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Learning to Paint All Over Again

I was never a prolific miniatures painter, even in my youth when I had acquired a couple hundred figures, 90% of which never saw a lick of acrylic. I had a perfectionist streak, which meant I was never going to be happy with anything I might dab paint on. And the fact that there was no easy access in the early 1980s to tutorials on even the simplest techniques (washes, dry brushing), I was always left baffled by the photos in magazines and how folks managed to achieve all of the shading and depth that makes any painted miniature so much more pleasing to look at.

So when I came out of my decades-long gaming hibernation in mid-2016 and was taken by the compulsion to start pushing little lead men and monsters around tabletop battlefields, I searched for a painter who could take on the task for me on commission. Over the next year and a half, he painted a large number of miniatures for me. I was living the oft-remarked upon inversion: As a youth I had very little money to buy the gaming stuff I wanted but had eons of spare time, and now I have precious little uncommitted time but (relatively) loads more disposable income I can throw at my hobby.

Alas, the painter who had been delighting me with batches of freshly painted minis every few weeks or so has experienced a series of setbacks, and his output has now become a trickle, with long, empty months stretching out between commissioned jobs arriving on my doorstep.

The situation has pushed me into trying my hand at painting some miniatures again. I still prefer working on larger pieces, such as crafting terrain for my games, mostly because my eyes aren't nearly as good as they once were, and because I still grapple with that devil Perfectionism that can sometimes succeed at sapping the joy out of these kinds of activities.

I decided to start with larger pieces, and not subject myself to the aggravation of painting too many small details, like, say, the buttons on a pair of hobbit trousers or the wart on a witch's brow.

While my wife and I were on vacation in Portugal and Spain last month, we came across this funky novelty store named Ale-Hop, which is kind of like Spencer's of yore here in the States, but a little less cheesy. While browsing at all of the store's fun kitsch, I came across some erasers in the shape of animals that seemed to be a perfect match for 28mm (1/56 scale) miniatures gaming. And they were only two euros each, so I bought a couple of elephants and a gorilla (who will be a good mini-Kong for one of my future games of Pulp Alley).

I wasn't sure how an eraser would paint up, but I was happy to give it a try for the price. I primed it with brush on black gesso, and then went over it with a dark grey, a black wash, and then a couple of highlights of lighter grey. The eraser material has a bit of give and flex to it compared to hard plastic or metal minis, so I also gave it a good spray with some Krylon matte varnish. I haven't used spray varnish much, and it made the elephant slightly shinier than I'd like, I'm going to have to research a way to dull the varnish a little bit if I'm going to be 100% happy with it (did I mentioned the perfectionism hang up?).

Feeling unreasonably embolden by the easy layup I scored with the elephant (realistically, about as easy a miniature as one could choose to paint), I decided to rummage around in my old miniatures box from my teen years and look for another largish figure I could practice on. I dug out this fine Ral Partha Wyvern I acquired while managing a comics and games store at the end of my high school years in the 1980s. It felt large enough that I wouldn't quiver too much holding the brush trying to get the details right.

I spent the next couple of hours getting it painted to the rough tabletop standard that I keep telling myself is good enough.

This middling success emboldened me even more--unwarranted as that may be--so last weekend I went looking for something else I could paint that I wouldn't be too crestfallen if I ruined.

One of my absolute favorite gaming hobby blogs is the fairly new, Hobgoblinry. While his blog is only half as old as my own fledgling little cyber outpost, I had actually been a fan of his painting and approach to gaming for a couple of years from following his posts on the Lead Adventures forums. When he decided to launch a blog around a year ago, I was excited: Within short order he posted a great number of pics of his painting projects and, perhaps even better, his musings on games and what makes for a good time when playing them. His blog is filled with thoughtful critiques that are almost always aimed at building something up rather than tearing something down. I've thoroughly appreciated his articulate, insightful ruminations and proposals for how to get the most out of one's games.

But it was his great painting style that first caught my eye, and a blog post he wrote last October, "Discount Dungeon Stocking with 1/72 Miniatures," persuaded me to pick up the box of Caesar lizardmen that he had painted up to such simple but striking effect.

I have no reasonable answer for why I thought it was a good idea for me to jump from painting large elephants and dragons down to 1/72 scale figures. Hubris, seems the only honest conclusion...

Ultimately, though, I think it was because I want to learn how to speed paint batches of minis as I wait for my regular commission painting pal to work through his stumbling blocks. I have amassed quite a lead mountain in anticipation that I could keep commissioning them to be painted as fast as they were getting churned out in the that first 18 months of my dive into this hobby. But as they say, sometimes life gets in the way. Now the ratio of unpainted-to-painted minis in my collection is close to 6-to-1, and I need to find a way to get more of these guys painted and on the table in order to play some of the games I have in mind.

To that end, I put together several painting stands using corks and paint stirrers. I initially tried using Elmer's glue to affix the minis to the stirrers, but they quickly fell off even after letting them dry overnight, so I went back to a method I came up with a few months back of using double-sided tape. That works like a dream. I then took an old box, quickly cut holes into it so that I could set the cork handles into it and take it outside to prime.

I primed some with a dark green by Rust-oleum and others with Barbarian Flesh by Army Painter. I'm glad I did the comparison because I far preferred the Army Painter, which gave a much lighter, less tacky coat. Rust-oleum is probably fine for terrain (I used it on some of my jungle pieces, I think). I thought of using the Barbarian Flesh because I wanted to experiment with some speed/batch painting techniques I had been researching on YouTube that used inks/washes to get most of the job done (and thus required starting with a lighter primer color).

So, I tried a variety of techniques and colors to see what worked best and fastest. As I went along, I found myself occasionally consulting Hobgoblinry's post, which pushed me to tackle some detail work I never would have worked up the nerve to try otherwise, especially not at this reduced scale (eyes, tongues, teeth at 1/72...masochism!).

