A little while ago, I was having a game of Warmachine in the basement of my FLGS and a woman approached me asking for some painting advice. She had been using the traditional Duncan-style approach of base coat, wash, and dry brush, and she was starting to butt up against the limits of this technique. So, I showed her a few tricks with wet blending, glazing and inks, as well as sent her a link to Vince Venturella’s youtube channel because he is better at this than me, and it was like a revelation. In a very short time, she had greatly improved her techniques and started pumping out much nicer looking space marines.
The Duncan Way
If you are like most of us, you were probably taught to paint miniatures in the Games Workshop tabletop style, popularized by Duncan, the friendly host of Warhammer TV’s Tip of the Day. In this style, after assembly and priming with official Citadel brand spray primer, step one is to lay down an opaque base coat, always using two thin coats to make sure it is smooth and coverage is nice. Next, follow up with a wash to tint the shadows and some dry brushing to bring up the highlights. If you want to get fancy, throw on an edge highlight. Do a little basing, and you’ve got a perfectly acceptable space marine.
There is a reason Duncan teaches us to paint this way: it’s easy to teach. It’s not hard for complete newbies with no artistic training at all to understand that they should paint the blue parts blue then wash and dry brush. It’s all done in very discrete, easy to understand steps. Paint with A, wash with B, and dry brush with C. Conveniently, GW is happy to sell you paints A, B, and C.
Unfortunately, there are some issues with this approach. First, it works better on some models than others. For dirty skeletons where there is a lot of texture in the ribcage, you can get good results. However, if you try it out on a model with a lot of smooth armour plates, you can easily end up in coffee stain city. It is also a very limiting technique; it is very hard to progress beyond a certain point using only these techniques, and basically impossible to scale up to something like a bust.
Finally, it can be time consuming. Getting a smooth, uniform base coat where you stay within all the lines is difficult and involves a lot of very careful fine motor control. Particularly challenging is when you start trying to paint tricky to reach areas like armpits and the backs of shields, and you want to get a perfect base coat
Then, of course, you have to do it all again because two thin coats. And often two thin coats is a best case scenario; if you didn’t plan ahead and are now trying to paint yellow straight over black primer, you’re going to be at it all day.
And all of that headache and frustration over poor paint coverage for what? A perfectly smooth, uniform base coat that you’re immediately going to coffee stain with washes and then dry brush over?
In short, while this approach is easy to teach and easy to understand, it is often not the best approach both from the perspective of speed or quality in the long run. And while it might seem like I’m ragging on Duncan, that isn’t my intention. He has three jobs, all of which he is very good at:
- Show customers who are completely new to painting and modelling and have zero artistic background how to turn boxes of sprues into a tabletop-ready army that looks decent from a distance,
- Motivate them to get their armies painted through the use of instructional videos and a positive attitude, and
- Sell Games Workshop products
Why some people hate painting
The problem comes when new painters have the “basecoat, wash, drybrush” style beaten into their heads and it becomes gospel. They are never told that there is a whole world of techniques out there such as blending, glazing and the use of products like inks and mediums. Or, they are vaguely aware that they exist but think they are a bunch of very time-consuming super pro level techniques that they shouldn’t even bother trying because they are far beyond what they want to do for tabletop quality.
This right here is why I think a lot of people get frustrated with painting and feel it to be a chore. They struggle to get that perfectly smooth, opaque base coat, particularly when they are using weakly pigmented paints. That ends up being not only time consuming, but also less enjoyable of a process, particularly when you are on the ninth coat of red and it still won’t look right. And the end result is often less satisfying than they would like because of the limitations of this method.
And by clinging to this approach even when it isn’t appropriate out of either fear or ignorance, a lot of people out there are making painting more difficult than it has to be and sucking the fun out of what is an otherwise enjoyable hobby.
There are a couple alternatives to this approach. Games Workshop being Games Workshop, they have developed a whole new line of paint for you to buy that promises to use magical paint chemistry to do it all in one step. There is also the sketch style popularized by people like Banshee and Matt DiPietro, where one starts with a zenithal prime, refines the value sketch, then covers everything with inks and glazes to tint it the appropriate colour.
Personally, my usual approach when not using my airbrush is to wet blend my base coat, doing base coating, shading and highlighting all in one step. This process starts with a zenithal prime. Airbrush or rattle can; doesn’t matter. You can even get a pseudo-zenithal by dry brushing the lighter colour on with a large makeup brush and focusing on where the light will hit the miniature. If you have an airbrush, you can also play with tinted zenithals. Perhaps you want some cool shadows and warm highlights, so you can make the shadows blue and the highlights ivory.
The zenithal does a couple things. First, it gives you an idea of where to place your highlights and shadows, so even if you aren’t confident with light placement, you can just follow the zenithal and get a decent result. Second, this preshading helps make the highlights brighter and the shadows darker. With the dark parts already dark and the light parts already light, you don’t have the sort of issues that you get when trying to paint a vibrant red highlight over black primer and wondering why it still doesn’t pop after seventeen coats of red.
Finally, this liberates you from having to do these smooth, opaque coats. If your paint is a little on the thin side and doesn’t have great coverage, that’s not an issue – it just means that the preshading from the zenithal will be more effective.
Paint like Bob Ross
Now it’s time to do some wet blending. Wet blending is simply the process of pushing multiple colours of wet paint around on the miniature itself to get shadows, highlights and other colour transitions. It is a technique that a lot of canvas painters like Bob Ross use when doing oil paints — how often have you seen him drop in some paint, clean his brush, beat the devil out of it, then blend his paint on the canvas or fluff some clouds?
