Sunday, 11 November 2012

Tutorial: Beginner's guide to painting

4 Ultramarines painted by me, from my first model (left) to
my latest creation (right)
Sometimes, I enjoy visiting my regular Games Workshop store to do my painting, to commune, to see other peoples works. It still astounds me that so many people rate my painting so highly, with many people saying that I'm a "pro" and some even saying I should enter Golden Demon. Personally, I don't entirely agree with either statement entirely.

Don't get me wrong, I'm hugely flattered by such praise, but the truth is that my first steps in the hobby are just as humble as many others (see the picture to the left), and the techniques I use are not particularly hard to learn or employ. You see, I genuinely believe that good painting isn't the art of making a complicated technique look simple, but rather making a simple technique look complicated. In the past, I have passed on the following rules to remember to people that have asked me for painting advice and their painting abilities improved almost over night. Finally, I have gotten around to publishing these tips on my blog.

Please note, these are not tips for the pro amongst you, there is no "Original Source Light" or "Vector Shading" techniques here, but merely simple things to bare in mind that can make models look 100 times better.

1. Keep it neat!

This may well seem like an obvious thing to say, but neat paintwork is an absolute must for making your model look great. Such a simple tip that is the difference between a model looking terrible and a model looking good. The way I describe it to people is think of miniature painting as "Advanced Colouring In". Keep your paints within the lines, keep the colours sharp.

Example 1
Take the above picture. These are two models I painted in two very different points in time. Both use the same colours and similar techniques, except the model on the right had great care taken to keep within the lines. As you can see, there is a massive difference in the quality of the paintwork. Simply taking care to clean up mistakes and neaten up your brushing can make a world of difference, as you can see.

Now, obviously there are exceptions to this rule, the main two that spring to mind are basecoats and washes. These layers on any model are, as a rule, messy and part of the creative process, giving you definition or a foundation with which to expand. Just remember, these can and will improve the quality of your work, but unless you clean this up when finishing up your model, it'll still leave the model looking unfinished.

2. Avoid relying too heavily on drybrushing

This is a step that everyone I know has been guilty of at some point or another, including me - painting your army almost entirely by drybrushing. It's an understandable solution to the old age problem of not having an army painted quickly enough, the drybrushing covers quickly and catches the edges of models well. However, if it is well painted models you're looking for, avoid this urge. The reason is simple:
  1. Drybrushing gives a very dusty look and, unless you're painting dried mud or something similar, it doesn't look natural (see example 2, below).
  2. Drybrushed colours tend to look very dark without many, many layers (see example 3, below).
Example 2
Example 3
In example 2, we see two Necrons painted in two different methods. The one on the left was painted simply by 3 drybrushed coats of metal in escalating brightness on straight black undercoat, whilst the one on the right was painted with the method I posted up 3 months ago. You will notice the Necron on the left looks very two dimensional colourwise, and quite scratchy, whereas the Necron on the right looks more three dimensional and smooth.

In example 3, we see two Ultramarines. The one on the left was painted with 2 or 3 heavily drybrushed layers of Ultramarine Blue over black undercoat, whereas the one on the right was painted using the method I posted last year. As you can see, the one on the right, again, has a smoother finish and is even a little brighter, which is shocking since the blue used on that model is actually darker than the blue used on the drybrushed model and has 1 less coat.

Now that's not to say you should avoid drybrushing completely, in fact...

3. Learn how to get the best from drybrushing

Example 4
The problem with drybrushing is purely down to the grainy effect you get from it. Therefore you may very well be surprised to learn that the cape on yesterday's post's Harbinger of Despair was painted almost entirely using drybrushing, but lacks any of the grainy qualities associated with the technique. How was this possible? There are two things to remember when you decide whether or not to use drybrushing:
  1. Drybrushing always looks better when done over a darker shade of the colour your using. The above example had 3 shades of green (Warpstone Glow, Goblin Green and Moot Green in that order) drybrushed over a basecoat of Orkhide Shade.
  2. Glazes and Washes do wonders to blend colours together and remove any grainy parts of the model. Glazes also do a fantastic job of really making colours look more vibrant.

4. ALWAYS shade and highlight

It's the ye olde question - manual highlighting or natural lightning? Manual highlighting as it happens. Painting models is very different to real life objects catching light for a few reasons. Firstly, real life objects are made up of varying materials, whereas models will always be reflective of acrylic paints and undercoat, and secondly, the scales are different. Models are a work of art, they come to life when they show off their details and highlighting.

But shading and highlighting doesn't need to be difficult, far from it. This is where Games Workshop shades and glazes come in. Shades can effectively be applied in one of two ways:
  1. Basecoat the model, wash the entire model with the relevant shade (generally Nuln Oil, but Agrax Earthshade works well for reds) then go over the model again in a layer colour, avoiding the recesses.
  2. Apply the shade only to the recesses.
Both these methods work well, try experimenting with both and see which works best for you.

As for highlights, as a general rule of thumb, the more shades of one colour you use to highlight give better results, but only if done right. Applying these in the right quantity takes some practice, but glazes work wonders in blending these to the base colour and making the overall miniature look more vibrant.

