Tainted Grail, the End of the Dwarves, Bugbear Warriors, and Colorshift.

Tainted Grail

If you’ve been following the saga of my experiences painting miniature figures, you may remember that a big incentive was to paint the elaborate miniatures that I knew would come with the game Tainted Grail.

It finally arrived last month. As a game, it’s a great experience; in fact, as I type this, I hope to share it with other gamers tonight. As for the minis, there were 29 of them!

Here’s how my painting turned out:

Tainted Grail minis 2

For the most part, I stuck to the style I discussed a few posts back: zenithal prime, following by a coat of contrast paint. For a couple of them, I used washes instead. In foreground of the above photo, on the right, I experimented with a “fire” style: a zenithal with yellow overall, orange sprayed at 60°, and red sprayed from the top. It turned out well enough.

I should add that I did zero research before choosing the colors for the minis. I looked at the mini, thought about what colors might suit it, and mostly made each mini’s color unique. If I knew then what I know now about the game, I might have made different choices.

The Last of the Dwarf Brewers

I had a mild problem with my color choices: Most of the minis depicted variations on natural creatures, and I didn’t have quite enough distinct colors of contrast paints that suited their design. I partly made up for this by using washes, as I noted above. But it left me with the desire for just a couple more shades of contrast paints. My next big mini-painting project after this will probably be Etherfields, with even more minis than Tainted Frail.

So I ordered a couple more colors. That, of course, meant I needed more Dwarf Brewers minis to be test subjects.

It was then I noticed that these Dwarves were among the last available on Amazon. After this order, there might be no more. I’d ordered them all!

No, not really. I’m sure that Reaper made hundreds of them. They just weren’t available via Amazon at this time. But it also suggested to me that it might be time to switch to a different test mini.

Before we get to that, let’s look at the last of the Dwarves:

Ork Flesh:

Darkoath Flesh:

I feel these turned out nicely.


Who should replace the Dwarf Brewers as a test model? I needed something inexpensive, and sculpted with lots of crinkly bits so contrast paints, washes, and the like would show their effects. I settled on the Bugbear Warrior, also from Reaper:

They are larger than the Dwarf Brewer mini, and I’m not sure how I’m going to store them long-term. (I keep the Dwarf Brewers samples in a Plano box.) But I felt I could deal with that later.

Colorshift Paints

The reason why I wanted to get more test minis is to test Vallejo Colorshift paints. These are a kind of metallic paint whose reflected color shifts depending on the angle you view it:

In retrospect, the Bugbear Warrior mini might not have been the best choice to test such paint. We’ll get to that later.

According to Vallejo’s instructions, a surface to be painted with colorshift paint should be primed with gloss black:

After that, the instructions recommended using an airbrush rather than brushing the paint on. This suited me, since if my brush control were any good I’d be doing more than slopping contrast paint on minis.

The Vallejo colorshift paints are the thinnest I’ve ever worked with. I’ve worked with Vellejo metallic paints before, and those were thick and required a lot of thinning to get them through the airbrush. The colorshift paints were so thin that they didn’t need any flow improver or thinner.

They were also the first paint with which I’ve worked that required multiple coats. In general, you’re supposed to apply paint (especially with an airbrush) in multiple thin coats. I’ve never bothered; I could also do what I wanted to do with a single coat of whatever paint I used. Not this time. The first time I used to the airbrush to apply the paint I saw so little difference on the surface of the mini that I thought my airbrush was broken.

In the end, I had to apply six or seven coats to each mini to finally eliminate all signs of the black gloss primer. It was both labor- and time-intensive.

For all that work, I hoped for better results. The names of the paints are supposed to reflect (pardon the pun) the two colors between which the light is supposed to shift.

1) Pearl / Violet:

2) Gold / Pale Blue:

3) Gold Yellow / Burnt Orange

4) Silver / Pink

5) Old Silver / Pale Violet

6) Violet / Old Copper

As I noted above, in retrospect perhaps I should have chosen minis with large curved surfaces (a big helmet? a smooth curved shield?) to test these paints. However, I’ll note that this particular set of paints is labeled “Magic Dust” by Vallejo, so it’s clearly being marketed for fantasy miniatures (as opposed to Galaxy Dust and Space Dust which appear to be for space marines and the like).

The colorshift effect is hard to see in static images. I tried to make a short movie to hopefully show what it looks like. This is from paint test #3 in the above list:

If you’re having trouble seeing the effect, so do I. In fact, the color-shifting is really only visible in #2, #3, and #4 in the above list, with #3 being the best.

On a side note, these are also the first paints I’ve worked with for which the color of the bottle has little to do with the color of the paint after it’s applied:

Colorshift - bottles and minis

A frustrating aspect of working with these paints is that, as a test, I used a brush and smeared a bit of the paint on a piece of plasticard. The colorshift effect was clearly visible. It just wasn’t showing up on airbrushed crinkly minis.

The reason why I wanted to test the colorshift paints is that Etherfields is set in a dream world. I thought the eerie effect of shifting colors would be appropriate for sculptures that represented dream creatures. The resulting colors are different that what I would have gotten if I purchased the Vallejo Metallic Colors set, but were they worth the additional effort? Maybe #3, perhaps #2 and #4. The rest look like different shades of metallic purple.

I should acknowledge: I might have gotten better results if I’d been willing to apply a few more coats. I may have gotten better results if I brushed the paints on instead of spraying them. I may very well be using the paints for a purpose for which they’re not intended.

For now, I have to say that I don’t plan to use them in the future.

Contrast Paints, a Golden Dwarf, and Contrast Medium

This post is a continuation of a previous post in which I compared some contrast paints on my favorite test miniature, the Dwarf Brewer.

More contrast paint colors

In that post I separated the warm colors from the cool colors. I’ll continue to do that here, even though I’ve only got one autumnal color in this new comparison.

