Monday, 6 October 2014

How I paint

Here it is, der wunderbare "how I paint" post. I always enjoy reading how other wargamers go about their painting so thought I'd add a post of my own on the topic. The subject will be the ubiquitous French Line Infantry.

First off a little disclaimer. I certainly would not claim that the techniques I describe are better than techniques others might favour! The results and time taken may indeed be worse than some other techniques out there. This is just what I know and feel comfortable with and have come to favour over the years. So warned, onwards with the details!

Introduction: Overall painting philosophy... 

I started painting Napoleonics many years ago, and while the techniques have improved, I still very much favour a 'colourful, quickish and lots' approach. I trade off time spent on any one figure, in favour of painting many figures, while still taking some care with each and every solider in certain respects. I also like to do big batches at once, about 50 figures at a time, completed over a week or two. That way there is a feeling of making substantive progress.

Another issue is that of 'historical accuracy' that people often say they are aiming for. By this they don't mean they are trying to have one standard per 500 troops rather than per 25 troops, or even that they are trying to paint details like eyes and belt buckles. Rather they are trying to carefully match colours, or as close as they can get to what the historical information tells us. Perhaps they are painting an accurate portrait of a solider if viewed in a close up photo under ideal lighting conditions. They might even paint troops as they would appear on campaign - all muddy and so on.

That view of historical accuracy is all fine and good, but it is not for me. Instead I favour an 'operatic style'. Napoleonics is known as the beautiful game for a reason, with an astounding array of bright and colourful uniforms. The wargames table is the stage for the drama, and the soldiers actors on it. They have to look good to the audience viewing from a certain average distance and so that's what I focus upon achieving. 

Colours need to be emphasised. The physics of distance automatically tend to darken the appearance of colours to our eyes, and so do scale factors - the figures are only 28mm tall. Therefore using a slightly lighter shade helps counteract these combined effects. Furthermore contrasts and distinctions between colours tend to be lost at a distance and due to the scale of the figures. So just like opera costumes and makeup, I favour bold definition, including 'black-lining' to separate out features. At the same time I aim to avoid too great a contrast with highlights on any one single colour, as this tends to camouflage figures at a distance rather than make them stand out. Additionally some details are too small to really be noticeable on the table so I just ignore them. I don't want individual works of art that take forever, I want an army that viewed as a whole looks like a work of art (or satisfactory to my own eyes at any rate!).

Brushes and Paints

As will become clear, I don't use any fancy brushes or paints.  I use a cheap size 5 or 6 brush for tidying up the black undercoat after spraying, and for doing the initial dark grey drybrushing. And then just standard and cheap Army Painter brand brushes in three sizes - Basecoating, Highlighting and Precise Detail (they cost about 2-3 Euros each, or under New Zealand $4-5). Every step except the final blacklining stage is done with the first two types of brushes, while blacklining uses the Precise Detail brush.

Paints are generally just acrylics of whatever brand I have lying around. For reference this paint chart provides a good indication of compatibility between colours across different brands. Most of my paints at present are Army Painter, Coat d'arms, and Games Workshop.

Stage 1: Preparation and Painting Setup

As I discussed in a previous post it is important to clean up the infantry carefully by removing mold lines. I then base them 4-6 to a base (but individually for cavalry), with the same pose on each base. The reason for having the same pose on each base is that I don't have to think afresh about how to approach each new figure while painting, as it is the same as the last until the complete batch of that figure type is done. This saves cognitive effort and thus slows the onset of mental fatigue (yes I'm a clinical psychologist, which in addition to paying the bills helps out with vitally important matters like this too!).

The figures below have been sprayed black, and then the black undercoat has been touched up with black paint (Vallejo Black Primer) using a brush to ensure complete coverage. Then using the same big cheap brush (a 5-6 size), I have drybrushed the areas that will be black on the final model with a dark grey, and then a slightly lighter grey. This is shako, shoes, and some of the equipment like the ammo pouch. This drybrushing is done very quickly and not too carefully. If one wanted to save time this drybush stage could be left out, but it doesn't take that long so I do it. (Note the figures on the right in the photo below have also had the next stage completed, the lighter grey undercoat for the white).

I should also mention that it helps to have something to listen to while painting big batches, otherwise one might go mad! Here I was listening to Blogging Heads TV which tends to be a bit more cerebral and thus occupies the attention well while some of the more monotonous stages are done. Plus I learn things. There are many good documentaries, music etc on the internet these days, so it is pretty easy to find something worth listening to while painting, and it can make the whole experience quite relaxing.

You'll also notice the painting set up is pretty simple, a bit of tissue paper to make sure the brush isn't too wet, another piece of paper for use as pallet and making sure the right amount of paint is on the brush. And a container of water (generally rinsed out between each colour), and the paints and brush. A spotlight is to my left about a foot from my left shoulder. 

Speaking of things to listen to, this might be an appropriate piece to help get you through the rest of this post.... and painting for that matter!

