How to Paint Bases like a Boss

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Recently Reaper Miniatures sent me samples of one of the base texture inserts in their Base Boss 2 Kickstarter, and I took it as an opportunity to explore the variety it is possible to achieve with painting base textures and simple base construction/conversion. I used only paint and a few simple materials to create the different types of landscapes pictured below.

Base boss combo

I converted and painted most of these bases on my Beyond the Kit stream show, so you can watch video one or video two if you’d like more in-depth information about how I converted and painted the bases.

I customized one of the bases by cutting a piece out of another and gluing it on top of a section to create some variation in the height of the base parts. I used pumice paste to blend the seam where the edges met into the rest of the base. The same material is very handy to use on bases constructed from layers of cork. If you have some rough spots on a base you sculpted, it works well to hide those, or add a bit of dirt and texture on top of something like a cobblestone or pavement texture. 

IMG 2689

For the unpainted base to the above right, I also used some modeling/moulding paste. This has the same kind of thick consistency as the sandy texture/pumice paste, but it’s smooth. It’s a great material to fill small assembly gaps in miniatures, like the gap you often have when you glue a miniature’s feet to a base. You can’t truly sculpt either of these materials, but you can shape them a little with a toothpick and smooth them out with a damp brush. The modeling paste is the white substance on the left of the base, and the pumice paste is the beige one on the right. I demonstrate these and several other basing products in my Additives, Mediums, and Texture Pastes video.

IMG 2690You don’t need to look for these specific products only! Most larger artist acrylic paint lines include various kinds of texture pastes that are similar. (The product on the left is by Vallejo. I think they have changed their packaging and some of the options for their base texture pastes since I purchased this jar, but they still sell something similar to this.)

I customized a few of the bases with other basing construction products that are useful to have in your arsenal. You can make your own natural texture bases with products like fine gravel/sand and rocks. Combine them with the pastes above for even more variety! You can find the gravel mixtures sold by some miniature accessories companies. You’ll find an even bigger selection if you explore the offerings from model train supply vendors, like Woodland Scenics. These are often sold in much larger quantities than miniature painters need unless you’re making terrain boards. If you have local friends, you could go in as a group to buy a variety of items you split up amongst the group. For small rocks and shells, also look at hobby products in stores like Michaels and Joann.

IMG 2691The small rocks are from the flower arranging section of a hobby store. The rock and sand mix on the left was purchased as a miniatures product. The gravel mix on the right is a mixture of Woodland Scenic products.

Another way to enhance bases is by adding additional items on top. I used dried flowers on the two bases on the below left. I was aiming for the look of seaweed on the centre one. I used flowers and grass tufts on Finn Greenwell’s base for another example. I added a twig to the base on the below right to create the look of a fallen log. Sapling tree roots are another interesting option. Next time you’re out in the garden, pull a few up and dry them for basing. Dried tea leaves make a nice forest floor scatter. Herbal teas can contain even more interesting plant materials. Many of these natural products appear a little differently if primed and painted than when added to a base at the end, so I recommend experimenting to maximize your options.

Base flowersYou can purchase tiny dried flowers like these most easily by looking for those sold to nail polish artists. Bring along a miniature to check scale if you want to shop the dried flower section of a hobby store. If you don’t want to bother looking for twigs and roots to dry out, Woodland Scenics sells stumps and deadfall, which is what I used on the base to the right.

Now let’s talk about what you can do just with paint! When I first looked at the base insert, it put me in mind of various types of possible landscapes – desert, swamp, flat areas of badlands, even the surface of the moon! I studied some pictures of various landscapes for ideas and colour possibilities. Referencing real life scenery can be very helpful to better base construction and painting!

Cole freeman HoPZEG5jDA4 unsplashThis swamp picture by Cole Freeman on Unsplash is an example of the kind of reference I looked at.

Soon after I received the base inserts I saw that some other painters had painted them as lava, so I gave that a try.

It was super easy and fun to paint. I just started with white, and moved up through yellow, orange, red, dark red, and dark brown. I used drybrushing on the raised texture areas of drying lava, and layering on the molten lava.

Lava 400

For several of the bases I primarily used the basic techniques of washes and drybrushing. I added some additional shading along some of the edges.

Base drybrushLunar surface, Martian surface, snow and ice.

On other bases, I used a lot of wet in wet painting. I used the properties of wet paint to get some of the swirls and whorls on the two swamp bases. First I applied a layer of undiluted paint fairly thickly. Then I heavily loaded a brush with a different value and/or hue of undiluted paint and gently touched it to the surface of the first layer of still-wet paint. I did this in a line along the water on the base with the log, and touched it to various points on the base with the flowers. I added a little drybrushing and extra shading as necessary to bring out details.

Traditional wetblending can also work well for painting many kinds of base textures. Textured surfaces like bases are ideal for wet blending experimentation and practice. The texture helps break up transition lines and oopses. If you’re frustrated with wetblending, grab some bases and give it a shot!

Base swampI painted the log. It’s a good rule of thumb to paint just above everything on a base. You can even add washes and/or drybrush the tips of static and clump grass to help add detail and unify it with your paint job. I thickly painted two coats of gloss sealer over areas painted as water to add to the illusion of the texture.

I think the one below ended up being my favourite. Which is kind of funny, since when I first started painting it, I was not optimistic about how the paint job would end up. I had used a very dark wash, and it looked like a dark brown lump. I went back in and lightened it up, and used it as an example on stream of methods you can use to add some colour variation to bases. Even subtle colour variation can add a lot to a base. Using a single colour to paint a base, then another single colour to wash the whole base, and then the same colours to drybrush the entire surface of a base makes everything very uniform, which can end up kind of dull to look at.

One way to add colour variation is to use a few different colours to lay down your initial paint layer. You can drop a little wet into wet like I did on the swamp bases, or paint patches of different colours next to each other and use the tip of your paint brush to blend the edges of them a little while the paint is still wet. Don’t be too worried if it looks kind of patchy at this stage. Use a wash of a darker values of one of your colours, and then drybrush up with lighter values of one of your colours. The wash and drybrushing help unify everything as well as bringing out the textures, but touches of the original colours peek through and add variation. Another way to add variation is by adding touches of another colour in a few places with a glaze/wash, or drybrushing/scrubbing in another colour in a few spots with slightly thinned paint. I think I used pretty much all of these techniques on this base, and you can see me put them to use in the video. (Go to minute 44:20.)