Warm colors

As a reminder, I apply my warm colors over a tan zenithal:

Tan zenithal - again

Here’s the autumnal contrast-painted mini:

Dwarf - Iyanden Yellow

Iyanden Yellow

Cool colors

The rest of my tests are over gray zenithal:

Gray Zenithal again

Dwarf - Apothecary White

Apothecary White

Dwarf - Aethermatic Blue

Aethermatic Blue

Dwarf - Talassar Blue

Talassar Blue

Dwarf - Magos Purple

Magos Purple


In my prior miniature-painting post, I said that my collection of contrast paints lacked lighter blues and purples. The last three paints listed above certainly satisfy that need. However, see my discussion of contrast medium below.

I didn’t expect much of an effect of Apothecary White over the gray zenithal. While the effect isn’t extraordinary, it is there. There are some spectral miniatures in both Tainted Grail and Etherfields, so I think I’ll find it useful.

The golden Dwarf

In that last post, I presented a Dwarf that I painted with a “silver zenithal.” I talked about doing this same thing with golden metallics. Here’s the result, using a base of Vallejo Tinny Tin, a 45° spray of Vallejo Bright Bronze, and a 0° spray of Vallejo Polished Gold:

Gold zenithal dwarf

Here’s the silver Dwarf from that last post:

Dwarf - Plate silver at 0 degrees

In the photos these two show about the same amount of contrast, but in person the golden Dwarf looks almost too reflective. I felt a need to tone it down. So I experimented with contrast medium.

Contrast medium

In painting, a “medium” is a color-neutral fluid you add to paint to change its characteristics in some way. Any acrylic paint can be thinned by adding water, but that might change the paint’s qualities: drying time, glossy vs. matte, viscosity, etc. For example, I frequently use both an airbrush thinner and a flow improver to help get my thick or metallic paints to spray smoothly through my airbrush. (For more on this topic, here are short and long explanations.)

That leads us to contrast medium. Mixing this with contrast paint will reduce the intensity of the color (since the pigment fragments will be farther apart) while leaving the flow characteristics unchanged. Here’s a video explanation of how it works.

As I looked at the golden Dwarf, I thought I’d try to use contrast medium to thin the color of one of my green contrast paints. I knew from the video that mixing medium and paint 1:1 would result in something like a wash or a glaze. My goal was to let the mixture flow over the gold and into the mini’s cracks and crevices, to give the effect of verdigris.

I chose to mix the medium with Creed Camo. Here’s the picture from my previous mini post of how that looks undiluted:

Dwarf - Creed Camo

I mixed that shade with contrast medium in equal proportion, and brushed it over the golden Dwarf. I left the Dwarf’s barrel untouched so I could see the effect.

Dwarf - gold with 50% camo green

It wasn’t the result I expected, but I like what I got. It “aged” the gold in a way that made it look old copper or bronze. I might have achieved a similar effect with a green wash, but the green washes I’ve got have a brighter tone that I don’t think would have looked the same.

I could also use contrast medium to “lighten up” the very dark contrast paints I showed in my previous post. This is Leviadon Blue on the left and Shyish Purple on the right.

Mixing paint to medium in a 4:1 ratio would lighten these shades. I might test this effect eventually.

Now I’ve got a new technique in my “sloppy painting” toolbox. I’m now curious how it would look if I took the silver zenithal I show above and use a thinned contrast paint over that. If I used red, might it look rusty? If I used blue or purple, would it look like a magic aura?

At some point I may try and find out!

Contrast Paints and a Metal Dwarf

As I promised in an earlier post, here’s a set of photos of my test work on painting Dwarf Brewers. I ordered about twenty of these miniatures via Amazon, and I believe those orders had to be distributed among several different game stores. If those stores wondered what one person wanted with all those Dwarves, this post will show you.

Contrast Paints

I should acknowledge that there are better comparisons between the different colors of Citadel Contrast Paints; here’s my favorite. But I felt I needed to see the results in real life, painted in the way I’ll apply the colors to my own miniatures.

As a reminder, these are base zenithal primes over which I applied the contrast paints. (Also: The next planet I create for a science-fiction setting will be named “Zenithal Prime”.)

Dwarves - tan vs gray zenithal

On the left is tan zenithal, on the right is gray zenithal.

Warm Colors

First, the autumnal colors that I painted over tan zenithal.

Dwarf - Skieleton Horde

Skeleton Horde

Dwarf - Nazdreg Yellow

Nazdreg Yellow

Dwarf - Gryph-Hound Orange

Gryph-Hound Orange

Dwarf - contrast Blood Angel Red

Blood Angel Red

Dwarf - contrast Aggaros Dunes

Aggaros Dunes

Dwarf - contrast Snakebite Leater

Snakebite Leather

Dwarf - contrast Wyldwood


Cool Colors

Next, the colors I painted over gray zenithal.

Dwarf - Plaguebearer Flesh

Plaguebearer Flesh

Dwarf - Militarium Green

Militarium Green

Dwarf - Creed Camo

Creed Camo

Dwarf - Space Wolves Grey

Space Wolves Grey

Dwarf - rhelian Green

Akhelian Green

Dwarf - Leviadon Blue

Leviadon Blue

Dwarf - Shyish Purple

Shyish Purple


I’ve got reds, browns, and green a-plenty. However, I should consider getting a light blue and a light purple. Leviadon Blue and Shyish Purple are so dark that they’re almost black. It makes them hard to distinguish from each other.

Contrast paints are meant to be “slopped on” over a white primer. All of the above show the effect of applying contrast paint over zenithal priming. It was only after I took the photographs that I noticed that the paint did not get into all the nooks and crannies of the miniatures; the region under the cap of the Dwarf’s ale mug was particularly problematic. This is a result of my sloppy painting, but it also indicates which paint colors did not flow as smoothly and will requires more attention on future models.