5. Practice makes perfect

Unless you are naturally talented, the chances of starting day 1 of your hobby and painting to the same standards as someone like me who has been in the hobby for 16 years is, not unheard of, but very, very unlikely. You need experience to truly know how the brushes flow, how colours work together, what products work best for you, what type of style of look you personally prefer etc. it is very rare that you will know straight away what you want and how you'll get it.

Even if you've been in the hobby for a while and you want to improve, no-one ever gets better without experimenting and getting stuck in. I have a few models that are abysmal failures that I used purely to test out a theory I had, or to test a look before finally stumbling on the look I want. At the end of the day, you won't know how a model will look until you go ahead and do it.

A few final thoughts

As I said at the beginning of the post, I don't think I'm an amazing painter, and I don't use complicated methods to make my models look how they do. I have done some tricky painting and pulled it off, but this has purely been down to practice, getting my eye in, learning to steady my hand. For the first time in 16 years I have shown everyone a picture of my very, very first model for one, simple reason. 

Many people see other hobbyist who are better than them at painting by far, and it can put people off the hobby. By putting a picture of my first steps into the hobby, I hope to inspire you all to pick up that paintbrush and practice, I was likely worse than most when I started!

One of the things I love most about the hobby is seeing other peoples works, seeing how their style and vision differs from my own. We are all overly critical of our own works, but to judge your own work harshly in comparison to someone else's is not the way forward. Everyone has their own style, and it should stand out as your own.

I'd like to say just one more thing before I end this post. I have recently been scoping out the work of kids younger than I was when I started in the hobby, how they paint, what they envision and some paint way better than I did when I was older than them. Because they get stuck in, because they want to experiment. That is how we all get better. That is how I got better also.


  1. Thank you for this guide, as a newbie WH hobbiest I find this really informative and useful.

    1. You're very welcome. I hope I've helped inspire and motivate you with this post. Remember, practice makes perfect :)

  2. im kinda about to get the chaos deamons 40k set and i want to buy cheap paint that is easy to work with, im only 13 but i rlly want to get into this. i want to paint it well. so, i nead a cheap place to buy paints, glues. i would appreciate it a lot if u could help

    1. My advice is to know what colours you're using and keep yourself to that limited set to begin with. That will keep the costs as low as possible. Also shop around online, there are some great stores that knock up to 15% off GW products.

      Unfortunately, I'm afraid to say third party paints aren't much, if any cheaper.

  3. That was an excellent post. I am refinding myself in 40k as I have been away from it for 10+ years, but bought myself an Ultramarine command squad and have just finished gluing the 5th one together. I have now primed them all in Citadel 'Chaos Black' spray and am hoping to start painting them tomorrow. I am worried about completely messing the paint job up though purely because I don't have ever such a steady hand! I have bought the GW citadel beginners paint set with all the colours I will need for my army so heres hoping I don't wreck them tomorrow! Wish me luck

    1. All the best of luck mate :) I'm sure you'll find your feet quickly

  4. Thanks for the read, it's nice to know how everyone has their own humble beginnings, and I have to say I love how your more recent Ultramarine looks!

    I just dug up the Orks from Assault on Black Reach that I painted (shoddily) a few years back, and I'm giving the hobby a real go this time. Most of da boyz survived, so I've got them stripped and primed for another shot. Test painted one and I'm really liking it, I just need to get a new fine detail brush (current one is frayed) and maybe a good leather color.

    Anyways, thanks for the article. Cheers.

    1. Thanks, it's always good to know that people like my work :) my beginnings were as humble as most others, but I eventually found my feet and painted to a standard I was happy with. Would love to hear how your Orks progress and you're very welcome for the article.

      Also for leather, particularly dark leather, I found Bestial Brown is a good base (I'm not sure what they call the paint now though).

  5. This entry inspired me to try harder. I am currently doing a Dark Eldar Army which means that the details are very fine. I am getting frustrated to really keep the lines and the details as accurate as possible. However, with glasses and a pair of hands that tend to be too unsteady, I get realky impatient.

    I will try harder!

    1. Keeping a steady hand is a common problem for most people, a lot of people lose patience because their hand isn't steady enough. Again, it takes practice to overcome this problem and everyone has their own way of dealing with it. Personally I use the edge of my table to rest just below my wrists on to brace my hand. Another method Staff Member Steve at Oxford Street store teaches is to brace both wrists together whilst painting. Both methods work well I've found.

      Also massive kudos in attempting Dark Eldar as a force, they aren't the easiest army to paint but, with practice I'm sure you'll do them justice :)

    2. What you touch on at the end is spot on, if you need to practice, buy odd old models from Ebay on the cheap, I know the GW models are expensive and can be very daunting to try new methods, but it really is down to you finding your own way of doing things, think you got a good idea, try it!

      We learn best by our mistakes!

    3. complete warhammer virgin here , I've got my first models arriving in a few days (dark eldar) and i just wanted to thank you for the awesome article. im extremely perfectionist and i was really really nervous about painting the damn things and this helped clear alot of that up.

    4. oops sorry replied in the wrong bit. oh well.

  6. Thanks for the tips, especially the point about showing your first models you painted and not being intimidated by people much better than me. I started only yesterday a little blog to show my progress from the first ever model I painted (a few weeks ago) and will try document my process until I'm a lot better. I thought it would be interesting to document from the very first miniature onwards. Like they say, practice practice practice.

  7. Trololololooolllll

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