Dry earth wip finI started with an even darker version of the base on the left, and ended up with the base on the right. This base also ended up being a reminder to me of the necessity to persevere through an ugly phase and being willing to work on something and experiment to try to improve it!

If you’re interested in more information about the base inserts, they’re part of the Base Boss 2 Kickstarter that is ending soon. The focus of the Kickstarter is to fill in missing sizes of Reaper’s black plastic base offerings, but they are also testing the waters for interest in pre-sculpted base textures. I love pre-sculpted bases! They are a great option if you’re pressed for time, don’t have a lot of sculpting/base construction materials, or want a simple way to base a number of figures in a uniform texture. The bases I used on Baran Blacktree and Caerindra are resin texture bases I bought years ago.

The base topper textures in the Kickstarter include Lowlands/Lava, Sci-Fi, Skull, and Wood Plank. You can also see the cool ways several other painters painted the same insert I worked on the Kickstarter page. The base we received is number 75101 on the Lowlands chart. 

The Reaper texture bases are two part. One part is an insert that is designed to fit into a lipped black plastic base, as you can see in the photo below.

IMG 2517 cu

This is handy for a couple of reasons. One is that you can do all the messy stuff with the insert, and then just glue it into a clean black base that you don’t need to paint. In playing with the bases I was sent, I discovered that because the topper is thinner than an all-in-one base, it’s easy to cut it up to customize it. I used clippers and a hobby knife to cut up and shave the bases.

IMG 2686In the photo above, I cut a section out from one of the base toppers and glued it on top of another one to add additional height to a section. Then I used the pumice texture paste to blend the join, as I shown in a picture near the beginning of the article.

Drybrush Brush Tests #1: Billowing Cloak Folds

When I started my Beyond the Kit stream on the Reaper Miniatures Twitch channel, one of my goals was to encourage a spirit of exploration both in my viewers, and in myself. The Core Skills learn to paint kit that I wrote for Reaper includes the technique of drybrushing, so I thought experimenting with it would be a great way to literally explore beyond the kit. The first experimental question that came to mind is: Does the brush you use make much of a difference to your drybrushing result?

Malcolm groupSix figures and a bunch of brushes stepped into the ring.

I designed an experiment to see whether different types and sizes of brushes might give different kinds of results on different types of sculpted surfaces.  Drybrushing is generally considered a good technique for strongly textured surfaces like rocks, chainmail, wood grain, and so on. It can be more frustrating to use on smoother surfaces like cloth and skin since the results often look uneven, streaky, or chalky.

I’m sharing the results of my experiments in case they’re useful to others, but also to encourage you to explore and experiment with your own hobby materials. Experiment with brushes you already have but haven’t used for drybrushing before you buy new ones. Also, consider how the results might differ if you use different application techniques or approaches to lighting.

The other main technique that I cover in the Cores Skills kit is washes. I’ve conducted a couple of previous tests with washes, mainly focused on the effect of combining different wash colours with a more or less saturated base colour. (Wash test one, wash test two.)

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A Note on the Video(s)

I had hoped to be able to link to the YouTube upload of the video so you could see the brushes in action and how I used them. Unfortunately the save files of the videos for both the first and second experiments had issues and cannot be uploaded. The video for the third experiment is available. This experiment was on a textured stone wall, so it’s a different kind of surface, but you can at least see the tools and my approach to using them.

If you’d like to see me make a new video testing drybrushing on smooth cloth, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to put one together!

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The Seed of the Experiment

For a while I’d been hearing that soft makeup brushes were a great tool for drybrushing. A year or so ago I got curious enough to buy a cheap set off Amazon. I didn’t have time to explore them in depth, but I was encouraged by my initial use. The larger, softer brushes seemed both easier and quicker to use than the smaller, stiffer flats typically recommended for drybrushing miniatures. I did a quick test with my favourite blending test subject, Anirion the elf wizard. The version on the left was painted with smaller flat brushes, and the figure on the right was painted with a huge fluffy makeup brush.

Ani flat vs makeup backLeft side: small flat brush, right side huge fluffy makeup brush. Brush 4 in the list below.

The right side isn’t wildly smoother, but it has a more even distribution of colours, is slightly smoother, and was much quicker to paint. It got me thinking that there is something to this makeup brush idea!

Ani flat vs makeup frontLeft side: small flat brush, right side huge fluffy makeup brush. Brush 4 in the list below.

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Setting Up the Experiment

When I decided to put together some drybrushing test episodes for Beyond the Kit, I wanted to include as broad a range of brushes as possible. Between my general art interests and my habit of collecting a lot of art supplies, I have a lot of brushes! My curiosity also drove me to purchase a new style of brush that is advertised as being specifically designed for drybrushing miniatures.

I selected the cloak of Malcolm Lightbringer as my first test surface. This cloak is a mix of flatter and rounded surfaces, with some well-defined recesses and peaks. I also already have smoothly blended versions of it to compare the drybrushing versions against. After the mixups during my previous wash experiments, I labeled both the figures and their holders so it would be easy to identify which figure was painted with which tool during and after the experiment!

Malcolm group holderThe test figures right after completing the experiment.

I chose to use the same paint colours I had used on my smooth blended copies of Malcolm for easier comparison. I’ll discuss more specifics of the paint mixes in the process section below. I used Reaper MSP paints. These are a fairly fluid consistency paint. Paint viscosity would be another variable to experiment with for drybrushing. Even with these more fluid paints I might find I need to add a little water or medium to pale opaque colours that have a lot of white in them to help avoid a chalky look, or if I’m using older paints that have thickened up a little.

I used a wet palette for this painting session. I use a dry palette in the second experiment.

Since this was a test of drybrushing, I did not use any washes. I basecoated the figures with the darkest shadow colour. I do not think the shapes of this cloak are very amenable to an attractive result when adding shadows with uncontrolled washes.

