of 52 miniatures and is believed to have been cut from their original manuscript before the 13th Century.

From the 3rd century forward until about the 8th century became what would be known in European art as the Byzantine era. This influenced generations as expressed before and following this era unfolded more popularity for expressing and discovering art methodology and style. This continued involvement continued until the 1600s.  More students in “schools” of those time periods in Europe and India flushed out new emphasis. For example, different ways human form was expressed, color application, color palette, the adornment of line weight in both typeface and illustrated subject.

There is a ton of depth in the subject of miniatures and the history of man and women’s contribution to the subject. If you’re interested in reading more into this fascinating topic you can find more at the following links.



This wraps up my basic guide to starting a miniature painting. I hope you enjoyed my post and I look forward to bringing you more to share.
Do you feel confident in your ability to create?
Please feel free to share this and leave me a comment below.
Get busy! Try not to overthink and remember!

“It’s better to try than to say you wish you would have tried and didn’t out of doubt or fear.”

The Mad Hatter in Disneyland!

About Joe Ziolkowski

I’m a part-time part-time artist and entrepreneur. I hope to put together interesting and informative art posts for anyone along their creative path. However, life is full of obstacles like plates of mixed paint. I’ll do my best!

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