Painting Tips  -  by John Desmond

I'm not a professional figure painter or a regular award winner, nor am I ever likely to be. I just want to be able to grin and nod affirmatively when someone asks "Did you paint these yourself?" Some things I've learned...

The Marines talk about the "6 P's" - "Proper Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance" and the same can be said by figure painters.

To start, before trimming the flash from your new figures, put some adhesive tape (even a Band-Aid (TM)) around the forefinger, middle finger, and thumb of your non-dominant hand, and the third finger of your dominant hand - cuts down on cuts. "Guard-Tex" Safety Tape, produced by General Bandages, Inc, 8300 Lehigh Ave, Morton Grove, Ill, 60053-0909, is very good stuf - unfortunately they only sell it in industrial-size boxes - I got my supply as a sample. Drop them a line and maybe they'll package it in single rolls for the hobby-shop market.

When trimming flash, put figures needing repair aside, and repair or reinforce before priming. Remember that it's always easier to deal with a weak place before it breaks off completely.

After I trim off the flash, I sand the bottoms of the figure bases level, using 260 or 320 grit wet sandpaper in a bucket of water (I try to do this under water as much as possible - I don't want to breath lead dust - and dispose of the result in an industrial-strength sewer system. )

When you're finished trimming flash and sanding bottoms of the figures' bases smooth, wash the figures in Spic-n-Span or other heavy-duty detergent - removes mold-release stuf, oil from your hands, and loose bits of lead.

Don't use dishwashing detergents or soap for washing them - the stuff that keeps milady's hands soft probably isn't good for keeping paint on.

After washing, I like to soak the figures, overnight, in a mixture of 1 part white vinegar to 4 or 5 parts water - the acid seems to "etch" the metal slightly - makes the metal take paint better.

After the figures are washed, soaked, and rinsed, handle them as little as possible. If you're using a brush-on primer, fasten them now to 'popsickle sticks' or individual bases. Surplus Avalon-Hill dice make great painting bases for 15mm figures, and milk and soda bottle-caps can also be recycled for this.  If you or your friends are into boardgaming, the 'counter trees' - cardboard sheets from which the game pieces were die-cut, can be cut up for 'painting sticks'. I use Scotch 'Double-Sided Poster Tape' for sticking them down.

If you use a spray primer lay them on a clean and dust-free sheet of cardboard, etc, for spraying, and attach them to the painting bases afterwards.

For priming, I use spray cans of Krylon White Sandable Primer and Painter's Touch Gray Primer (They both give a good prime coat - the main difference is that Painter's Touch has a bigger spray nozzel which puts out more paint faster - you may or may not think this is a disadvantage.).

I used to use brush-on primer, found that the acrylic primer which gave the best preparation for the top coats was a half-and-half mixture of Armory "Primer White" and Pactra's "Iron-Oxide Red Primer." The only drawback of this combination was that it left the primed figures a truly hideous shade of pinkish-violet.

A spring-counterbalanced lamp and magnifying grass combination - mine is a "Polaris Magnifier Lamp, model IM 295 A," from Ledu Corp. of Trumbull, Ct. - is almost as useful as twenty-four Reg A EHC.

Spring clothespins are handy for securing figures for painting (especially separately-cast horsemen). Craft-supply stores often have smaller versions - 2" long instead of the 4" laundry size.

To make them more useful, get a razor saw and trim the wooden ones so that the grasping end comes to a point insted of a 'U'. One firm of paint makers (Unfortunately, I've forgotten which one - look around in your art supply store.) packs their acrylic tube colors in clear plastic boxes with a rectangular slot in each corner - perfect for holding a clothespin upright.

To keep acrylic paints from drying out while you're working with them; Get a plastic or metal tray or large shallow box, preferably with an airtight cover. Cover the bottom with two or three layers of high-quality paper towels cut to size (I like +Bounty+) and saturate with water. Cut a piece of white paper - you want a grade that won't separate into fibers when wet - to fit atop. Good-quality electrostatic duplicator +(Xerox)+ or laser-printer paper works well. Saturate with water - you want the papers to be very wet but not so wet that the paints run into each other - and squeeze your paints onto the paper. Cover when finished for the day.

Modelers' Mart (and probably some other vendors) packages some of its figures in snap-shut clear plastic packs, about 4" x 2 1/2' x 3/4" deep. These make excellent ini-palettes - with the lid closed they can be left overnight without drying out.

Often we would like some "wetter water", some medium with less surface tension that would make acrylic paints flow more easily without thinning the pigments out too much. I've heard that "Kodak Photo-Flow" is nice for this if you've an unlimited budget. Liquid 'Spic & Span' thins acrylic paints very well. (But if an expert in paint chemistry out there thinks this is a bad idea - please pass the word.) But 'tis probably best to go to the art supply store and buy some Liquitex Flow-Aid Flow Enhancer. A four-ounce bottle of this sells for about 5 bucks, has directions "Dilute before use, 20 parts water to 1 part Flow-Aid", and works very well. Is also useful in cleaning stubborn paint residues from brushes.

