Saturday, August 10, 2013

Painting Technique: Layering/Blending

I've been asked by many people how I get the blends as smooth as I do on the models I paint. I've made a few attempts at describing this in the past, with varying degrees of success. Since I've spent almost 29 hours doing this over the last few weeks, I've decided to have another go at describing the process. As I was paiting over the last few weeks, I paid close attention to the technical and thought processes that were involved.

The highlighting technique is done by layering successively lighter shades of color over the previous ones; while thinning the paint with water and having proper brush control in order to accomplish the best/smoothest possible blends between layers as possible. This is all done over a basecoat that's the same as the initial layer that has been coated with a few wash coats to darken it.

The subject of this post will be the skin on the Ghorgon model that I've been painting.
 This model is rather massive. That makes for a really involved, and especially daunting, painting project.
When I began this model, I had pre-decided the color scheme that I was going to use on the skin. One of the experiments that I wanted to work into the painting of this model was to use only the new Citadel paint range colors.

The colors that I used on the skin were Steel Legion Drab (previously: Graveyard Earth), Agrax Earthshade (previously: Devlan Mud), Ushabti Bone (previously: Bleached Bone), and white.

The skin on the model ended up taking 7 layers total.

The basic steps are as follows (I will go into technique detail later on):

1. The basecoat was Steel Legion Drab.

2. The basecoat was washed a few times with light coats of Agrax Earthshade to add depth, and to darken it up. It's important at this stage not to apply very heavy wash coats. If you do, the wash will pool in the recesses, and leave very dark spots on the model that are not consistent across the entire piece. Applying a few light coats solves this issue. It's important to wait for each wash coat to thoroughly dry before applying the next, to avoid splotchiness.
After the washes were dry, the highlighting started.

3. The first layer was straight Steel Legion Drab. It took 6 hours, 43 minutes.

4 through 7. There were then four successive layers that were done with a mix of Steel Legion Drab, and increasing amounts of Ushabti Bone. These layers took the following amounts of time: Layer 2: 4 hours, 35 minutes; Layer 3: 7 hours, 5 minutes; Layer 4: 2 hours, 58 minutes; Layer 5: 2 hours, 48 minutes.

8. Layer 6 was done with just Ushabti Bone, and it took 1 hour, 31 minutes.

9. Layer 7 was applied very lightly; it was done with just white(and water). It took 2 hours, 1 minute.

The total time spent just doing skin highlights was 28 hours, 41 minutes. That doesn't count the initial basecoats and washes, which took about 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Originally I thought it would only take 6 layers to get the transitions that I was looking for. That was just a guess before I started painting the skin, and was obviously subject to change as necessary.
Technique Details:
Here are some details for making the mixes in steps 4 through 7 above, and how to get the colors right as you work across paint layers.
Starting at step 4 (the first mixed highlight layer color): To save time, and be consistent across the entire piece; I mixed up the color I was going to use in an old cleaned-up paint pot. This was mostly due to the size of this model, but it would also apply if I was doing a batch of infantry models instead. In the old paint pot, I put a few fat drops of Steel Legion Drab using an old paint brush. Then I would add a small drop of Ushabti Bone, a drop of water, and then mix it up well with the old brush. Then I'd paint it on my paint tray, over a section of dry Steel Legion Drab, and let it dry. That was to check the shade, to be sure it was sufficiently lighter than the previous shade, but not too much lighter. If it was too far off, I'd add either Steel Legion Drab or Ushabti Bone, to darken or lighten it as necessary. I did this same thing for each succuessive mixed layer, adding a bit more of the Ushabti Bone each time; always just adding it to same spare paint pot that the previous layer was mixed in.
Making this mix in its own savable paint pot definitely helped to ensure the consistency and success of the overall piece.

