Wargaming Tradecraft: Back to Basics - White Primer, Light Colours


Back to Basics - White Primer, Light Colours

Ron of From the Warp Back to Basics
As the first post in a series intended to help new painters, Ron (From the Warp) and I are looking at painting a model with light colours. See his tutorial here.

As we're painting with light colours, I start by using White Primer. A white, rather than black base coat has many advantages and I suggest it for any new painter.
  • Shadows are visible on the white surface, which makes detail visible. This makes painting the model easier since you can see what you're painting. Look at the example of the black primed model - most of the detail disappears completely.
  • When you're working with lighter colours, they'll stand out more. Some bright colours like yellow, green, orange and red will show up strongly once you start painting. These same colours are very difficult to paint over dark colours. Once you become familiar with different paints and how they layer, you'll learn which work better on a lighter surface.
  • Washes have more of an affect and create a nicer look with lighter and brighter colours than darker ones. The reason for this is you end up shading a wider spectrum of colour from light to dark. When you place a wash on a darker colour, you're shading from dark to darker and it has less of an affect.
  • A downside is that if you don't paint everywhere and in all the crevices, you'll have white spots showing up. Washes will usually take care of this, but if you'd used a dark primer, crevices begin with their shadows.
Your painting method will change when you begin with a light primer. Since part of the point of using a light primer is that bright/light colours show up better, these are the colours you want to start with - begin light, then shade and highlight.

I usually like to start by painting the largest area first, hence all the Scorpion Green. It gives me a sense of the entire model which helps when I'm choosing what to paint later. You don't need a very fine brush when painting large areas. (In fact, you may damage a detail brush using it to paint large areas quickly) [read more on choosing brushes]

Now, look at all the green I've painted. There's a lot of detail that I've just painted one colour - armour plates, knee pads, bumps, ridges, hands - there's nothing wrong with taking all that stuff down to a single colour. Yes, you COULD paint them all differently, maybe some Snot Green on armour plates, ridges and bumps to mix things up. For a new artist or in the interest of getting things painted a little quicker, don't push things too far.

Now, I'll paint things from the lightest colour to the darkest. If you paint out of the lines and spill onto an area you're going to have to repaint, better that you use a colour you'll be able to paint over.
For example, in the next step I'll be using red - if any of this yellow gets onto areas I want to paint red, red will paint over the yellow. If I did it the other way around, painting red, then yellow, I would have a hard time painting yellow on top of red. (Possibly having to paint white on first)

I use Sunburst Yellow because it's strong and Badmoon Yellow is a little neon for my taste. If you feel adventurous, you could slap some Golden Yellow in some crevices and undersides to add some deeper shadows. The beads in his hair could also be done differently, but it's not necessary.

Blood Red goes on next. Now that I'm working with a darker colour, I have to start being more careful with my brush strokes, moving onto a finer brush.
I don't have to worry too much about getting paint on the white areas since I'm working from light to dark. Again, in theory this is alright because whatever colours are coming next should paint over the previous colours.
However, red will definitely cover green and yellow, so do your best not to stray. This is one of the trickier things for many new artists to learn. It takes a fine eye and a steady hand; this is something that comes with time and practice so don't get discouraged while you're training yourself.

Next up is Burnished Gold on the metallics. I plan on highlighting it with Shining Gold, a brighter gold that I know can paint on top of darker colours. There would be nothing wrong with using a single gold for both steps if you don't have too many colours at your disposal.
I've also painted all the gem sockets gold. (I missed the one in the center of his chest in this pic, but I catch it later) If you don't want to paint all his gems, you could treat them all gold as well. Gold might also be an option for the beads in his hair.

Because I've been in the mood lately to get people thinking out of their boxes, I've decided to use Ice Blue on cloth and leather sections - who says Eldar strapping and bags are made of out normal tanned hide?
Just keep being careful about not painting out of the lines and getting blue on your green.

His gun gets the treatment next with Fenris Grey, which is kind of a dark blue.
Again, if you're limited on your colour selection, you could have painted the whole gun red, or maybe these parts gold or light blue.

Step 1 - Basic Colours

He's looking god-awfully primary in colour, but trust me, it gets better. However your first step to basic painting is complete - paint everywhere in a few colours, nothing too adventurous and detail can be glossed over because the next steps are going to make everything stand out.

Normally I'd take care of the larger section first, (the green) but I want all the smaller sections I'll be washing to stand out for your sake. A wash is something you just paint over a section - you don't have to be gentle, you don't have to paint it thicker in crevices or lighter on edges. Just cover your model section by section and it will naturally flow where it should. Since it's watery, you do have to be careful about a wash getting away from you and flowing onto other areas of your model. Also try to avoid the wash getting too thick in places or beading - Games Workshop's new washes are great, but they're also thicker and will dry blotchy.
So here, I've started with the yellow sections and covered them in a wash of Gryphonne Sepia. Look at the photo and see how the sepia covers the yellow. Everything gets a little darker, shadows especially.

Next up I use Asurmen Blue Wash on both the blue pouches/cloth as well as the grey/blue on the gun.
You didn't have to be too discreet with sepia, but if this blue wash runs away from you, it will get all over your green areas and ruin them. Sometimes you can lay a wash on thick and somewhat sloppily, other times you'll have to just paint it on gently.

