We have all been lurking on Golden Demons, Crystal Brushes, Golden Djinns and other painting competition websites, looking at submissions, runner-ups and winning miniatures, in awe with the quality of the results, and perplexed by the otherworldly talents it must require to paint like a pro!
I am in the hobby since 1985, and generally considered by my peers as a “good” painter. Still, whenever I compare my works to those of “the Greats” of our craft, to put it politely, there is a lot of room for improvement in what I do. Nevertheless, reaching such a level is not out of reach, and in my experience, all it takes is a savant combination of three things: Creative Vision, Skills & Techniques and Tools (not necessarily in that order). In this first article in the series, let us talk about the easiest one to get. Tools.
Let’s start with the first thing that comes in mind when you talk about “painting”: the brushes that we use in the hobby were originally intended for watercolor painting because the pigments in the paints are so fine that standard, stiffer and coarser acrylic brushes would not be adequate.
There is a plethora of websites, video tutorials, links, online shops, testimonies and blog articles like this one that will describe at length why such brand is the best, but remember that the term “best” is very subjective, so expect your quest for “the ideal brush” or “the ideal paint” to last forever. There are many different brushes, and most of the popular ones are made from tail hair of the kolinsky sable, a Siberian weasel. Since it is quite rare, it is quite pricey. And because of that synthetic alternatives have been developed, much cheaper, but also not as good.
Brushes in our hobby are also very specific to the type of techniques used. You will not use the same brush to paint a base coat, to paint fine details, to layer glazes or washes, or to stipple or dry brush surfaces. The starting point for many miniature painters is Games Workshop brushes, since they can be found in most FLGS. Their naming convention is different from any other brand, and a lot simpler to grasp for the beginners (e.g. “dry brush” for dry brushing, “base brush” for base work, “wash brush” for washes, etc.). Most of these brushes use a mix of animal hair and synthetic, and they are approximately 50% cheaper than the average cost of other brands in this article. But then again, they might not last nearly as long.
If you want to paint like a pro, you will have to invest in your hobby tools and look at other brands that offer sable brushes. I’m not going to advertise one or another (although I do have my preference), but I invite you to try them. You can find most of these brands in arts and crafts stores. To name a few, I would recommend having a look at Army Painter; Winsor & Newton; Raphael; Da Vinci Maestro or Artis Opus.
A good brush with a bad paint will give a bad result (and vice-versa). To paint like a pro, you have to consider both the quality of the purchased product, and the logistics constrains of where you reside. Living in Dubai where the temperatures of transport and storage might be quite high most of the time, I had several brand-new paint pots completely unusable. Extremely thick or simply lumped, there is not much you can do about it. Unless you face dire circumstances like a total lockdown, do not try to fix them yourself: approach your FLGS as soon as you realize the product you purchased is defect and they will gladly replace it. You will save a lot of time and frustration.
Here again, the starting point for many miniature painters is Games Workshop paints, since they can be found in most FLGS. They have a huge range (53 base paints; 25 technical paints; 15 shades; 93 layer paints; 31 dry brushing paints; 34 contrast paints; 78 thinned down paints for airbrushes and 12 spray paints for undercoating), and are widely recognized for a good quality as well.
Aside from the quality of the paint, as stated logistics matter. The way you store your paints makes a difference (temperature, humidity, etc.) but also in which containers they come in: Games Workshop paints come in pots, so while you are painting, there is a risk that you leave the pot open for too long, and it will ultimately dry up its content. There is also a risk of spillage (every veteran painter has war stories of a whole workbench ruined by a fallen pot of Nuln Oil), so you have to be extra careful.
As for brushes, there are alternative brands, like Mig Jimenez; AK Interactive; Reaper Miniatures; Army Painter or Vallejo. Most of them come in dropper bottles, which is a preferable container to a paint pot. There are also some hobbyists who went through a laborious transfer of their paints from pots to dropper bottles, and Kickstarter campaigns to convert pots to dropper bottles. Again, dropper bottle is a preferable container to a paint pot!
