The Waving Flag: Painting Miniatures – Psychology

Wednesday 20 July 2016

Painting Miniatures – Psychology

Just lately I’ve been working on my mountain (well hillock really) of unpainted lead.  I have a habit of buying extra units, or figures, to bulk out a finished army and putting them away for an unspecified time in the future.  You know the sort of thing: two more bases will make a unit more flexible etc.

Strange as this may seem this has recently brought about much heartache and mental torment.  What follows is a short essay on the psychology of painting and how ones technique develops over time.  There’re no pretty pictures and, I have to admit, it’s a weird subject.  Read on at your own risk.


I first played with my newly finished 15 mm TYW Danish army in 2007.  Yes nine years ago!  How things have changed.  They first saw action under DBR and latterly under the Field of Glory Renassance rules. They have been in regular use until this year.

This army saw a significant development in my painting style.  I started using Testudo infantry for the pikemen and then switched to Donnington for the musketeers and all the horse, artillery and dragoons.  After the detailed and very realistic Testudo sculpts the Donnington figures represented a real challenge: basic block painting doesn’t look that good on these much simpler, smoother, figures.

In response I developed a style of bold, almost cartoonish, shading often creating depth and folds with the brush if the model didn’t have any.  The end result was a set of figures that really “popped” both close up and from a distance.  This has remained the core of my style ever since.

In the last year I have painted all my spare dragoon figures.  In the last 4-6 weeks I have finished a set of musketeers and command.  Buoyed by this productive phase, I started a mini-project to add a couple of bases to some average horse.  This is where the psychology kicked in.

I examined the painted figures from 2007 in detail prior to painting the additional figures.  This brought the contrast of styles between 2007 & 2016 into sharp focus.  Prior to this my perception of the quality of these figures was high.  I felt that the paint job was one of my best.  Nine years later the critical part of me wasn’t so sure.


With one of the bases the edges were a bit tatty and the horses somewhat shiny (mainly from handling).  I thought: I’ve got so many tricks now; I’ll tidy the edges and flatten the shine in next to no time [1].  What I’d forgotten is that I’ve learnt so much that I should have known better.

Over a period of two to three days I set about rejuvenating the base.  Needless to say nothing worked.  I got more and more desperate.  More importantly I became more critical and lost my patience.  Eventually I was forced to sit back and really think about what was happening.


Firstly, the recovery techniques I was using didn’t work because in 2007 I had not figured out that my red & brown paints needed sealing with added talc. Without the addition of talc the paint remains porous and absorbs the varnish leaving a satin finish at best. The only solution was to repaint the affected flanks of the horses and varnish this new layer [2]. 

Secondly, repainting worked except for one black horse.  To cut a long story short, the black paint I’ve been lately using is very high quality but, if not properly treated, dries satin.  I was relying on matting batches on my palette. As I mix my own shades of dark grey for highlighting they too were turning out satin.  I must have tried three or four batches before I got one I was happy with: a maddening cycle of trial and error.

Finally, whilst fixing the black horse I noticed the riders’ blackened armour was also satin (not due to handling) and needed some attention. I ended up repainting the blackened armour on four riders as well as the black horse.  Had I become hypercritical?  Probably but more likely this was just another example of what happens when you lose your patience.


In retrospect I should have:

  • Avoided trying one varnish recovery technique after another on old paint work. The paint layers aren’t sealed and therefore the techniques won’t work [1].
  • Immediately repainted the affected horses and the blackened armour using my 2016 techniques and re-varnished [2].
  • Ensured that my stock of black paint dried matt from the start and not relied on matting batches on my palette.  You never recover from a poor start.

Psychology clearly got in the way.  I felt these figures were some of my best work.  I didn’t make any allowance for the effects of 9 years of use and the improvement in my technique.  When I examined them closely all I saw were things that were wrong not normal wear and tear. 

Jolted out of my perception I rushed to restore the figures to their former glory but failed to assess the situation correctly and used inappropriate techniques and materials. Despite all this some good came out of this:

  • I have learnt the best way to renovate older figures and to be patient whilst doing it.
  • I have mixed, and tested, a reliable batch of matt black by adding matt medium and talc.
  • For the future and emergencies I have bought new bottles of black and burnt umber acrylic paint which dry dead flat (they are cheap craft paints [3]).
  • I’m now two thirds of the way through the additional figures and everything is fine. 

I hope this helps others.  Writing this has helped me.

Notes added: Thu, 21 July 2016

[1] The techniques mentioned are mainly that of flattening (and sealing) acrylic paint and the understanding of how that affects the final varnish finish.  It’s more about understanding the medium than controlling the brush.

[2] The amount of re-painting involved was not that great.  I'd say less than 10%.  Once I'd sorted the technique it was done in minutes.

[3] The reason craft paints dry flat is because they contain more filler and less pigment than artists’ and modellers’ paints.  For dark colours this isn't really an issue and my guess is that the filler is most likely talc.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I have changed my style of painting over the years. I used to try to carefully paint every nook and cranny - shading - what was that? I now go for a style that works, and allows me to crank out units when I am actually painting. I take a lot of shortcuts but try to ensure that the figures look best from 'gaming distance'. I thought about refurbishing my old miniatures but decided that in the end I would leave them as they are but re-base them. I find a unified basing scheme for the entire army has tied the older and newer models together - so much so that you barely notice the difference in painting styles on the table top.

Vexillia said...

I agree with your point about basing schemes. Each of my armies use just one basing scheme.

Vexillia said...

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