Texture Dilemma – Surfaces In Miniature Painting

Sometimes there is some confusion with surface texture on miniature paintings.  Some information that can be seen in earlier miniature art may help illustrate the variety that is present.

Traditional miniature painting is classically very smooth and painted on surfaces such as vellum, card or paper, panel, ivory, or other similar surface.  The surfaces of miniatures resemble their earliest counterparts, the miniature painted in manuscripts and documents.  The paint is applied delicately and with fine strokes on the surface.  Depth and an inner glow are achieved in the finest luminous miniature.

Upon looking through older miniature paintings in museums and catalogs of miniature painting, the pieces that are considered to be the finest are smooth with no visible texture.

However, there are a few exceptions to the classically smooth standard.  A miniature painting, such as miniature painting master, Isaac Oliver’s "The Goddess Diana", which was painted on cambric rather than the usual smooth vellum, shows an unusual fabric grain and rougher surface. 

Additionally, a miniature portrait by an early unknown artist, on exhibition in 1979-1980 at the Yale Center for British Art, is even suggested to have been painted in oils on canvas.  Commonly texture such as this is discouraged in painting miniature work.

Another piece painted centuries ago, "Unknown Woman", a watercolor on vellum by Richard Gibson, is a rare example of rough texture in the paint application to a miniature painting’s surface that is referred to as ‘impasto’ painting in miniature by authoritative sources. 

Quite unlike something that would be painted with a palette knife, it is very delicately handled, and is subtle compared to what is most often considered ‘impasto’, but is ‘in miniature’ made with many fine strokes.

Though there are these rare exceptions, many enthusiasts of miniature painting prefer to highlight the usual exemplary smoothness of a traditional miniature as are many of the celebrated works in exhibitions. 

However, those works of art that, though they may have slight surface texture, are truly painted ‘in miniature’ cannot be ignored either.