Naus the Waghalter is the February 2022 promotional miniature from Reaper Miniatures. When I sat down to paint him, I decided spur of the moment to try some experiments. This article includes the colour recipes I used and WIP photos, and it also describes my experience with the experimentation, since I think others may have had similar experiences. I think you could use the main colour recipes I share here and end up with a figure pretty similar in look if you don’t want to bother with the underpainting step.
The Reaper art director, Ron Hawkins, was emphatic that this character appear like a dark and dirty a street level thug type. (Waghalter translates to ‘gallows bait’, so that gives you a pretty good idea of the character type Ron was thinking of!) Ron’s initial colour choicer was brown. I pointed out that I had hit the browns pretty heavily with Romag Davl, so he agreed with my suggestion to incorporate other dark neutrals like greys and blacks.
I had a pretty tight deadline for this figure, basically ASAP.
The (Poorly Designed) Experiments
I’ve painted this character type before, and it presents a thorny puzzle. How do you paint a figure so people are drawn to look at it when the character it depicts is a person doing their utmost not to be seen? In the past I’ve tried using freehand and texture. I’ve tried careful and restrained use of contrast. I’ve tried directional light. When I sat down to paint this version of that conundrum, I got the idea to try using colour underpainting. And hey, why not also experiment with painting warm shadows and cool highlights, when I almost always use cool shadows and warm highlights?
My inspiration for the colour underpainting was largely the work of Craftworld Studio. I have been fascinated by the amount and variety of colour in their work, and have watched a couple of videos where Marko demonstrated his colour underpainting. (Craftworld is a partnership of two painters, Aleksandra Cvetanovski and Marko Miladinović.) Their painting approach seems to have some elements in common with how James Wappel works, though each very much also has their own style. Both styles heavily incorporate elements of underpainting in their approach, using colour and value to establish elements of composition or characterization, though my impression is that James focuses a bit more on value and Craftworld a bit more on colour.
Craftworld Studio links: Facebook, Patreon, YouTube, Instagram, webpage, blog
James Wappel links: Twitch, Patreon, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, blog (currently inactive, but tons of great info in the archives)
I’m not afraid of colour. I’ve experimented with it non-miniature art as well. I do find it a little tougher to go nuts in miniature painting because of the constraints of working with acrylic paint, and the many years of ingrained habits I’ve developed to work with it. In my miniature painting I occasionally use it during the painting process by mixing some non-local colours into the shadows. More often I add colour complexity after the bulk of the painting is completed by using glazes.
I’m not afraid of colour! This is also an example of using warmer shadows (reds and purples), and cool highlights (pale greens).
While I am fascinated by the approaches of both James Wappel and Craftworld Studios, I would not say that I feel like I deeply understand what they’re doing. I’ve watched a few videos from both, and the way that they work pretty much feels like ‘hey presto’ magic to me. I do not mean that either is a poor teacher or trying to withhold aspects of their process! Both have legions of happy Patrons. I’ve spoken to painter friends who rave about how much Wappel has helped them improve. I definitely recommend studying with either or both of these painters. I particularly recommend James Wappel to people looking to paint game figures quickly that also look great. Wappel’s rate of output is astonishing and he paints and plays for games, not to enter contests and win awards. (Though he has also done plenty of that!) Both James and the Craftworld team describe what they’re doing in the videos, and the thought process behind it. The words make sense, but I don’t think I really grok the concepts behind them on a deeper level. I think the issue is that the way they work is so very different from my approach and how I think about painting that I can’t quite get my head around it.
I’ll review the reasons why I say the experiments with my figure were poorly designed in the conclusion of this article, but there are definitely some hints in everything I’ve written above as to the nature of the problems I ran into. I think it’s worth talking about because I suspect that plenty of painters will have had a similar experience of trying to follow the techniques or approaches of other painters, and feeling that it did not turn out as hoped.
As mentioned, I had a tight deadline, and my decisions to experiment were spur of the moment when I sat down to begin painting the mini. I decided that experimenting with underpainting was pretty low risk since I could always paint over with more opaque paint if things did not seem to be working out. My gamble was to take an evening and try something out, and my deadline wasn’t so tight as to rule that out.
I wanted to focus on a colour underpainting for this figure. More of a Craftworld Studio approach, which sometimes kind of looks like madly slapping some colours on the mini to me because I can’t seem to grok all of the thought process behind the decisions. (I have used value underpainting techniques several times in the past, and will have a new example for you in the near future.)