I used the same general process and approach with each of the figures and brushes. I found that it was optimal to use a larger brush for the main area of the cloak, and a smaller brush on the smaller folds on the hood and shoulders. However, in some cases I had only one size of a type of brush, or I had to use a different shape for a smaller brush, so the comparison of the effect on the hoods isn’t as accurate as the comparisons between the results on the main cloak area.

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My Painting Process

I think a lot of us view drybrushing as a simple technique without much variation. I think there are definitely some variations to how you can load, unload, and in particular, apply the paint, so I want to be clear about the approach that I used in testing the various brushes on these figures. (I have written a more hands-on how to for washes and drybrushing in the Core Skills learn to paint kit if you’re new to these techniques.)

Proof of Concept Approach
With these tests I was aiming to get an idea of how the brushes work and the kind of results that might be possible with them. I was not trying to paint each figure to the best possible standard I could. I think of this as a proof of concept approach, and often use it to do tests for colours or textures I want to paint before applying them to a miniature I plan to spend a lot of time on. With this approach I’m trying to get an idea of the best result that might be possible, not actually achieve that result. At the end of the general experiments I may take a few of the most successful brushes and paint a few miniatures with more care to see what quality of a result I can achieve.

Paint Loading and Unloading
Dipping the brush into paint is referred to as loading the brush. My aim was to load paint on the bottom third of the bristles, and avoid getting paint near the ferrule. For unloading, I wiped and tamped the brush on a piece of textured paper towel. I aimed for a paint load level where the paint was visible on the tops of the paper towel texture but not filling the depressions of the paper towel texture. I also checked to see that it didn’t seem too streaky when I did test strokes. However, I tried not want to wipe the brush on the paper towel to the point where the paint would be super dry, chalky, or dusty. 

Brush Handling
I applied light pressure to the brush in a sweeping or dusting motion. I did not vigorously scrub it around the surface with strong pressure. I tend to use this approach even when drybrushing sculpted textures. It’s gentler on the brush and is less likely to result in a chalky, dusty look. It also allows me to make some painterly decisions instead of leaving everything up to the sculpt and the brush.

Paint Mixes
I painted four lighter layers of paint on top of my darkest shadow basecoat. I mixed these in advance for this test, but did on the fly mixing for my second test. If necessary, I applied multiple coats of a single colour mix to build up the colour intensity. Using more intermediary mix steps between the darkest and lightest colour values results in smoother transitions with drybrushing, just as it does with layering. And just as with layering, applying multiple layers of a mix that is more transparent can also help create smoother transitions.

Paint Application
I applied paint with intention by changing the angle of brush and/or miniature as necessary. I tried to apply the first couple of paint layers further down the slopes of the cloak folds, and restrict the lightest value layers to small areas on the peaks of the folds. I also applied the values of paint with the idea of simulating light shining from above. Part of my assessment for how well each type of brush worked include how much it allowed me to control the application of the paint.

And now on to the actual test result pictures!

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The Test Results

For each test figure I’m including a photo of the figure, and of the brushes used to paint it. Since there are so many different brands of brushes and differing availability of brands depending on location, I’m including a photograph of the brushes used on each figure next to a ruler that includes both metric and imperial units. This should allow you to see the general size and shape of the brush you might be interested in rather than trying to match my exact brand choices.

I don’t think any of these brushes would allow you to achieve a flawless smooth blend without as much time and effort as layering or wet blending, regardless of how many paint mix layers you use. However, I do think that some of them would allow you to get a more attractive result than standard drybrushing with just a little more time and attention.

1. Classic Synthetic Flats

I believe these are the most common choice for miniature painters when drybrushing. Used as I described in the Painting Process section, they performed much better than I had expected! However, size really matters. You need a larger brush to get a smoother effect on large curved folds of cloth like on a cloak or robe. The smaller size worked better for the finer folds of the hood. I found that I needed to reload the paint on these brushes more often compared to some of the others. Likewise, paint application took more time with these than most of the others.

1 flat classic

The brush on the left is a size 4 Reaper Miniatures flat. This is a larger brush than the one included in the Core Skills learn to paint kit. I know less experienced painters are often nervous about using larger brushes, but I encourage you to give them a try! If I spent a little more time and effort on applying the paint to build up the colour and depict the light, I think I could get a pretty good looking result. I believe synthetic filberts would achieve similar results, possibly with a little more control. Filbert brushes are also called cat’s tongue brushes. They’re similar to a flat but rounded off on the corners.

Malcolm crop 1

2. Large Soft Bristle Flat

Since the softness of the bristles seems to be part of what makes the cosmetic brushes work well, I had some hopes for this one. It’s a type of brush that is available at a low cost in craft stores. (In the United States at least.) Sadly it did not perform well at all. I think it was either too big or too flat. I did not have a comparable smaller brush to use on the hood, so everything was painted with this one brush.

2 flat large

I did not enjoy the experience of painting with this brush, and I also don’t think the results are very attractive. It was challenging to aim the brush exactly where I wanted. I could see streaks where the bristles touched down to paint a layer on the sides of the folds. The overall result is streaky and stark. I think part of the issue is the size of the brush, but given the streaky issue, I’m not sure a smaller version of this brush would give an attractive result.

Malcolm crop 2

3. Art Store Oval Mop (Inexpensive Brand)

I purchased these brushes from my local art store. Watercolour mop brushes are usually larger and more expensive. They’re also most commonly round, where these are a bit more like filberts in shape. The hair on these brushes is very soft, which is part of what I think makes the makeup brushes work well. This hair may be too soft, however. It has no spring, so the shape quickly deforms, and you can’t use the edge of the brush to get in smaller sections as you can with a stiffer brush. It’s also not stiff enough to push paint into areas when that is necessary for successful application. So although they seemed similar to the makeup brushes, they don’t really work the same way at all. Watercolour detail brushes are a great choice for miniature painters because they work well with our more fluid acrylic paints for general painting. However, watercolour mop brushes are designed to apply watery washes of paint, so I guess it’s not too surprising that these didn’t work well for drybrushing.