The Metal Dwarf (aka metal zenithal)

All of the above tests and the ones described in my other miniatures posts are fine for applying sundrop to player pieces, miniatures of living creatures, or monsters. But what if I wanted to paint a figure to suggest metal armor?

I was inspired by this video to consider “metallic zenithal”. All the paints were applied with an airbrush. Although the Vallejo metal paints were supposed to be able to be directly applied with airbrush, I found I had to mix an equal amount of flow improver to keep the airbrush from clogging.

Here are the steps:

Dwarf - black primer

First, a coat of black primer.

Dwarves - black primer and black metal

Then a coat of Vallejo black metal paint. The above is a comparison between standard black primer and the metallic black.

Dwarf - Chainmail silver at 45 degrees

Then a coat of Vallejo Chainmail Silver sprayed at a 45-degree angle.

Dwarf - Plate silver at 0 degrees

Finally a coat of Vallejo Plate Silver sprayed from directly above.

Dwarves = gray zenithal vs metal zenithal

Here’s a comparison between gray zenithal on the left with the silver metallic zenithal on the right.

In the Vince Venturella video I linked above, he continues to refine the metal zenithal with additional shading and highlights. For my part, I’m content to stick with what I’ve got.

I may experiment with a gold metallic zenithal in the future, if I get a miniature for which gold metal looks appropriate.

What’s next?

My miniatures painting tools are packed away in a couple of boxes, waiting for me to make room in a closet somewhere to store them. The next time I anticipate painting minis is when Tainted Grail arrives.

That might be as soon as next month!

Vindication of the Dragon at the Edge of Darkness

With a title like that, you may think this post will be fanfic. Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s another one of my miniature-figure painting posts. It’s long, as usual, but this time its length is due to lots of pictures. Yay, pictures!

In my first post on painting minis, I described how I looked forward to painting the large dragon sculpture that would come with the game Volfyirion. I received the game and started to think about how I’d paint the mini.

I’d forgotten that Mysthea and Volfyirion were not the only games I Kickstarted that had minis. In short order, I received my copies of the games Vindication and Edge of Darkness. (I also received Wingspan, Pandorum, and Human Punishment 2.0, but they didn’t contain any dull gray minis.) Suddenly I had more minis than I knew what to do with.

That’s a lie. I knew what to do with them: paint.

I’m going to describe the process, not in the order I did things, but in the order that I feel is the least to the most interesting.

Edge of Darkness

This game has 42 minis. 40 of them are “armies” (sets of identical units), 10 per player. I decided it would be simplest to paint those in the game’s player colors: white, red, green, purple.

Zenithal priming minis
Here are the Edge of Darkness minis just after zenithal priming. The 10 on the right will be painted red, so I used tan zenithal; the rest are gray zenithal.
Edge of Darkness - painted minis
To paint these minis, I just slopped contrast paints on them. The shades are: red = Contrast Blood Angels Red; green = Citadel Creed Camo; purple = Citadel Shyish Purple. The white pieces I just left with gray zenithal.
Edge of Darkness - round marker
I put a little extra effort into the round marker and the first-player marker. For the round marker, I applied a simple coat of black primer. I then did a heavy drybrushing with Vallejo Hammered Copper and a light drybrushing with Vallejo Polished Gold. The contrast between a black base and gold arm was bit much for me, so I painted the base in Harvest Brown.
Edge of Darkness - first player marker
I applied a coat of black primer for the first-player marker as well. I then did a heavy drybrushing with Vallejo Chainmail Silver and a light drybrushing with Vallejo Plate Silver.


Vindication looks like a good game, though I haven’t played it yet. From a miniatures perspective, the game is disappointing in that the minis don’t really do anything. Only if you use an optional expansion module do they show up on the board.

From the design perspective, the minis look great:

Vindication minis unpainted 2

Vindication minis unpainted 1

As I discussed in my previous miniatures post, over the next year or so I anticipate using the Sundrop/pre-shading/sketch-style technique on the otherworldly minis of Etherfields and Tainted Grail. I chose to make the Vindication minis a test run of this approach. I painted them using the Sundrop technique with contrast paints, each mini with one bit (sometimes tiny) that was different from their main color.

I think the results came out fairly well:

Vindication painted minis - 2

Vindication painted minis - 1

I’m going to skip my usual practice of listing all the paints I used for these pictures. Instead, in a subsequent post I’m going to show Dwarf Brewers painted and labeled with all the Citadel Contrast Paints in my collection. I’ll only note there that I wish that Leviadon Blue (the mini with the yellow globe in the center) and Shyish Purple (circle with jagged spikes and silvery woman in the back) were not so dark that it’s hard to tell one color from the other.

I’m generally content with how these minis turned out. For comparison, Awaken Realms released a photo of the production line for Niamh, one of their Sundropped minis from Tainted Grail:


Awaken Realms has my respect for doing this good a job of mass-painting minis. However, I think I can do as well if not a little bit better on my own. For example, I can select the color of the contrast paint to better suit the miniature’s function or history in the game.


This mini proved to be a challenge. As you can see from the photo, it had lots of “fiddly bits” and sections of the sculpture that were hard to reach with a paint brush:

Volfyiron - unpainted

Most of the other pictures I’ve seen of the Volfyirion miniature painted by other artists used a dark color palette to match the game’s artwork. I decided I wanted a fire dragon. That meant I’d be using mostly warm colors. So the first step was relatively easy: use an airbrush to apply a tan zenithal.

Next comes color choices and painting. I chose to stick with contrast paints where I could. I decided I wanted to accentuate the difference between the dragon’s top and underbelly by painting them two different colors, Citadel Blood Angels Red and Citadel Wyldwood. For fiery highlights I went with Candlelight Yellow and Orange Fire.

