Thursday, November 29, 2012

Boltguns & Brushstrokes- Tool Time

                People ask me, “Horus, how do you paint how you do?” And obviously, there’s not a simple answer to that question—I’ve been touching on technical things here and there with other articles. But the simplest answer to how I get the results I get is that I have the best tools I can find. This isn’t a sales article or anything, although I imagine it will come off that way. There’s an old saying, “A man is only as good as the tools he uses.” Or something like that. The point is, your results are going to be limited by the quality of the materials you make available to yourself, and with brushes in particular, high-end results are impossible without equally high-end tools due to the limitations of lesser products.

This is a red sable. Cute, huh?
This is what your brushes should be made of.
                So first, let’s talk about brushes.  A brush that’s suitable for miniature painting will be made of either synthetic hair, sable hair, or a blend of the two.  The best brushes are going to be 100% sable hair. Sable hair comes to a natural point, and is very strong. A lot of brushes are described as sable brushes, but you should look closely at the packaging on the brush to determine if it is a blend of synthetic hair, and if not, what kind of sable hair is used. Games Workshop brushes, for example, are advertised as sable brushes, but are actually a blend of synthetic and male sable hair. Male sables’ hair is not as fine as the female’s, and is not as lasting for a fine brush.  Usually, but not always, you can tell what kind of sable hair (and the amount of synthetic hair) in a brush by price—you won’t get a good, 100% sable brush for less than $20 usually. This is a case of getting what you pay for, though—a good sable brush will last for years if cared for properly.

               I like Windsor and Newton Series  7 brushes—I haven’t found anything yet that’s really comparable in quality. It’s a well-kept secret that these are the brushes used by Games Workshop’s ‘Eavy Metal team, and the ‘Eavy Metal brushes that have been released around the holidays the last two years are Series 7 brushes with a different handle on them. They’re designed for watercolor, but the make, material, and quality are ideal for our hobby. They’re 100% female sable hair, and can suffer quite a bit of abuse before they stop holding a very sharp point. They’re the gold standard for most hobbyists. My first Windsor and Newton brushes were actually last year’s ‘Eavy Metal brush set, and with them, I’ve painted probably close to a thousand models over the last year. They hold their point as well as they did the day I bought them.

                These kind of brushes are the most expensive brushes available to hobbyists—but if cared for properly, they don’t need to be replaced often, or ever. In the long run, you actually spend less buying better brushes and not needing to replace them, than replacing junk brushes over and over again. Caring for a brush is simple—clean it with water, don’t let paint dry on it, and don’t leave it sitting in the water cup. Store it with the cap it came with on, and store it so the point is straight up until the water has dried. That’s all there is to it. It’s not a bad idea to pick up a tin or bag for your brushes, either, as it helps keep them organized and protects them during travel if you take your paints to the store or a friend’s house to work on your models.

               Now, despite all that being said, there are some tasks in painting miniatures that we need junk brushes for. And Games Workshop has an excellent selection. A Games Workshop Standard brush is handy to have around to spread Elmer’s glue with, and their Large Drybrush is ideal for covering large flat surfaces and drybrushing terrain. NEVER drybrush using a good brush—the technique is incredibly destructive to brushes! If you want a smaller drybrush than Games Workshop’s Large Drybrush, go check out a hobby store like Hobby Lobby or Michael’s, and look for a flat, cheap synthetic hair brush of the size you want. A flat brush will hold its shape better when used as a drybrush than a round will.

                For myself, I keep one #2 round, two #1 rounds (this is the size of the Games Workshop Standard Brush), two #0 rounds (this is the size of the Games Workshop Detail Brush), one #00 round, and one #10/0 round, as well as a junk round #1, a large drybrush, and a flat #3. This assortment gives me the right brush for any task. I only use the 10/0 for dotting eyes and doing very fine freehand work—generally, the point on any other brush will do the job just as well, but the smaller brush size lets you get a better look at the very tiny spot you’re applying paint to.
This is my brush tin-- I keep the largest brushes on the left, and the smallest on the right so I can grab the right size quickly without having to look at each brush. 

                The next item to have handy in your tool set is a box or stand to organize your paints. Don’t just dump them into a toolbox haphazardly—store them all upright, and arrange them by color. That way, you can find what you’re looking for easily and quickly. Storing paint like this also ensures that your paints are all likely in the same general condition. A sealable box in particular is important if you have paint pots rather than eyedroppers, so as little air is exposed to the pots as possible—they rarely have a perfect seal after you open them the first time.

