Friday, September 5, 2014

Learning to Paint: Confessions of a Thick-Skulled, Thin-Skinned, Softbellied Leadhead

A little while ago I read a debate discussing the merits of painting in this odd sport we call miniatures wargaming. I'm beginning to think I'd like to partially remove the "war" part from my own miniatures gaming, in light of the 90s transformation of roll-playing games and the parallel inroads adventure games like Pulp Alley have made into the miniature world, but we'll leave that post for another day. Today we'll just talk about painting.

To give a little context, there were two posts; one on a Chiagoland gaming forum, and the other on Facebook. The Chi-town blogger was writing in defense of club rules requiring players to paint their armies. He regarded painting as an essential component of the hobby (which he called simply "wargaming.") The Facebook fellow took affront at this and defended the idea that players should be able to play games however they chose. I suspect he felt that the painterly crowd (of which I count myself a member) can be somewhat intimidating and off-putting.

For my part, I agree with both of them. I certainly think it's possible to play a game with unpainted miniatures. I'll even grant that it can be rewarding and fun. But I'm pretty much bollocks at the actual "game" aspect. I play boardgames regularly, but place well only infrequently. I also lose miniatures games more often than not. I'm even worse at hardcore tactical games like chess. (Though this will probably never stop me from trying.) I'm simply too impulsive a player to do terribly well when confronted with players who can chain together long logical sequences of events. Thus unpainted miniatures wargames have much less appeal to me. They're perfectly legitimate. In many ways I believe a boardgame to be a more accurate measure of one's strategic or tactical acumen. I think they're more successful in miniaturizing complex, multi-part problems. But I like the "art" aspect of miniatures wargames, and I miss that in miniatures games without paint. I don't wish to say that everyone needs to take their hobbies in the same direction as mine, but if you do, and find yourself intimidated by painters of long experience, allow me to take you on a journey through my own youth. If you've been following my recent work . . .

. . . I'll show you where I started and how I got where I am today. I've technically done part of this before, in as much as I've talked about the origins of my gaming misadventure, and my modeling techniques, but I haven't carefully and systematically described the development. One thing I'd like to do with this is assure everyone that any decent, self-respecting gamer, would allow ANY of these models on the same board as his own exquisite and lovely paint jobs. Even the antiques with the block-painting. (Exceptions are made for genre and scale, of course.)

To begin, I'll break my oldhammer modeling career up into five approximate phases, in each of which I developed a new painting technique. In the late eighties, when I started collecting 40K miniatures, I block painted things. I liked to freepaint flourishes, since I was already a somewhat experienced aircraft modeler, but I used none of the established human figurative techniques. I don't really have any photography of what was then the newhammer of the era, and all the evidence has since been either destroyed or covered up, but I do have some 1/48 flyboys still sporting original paint from roughly the same period.

Tthese are pretty simple block paints except for the art on the back of the mechanic's jacket. There's no shading, no highlighting, no illustrated eyeballs. These are quite definitely NOT up to my present standards, but they still look more or less presentable. I'd guess that a starter could hope to learn to paint to this standard in a few miniatures at most. (Maybe excepting the nude.)

In the second phase I discovered . . . let's call it "damp-brushing." I'd been using drybrusing for weathering on aircraft and trains for a while, but this wasn't a weathering technique. You use it to paint a color coat with less than full/even coverage.  I picked it up from one of my neighborhood friends. We based in black and then drybrushed heavily in color on top of that. This left deep shadows and an interesting textured look. Eventually we added genuine drybrushing in lighter shades of related colors creating a more nuanced, layered effect. I still have quite a lot of miniatures wearing this paint waiting for a trip to the pinesol tanks.

The third phase is mostly distinguished by increasing skill and more free-painting. This came after I went off to college in the early nineties. During this phase I got less done, as the demands of work and class (more the former) took away from my painting time. The bulk of the Space Wolves and orks date from this period, which ran from about 1992-95. After the second edition came out I began to lose interest in the game and took perhaps a two year break. In 1997 I began to work fitfully on the Crimson Dragons and Crimson Fists before life intervened to draw me away again. (I should note that a fair percentage of both Crimsons are minor rescue paints of phase II and earlier phase III paintjobs.)