3 oval mop

I think even the larger of the brushes was too small and maybe too short. They were very frustrating to use, even more so than brush 2. It might be possible to spend time and effort to get a bit more of an attractive result, but if the aim of drybrushing is to make painting easier and/or quicker, this brush is no help at all. I have used this for small areas of sculpted texture with some success, but we’ll see how it does in comparison to others vis a vis texture in future drybrushing tests.

Malcolm crop 3

4. Makeup Brush: Pointed Round

The makeup brushes I’m using came as part of a large inexpensive set I purchased from Amazon. In the US, you can look for inexpensive makeup brushes in big box stores and pharmacies. ELF is a common brand, and Walgreens in house brand has a variety of options. Cosmetic stores like Sephora and Ulta will have a much larger selection, but the brushes seem to be much more expensive. I purchased this set of brushes prior to doing these tests. The large brushes work surprisingly well even for gaming size miniatures, but if I were buying another set or looking for individual brushes, I’d probably prefer to have brushes that are a half inch diameter rather than these full inch diameter ones. The larger brushes would be great for working on vehicles and terrain, however. 

4 makeup pointed roundThese tests make me I wish I had a brush in between the size of these two.

The larger brushes have very soft, dense hair, which I think is what makes them work so well for drybrushing. The shorter hair and smaller diameter on the smaller brushes makes them feel firmer, closer to how a standard flat brush like Test Brush 1 feels. I think a half inch diameter version would be the sweet spot between control and softness/density. I wasn’t able to get down into the lower areas of the folds for the first few layers as well as I would have liked. The shape of the pointed round worked pretty well for the larger folds. I would probably switch to the smaller brush for the lightest highlight layers to have better control in applying paint to smaller areas. The bristles cut into a point shape style brush did not work well for the smaller, sharper folds on the hood. Even when I switched to the smaller brush it was hard to keep paint out of the crevices of the hood folds.

Malcolm crop 4

5. Makeup Brushes: Flattop and Filbert

When I had talked about makeup brushes on stream, someone mentioned that the ones with flattops work well. I checked my Amazon set and discovered I did have a couple of those in the larger size. I did not have anything comparable in a smaller size, so I used smaller filberts for the hood. The comments on the Test Brush 4 section all apply to these brushes as well – the larger ones are soft and dense, the smaller ones are a little closer to a standard flat in terms of being stiffer due to the crimp of the ferrule and the shorter length of the hair. And as with the above comment, I’d love to have one about a half inch in diameter rather than these larger one inch diameter ones.

5 makeup flattop filbert

For the Malcolm figure below, I only used the straight flattop brush directly adjacent to the ruler on the right. I tried the slanted flattop in my second drybrushing test. I was impressed with how these worked. They filled in some of the shadow areas a little more softly so that there is a less stark transition between the deepest shadows and the first few values of highlights. On the downside, the size of the brush and the flatness made it hard to control, so it was much more difficult to confine the lightest values of highlights to small areas on the peaks of the folds. It was difficult to keep the large brush away from the hood, so the painting on the hood isn’t a great test of these filberts really.

It might work well to start with the flattop and then transition to the pointed round makeup brushes to get a combination of the softer starting point and more control for the later layers.

Malcolm crop 5

6. Dome Shape Drybrush

The last brush type I tried is a new type of brush that is marketed as being specifically made for drybrushing. The vast majority of tools and techniques in our hobby are repurposed and often repackaged from other types of arts or crafts. I have seen dome brushes with longer brush heads made both with this goat hair and also other types of hair sold for both makeup and fine art purposes that pre-date this brush. The first place I saw this shorter bristle style of brush was from Artis Opus. Their brushes look lovely to work with, but they are fairly expensive, and I was reluctant to spend that much money for conducting experiments in a technique I probably won’t use that much in every day painting. The Army Painter has come out with a similar looking brush for a lower price, so I decided to give those a try. I suspect that the Artis Opus version has more densely packed and higher quality hair so it’s likely to last longer and perform perhaps a little better.

NOTE: Both brands of these brushes use goat hair. If you’d prefer a synthetic alternative I would look for dome makeup brushes. Less expensive ones are more likely to be made of synthetic hair.

6 dome drybrush

The brushes pictured are from the Army Painter Masterclass set. Artis Opus has two additional sizes – one even smaller, and one even larger. One interesting thing about these brushes is that you can apply paint with them in two different ways. You can use a sweeping/dusting motion as with the other brushes I tested, or you can use them in a dabbing, stippling motion. The effect you get with each is slightly different. 

When painting the figure below, I wiped off a little less of the paint for the initial layers to try to build up some colour in some of the lower areas as the flattop brush 5 had done. I used the largest brush for the main area of the cloak, but I think the medium size might have been a better choice to have a little more control in some sections. I was pleasantly surprised by these brushes. They were easy and enjoyable to use. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the dome shape makes it easier to control where you are applying the paint, and also easier to avoid getting paint in areas where you do not want it to go. I suspect there are a few nuances to learning to use these for optimum result, but overall they’re pretty easy and low stress to use.

Malcolm crop 6

A little while after the tests I had occasion to paint something I wanted to look a little speckled – a Gingerbread Knight. I used these brushes for the bulk of the painting on the cookie area.

Gb front

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Here’s another picture of all the figures together, lined up in order from 1 through 6.

Malcolm group crop

Coming soon – the results for tests two and three!

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Patron Spotlight: Ward Shrake

This blog is made possible by the generous support of my patrons, and I want to share more about them and their work with the world!

Ward’s primary hobby work has been model kits, and he has years of kit bashing and scratch sculpting experience, particularly in the genre of vehicles. But his hobby interests range far beyond that. He has dipped toes into many facets of modelling, and sees interesting areas of overlap of which those of us who specialize more intently might be unaware. He also loves sharing his knowledge and experience and has had numerous articles published in modelling magazines.

Ward SFFM Horror and Monster Modeller Special Issue by Ward Shrake Eddie from Aces High 06 jpg a3c1d9b042444e5fd0b7db4a5bbba9bfEddie from Aces High. You can read more about how Ward painted this figure and fitted it with lights.

