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A Dozen Painting Secrets

The following article first appeared in Charles S. Grant's Wargamer's Annual 2012

A Dozen Secrets for Painting White Uniforms

Useful Tips to Produce More Convincing Tabletop Units 

Stokes Schwartz

What do Teutonic Knights, French infantry and cavalry of the 18th Century, and Napoleonic Saxons have in common with WWII-era Norwegian, Finnish, and Russian ski troops?  That’s right.  Their uniforms are white.

But painting white uniforms in miniature is a challenge.  Consider that “white” clothing is rarely a uniform shade.  The season, amount of light, angle of the sun, type of cloth, and exposure to the elements mean that white garments exhibit a variety of shades, ranging from dark grey through cream, tan, or light grey, to brilliant white.

Now, it might seem difficult to paint tabletop units with white uniforms to a convincing standard in light of these “artistic” considerations, but it needn’t be.  You don’t need an art school education or special talent to get decent results, just the usual supplies, some time, and the helpful pointers below to guide you along the way.  The following tips make it relatively easy to produce wargaming units or, indeed, armies clothed in predominantly white uniforms.  And here’s how to do it. 

1) Plan and visualize the effect you want produce in miniature.  
It’s always tempting with a new batch of shiny figures to jump right in up to your chin, open those bottles or tubes and begin painting merrily away.  But the best results come from a more organized approach.  So, grab a writing pad and pencil and take a few minutes to decide what it is that you want to do.  How will you suggest the highlights and shadows seen on actual white garments without a lot of muss and fuss?  Just grab a can of white spray paint, and tally ho, right?  Not so fast! 

2) Don’t use white spray paint!
You don’t want your figures to resemble an artificially bright Hollywood smile.  It might be sorely tempting, but that’s not a convincing way to produce tabletop units clad in white uniforms.  Instead, adopt a two-three part layering process where you apply darker colors first and then add subtle highlights on top.  We’re not after the bold, exaggerated Foundry method of painting either, though, but something more subtle, achieved through the application of thinned coats of white -- not quite washes -- over the right kind of basecoat and undercoat.  

3) Apply a dark grey basecoat to your figures first.
A dark grey basecoat – black is too harsh -- provides certain distinct advantages in the process of painting white uniforms.  Most important, the color helps gives some shadow and definition to your figures.  You might question how white paint will manage to cover a dark grey basecoat.  After all, the lighter colors of paint are all translucent to some degree, right?   Well, don’t worry about that just yet.

Use a large brush to apply a dark grey basecoat to your figures.  Spray cans inevitably leave some areas of untouched and flood others, obscuring detail.  Sometimes, the old fashioned way is best, so a brush it is!  Make sure you get the basecoat into all the nooks and crannies.  It might even be even helpful to apply a second coat of dark grey, ensuring complete and uniform coverage before you allow the figures to dry thoroughly. 

4) Next, apply a tan, cream, or light grey undercoat.
White uniforms look their best when there is a shade color beneath the white.  So, after your dark grey basecoat has dried thoroughly, apply an undercoat of light grey, cream, or tan (I prefer Delta Ceramcoat Trail Tan) as the shadow color during your next painting session.  Use a heavy damp-brushing technique here.  This undercoat will also give your eventually “white” uniforms a more realistic appearance, rather than brilliant white.  Leave some of the dark grey basecoat showing between body parts and pieces of equipment, to provide the illusion of shadow and define the different parts of your figures. 

5) Use acrylic-based white hobby paint for your highlight.
Skip the oil- or solvent-based whites for your highlight, and use an acrylic-based white instead.  The former require quite a bit of practice to get good results.  It’s also sometimes difficult to get complete and smooth coverage.  Solvent-based paint tends to dry too quickly on the bristles of your brush, inhibiting easy blending with your undercoat and basecoat.  Solvent-based whites can also leave you with prematurely ruined paintbrushes and a sloppy paintjob that’s hard to fix.  Subsequent coats rarely manage to help.  

