Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Beginner's Guide to Painting Miniatures

So... there's a lot of how-to guides on how to paint miniatures.  What harm could one more do?  Doesn't everybody who paints miniatures eventually write one of these?

Before You Start...

Look, there's a few things you need in order to prepare for painting.
  • Brushes: I'm not saying you need to go buy some super expensive brushes.  Do yourself a favor and buy some cheap ones from an art store before you get into the crazy good stuff, because you don't want to get upset at yourself when you totally ruin an expensive Windsor-Newton Sable 000 because you're inexperienced at keeping your brushes in good shape.  One of those variety sets of nylon bristles is just fine if you're a novice; all you need to make sure of is that least one of them is round, kind of small, and has a point.
  • Water Pot: Again, you don't need to go out and buy these.  A chipped ceramic mug will do.  Heck, I use an emptied plastic container that chewing gum comes in.  You just need something to hold water so you can clean your brushes and keep them moist.
  • Palette: Anything that's not going to get soaked or ruined by water will do.  If your miniatures come in a small plastic blister, you can use the blister.  The point here is to have something that you can work your small round brush on to form a point on it.  That you can use it to mix colors is secondary since you may not want to go that far yet.
  • Light:  Trust me when I say that it really sucks to try and paint when there isn't a lot of light on your workspace.  Find an adequately sized workspace with bright lights for you to work in.  Otherwise you may look at a miniature later and see all the spots you missed because you were in poor light.  It's not that you can't go back and fix it, it's that you won't have to later if you have a lot of light to begin with.
  • Paints:  Well, you obviously can't paint without paints, but if you're starting out you won't want to go crazy and buy all the paints.  You'll want to plan ahead and buy the colors for the miniature you're painting first, because you don't need all the colors at first.  There are a lot of different kinds of paints out there and most people who paint miniatures use acrylic-based paints because they're easy to clean up, you don't have to mess about with paint thinner or alcohol to wash your brush, and they're much more readily available in the hobby shops that sell miniatures in the first place.  I have a rather large collection of Vallejo Model Colors, Vallejo Game Colors, Reaper Master Series, and Citadel Paints.  All of these have been accumulated over the last decade, but first I started with a metal color, red, white, and black.
With that out of the way, let's discuss some basics...

So You Don't Know How To Paint.
Well, at least that's the assumption I'm writing under.  Because I don't know what assumptions you, the reader, are bringing to the table while reading this.

Primer Your Model

Let's start with primering a model;  Primer things black.  Because you can do things faster and simpler if you primer your models black.  There's a lot of discussion about what color to primer, but black is good for beginners because there's a lot of simple tricks to make a black primered model look decent enough for a novice to be proud of it.  I currently use Rustoleum Flat Protective Enamel for primer.

When you primer a model, you do not want to just spray the model down all at once because  the primer will coagulate into the recesses and you end up with a colored blob instead of a primered model.  I recommend priming multiple things if you're priming anything smaller than the size of your fist.  You want to do light coats and let the primer dry between coats.  It's okay if you don't get 100% coverage when you primer as long as you get the big surfaces that are going to get handled a lot.  There's invariably some lack of coverage in underhangs and crevices, but you can fix those by brushing on some thinned black/grey/white paint after you've let the primer dry.

The Basic Technique

Your basic technique is the same as when you were in grade school; you get some paint on the brush and run it over the model.  Don't put so much paint on the brush that the bristles are completely covered in paint; the paint will get inside the ferrule (the metal band that holds the bristles in place) and wreck your brush in short order.  The amount of paint you get is directly related to the level of detail you're working on with that color:  the more paint you have on the brush the less you care about getting paint where you don't want it.  Another element of the basic technique is to keep you brush clean by swishing it around in the water pot until the color is washed out; don't smash it against the side of the pot like I used to, that's a good way to shorten the lifespan of your brush.

A third element is to keep the paint flowing easily; paint that is drying or a thicker consistency will leave brush marks when you get the paint onto the model.  It's fine if that is what you're aiming for but most miniature painters are not looking for that.  You can do this by thinning your paints if the consistency is thick, but you usually want new paint if your paint is drying out on you.  If you keep your brush moist with water before you pick up paint, the paint will generally flow better.

For detail work, it is very important to have a brush that can keep a point. That is, the bristles are capable of forming a point when moist.  You can get a point on a brush by licking it and then using your fingers (not recommended if you are working with anything other than water-based paints), which is what you want to do before putting your brush away when you're done.  You can also get a point after you've gotten paint on the brush by dragging it across your palette as you turn the handle in your fingers.  Having a properly pointed brush is very important for being able to put that paint exactly where you want it.

It will take you time and practice to get to know your brushes well enough to become really adept at putting that paint where you intend for it to go.

Tabletop Quality

Let's talk really quickly about what 'tabletop' quality is.  If, when you hold a finished model out at arm's length, you cannot notice any really obvious mistakes or problems, then that model is tabletop quality.  Alternately, if you are happy with how the model looks, then that's fine.  Just remember that if you decide you could do better later, there's lots of ways to strip the paint off a model so you can start from scratch.  Also remember: you will make mistakes and 100% of them are fixable (unless you lit your miniature on fire or something like that...)

