A Blagger’s Guide to Painting Models

I wrote this way, way back in 2011 (when House of Paincakes was still a going concern, this was one of my ‘audition pieces’ to be a columnist there). It’s still, fundamentally, how I paint today, even if my Circle Orboros army is no longer with us.

I don’t enjoy painting enough to do every red splash in seventeen layers, and being a povvo I’m always on watch for time/money/effort traps like airbrushing that essentially mean you’ve taken up a second hobby. Basically, I’m a utilitarian painter – I want things to look decent and I don’t want to spend ages doing it. This guide will not teach you what drybrushing, glazing or wet blending are – this is about the order in which to apply those techniques so you can “lifehack” your painting process and get your game on that much faster.

With that in mind, here’s how you too can blag it like a good ‘un.

Vision and Composition

This process starts with thinking. I know it sounds weird, but if you have certain things embedded in your mind while you paint, you won’t faff about and you’re more likely to get the results you want.

The worst paint jobs I’ve ever done have been the ones where I had no idea what I wanted the figure to look like. Take the time to figure this out. It seems counterproductive, but if you hate painting, sitting down to paint and ending up with a figure you also hate will only make you hate painting more. With my Circle I was deliberately paying homage to World of Warcraft so I could just look at Druid PvP gear until I found colours I liked, and imitate the way those fitted together. With my 40K army the choice was out of my hands as the books told me what a Night Lords army looked like.

Consider where – as in “on what parts of the model” – you should do the work. The eye is drawn to bases, faces and blades – the big round or square thing at the bottom of the figure, the bit that makes it look like a little person, and the sharp or noisy thing it’s waving around to denote what it does on the battlefield. Clothing, armour, all that jazz can afford to be muted, less detailed, even a bit messy, as long as those eye-catching bits look better.

Finally, consider how the model will be looked at: alone, as part of a unit, or as part of an army. Some models – Mechanithralls, Orks, Levies – get sent out in such numbers that the overall impression of three squads of thirty haring towards you is all you need, and you can phone them in a bit. Some – Banes, Nobz, Hearthguard – are elite units that stand out from the crowd and will attract more attention, so they need to look a bit better. Some – Warjacks, Warbosses, Warlords – will roll alone, and will be singled out and targeted by both the opposition player and a casual observer. Lots of eyes on them. They’re where you need to go all out.

Priming

For starters: prime with gesso. Gesso is amazing. Yes, you have to brush it on, and yes, that looks like it takes time; but if you’re anything like me, you have to touch up your spray prime jobs with a paintbrush anyway, and then that has to dry before you can start. The gesso can be slapped on before bed and ready to paint over in the morning; it’ll shrink to fit the surface of the miniature and it has a lovely toothy surface that takes paint very very well. I use Bob Ross’ brand, largely because one big tube of that’s cheaper than two little pots of anyone else’s for the same amount of marvellous priming goop.

Also, prime grey. Black is great for metals and very forgiving but it eats light and obscures detail and flattens every colour so you end up needing too many layers to make your figures look interesting. White is great for washes and brightness but distorts some colours and doesn’t like metallics and it’s really obvious when you’ve missed a spot. Masking off and priming different bits different ways is time consuming nonsense for people who enjoy painting, which isn’t what we’re about here.

Grey gesso is neither one thing nor the other. It’s dark enough for metals to look good over, light enough not to deaden everything else, and it’s easy to prep in a manner that suits any colour you like.

2022 Update: I have bitten the bullet and gone back to rattle can primer on some things – tanks, terrain, anything that I can’t do in a couple of minutes with a size 3 brush. If you’d spend way too long hand priming a thing, spray it, life’s too short.

All Over Ink

Start off with a whole-model glaze. This will either be extremely thinned down Liquitex ink or about 1:3 parts acrylic paint/glaze medium (I use Vallejo’s). This stains the whole surface, picks out the details, and allows for corners to be cut later in the process.

To choose the colour, identify the fiddliest details on the model – in most cases this will be any trim on the armour – decided what colour you want them, and then stain the model so’s they end up that colour. Everything else will be painted over it, subtly tying the rest of the scheme together.

Basecoat: Inside Out or Mess First?

There are two ways to proceed from here. Which one you use will depend on the composition of the model.

With Kaya here, and with most human-looking figures, I recommend you work “inside out” – that is, starting with the most recessed portion of the figure and working out. “Insides” are often quite fiddly – the flat surfaces on armour plates with lots of trim, faces nestled underneath elaborate hairdos and so on – so it’s best to get them down first, while you’re fresh and less likely to make mistakes.

For Laris, I opted to do the messiest stages first. If your model’s going to need a lot of drybrushing, washing/glazing, or even vigorous wet blending, get that done before you move on to any precise work like the aforementioned armour plates.

It’s easy to go into the weeds with a layering exercise like this. If you’re adding a layer and you can’t tell which areas of the figure you’ve done and which you haven’t done, you’re finished. Laris here reached that stage in four layers of applied blending, and it took long enough that the sun came out.