Stage 2: Uniform Colours

After the base coat and black/grey drybrush I move onto painting the uniform colours. First off the white of trousers, vest and crossbelts. I use a light grey for a base coat on these areas. Two examples of grey paint are in the background either side of the white paint pottle. An ash grey from Army Painter and a light grey from Games Workshop. This provides a solid foundation and some slight depth to the white (which will be washed out in most of these photos and hard to see), but not TOO much depth. If too much depth in the colour occurs then (1) I would have to be too careful with the white on top to match creases and folds, and (2), I'd also have to use more than two coats, and (3) it would risk the problem I mentioned above that too strong highlights tend to look like camoflage. I want some nice bright whites, and this approach seems to produce this. With these initial colours (and most of them actually) I am going pretty quickly, using a basecoating brush, and not being too worried about making mistakes. Mistakes get corrected by additions of later colours and particularly by the final blacklining stage.

After the light grey comes the white itself, just a Matt White paint from Army Painter.  Leaving grey in the folds but not worrying too much about imperfections. I sometimes go over the white quickly in places with a second coat just to brighten it up further if the first coat was a bit thin. Alternatively Ceramite White from Games Workshop is a thicker consistency of white which might offer better coverage (see my comments on red and yellow below). Note: I've had problems subsequently in that I've received 'gluggy' bottles of this Army Painter white, and have since switched to Vallejo whites - the Game Colour or Model Colour range.

Then a dark blue for the coat applied with the highlighting brush. This is an old dark blue that Games Workshop doesn't make anymore (as are many of my paints), but you can use the paint chart I mentioned earlier to help find a colour that might work.

And then back to using the base coating brush and a mid blue is added over the top of the coat. Once again not too carefully.

All the previous photos have been taken using a camera flash, but for reference, here is a photo without it. Consider how much darker things look without the flash, and thus how they might look on the wargames table.  The light grey can also be seen giving some more definition to the white areas in this photo. The stronger highlights on the black largely disappear at this light level.

Next is the red. Here I make an exception to my general whatever paint brand is fine so choose the cheapest rule. Mephiston Red (red) and Averland Sunset (yellow) are 'base' colours from the Games Workshop range, and in my experience they are very much superior to other reds and yellows out there. They enable you to paint straight over black with a single coat, which is what I did here. Save yourself some time and use these for red and yellows. If you want a thicker white, the Games Workshop Ceramite White base paint is also good.

Also here are the Grenadiers which require more red areas on the plumes and shoulder epaulettes.

And for the sword sash at the back.

And while I'm at it green for the Voltigiers epaulettes and sword sash.

Then yellow (Games Workshop paint - Averland Sunset) for the Voltigiers plumes, collars, and top of epaulettes. Voltigeurs had various combinations of green, yellow and even red for these details depending on the unit and year so one can pick from a range of possibilities.

Next the Fusilier companies pom-poms. Done according to the 1810 onwards regulations, Purple (4th company - violette), Green (1st company - vert fonce), Orange (3rd company - aurore), and Blue (2nd company - blue celeste). Another advantage to the four per base is it means you get a good mix of poses for each company. Note the crazy mix of paint brands in the background, including three pots of Games Workshop paint each from a different decade! Obviously I haven't used that purple from the 80's much... in hindsight it is probably a bit dark for the violet I want so I might go back and add a lighter shade.

Here are all the figures done so far.

Stage 3: Flesh

With the flesh I first paint the hands in a solid block, plus I dot in the ears. Next the face which  is where attention will be drawn and thus it's important to do it neatly but not in a fashion that will take too much time. I paint the face in four stages using a highlighting brush. From left to right in photo below; (1) two horizontal lines for chin and top of lip (2) vertical line for nose (3) about three brush strokes down left side of face, starting from just below the eye, to colour in the cheek and jaw, and (4) same on the right side of the face.

It could be ok to leave the flesh like that, but I add another highlight with a lighter flesh tone on top. (This paint actually looks pinker and less yellow in real life). I drybrush the hands so some depth to gaps between fingers is provided by the previous shade, and emphasise the nose, chin, cheeks and ears.
That's the flesh done. Painting eyes and other details (beyond moustaches) is madness in this scale and won't be noticed on the table. Painting eyes would be very consuming and won't look right unless you spend a lot of time on it. Fortunately with Napoleonics eyes are often in shadow due to the shakos etc. Thus they are even less noticeable and you don't even need to paint the forehead a lot of the time, let alone the eyes. Similarly, I don't bother painting hair, I just leave it black. It's hidden by the rolled overcoat and other details for the most part, and just not noticeable given all the other details involved with these figures.  

Stage 4: Equipment

For equipment I start off with a dark brown, painting the wooden bits of the musket and the knapsack with this.

Then I drybrush the knapsack with a midbrown.

I paint the rolled overcoat between the straps a mid-light grey, starting to get more careful with getting the paint in the right place here.

