Hey painters! I’m working on another post in the Happy Little Treants series focused on washing and dry brushing but first, I wanted to write about something that’s been on my mind. While the title implies I might share with you the one technique to end all techniques, it’s actually the opposite! Read on to find out what I mean…

Sometimes, in any pursuit, you will encounter an opinion of the “right” way to do things. Or, at the very least, a “best” or “most effective” method. This is true in painting. Everyone has their favorites but if there is a “best,” I have yet to find it. Certainly you may find it easier to accomplish one effect through one technique as opposed to another. However, the key component to art and creativity seems to be doing things your way. Oftentimes this means doing things the wrong way! But it’s also important to understand the methods that are considered the “right” way first.

Recently, in an effort to improve my own painting ability, I’ve been trying to find the “right” way to paint (or again, at the very least, the best way to paint). My theory being that I can become a better painting by spending my time practicing the best techniques. “Who has time for amateur tecniques!” I scoff. Well, there are no “amateur” techniques.

The problem with my theory is that there are no “better” techniques. There are only “different” techniques. Which technique you use depends not only on what effect you are trying to accomplish but also what you prefer. Let me share with you some of my journey through miniature painting techniques, starting with a glossary of what I have come to find to be the most commonly encountered methods.

Primer

Consistency of the paint – Usually how it comes out of the paint pot. Although this is typically done with a spray paint.

What it is – This is usually the first step you take in painting your model. It is not necessary but is very useful. Priming can be used to quickly base coat a large number of models. If I’m painting a bunch of Orcs I could use a green primer for example. It also serves as the foundation for any paints I add. Most of the time the paints we use are transparent. This means when we add paint, the color underneath will show through. Thus a black primer will make paint I add darker. White will leave them brighter. Finally, primer serves as a foundation to help your paints stick to the model.

How to use it – Consider whether you want to use your primer to create an undertone (dark and grim? Use black. Bright and colorful? Use white) or as a basecoat (need to paint 30 skeletons RIGHT NOW? Use a bone color). Determine how many models you are painting – if many, consider using a spray primer rather than a paint on primer.

Base Coat:

Consistency – Milky. Just enough water to help the paint flow smoothly.

What it is – this is the first step. Think of what you are wearing. I’ve got a shirt, pants, and shoes. If I assign each a color: red, black, and brown – those are my bases. Don’t forget a pink for my skin and brown for my hair. Maybe even the same brown as my pants – that way I only need four colors. If I apply those colors to a model over my primer, it’s already looking great!

How to use it – A red basecoat serves to establish my shirt as red. If I use a standard red, I can take a dark red and use that as my shadow. I can take a lighter red and use that as my highlight.  Thus, my basecoat is a starting point. In this example, my basecoat red could be considered a “mid-tone” as it is a gradient between my shade and my highlight. But what else can I do with my basecoat? Well, what if I start with a dark red? Then I can build up over that color to brighter highlights. I could also start with a light red and shade down to the shadows. Either way, this is the place you start. You can already see that there are many different ways to go about it! I recommend starting with a mid-tone if you are a beginner.

Shade

Consistency – Watery. Enough that the paint flows into nooks and crannies.

What it is – Sometimes referred to as a “wash,” this technique utilizes high water-to-paint ratios to bring darker colors into the recesses of a model.

How to use it – This technique is primarily used with darker colors to create shadows. Because the paint is so watery it will flow into areas that would naturally receive little sunlight. You typically apply this over a basecoat. While the paint pigment will mostly leave your basecoat color untouched (congregating instead in the details where you want it) it will also darken it. This brings the colors closer together, creating a blend of the two. Thus, you may decide to drybrush first (see below) and shade over top of your drybrush color, using your wash color not only to create depth in your model but blend all three together!

Drybrush

Consistency – Just pigment. No water. Keep it away! I mean it!

What it is – a dry paint is a paint that is almost nothing more than pigment that is scraped or swept over the surface of your model in order to create highlights. Just as the watery paint of our shade flows into the details, our dry paint will stick only to the outer-most surfaces of the model.

How to use it – You can simply apply it over your entire base coat in order to brighten up the color. With a little more effort, you can build it up gradually in certain areas in order to leave some darker, and others brighter. You could also use multiple dry paints in order to create an even more natural shift from your base coat to your highlight. To do this, you gradually cover less and less of your model as you bring in brighter paints until your brightest colors only hit those outermost edges.

You might also use it for weathering. If I take a dark brown – I could drybrush that color messily over my shoes in order to give the appearance of walking through mud. I could drybrush a silvery color over black armor in order to make it look like the paint is wearing off, revealing the metal underneath. I could use black over metal to make it look scorched or burnt.