With regards to the number of paints you need, there are two different schools of thoughts: either get a lot of different hues, or get the basics and mix them as you need, there is no right or wrong. The only advise I would give you if you go for the latter, is to write down to the drop the mixes you are preparing, because once you find THE recipe for a color, you will want to be able to replicate it.
Now that we have tackled the essentials, there are other accessories that will make your painting experience more enjoyable:
- Wet palette: Paper or other porous material will dry out the paints you’re laying on it. You can make your own, or buy some straight from your FLGS.
- Water pot: Because acrylic paints are a water-based pigment suspension, you can use water to thin the paint down, and to clean your brushes. Any coffee mug will do the trick (although, after extremely long painting sessions, you may run the risk of cleaning your brush in your coffee, or drink from your dirty water). There are also more sophisticated products available, with brush holders, more or less water capacity, etc. Whichever you chose, just make sure you have one, and change your water regularly to keep your brushes as clean as possible while you paint.
- Agitator balls: Ever wondered why you shake your spray paint cans, and why it makes this clicking noise? You shake them to mix the pigments in the can. Little metal balls inside the can help with this agitation and also make this recognizable clicking noise. Adding just one small bearing ball inside your paint pots helps achieve the same result before you paint.
- Brush soap: Especially if you use sable brushes as explained above, you shall (note the emphasis here) keep them clean after every use. Nearly every great brand of brushes will also sell a good soap, or you can find plenty other recommendations, like the Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver, which pretty much trusts the full first page on Google.
- Painting Handle: Although really a nice-to-have, this does come in handy (pun intended) when you prefer to put paint on your model rather than on your fingers. You can start with a lump of blue-tack on top of a paint pot to secure the bottom of your model’s base, or purchase a more elaborate handle solution, as long as it makes you comfortable during the painting experience, go for it.
- Gloves: I personally use black nitrile gloves whenever I have some more messy sessions. They are similar to the ones used in restaurants or tattoo parlors.
- Light: Okay, this may sound funny, but I will categorize your lighting in “painting accessories”. It is extremely important to have adequate lighting when you paint. If you Google it, most people will rave about “natural lighting”. To me, this speaks to color, intensity, and direction. I use a pair of Ikea LED spotlight clamped to my desk. The long pole and flexible goose neck provide exactly what I need.
The first part of this article focused on “painting”. But hobbyists don’t get to just paint. Our base canvas comes in sealed boxes, on plastic or resin sprues, or as metal bits. There are some tools you need before you get to lay paint on your model. In this section, I purposely won’t mention anything about electric tools (Dremels, etc.), 3D printers and other specialized tools. These may be the subject of another article one day, but for now, let’s focus on the essentials:
- Clippers: The essential tool to remove bits from sprues. Find a small, robust one. This is your first contact with the plastic, and a bad tool will have dire consequences that will be irrecoverable. Also, remember that resin has a different density than plastic and may not be cut with the same tool.
- Files: Plastic sprues are cast in a mold. There are often visible lines that need to be cleaned after removal. This is the essential tool to perform such task.
- Hobby knife: This is the essential tool for pretty much everything in the hobby. Keep your blade sharp, and your fingers away from the blade!
- Self-healing cutting mat: This is essential to avoid destroying your workbench, your desk, or whatever surface you are working on.
- Vice: A small diameter drilling tool will help you with stuff like consolidation of fragile parts (called “pinning”). Of course, this will also be helpful to drill your barrels!
- Sanding paper: Different grits will help you go from a rough cut to a smooth surface progressively. Here, I have to mention a gold nugget I recently found from the Japanese brand “God Hand”. They sell small sanding sponges ranging from 120 to 10000 grit in the perfect format!
- Tweezers: Also essential for smaller bits positioning before gluing.
- Glues: You will need plastic cement for regular plastic on plastic link. For all the rest, a good super glue will be just fine. Select glue dispensers with a fine applicator, you will be ever grateful!
- Sculpting tools: Maybe you decided to start playing with “green stuff” or other sculpting putties. You will need some sculpting tools. Build your own, go for dentist tools, or buy sculpting supplies, but make sure they fit your requirements.
Put all of that in a toolbox, and enjoy your journey in our wonderful hobby! Stay tuned for the next post in this series…