Painting Techniques and Methods – A beginners guide

When I started painting, there weren’t very good resources in painting techniques; the world-wide-web hadn’t been invented yet, which meant your options were:

  • Trial and error
  • Painting with a friend who knew more than you did
  • Reading about painting in magazines like White Dwarf (Although these articles weren’t very detailed beyond what colors to use, and basic techniques)
  • Hanging around local gaming shops trying to get tips (Games Workshop didn’t have a store in Canada at the time, and there was only one local shop selling GW products. Ironically, the owner of the shop was one of the worst painters I’d ever seen, and he ended up running that shop for 30 years. During that time, his painting skills never improved.)

Thankfully there are lots of available options these days. YouTube is a godsend, as it shows the actual ‘brush to model’ process, and the painting tutorials in White Dwarf have improved dramatically. Personally, I like a blend of written word and video, because sometimes I want to skip around a video and just pull the parts I actually need out.

This post/article is intended to go over some of the different painting techniques and methods as a supplementary to YouTube – there’s no way I can be as comprehensive as hundreds of thousands of videos. But I’ll try. Please note this article is intended for beginners to intermediate painters, I doubt professional and expert painters will gain a lot of value here.

NOTE: Pictures for each of these techniques are coming soon.

(Beginner) Mold-Line Removal / Model Preparation: This step technically isn’t part of the painting process, however it influences the actual painting process (and finished process) so heavily that it’s a crucial step. When a model is cast (in any medium – metal, plastic, or resin); there tends to be excess material that appears on the edges of the model. Typically it’s where two halves of the mold are aligned. Almost every model has it, and it should be removed before starting painting. I use the back of a standard hobby knife to lightly scrape most of the mold lines off, then sand them lightly with an emery-board file and sanding pad, from a medium grit to fine grit, to ultrafine grit. The emery-boards were picked up at a hobby shop and are intended for this purpose. Using small metal files will work, but this will chew through a lot of material quickly so be careful. Take your time during this step – the effort put in here will be reflected in the final product.

(Beginner) Undercoat / Priming: The basic first step of painting a model is undercoating with a suitable primer. This is usually accomplished via spraying the primer; either through a spraypaint can (sometimes called a rattle can) or an airbrush. Most beginners, and for the purposes of this article, will use a spray can. Primers used to be one of three colors – white, grey, or black. Now they come in a wide variety of colors and companies like Games Workshop and the Army Painter have color-matched primers for various armies. This dramatically speeds up the process! You’ll want to hold the can about 30cm away from the models and pass over them from side to side, starting to spray before reaching the first model and finishing after passing the last model. Make sure to use light coats; multiple coats may be needed, but it’s better to add more paint over time, rather than clumping up and obscuring details. Multiple models can be primed at once, but it’s a good idea to start with a few (or sacrificial test models) to get the hang of the process. Temperature and ambient weather conditions can also play a role (too wet, too dry, too hot, too cold, etc.). The most important part to remember when priming is that the primer fumes can be bad for you – make sure to only spray in well-ventilated areas.

(Intermediate) Zenithal Highlighting: I’d never heard of Zenithal Highlighting, at least not by name, until somewhat recently. All of a sudden, my favorite YouTube channels were all talking about it, and I had to do some research on the topic. The concept of Zenithal Highlighting is using a very light (usually white) primer and spraying the darker color (usually grey or black) pre-primed miniatures from the top-down. This mimics the sun at its zenith; where it’s at the center of the sky. The end effect creates a false sense of light – the darker primer hangs out in all of the shaded/recessed areas, and the top of the model (shoulders, head, weapon, etc) end up being somewhat lighter/white. When the paint is applied to the model, it’s subtly influenced by the Zenithal Highlight; the top bits of the model will appear lighter naturally, giving the appearance of an external light source influencing the colors on the model.

(Intermediate) Pre-Shading: Pre-Shading is kind of the opposite of Zenithal Highlighting, and is usually best accomplished with an airbrush. If a model is primed with a lighter color (usually grey or white), areas that are intended to be darker are sprayed with a darker color (black/dark brown/etc.) to slightly drop the color value down. When the colors are applied to the model, these areas will appear darker much in the same way Zenithal Highlighting makes the colors brighter. A very common use for this technique is on vehicles with recessed panel lines.

(Beginner) Base Layers / Color Blocking: Once the model has been primed and is dry, the easiest way to get started is to block in all of the major colors on the model. For example, if you’re painting an Ork Boy; you may use 4-5 main colors: green for the skin, red/black for the clothes (If it’s a Goff Boy, of course), black/silver for the weapon, and bone for the teef and claws. Starting with the biggest area (usually skin or clothes), fill in the colors without worrying too much about spillage onto other areas. Keeping the paint fairly thin, if you accidentally end up painting an area outside of your target, it can be easily fixed by touching up with the affected color. When this process is done all of the major bits should be fully painted but will lack highlights and shading. Make sure to wait for the paint to fully dry (if it’s thin enough, usually 10-15 minutes) before changing to another color. Batch painting helps a lot with this; by the time you’re done painting the first color on ~10 models, the first one is ready to go for another coat, or changing to a new color.

