Monday, June 20, 2016

Painting Tips for the Rest of Us

I'm not a great painter. I'm never going to win any awards or see pictures of my painted miniatures in magazines, but I think I get decent results. My goal is just to get things finished to a decent standard, and keep making progress against the backlog for whatever project I'm working on. In the course of trying to improve in that area, I've discovered some tips that have helped me, and may help other average painters, to make better progress. Hopefully these tips will be helpful for you as well, but if you are one of those exceptional painters trying to win awards and accolades, then they probably won't be for you. These are for us mediocre painters just trying to get our figures ready for the gaming table.

1. Use good quality tools, and replace them when they start to fail
This is a good tip in all areas of life. Quality tools are almost always worth the extra expense. So buy good paints and brushes and take good care of them. I use a brush cleaner (specifically General Pencil Company The Masters Brush Cleaner & Preserver) to keep my brushes clean and lasting a long time. But once they start to fray, replace them immediately. It costs a little more, but not that much because you won't need to replace them often if you keep them clean. In any case, the time and frustration you save by not using a worn out brush will be worth much more than the expense.

2. Paint at least a little bit every day
You want to make painting into a habit, which makes it much easier to stay motivated. If you practice doing it every day until it has become habit, it will become easier to sit down and start painting, and eventually almost automatic. You may think you just don't have time to paint every day, but you really don't need much time. Even just five minutes of painting is better than nothing, and don't worry if you don't "finish" anything. Let's say you have to paint the buttons on 20 figures. It's okay to only finish five of them. In fact, it might even be better...

3. Always make sure you leave something easy to start with next time
This will help motivate you to start painting tomorrow. And getting started is the hard part. Once you're painting, it's easy to keep going. If the next thing to do is paint 300 buttons, you might find it hard to motivate yourself to go paint with such a task awaiting you. But if you had left one figure that still needed his turnbacks painted, it's a much more inviting prospect to go finish up that last figure's turnbacks, and after that you're already painting, so it won't be so hard to launch into those buttons. "But it'll bother me to have that step left unfinished", you interject? Well, good! Then you'll really want to make time to go get that finished.

4. When batch painting, plan your steps so that you have as many "easy" ones as possible
When I say "easy", I mean ones that don't require being careful or skillful. For example, the first big base coat is easy. Even though you are applying a lot of paint, you don't have to be careful where you put it. Applying a wash over a big area is also pretty easy, or applying a base coat to any area where you haven't already painted the area next to it. So try to do big areas first, so you have a little as possible to paint that requires being careful. This will reduce your mental fatigue while painting and allow you to paint loger without getting burned out, and is generally also faster (though it does require a little planning ahead)

5. Use the biggest brush you can get away with
This is true even if most of the model is already painted and you're worried about paint getting onto an already painted area. I used to start with a small brush and paint around the edges of the area I was painting, then change brushes to paint the middle. This is a waste of time, and you end up spending much more time painting carefully than you need to. Your brushes are in good shape (see item 1) and should come to a nice point, which should be good for getting the edges and little areas. However, using the bigger brush will allow you to get the big areas much faster. If you really can't get a small area, switch to a smaller brush only afterward when you've determined that it is absolutely necessary. Often I'll do base coats of dark colors everywhere, then apply a main coat of a lighter color. In this case I don't need to worry about painting right up to the edge, because leaving that darker color near the edge will actually help add depth and shading, so I only need to paint the middle of each area.

6. Don't fix your mistakes right away
This will probably take some practice, but stop worrying about the mistakes you make. Leave them for the next painting session. You're probably thinking that if you do that you might forget where you made the mistake, and that would be the point. If you don't notice it next time, it's not a mistake that you need to fix. If it's still noticable toward the end, (or when you're using the color you need for fixing it) then go ahead and fix it. If you need to pick the figure up and hold it upside-down a few inches from your face to see the mistake, then you'd never notice it on the table. So stop doing that. Keep reminding yourself that perfect is the enemy of good.

