You need to thin your paint Luke. Your eyesight will improve.

This post was prompted by a recent exchange that I saw on a Facebook group. Someone had painted a figure in a recognisable Old School style, with lustrous glossy block colours, and the following exchange occurred:

“You need to thin your paints, so your painting will improve.”

“I’m quite happy with my painting style, thank you.”

I can imagine that Picasso or Turner would have responded similarly. What appears to be going on here, is that an artist is submitting his work, and being critiqued by a practitioner of the current orthodoxy. The critic assumes that his own preferred style equates to competence, and that the exhibitor doesn’t have it, so for fun I have listed as many styles and techniques as I can think of. Knowing and using the currently fashionable style(s) will win you praise and prizes.¹

Feel free to add to the taxonomy. Please do note that none of this post is intended to be a value judgement or critique of your own personal preferences. It is, of course, possible to apply more than one style to a model, and many sub-variations of these techniques exist.

AIRBRUSHING: This tool made thin successive layers of paint popular. It can allow the artist to paint a scale model to a better surface finish than the original modelled object – German WWII tanks being an obvious example (and yes, I know that the Germans also spray painted their tanks). Modelling guides to German WWII tanks provide many examples of this style, with zenithal highlighting, weathering and chipping all in evidence.


ARMY PAINTER, (or PAINT-BY-NUMBERS): Usually applied over a black spray base coat, three shades of ready mixed colour are used, with the main tone being applied over a dark tone then highlighted with a lighter shade. All four layers are distinctly discernible. Very effective at scale and distance, but a bit cartoonish close-up. The attraction of this method is that by recording the paints used, you can add to units many years later and still match the shading. Bad luck if they stop making Snot Green though.

BATTLE-READY: Undercoated, based and with the bare minimum number of colours present to allow the model onto the competition table. The unstated assumption that you will go on to finish the piece some time in the next thirty years is what distinguishes this technique from Impressionistic!

COLOUR WASHING or INKING: Layers of thin colour or ink, previously often applied over a white gesso base with oil glazes, but currently ready-mixed usually over zenithal highlighting. Superb at its best, fussy at worst, this technique takes all the hard work out of defining shadow and is currently popular for 28mm figures that have a lot of detail on them, with commercial ranges of colour washes available to support the technique e.g. Contrast Paints.

DRY BRUSHING: Successive layers of paint from an almost dry brush are dusted over a model. Especially useful for showing dust on a model. Taken to excess, this technique is sometimes known as “ash and soot”. Works well on grubby WW2 and modern vehicles. Currently somewhat out of favour amongst figure painters.

EDGE HIGHLIGHTING: This was, and may still be, a prize-winning technique employed by the Warhammer community. Sometimes taken to excess with comic results, when no regard is given to where the light is coming from.

GREYSCALE: The figure is painted as if it were an old black and white, or sepia photograph. Sometimes the face and hands, or some other detail, is painted in colour to emphasise the artistic nature of this technique.

IMPRESSIONISTIC: Dabs of colour to give the impression of detail – handy for very small figures or rapid painting; sometimes thickly and rapidly applied. Ian Lowell produced a very effective, largely scratch-built French WWII army using this technique.

JUST NEEDS VARNISH: This one’s for you, John! In my case, a misguided belief that I still need to put more paint on at some stage in the next thirty years prevents me from sealing the deal. Matt varnish is currently fashionable, for durability often applied over a gloss varnish. Satin coat is their sophisticated sibling and “Magic Dip” combines ink or stain to allow shading to be applied at the same time. Wargames magazines were the main driving force towards matt finishes, as they are much easier to photograph, as the two pictures below demonstrate.

Magic Dip

Magic Dip

Gloss Varnish

Gloss Varnish

LINING: Used to define the border between two colours. Charles Grant Senior was a master of this technique in black ink.

You used to look much younger! Is it the moustache?


OBJECT SOURCE HIGHLIGHTING: Shaded as if the light is coming from a point source such as a camp fire or a lantern. This is one of the better tutorials.

OBSERVED: Painting what you see rather than following style conventions. Can be realistic or impressionistic. Concrete and rocks are rarely grey, windscreens are not blue, unpainted wood is not brown, boots are not glossy black except on parade. None of these troublesome facts should stop us from enjoying our favourite painting style(s).

OLD SCHOOL: Block colours, with no, or little shading. Often lined, often with plain green bases.