The fourth phase is really the beginning of what I would call my more or less "mature" painting style. Some time after 2000 I found myself again with the luxury of a small place to work. It was a tiny corner of a bedroom, but I had a makeshift workbench (which I use to this day), and a little light to work by. This is when I began painting my squat army. (Bless the wee little beardies, every one.) I was devastated by the news that the squats had been bested by the insectile hordes. As a salve for the sting, I bought a job-lot of unwanted squats from a friend. It was during this phase that I really perfected my eyeballs (to the extent that I have to date), began highlighting in the traditional, non-drybrush sense, and started to systematically blackline. I still base in black, so this last isn't always necessary. You can leave the blackline as a negative space rather than actively painting it, but sometimes it needs touching up.

Like phases two and three, phase four flows more or less organically into phase five. The only distinguishing characteristic is that I began to blend and to use inks. I had artists inks sitting around that I used for drawing and map work and decided, what the heck? Why not at least see what happens? I also began to use a black wash. To date I have not begun using other washes, but the inks generally achieve some of the same effects. I use them most often on skin tones, but I also use them on fabric. Black washes can be useful on any number of things. (If you drybrush too heavily and want to darken things back up . . . the wash comes to your rescue. Drybrush a little more lightly on top of that and you're back where you wanted to be. It's a nearly instant repair that's saved me several times.) To blend, which I most often do when highlighting skin tones or reflections, I apply a thin line of heavyish paint and then pull it out away from the point where I desire the brightest reflection. I sometimes find it useful to add a touch of "clean" water to the brush, if the color you want to blend has begun to dry slightly. I say "clean" as the dirty brown stuff in which you just cleaned your brushes will leave a mark, so you'll want something fresh. Saliva is surprisingly effective if you're lazy and don't mind the slight "ick" factor.

Anyway, this is a remarkably long way of saying that you too can learn to do this. If a stubborn fool like me, who takes twenty years to even TRY an ink, having them sitting to his side for fully ten of those years can learn to paint, well anybody can. And even if you never get past the naked-girl-noseart-block-paint phase, reasonable people will game with you. You can put your miniatures on the table and at normal table distances, or even zoomed in quite a bit, they'll look just fine.

Play with confidence. I may not quite be Golden Gobbo grade yet, but I'm getting good enough that I'm comfortable saying I know how to do this. I hope that maybe it helps to see where I've come from. I guarantee you, all the fabulous miniatures painters you see out there started in similar or even less skilled places. It's a learning process. And what took me thirty-odd years and left me with boxes of half-crappy miniatures you, dear reader, can do in much shorter order. I'd suggest trying all the stages independently. (And maybe developing a few more besides. The one with the airbrush might be useful.) But maybe one or two miniatures to a stage will suffice rather than dozens or hundreds.

As always, thank you for bearing along on this journey of exhibitionistic self-discovery. I hope that there is something useful or enjoyable here.

The Composer


  1. That was a good read mate.
    It does seem to be a very "dangerous" subject (do they NEED to be painted?) as far as I can tell from some of the forums. Personally, I'm not happy until my stuff is painted- and there is nothing like two (or more!) painted armies on a proper table or board.
    I don't think miniatures/armies HAVE to be painted to "eavy metal" standard, super detailed,shaded and highlighted and have the whites of their eyes/pupils etc etc to "work"- the airmen you pictured are prime examples.
    Your painting style really captures the feel of the Rogue Trader era.

  2. I was hoping that they would be. I think I painted the entire lot of airmen in an hour or two one evening when I was twelve or thirteen. It's a standard a beginner could hope to achieve pretty quickly, I think. And you could get a lot of miniatures painted pretty quickly that way.

    Thank you.