I pulled out a small selection of artist grade paints. I wanted to be sure to use paints that are intense in colour and fairly opaque, and I knew these fit the bill. It would certainly be possible to do a similar experiment with vivid colours of miniature paint, like the Reaper Clears or Kimera Kolors, or whatever most highly saturated colour paints that you have on hand. Then I started madly slapping colours on the figure. Well, somewhat madly. I didn’t worry about the values of the underpainting colours themselves, but where I placed those colours was based on where I should place different values on the figure based on my lighting scenario. To put it another way, for the most part what I did was paint magenta where I would paint shadows, green where I would paint midtones, and blue where I would paint highlights.
The secondary part of my experiment was to paint with warmer shadows and cooler highlights. I chose my colour underpainting paint colours with the idea that magenta, as a variant of red, would add warmth in the shadows. The blue was a cool colour for the areas of that would get cool highlights. Green is usually considered to be a cooler colour. This green has some yellow in it it. It’s warmer than the blue, so it seemed like a good choice for the intermediate midtone areas. I’m not sure I did choose the correct colours, but I’ll come back to that in the analysis at the end. (Information on colour terminology.)
As I worked on this stage I became concerned about whether areas of crevices and indented lines and so on would be as dark as they should be at the end of painting. I planned to paint over the underpainting with somewhat transparent paint rather than my usual opaque basecoats. To insure crevices and depressions were dark in value, I mixed up a wash with magenta mixed with black and applied it all over the figure. Then before it dried I wiped it off the high points of the figure with a makeup sponge. I have seen James Wappel do something like this in several videos.
I took pictures, but I foolishly did not remember to take a photo after the initial colour application. In the pictures below, you can see what the underpainting stage looked like on the base of the figure. The figure portion is what things looked like after the wash and wipe, which definitely did dull down the colours.
I wasn’t kidding when I said I slapped on the paint. ;->
If I try this method of underpainting again, and I think that I will, I am wondering if it would be more effective to start with a wash that I wipe off the high points and then work with the pure colour.
I planned to paint with slightly transparent paint. I also planned to mix my shadow, midtone, and highlight colours, and then apply each in the appropriate location of the figure. The goal with both of these choices would be to allow the colour underpainting to subtly show through and create some visual interest and complexity by hiding a little colour within the overall drabness of the colour scheme.
I typically start painting with a completely opaque foundation of paint. This might be the darkest colour, and then I paint layers of lighter colours over it to create the midtones and highlights. More often I start with the midtone colour, and then paint layers of darker paint over it in the shadow areas and layers of lighter paint over it in the highlight areas. The video of painting Ghost Bride Betty demonstrates the former process. The Layer Up! kit that I created for Reaper teaches the latter process.
These different approaches are examples of why variations in paint opacity in various paints aren’t inherently good or bad. A given paint is just better or worse for some applications than others. Super opaque colours are great when you’re trying to quickly paint basecoats onto black primer. They are more challenging for the layering technique, do not work as well for glazing, and weren’t what I wanted for the type of painting I was doing here.
Skin, Cloth, and Brown Leather Armour
The best order in which to paint areas of a figure is a common question, so I always like to explain how I make those decisions in these process articles. Naus is not completely armoured. He has small areas of clothing visible on his legs and arms. These are located under armour and straps, so it’ll be much easier to paint them before painting the armour and straps! However, the hood sits somewhat on top of other objects, so it would make more sense to paint later in the process.
There is a similar issue with the skin. The skin of the face is inset underneath both a hood and a mask. The skin of the fingers (he’s wearing fingerless gloves) is on top of some objects and beneath the gloves.
If I want to paint all the cloth the same colours and the skin the same colours, I have to make a decision. If I paint everything at the same time to use the same colour mixes, which is faster and easier, then I have to accept that it will require some fiddly brushwork at points to avoid getting paint on completed areas. Or I can paint areas in the most logical order for easy painting, and accept that I will have to mix the same colours at two separate times. (Unless I’m painting quickly enough to finish in one session, of course.)
With Naus, I decided to paint the face first, and leave the fingers for later. I also chose to paint all of the cloth at the same time. I decided to paint the cloth grey and a little lighter than the armour and accessories would be. Even though the overall intent was a very dark figure, there needs to be some contrast of values to define areas and bring out volumes.
I used a mix of magenta + black for the shadows, a warmer grey for the midtones, and a cooler grey for the highlights. I know that some of the midtone greys I have are a bit more on the transparent side, so having some underpainting colour peek through the midtones and shadows was possible. Many colours that we use for highlights are mixed with white paint, which is more opaque, so I needed to thin those with water to make them a little more transparent. To try to keep the highlight areas cooler even if the underpainting didn’t show through there, I used a light blue to mix most of my highlights.