The following are Ward’s words, accompanied by some photographs of his work and links to where you can see more and read more about how he made his creations. Thank you Ward for the support, and for sharing your thoughts!

Hello, fellow blog readers, and fans of figure modeling!

Like many of you, I enjoy reading about various aspects of this craft or hobby — the art, the science, and/or the philosophy and psychology of the figure modeling world.

I have to admit, though, that it’s not all I ever read about. I am a life-long “book-a-holic”. I have spent many years happily reading about many areas within the overall scale modeling world. Figure sculpting, painting, and vignette or diorama creation always interested and even fascinated me, as a reader. But I mostly “stopped at reading,” with figure models. It wasn’t just figure modeling that I read about, but “did not do”. There are many areas within the scale modeling hobby that I mainly “read about” but wasn’t actively involved in, in a hands-on kind of way. There’s only so much time, money, and energy available to anyone. If you are easily inspired by art, when you see examples of it, you’re simply not going to be able to “do” everything you want to. Being a “multi-potential-ite” is fun, sometimes: but it’s hard to force myself to focus on only doing one specific “new” thing!

Ward article by ward shrake sffm vol 17 01 remodelling max sized lYou can see more of this piece and others Ward has done on his Putty & Paint page.

I knew about gaming minis since the days when companies like Grenadier and Ral Partha were creating and selling lots of awesome little sculptures. I still have a few minis I purchased in the 1980s; and I’ve added a lot more minis to my collection since then. I haven’t painted them, mind you: I mainly like marveling at the sculpting work! (It took me far too long to realize I was attracted to the idea of being able to do figure sculpting work, myself!) In my local hobby shop, in the 1970s, I saw Aurora’s “Monster Scenes” and back then, I wanted all I could get. Which was none of them: I had a parent who thought all such things were evil. (Any of those I brought home, would have been trashed in hours, and I would have never heard the end of it.) I finally got most of those kits, when they were re-issued, about ten years ago. But to be honest, as a kid I was more sorry that I didn’t have more of that company’s “Prehistoric Scenes” kits: those kits were majorly cool!

Ward steampunk modeller volume 3 hornethopter 04 article by ward shrake sized lWard’s diorama with a Steampunk Hornethopter.

As a youth, of elementary and junior high school age, I built (but at first, rarely painted) injection molded plastic kits of any subject that was within my price range, as long as it had “cool shapes and colors”. World War One bi-planes and tri-planes were favorites of mine back then. By the time I was about 16, I had built 200 plastic model kits. I became more interested in figure models, in various scales, in the early to mid-1980s: but I became distracted by other hobbies, including computers and auto mechanics.

Ward 234397760 132348599055529 2250407868523966301 nSome of the fun details inside the Steampunk Hornethopter. You can see additional photos and read more about the construction of the piece.

I am sort of “circling back” to figure modeling now. It wasn’t planned. What happened was that, several years ago, a publication I used to love writing for (“Sci-Fi & Fantasy Modeller” from England) decided to stop publishing. I had done fifteen articles with them, as a writer and builder, over time. That publication was very “in-depth” with most of their articles, and I had loved being able to share what I knew, with others. When that writing gig stopped being an available option to me, it was devastating to me, hobby-wise. I had very much wanted to simply keep doing what I had done with them: but it was not possible, any more. So I sort of “had to find another hobby,” in a way. It took me several years to begin to visualize what that might be.

Ward steampunk modeller volume 2 hpls fish submarine 02 article by ward shrake sized lWard’s Steampunk Fish Submarine diorama.

I had learned that I truly loved to learn! I also knew from writing about my projects, that I loved to be able to share things like what people in one hobby were doing, to folks in a seemingly unrelated hobby. (“Cross Pollination”.) But opportunities for doing that seemed quite slim, at least in “printed publications”. I wanted to explain techniques, but most publications only wanted to show completed projects.

Ward steampunk modeller volume 2 hpls fish submarine 01 article by ward shrake sized lA closer view of the Steampunk Fish Submarine itself.

So I mainly focused on my love of reading and of learning, after that writing gig ended. When I realized, with a bit of a shock, that what I had been doing with SF&FM was sort of like “sculpting vehicular models,” I realized I already had a little sculpting knowledge (of a kind). I signed up for the (free!) Shiflett Brothers’ Sculpting Forums, on Facebook. That fascinated me! It put me deep into “artistic overload”! Seeing so many talented sculptor’s art works, so often, made me want to study harder about the “how to” of sculpting various figures. At least for me, it is nearly impossible to see that many inspiring sculptures, without eventually having a strong urge to want to learn more about “adding cool colors” to the “cool shapes” I was seeing.

Ward steampunk modeller volume 2 hpls fish submarine 03 article by ward shrake sized lSome of the details inside the Steampunk Fish Submarine. You can view additional photos and read more information about how this was built.

Due to how much time I had spent studying it, and doing it, I am more comfortable with vehicular scale modeling than with figure modeling; and “building” versus “painting”. But I love to learn! So now I am studying what “real painters” are doing, in places like this (and others). I’m buying up more tools and equipment and supplies, related to working on scale figures. And I’m enjoying being on this journey!

Ward has some additional project folders in this gallery where you can see more of his great work.

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Figures and Paints in this Article

Anirion the Elf Wizard is available in Bones USA plastic, clear plastic, and metal.
Malcolm, Lightbringer is available in Bones plastic and metal.
Paints: 9076 Deep Ocean, 9077 Marine Teal, 9078 Surf Aqua
The Gingerbread Knight will be available for individual sale in January 2022 from the Reaper website.
I have the impression that the kits Ward worked on are no longer available, but if you have questions about any of those ask in the comments and I’m sure he’ll be happy to answer.

Saturated Wash Colour Experiments

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Recently I have been experimenting with washes. With my skeleton bone wash experiment, I learned that different colours of washes could be used to quickly add a little individuality to batch painted figures without too much extra time or effort. The experiments also suggested that variations in shade colour choices could help tie colour/light schemes together, or be a useful tool to convey different effects or moods, if some of the other colours were adjusted a little.  

