Sketch style: How to paint miniatures backwards

I have long suspected that one of the reasons why some people dislike painting is because they set themselves up to fail. Without knowing any better, they end up doing things like trying to paint yellow straight over black primer then getting frustrated when they don’t get good results. That is not unexpected; we all make elementary mistakes just starting out (I did my fair share of mediocre colour schemes and trying to paint white straight over dark colours, and my first attempts at painting yellow were a nightmare) and it’s not fair to expect people who are just starting out to know not to use horribly inefficient processes. However, I feel like if more people knew how to set themselves up for success from the start, people would enjoy themselves more, accomplish more with their painting, and we would see more painted models on the table.

Which brings me to “sketch style,” a style of painting that was popularized by Matt DiPietro of Contrast Miniatures. This is a style that was all the rage about a year or two ago, but I never said I was always up on the latest trends. Basically, this style turns the traditional “base coat, shade, highlight” approach that companies like Games Workshop have promoted for decades and turns it on its head.

It, or at least the bastardization of the process that I use, rests on two assumptions. First, paint leaving an airbrush or rattle can travelling in a straight line can roughly represent rays of light emanating from a light source. Second, paint doesn’t have 100% opaque coverage.

Okay, so what is sketch style

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Munsell colour system – a system that can describe any colour by three axes: Hue, value, and chroma (which is similar to saturation)

Before I start, I think it is good to have a brief interlude about what makes a colour. In certain models for colour theory, every shade of every colour can be described according to three properties: hue, value, and saturation (or chroma, which is similar but different in a way people who actually went to art school may be able to describe). Hue describes the general colour of the rainbow or the colour wheel, whether it is red or blue or green or something in between. Value describes the lightness or darkness of the colour, with one extreme being black and the other being white. Sky blue, for example, has a much higher value than navy blue.

Finally, saturation describes the intensity of the colour and runs from completely desaturated neutral greys all the way out to really bright reds and greens and blues and whatevers. A bright blue is going to be much more intense than a dull, greyish blue. With these three variables, we can describe basically any colour that exists.

No, really, what is sketch style

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The “Citadel Paint System” — start with a base, hit it with a wash, then either layer or dry-brush the highlights

Think for a moment of the traditional way most of us learn to paint miniatures. If you’ve followed something like Duncan’s videos on Warhammer TV, you’re familiar with this approach. Typically, you start by base coating your miniature in the desired colour, using two thin coats to ensure you get smooth, even coverage. From there, apply some dark washes into the shadows and then hit it with a dry-brush of a lighter colour to pick out the highlights.

Now, let’s think about this in terms of the Hue/Value/Saturation. What we are essentially doing when we follow the traditional Warhammer method is laying down our desired hue and saturation with a uniform base coat some funnnily-named colour like Wazdakka Red, and then using washes, dry-brushing, and other techniques to increase the value in the highlights (eg: lighten them) or decrease the value in the shadows (eg: darken them), leaving us with a completed miniature with highlights and shading at the end.

Seriously, what the hell is sketch style already?

Sketch style basically turns this around. Instead of starting out with our hue by laying down an opaque basecoat, we start out by sketching in the value using black and white. Generally, we want more black in the shadows and white in the highlights.

Fortunately, there is an easy way to do this – a technique called zenithal priming, which I have discussed a few times before. Left to its own devices, light tends to emanate from a point and travel in a straight line until it hits something. As does paint coming out of an airbrush. So, by priming the entire miniature black, then loading up with white primer, holding the airbrush in the general location where the light source would be, and spraying your miniature from that angle, you can get a good start on your value sketch.

Take, for example, a miniature who is meant to represent your average soldier outside during the day. The main source of light on him is going to be the sun. So, figure out where you want the sun to be (generally somewhere in front of the miniature, though not necessarily straight on, coming down at maybe a 45 degree angle), hold your airbrush there, point it at the miniature, and spray it with white primer. That white primer will naturally come straight out your airbrush and land in areas on the model where the sun would hit the real thing, and leave the areas which would remain in shadow in black.

I like to especially focus fire on the face of a miniature, as that is generally the focus of a piece. I also like to add a secondary light source at about 180 degrees from the original light source, not as bright as the primary light source but still there. This is just so the back of the miniature isn’t completely black and you have some visual interest on both sides. While this may be taking some artistic license, you will never see both the front and the back of the miniature at the same time. And for wargamers, unless you’re playing a Warmachine game against Haley2, you’re going to be seeing the back of your miniatures a lot so you might as well use that secondary light source to make it look just as good from the back as it does from the front.

Note: You can use a rattle can for this, however an airbrush loaded with Stynylrez primer is my preferred tool as the airbrush offers more precise control over your spray, I don’t have issues with rattle cans in the long, cold, Canadian winter, and Stynylrez is an awesome airbrush primer.

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Value sketch on a miniature; ignore the purple wash in some areas (I got a little ahead of myself before I took the picture) and the white dot on the cape (that was a mistake that I covered up with dark purple paint after the value sketch)

While zenithal priming gives us a good start, for this technique to work to its maximum effectiveness, we need to kick it up a notch. By doing a quick dry brush, we can catch the edges and highest highlights of the model. The best paint for this is available not at your model or game store, but at the art store. Get yourself a tube of artist acrylic heavy body titanium white paint. Not only is it a nice consistency for dry brushing, but titanium white is the whitest white paint you can get. It’s basically the Mike Pence of paint.