7. Paint quicker than you think you can
I think it's very hard to practice painting carefully until you can do it really quickly. It is easier to start out painting quickly and with practice end up getting better results with your quick painting. You tend to do what you practice. So if you're always going slow to get really nice results, you may improve your results, but probably not your speed. If you always go fast, you can more easily get better at painting fast and get decent results. Just try it. Go a little quicker than you'd like and keep at it. At first you'll get worse results than you're used to if you've always painted slowly, but you'll get things done. You may make more "mistakes", but you'll make them much faster. Just tell yourself that even a quick paint job looks a lot better than on the table than bare plastic does in the closet. And besides, pretty soon you'll find yourself getting better at the quick painting, learning new techniques and motions that will have your results becoming just as good, but in a fraction of the painting time. It just takes some practicing going fast.

8. Display your results
I bought some display cabinets so I could move my painted miniatures out from the carry cases in my closet to somewhere I could actually see them. I think this has helped a lot with my motivation to paint new things. It's nice to be able to enjoy those previous accomplishments, and see how my painting has improved over time. Since I don't get to play often, this is a good way to enjoy and appreciate all the stuff I've finished painting, and appreciate how much better it is for a figure to have even a basic paint job than none at all.

9. Document your process
If you come up with a great (and quick) technique and combination of paints for something generic (like say leather boots), write it down! That way next time you need to paint that thing, you won't be starting from scratch. You'll already know that the leather parts will be done with base coat of paint A, dry brush paint B, wash with C. You can build up a repertoire of methods for common materials and colors that will get you started more quickly if, like me, you aren't great at picturing what color combinations will work for what you are trying to achieve.

10. Allow for some variety
I often have two units in progress and on the painting table at a given time. That way if I'm just not feeling into one of them, I can work on the other one. Or if there's a really difficult step next for one, and an easy step for the other one, I can start out with the easier step, which makes it easier to motivate me to get started painting. Then I can move back to the other unit when I'm ready. It can especially help to have two fairly different projects, if one of them involves painting a lot of models very similar to each other. If you've spent weeks painting horses, just having a break to paint something very different might help recharge before getting back to the rest of those horses.

11. Paint in smaller batches
If you have to paint 50 of the same figures for a unit, it might be best to paint at most about 10 at a time. Paint in stages, but try to keep each stage small. Everything that's the same color doesn't have to be done in the same stage. For example, you may have to paint all the cuffs, collars, and turnbacks the same color on all 10 figures. Paint the cuffs on all the figures first, then go back and do all the collars, then turnbacks. It may sound counter-productive, but having small steps means you complete a step more often, which makes it feel like you are making progress more often, which helps keep you motivated to keep going.

12. Make sure your painting setup is ready to go at all times
If you only have a little time to paint, you don't want to spend half of it getting all your supplies and materials out and getting ready to paint. You want to be able to jump right in, so have things ready to go. In particular, it helps a lot to pre-thin your paints. If you always end up adding water to your paint to thin it out, instead add water to the paint pot until you achieve the consistency you normally want, and then keep it that way. That way it's always ready to go, and you don't have to waste time thinning whenever you switch colors, or worry about getting inconsistent consistencies.

So, who am I to give out painting advice? Am I a great painter? No, I am not. But am I a fast painter? Well, no, not really. But I am better and faster than I used to be, so that's something. These methods have helped me, a painter of average at best skill, to get better results and also increase the speed of my output. I'm sure they'd be of no use to any truly talented painter, but hopefully they'll prove useful to some of you other average painters out there, trying to paint to a decent standard but still get your armies off your painting table and onto your gaming table.


  1. Blogs are great for #8 and #9. Easy enough to have a draft blog post with your paint plan for a unit. Update it with any new paint recipes while you wait to finish and photograph your figures.

    #2 is good mental health. Its nice to point at a painted figure and say I finished that today (or at least took 1 step forward).

  2. Great tips. I am no great shakes as a painter but I try to get stuff done relatively quickly and to as reasonable a standard I can manage.

  3. Thanks - I find when painters block strikes, it can last along time, so I very much agree that regular (daily) or rather routine painting is a great help.