6) Don’t use that old bottle of white in your paint collection.
You’ll frustrate yourself by using paint from an older, previously opened bottle of white that’s been sitting around for a while.  Purchase a new bottle instead for the task you are about to undertake.  Of course, it’s possible to add a few drops of water to an old bottle of paint and thin everything down a bit.  And to be honest, sometimes that does work.   But most of the time, grainy coverage results when you use an older container, which spoils even the most painstaking work.  So, throw the old one out and buy a new bottle. 

7) Before you dip a brush into that new bottle. . .   
Add a drop or two of water to thin the paint out a wee bit before you use it.  Don’t overdo it though.  Paint that’s too thin won’t cover well at all.  You don’t want to turn that new bottle of white into a wash, just improve its blending properties.  Once you have added a few drops of water, replace the lid, and shake your bottle for a few minutes to thoroughly mix everything.  The result will be white paint that flows and blends more easily without drying and clumping on your figures while you work.  Blending properties are also enhanced because thinning your paint buys you some time before it dries completely.   

8) Control the amount and consistency of white on your brush. 
It helps to keep the bristles of your brush damp while you work – not sopping wet.  It helps your acrylic white flow from your brush onto the surface without drying on the bristles too quickly.  Moreover, it will blend more easily into the tan undercoat.  If you get too much water onto the tip of your brush, swipe it across a handy paper towel, to soak up the excess water.  And remember to keep your paint on just the tip of your bristles.  That helps keep your brushes in usable shape longer and prevents that thinned white paint from running into areas where you don’t want it.  

9) Apply a coat of thinned white to the raised areas on your figures.
Now, apply the thinned white paint to the figures’ shoulders, chests, upper arms and back, front of upper thighs and top of knees, rear of calves, top of forearms, and so forth.  Let your tan, cream, or light grey shade color show on the underside of arms and thighs, between arms and torsos, between the legs of your figures, and between the different white parts of uniforms or equipment, for instance shoulder straps, belts, and webbing.  Don’t rush this part of the process.  The results are well worth the extra time and care required. 

10) Don’t overdo it with the white paint.
One trick of the painting trade that is sometimes hard to grasp is knowing when to stop. So, don’t apply too much white highlight to your figures.  Remember, we aren’t after that artificial Hollywood smile!  Less is more, and by covering only the raised areas of your figures with thinned applications of white, your highlight blends more realistically into the darker undercoat.  The shadow basecoat color underneath provides added depth to each casting.  The overall effect is that each one figure within a unit will exhibit a variety of shades and highlights, and even individuality, rather than a uniformly bone white, porcelain appearance.    

11) Here’s a quick-fix for those inevitable painting mishaps.
If you slop a brush full of white where you don’t want it, here’s an easy way to fix the problem.  Simply rinse your brush in clean water.  Dab your bristles on your folded paper towel to soak up excess liquid.  Then, dip the tip of your brush in your water again, and touch the bristles to the area that you have flooded with too much pigment, using your damp brush to soak up the offending color.  Repeat this step as needed, until all of the offending color is
gone.  Before your eyes, that misplaced dollop of white will disappear quickly with no repainting necessary.  The main thing is to act fast since even acrylics become difficult to remove easily after a few minutes. 

12) Work with manageable batches of figures.
Applying a single color to lots of figures over and over again is tedious, repetitive work, especially when working through a unit clothed primarily in white!  To combat the inevitable monotony, along with possible snow-blindness, work with smaller, more manageable groups of figures.  I like to break my own units down into company or squadron sized batches and complete one before moving onto the next.  Your painting enthusiasm and the will to continue living get a much-needed shot in the arm when you are able to finish a third or fourth of that white-uniformed unit in fairly short order and move on to the rest. 

Finally. . .
This article is hardly the last word on painting figures clothed in white uniforms.  The process I describe above evolved as I painted through an 80-figure unit of infantry during late 2009-early 2010.  As I have gained more experience, I’ve refined the technique.  However, the points outlined here should help if you wake tomorrow morning with an itch to paint up a Confederation of the Rhine infantry division.  Whatever your particular interest, though, painting miniature formations in white uniforms is mostly a question of planning, practice, and persistence.  And on that note, I’ll close with a challenge.  Why not have a go at planning and painting your own snazzy new unit of Spanish grenadiers or Austrian cuirassiers in white uniforms?  Go on!  You know you want to.   

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