Miniature Painting 101: Finding Your Personal Painting Ceiling

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I am an average painter. Maybe a little above.

I want to be really clear about what I mean by this. There are times I knock it out of the park with a painted miniature, as with my Great Unclean One (which I show off every chance I get). Mostly, though, I do a perfectly passable job which won’t win me awards or get gasps. My line highlighting can be a little too thick in spots. I can’t freehand. I inexplicably cannot highlight bone, leaving me to drybrush the omnipresent Warhammer skulls as best I can. Highlighting teeth fills me with dread, because teeth are white.

All of that is perfectly fine.

A brief history of how I worked my way up to average and why it’s fine. I tuned into Warhammer by accident, when I got a White Dwarf magazine 30 (oh no) years ago. My mother thought it was about Dungeons & Dragons; it wasn’t. I fell hard for all the miniatures and battle reports. I wanted to do that.

Here’s what I found out really quickly: the stuff I was so enthused by in the ‘Eavy Metal section was beyond my abilities as an 11-year-old. So I got frustrated with my gloppy paints and bad shading. I didn’t understand highlighting, or lighting or color theory or all the other stuff. There was no YouTube to turn to or close by store for lessons.

So I just stopped painting. The few times I did paint, it was a slapdash affair, with neither care nor patience. My basement games were scores of painted or half-painted miniatures, all because I couldn’t hit the peaks I thought I should be able to.


Be Yourself

Two things turned this around.

The first was purely technical, though it feeds into the second. I figured out that very little of miniatures painting is raw artistic talent. It’s largely down to technique and tools. When you think of a miniature as a 3D paint by numbers set, it starts to make sense to the people (like me) the artistic genes skipped. You can learn to highlight and drybrush. You can learn a little color theory to make your minis pop. Those are skills, not mysterious talent, and they can be made better through practice. I can’t draw a straight line or make a circle, so I’m not being pithy when I say that, if I can, anyone can.

The second thing which helped me is purely psychological and way more important than technique. I accepted that I wouldn’t be ‘Eavy Metal quality and that I had my own individual ceiling on how good I could be.

That sounds like a downer, but it wasn’t. It was liberating. Once I figured out that there were some things I was never going to be good at, it made the things I was good at seem better. It let me concentrate on the good stuff more, to expand upon them and make them even better. I’m good at flesh. I can make drybrushing the sort of light touch you need to keep it from looking too streaky. I can figure out cool color schemes.

That’s all technique which I learned, first during a brief stint in Games Workshop’s retail arm around the turn of the century (oh no), then on my own, reading and watching videos. But I wouldn’t have ever done those things if I’d been sitting around bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t going to paint at the level of White Dwarf’s in-house team. The way I got to be average—and once in a while either a little or quite a bit above average—was to commit myself to first figuring out what my max was and then painting to that maximum limit. Everything was made possible after that.

You can see some of the difference just diving in and figuring it out made. Below are some Word Bearers I painted about 15 years ago:

Old Bearers
And then some Word Bearers for Horus Heresy I painted late last year:

Word Bearers

They’re still not perfect, but there’s a marked improvement. I’m still me; what’s changed is my approach to painting relative to my own skills.

It’s Not the Louvre

A friend who was relatively new to miniatures gaming called me one day, frantic about how to get a perfect blend from white to purple on some ghouls he saw in White Dwarf. I knew which ones he meant; they were perfect, delicately blended and impeccably detailed. He asked me what paints to buy and what approach to take.

I told him what I figured the proper approach would be. Shading, of course, some wet blending. But then I told him that it was probably out of his reach and that he was going to reach a state of painting paralysis if he shot the moon right out of the gate. Painting miniatures is, if not easy, easy-ish; painting miniatures like a top pro-painter is hard, even impossible for us mere painting mortals.

It helped. He went from finding painting frustrating to finding it a fun, relaxing activity during evenings. He transitioned from just a few painted miniatures to an entire army, to an army and a half. He found his realistic limit, then started seeing where he could stretch it.

By all means, watch videos and read blog posts. I swear by Duncan Rhodes, the Games Workshop stalwart. I had to train myself from scratch in airbrushing, which meant watching more videos than I care to relate; I’m still not very good at it, but it’s something new to toy with and it speeds up basecoating, even if I do nothing more complicated with it than that. Get the techniques and the tools sorted. The paints are better than they were 30 years ago, there’s more information, and there’s way more variety in tools, from LED lights to an unending cascade of brushes. Use that stuff to your advantage.

But above all else, don’t get discouraged if you don’t hit the heights of the best photos and videos. You don’t have to be the best. You just have to be you.|

What’s the miniature that best showcases your skills? Show us in the comments!

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Miniature Painting 101: Finding Your Personal Painting Ceiling_1

Want more painting tips, tricks and techniques? Host Will Friedle is joined by master painters to learn and grow in the hobby, and you can join him on his journey.

Want to see what he’s been painting? Check out the  Season 3 Lesson Guide, complete with the materials list and step-by-step galleries for each episode. On the premiere episode, airing August 6th, Will and master painter Bryan Merlonghi will cover advanced weathering techniques, to accomplish the result below.


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Image Credits: Ian Williams

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