Splash Colours and You

Three colours is generally considered the Bare Minimum for event wargaming. Your models will usually have some sort of clothing (that’s a colour), some sort of weapon (that’s another colour) and some sort of insignia (that’s a third colour) before you get into flesh, tubes, cables etcetera.

These little bits are where you get your splash colours in: the fourth, fifth and sometimes sixth hues that justify your sense of superiority over the “prime, dob shoulders, dob boltgun, done” brigade who aren’t even pretending to try.

The splash colour should be something that stands out without blinding the eye. I’m not particularly good at choosing these so unless I have a very clear vision in my head I ask Dr. Internet for a colour wheel and look for colours that either make a harmonious triangle or a… complementary? square of placements.

The red here was well chosen as a colour but badly applied in composition terms; Laris looks like he’s had his throat cut. I wouldn’t do that again.

Once you’ve picked all your colours and blocked everything out, it’s time for inking to quick shade everything. After that, a quick highlight on anything that looks too Dark and Boring (usually bright splash colours and faces in my experience) and tidying up any really obvious errors – like Laris’ ears not being painted, whoops.

If you’re doing a long session, think about how to break it up and give yourself easy stretches to rest. When I was painting these Circle figures, I did the teeth and tongue on Laris early, while my hands were steady and my eyes were keen. With Kaya, the armour plates did my head in a bit, so I did her cloak in a nice, smooth and simple, just thinned-down black that practically highlighted itself, and that self-soothed enough that I could keep going.

When you start getting sloppy, it’s time to start work on bases.

Bases

The important thing about this stage is not to be careful. Your models represent soldiers, warriors born and true; they are engaged in battle and they are going to get mud on themselves at some point, so I flick the base colours casually upward to stain shoes, trailing cloaks and dragging knuckles. Is this an excuse for my sloppy basing or a careful piece of simulationism? You decide, blaggers.

2022 update: The other important thing is to consider the base as part of the miniature. Too many oldschool painters do every base in garish Goblin Green whether that harmonises with the figures on top of it or not. Too many “game first” types consider the base a playability concession that they don’t need to make an effort on. Both approaches look bad. My Circle models were painted to match the table I had in my house at the time, which was fine for playing at home but wasn’t quite the final form.

These days I like to draw down colours from the miniature itself onto the base, so that the whole model looks like one complete exercise in Hobby. I didn’t do this on my Circle, but here’s a picture of some Night Lords, whose bases have been stained with the same dark blue wash I used on their armour, and topped off with a snow that’s a rough match for their pale skin and masklike helmet detailing.

Fine Details and Making Good

While you’re waiting for the base colours of the base to dry, go back in to finish off any fine details. Usually, slopping Foundation Technical paint about settles me down a bit and I can mess about with faces and hair mixes and so on again.

Do skin and hair and highlights on weapons in as many layers as it takes for you to stop noticing the difference when they’re done. It’s usually four – base, highlight, wash, second highlight to brighten.

Of course, sometimes the paintbrush will slip while painting bold ginger hair and you’ll have to go back and either lightly scrape off the layers or paint over them. Kaya’s face was so delicate that I figured I’d need to scrape what was there. It worked out fine, although it did look like she had really bad skin. Whatever, she’s a feral woodland creature and Morvahna totally hogs all the moisturiser in the Circle anyway.

Back to basing

Once the fiddly bits are out of the way, it’s time to add stuff to the base. A boring base with only one thing done to it makes the miniature look flat and tired. An exciting base with a mix of materials takes eyes away from all those pouches you didn’t bother to highlight, and it’s less work than farting around with edge highlights on every sodding armour plate.

I did go a bit mad with the Circle bases, sticking some mixture of expanded polystyrene rocks, broom bristles, green flock and static grass on there, in some formation that looks vaguely like it could happen in an actual bog. Warbeasts, character solos, and anything on a big base will be getting this treatment. Ordinary grunts have to make do with mossy flock and grassy hummocks and a murky watery green stuff around them.

Closing thoughts

Kaya and Laris together took about three hours, including drying time on Laris’ glazes. (I actually did my old Pureblood at the same time, since he used a lot of the same colours as Laris. This is also part of the process; if you have the white paint out, paint a bunch of stuff white during dry times, especially if it’s a messy stage and you can use it as a break!) I’ve made a few splash colour choices (red hair, white fur, going ham on scenic bases) that make them stand out among the army and they’re different enough from each other that they stand out among the battlegroup (the ‘unit’ equivalent here).

Blagging isn’t just about low effort painting – it’s low effort that doesn’t look low effort. I’m not a very accomplished painter, technically speaking, and I didn’t like painting even before it was physically painful for me to do. You wouldn’t find me painting individual rivets or edge highlighting every armour plate or actually painting eyes that aren’t a little glowing dot in a socket. This method evolved to compensate for my various limitations and, while I will never win a prize for anything but “showing up fully painted”, being able to do that still makes me feel all glowy inside. The goal here isn’t high art, it’s a result you’re happy with in the space of an evening. If that’s what you want from your figures, I hope this guide has helped you accomplish it.