Btk1 figsThe skeleton bone has different wash colours, but the same basecoat and drybrush colours. The bases were painted Naga Green in preparation for today’s experiment.

In the case of the skeletons, I applied washes of somewhat saturated colour over an fairly neutral ivory basecoat colour. I didn’t have time in the initial wash testing stream, but I also wanted to study the effect of applying saturated colours on top of a saturated colour. In a follow-up stream, I used the bases of the skeletons for this experiment. Each was painted with the steps outlined in the Core Skills Learn to Paint Kit, other than changing up the wash colours. The starting basecoat for the bases was Naga Green.

You can also watch the video version of this if you prefer.

I picked out a selection of colours to use for the washes. Since the Naga Green was a darker starting point than the Desert Sand of the skeleton bone, I chose darker value colours for the washes than I had on the skeletons. Regardless of colour, the washes still need to function as shades that shadow the recesses.

Base wash paintsThe paint colours used for the washes.

As with the skeletons, I had some ideas of how these paints might or might not work. Some of my ideas are based on years of study and practice with colour. I know colour is a confusing and scary prospect for a lot of people, but I think that some elements of colour use are areas of art well suited to more left brain thinking painters. There is colour theory you can study, and practical experiments like this that you can perform. You don’t have to have an innate sense of colour to be able to paint with it successfully! You just have to accept that you might not be successful with colour every time. (And I don’t think those with a more innate sense of colour use get it right every time, either!)

Pine Green: This seemed like a pretty safe wash choice. Similar green to the basecoat, just darker. Not too exciting, but very unlikely to ‘fail’.

Rotting Wood: I thought this less saturated green would dull down the base a little, and fit the atmosphere of a skeletal figure better.

Ritterlich Blue: Blue can be a very effective shade colour for more saturated greens, so I expected this to work as a shade, but I wasn’t sure if it would look like convincing grass.

Coal Black: With its touches of teal, I thought this would strike a nice balance between creating good contrast and adding a little colour variation.

Gothic Crimson: Green and red are contrasting colours. (Magenta/pink is considered red in colour theory.) Mixed together they create brown. I expected this to dull down the green to the point where it might not even look grasslike anymore.

Styx Purple:  Purples work well to shade a surprising number of colours, including green, so I thought this could be interesting.

Mahogany Brown: Mahogany is a red-brown. Since it’s less saturated than the Gothic Crimson, I thought it would work better as a wash colour for green, dulling it down a little but not turning everything brown.

Basic Dirt: This is more of a true brown. I expected it to dull the bright green to more of a muddy grass type of look.

Base wash paletteThe washes (and drybrushing colours) on my palette at the end of the stream.

I had three additional skeletons at hand, but these were posed on rock bases. They are sculpts that used to be used as a substitute for the other skeleton figure in the Learn to Paint kits when it ran out of stock. Now the kit skeletons are manufactured at the Reaper facility using the Bones USA material and should always be in stock for kits, but those of you who bought kits in the past may have received this different Skeleton Warrior Archer instead. I painted the rocks as described in the Core Skills kit, starting with a basecoat of Mountain Stone. Then I used these washes:

Goggler Green + touch of Pure Black (Rock): I thought this might create a moss or algae covered rock look.

Coal Black (Rock): I thought this would make a nice shade colour for cool grey rock.

Ritterlich Blue (Rock): While touches of blue might simulate some kinds of coloured rock, I thought a blue this saturated would look ridiculous.

Below you can see pictures of what the bases look like after completing the drybrushing steps. The drybrushing steps started with the original Naga Green, and then a couple of steps of lighter greens achieved by mixing in Candlelight Yellow, as outlined in the Core Skills learn to paint kit. Below each figure is a swatch of the wash colour I painted on its base during the stream. The figure on the far left of each picture is painted according to the kit directions, using thinned Pure Black for a wash, and is there for comparison purposes. The stone bases were highlighted with mixes of Mountain Stone and Dragon White.

Base washes1 cr

Base washes2 cr

Drybrushing with the original green (or grey for the stone) altered the appearance of the washes. Brushing on additional highlights of the green mixed with yellow further altered the appearance by introducing touches of a third colour, yellow. The difference in impression between the green with just a wash and the green with both wash and drybrush steps complete was significant, as you’ll see in an example photo below. These are my impressions of each base to compare with my guesses for what might happen with the colours.

Pine Green: The general effect is harmonious, though possibly a bit bland. The green I chose wasn’t quite dark enough and/or I added too much water. The crevices need a bit more shading.

Rotting Wood: The effect is more natural than the black wash, and the slightly duller green fits the skeleton figure better.

Ritterlich Blue: This is a gorgeous shade on a saturated green highlighted with a yellow-green. This colour mix might not be well-suited for simulating grass, but I definitely want to keep it in mind for other types of materials like cloth.

Coal Black: I mixed too much water into this wash, so it didn’t effectively shade the recesses and provide enough contrast. I think the colour works well, I just would have applied a second coat if I’d been painting in my own time.

Gothic Crimson: At the wash stage this looked very jarring, but once the drybrushing was added what remained was a brown created by the visual mixing of the green and magenta. I think it actually ended up working a little more harmoniously than the red-brown Mahogany Brown version.

Styx Purple:  I chose a somewhat blue-violet purple. It was interesting to see how much more apparent the pink/red component of the purple became when the wash was applied over the green. The purple gives a really nice sense of depth to the crevices, but I think it needs to be just a little darker to bring out the sculpted details well.

Mahogany Brown: The contrast between the complementary colours was very jarring after just the wash phase. In the end it is less contrasted than it initially looked, but the red and green do fight a little. 

Basic Dirt: This gave a look of ground made up of mixed dirt patches and grass patches that fit well with the skeleton figure. The effect is less jarring than with the Mahogany Brown. 

The wash on the rock bases wasn’t dry enough to paint over by the end of the stream, but I finished them up later.

Goggler Green + touch of Pure Black (Rock): The colour works well as a shade, but if I really want to convey the idea of algae or moss, I would need to apply some additional drybrushing or glazing in green colours.

Coal Black (Rock): I used a less transparent mix of this for the wash on the stone, and it works well for shading the recesses and creating a cooler grey look.