The grey cloth colours. LAG stands for Liquitex Acrylic Gouache. I am 99% certain that Reaper’s Clear Magenta is the same pigment.
Next I started on the banded leather chest armour and the knee pads. I decided to use the colours Bruised Purple and Ashen Brown. In part this was because Reaper recently rereleased those paints and I wanted to have a painted example with these great colours to show viewers on my Twitch show. I used my magenta + black mix for the darkest areas, and Ashen Brown for the lighter areas, mixing in a little light blue for the lightest areas. I planned to use the Bruised Purple in the midtone areas.
I quickly rediscovered that Bruised Purple is a fairly transparent paint colour. This can make it frustrating to use to layer over a darker/stronger colour, or to paint visible texture. I had experienced that when painting Ziba the Efreeti. I used a limited colour palette on Ziba. I chose to use a mix of red and black created a colour similar to Bruised Purple for her skirt, which I aimed to paint with a woven cloth texture. The colour mix was too transparent to work well to create visible texture strokes until I mixed it with a little white.
Torso and kneepad armour colours. LAG stands for Liquitex Acrylic Gouache. I’m 99% certain that Reaper’s Clear Magenta is the same pigment.
The colours for Naus’ armour didn’t really work to paint in the same way I painted on the grey cloth. The Bruised Purple was too transparent to layer over the midtones and create blends with the layer shadow and highlight colours. So I tweaked my process a little. I painted the highlight colours over some of the midtone areas and then painted the Bruised Purple over it to tweak the colour and smooth the transitions. The Ashen Brown is a more opaque paint, and I thinned it down in hopes of allowing the underpainting to show through a bit. I think you can see a bit of the green peeking through in spots, though it’s certainly pretty subtle. While the colour isn’t obvious, I think the painting approach resulted in a more visually complex surface than the smoother and more uniform appearance my painting often has.
I began to run into another problem here. You can see Blue Liner in the paint picture above. That is a cool dark colour, it doesn’t really fit into my warn shadows plan. It’s also just about the darkest paint I have. Because it’s a dull cool blue it usually appears even a little darker than black. (Most blues appear to recede from our view, while warm colours like red and orange appear as if closer to us.) That darkness of Blue Liner makes it great for lining or filling in crevices that you want to recede from view. The black + magenta shadow mix just wasn’t dark enough to use as lining between dark colours.
How the figure appeared after completing the cloth and chest armour.
Leather Accessories and Weapons
The next items I painted were the leather shoulder armour and some of the straps and belts. I wanted this to look like dingy blackish leather and to be quite dark, so it would contrast a little with the chest armour piece. I used black overall, and another purply-brown for the highlights, mixing in a bit of pale blue to lighten it up a bit here and there. None of these choices worked that well with my experiments. The paints are on the opaque side, and I had to do more stippling to smooth transitions, so I don’t think any of the colour underpainting shows through. The purply-brown colour ended up feeling fairly warm in colour because the low contrast highlight mixes didn’t include enough of the light blue to appear very cool in value.
Colours used on the warm black leather.
At the stage of these WIP photos, the black shoulder area did not look like it has anywhere near enough contrast to me. I reminded myself that those areas were not finished. All of them would have NMM steel added – metal studs on the shoulder armour, and buckles on the straps. Those would pop more against the dark surface. I might still need to add more highlights in spots (and I did), but I needed to get more paint on the figure to be able to accurately assess how everything was working.
The next time I sat down to paint I wanted to try a different colour combination to see if I could get cooler colours in the highlights of my dark leather. I swapped out my midtone for more of a grey with a touch of brown in it. I tested this colour selection on Naus’ satchel.
It did add a little hue variation, but it didn’t work any better in terms of showing hints of the colour underpainting. I decided to switch back to the original leather recipe to finish off the rest of the leather areas.
After finishing the leather I worked on the weapon blades. I used my magenta + black mix for the shadows, neutral greys for the midtones, and pale blues for the highlights. I didn’t go up to pure white as I usually would. It’s been my experience with others of these dark colour scheme figures that a slightly smaller value range between darkest and lightest colours can work for non-metallic metal in this kind of colour scheme. Since I had to paint back and forth a bit to smooth out the blending on the NMM, I lost some of the colour underpainting. I had liked that touch of green on the blades from the underpainting, so I added it back by applying thinned down green paint on top.
The NMM colours. I added touches of the greens and the magenta to tie together my scheme and suggest reflections from the environment. LAG stands for Liquitex Acrylic Gouache. Reaper’s Clear Magenta is likely the same pigment as the Liquitex, and Jungle Camo would work as a substitute for the green.
