Technique Tuesday: Debra Keirce, Miniature Art and the World of Tiny Tiny Brushes



One of my earliest memories of art is of my Aunt's miniature portrait, painted of her while she was a young woman growing up in Havana. I was completely fascinated by that painting, by its scale, by its highly realistic rendering, by the simple IDEA of it. I think that early memory has always been somehow in the back of my mind as I became an adult and an artist.

Flash forward to now. I have a good friend named Debra Keirce who is a very accomplished artist and specializes in miniature fine art paintings. Ever since I have known her she has tried to recruit me to the miniature art world. And I will admit the temptation has been there, to at least dip my toes in it, all because of my Aunt's portrait.

Contemporary miniatures are often defined as being less than 25 square inches and smaller than 1/6 original subject size. Some societies and shows define them as being smaller than 8"x10 or 12" in any dimension. All require a tightly rendered artwork such that it appears similar to a much larger painting when viewed under magnification. This is why most miniature artists, Debra included, use 5x to 20x magnifiers while painting.

Debra has graciously agreed to answer some questions for Technique Tuesday for all of you who are also curious about making miniature art.

SLA: Can you please acquaint our audience with the origins of miniature painting? 

DK: Probably not as well as Google can. But basically, miniature fine art started with the manuscripts produced by scribes in Renaissance Days... 1600's. With the advent of the printing press, miniature artists began selling portraits instead of text. Wealthy Europeans prized miniature portraits that fit in their pockets. When they were away from loved ones, they would keep their miniature paintings in lockets on their persons. This is where the tiny metal frames became popular. The advent of photography caused miniature art to undergo major changes, and is really where the modern miniature fine art societies, collectors and artists were born from.

SLA: Please describe the historical substrates, mediums & traditional techniques of miniature painting:

DK: I really am not so interested in history, unless I can use it today. Google can answer that question better than I. Modern substrates include polymin and ivorine, which are smooth synthetics meant to mimic ivory. Piano keys are often used. Feathers are sometimes seen in shows. Vellum made from animal skins is a popular surface. Most of us use smooth substrates like panels, dibond, artboard, illustration board.

Mediums used today have been used for hundreds of years, but obviously they have evolved over the centuries. Oil and acrylics, gouache and transparent watercolor, egg tempera, silverpoint and other metal points, gold leaf... These are all used in modern miniature paintings.

Traditional miniature painting techniques include cross hatching and stipple.



SLA: What modern techniques are being utilized by miniature artists today?

DK: Modern techniques vary a lot. Each artist finds their own way to adapt to the challenges of painting. I know artists who literally paint entire pieces in stipple, like a computer assembles images from pixels. Other will use a mische technique of painting in opaque and transparent layers. This is especially popular with egg tempera painters. Many painters use dozens of delicate glazes.

I can tell you what I do. I use acrylic or oil paint, and I typically first paint a grisaille underpainting, but often I will let some of my conte crayon drawing show through, along with some of the ground. I lay in the local color with a transparent glaze. Then I will paint the details and textures, but the whole time I will use an exacto blade and embossing tools to literally sculpt the paint and the top layer of substrate. In this way, I can achieve finer details and lettering. I like to paint on substrates like maple panels, illustration board, dibond, clayboard, artboard. Depending on the subject, I will choose a substrate with more or less give. Harder substrates are better when I want softer edges and less sculpting. Architecture is better on softer substrates that allow me to cut crisp edges.

SLA: What is your favorite painting tip you can share with us?

DK: My favorite painting tip is to paint what you see, not what you think you see. For me, the best part of the painting is when I go into a place of abstraction. I am painting the dark shapes, then the midtone shapes, highlights, feathering edges, etc. But I will not be thinking about the object. Instead, I am feeling the value changes, admiring the colors, sensing the light paths. Then, I step back and enjoy seeing the photo realism that sprang from that totally abstract experience.

SLA: Where do you buy your tiny tiny equipment for your miniatures, i.e. paintbrushes, frames etc?

DK: I buy paintbrushes from everywhere, but my favorites are Kalish, an Irish company when I have money, and Creative Mark when I need to budget. In either case, I prefer watercolor synthetic brushes...Rounds with very pointy tips are best. I like the number six rounds for most of my painting. I will pull in a quarter inch flat or a 20/0 liner on occasion. But mostly, I want a brush that will hold a lot of easy flowing paint and deliver alternately a very thin line or a thicker smudge.

I do my own mounting and wiring, but buy my custom frames from

. They are very reasonably priced, they have beautiful moldings, their workmanship is top notch, and they are one of the few frame suppliers with equipment suited to small miniature frames.

My magnifiers are lighted full spectrum lamps available at office supply stores, and I have several tabletop easels I use.

SLA: What miniature societies do you belong to?

DK: I am a signature member of The Hilliard Society at

named after Nicholas Hilliard who was the official miniature portrait artist for Queen Elizabeth 1 in the 1500's.

My budget precludes me from pursuing membership in The Royal miniature Society, but it is the oldest of the miniature societies, founded in 1896. Here us a link to the history they describe on their site:

I am a signature member of The World Federation of Miniaturists and Miniature Painters Sculptors Gravers Society of Washington D.C. You are required to be part of the societies for a number of years, participate in a number of juried exhibitions and receive a number of awards to receive the invitation for signature membership.

I am also a member of the Miniature Art Society of Florida. I have not been a member long enough to meet the eligibility requirements for their Miniature Artists of America designation, but fully expect to be part of this prestigious group one day.

SLA: Feel free to showboat a little here. Where can we see your work in person? Where can we follow you on-line?

My website at

lists all of my social media contacts, newsletter sign up, current exhibitions, the galleries I am represented by, which include

in Rockville, MD and

in Nags Head, NC.

SLA: Thank you Debra for your thoughtful answers and for sharing your beautiful art with us!