18 January 2012

Random Thoughts on Figure Painting the Old School Way. . .

As painters of wargaming figures, we typically use smaller round brushes with good points for most of our painting tasks, but I liked this particular photo a lot because it reminds me of my mother's studio at her home in Mexico, which smells of clay and linseed oil and has holders of various sculpting tools and paintbrushes on every available surface with canvases stacked against the walls and current works in progress on two or three huge easels.

A number of random ideas have occurred to me in the last week, since finishing that last BIG infantry unit, which I hope to develop eventually into a more coherent personal painting "manifesto" if you'll pardon the tongue-in-cheek use of that politically charged, grandiose term.

Now, I don't consider myself a master figure painter by any means.  Nevertheless, I appreciate well-painted miniatures, like most of us do, and the 20/25/30/40mm round varieties in particular.  So, I am always on the lookout for new things to try in that eternal quest to improve my own brushwork here in Zum Stolleneller.  Over the years, this painterly upward mobility, for want of a better term, has been inspired and spurred on by the likes of Doug Mason, Peter Gilder, Phil Robinson, and others.  I may never be as good as them in my efforts with the brush, but part of the fun comes through trying, and the satisfaction gained from a job well done.  Painting yuppy jokes aside, then, here's what has been coming together in my mind recently:

1) Misconceptions about using oils to paint wargaming figures.

1b) It's no harder to paint with oils than with acrylic or enamel hobby paints provided one adopts certain techniques and uses good brushes with points.

2a) Using oils to paint wargame figures requires little, if any, additional effort.  And there is odorless thinner to thin paints and clean brushes if the smell of thinner, kerosene (white spirit), turpentine, or linseed oil is objectionable.

2b) Thinned oils dry much faster than is commonly thought.  Oil Alkyd colors dry overnight.  Winsor-Newton produces a nice line of these.  Unsure whether other companies do though.  Mediums are available in better artist supply houses to mix with oils and speed up their drying time appreciably.

3) Staining, washes, and glazing (one thin color applied on top of another color to produce a third)!  Easy, fast, and effective.

4) There's no getting around it.  Oil colors are richer and yield figures that are even more interesting to look at.

5a) White basecoats (two good coats) provide a very nice, bright "canvas" on which to apply colors, regardless of which media is preferred (acrylics, solvent-based, or oils).

5b) Black basecoats?  Have painted most of my figures this way, but won't again.  Black dulls colors applied over it, requiring lots of white dampbrushing or undercoating.  Too time and labor intensive!

5c) Watercolors run at the slightest pretext of moisture. . .  even after being "dry" for many days.  Vivid and bright, yes, but not really suitable for figures that will be handled.

6) If painting uniforms in which one particular color dominates, use that color as a basecoat.  A terrific time-saver.  Two coats ensure good coverage of the bare metal.  All other colors can be painted on top. 

7) Aiming for a NEAT impression of uniformed individuals in miniature is easier and less time consuming to achieve than painting every single minute detail that few will notice after the fact.  Saves lots of time and frustration.

8) Except in the case of huge, glaring errors with the paintbrush, ignore mistakes.  Don't bother fixing them and move on to the next part of your painting process.  Another terrific time-saver.

9) Judicious use of black or dark brown lining in the post-painting phase works wonders for bringing out particular areas, but it's not necessary to strain your eyes and take days to blackline every single feature on every single figure.  The trick is in recognizing when to stop.

10) Be bold with black or dark brown lining though.  It helps figures look more defined and nuanced.  Look at Doug Mason's figures.

11) Re: point #7 -- Very thin fleshtone applied to the hands and faces is all that's necessary.  If the paint is thin enough, it will settle into depressions on the hands and faces, providing instant shadows.  On raised areas like chins, cheeks, and noses, it will be thinner, providing instant highlights that are more subtle and realistic than a two-three part painting process.  It's much faster too.

12) Figures that look too busy, or too boldly painted up close will probably look just fine at arm's length.

13) Overthinking how to paint, or asking constantly, "Am I doing this wrong?" risks bringing on great anxiety about it, and can lead to avoidance and inactivity, which gets  in the way of enjoying the wargaming hobby to its fullest extent. 

14) That said, some thought on how to approach painting several units of wargaming figures is necessary and helpful. The only way to improve at any activity is to try it, skin one's knees a time or two, and then gradually become better as experience with the paintbrush and how to use it increases. It's like a sport or playing a musical instrument.

15) Painting isn't the actual game on the table of course. . .  But it ought to be, and can be, a highly enjoyable part of the wargaming hobby provided it is approached in the right way. . .  Whatever that might be.

You may agree, or disagree with these points and have your own ideas about how to crank out painted figures, regardless of unit size.  Fair enough.  Everyone develops his, or her own way of doing things over time.  And this post is not an attempt to force any so called painting rules on anyone.  But, when working with large units of figures, we tend to stumble onto, or develop various ways to cut corners and still turn out figures that look pretty good in a reasonable amount of time.  So, it seems like a good idea to share and discuss methods/approaches/tips that have been useful to yours truly during the last few months of fevered painting.  

Maybe a few of the ideas outlined above will assist not only established wargamers, who may be in the midst of a painting slump as I was for much of 2011, but also aspiring newcomers, who might struggle with the the thought of actually painting those 150-200 new figures.  To my mind, that "I have the figures, but how will I ever paint them?" question is one reason so many of the latter fade away after a while and are left with a drawer somewhere full of lead.  A sad end to what might have otherwise been a fantastically absorbing hobby.

And so, wargaming comrades. . .  March with me!  Let us unite in our collective efforts to spread wargaming goodwill, painting theory, and eradicate the mountains of unpainted lead and plastic that accumulate in too many boxes, cupboards, and drawers around the world!


Bluebear Jeff said...

Another point that I would suggest is to "limit your palette of colors".

For a large unit, too many different colors (including shades of a color) tend to muddy the look of the unit.

-- Jeff

Fitz-Badger said...

My number one rule is there are no rules! What I mean is there is no "right" way to paint. Some ways are better than others, but those aren't necessarily the same ways for everyone. A lot depends on the individual painter and the desired outcome, as well as their enjoyment of the process.

Bloggerator said...

Might I also add - use the largest brush you can get away with! My bases are painted with a sturdy, nylon-brisled 6.


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