(Beginner) Volumetric Shading/Highlighting: Torvarion Miniatures on YouTube is way better at explaining this but I’ll give it a shot. Volumetric Shading and Highlighting are used to define the highs and lows of color in an area on the model to give it depth and definition. Essentially, It’s taking a “flat” looking miniature and adding shadows in the low parts, and lighter areas as they get closer to the light source(s). At a minimum, it’s good to have a bit of volumetric shading and highlighting on pretty much every miniature, which is why I rated it as a beginner step. It’s something that can always be improved upon however so if I were to give it a proper rating I guess it’d be Beginner-Expert. To achieve volumetric shading and highlighting, lighter colors are applied to the higher surface areas of the model after the initial colors have been blocked in. Darker colors including darker washes and shades like Agrax Earthshade or Nuln Oil are added to the recesses to darken the initial base color. Volumetrics can be applied through subtle layering (add a slightly brighter color, let it dry, repeat as needed), or through wet blending (see below).

(Beginner) Drybrushing: Drybrushing is intended to catch the raised edges of the model and add subtle highlights. Drybrushing will definitely catch any missed mold lines and make them stand out like a sore thumb, which is one of the major reasons proper model prep is crucial. To drybrush, use an old dense bristle brush (or a purpose-driven drybrush). Add a small bit of paint to the tip of the brush and dab it on a paper towel until most of the color has been pushed into the bristles and very little appears on the paper towel when testing on a new area of the towel. Then, lightly brush the paint over the area to be drybrushed. The effect should be extremely subtle; many light passes should be used to gradually bring the color up to the expected level. It’s very easy to overdo a drybrush and if this happens, the model will take on a dusty appearance. It’s hard to undo a bad drybrush because the entire area usually needs to be repainted. Also; if there’s too much paint on the brush, or if the bristles are flicked rather than lightly passing over the model, it can splatter paint on areas you didn’t intend to have the drybrush color. When I first started painting, drybrushing and inking models were the big craze, and I was very heavy-handed. Most of my models ended up looking like a dusty stone statue as a result. Drybrushing is an easy technique to perform if you take your time and don’t rush it.

(Beginner/Intermediate) Edge Highlighting: Edge highlighting is usually one of the final step to give a miniature a “pop”. Sharp edges which would normally be caught in the light of the sun or a secondary light-source are given a fine line of paint using a lighter complementary color. This can be accomplished by adding the paint to the brush then running it along the edge to highlight, using the edge of the brush instead of the tip. The sharp edge of the model and the pressure used dictates how wide or defined the highlight is, instead of the tip of the brush. This helps keep the line consistent in width and looks sharper. It’s easy to over-do this technique so it’s best to start small and work your way up as your skill level progresses.

(Intermediate) Wet-Blending: I toyed with making this a beginner/intermediate technique but I think it’s safer to leave as an intermediate process. The key to wet-blending is preparation and knowing how you’ll want the blend to look when it’s completed. On a palette (I prefer a wet palette for doing these blends), place a drop of each color of paint near each other in a line, leaving a gap between them. You can then move bits of each color of paint to fill in the gap between the drops – this will start to create a gradient scale. Then, on the model, apply the colors of paint. At first it’ll look like colored bands, but keep the paint wet and gradually allow them to mix and blend on the model to create a smooth transition between the first color and the final color. I particularly like using this technique on things like large horns on a Kurnoth Hunter or a Treelord Ancient. It makes a big difference instead of just painting the object Skeleton Bone and Agrax Earthshade.

(Intermediate/Advanced) Object Source Lighting (OSL): Object Source Lighting implies that an element of the model is emitting light which affects the color and tone of the model where the light would normally reach. A good example is a glowing power weapon like a plasma rifle or a magical spell held in the character’s hand. The light-emitting object is painted as normal, but the areas around it are carefully adjusted to indicate the light is hitting them. Typically the model is fully painted first, then the object, then the light hitting the areas of the model. I’m sure some advanced/expert-level painters can just skip the pre-paint and go straight to the final color emitted by the light. I came across a YouTube video (I’ll link it here once I find it again) where they recommended using a colored LED and holding it near the light-emitting object. This gives an idea of what areas the light would hit and use it as a reference when painting the lighter areas on the model.

(Intermediate/Advanced) Non-Metallic Metal (NMM): Non-Metallic Metal is a pretty big craze right now. It consists of painting the model using non-metallic colors (so basically paints that have had no metallic flake/pigments added to them), in a manner that implies the miniature has metal on it. It’s not something I’m personally very familiar with doing, as I’m completely happy with the metal-flake-based paints. NMM is a technique that I find is usually reserved for people who have reached a personal high level of painting and are looking for additional challenges to improve their skills. It relies heavily on color theory, blending, and patience. When it’s done well, it can have extremely impressive results.

These aren’t all of the different painting techniques that are out there; plus I’m sure there’s new and exciting techniques waiting to be discovered. It’s also important to remember that none of these are ‘rules’. Everyone has a different painting style, and should do what makes them happy! If anyone has any suggestions or comments, please leave them as a comment – I’d love to hear them!

Author: Greg

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