Ritterlich Blue (Rock): This has great contrast and ended up being my favourite of the stone versions! I might use a slightly duller and darker blue for stone going forward though.

Since I performed this experiment on a live stream, I don’t have any WIP pictures. I did add a wash to a single base so you could compare the difference between the wash stage and the final result stage though. In the picture below the base on the left and the one in the centre were both painted with the Mahogany Brown wash. The base on the right was painted with the Gothic Crimson wash. The centre and left figures demonstrate the differences between wash stage and final stage on the skeleton bone. Both were painted with a wash of Naga Green.

Base wash demo cr

I think these experiments make a good argument for breaking away from using just black or a darker version of a colour to do a wash. You can get additional depth and richness or add little touches of variation by using more coloured washes.

I was somewhat surprised that the majority of these experiments worked pretty well. I had previously had an experience of combining a more saturated wash with less saturated base and drybrush colours where I did not like the end result at all. Perhaps that might partly be related to the texture and the type of figure? If nothing else, that experience demonstrates that even people who well practiced at doing something can have instances where things don’t turn out as expected. Results we don’t love happen regardless of our skills. They aren’t a reason to beat ourselves up or get down on our hobby pastimes, and often we can learn from them. 

Products Mentioned in this Post

Core Skills Learn to Paint Kit
Skeleton Archer in plastic or in metal
Skeleton Warrior Archer in plastic
Mountain Stone
Pure Black
Naga Green
Pine Green
Rotting Wood
Ritterlich Blue
Styx Purple
Mahogany Brown
Basic Dirt
Gothic Crimson was a special release colour at a convention.
Coal Black has been seasonally available in the Holiday paint set, which is currently on sale for people who don’t like to order paint in the colder weather. This set is being retired after this run sells out. Below is a swatch of all the Holiday paints.

Swatch rm holiday2020The Holiday paint set is on sale right now. Sparkling Snow is a metallic colour.

Go Beyond the Kit

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Beyond the Kit is the name of my new video live stream show on the Reaper Miniatures Twitch channel! Episodes will also be archived on Reaper Miniature’s YouTube channel. Beyond the Kit airs live on Mondays from 2-4pm Central time starting on May 24, 2021. Episodes are available for Twitch on demand viewing for two weeks, and are uploaded to YouTube a few days after airing.

Paint case openCome with me beyond the kit!

Part of the inspiration for the name is that I am the author of the current generation of Reaper Learn to Paint kits. I crammed as much information as I could fit into the kits, but there wasn’t a lot of space to talk about how to take the techniques or paint recipes from a kit or a class and make them your own. That’s the thread that will weave through many of my episode topics – how do you go beyond the kit, or the video tutorial, or beyond the tips you’ve read online and start learn how to figure things out for yourself?

The medium of video allows me to explore some of these ideas in a hands-on visual way. I’m also excited about the immediacy of exchanging ideas with viewers via the chat. I hope you’ll check out the show and see if it’s something you might enjoy. My interests in miniature painting and teaching are pretty diverse, so I expect episodes will encompass a wide range of topics of interest to different levels and types of painters.

Please be assured that there is still a lot in this vein that I want to continue to discuss right here with words, and pictures, and ideas. In fact, let’s talk about some ideas for how to move beyond the kit right now, with a few examples from my own painting experience. I’m also working on a more detailed article with an example of how to ask yourself the right questions and perform tests to get the information you need to improve your painting experience.

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I think many of us approach miniature painting in a similar way to something like cooking. We start with some basic instruction and simple recipes, like one of the Learn to Paint kits or similar instructions from a friend/video. As time goes by, we see something that looks tasty, and we try to get our hands on the recipe to try it ourselves. What technique did the artist use? What exact paint colours and brushes? We gather up as much of that information as we can, and try to replicate their results. We memorize the recipes we like the most or find the easiest to make, perhaps customizing a little by swapping an ingredient or two.

There’s another level of cooking. The kind that generates new recipes or reverse engineers how to make your favourite restaurant dishes. These cooks learn general principles of how best to prepare various ingredients, and which flavour profiles pair together nicely. They have a foundation of knowledge to help guide their efforts, but they still have to experiment to successfully recombine ingredients together and create new recipes. Undoubtedly a lot of those experiments fail. Some spectacularly, some in more mundane ways. Those that seem promising require iteration and refinement to perfect into a successful replicable recipe.

Miniature painting is kind of like cooking in this regard. Many painters look online for techniques to paint wood or marble or whatever other texture. They look for colour recipes for blond hair or red cloth. They ask for advice about the best colour to use to wash or shade this particular paint. You can learn a lot this way! I’ve looked for a lot of information like this, and I try to repay the miniature community’s knowledge bank by sharing my colour choices and other information. If you’re happy painting in this manner, that is great! That is absolutely how I cook. (At best!)

However, if you sometimes get frustrated with this approach to painting, you might want to pursuing learning a little more in depth and shifting how you think about your tools and techniques.You might want to learn more about the properties of colours and principles of colour theory instead of following the recipe of other people’s colour schemes. You might want to try to figure out for yourself how to simulate a particular kind of fabric or plastic, or explore effects from the real world or other art forms. Maybe you just want feel more confident making your own decisions about what colours to use for washes. In ways small or large, there may be ways that you want to be figure things out for yourself.

Velvet research crA few years ago I wanted to paint the texture of crushed velvet on a figure. I began by studying reference pictures of the fabric both worn as clothing and plain fabric swatches. I came up with a paint approach I thought would work, and tested it on a figure.

I think the most important step you can take to move beyond the kit is simple. And free! But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. That step is to reconsider your attitudes about failure and success. It’s also very helpful to try to find ways to reframe the questions you ask and figure out how to explore those answers on your own.

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Idea #1: You Can’t Out-Study Failure or Risk

Most of us spent a lot of time in school learning facts and knowledge. We may have a very study-based approach to learning. Our experience has been that if you read/watch/think about the subject enough, you’ll memorize enough facts and internalize enough ideas  to be able to pass a test, or write a great essay.