REALISTIC BLENDED: usually applied over a white gesso base with oils, gesso or acrylics, whilst the underlying layer is still wet. Popular with judges in painting competitions. The fast drying nature of acrylic paint has led to the Army Painter technique, which is popular with wargamers.

SATURATED: Bright colours are used to make detail easier to discern. The phrase most often heard is “to make it pop”.

Popping for England

Popping for England (or perhaps Planet Ninja Turtle)

SHINY TOY SOLDIER: As Old School, with a couple of layers of gloss varnish to give durability to the figures and a deep gloss to the colours. Face are often painted with black dots for the eyes, red or pink lips and sometimes pink cheek highlights to give the figure a ruddy, doll-like face.

Only Majors and above may use makeup on campaign.

WEATHERING AND CHIPPING: The use of salt, latex masking fluid, or baking powder over a layer of paint representing rust, followed by the top coat, which is then brushed or sanded away to give the impression of a battered model. Kow Yokoyamahe, the Japanese creator of Maschinen Krieger ZbV 3000, (MaK) helped to popularise this technique. Previously, chalk, artists crayon, thinners and ink were used for weathering, especially by the model railway community. Ready-made powders are now available for cash-rich, time-poor modellers.

Are you sure it’s passed its MOT?


WET PALETTE: A tool to keep fast drying water-based paints wet enough to paint with. Make one with moist non-waxed baking paper in a shallow plastic container. Tin will rust. Your paints will be thin.

ZENITHAL HIGHLIGHTING: Spray the base figure black or grey from below, then white above to give an impression of outdoor light falling on the figure. Usually followed by colour washes over the top.


“Tempête de Neige” exposé en 1842 de J.W. Turner
Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead

“You need more than just undercoat on your ships, Turner. Try using zenithal highlighting;  your painting will improve.” 🙂

1. Not with Sotheby’s though. It did help me win a prize for a best-painted AK47 army. Judge for yourself.



Filed under Modelling, Off Topic

15 responses to “Style

  1. I might feel a little got at here. Only might, because I use a wide range of painting techniques.

    There again, my perfectionist tendencies do mean I put far more effort into tiny toy soldiers than is needed for a tabletop game.

    BTW: Here’s a link to a YouTube drybrush tutorial that produces rather stunning results.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Great Post Chris. Having started like most of us venerable old codgers I first started with Airifix ACW painted rather poorly in gloss paints. I still have the first Minifigs 25mm figures that I painted when still living in a cave. They were painted in Airfix and Humbrol gloss paints. No such thing as varnish or even undercoat in those days. They still form part of my Austrian Napoleonic army and am still proud of them. Have I moved on – I certainly hope so.

    In more recent years our group put on a display game of the “Charge of the Light Brigade” using Tennyson’s poem for movement and gloss painted 54mm figures. We wanted that old toy soldier look even down to the gloss light green bass. There were some criticisms of the painting from youngsters who would even know what a Britain’s toy soldier was let alone looked like.

    I once remember playing in a 40k tournament with washed and dry brushed figures that looked great but were downgraded because I didn’t use the in vogue highlighting approach. They were told that I didn’t like having my painting style dictated by others and to stick there comments where the “sun don’t shine”. These had one best painted army at another tournament!

    As long as you are happy with your painting style and effort that is all that matters. Your post demonstrates that there are many style out there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stick around for long enough and it comes full circle doesn’t it , GP? 🙂

      Phil Steele tells a story of one of his armies coming second in one Wargames competition, then winning the next one when he glossed it, but being told it would look even better with matt varnish!

      Regards, Chris.


  3. Great overview- judging by that list- I’ve got my own hybrid style that I’m happy with so will stick to it.



    Liked by 2 people

  4. Great article mate, thoroughly enjoyed the read through. I don’t think I have a set way of painting exactly but I do try to incorporate all styles and techniques. One I never really bother with though is OSL.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Martin Rapier

    How would you classify zenithal undercoat, followed by block painting with an inkwash and finished with a dry brush and a lining pen? The undercoat thing I came across on Dr Faustus painting blog years ago.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m going with my get out of jail comment with this one, Martin 🙂 :

          " It is, of course, possible to apply more than one style to a model, and many sub-variations of these techniques exist."

      Regards, Chris.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Enjoyed reading this, Chris, and thanks for the mention! 🙂 I’ve decided I paint the way I do and use varnish because I can – if anything I’ve painted ends up looking half decent that’s a bonus! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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