I like to plan my painting sessions in an "intensity curve." I start with something easy to warm up - big brush and wide swaths of color, go on to the fine detail work and ten-zero brushes, then finish up with some more easy stuf. The problem with this is that I accumulate boxes of figures with tunics or whatever 'roughed in', and must pledge myself to "finish two stands for each one I begin."

Sometime or other, you probably have had your significant other charge into the workshop yelling "When are you going to call it a night and get to sleep ?" One way to pace yourself at your painting sessions (assuming you use acrylics) is to go by the dishes of water you use for cleaning brushes. Fill up a dish and work from light colors to black. When you dump it down the drain and rinse it out, check the time (and the morale of your support group), then decide whether to resume wielding your paintbrush or break off and recover expended fatigue points.

One way I maximize the productivity of my hobby time is a strict rule: "Never look at a figure unless: (1) I'm thinking of purchasing it; (2) I have a paintbrush or a knife in my hand, and I'm going to do some work on it; or (3) I've finished painting it, and am admiring it or fielding it in a game"

Finally, once the colors are 'roughed-in', and you start the blacklining, touchups, and highlighting, get that figure finished! Unless it's obvious, figuring out where you stopped and what still needs to be done is the biggest time drain of all.

I used to think that "blacklining" figures was one of the black arts. Then I painted up some Achaemenid Persian cavalry - tan boots and bowcases, red trousers, sky blue tunics, yellow hoods, mauve cloaks - and found that from a foot away they looked like a pastel blob. So I got a Floquil '5/0 Precision Liner' brush (very good brushes, but wear out faster than other brands) and learned how.

Keep the brush lightly loaded with paint - you want it wet but not runny. You may want to touch the bristles near the ferrule with a paper towel to remove excess water. Rinse out the brush frequently - black, unfortunately, tends to be the fastest drying acrylic color.

Use light pressure, follow the "creases" of the casting, and let the paint flow into them.

Usually I start by filling with black the hollows and undersides of a just-primed figure. Sometimes it is easier to do all the base colors first and blackline between them, other times easier to do one base color, edge it with black, and paint the adjoining color up to the black. Practice on some figures you don't care about - I got some old Peter Laing castings of miscellaneous psiloi to see what the results of a good blackline job would look like.

Suitable paints for model soldiers are not found only in hobby shops or art supply stores. Several manufacturers' lines can be most easily found in crafts stores (in these parts usually combined with garden and indoor plant supply purveyors). Miniature buildings, etc, may often be found there, especially in the pre-Christmas season, and "pom-poms" or "ball fringe" are very useful for trees, etc, when scattered over dark green felt patches. Here be a review of some manufacturers and colors to seek or avoid.

Ceramcoat by Delta Technical Coatings, 2550 Pellissier Place, Whittier, Cal. 90601 - Generally good. They produce a bunch of leaflets and suggestion sheets, often found in pads hung by the paint racks at ye local crafts supply store. One very useful piece of paper is "Shades of Color for the Decorative Painter - Guide to Highlighting and Shading Colors..." item #000 99 0367. This gives printed 'color chips' for their 229 colors, and suggests complementary darker and lighter shades (highlighting a 'blue-gray' with a 'green-gray' doesn't work very well.)

  • Mendocino: #02406, a redwood brownish-violet, is extremely useful for morocco leather as well as for clothing. Sweetheart Blush, #02130, is similar but slightly more red, less brown, and darker. Maroon is more of a semi-gloss.
  • Wedgwood Blue, #02069, is a dull, very light blue with good covering power, often useful as an undercoat, over a dark base, for white.
  • Black, #02506, is very fast drying.
  • Leaf Green, #02067, looks like a good ground color under natural light but becomes garish under florescents.
  • Seminole Green, #02009, a good dark grass green, is what covers all my bases.
  • Ultra Blue, #02038, is a very stringy pigment and hard to work with.
  • The differences between Fire Red #02083, Napthol Red Lt #02409, and Bright Red #02503, cannot be discerned with the naked eye.
  • Crimson, #02076, is a good glossy red.
  • Gleams, also by Delta Technical Coatings, is a very good line af metallic paints. Their pigment is finely ground and in the right proportion to the vehicle, enabling it to be applied to 15 mm chainmail or lamellar armor by the "slather it on and let it dry" method.
  • 14 K Gold #02604, produces great classical-bronze armor after a black wash. Silver #02603, a medium-gray metallic, and Bronze #02606, are always useful. Red Copper #02605, a metallic orange-crimson, makes nice highlights on your elite troops.

These lines - Folkart, by Plaid Enterprises, Norcross, Ga; Apple Barrel Colors, also by Plaid Enterprises; and Accent, by Illinois Bronze, Lake Zurich, Ill are also very good.

