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Art Glossary: What is a Miniature?
Miniature paintings

Before photography, portraits were often done as miniatures.

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

A miniature painting is a very detailed, very small painting. We're talking tiny, but exactly how tiny varies between miniature painting societies around the world. A rule many ascribe to is that to qualify as a miniature painting, it must not be larger than 25 square inches and the subject must be painted no more than one sixth of its actual size. So, for example, an adult head which is typically 9" wouldn't be painted large than 1½".

A traditional-style miniature isn't merely about size, but also the level of detail in the painting. It's the detail that differentiates a miniature from a small painting: if you look at it through a magnifying glass, you'll see extremely fine brushmarks with every detail scaled down and miniaturized. Techniques used include hatching, stippling, and glazing. Composition, perspective, and color are as important as in larger paintings.

The origins of the term 'miniature' with regard to a painting have nothing to do with size. Rather it is said to comes from the terms 'minium' (used for the red lead paint used in illuminated manuscripts during the Renaissance) and 'miniare' (Latin for 'to color with red lead'). Originally the term applied only to paintings done in watercolor on vellum, part of hand-made books, but expanded to cover any ground and medium. For a survey of the history of miniatures (in Britain), see the Victoria & Albert Museum website.

In the 1520s in Europe, miniature portraits started being used used as jewelry, in lockets and brooches, particularly in France and England. Miniatures were especially popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The invention of photography, which provided easy portraits, inevitably led to a decline in the popularity of miniatures and the number of artists specializing in miniatures.

This is not to say that it's an extinct art form, far from it. There are still artists today who specialize in painting miniatures as well as various miniature art societies, including the World Federation of Art Miniaturists and the Hilliard Society of Miniaturists in the UK.

More on Miniatures:

Synonyms: limning

Reader Submissions: Miniature Landscapes Painting Project

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