This picture of the back of the sword below was taken to confirm with the sculptor Bobby Jackson the nature of the material at the base of the blade. His answer: “Leather I guess.” Even having direct access to a sculptor won’t always answer the ‘what is this object supposed to be’ question!
The following WIP pictures were taken with my fancy camera. Reaper likes to show pictures of new and upcoming products on their Reaper Live Twitch stream show on Thursday nights. I was pretty far along by Thursday afternoon, so I did a little touchup to make the really rough bits look a little less rough (mostly the mask), and then took some pictures to send to Ron to use on the show if he wanted. (If you compare the above cell phone pictures with the photos below, the only additional thing I painted was the mask, all other differences are between the cameras.)
After taking the above photos I kept working on the figure, painting the NMM details with the same NMM colours, and I also painted the small pouch.
Ron liked the figure as he appeared in the work in progress pictures, but he asked whether the hood and mask were finished, since he was concerned that both were too light in value for the character type. He thought maybe I had been trying to go for a sort of Assassin’s Creed vibe. Which I had not, at least not consciously! My intention had been to use touches of lighter value highlights around the face to make it the focal point of the figure and draw the viewer’s eye. When I went back to working on the figure the next day, I immediately saw why it made Ron think of Assassin’s Creed!
As I mentioned above, the hood was one of the first things I painted. Without more information on the rest of the figure, I didn’t really have the context to judge whether or not it was done when I first painted it. Now that I was close to finished I could see that it did look pretty pale in comparison to the rest, and had lighter highlights than the shiniest parts of the NMM!
I did a couple of things to tone it down. I started with a green glaze on the highlights, but it still looked pretty light. Next I added glazes of Bruised Purple mixed with a little Dragon Black all over the hood, painting additional layers into the shadow areas to darken them further. Conversely, I felt like the non-metallic details did not stand out very well. This piece overall is very dark and not very colourful, there has to be some kind of contrast to make it legible and at all interesting to look at. So I went back over the small details with lighter values of paint, and I also increased the highlights a little on the two weapons.
This is an example of two things. One is that you need to accept that you can’t accurately judge exactly how well the overall figure or even a section of it is working until you’re pretty close to done. This is particularly true of some effects, like non-metallic metal and source lighting. Every colour you add, every value you shift, it all affects your perception of what is already there. A colour that looked great in the beginning can end up looking too light, too dark, too bright, too dull when viewed in the context of the overall piece. Sometimes the best way to fix that is by changing what you painted first; sometimes you tweak something you painted later. The main point that I want to stress here is that you can improve your paint jobs a lot if you plan for a step near the end of painting where you stand back and look at the figure as a whole to see if there’s anything that needs to be added or tweaked.
This experience is also a reminder that it is helpful to keep in mind the function of your object as you paint. For this project, my goal was to paint to paint something that met the expectations of the person commissioning the piece. Ron was very clear that he wanted a colour scheme of dark and dull colours, and that the figure should look dirty and weathered. I sent him pics when I thought I had things finished to the point of what he wanted. My inclination was to bump up the highlights around the face and in a few other areas, and just generally increase the level of contrast. I also wasn’t sure if Ron would consider him grungy enough. I had initially thought to use weathering powders after I finished painting, but I liked the colour where I was. Ron was happy with the figure as it was, so there was no point in my painting further unless I wanted to spend more time to make my client less happy.
Sometimes the function of your figure may be as a quick tabletop opponent, and it’s better to use some strong contrast and not waste too much time with the blending. Sometimes the function might be as a contest entry where there’s no such thing as too much time, effort, and thought put into it. Not having the time or effort put into an important display piece can lead to disappointment, but spending too much time and energy on something and always stressing yourself out instead of just painting and having fun sometimes can also hamper your enjoyment of the hobby and put you off painting. I used to aim for the best I could do on pretty much every figure. I’m a much happier painter now that I have different levels and approaches towards my work. Different kinds of work require different kinds of thought processes and effort.
Assessing the Colour Underpainting Experiment
When assessing how well an experiment or study worked out, I use different criteria than I use in determining whether or not I think the paint job of the figure is. I think my painting of Naus turned out okay. There are a few things I might tweak to fit my preferences rather than my client’s, but overall it works. This and the following section are assessments of how well I thought the experiments I did on Naus turned out, and that is a different question!
If my goal in painting this figure was to learn the painting approach of Craftworld Studio and paint a figure in a similar style, it would be fair to say that I set myself up for failure. I did not follow any of the tips I outlined in my article about how to study from painting videos. I didn’t pick a particular video or video series and study it to identify the specific painting steps. I didn’t choose a figure similar to one painted by my inspiration. I didn’t study Craftworld Studio’s colour palette and pick the same or even a similar set of colours to use when practicing.
