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Painting LARGE Units

The following article first appeared in the pilot issue of Phil Olley's Classic Wargaming Journal from the summer of 2010.

   A Classic Wargaming Painting Guide

How to plan, paint, and complete LARGE tabletop units like those fielded by Young, Grant, and Gilder.  

Stokes Schwartz

So, you’ve decided to paint up an army or two of large units, one of the visual hallmarks of classic wargaming, in the style of Young, Grant, and Gilder?  But how in the world will you tackle painting even just one 48-figure unit to completion, much less half a dozen units to build a basic tabletop force?  Well, with the right approach, you can overcome unproductive painting habits easily and produce your own units worthy of the photographs seen in Charge!, The War Game, and those old Wargames Holiday Centre brochures of days gone by.  The following tips, tricks, and shortcuts will help you paint up armies consisting of large units regardless of your chosen historical period.  

1) Select the right figures for your project.
First off, choose miniatures without an overabundance of kit or exaggerated detail.  Painting all sorts of deep folds, extra belts, straps, pouches, and other accessories increases the amount of time it takes to paint large battalions, regiments, and batteries to completion.  So, conduct plenty of research before you buy.  Visit websites, request catalogs, and pay for a few sample figures, to get a more informed sense of what’s available in your chosen period, what you like, and how easily the figures might be to work with BEFORE you purchase in bulk.   

2) Develop a painting process.
A more or less fixed routine will help you tackle those 48 or 60 figure units more quickly.  So, make sure to develop a simple course of action and jot it down on paper before you ever uncap a bottle of paint.  Keep this where you can refer easily to it.  A regular painting procedure like this provides two distinct advantages.  First, it helps you get each large unit finished faster because your efforts are concentrated.  Second, you’ll gradually commit your process to memory, meaning it will become automatic.  Much like trained soldiers of the horse and musket era, you’ll become an automaton, performing your painting evolutions without even thinking.  That too speeds up painting and increases your output appreciably. 

3) Set realistic painting goals for yourself.
Work out your aims beforehand and don’t be afraid to modify them as life throws those occasional and inevitable curve balls your way.  Plan fairly small, well-balanced forces to start with, consisting of a few units of infantry, one or two cavalry, and a couple of guns plus a few mounted generals and ADCs. Then, examine how much time you can spare, and how much you can paint in that time.  Once you have a realistic picture of that, move on to the purchase, preparation, and painting of your figures and get started.  Be sure to stick to the painting process you have devised, but don’t be afraid to adjust it as necessary.  Completing your forces might take a few months or a couple of years but enjoy the painting journey as your miniature forces take shape! 

4) Keep track of things with a painting progress chart.
Sometimes, in the midst of mustering and painting several hundred figures it’s easy to lose your way, so if you crave large units in the style of Young, Grant, and Gilder, a painting progress chart is a useful tool to have.  Keep things simple here though.  A fancy computer chart or spreadsheet isn’t necessary and takes time away from actually painting.  Just use a plain sheet of writing pad paper, a ruler, and a pen or pencil instead.  Create a few rows for your projected units down the left side of the sheet, along with columns across the top labeled “unpainted”, “in-progress”, and “painted”.  Then, track your progress at a glance by simply making an X in the appropriate column, indicating where a unit is in the painting process from start to finish.    

5) Make time to paint and do it consistently.
Sporadic painting habits are the bane of those who crave large units of 48-60+ figures.  Occasional, marathon sessions might seem like a logical solution, but that’s not always the case.  Instead, opt for shorter, more frequent spells at the painting table, which still enable you to make considerable headway in fairly short order.  Just three or four sessions a week, for an hour at a time, will do it, leaving plenty of time for family and other commitments.  Try switching off the TV or computer too.  You’ll be amazed at the free time that appears magically before your eyes. 

6) Resist your perfectionism and paint to a simple, neat standard instead.
The easiest, fastest way to complete large units like you’ve seen gracing the pages of Charge! and The War Game is to paint simply and neatly.  Perfectionist tendencies will bite you in the tail every time and prevent reasonably quick painting.  So too will exaggerated, three-tone shading and highlighting, which not only takes you longer to complete but also risks making your figures look like garish cartoon characters.  Why not save yourself the time and trouble and paint your figures to a slightly less complicated, though neat standard?  Good old-fashioned block painting is easier, faster, and imparts that pleasing old school, classic toy soldier look to your units.      