Once I got the little yellow eyes painted, I even pushed myself to try adding pupils (again, Hobgoblinry's fault). I don't know if anybody else uses this approach, but I found that these great art pens from Japan get a super fine point that makes pupils easier for me.

Below are some photos of the results, some of which show various other 28mm miniatures from different manufacturers (Hasslefree, Grenadier, and Brigade). Click on any of the photos to enlarge.

second from right: A Grenadier barbarian.

left: A Hasslefree dwarf, I think...

left: I love this Hasslefree model.

center: Female warrior from Brigade Model's Gael line

All told, after priming I spent maybe 3.5 hours painting these 13 lizardmen. I tried a variety of color schemes, and I'll probably keep experimenting as I paint the rest that came in the box. They're not as nice as Hobgoblinry's, but they'll be fine on the tabletop, and I've proven to myself that I can do more than I thought as a miniatures painter.

And as Hobgoblinry's and my photos show, they scale up just fine with larger miniatures. I've never been stuck on D&D canon that lizardmen need to be larger than humans, and so these guys being a bit smaller doesn't bother me in the least. And though they suffer a bit from being bendy and soft on detail, at this scale it's not as bothersome, and those drawbacks are offset by some nicely dynamic poses. Not seen here are some cool sculpts, too, of lizardmen with blowguns and others with some primitive bastard-type swords.

The box comes with 34 miniatures in 11 poses, and is a steal at around $10. I'm glad I picked them up, and they'll make a great horde to hunt down my heroes in future games of Sellswords & Spellslingers (still the best solo/co-op minis game out there) or other situations where I have to put a lot of figures on the battlefield.

Wish me luck the next time I dare pick up a brush....Each time is fraught with peril and treachery for me!


  1. Great stuff Joe! I have the same wyvern, but painted in a dishwater dull gray. Love the purple accents! Your lizardmen also look great. I think the light primer +colored washes is an excellent method of getting figures done quickly and looking good. As for eyes, you're a more patient man than I. I gave up on painting eyes years ago for all but the most important figures.

    Looking forward to seeing more output from your brush!

    1. Very encouraging words from the man whose blog has been nothing but a source of inspiration since I fell into this hobby. Thanks, friend!

  2. Great stuff, I really like the blue and violet scales of your dragon!

    1. Thanks, Skully! Always tempted to paint every dragon red, but I'm glad I went with this color scheme.

  3. Good work! That wyvern's come out really nicely. The lizardmen look great too. And thanks again for the kind words about the blog!

    Micron pens are great - I used one this very morning to put some eyeballs in on an old Dixon ninja. They're also handy for black-lining between areas.

    1. At the time I bought them I hadn't painted a miniature in decades, but I've got a whole pile of those pens in different colors I bought a few years back because I was enamored with how fine the tips are. Good to hear it's not "cheating" to use them on miniatures and that other folks use them, too! ;)

  4. I think that wyvern looks terrific. Don't talk yourself into thinking you're not good at this.

    1. You're very kind, Joseph, and as ever a true source of encouragement. Hope we get to game together at Historicon!

  5. Practice makes perfect and seeing these I think it won't take much to reach a level of perfection you're satisfied with.
    Well painted on all of them, but the wyvern in particular. The eraser is a hidden gem though and I look forward to see the gorilla too.

    The only thing I'm not a fan of, but that's just a matter of taste, are they clear bases.

    1. Yes, I've come to recognize that clear acrylic bases are a pretty divisive issue among the gaming community. I appreciate the beauty of a well crafted base, but have ultimately fallen for the more transparent base's discrete, low profile character that better blends with whatever surroundings it finds itself atop. Of course, I break all of the rules by being too chicken to remove integral bases from my miniatures when mounting them on transparent bases, probably resulting in the worst of all combinations for some eyes!

  6. Back in the 1990's, when I was single, I, too, spent a lot of money paying a professional to paint my mini's for me. He is a friend, and when he showed me his new, .70 caliber Black Powder Musket, and told me, "You paid for it!", I decided I could buy a trunk full of hobby/craft paints, for the amount of money I'd given him!...

    I purchased some copies of TSR's 2e BattleSystem, and 2e BattleSystem Skirmish games, and each had painting tutorials in them. I also learned of The Dip, and Magic Wash techniques. I still paint the same way, 25+ years later: simple block painting, followed by The Dip/Magic Wash. I paint armies, with a single army consisting of 50-100+ figures. I need to get them done as quickly as possible.

    I also paint to the the GEtGW standard (Good Enough to Game With, at arm's length). I also paint in assembly-line mode, grouping figures of the same casting, so I can repeat the same brush-stroke on each figure, in a minimal amount of time. My average painting time, including applying The Dip/Magic Wash: 10 minutes! They will not win any painting contests, but at arm's length, they look fine, particularly en masse.

    I play 2e BattleSystem, and I supply nearly all of the mini's for most games, so I need/have a lot of armies! Cheers!

    1. Sgt. Slag...a few months ago I hunted down that Battlesystem 2e book, so I'll have to give a close look at the painting tutorials within. You're not the first person I've heard tout them as the basis for their start in this hobby. I'm also looking forward to simply trying out the rules themselves...a few of the fellas in my Second Saturday Scrum Club have expressed an interest in dusting them off!

  7. Nice looking eraser! The wyvern is fab! I like your lizard men too, it's a mental thing, deciding your painting an army not an individual and pushing through when they don't look great because you haven't finished them! I prime mine black and dry brush white on them really fast and then just do washes, the shading is already done for you!
    Best Iain

    1. Thanks for the technique tip! Have heard of that exact approach before, so I'll have to experiment with that!


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