The layering process is really straight forward. It takes a fair amount of practice to get it down. There are three main components to it:
1. Mixing the paint with the right amount of water.
2. Having a paint mix of the right shade. Not too close to, and not too far away from, the previous layer color.
3. Brush control.
The mechanical details of the process are as follows:
1. Scoop a few brushfuls of the paint into a cup in your paint tray with an old brush. You'll have to translate that for whatever your setup is if you don't use a paint tray with cups to paint out of.
2. Put a drop of water into the paint in the paint cup. There's no need to mix that together.
3. Do the actual painting. This is where the magic happens.
a. Dip the tip of the brush into the paint.
b. Dip just the slightest tip of the brush into clean water. This makes step c. below possible, regarding translucency and paint control. It also keeps the paint flowing well, and ensures that the paint that you put on the model ends up smooth, not all chunky/clumpy looking.
c. Check the current paint consistency on the brush, and manipulate your brush to be appropriate for your current painting application.
  • Brush manipulation/control: The goal here is to get the brush bristles into a usable formation. What a usable formation is depends upon what you're painting, and will vary across a particular model. The way I do this is to run the bristles of the brush across the back of the hand that I'm holding the model with, right where the thumb meets the hand.
  • If you're working on a blend, it generally works best to have the bristles fan out. That is accomplish-able by not rolling the brush as you brush it across your hand. Rolling it as you brush on your hand will make the bristles come to a point. You want a point on the bristles when you're doing fine detail, edging, and sometimes when working on the final layer or two. Generally through, the blends are done with the bristles fanned out. They shouldn't fan out enough such that they don't all still touch each other, just enough so that they're wide and flat.
  • The end result here is that you'll have a bunch of paint on the back of your hand after a painting session.
  • If your brush won't do this, try a different brand/style. I found that I couldn't accomplish this with some of the more expensive brushes that people seem to rave about (Windsor Newton and Raphael for instance, I tried them both with no luck). My painting suffered quite a bit when I tried to switch to those expensive 'better' brushes. Having a brush with bristles that can be controlled like this has been instrumental to accomplishing the things that I have in miniature painting.
  • Paint consistency: This is a major factor in the layer blending technique. As I perform the brush manipulation/control discussed above, I also pay close attention to the amount of paint coming off the brush. What you're looking for here will vary depending upon whether or not you're trying to blend one layer into a previous one, or you're trying to fill in a section of the model after the blending is already accomplished for the layer. For instance: If you're working on a banner, the areas where layers meet must be blended. Once that's done, the remaining area of the banner past the blend needs to be filled in with the current layer color of paint, so that there's an area for the next layer to blend into.
  • If you're trying to make a blend, when you lightly brush the bristles across your hand to shape them, you'll also be paying close attention to make sure the paint coming off is sufficiently translucent. When you first start making a blend, you want it to be very translucent. As the blend builds up to the new color layer, it can get slightly less translucent. It works best to keep it more translucent than not, and paint more layers as you work away from where the blend starts.
d. Paint on the model! If you've fanned out the bristles per step c., be sure that the flat edge is used to create the layer.
Once you get the hang of the technique, it becomes second nature. It's time consuming, but worth the effort if you want to create some real art from your miniatures (as well as be one of the people in contention for Best Painted)!

Sometimes you'll not get the layer translucent enough on the brush, and when it goes on the model there will be a visible layer line where the two layers meet. It won't be very glaring, but it will clearly not be a well-blended layer. There's a fix for this. The paint tray that I use is round, with 10 or so little paint cups going around it, and a big cup in the middle to up a water cup. When I'm doing this kind of painting, I generally have the last layer or two still sitting out (or that can be quickly remixed up). If you water down the previous layer well, you can paint over just the bad blend line, and it'll go a long way to straightening out this kind of bad blend mishap.
Here are a few pro-tips and other important things to keep in mind throughout this process. They'll help improve the end result, and save time.