So, once we’ve loaded up a makeup brush (which are the best dry brushes) with our white and gone to town, the end result should be a black and white miniature which is dark in the shadows and light in the highlights — basically, a value sketch with no hue or saturation.

Adding hue and saturation

Now that we’ve established our values, it’s time to add colour. What we want to do is tint the model with semi-transparent layers of colour; layers that are opaque enough that they add some hue and saturation, but transparent enough that they don’t completely cover up the underlying value sketch.

I’ve found there are two approaches which work well for this. The first, and generally my preferred method, is to use inks. You can use inks made by the usual suspects like Vallejo, P3 and Scale75, or acrylic artist inks made by folks like Daler & Rowney or Liquitex. While inks are very pigment-dense, they are also incredibly thin, almost like water. As such, a thin layer of ink often adds the perfect amount of colour, and one or maybe two coats should suffice to get to the desired level of saturation.

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A small sample of inks

The second option, if inks aren’t available, is to thin down some regular paint with a matte medium. While it can go by many names, especially if you buy it from a miniature paint line rather than the art store, matte medium is basically paint without pigment. This allows you to reduce the pigment density but not affect the consistency of the paint as if you just added water. This means the surface tension is such that you can apply a uniform coat as a glaze, instead of having it sink into the recesses like a wash. While this approach does work, it does take more coats than the inks to build up your colour, so unless you’re painting in such a large batch that your first model is dry by the time you make it to the end, having a blowdryer on hand to speed up the drying process can really help.

And that’s it. Using our inks or glazes, we can add colour to our value sketch in a sort of paint by numbers approach. Cover a blue cape with blue ink, leather straps with brown ink, and so on. Because we’ve already put in our highlights and shadows in the value sketch process, we don’t need to go back and hit it with things like washes and highlights if we don’t have to.

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Thrall warriors in just about every colour of the rainbow. Some sponge chipping was added to the armour, and brown washes to the bottom of the capes because re-animated skeletons are generally fairly dirty.

Colouring your shadows

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First Mate Hawk, with Drakenhof Nightshade (eg: dark blue) shade

Astute readers may notice that this runs slightly contrary to something that I often preach. By using black and white as a base for our value sketch, this means we are effectively shading and highlighting by adding black or white to the base colour. This works well for certain colours like blues and purples, but there are a lot of colours out there where colour theory dictates that there should be some variation in the hue as well as we move from shadows to highlights. Greens, for example, should move towards blue in the shadows and yellow in the highlights. Warm colours like to be shaded with cool colours, and mixing white into red can end up pushing your highlights towards pink.

While I wasn’t smart enough to get a good picture before I covered them with chipping and muck, we can see this issue in some of my rainbow thrall warriors. The red, yellow, and orange just doesn’t quite work as well as some other colours.

However, there is a way to address this somewhat. After establishing the value sketch but before laying down the colours, you can hit the model with a wash in a cool colour like blue or purple. As usual, Citadel’s shades are my go-to for this. Once dry, you can re-establish the highest highlight by giving the white dry brush another go. This will leave the cool colours in the midtones and the shadows, and give you a little bit of that cool to warm transition that we tend to like as we go from shadows to highlights after the application of your colour.

Going from here

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Ragman – mostly a sketch style then slathered with Nuln Oil to add a dirty look

Of course, once you have your ink slapped on, you can call it done, or you can go a little further. On my Ragman, for example, I wanted him to look dirty and shadowy, so I brought out my good old friend Nuln Oil and gave him a nice shade with the brown-black concoction. You can also apply washes and glazes to add weathering to things like capes.

Finally, there is nothing wrong with starting out with sketch style then going into more traditional techniques like blending and layering to reinforce shadows and highlights. I did this on my Orin Midwinter model, for example, using a bit of Drakenhof Nightshade in the shadows, and kicking up the highest highlight a little bit by mixing up an opaque highlight colour, applying it to the highlights, and feathering it out.

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Orin Midwinter – sketch style on the robes using P3 Sanguine Base, with highlights reinforced with a mix of Sanguine Highlight & Menoth White Highlight

Conclusions

When it comes to painting miniatures, there is very rarely one correct answer. Sketch style is not the solution to all your problems and for best results shouldn’t be applied everywhere all the time. I find it to work great for things like clothes and capes where a little roughness from the atomization of the white primer through the airbrush and the dry brushing can nicely represent the texture of the cloth. However, even when I’m using sketch style, I tend to revert to the traditional approach for things like armour plates and faces. And, of course, metallics are their own little ball of wax.

However, like most techniques out there, it’s worth a shot. Compared to the traditional approach, it can be very effective for quickly banging out good looking models. None of the techniques used to establish the value sketch are particularly demanding, and they’re all well-suited to batch paint dozens of models at once to quickly get an army painted. A spray from above in white and a quick dry brush with a detail brush is not particularly challenging. Adding colour only requires you to stay within the lines, but even that only requires some basic brush control.

Even if you don’t use it to bang out dozens of Trenchers in one sitting for your Cygnar army, dipping your toe into the water of sketch style can help you understand core concepts and make you a better painter.

And, it’s so easy that even my mom can do it.

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