                You’ll also want to make sure you have two cups for water. These cups should not be used for ANYTHING else besides painting. One will be for metallic colors, and the other will be for regular colors. I’d pick up the Games Workshop cups, despite the fact that they’re basically $5 dixie cups, because you can throw them in the dishwasher if they get to the point where you can’t see the water clearly in them, and they have a place to clip your brushes to for quick access. Of course, an old mug will work just fine too. I’d avoid using actual red party cups or Dixie cups, purely for cost reasons—one thing of those runs as much as the Games Workshop water pots, so you do save money in the long run buying the GW pot.

                The next item in my arsenal is a palette.  They’re dirt cheap-- $1 at the very most—and it’ll last you pretty much forever. This gives you a surface to mix and thin paints. If you’re using any paint other than Reaper Master Series or Vallejo Game Color, you’ll need to thin the paint on a palette before putting it on your models—NEVER apply paint to a model straight from the pot! Reaper Master Series contains a flow improver to make it the right consistency straight out of the bottle, as does Vallejo Game Color. Vallejo Model Color DOES NOT contain this additive.
                Speaking of paint, it’s worth your time and money to just buy a complete set. Don’t just buy the colors you think you’re going to need—the true way to become a good painter is by experimenting with the paint and developing your own style. You can’t do that if you’re just sticking rigidly to a formula. Paint ranges are usually designed to mix freely and easily with one another, as well, so having the complete Reaper Master Series range, for example, will give you access to pretty much any color in any shade at any moment. It’s ultimately a one-time investment—you replace the colors you use most sometimes, but having a complete set of paint means that unless you don’t take care of things well, you’re going to have all the paint you need for any project for a very long time. It’s also usually at least 20% cheaper to buy a complete paint range in one go—the Citadel Ultimate Paint Set released for this holiday was a 25% savings over buying each pot individually. I personally use Reaper Master Series paint, with some Citadel colors (namely the washes). I also make a point of having several types of clear acrylic medium handy—thinning paint with medium gives you more control when applying it to the model than watering paint down. Glaze medium allows you to make a glaze or wash out of pretty much anything, just like it sounds, while gloss medium can create a wet or polished effect using any paint. Matte acrylic medium is ideal for thinning paint, or dulling down the shine of metallic colors. Finally, I keep some ink handy—Reaper Master Series makes good inks, as well as Privateer Press. Liquitex, which makes acrylic paint designed for canvas work, makes an excellent multi-purpose ink range as well—inks are useful for lining in hard details, putting script on models, and for creating bold color transitions.

                The final thing I like to have handy is an airbrush. There’s a weird stigma attached to airbrushes in this hobby— I know I was very resistant to get one for a long time because it felt like it was somehow cheating. An airbrush will give you smooth basecoats, and provide you with the ability to realistically weather vehicles. It also drastically cuts the time you spend on each model, making it a must-have for army painters. An airbrush is the one item I would say the average person can do without, though. They’re extremely useful for pretty much every project you can come up with, but they’re also a significant investment and require constant cleaning to function properly. With suitable skill and patience, the same results you can get from an airbrush are possible by hand—it just takes a lot longer.

                If you do choose to invest in an airbrush, you want to make sure you’ve got one that’s suited to miniature painting. You want a compressor that works at roughly 40 PSI at the most, and ideally has a regulator either packaged with it or available for it. Miniature painting doesn’t use a large amount of paint at any given time, so a gravity feed brush will give you more control with less waste, and will require less precise mixing of paint and thinner to get a good result. Dual action airbrushes provide the best control—a single action airbrush is basically a spraygun, and you can’t really do any detail work with it. Finally, you want to find an airbrush that can take different sized needles and tips to ensure you can do both detail work and general spraying with it. The leading brand names are Passche, Badger, and Iwata. You don’t need specific paint for an airbrush—I just use my Reaper Master Series colors, thinned with Createx Airbrush Cleaner. Createx also makes a good range of airbrush-formulated paints, which I’ve found are great for terrain work since they come in relatively large bottles for about $6 apiece.

                Now, when you stop and think about it, yes, the tools you need to paint well do cost about as much as buying an army for our beloved hobby. But, as I said before, having the right tools for the job gives you the best results possible. Even the folks who say they don’t care about painting would rather have an awesomely painted army than a poorly painted one, and there’s no way to get to that point without putting the right tools in your hands. 


  1. I had the bit (The nossle inside my airbrush) break off and cannot figure out how to get it out. Have you had a similar problem?

  2. I haven't had that issue-- but if you get some pliers, you should be able to get a grip on it and unscrew it-- the nozzles are usually removable and replaceable for cleaning. I'd look up replacement parts for your airbrush-- you'll likely need to know the model number-- but a replacement shouldn't be too hard to track down.

  3. I gotta ask. Please tell me where and what you use for that paint brush tin?

    I am trying to find something similar to use as I tend to go to different friends' house from time to time and paint. Thank you in advance!