Quartermaster-Colonel: A Guide to Painting Historical Miniatures

By Bill Gray 31 Aug 2016 0

It’s either the best thing going or the bane of one’s existence if you are into miniature tabletop wargaming. By this I mean, of course, prepping, painting and deploying all those colorful lead figures, not to mention the buildings and terrain they fight on. Sure, you could hire one of the popular overseas services, such as Fernando Enterprises, to paint your collection for you, but that is expensive and you often have to wait virtually forever to get your armies back ready for play. So you paint them yourself, which is cheaper (but not cheap) and also so very time consuming.

Or is it?

Well, I once painted 2566 figures in 3 months and 10 days to a 7+ level of goodness on a 1 to 10 scale according to the Mr GAJO painting service. During that time I could usually mount, paint, flag and flock 12 figures in 1 hour 10 minutes. Yes, these are the smaller 15 mm or 10 mm figures, and old age has gifted me with arthritis to boot, but still a mouth dropping speed for most folks I know. Admittedly, I’d like to advertise myself as a painting wizard, genius at least, but I’m not. The trick to painting high quality figures, replete with shading and edged belts, is by painting less, not more.


Interested my young Padawan? Then on must you continue.

A Cavalcade of Color – Not

First, a word about colors, provided solely for information and angst eradication, and here I’ll use the Napoleonic period as my case study. Remember colors back then were a lot darker than we define them today. French Blue was a dark navy blue while Russian Green was almost black, so much so that in later periods the holy warriors of the Tsar actually wore black uniforms. The dye was cheaper and nearly the same shade anyway. It’s no wonder Lord Wellington howled when his light dragoons had their spiffy Tarleton helmets replaced with shakos. From even a short distance his dark blue clad light cavalry looked very much like French chasseurs a cheval that wore dark green. The culprit here was fading. With the use of vegetable dyes, uniforms were colored very darkly in order to retain as much hue as possible for the longest time possible. Thus while Bavarian cornflower blue would seem like a medium blue today, it was considered light blue back in 1809.

And then of course there were variations, primarily because there was no precise formula for what constituted a color like madder red. Contractors pretty much guessed, so one unit’s red may not look the same as another, with officer uniforms providing additional confusion as they were often made of better material than that of the rank and file. For British Redcoats, the officers actually wore scarlet, but everyone else had to make do with brick red. While Austrian infantry supposedly wore white, the reality was that all the rank-and-file wore a very light grey.

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Now toss in the fact that many of the colors listed for uniforms in books like The Methuen Handbook of Colour have no contemporary equivalent today. Austrian Parrot Green was a medium to dark mossy green, while aramanth was a medium violet. Let’s not forget ecru, a type of beige, or crab red/crayfish/lobster which seemed to be a shade slightly darker than scarlet. Not helping matters was the fact that two countries might define the same color differently.

You get the picture, and thankfully there are some companies that produce these exact shades. One of my favorites is Howard’s Hues (clever name, right?), which bottles Austrian Artillery Ochre, Polish Lancer Crimson and so on. The bottom line, is by all means try to get your figures attired properly, but remember what reality was back then and don’t sweat the small stuff.


Attitude and common sense is everything. I’ll concentrate on 15mm and smaller figures here because they are most often used for really big tabletop battles which require players to put a huge amount of troops on the table. Noting that fact, if there is one piece of advice I could give to any budding Napoleon it would be that figures 15mm and smaller do not need to have every sculpted detail painted to look impressive. 15mm gets its visual impact from the serried masses of bayonets, not the detail on each individual figure which is mandatory for 28 mm and above. So, many people use the three-foot rule - from three feet away, if you can't see the detail on the figure (like the lace on a pocket flap), why paint it?


Next I suggest you mount the figures for painting on the actual stands used to move them around, and then hold them by these stands when you paint. One of the best materials for the stands remains Evergreen Plastic Styrene which is both thin and sturdy, and works well with super glue. Thin and sturdy is an important attribute as it eliminates thicker stands that portray your favorite infantry regiment moving around on 6 foot platforms

For priming I use Krylon flat black or satin spray enamel in an open area. There are some hobby specific primers, but I have yet to find any that works with plain old Krylon. This under/overcoat holds paint well, and note too that many parts of a figure were black historically (shakos, boots, cartridge pouches, etc). Likewise, if you paint three out of every eight cavalry or mounted figures on black horses, Krylon works just dandy and becomes an additional time saver. Besides a black under/overcoat is absolutely necessary for the Krylon Detail Method (KDM - yes, I made it up) which I will cover in just a few.