If this is your first time wet blending, I’d recommend doing some practice. Get out your wet palette (if you don’t have one, make one), and pick out some colours ranging from your deepest shadow to your highest highlight. I recommend P3 Coal Black, Sanguine Base, and Sanguine Highlight if you have them. Also, grab a bit of flow improver; this helps the paint flow, making your blends smoother and giving you a bit more working time. Play around with it on the palette a little to get a feel for it; try to take a dot of paint and draw it into a dot of a different colour, getting a smooth gradient between the two.
Now that you’ve done that, you can practice on something like a base or a piece of primed plastic. Put a bit of one colour on, quickly rinse your brush, put down the other colour next to it, and use the brush to mix them in the middle to create a smooth transition from one colour into the other. As you get comfortable, try adding more colours — perhaps do a three colour blend from a shadow colour into a base and all the way into your highlight, or try to do a smooth blend from shadow to highlight and back to shadow. Then, once you are comfortable with that, pick up a model, figure out where the shadows and highlights go, and repeat the process only on a model this time.
Congratulations, you are now wet blending. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Or, if you can’t parse my written instructions, go check out Vince Venturella’s video on the subject because, again, Vince is better than me at this.
This is a great technique as it is one of the fastest ways to lay down colours in a fairly smooth gradient. It’s not going to be perfect, but remember, we’re just going for good tabletop quality. Of course, if we want to take it further, we can — my display projects often start with some quick wet blends to lay in some colours and from there it is mostly a matter of refining it, smoothing out those blends and adding detail. For example, Boudicca‘s red hair and green cloak both started with a quick wet blend, and well…
But for something like tabletop, Hutchuck here is a good example of what you can do with some quick wet-blends. While I did wash some areas in order to emphasize the shadows in the folds and creases of his leather belts and Liefeldian number of pouches, and I do have some more work to do to add a little more weathering, OSL and metallics, this is what a quick wet blend with a little edge highlighting and darklining can get you.
As you do this more, you will find that some colours work better than others. Ironically, it is the opaque colours and that will give you the most trouble, because these colours tend to end up being a little chalky, especially if they have a lot of white in the highlights. Capes are one of the best things to practice on when you are just starting out because they tend to have a lot of intricate folds that react with the light in interesting ways. If you are impatient when it comes to waiting for your paint to dry, a hairdryer will take care of that real fast. Finally, always try to use the biggest brush you can get away with — a big brush with a fat belly holds more paint and lets you blend over larger areas with fewer strokes.
Oh, as for the areas that are hard to reach like the backs of shields, where people obsess over painting the back of the shield, the arm, and the straps all in their proper colours, all within the lines, before slathering it in Nuln Oil? Forget about them! These areas are usually shadowed, so just stuff some of your deepest shadow colour down in there and blend outwards into your base colours. You don’t need to obsess over details in shaded areas; in fact it makes a lot of sense from the perspective of composition and colour theory that shaded areas should convey less visual information. Take a look at some of Caravaggio’s paintings and look at all the detail and visual information he put in the shadows. There’s not much; it looks like the dude just threw down some dark colours and called it a day. And if he can get away with it on paintings that sell for millions of dollars 400 years after his death, you can get away with it on your space marines.
But this sounds hard!
Yes, blending requires a bit of skill. You need to know some basics of colour theory and light placement in order to pick out the appropriate colours and know where on the model to put them. Also, you need to be able work quickly so you have time to push paint around on the model before it dries. But, it is a skill where a little time investment up front can pay huge dividends because you are getting multiple steps done with a few brush strokes. When I throw down a quick wet-blended basecoat, I’ve often got base colour, highlights and shadows done by the time the person doing the Duncan method is finishing his first thin coat. And it looks better too.
Admittedly, brush control is a thing, but with a little practice, just about anyone can do this and get good at it. Case in point, I have no formal art training and am not special in any way and I can do it.
When it comes to miniature painting, there are many different approaches and techniques. While the traditional Games Workshop style is effective in some cases, whether you paint for display or just for tabletop, if you don’t go beyond that, you won’t have a lot of tools. And when you find out the hard way that it is hard to turn a screw with a hammer, that can cause a lot of frustration and resentment.
Also, we need to seriously rethink how we teach new people how to paint. I get it, explaining colour theory and light placement to someone who is touching a paint brush for the first time is hard. But if all we teach them is to follow the Duncan way, then we risk boxing them in. Everyone can benefit from more tools in their toolbox, even if all you want to do is put an army on the table.
And then, hopefully, together, we can defeat the grey hordes.
Bonus Content: First Mate Hawk
YARRRRRR! First Mate Hawk be keeping ye salty dogs in check.
This was an interesting experiment with resin pours, to see if I could get a fish floating around in the water. Resin pours are all about the formwork; to be successful, you need to get something that is smooth-sided and has no leaks. So, I made the form by cutting up a pill bottle that was roughly the size I wanted, then taped it down to the base with some of the Tamiya tape — the white stuff for curves, not the yellow stuff. Since I wanted to have Hawk standing on a dock, I used a styrene tube to represent one of the posts. The dock itself was scratchbuilt out of plasticard, with a rod extending down that would fit snugly into the tube I used for the post.
To ensure the resin pour went well, I did the first couple of millimetres with Vallejo’s acrylic air-drying water texture. The idea here was that if I did have a leak, I would be able to fix it before finding it late in the process when my resin starts leaking out and ruins the project. Also, any potential cracks between the formwork and the base would be sealed in with this stuff, ensuring I get a clean pour.
My strategy paid off. I ended up doing about half the pour, placing my fish, letting it settle in nicely, then slowly and carefully so as not to disturb the fish, finish the pour. Once it dried, I broke off the forms and then did a second pour to fill the meniscus. In the meantime, I had finished painting Hawk and the dock and was able to glue them together, clean up the joint, and call it finished.