Spider claws are unusual for a dragon, much less a fire dragon, so I decided to portray them as exposed bone with Skeleton Horde. In Mysthea lore, the crystals the dragon crouches on are called Qoam, so I used the same color scheme as I had when I painted the Qoam crystals of the Mysthea miniatures: Vallejo Red with a wash of Citadel Shade Carroburg Crimson.

It was tricky getting around the nooks and crannies of the mini. Fortunately the brushes I had were good enough for the task, especially the smallest ones.

The result:

It looked pretty decent. However, I thought the contrast between the red top and the brown underbelly was too stark. I took a risk and lightened the underbelly with a drybrush of gold. The result was better than I hoped. Here’s how it looked after varnishing.

Speaking of varnishing…

The web reviews I saw on Citadel Contrast Paints said they did not adhere very well. My own experience confirm that statement. Even the mildest mini-on-plastic rubbing could cause the contrast paint to chip.

The sites recommended 3-4 coats of varnish. That sounded good, but I also found contradictory information on the web about how long I should each coat dry; a web search on the question tends to give links to varnishing boats. My spray can for Liquitex Satin Varnish either did not include drying time or the text was too small for me to find.

I compromised: One quick spray, rotate 90°, spray again; repeat two more times for 360° coverage. A half hour later, do the same thing but starting with a 45° offset so I was spraying on the diagonals. Repeat the whole process the next day.

So far, no chipping. We’ll see what happens.

What’s next

I’ve got a couple more miniature-painting posts in my mental queue, discussing some more tests I did.

Physically, I’m wrapping up painting for now and putting the airbrush and paints away. I anticipate I might paint more minis in October 2019, when Tainted Grail is tentatively scheduled to arrive.

Sundrop, tan zenithal, and contrast paints

The new incentive

This post continues a saga I began in an earlier post on the hobby of painting miniature figures. In that post, I described how I managed to paint the minis in the game Mysthea to a satisfactory level.

At the end of that post, I looked forward to painting the dragon Volfyirion and the miniatures in Icaion, both from Tabula Games. I’ll go over my efforts to paint Volfyirion in another mini-painting post.

Since I wrote that post, a new element entered the picture: I pre-ordered two more games with miniature figures: Tainted Grail and Etherfields, both published by Awaken Realms. I knew from Icaion’s Kickstarter campaign that painting those minis would test the limits of my skill. Well, with all due respect to the designers at Tabula Games, the mini designers at Awaken Realms are more ambitious. If you click on the Tainted Grail and Etherfields links, you’ll see how elaborate their minis are.

The Awaken Realms minis are beyond my skill to paint, even with the watercolor-like approximations I applied to the Mysthea minis. With only one working eye and trembling fingers, I did not think I could improve my ability above what it currently is.

However, an idea presented itself. The Awaken Realms Kickstater pages offered to paint the minis for you, using a technique they called Sundrop; Aella13 calls this pre-shading and Vince Venturella calls it sketch style. It’s a simple method: zenithal prime a mini, apply a wash for contrast, and you’re done. In fact, it’s what I did for the armies in Mysthea:

Golems - wash - front
These Golem minis look a bit cartoonish to suit my taste for the more elaborate Awaken Realms minis, but that was a deliberate choice on my part. I wanted to give the Golems the same colors as the player colors used in Mysthea and were the colors of the minis’ bases. There are no “armies” (a collection of identical units) in Tainted Grail and Etherfields. The armies in Icaion already come in the players’ colors (though I may choose to apply a wash once I see them).

Caerulas - filed and painted
I can focus on the wash colors that I feel suit the character of each individual mini. The photo above shows the result when I “sundropped” Mysthea’s Caerulus mini with Agrax Earthshade wash, with just a bit of highlighting for the eyes. That was the more “mature” color scheme I was looking for.

Tan zenithal

As I went over in my previous mini post, conventional zenithal priming has an overall coat of black primer, an angled coat of light gray, and and overhead spray of white.

However, I learned that when you plan to paint in warm or autumnal colors (e.g., brown, red, orange, yellow) it’s best if you’re painting over another warm color. Since I planned to paint Volfyirion as a fire dragon, I explored a different zenithal scheme.

Unpainted dwarf
An unpainted Dwarf Brewer, straight out of the package.

Dwarf - base brown
Using an airbrush, apply an overall coat of brown primer.

Dwarf with tan zenithal
Spray tan primer in a 45-degree angle around the figure.

Dwarf with white overhead
Highlight with white primer sprayed from above the mini.

Let’s compare the “gray zenithal” with the “tan zenithal”:

Two Zenithals

To test the assertion that warm colors would look better over a brown-ish base, I airbrushed both minis with a 1:1 mix of Vallejo Air Red with Vallejo Glaze Medium. I chose this mix because I wanted the red to be translucent enough that it wouldn’t completely override the zenithal effect. I used glaze medium instead of water because I didn’t want to thin the Vallejo Air paint any further, since it was already thinned for airbrushing.

Two zenithals with red glaze

To my eye, the mini on the right has the more vibrant color. The color theorists are right!

Given this result, I knew I was going to run more tests using autumnal colors. I applied a tan zenithal to all my remaining Dwarf Brewer minis. I then applied a red glaze to a couple more to see effect of washes on top of the glaze.

Two washed dwarves
The Dwarf on the left was washed with Citadel Shade Casandora Yellow. The one on the right was washed with Citadel Shade Agrax Earthshade. Note that I left the beer barrels unwashed so I could see the color shift.

Sundrop / pre-shading / sketch style

The tests I did with the red glaze were in anticipation of techniques I’d use to paint Volfyirion (in a later post I describe why I dropped this approach). But although wash-over-glaze is a perfectly valid technique, I wanted to see what I could do with just the Sundrop approach: wash-over-zenithal. I tested with more tan-zenithaled Dwarf Brewers.