In other words, if somebody says your model looks like poop and you're ultimately happy with it and don't see any really obvious mistakes, feel free to have a laugh at their expense.  As an example, there was a time when Cool Mini or Not was basically a public miniature rating site, and I had put up some of my work there.  One of which was a Forgeworld Mk IV Dreadnought I'd done for a friend.  I get this comment on it that went something like "How dare you modify a beautiful model like that?!  Remove the modifications and I'll give it a 10!".  Well, it was a commission and my friend was more than happy with the result so what did this person's opinion matter?  I laughed.

In the same vein, don't look at the 'Eavy Metal (GW's professional painters) or the competition level painters' work and get intimidated or feel you have to paint at that level.  I guarantee you that those people put in thousands of hours honing their craft to get to that level; they had to start somewhere.

Quick and Dirty Techniques

So there's a few quick and dirty techniques to making your models look ready to put out on the tabletop.

This gets confused a lot with overbrushing, which in all fairness is a related technique.  Basically you put a little bit of paint on your brush, and then wipe enough of the paint off so that all that gets left behind with a stroke is a light dusting of color.  Then you start painting quickly with this.

This technique works best if the brush is not damp, not moist, but actually dry.  Yes, you do need to clean your brush eventually.  You will also not want to use a brush you care about for dry-brushing because this technique wrecks brushes quickly.

Since drybrushing leaves so little color behind, you may have to go over the areas more than once.  Drybrushing tends to leave the crevices of the model free of the color you're drybrushing on, so it is also a good way to quickly finish a model.  Drybrushing is usually the first thing done to a model because it can be extremely messy and really mess up any detail you've already painted.

This is essentially the same as drybrushing, only you do not wipe off nearly as much paint.  It is useful for heavily textured models (such as the Battlefleet Gothic models I featured a few weeks back).  Like drybrushing, overbrushing tends to leave the recesses of an area alone.  Overbrushing doesn't have the 'dusty' effect that drybrushing does, because more paint is used.

Inking is the use of thinned down pigment to darken the areas of a model where there would be shadows.  You use the brush to guide the pigment into these crevices.

Washing is a much broader application of inking; you hit everything in the area with the wash because it not only shades the crevices, it will also stain whatever the underlying color is with the color of the wash.

In both cases you can go back over the finished areas with paint to clean things up or highlight them.

Priming In Color
So if you have a bunch of models that are predominantly one color (like say, Blood Angels, Ultramarines, or Space Wolves, to name some GW factions that are mostly one color), you can get away with priming your models in that main color and then using an ink or wash to bring out all the details.  You can leave it at this if you'd like, but painting some of the details in a different color will really make the model come to life.

Drybrush Shading
There's a neat trick you can pull, and there's a technical term in the art world for it that I don't remember off-hand.  Basically if you primer your model black, you can then drybrush it with a grey to see where the mid-tones are, and then hit it lightly with a drybrush of white to see where your highlights are.

The dirty trick about this is that you can get away with thinning your paints with a clear mixing medium (Lamia Medium is the Citadel name for this, other companies just call it mixing medium if I remember correctly) so that you have a more translucent version of your colors.  Then you take that translucent color and paint it directly onto the model.  If done correctly, you will already have your shadows, mid-tones, and highlights without having to deal with other colors.

You can also do this with very large models; you would just start with a solid black primer coat, then hit it with enough grey primer to bring out your mid-tones, and lightly hit it with white primer to show the highlights.

Applying Highlights

Listen, I'm going to be perfectly honest here: there's a lot of ways to highlight a model.  Games Workshop promotes the idea of edge highlighting.  A lot of the competition-level painters I know like to use wet-blending to make the colors transition smoothly.  I personally use two or three closely related colors to replicate more natural looking highlights and shadows and only break from that when trying to create a special effect or make something look shiny.

Here is what you need to know about highlighting: You don't need to do it.  Really if you just slap on a color and then hit it with some kind of ink or wash, you're going to get a model that shows off enough detail that it won't look monochrome or boring.

But let's say that you've gotten the basics down, that the quick and dirty methods I outlined above just aren't satisfactory to you anymore.  How do you highlight a model?  Well, the simplest way is to find a lighter version of the color you've already got in that area and paint the edges and ridges of the area carefully.  I advise looking at how the light hits the model already to figure out if a highlight will look correct or not.

Let me specifically call out faces since they can be kind of painful to highlight.  If you're adventurous enough to paint eyes, paint the eyes after you've already put in your face colors but before you highlights.  I have gotten my better results with faces by highlighting the forehead, the nose, and the cheeks just under the eyes.  That's the simplest way to highlight a face.

In Conclusion

So that covers the basics, I think.  If you have questions, please feel free to leave them.  I wouldn't mind people posting what miniatures they've worked on either.