I've layered Ogryn Flesh wash on all the gold. Just for fun, I've also quickly washed the beads in his hair. (Take a look at the contrast)
You could have used the sepia wash on the gold as well, but if there's one thing I suggest a new artist buys, it's GW"s box of washes because it's cheaper in the long run. Having a variety of washes that match up to any colour you're painting will make your life much easier. This tutorial will show you just what an effect washes can have on your projects.

A Baal Red wash follows next, starting to darken everything evenly.

The final step of washing is Orkhide Shade on all the green areas.

Step 2 - Washing

Here we have the second step completed. To sum it up, all I've done is painted everything a single colour, then washed each section with a complimentary shade. That's basically just two steps to create the above miniature. Really, if you wanted to, you could call it quits here. It didn't take much time at all and that's a respectable quality of miniature to field in a battle.

It is a little dark though, so the next step is highlighting. Take a look at some of the things around you and see how the light reflects off them. Light tends to be brighter on the edges and softer in the larger areas. You already took care of the open area dark to soft blending by using washes, now it's time to take care of the edges. The other thing to note is that when light hits these objects, it appears as a softer shade of the object's colour, not white or yellow.
There are a couple methods to do this and the first thing you need are colours to do it with. You have two options when choosing highlight colours.
  • Pick the same colours from the first step, which usually leads to an intense highlight. For someone starting out their collection of paints, just do this.
  • Once you have a larger collection of colours at your disposal, you can instead choose a lighter shade than your original colours, creating a softer highlight.
    If you choose a lighter colour, try for something softter, near white. Some colours, while lighter, are too strong. An example of choosing the wrong highlight, would be highlighting enchanted blue with ice blue. Ice blue is lighter, but also a little too intense.
To highlight most of the areas on the model, I've just painted a bunch of lines. These lines go on edges and raised areas. For his hair, I used a technique called "dry-brushing" on the lower half of each of the sections divided by beads. There's nothing wrong with taking the time to paint lines on all his hairs, but dry brushing is quicker and softer.
More on this in a later post, but basically use a cheap brush and get a little paint on it, then wipe it all off on a cloth or paper towel. There will be a small amount of paint left, but barely noticeable. Very quickly and lightly, flick the bristles over the raised area. (his hair) If it instantly changes colour, you've got too much paint on your brush - the colour should get lighter slowly.

  • Scorpion Green - Scorpion Green
  • Blood Red - Elf Flesh (Bleached Bone would also work)
    • Careful when highlighting red ... light red is just a nice way of saying "pink", which you want to avoid.
  • Sunburst Yellow - Bleached Bone
  • Shining Gold - Burnished Gold
  • Ice Blue / Fenris Grey - Fortress Grey
Step 3 - Highlighting with Lines

And we're done! As a final recap, that was 3 very simple steps with no fancy techniques or brushwork. You could even stop after Step 2, it'd just be a little dark.
  1. Paint everything in strong bright colours.
  2. Wash each section in complimentary (similar) shades.
  3. Paint lines on edges and raised areas.
This is by no means a masterpiece, but it looks pretty good - definitely table-top quality and pretty easy to duplicate.

I have done one extra step, which is to take care of the gems on his armour and his eyes. These I paint Mordian (dark) Blue, then add dots of Ice Blue to highlight everything.


  1. Great article! This is something that i will have to try on future armies. Glad I found this blog through Ron's link at his blog.

  2. I really like the way you did this- with SHOWING a wash rather than just saying you did it. I now realize what I've been doing "wrong" and maybe I'll stop (maybe not) but it sure helps to get a better LOOK at how to go about it.

  3. Thanks for the feedback.

    @Loq: Out of curiousity, what is it you think you're doing wrong?

  4. Fantastic, and perfectly timed; I've been experimenting with lighter primers for the first time in about ten years, and I'd forgotten everything I ever learned about them back when I started playing. It's been a bit trial-and-error so far: I've had trouble with dark colours wandering when I use my present 'inside out' method*, and I've messed up some lovely miniatures, so this has been a godsend for ensuring my Tyranids don't suffer the same fate.

    * - for the benefit of those who don't know, this works by starting with the areas that are 'inside' others and working out (for example, if you have a face in an open helmet with loose hair, you do the face first, then the helmet, and finally the hair) so that you never have to take paint past something you've already painted.

  5. Hi Dave - These are very cool. Just joined your site. Love the shots you took. So nice to meet you.

    -Ivy aka Whisk

  6. @Von: I tend to mix up my painting methods, but sometimes do use the inside out way. If you have trouble staying in the lines though, I definitely suggest working from light to dark.

    @Whisk: Thanks, I try to show what detail I can, rather than just talk. I'm more of a visual learner anyways so I understand the need to SEE.

  7. Dave: I don't paint neatly, nor do I clean as I go. I leave it all for later, and I can see now how it'll bite me somewhere unpleasant later. =p

  8. Yeah, the problem with fixing things later is that the shading created by things like washes can't be cleanly touched up if you have to go back and clean stuff up, rewash, etc.


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