1. Some of you may have noticed that there's a rather huge discrepancy between the amount of time that the different layers took to finish. For example layer #3 took 7 hours, 5 minutes; while layer #5 took 2 hours, 48 minutes. That's some serious time difference! That time difference is 100% a factor of the color difference between two different layers. If the colors are very close, they will blend much easier, and it'll go much faster. If the colors are rather far apart shade-wise, then it'll take much more effort to get the blends to look just right and be as smooth of a transition as possible. There's a trade off there, but either way you're likely to spend a similar amount of time in the end. You could do fewer layers that take longer because they are difficult to blend, or you could do more layers that blend easier and take less time. In the end, I've found that it's going to amount to the roughly the same amount of time.
It's a much more enjoyable painting experience to do more layers, rather than fewer. It's really frustrating to try and go the less layers/more time per layer route; that's because you have to be very careful to mix plenty of water in so as not to leave stark transition lines where you're trying to blend. Whenever I do that, I find that I'm constantly having to go back with the darker color used in the previous layer to fix those things. It really chaps my hide, and takes the fun out of painting; not to mention adds much time to the process.
There is a point where two successive colors will be too far apart in shade to blend at all. You'll know when that's the case because when you paint the color on it'll still leave rather stark transition lines, regardless of how much water you mix with the paint.

2. Be sure that when you get to the lighter colored layers, you clean your paint water. Using dirty water when trying to thin the paint will leave a tint to the final piece that you may not desire. That would be a ton of hard work put in, just to end up with something you're not really happy with. I've learned this lesson the hard way.

3. One last tip that relates here. This is more of a general idea for painting fantasy models, and isn't really technique specific. This goes back to my skin color selection at the beginning of this project/blog post. That specific choice, to reiterate, was darkened Steel Legion Drab, through Ushabti Bone, to white. That is a rather broad range of color. Especially after the wash was applied to the Steel Legion Drab basecoat.
Some of you will have no doubt heard me make this point before, but I'll make it again here: If you want your models to pop on the tabletop, to have that strong Fantasy feel, and to draw attention in the gaming hall; then make the highlights as light as you can get away with.
That does not mean 'highlight everything up to white'. I've seen that tried a few times, and never cared much for the result. What it does mean is make sure you pick a light enough color for your final highlight to make the model really pop.
For the skin on the Ghorgon model in the pics here, I could have stopped highlighting at Ushabti Bone. The model still would have looked really good. It still would have been a great piece, and it probably would have had a much more realistic look (as opposed to more of a Fantasy look). What I was looking for here was that POP. The Wow Factor. This model will likely be the large centerpiece of my Bull Ogre army, so it's doubly important in this case.
Well, that's it. Wow, that turned into quite the write up! I hope it proves useful to someone out there.

If you have any questions, or require an clarifications, then please post a comment below. I'll make sure to follow up.


DeanM said...

Amazing painting!

PsychosisPC said...

That is a huge model and about the right amount of time spent imo, even for someone as slow as you when it comes to painting lol. Its looking great. The whole mixing thing you are doing with the paint pots is why I no longer use them and transfer everything that is in pots (which is not very much for me anymore as I use more Reaper and Vallejo paints) to bottles. When I highlight, I often go for it with three to four highlights on my palette at a time, that way I can see the colors and make more transitions. This is good write up and very insightful on your process. And I do agree with your view that "Pop" is something that is certainly needed in Fantasy and Sci-Fi models, not necessarily white, but bright.

Tony said...

Interesting tutorial. Thank you for taking the time to list and detail your technique.

This is something that I expect to come back to when I have some time.


Michael Butcher said...

Great Tutorial Johnny!

RJ_Payne said...

Really excellent write up on the finer details on blending, very rare to read a good article on the matter as it is such a visual concept!

Unknown said...

Interesting read!

I think you should put in a disclaimer that the average schmuck like myself shouldn't expect similar results after a single read through of such a tutorial. I believe that it was in your interview w/ Mr. Ben Curry that you said it takes approximately 10,000hr of practice to get the required amount of experience. Obviously there's a lot of practice that you've put into perfecting your techniques to get such brilliantly painted models!

Scott Carlson said...

Just reading this tuorial took me 1hr and 20 min.. thanks for the effort.

Unknown said...

Very useful post, thanks for sharing! I've never been particularly good at blending, so this is definitely helpful for me!


Unknown said...

Thank you very much for taking the time to post this technique. I'm still a beginner and have been looking for a good post/discussion on this topic. This is definitely the best one I have found. I read through it 2.5 times!

Unknown said...

This taught me what I was doing wrong, thank you, great tutorial!

Enric said...

Great tutorials never are out-of-time. Thank you for spend your time sharing this useful advices. One of the better tutorials I read on the matter.

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