What they don't seem to have is a 'steel' color - if you don't want to get one of the specialized 'model' paints, you can mix a silver with "Princely Pewter" (a metallic dark gray) - # 2531 from Accent's "Crown Jewels" line, and perhaps adding a bit of "Empress Blue" - Crown Jewels' # 2524. "Empress Blue" also makes compelling pupils if you're painting blue-eyed 54mm figures.

Once you've accumulated a sufficient assortment of paint colors, it is a good idea to get some sheets of white cardboard, rule them off in 1-inch squares, and paint a sample of each of your paint colors thereon - a thick "mass tone" blob at bottom of square, a thinned "wash shade" in the middle, name and manufacturer at top (in pencil, so info won't run if you get sloppy on next sample). You may, even, end up having a sheet of browns - with red-browns at the right, yellow-browns at the left, dark shades at bottom and light shades at top. Very useful when you can't remember if you basecoated that horse in "Brown Iron Oxide" or "Sonoma Wine".

Special mixtures of colors can be troublesome to duplicate if you need a couple more touch-ups to finish some figures and find that paint has dried up. The catsup containers found at the "fixin's bar" of some fast-food places come in handy. Similar containers can be found in art-supply stores. But for small quantities of very important color combinations, get some contact-lens holders - they have a minimal space for drying air and a very tight seal - at a discount drugstore.

Flesh ColorsEdit

In the Ceramcoat line, from Delta Technical Coatings, Whittier, Cal, is Fleshtone, #02019. This is a sickly color with poor covering power. Useful for plague victims, corpses and the hog carcasses that Viking Forge's pack horses haul around.

For Egyptian and Numidian flesh, I use Acorn Brown, # 941 in the "FolkArt Acrylic Color" line from Plaid Enterprises, Norcross, Georgia, 30091.

For fair maidens, Northerners just out of winter quarters, and other indoor types, Skintone, # 949, works well.

As my standard 'Caucasian flesh' color, I use Apple Flesh, # 20514 in their "Apple Barrel Colors" line. This is the best premixed Caucasian flesh color that I know of - not too pale, not too red - looks unobtrusively correct.

For Gauls, Celts, etc, I use Apricot Stone, # 2448 in the "Accent Country Colors" line of Illinois Bronze Paint Co, Lake Zurich, Ill, 60047. This is a ruddier shade.

I also have some Caucasian and Near-Eastern skin tones I mixed up myself.

One of the problems with skin colors, for people like me without much experience in combining paint pigments to get desired colors, is that even though I live near a university, in a neighborhood with people from around the world, closely studying their skin is likely to be considered rude, and be responded to belligrently. It is probably best to make their acquaintance first and ask their permission. This is where a knowledge of your army's history and culture is very helpful.

Or you can get a little sketchbook and put swatches of your available paints therein, and make notes: "For Slommovians - 3 parts this, 2 parts white, 1 part iron-oxide red..."


Usually I paint shields either:

  1. With a metallic base color, which I leave pristine for the rim and the boss, and a translucent color over the remainder of the shield face, or
  2. With a 'leather' color, and either a metallic color or a black 'neatline' around the rim.


On "washes": The easy way to do it is to take the brush after painting the black edgeline, dip it in water, moosh it around on a piece of plastic and see if the color density is OK, then paint it on. I've also used enamel thinned with turpentine, India ink thinned with alcohol, and acrylics thinned with Spic-n-Span.

While visiting a crafts shop near my parents' home over last Christmas, I saw something called "Heavenly Hues of Color", made by the DecoArt division of Ceramichrome, POBX 386, Stanford, Ky, 40484. Cost me about $2.00 for a 2-ounce bottle, and comes in Soft Black and other brown and gray shades.

These need to be thinned out with a little water, and a couple of drops of "Flow-Aid", from the Liquitex division of Binney & Smith, Easton, Pa, 18044 improve them somewhat. They are very good for chainmail, etc, when you want the wash to soak into the crevices and leave the highlights bright.

Acrylic-based, they're thinned and cleaned up with water. Brush it on, wipe the excess off the highligts ( I used a small, folded-up, piece of paper towel held by a pair of tweezers ). Worked - applied on scale armor over a metallic acrylic paint - like a charm ! Highly recommended.

Finally, I've made up washes of: 8-10 drops water
1-2 drops paint
1-2 drops matte varnish (I've been using # DS 14 in Decoart's Americana line.)
1 small drop 'Flow-Aid'When I've shaded in the recessed areas of a cloak, etc., I brush a wash of the shading color over the whole cloak - this blends the colors together and gives a more realistic look.

Hope this is of some help to you. Take care. Good painting.

Addendum - This was written over a decade ago, copied from the original Fanaticus, hope is still of some use to you.  Please send me your suggestions and corrections.

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