Note: this article is going to be short on pictures because, quite frankly, it is hard to capture what I am talking about in photos or even videos. The best way to illustrate this is in three dimensions — try it out for yourself by comparing metallics before and after a coat of varnish!
Conventional wisdom in miniature painting dictates that the final step to any projects is to protect your work. Seal it in with one or more coats of varnish; perhaps a gloss coat or two for protection and dullcote to knock the shine off. This will protect it from the clumsiest, most cheeto-fingered gamers and ensure your hard work will live on.
Unfortunately, there is an issue with this approach and that issue is metallic paints. All too often, I see people kill their metallics with varnish. And I am no exception — it took me a couple years to figure out that dullcote makes my metallic paint less shiny, so I have a lot of winter guardsmen with mediocre metallics in my collection.
Display vs tabletop
Of course, if you don’t plan on touching your models, this is less of a problem. In fact, this is one of the reasons why a lot of display painters separate gaming models from display projects — the varnish that is being used to protect the model often can have unintended effects on the finish. A lot of display painters don’t varnish their models, which is why they don’t want you touching them.
If you are handling them, then there are two things to worry about — paint chipping and paint rubbing. While paint chipping might be able to be ameliorated slightly with varnish, generally the problem there has more to do with how well the primer has adhered to the model (and how well you cleaned all the mold release off). Paint rubbing, on the other hand, is caused by a mixture of skin oils and friction as you handle the model. By sealing out those oils and putting a layer of varnish overtop, you can protect the underlying paint from both of these factors.
Back to metallics
Whether you are going for display or tabletop, metallic paint is harder to work with than regular paint. In general, coverage is often mediocre so they often require an undercoat in regular paints (essentially doubling your work), they can be broken easily if you thin them, they mess up your wet palette and your paint water, they don’t flow quite as smoothly, and they chew up natural hair brushes, meaning you can’t use your really good brushes on them unless you are very rich and you don’t mind killing every weasel in Siberia.
In spite of these challenges, we still use metallic paints for their unique properties. Namely, that you get a nice shiny metal effect and… well, it shouldn’t be too hard for you to figure out why a matte varnish might mess with that shiny metal effect. And, if you are going through the trouble of using metallic paints to get a nice metallic shine then immediately kill that shine with dullcote, it should be evident that this is a counter-productive approach.
One other neat property of metallics is that I’m not sure why or how this is the case, but they seem to be more durable. I suspect something in the metallic flakes and pigments is a little more resistant to oily fingers and rubbing than regular paints. As such, they might not even need to be varnished.
So, for tabletop miniatures, there are at least three ways that you can address the problem of varnish killing your shine:
Save your metallics until the end
Generally, a coat of varnish is applied from a rattle can or airbrush. As such, you can’t really decide to varnish everything but the few metallic areas, at least not without a whole lot of obnoxious masking. Even if you are using a brush-on varnish, you want to paint everything on quickly with a big brush and not try to carefully paint around your metallics.
However, there is a simple solution. Paint the whole model, and give your metallics whatever base coat you desire (since one of the properties of metallics is that they often need either multiple coats or an undercoat to get good coverage), then do your varnish. Once that is done, go back in and paint your metallics over top of the varnish. The metallics should be tough enough to resist to the gentle handling we do on the tabletop, and even if they do chip, you have a solid undercoat underneath.
Save the highlights until the end
If you are still worried about the aforementioned cheeto-fingered gamers, you could varnish in your metallics, but save any highlights (be they true metallic metals or something simple like dry brushing) until the end. This way, you at least can get the protection of the varnish over the base coats while retaining the shine in the place where it matters the most — the highest highlights were light is glistening off the model. If your metallics do somehow get weathered from handling on the tabletop, the varnish will protect the undercoat and they will just look… well, weathered.
Bring back the shine with gloss varnish
Finally, if you did kill your metallics with something like dullcote, don’t fret — there is a way to bring them back somewhat. If you go over these metallics with a brush-on gloss varnish, that will help restore the shine. Unfortunately, it won’t be quite the same, particularly if you did a lot of TMM shading and highlights. A gloss varnish doesn’t have quite the same finish as metallic paints, but it is a lot shinier than a matte varnish. and will help make those metallics pop again.
While varnishing your tabletop pieces is a good idea to protect the paint from oily fingers, varnish will affect the finish. In the case of regular paints, the effect isn’t subtle enough that it isn’t a huge tradeoff. However, when it comes to metallics, that is a whole different ball of wax — you get less benefit from the varnish, and it can totally ruin the finish.
Bonus Content: Hutchuck!
Not much to say about him; I just finished my Hutchuck model as part of my push to clear out my WIP shelf before Christmas. The metallics on his club kind of reference what I am talking about; I put some work into doing good true metallic metals on them, and if I were to hit it with dullcote, that would kill the shine and I might as well just have done NMM using paints that are easier to work with.