7) Don’t paint when you are tired.
Physical and mental fatigue will affect the quality of your work, so don’t paint when you’re tired.  Instead, plan those consistent painting sessions for times when you feel rested and alert.  You’ll produce better work and make fewer mistakes when you aren’t worn out.  Of course, we all have times when we sit down to the painting table anyway.  But once you make a few painting gaffs thanks to tired eyes or an unfocused mind, stop at once, clean your brush, and put away your things for the evening.  You’ll only frustrate yourself by continuing, and that will show in the quality of your brushwork.  Even large unit enthusiasts need an occasional break, and sometimes time away from the painting table is just the ticket! 

8) Avoid the temptation to paint every minute detail on your figures.
Museum quality painting, showing every button, hair, fingernail, and triple-highlighted fold, is fine for single 54 or 90mm display figures, but it’s not effective for painting large units in the style of Young, Grant, and Gilder.  So, here’s a tip used by professional artists.  Rather than ruining your eyes and taking lots of time to paint in every detail, suggest it with a few careful daubs of paint.  For example, a few well-placed squiggles of gold are all that’s necessary to suggest buttonhole lace on an infantry unit’s coats for example.  Extra touches like that provide added visual interest to your figures, but you don’t really need to paint and highlight every bit of braid on a regiment of 30 hussars. 

9) Paint smaller, more time consuming parts of your figures first.
That said, you might find it helpful to address the smaller figure details that you do paint first while your enthusiasm is high.  Typically, that early painting zeal wanes for most of us once we get to those more tedious parts of our figures – belts, straps, lace edging, facings, and similar areas -- and then painting becomes a frustrating slog through the figurative mud.  So, ignore common painting wisdom and paint in reverse order instead. . . BEFORE the psyche out troll and his cousin the tedium demon appear.  Paint the larger and easier primary uniform colors afterwards, taking care to stay within the lines you have already defined carefully.  A related benefit of doing things this way is that it’s easier to fix brush blunders by covering them with the easier to paint, and often darker, primary uniform colors. 

10) Don’t get side-tracked by minor painting mishaps.
Here’s another way to paint those large units more quickly.  Ignore your mistakes with the brush . . . until later.  Despite our best efforts, we all make an occasional error, slopping paint where we don’t want it, or marring an otherwise already finished area, teaching the cat, dog, or Little Johnny new four-letter words in the process.  Kidding aside, don’t stop mid-brushstroke every time that occurs, to fix the problem right then and there.  It’s inefficient and will slow you down.  Instead, continue working, and then go back to fix the problem AFTER you have completed that particular step in your painting process.    

11) Divide your large units into platoon, company, or squadron-sized batches.
Even when bitten firmly by the large unit bug, it’s daunting when faced with the prospect of painting several 32, 48, or 60+ figure units.  But, there’s a fairly easy way to maintain your painting mojo.  Stow all of your amassed figures in a drawer except for the unit you are working on currently.  Then, break that unit down into smaller, more manageable batches.  If you have an infantry unit of 48 figures, for example, divide it into four batches of twelve, painting a single batch to completion before moving onto the next one. Work methodically through your painting process, and all four batches will be done before you know it.  Not only will you make visible strides toward finishing the entire unit, but you’ll trick the psyche out troll and the tedium demon in the process. 

12) Paint one large unit to completion before starting the next one.
Jumping around between various units may spice up your painting sessions, and it’s certainly tempting sometimes, but it gets you nowhere fast when it comes to painting up an army of several large units in the style of Young, Grant, and Gilder.  You risk never finishing anything with a counterproductive painting habit like this.  It’s really best to keep your eye on the prize and stick to painting one unit at a time until you’re finished.  We’re talking willpower and determination here.  So, hold your original course, consult your progress chart often, and keep track of how many figures you have painted to completion along with figures still in the “to do” drawer.  If it’s LARGE units in the classic wargaming style you’re after, then that’s what you’ll get, but that comes with time, effort, and determination.  And it’s not always easy.  But you just can’t beat the sheer spectacle of large units of miniature soldiers arrayed across a tabletop!

The dozen guidelines presented here have taken shape as I’ve worked on and completed numerous large units (parts of my own Grand Duchy of Stollen Project, begun in mid-2006) in the style of Young, Grant, and Gilder.  While certainly not the last word on planning and painting large units, the ideas I outline have served me well and will, I hope, encourage interested wargamers to assemble and paint 30 to 60-figure units themselves.  Secondarily, my intent has also been to help those same enthusiasts avoid the pitfalls of a more haphazard approach to painting, a fairly common stumbling block after the initial enthusiasm of buying the figures wears off.  Drop me a line with your own thoughts on the matter.

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