Dwarf - shade Agrax Earthshade
Agrax Earthshade over tan zenithal.

Dwarf - shade Reikland Fleshshade
Reikland Fleshshade over tan zenithal.

Dwarf with Drakenhoof Nighshade
Drakenhof Nighshade over tan zenithal. Notes: Blue over tan zenithal was not the best choice, but I wanted to see the result of a blue shade; again, I omitted the beer barrel to see the color shift; my iPhone has difficulty getting the darker shades in focus.

I also have some pictures of the same approach with non-Dwarf non-Brewers.

Green wash over zenithal
Citadel Shade Biel-Tan Green over gray zenithal.

zenithal - black coat
Citadel Shade Nuln Oil over gray zenithal.

I was content with the results I got. I knew I could Sundrop minis fairly quickly, not get bogged down in details, and get the gray off the table. If you’re wondering what that last phrase means, compare this image with unpainted minis to this image with painted ones.

So all was well and I had a plan. Until…

Contrast paints

If you paint miniature figures, it’s hard to escape the hype surrounding Citadel Contrast Paints. If you don’t paint minis, the quick summary is that, for newcomers to the hobby, they can accomplish a single coat what would otherwise involve a basecoat+wash+drybrush.

They’re supposed to be easy to use: just slop the paint over white primer and you’re done. For the inexperienced, they’re supposed to give the visceral thrill of quickly painting a mini. The experienced have access to more powerful techniques (blending, layering, etc.) and don’t have much use for them.

I saw the videos and I was intrigued. A product made for n00bs? Well, I are one.

Finally, a friend of mine made a recommendation that I give contrast paints a try. I succumbed to peer pressure and tried a few to see how well they worked. Was it all hype?

To my pleasant surprise, the answer was no. All of the following examples are contrast paints over tan zenithal.

Dwarf - contrast Blood Angel Red
Blood Angels Red

Dwarf - contrast Aggaros Dunes
Aggaros Dunes

Dwarf - contrast Snakebite Leather
Snakebite Leather

Dwarf - contrast Wyldwood

It may not be clear from the pictures, but the contrast paints’ colors are richer than those of the washes. The recesses into which the paint flowed are darker than with the wash, so the raised areas are highlighted more. This definitely doesn’t come across in the photos: The darker contrast paint colors have a sheen to them that makes the surfaces seem almost metallic; the Wyldwood mini looks like it was made of bronze.

That last point raises the issue of how to varnish a contrast-painted mini while retaining that sheen. Do I use a varnish with a satin finish or one with a gloss finish? I’m sure you’ve guessed the answer: I’ll have to test on more Dwarf Brewers.

I’ve ordered some more contrast paints, and Dwarf Brewers to test them on (of course!). There’ll be a follow-up post with more contrast paint examples. If you’d like to get an idea right now, check out this page.

This doesn’t mean I reject using washes over zenithal for my future Sundrop efforts. Depending on the figure, I might want a less intense color; e.g., a mist creature or an undead. I’ll decide on a figure-by-figure basis as the games arrive.

Going back to Etherfields, I found a video of someone painting Etherfields miniatures. Synopsis: The painter (who is far more experienced than I am) spent a long time painting one of the figures in detail (the mini on the right in the video’s preview image). After that, he settles for using contrast paints to Sundrop the minis, with some minor highlights on the larger ones (the mini on the left in the preview); that’s pretty much what I plan to do.

Painting Miniature Figures

Portions of the following essay, the pictures in particular, have previously appeared in my Facebook feed. If you’ve read those status updates, the only reason to read this blog post is to immerse yourself in my terse, brief, non-repetitive, and direct writing style in order to bask in its brevity.

The incentive

I have games that include miniature figures. Off the top of my head, these include Talisman and Fortune and Glory. I never had any desire or incentive to paint those figures.

  • The figures in the above games are small and lack detail. They have more visual appeal than simple plastic counters, but that’s about it.
  • The above games are not popular with my gaming groups. Talisman is seen to be too simple for a game of its size and length. Fortune and Glory is a “press your luck” game which is not a popular style among strategy gamers.

I purchased Mysthea on the basis of its Kickstarter campaign. I got it for its design and mechanics. I knew it included miniatures, but until I saw them I didn’t realize how much their size and detail screamed “paint me!” A couple of experienced miniature-figure painters posted their work on BoardGameGeek:

By pecktec:

By rulzac

So I knew it could be done. I knew I couldn’t do as good a job as the painters above, or someone who had gained experience by painting entire Warhammer 40K armies, but I hoped for something that looked better than simple gray resin on the colorful Mysthea game board. A discussion on BoardGameGeek gave me an initial direction to follow.


I started almost from zero. I had painted some minis in the mid 70s, but they were clumsy attempts. Here’s the only one I still have from those days. I think it’s supposed to be a Kobold.

A Clumsy Kobold

I’m pretty sure I gave all my other painted minis to Daniel Holzman-Tweed in the 80s. I could have sworn I kept some paint and brushes, but I hunted through my various toolkits and craft boxes and found nothing. I probably gave those to Dan as well. Given the crudeness of my painting, I hope he’s thrown out those minis by now.

When I clumsily painted that Kobold (or whatever it is), I was in my teens. My manual dexterity was better than it is now. I also had two working eyes, each one of which had better vision than I do at present. I looked at that little old mini and despaired.

On the other hand, the hobby of painting miniature figures has grown tremendously since the 70s. There are now tools and technologies available that I did not have then. In the 70s, there were no web sites or YouTube tutorials I could consult. I was effectively a n00b, but I could be a better-prepared n00b in 2019 than I could be in 1977.