Layering

Consistency – Milky. Oftentimes more watery depending on your preference.

What it is – Layering is all about putting one paint over another in a way that creates a gradual, natural looking shift in gradient between your color choices. This could be going down from a lighter color to a darker color, though it is most often used to go from a darker color (or mid-tone) to a brighter color. This is because our paints are transparent (because we thinned them down!) – meaning each layer we apply will leave a little bit of the previous layer showing from beneath. Thus we layer brighter and brighter “layers” over one another.

How to use it – Layering most often replaces drybrushing as a means of highlighting. Rather than achieving your highlights by virtue of dry pigment naturally catching exposed surfaces, you must locate them yourself and carefully apply them. The theory, however, is the same. Thus, it helps to begin with drybrushing to see how you can gradually build up to a highlight and where those highlights are most naturally placed. Again, the idea is that you apply successively lighter paints over smaller areas of your model – always over the previous one – building to that area of outermost highlight.

Glaze

Consistency – Watery. At least as watery as a wash. Often even more so.

What it is – A glaze uses super transparent paints to create natural gradient shifts between colors. Because the paint is so transparent (water!), each time we apply it, it will be nearly translucent. This leaves much of the previous color still visible beneath. It can also be used to create a tone shift, or to make duller colors more vibrant.

How to use it – This process is very similar to layering. In fact, doing the layering process with more and more watered down paints is a good step to learning how to glaze. You will see that as you layer with thinner paints, your shifts in color become more natural. You will also find that it takes many more coats! That is, however, exactly how glazing works. The more coats of heavily thinned paint we apply the more gradual our previous color shifts to our new one. The same goes for accomplishing tone shifts. The more glazes of a color you add, the more that color will start to appear within the color beneath it.

Wet Blending

Consistency – Watery. Usually between layer and glaze consistency. Dependent on preference.

What it is – Wet blending is about taking two paints and blending them together directly on the model. The goal is to create a natural transition between the two.

How to use it – This is usually easiest on large surface areas. As you can imagine, the smaller the surface, the more difficult it is to work two paints together. Your paints will need to be watery enough so they can run together. You also don’t want them drying out before you get to bring them together! For this reason many people use retarder to slow the drying effect, although it is not necessary to do so.

Wet blending is a gradual back and forth. You will apply one color, then either a darker or lighter color, and brush them together. As you do so you are working to make that transition natural and in the direction you want it to be. Do you want the darker color to be stronger? The brighter color? Either way you are working back and forth – adding a bit of the darker when the lighter overpowers, or vice versa depending on your preference. The tricky bit is having both colors on at the same time and working them in before either dries. Otherwise you’re just layering them over eachother.

Conclusions

In my opinion, this is the broadest way to explain miniature painting brush techniques. I could summarize things in a narrower manner: Bases, Shading, Highlighting. I could even just say all miniature painting is just layering. Alternatively, I could also go deeper: eg. Two brush blending. However, the broader I go, the more I feel like I’m leaving out necessary details. The deeper I go, the more I feel like I’m just getting into techniques that are essentially just different ways to do the same thing. So, the above is where I’m leaving it. For now.

So, now that you’re ready to paint your miniature, what’s the best way to do it? Should you drybrush? Layer? Put a bright color down and just shade over top of it?

There is no answer to that question.

For a while, I thought I hated dry brushing. I thought it was messy and ugly. I thought layering was far superior. Then I sat down and drybrushed a lot. On a bunch of different models in a bunch of different ways (with a buffering, swirling motion, with big sweeping strokes, in conjunction with other techniques, etc.). I found that it’s actually pretty great. I found that there are times I liked to dry brush and others I liked to layer. It depends on the look I want to achieve just as much as how fast I want to accomplish something.

Recently, I got hung up on blending. I wanted my models to look natural – like the colors just shifted gradients on their own. So, I wanted to know what was better – layering, glazing, or wet blending? I thought wet blending, but it was hard. I did some glazing but was dissatisfied. I went back to layering, only to circle back to wet blending.

I didn’t find which one was best, but I did improve at all three. I did find out, similar to dry brushing, that there are times when I prefer one method of the three over the others.

So, my advice to you? Try as many different techniques in as many different creative ways and whims that you can imagine. You’ll find what works best for what, and your preferences. You’ll improve, and enjoy the process as you go.

You might just find something brand new.

Until next time!

P.S. In the future I’ll get into the specifics of the above from a more technical aspect. And as always, if you’d like to work on any of these things in person, shoot the store a message via email or Facebook.