Obviously paint and paint brushes are important tools of the trade, and I do have my favorites. I use water based acrylics such as those from Howards Hues or Vallejo Paints for all colors except metallic, and then I use oil based enamels (gold, silver, iron, etc), or at least I used to. Water based paint has really come along way, so I’ve been slowly switching over, and not having to use enamel thinner (vice water) is really a nice perk. My paint brush depot includes Loew-Cornell #8 7500 Filbert (flat, curved for large areas), #0 7300 Shader, #1 7300 Shader (both flat with tapering, wide right angle tip), and #10/0 7650 Spotter (small details). Again, there are some hobby specific products out there but I find the ones stocked in US arts and crafts supply stores like Michaels do just as well if not better


Then I start painting using a factory line technique. In other words, I paint by unit, eg, a 12 figure EMPIRE battalion. I paint the same single color across all figures before going to the next color.
For mounted troops, I paint all horses first, while for artillery units, I complete the gun carriages and wheels first. For infantry (and cavalry troopers vice horses, gunners vice guns), I start on weapons then hands/face first and for all units I dry brush large areas and deal with metallic issues last. Then it’s off to KDM.

KDM – Krylon Detail Method

OK, without question this is the biggest timesaver of the entire process, the one that gives the best visual results and while easy and simple in theory, is uber-difficult to master.

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You simply note what areas on each figure need to be painted black for shading, edging and detail. This might be such things as joints where arms or legs bend, under arms or inner thighs, edging along cuffs, pleats, gloves and shoulder straps or saddle blankets, inner portion of wheel spokes, etc. Then, because you primed in black, you don’t paint there!!! Instead, paint all other areas outside those noted above. In effect what you are doing is allowing the Krylon black primer to show through and become your edging or shading. For example, there is no need to paint the underside of a leg as it kneels forward, because in actual life a shadow would darken that portion of the limb in question. Have an infantry figure with cross belts. Here you can simply put a dot of coat color paint in the four triangles formed by the overlapping belts. Finish and look again and it will seem as though you edged each (tiny, this is 15 mm folks) strap in black. You also might want to exaggerate the KDM black areas just a little so they will show up from a distance. Like three feet, maybe?

Are there limitations? Yes there are and one is the fact that this technique only really pops when used with lighter colors. White belts across a Russian Green tunic color will not show any of the spiffy detailing no matter how hard you try or how careful you are. The tunic color is near black and the edging is black, so the two hues meld without providing any separation. Thus, in these situations, paint normally.

However, here is the biggie and why some mental gymnastics are mandatory. This process is extremely difficult because it looks like you are not covering enough surface area (say, the left arm) with paint. You will be tempted to paint more than you need, but you will have to resist this temptation. I still have problems with this to be sure, but because you are actually painting less surface area, the process will move swiftly once you get used to it. I do have my own favorite figure manufacturers, but I will say that firms such as Minifigs and those with similar figures seem especially well suited for this process due to their smooth sculpting technique.

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Finishing Up

For me the final part of the process begins with dealing with flags and I always use pre-printed standards, either from the Internet or a commercial product. Desktop publishing has made the need for actually painting flags yourself obsolete and has saved gamers thousands of dollars in behavioral health costs after they tried to deal with all those blue and white lozenges on Bavarian Flags. Anyway, put these on last prior to flocking. Use paper flags and attach them to the flagpole, bending the flag into a wave prior to the glue drying (Elmers Glue Stick is good).

For flocking I paint the base a ground color and then drag the base while still wet through something like Woodland Scenics Burnt Turf or similar. Remember that battlefields were normally areas of tall grass and not a parade field, so there is little need to be careful around shoe, boot or hoof. Finally I paint the bottom of each stand. I do this in a color distinctive for me and me alone, primarily to avoid confusion with other gamers’ figures when picking up. I was assigned by my gaming club Floquil Dragon Blue in Germany and have used it ever since.

Then you’re finished and can treat yourself to your favorite libation while toasting the fact that you only have 2565 figures to go. Prosit!



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