I paint the  metallic bits of the musket except the bayonet a gun metal colour, and also the cooking pans etc that some of the figures have attached to their knapsacks.

Next I carefully pick out the straps on the knapsacks and musket strap. Still using a highlighting brush but taking my time to get these reasonably neat.

Lastly the bayonets are done with a bright silver, and the Grenadiers and Voltigeurs also get some gold for the handle of their sword and the end of the sword case.

Here's how they all look so far from the back...

...and front.

Now they might actually be good enough to use at this stage so other people might want to stop there. Note that I deliberately don't add some of the trim colours to cuffs and vests on infantry, nor eagles to ammo pouches, nor a range of other details as all of these things will be lost at typical wargaming table viewing distance. Nor do I bother adding further detail to the few shakos that are not in covers as I think the regimented look of all black shakos is preferable.

I do go one step further that I think pays off though - and that's the blacklining.

Stage 5: Blacklining

I haven't been too careful with many of the previous stages, because I know it will be all tidied up either by later coats or by the final blacklining. Blacklining is just what it sounds like, painting thin black lines with a Precise Detail brush to define different areas of the model more clearly.  The most effort and care tends to be taken with the cross-straps and chest area. I also do the cuffs and add two gold buttons to each (dotted on with Precise Detail brush), and clean up any glaring mistakes (typically on the whites).

Here's a photo without the camera flash.

The back of the figures is also tidied up, which generally takes less work as I've already been more careful when painting these straps.

For comparison, here are the figures after blacklining (front row) and before (back row). Note that there is still some definition with black lines from the undercoat on the ones in the back row, it is just not as clear and tidy as it is on the ones in the front. The tidier the pre-blacklining painting was, the less effort is required with the blacklining. However there seems to be a tradeoff in time spent for myself at least, such that I tend to prefer quick and messy to start with and tidying up at the end.

Again without the camera flash.

And there we have it! Done at last. Thanks for reading if you've made it this far! I'd be delighted to read any thoughts of your own in the comments below, including helpful hints, criticisms, or questions.  My next post in about a weeks time will be on the subject of basing Napoleonic figures. (Edit - this post on "How I Base" is up!).


  1. Thanks Mike for this wonderful post, always interesting to see and read how others do their painting. Especially those that do such a quality job of it. Makes all the difference in the world...Excellent!

  2. Nice tutorial and great looking final product!

  3. Great tutorial and lovely figures. Thanks for sharing!


  4. Excellent post Mark. 50 in a couple of weeks, I am very happy if I can get 24 or so done in a month!! Great work on these guys!

  5. This is a great tutorial, Mark. I have long been an admirer of your finished armies, and an envious one at that. Now I know how you do it.

    I once did 81 (3x27) Airfix Confederates in an evening, but that was (a) a very simple paint job (block colours, no undercoat, not much in the way of outlining or highlighting), and (b) a much more limited palette of colours. These days I'm lucky if I get a single unit painted inside a month!

    I've tried facial features on Airfix ACW figures. The faces tend to be more open, and so features if any the more noticeable. I found that some sort of black moustache and beard effect works OK so long as you don't make the lower half of the phyzzog totally black. Leave a spot or line at least where the mouth would be. At that, you can try all sorts of beard styles: full and bushy to your goatees and Imperials. For eyes, I used a simple black dot for the eye, and over it a line as an eyebrow. The 'eyebrow' should be touching the 'eye'. I never use white for the eye (I've seen only one painter who could do it without the ten-thousand-yard stare effect - check out the SADA blog). Even in real life, the white of the eye is indistinguishable from the surrounding flesh colour in just a few yards. Just using the black gives the face a sufficiently 'human' look.

    Having said that, I reckon the method described in this posting does an equally fine job with less trouble.


  6. Cheers for the comments everyone! Some good ideas on the eyes an facial hair Ion thanks!

  7. Great and helpful tutorial!
    Thanks for sharing

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  9. Very useful for me who has recently re-discovered this wonderful hobby after an absence of a few decades, and was struggling with the painting (I loved it as a teenager but now must admit to having only illusions of adequacy). Optivisvor has helped, but your mixture of pragmatism, skill and fun is what has been the greatest assistance. Terrific stuff!

    Interesting that you use dry brushing and black lining in preference to washes - I guess they give greater zing, which you remind us should be assessed from the perspective of 'en masses en table'.

    Now back to the painting table and the Bavarians who when I last glanced looked back at me with expressions of incredulity - 'You are going to do that to us?'. Well lads, better times are ahead for you so break out the weisswurst and haefferweizen (sp?). Cheers JJ

    1. Glad you found it helpful! I have seen some great results with washes and "quick shade" from Army Painter, but the potential for a somewhat muddy look can also be a problem. Plus you have to be accurate with the first coats, rather than speedy first and "tidying up" with blacklining later. You are also relying very much upon adequate relief on the original sculpt if you are using washes and this is not always there, perhaps more so with plastics. Anyway good luck with the Bavarians whatever method you choose! :)