Painting outside the lines

Thanks Google, that's uh, not exactly what I meant when I said "painting models."

I don’t claim to be a professional painter – more a dedicated amateur – but I do have a few years experience painting models so I hope I’ve picked up a trick or two!

Basically that’s how I see miniature painting – as a bag of tricks you collect over the years by experimenting and talking to other hobbyists.  I don’t see any particular method or trick as being better or more valuable than another out of the context of the effect you’re going for.  So to me I guess there’s no right way to do it so long as you get the effect you were aiming for.

There are many approaches to painting models though and just like any creative activity, fashions change.  I find it a little sad that the miniature painting world right now tends to place so much emphasis on careful technical achievement, as though there is some objectively right way to paint a model well.  You know what I’m talking about, all those forum posts and articles that say “mix one part GW Goblin Green with three parts Vallejo German Eastern Front Camo and one part water, then paint six smooth layers.”  I find that approach a little dry and scientific for what seems to me to be an art form.

I think that if you’re interested in painting beyond simply getting your guys on the table then experimenting for yourself and making mistakes are vital steps on the way to trusting in your own abilities.  I understand that many of these tutorials are designed for beginners, and that’s fine, but it’s easy to allow received notions of what’s good or bad painting to constrain you long after they need to.

This model is a great example of good use of texture - compare the cuirass and barding with the Officer's coat and the horse's flesh.

Now don’t get me wrong.  Clean lines, invisible brush strokes and blending so precise that it looks inhuman are all well and good.  Mood and tone can be created in other ways too though, sometimes more effectively.

Texture for example is very under-used by many hobbyists these days.  By texture I don’t mean great globs of paint that clog up your guy’s button holes, I mean the use of visible brush strokes (gasp!) to give a more impressionistic look to the model, to make the different materials on the model (leather, metal, cloth, etc) seem like they actually are different materials.  Take a closer look at the wonderful fellow above here to see what I mean.

I mentioned mood and tone earlier.  By “tone” I mean the overall feel of the model.  Miniatures are not real people, and if you really look at what is considered a skilled paint-job these days you might actually notice that it lacks realism.  There will be careful blending, perhaps edge-highlighting and black-lining, and probably dull naturalistic colours.  It probably looks like digital sci-fi art or perhaps a Frazetta painting.

The point here is this:  If we are not going for realism, then why do we (as a hobby) often seem to aim for the same stylized tone, regardless of the model?  I think it’s because everyone is doing it and we get used to it. Familiarity is a powerful thing when it comes to aesthetics.  But if we are going for style over realism anyway, why not vary our style a bit?  Or even try to develop our own personal one?

That is why I am a big fan of John Blanche’s painting style.  You don’t see his models around that often, but I think they’re great:

Unfortunately I couldn't find a bigger image of this Mona Lisa-wielding Minotaur.


These Chaos Marines are from the Blanchitsu feature in White Dwarf #351

Notice how bold texture and unnatural colours have been used on all of these models to create a mood.  John hasn’t tried to make his models look real, he’s tried to make them give off a feeling.  The best thing about them is that the techniques he’s used don’t seem that difficult or time-consuming – the blending is not that smooth and you can see the paint and brush strokes, but they still look awesome.

I also really like the old-school historical wargame style of the guy who paints the Krieg soldiers for Forgeworld.  They used to credit him on the site but that seems to have disappeared in the revamp so I can’t tell you his name unfortunately.  Simple techniques like ink washes and drybrushing are often scorned by internet sages, but I think these examples show that they can, if used correctly, increase realism in an unexpected way.  The loose style gives a muddy, war-torn feel that really suits the tone of the models:

I particularly like how you can see the strong brush-strokes on the highlight of the mole launcher.  Even though your eye can see from the brush strokes that it’s a painted model, it still looks more real and alive to me than modern ‘Eavy Metal style edge highlighting such as this:

So here is a challenge:  the next time you sit down to paint a character model for your army, spend a few moments really looking at the model.  What sort of feeling does it give you?  Is it dynamic?  Mysterious?  A hideous sack of crapulous meat? Clean and beautiful?  Forget what you think you know about how a model should look and try to identify the tone you think is appropriate for the model.  Then pick colours and techniques that you think will get that across, and experiment!

Oh, and if anyone decides to take up this challenge I’d love to see the result.

7 responses to “Painting outside the lines

  • David Stillberg

    Great post! I agree on some levels. I like miniatures that find a mix though; mood and detail working together.

    It’s interesting that you bring up Frazetta’s Death Dealer, since it’s fairly impressionistic in some spots, hinting at the face and background, while other areas are incredibly crisp!

  • Thor

    Well said. I really haven’t anything to add of value, though not sure if you’ve been to Wargaming Tradecraft yet, if not check it out. Dave over there did a similar article you might like called Painting from the Heart:

  • James S

    Thanks guys, I worked hard on this one 😉

    David, what I was hoping to show was that the modern popular blending style is a lot like Frazetta’s oils. I probably could have picked a better example than the Death Dealer though, he is very impressionistic. But he looks awesome so there he is.

    Thor, I’ve been to N++ but I had’t looked around in his archives really yet. Those articles are great, it seems Dave is a man after my own heart (or more accurately, I’m a man after his!)

  • richardhutton

    Hi James. I’ve been won over on the impressionistic painting style. The Blanchitsu article is available as a PDF on Games Workshop’s site for those who want to read it fully (you might have to register with the GW site to access it):

    The freehand designs on the chaos terminators are special. Very gribbly.

  • James S

    Cool, thanks for the link Richard. It never occurred to me to look on GW’s site! I just dragged those pictures up from Google.

  • Dave / N++

    Excellent article! I’ll just chalk it up to great minds think alike 🙂

    I love to see other people thinking these things too. There are some great artists out there doing unique things and I know I keep saying it, but once I get some of my other projects out of the way, I’m going to start investigating other painting methods more thoroughly.

    We can only lead by example and prove that other methods can look just as good as the accepted norms.

  • James S

    Thanks Dave!

    Yeah, there seems to be a bit of awareness building – the same day I posted this, Santa Cruz Warhammer put up an article where Mike tried his hand at painting impressionistically.

    As to leading by example and experimenting ourselves, I’ve got one ready to show for next week 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: