Wednesday, 1 June 2016

How to be a Better Painter - Basics

The road to success, or sometimes even decent results can be long and arduous. In this series of articles I'm going to share some tricks and techniques in the hope of helping people become better painters.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not Golden Demon standard myself, but I do know a thing or 2 about painting and I've won some local competitions. I'm actually going to use pictures of my own work, both good and bad to illustrate some of these points. I think people will take my advice more seriously when they see the difference from how bad I was in the beginning till now!

Good things come to those who wait. Lets compare with something I painted when I first started out.

Conversion perfection. Blood, skulls and lightning? what's not to like - the bird poo on his helmet takes the cake though.

The point of this article is to be motivational. If I've come from nothing to what I can do today then so can you - just stick with it and try to learn something new with every new army or project. I also found that once I had the basics down I really learned a lot from entering painting competitions. You can't always win, hell sometimes you don't stand a chance, but it still pushes you to try and do your best and that means progress!

Let's start with some common misconceptions about painting and things that I think almost everyone will remember saying, hearing, or thinking at one time or another:

1) "That looks really good, you must've used a really small brush!"

This is one of the things you'll hear most often from novice hobby enthusiasts when they see a good (or even half-decent) paint job. The truth is that it has more to do with knowing the right time for that small brush. Most beginners would be horrified to see the size of my base-coating brush and would assume that the final results would reflect that, the truth is that you have to understand the right tool for the job.

2) "I'll never be good at painting because I don't have steady hands"

Like anybody was born with iron nerves and arms forged of pure granite! This actually has more to do with how you hold your model when you paint, the position you're in, and how you brace yourself. Yep, that's right, bracing yourself by either leaning your forearms on a static object (like a table), or anchoring your fingers on the model or it's base is a must. I probably do both most of the time. I think I'll write an article on this one in the future, as you rarely see it discussed and it really is probably the most essential thing to accuracy.

3) "My army looks worse that yours because I'm not a good painter"

Sometimes making an army look good is less about the individual than it is about the whole - a matching colour scheme and bases can make the whole thing look a lot more appealing than a far better painted force that looks disparate and is painted up in all the colours of the rainbow. I know it sounds like common sense, but it can be hard to resist just going berserk with the paint pots when you start out.

Some Necrons I've been painting. Notice how cohesive they look all because a strong but simple colour scheme (with matching bases!)

4) "The undersides don't matter - no body sees those anyway"

Yeah, this is one sin I was definitely guilty of in my youth. I didn't hold the model in my hand when I painted it, but just placed it on the table and painted from that position the whole time. They looked ok from the top (well terrible now, but at the time). Turn them upside down though and there was nothing but white undercoat or even bare plastic. It wasn't pretty. So remember to hold the model as you paint it and get all those angles!

One from a very long time ago (my first army when I was about 10) - note the bare metal and white under those legs!

5) "Do I really need  undercoat/primer?"

You might be tempted to save a bit of money and try to brush undercoat everything, but do yourself a favour and get a good tin of Chaos Black spray. I almost never use anything else. The coverage is excellent, it's durable, and your paint won't chip. Years ago I used to brush undercoat and it was always a chore that blocked me from making any progress - it would take hours of brushing black on everything to get a unit ready before you even started painting. Spray is easier, the finish is perfect and it's a real no-brainer. Seriously these days if I run out of spray I don't paint till I get more. A word to the wise though, shake it well and don't use the stuff below 10 degrees unless you want to regret it.

Some old archers I painted without undercoat. Note the chipped paint, terrible claggy finish and dismal results!

6) "White undercoat is needed to get vibrant colours"

Most people start out with white undercoat and honestly I'd only recommend using white to really advanced painters. The problem with white is that every tiny gap between colours will stare back at you in gleaming brilliance. This makes even tiny flaws incredibly noticeable. The beauty of black is that any black that shows will often blend seamlessly into darker tones, or just look like shadow. I'm not saying you can't ever use white, but I personally wouldn't go with white unless I wanted to get a really vibrant yellow, or wanted to paint white as a main colour. The rest of the time you really can still get a bright colour over black with no problems.

The bright greens and reds on my Salamanders were painted over a black undercoat.

7) "I'll never be good at painting minis because I'm not good at art"

There really isn't much similarity between being able to paint a picture and being able to paint a miniature. The minis comes ready formed, so you won't need to be a sculptor there. Secondly, the techniques are completely different. You could be one of those awesome portrait artists who can do an exact likeness, but you still wouldn't ever have a reason to do a wash or break out the drybrush technique. The point really is that there isn't much similarity and that everyone is going to have to learn this stuff from scratch, so don't be disheartened.

8) "I need a really good/small brush - that'll make me paint better"

Yeah, again not really. It is important to have a good detail brush that can hold a fine point, but when a brush gets too small it can't actually hold enough paint to be of any use for much. I'd say you need a quality detailing brush (and no I don't mean one of those £15 artificer brushes GW is trying to peddle). For me a small layer works fine. Other than that there are plenty of non-fancy brands that make cheap decent brushes that do a great job for the fess fine work - basecoats, washes and drybrushing for example.

I painted this guy about 90% of the time with a brush as big as my thumb! never underestimate the power of basecoats, washing and a good drybrush!

9) "The colour won't come out right unless I use more paint"

The battle cry of obscured features and a big mess. Claggy horrible paintjobs, I've seen a few and I was responsible for one or two. If a colour doesn't come out right, give it a minute and do a second thin coat, don't load up the brush and expect to get it all in one go. Trust me, your minis will thank me for it when you can still see that they're holding bolters and not planks of wood.

Two skeletons painted at very different times. Notice how thick and claggy (as well as uneven) the paint on the one on the left looks compared to the one on the right. I was really proud of that guy too when I was 12!

10) "I read that an airbrush will do basically everything for me and I can sit back and drink beer while it paints my models and gives me a foot rub"

An airbrush can be great. I've got one and it's an awesome tool. If you're interested check out Angel Giraldez's book on it as he seems to have mastered the style. The thing is that it isn't enough on it's own. The airbrush is basically great for getting a smooth blend of colours, but that really is it. You can pull a few tricks (stencils etc.) and basecoat with one too, but at the end of the day you're going to still need that fine detail brush to pull the look together. Master the brush first, save the airbrush for later.

I've had some great results from the airbrush, but I still spent 90% of the painting time on this model with an ordinary brush in my hand, so master that first or the airbrush won't do you much good.

11) "Citadel paints are too expensive - can't I just use Humbrol?"

No. Seriously, just don't even go there. I did years ago and I ended up with a terrible glossy mess for my trouble. The miniatures are expensive and you don't want to ruin them, so get a proper product. There are other paint manufacturers out there and from my experience Vallejo are an equally good brand.

12) "I'm gonna do a freehand design - that'll look cool"

Yes and no to this one. Freehand requires a massive amount of accuracy and if you haven't progressed to the point of being able to draw a hair-thin line accurately, don't suddenly expect to be able to do sprawling script and designs. It sounds simple enough, but it's a hard learned lesson for some (myself included).

I know I had this guy earlier, but I thought I should point out that the bird poo on his helmet was supposed to be lightning. Save the freehand till you're ready!

Well I think that covers it for now. Tune in next time where we'll be taking a look in more detail at some of these points and possibly discussing some techniques. Any questions? leave a comment below.

And for God's sake will somebody else subscribe to this blog. I know it's called Tabletop Apocalypse, but I didn't intend to have 4 followers forever just so I could refer to them as the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse!


  1. +1 for skillful bird poop.

    To me, the next thing would be start priming my frekkin' models.

    1. In years to come bird poo will be all the rage in Golden Demon. I can see it now .... and it'll be horrific!

    2. The new Mark of Nurgle: pidgeon poo.

  2. Good Article, One day I am gonna have to pull out some of my older stuff and take a few pics to.

    1. It is surprisingly rewarding to look back at your old stuff and see how far things have come. I can only recommend it as being motivational too, as it is sometimes shocking how bad things are that you really thought were awesome at the time!

  3. Looking forward to this series. I love to game and I think my painting is a reasonable tabletop standard, but am always ready to improve!

    On a side note for promoting the blog, I have my own blog and run a series called "Better Know a Blogger" to highlight some of the blogs that I follow and read. You can find examples at if you are interested, let me know.

    Also (another shameless plug), my blog turned a year old not too long ago. I wrote an article about my experiences and how I have gone about promoting the blog and growing it over the year. You can find it at

    Hope that helps and keep up the good work!

    1. I read both of your articles, very nice. I might contact you about that "get to know a blogger better" article at some point, but I'm having a bit of a busy week or two at the moment (non hobby stuff) so it might have to wait. I've started working on those painting articles too - I just really need to take a bunch of pictures for them!