A disappointing beginning

When I decide to embark on a new project involving something for which I have no skill, I have a strategy that seems appealing and never works: I overspend. I did it when I built the gadget to control my air conditioner via HomeKit, and I did it here. I won’t give any itemized lists, but whenever I describe a dead end you may assume I regard it as money wasted.

My first question: Where to start? As I did my initial research, I learned about the Reaper Learn To Paint Bones Kit. As the name suggests, this was supposed to contain supplies and instructions to teach beginners.

I had a miserable experience with this kit. I won’t detail the problems here, because I have a vague plan to write up a full description for both this blog and for an Amazon review. My first attempt applying a brush to one of the included minis ended badly. I overcame my despair and forced myself to complete the mini, following the instructions as slavishly as I could. Instead of the great-looking mini that I saw in the instruction booklet, I got this:

My conclusion was that I was a clumsy oaf who couldn’t follow directions.

I did not give up, mainly because of YouTube. I had watched a few videos on mini painting. YouTube then added more mini-painting videos to my Recommended list. So I continued to watch instructional videos even after my bad experience with the kit.

I came to understand the problems I had were not entirely due to my physical limitations. The kit had included cheap brushes and had not provided adequate instructions for their care. The included paints needed to be thinned, which had not been mentioned in the instruction booklet at all. For a few weeks after I started working with minis again, I was convinced I couldn’t drybrush; it turned out that the kit taught a drybrushing technique that didn’t work for me, but there were other methods out there.

I still have to give some credit to the Reaper Bones Kit. It provided me with a starting batch of paints which proved useful later in the project. There are painting tips that begin “Use an old junk brush for this” and the brushes in the kit became my junk brushes. The techniques described in the kit (basecoat, wash, drybrush basecoat, drybrush highlight) are important in mini painting, and in time I used a version of them in some places. But I didn’t do it the way the kit taught.

The airbrush

I eventually learned a mini painting technique that worked for me. I’ll describe it in detail below. Before I do that, I want to focus on an important tool for that technique: the airbrush.

I’d played with an airbrush once before, at an informal airbrushing class. The experience was not enlightening. I had not felt I had control over what was going on. Yet I needed an airbrush to shade my minis.

I consulted with my friend (and talented artist) Vann. (If you click on that link, you’ll see human models that he’s both hand- and air-brushed; I found that his advice translated to plastic fantasy miniatures.) After getting his advice and searching on the web, I eventually decided on the PointZero Airbrush Airbrush Kit. Vann agreed that, though cheap, it would be adequate for what I planned to do.

The PointZero kit included a compressor and three airbrushes. It was overkill (or so I thought) since I only needed one airbrush, but the other available kits that had only one airbrush either cost much more or did not include a compressor. To make it clear: an airbrush needs a source of compressed air; you can use a compressor or a tank of compressed air, but an airbrush alone does nothing. The PointZero kit cost $100 and included everything needed, including a regulator for the compressor and a hose to connect it to the airbrush. For a sense of scale, it’s not unusual for a professional to spend $300-$1000 on an airbrush alone.

Despite the difficulties I describe below, I think it was a good purchase. However, I had the luxury of consulting Vann when I got into trouble. Your mileage may vary.

At the same time I ordered the airbrush, I got an airbrush cleaning kit, airbrush cleaning fluid, and airbrush flow improver. All of these proved useful in the project. I also purchased airbrush thinner, but that had a very strong odor and it turned out that I never used it.

As these items arrived in the mail and looked over all the included documentation, I became aware of a peculiar facet of the airbrush world: the instructions include little practical information about the care and use of airbrushes. The PointZero kit included a DVD, but its videos were focused on industrial-level airbrushes. It also included links to instructional PDFs, but they were mostly oriented towards safety and were very generic.

The best advice for airbrushing came in a pamphlet that accompanied the airbrush cleaning kit. But while this gave nice lessons on using the airbrush they contained nothing about how to use the cleaning kit!

In the end, most of the advice on practical use of my airbrush came from Vann, supplemented with a few web sites and YouTube videos.

After using the airbrush a few times I became more safety conscious. Here I am wearing a respirator and safety goggles. They were probably unnecessary, but my health was becoming worse as this project went on and I didn’t want to add to my medical woes.
Prepping for airbrushing

Following Vann’s advice, I set up an airbrushing station on top of my stove. This was not problem for me, since I rarely use it. (I’m a bachelor. I microwave.) The reason for setting up on a stove is that I could turn on the stove’s ventilator fan and blow out any airborne spray from the airbrush.

The first time I airbrushed, I got into trouble. The paint stopped flowing through the brush. I assumed I had a clog. The videos showed users casually disassembling their airbrushes whenever a problem occurred. The airbrush came with a parts schematic, so I went ahead and took it apart. Not only could I not find any clog, but I couldn’t put it back together. I bent the tip of the airbrush’s needle while trying to reassemble the airbrush incorrectly.

I sent a message to Vann, saying that as I predicted I broke the airbrush. He was kind enough to do a Facetime call and guide me. I was lucky: Vann not only had years of experience working with airbrushes but teaching them as well. Thanks to him, I was able to put the airbrush together correctly. He assured me that bent needles are a common event when working with airbrushes, and that he’d seen and worked with needles that were far worse off than mine.

Then, as he offered and I requested, he guided me through a complete disassembly of the airbrush again. It’s common to take an airbrush apart to diagnose problems and to clean it, and we wanted to make sure I knew what to do. Everything was fine until I removed the airbrush sprayer with a custom tiny wrench. When it came to reassembly, I could not screw the sprayer back on again. The sprayer (or nozzle) is s tiny part that I found hard to grip in my fumble fingers.

Vann was patient, staying on the Facetime call with me for something like 45 minutes as I tried to get the sprayer back on, dropping it, finding it with blurry vision, and starting again. Finally we agreed to call it quits. He suggested I ask a mutual friend of ours with airbrush experience to stop by and screw in the sprayer.