That is not how skills with a physical component work. You can’t watch videos or read articles and learn how to throw a perfect pass or handle the steering wheel of a car. You have to get out on the field or in the driver’s seat and practice. The same thing is true of miniature painting. Studying what other artists do can be very helpful, but you will make a lot more progress with a little study and a lot of painting than you will with a lot of study and a little painting.

Velvet painted crThe next step in my crushed velvet experiment was to try it on my intended figure. My first attempt is on the left, and represents several hours of applying paint. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t look quite right. I had to compare to my references and identify what was different, and then think about how to better represent what I saw in my painted version. My revised attempt is on the right. The fact that I am an experienced painter who knows how to paint textures was helpful, but it did not mean instant automatic success.

You will never be able to watch enough videos or read enough articles to ensure that the first time you try something you will get a fantastic result and know how to do that thing well every future time you try. It just doesn’t work that way. Beating yourself up for getting a poor result when you do try something new or try to push the boundaries of something you know how to do does not make you more likely to succeed in the future. It only makes you less likely to want to even try.

The way to learn a skill like miniature painting is to sit down and do it. Sometimes you’ll get great results, sometimes not so great. Success is not the outcome. Success is doing the work and trying to learn from your experiences.

I have written some additional tips about embracing failure, and also about unhelpful attitudes to try to root out of your hobby.

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Idea #2: Think Like a Scientist

Although I said you can’t study your way out of failure, be assured that the left-brain analytical skills you may have learned in school are not useless to miniature painting! They can be immensely helpful. Often you just need to reframe the way you’re thinking about things. That can involve figuring out the right questions to ask, and/or conducting tests and experiments.

One way to think like a scientist is recalibrate your mindset about trying new things and experimenting. Experiments are not pop quizzes where you pass or you fail. The results of experiments may be surprising. Often they may not be the desired results. But the nature of the results doesn’t make the scientist a success or a failure.

Whether it was a wild success or a dismal failure, the results of an experiment are always useful information. If you study the results and what you did, you will get ideas for ways to adjust the experiment and try again. Sometimes the failures can be more instructive than the successes. Sometimes the failures can even give you ideas for how to do something completely different than what you were trying to do! Viagra was initially developed as a drug to treat angina. The man who invented acrylic paint was trying to invent a glue. Your attempt to try a certain technique for smoother blending may not work well for you for that function, but maybe those streaky results would be a great technique to use apply to weathering and mud stains! 

IMG 0915Left: Some of the colour tests I did to choose the paint colours for the Bones 5 Learn to Paint kit.
Right: Colour tests made during painting of the Bones 5 Learn to Paint kit figures.

Even though I had been painting and teaching for a while when I wrote the first learn to paint kit, I didn’t create it by grabbing a handful of colours and slapping on paint on some randomly selected miniatures. I did test mixes of colours to see if I could get the range of colours I wanted. I carefully considered whether the figures I chose were good options for practicing the skills taught in the kit. I painted a test version of each figure to make sure that my overall colour scheme ideas worked. I did tests with paint mixes to see if the black wash for this area worked better thinned with three drops of water or with four.

I also do tests like that all the time in my own painting. I get stuff wrong and need to tweak it all the time in my own painting. It helps a lot to think of that as just part of the process. Sure, sometimes it gets annoying or takes time I don’t have. The fact that I don’t intuitively know all the answers doesn’t make me a bad artist, or a bad person, or bad in any other way. It’s just a challenge to me to find ways to figure out the answers.

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Idea #3: Ask More Questions to Find More Answers

When you work to solve problems or figure things out on your own, I think it is helpful to ask a lot of questions that are specific and detailed.

For example, say you try to paint something to match a reference photo or following someone else’s tutorial and your results don’t look the same. It’s not helpful to say ‘I hate it it looks terrible, I’m an awful painter’. It is much more helpful to look at it and say what are the differences? Where did I place light parts and dark parts in comparison to the reference? Is there a difference in the proportion of the sizes between the dark and parts and the light parts. Are my darkest areas as dark as the reference or are they darker or lighter? Is there a texture that is noticeable?

Perez nmm attempts crAfter watching the tutorial video from his Patreon, I attempted to copy the style of non-metallic metal on Arkaitz Pérez’s Uther bust. My first version (left) wasn’t terrible, but it also didn’t look quite right. I analyzed and compared my results, got some opinions from a few painting friends, and then tried again. The second version (right) is a lot closer. Feel free to test your eye and try to spot the differences.

A couple of years ago I spent some time doing some experiments and following tutorials of a couple of Spanish painters – Sergio Calvo Rubio, and Arkaitz Pérez. I am an experienced painter conversant with several different painting techniques. My first attempts in both cases were not successes. It wasn’t necessarily that my results looked terrible, but they were different from my inspiration material in ways that demonstrated I had not grasped some of the main points of the instruction. I want to emphasize this point – my goal wasn’t to get an attractive result. My goal was to understand and internalize an approach. So even though I got an attractive result with practice on the following figure, I painted that section completely over to practice again with the approach I was trying to learn.

Anushka comp crI painted this figure after taking a weekend workshop with Sergio Calvo Rubio. I wanted to practice the approach he had shown us. My first attempt (left) had an interesting worn leather look. But I had not really painted in the style from the workshop. I painted it over completely again to get the roughed in sketch version (centre), and then once I was happy with that refined it for the final version (right).

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Keep your eye on this blog and on my Twitch show Beyond the Kit for more information now how to ask questions and do experiments and tests to answer questions and expand your techniques. In the meantime, you might enjoy this suggestion for how to study a face painting tutorial. Or my video analysis of something I painted that I didn’t like.

BWAB OpenScreen Black

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Miniatures in this Post

Two of the Learn to Paint kits I’ve written are available.
The Castle of Deception Female Mage is available in metal.
I believe the medieval dancing woman is out of production.
The Battleguard Golem is available in Bones plastic or metal.
Anushka, Female Fighter is available in metal. 

Many thanks to Gene Van Horne for the Bird with a Brush character and Ron Hawkins for the Beyond the Kit graphics.

Photo of woman wearing crushed velvet by Tiffany Combs on Unsplash.