I knew going in that I wasn’t doing any of those things, and that the figure I painted wouldn’t look much like the ones that inspired me. The Craftworld Studios figures I admire burst with rich saturated colour. They typically have a strong focal point that is often achieved by intense value contrasts between the areas the viewer is meant to look at (light value, saturated colour), and the less important areas (darker value, less saturated colour). None of those choices really fit with the brief I had from my client for this figure, which was that it be desaturated in colour and overall dark and dirty looking. Either of the Craftworld Studio painters could probably paint something in their style that would fit that brief, but for me to try to paint in the that style for the first time while also inverting the main elements of it would be pretty much impossible.
Yet I suspect many painters unthinkingly make similar errors when they are trying to better understand and replicate the techniques they see in videos and articles. You want to paint something that looks like the work of a painter you admire. But you also want to get this mini of a different scale finished for next week’s game, and it needs to be in these specific colours. And also you don’t want to use the brushes/paints that your inspiration recommends. You can’t learn someone else’s style/approach/techniques and adapt them to your own in one painting attempt. You’ll be much more successful if you work on a few figures following what they do as closely as possible. Once you have a good understanding of what they’re doing, then work on adapting it into your usual workflow, tools, figure type, etc. If you’ve ever been in the position where you took an in-person class and had good results but then had less success on your own at home, it may be because of issues like this.
Assessing the Warm Shadows, Cool Highlights Experiment
A common colour use guideline is that if the colour of the light is warm, highlights will be warmer colours and shadows will be cooler colours, and vice versa. A full discussion of colour temperature in shadows/highlights is beyond the scope of this article. In brief, I think that guideline can be useful if you’re not comfortable with colour, and that it can help a figure appear more naturally part of an environment than when painters think of each colour area on the figure individually. I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule required for successful painting.
Quick note for those less conversant with colour theory terms. In the abstract, a cooler colour is one with more blue in it and a warmer colour is one with more orange in it. So red, yellow, orange are warmer colours and blue, green, purple are cooler colours. In practice, it’s all relative, and every colour has warm and cool versions. A green that has a bit more blue in it than yellow is a cooler green, one with more yellow in it is a warmer green. So if you were painting a green cloak with cool shadows and warm highlights, you could use a dark green that skews a little blue in the shadows, a standard green in the midtones, and mix yellow into your green for warm highlights.
Colour temperature is also tied into colour saturation and value. Less saturated versions of colours generally appear cooler than more saturated versions of colours. Red is a warm colour. If you add black to that red you make it darker in value, less saturated in colour, and cooler in temperature. If you mix white into the red you make it lighter in value, less saturated in colour, and… cooler in temperature. With red you can use orange/yellow/salmon in the highlights to keep them warmer, but in general this happens with all colours – the lightest versions and darkest versions of those colours are less saturated and cooler in temperature than the midtones.
I think the overall darkness I needed for this figure is a large part of where I ran into trouble trying to put warm shadows, cool highlights into effect. I didn’t use the lightest versions of any colours other than the steel grey on the weapons. You can see the pale and cool blue in the highlights on the NMM. On the rest of the figure, the majority of the lightest colours are midtones. The issue is particularly noticeable on the dark leather. The shadows are black or near black, and the midtones are pretty dark. If I add the light cool blue directly into the black to mix highlights, I’d get grey, like on the satchel. If I use any other colour in the highlights, even mixed with the light cool blue, it’s probably going to look warm in comparison to the cool shadows, and it’s not going to get light enough in value for the light cool blue to be noticeable like on the weapons.
I have always thought painting warm shadows/cool highlights would be tricky on any gaming scale figure because we usually have to use a wider value range than may be required for a piece of canvas art or a larger figure to make things look three dimensional. If I were to try it again I think it would need to be on a figure where I could use more colours in the middle of the value range.
I don’t think every area of the figure below displays warm shadows and cool highlights, but I would say this mermaid has more of the warm shadows effect than I was able to manage with Naus. You can see a warm glow to her skin, especially on the hand and upraised arm. There are hints of the warm colour in the shadows of the tail and the shells. I used the same magenta colour in the shadows of Naus as I did in most of the shadows of this mermaid. The pale highlights of the beer foam, sand, and skin are cooler than their shadow and midtone colours. There are some blued shadows on the sand and in her hair that don’t fit the warmer shadows pattern, but overall this mermaid figure where I wasn’t particularly aiming for a warm shadows effect does a better job of it than I did when I was trying to achieve that style on the super dark Naus.