The day after the call, I examined the unscrewed sprayer more carefully and compared it with the parts schematic of the airbrush. The reason why I couldn’t screw the sprayer back in again is that I broke it when I originally unscrewed it.

Fortunately, these types of events are also common with airbrushes. I ordered a kit of airbrush replacement parts. The replacement sprayer fit perfectly.

While I waited for the kit to arrive, I continued to airbrush minis using one of the other airbrushes that had come with the PointZero kit. It was smaller than the one I broke so it wouldn’t hold as much paint, but otherwise worked fine. I was careful not to break this one! I was lucky that I’d decided to get a kit with more than one airbrush, otherwise I would have had to (horror of horrors!) wait for the replacement part.


The chief problem I had when attempting to paint the minis in the Reaper Bones Kit was in painting small areas on the surface of the mini. I simply did not have fine enough brush control. Eventually during the course of the project I got better at it, especially after I understood about thinning the paints, but initially I needed a method that could I could apply without detailed brushing or highlighting.

I settled on technique that I only recently learned is called “pre-shading.” First I applied a zenithal prime to the mini using the airbrush. Then I used a wash to give the mini its overall color.

If you’re not into model painting, I’ve thrown a couple of terms at you that you’re probably not familiar with:

  • “Zenithal priming” is a way to apply paint such that it creates an effect like overhead lighting. Here’s a couple of web pages that describe the technique (1 and 2); a search on “zenithal prime” will fetch many more.

    To summarize: Spray a mini all over with black. Then spray it again, this time in gray, holding the airbrush at a fixed 45° angle. Finally spray the mini with white, but hold the sprayer at a 0° angle with respect to the top of the mini.

  • A “wash” is a very thinned paint. Instead of just sticking to the surface that you apply it to, it’s intentionally designed to flow, depositing inks in the nooks and crannies of the mini. The net effect is to further shade the deeper parts of the mini, and highlight (by contrast) the raised parts.

Here’s an example of the process. These two pictures show one of the minis that came with the Reaper Bones Kit. The one on the left shows the mini zenithal primed. The one on the right shows that same mini washed with a purple tint.

Unfortunately, I did not take a “before” picture of the unpainted mini. It may be hard to tell, but the shading on the mini does not come from my kitchen light, but is imposed by the zenithal priming. Note how the crevices are darker in the washed mini.


I didn’t want to start painting the Mysthea minis right away. Those minis would be hard to replace, since the publisher does not have any spare parts in stock yet. I therefore tested the technique on the only other minis I had, those from the Reaper Bones Kit. Here’s a test of the red, green, and black washes respectively over zenithal priming.

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I had more wash colors I wanted to test. It would have been better to test on actual minis, but I wanted ones that were big enough for me to practice on any details and didn’t have annoying features like the skeleton’s bow or the orc’s sword that I’d have to paint around. Until I found suitable minis, I used twenty-sided dice instead; I had plenty of them, some dating back to the 70s, and their edges were so worn that I knew I’d never use them again for anything else. Yes, you’re looking at zenithal-primed and shaded D20s.

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You can see in this slideshow that, while painting the minis, I held them with poster tack on the top of old pill containers. I filled the containers with water to give them some heft and keep them from tipping over.

Finally I got some real minis to test on that satisfied my requirements: nice details for painting and drybrushing, not too small for me to handle. I called them my “standard dwarves”. I ordered four of them, and later wished I’d ordered more. Here’s one of my tests with the dwarves, as I compare the effect of different zenithal priming base layers combined with yellow and red washes.

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Even after I started painting the Mysthea minis, the standard dwarves were useful to test combinations of paints. I may buy more dwarves for future projects… or I may keep repainting the ones I’ve got.


As I noted above, the hobby of model painting has grown considerably since the 70s. I don’t remember what paint I used for that silly Kobold (if that’s what it is), but I probably didn’t have too much of a choice. Now a single manufacturer like Vallejo might have hundreds to choose from, with variations in color, texture, and purpose. I knew I was going to stick with acrylic paints for miniature figures, which doesn’t really narrow the field at all.

I knew the minis had to be primed. “Primer” for models means the same thing as it does in house-painting: an undercoat that helps the paint adhere to the surface. Since I knew I was going zenithal all the minis, I used primer for the purpose. I purchased white, gray, and black primer. You may have noticed in captions for the dwarves above that I experimented with brown primer, but in the end I did not use it.

Some paints had come with the Reaper Bones Kit, and I’d still use them. For the other paints, I decided to go with Vallejo. The general consensus I found that they made good-quality paints at a reasonable price. I only had to purchase red and orange fire; the former because there was no red paint in the Reaper Bones Kit, the latter because I wanted a brighter orange than I could get from mixing red and yellow.

For the washes, I went with Citadel Shade Paints. Citadel is part of Games Workshop. Their paints are designed for their minis (notably Warhammer 40K), but that would have little effect on what I planned to do. I found a great color guide to help me choose which washes to get.

Experts might disagree with my choice of Citadel washes. In general, Citadel paints are considered expensive for what they deliver. Also, it’s not that hard to make your own washes: just add enough water to your paint. But I wanted reproducibility in my shades of wash, and I was willing to pay to get it.

Let’s get to it

There are four classes of minis in Mysthea: Golems, Troops, Monsters, and Champions. The first two are “armies,” with lots of identical units. Each Monster and Champion figure is unique.

The “armies”

I started with the Golems and Troops. There can be up to five players in Mysthea, and each chooses their player color. I wanted to paint the armies in the player colors. I started with the Golems, which were larger and therefore easier to handle. Also, the rocky nature of their design made the washes fill in their details beautifully. For these, I have “before” and “after” photos so you can see the effects of each stage: unpainted, zenithal primed, washed (front and rear).

Golems - unpainted
Golems - zenithal primed
Golems - wash - front
Golems - wash - rear

If you’re sharp of eye and quick of mind, you may wonder: The Mysthea game comes with colored bases, so you can tell which Golem or Troop is assigned to each player. But now the minis have been painted. Why keep the bases on? Answer: Because the minis are hard to remove from the Mysthea box’s trays without those bases. The minis are easier to handle if I paint them then put the bases back on.

Once I painted the 20 Golems (four for each player), it was time to paint the 40 Troops (eight for each player). Here I show examples, with a Golem in the background for a size comparison.

Troops - wash

It was at this point that I finally got a handle on drybrushing, mostly from watching more videos and practicing on the standard dwarves. (The secret is to make the final swipes on your arm, until the paint no longer flows into the cracks of your skin.) I decided to drybrush the backs of all the Golems. However, the effect was barely noticeable. The drybrushed Golem is on the left; original is on the right.

Drybrushi test

I believe what happened is that since the wash left the tips of the rocky surface pretty light in the first place, adding white-based highlights didn’t make much of a difference. As we’ll see, I got better at contrasting highlights by the time I got to the Champions.

The first two Monsters

I knew I wasn’t going to settle for mono-colored (mono-washed?) minis for the Monsters and the Champions. I was going to stick to washes over zenithal prime, but I wanted to paint different regions of each mini with different washes.

If you scroll to the top of this blog post, you’ll see that other Mysthea mini painters made their own color choices. I decided to stick as best I could to choices made by the lead Mysthea artist, Travis Anderson. I started with the Monsters, since the minis were larger and easier to paint.

My first two Monster minis were the ones I felt were the easiest to paint. Kodror is on the left, and Caerulas is on the right.

It wasn’t until I published the Caerulas photo on Facebook that I saw the big seam running along the side of the mini. This was a n00b mistake; all the sites and videos that talks about prepping minis included inspecting the minis for any seams. It was an understandable mistake, though. The Mysthea minis were so detailed that it was hard to notice a manufacturing seam until the washes brought it out.

Could I live with it? I should have, but I didn’t. I bought a miniature file kit, filed down the seam, and repainted the mini from scratch, primer and all.

Caerulas - filed and painted

I later noticed other seams on the minis, always after I’d painted them. Those I let go. None were quite as obvious as the one on Caerulas.


This is where I was at this point, with all the Golems, Troops, and two monsters painted, and with all the other minis zenithal primed.

It was then I realized that the depth of the zenithal shading was not as great as it had been on the first few test minis I painted, like the ones you can see near the middle of this post. The more recent minis seemed “over-grayed,” with less black shading or white highlighting visible.

I think there are some related reasons for this:

  • I may have gotten too efficient at airbrushing for my own good. When I was new at airbrushing, it took me longer to switch the brush from black to gray to white paint. Once I reached the point where it took me less than a minute to run cleaner through the airbrush, the paint from the earlier coats may not have had enough time to dry.
  • I may have gotten over-enthusiastic about applying the paint (especially since I only had so much time in each airbrushing session before my eye started aching). I probably applied coats that were too thick, which increased the drying time.
  • Getting the right consistency for the primers was difficult for me. The general rule is that airbrush paints should have the consistency of milk, but I left my lacto-consistency meter in my other pair of pants.

    At least one web site I saw suggested that Vallejo primers are of airbrush consistency right out of the bottle. I was more cautious, and went with primer:water:flow-improver of 10:3:2. Maybe this was too much thinner.

  • Part of the reason why the white highlights were not strong enough may have been that the white primer needed to be thinned more; I was told that this is because the bits of white pigment in acrylic medium are larger than the other colors.
  • To speed things up and to get some consistency between sprayings, I pre-mixed my primers and thinners in squeeze bottles. Here’s how it looked.
    Prepping for priming.jpg
    This means that if I made a mistake in the ratio above, or it encouraged me to speed things up and not let the previous coat dry, that error would persist across multiple airbrush sessions.

I decided that it wasn’t worth trying to reprime all the minis I’d already painted. When I return to mini painting again (see below), I’ll do more tests on my standard dwarves to see if the problem persists.

The rest of the “bosses”

The remaining Monster minis had smaller areas than the first two for me to paint. I dealt with this problem by getting an illuminated headband magnifier [1]. I also improved my toolkit by getting a better set of brushes and a separate drybrush.

Here are all the monsters, in a shot I call “The Merry Mysthea Monster Marching Society” for reasons that only old comics fans will appreciate.
Merry Mysthea Monster Marching Society
Again, you can compare these to the Mysthea Monster artwork to see how close I came.

Working with the larger Monster minis helped me to develop better brush control. As a result, I had some confidence I could work with the smaller Champion minis. Here are two of the best, Anuth (on the left) and Sanya (on the right).

The female Champions offered me an esthetics issue. In the Champion artwork, the females follow the usual fantasy trope of showing more skin than the male figures (because nothing protects from a broadsword blow like a bare midriff). The miniatures follow suit.

Should I have painted over these sections of skin with the same paint I use for the armor? It would have made things easier on me, and it might make the figures look less sexist.

In the end, I decided to go with what the artist originally intended. In part this was because there was some balance: Anuth (see above) has some nice pects and biceps in full view; Celethe shows skin in the artwork but not in the mini.

Here’s the full set, in a shot I call “We Are The Champions!” You can compare these with the Champion artwork [2].
We are the Champions!


These minis are not meant for display. They’re meant to be played as part of the board game Mysthea. Here’s an example.
Diorama - side

From a practical standpoint, this means that the players will be handling the minis. I didn’t want them to get their pizza-laden fingers all over my artwork. OK, I’ll admit it: I didn’t want to put my pizza-laden fingers all over the artwork.

The standard solution is to varnish the miniatures. A friend advised me to use satin spray varnish, as a reasonable compromise between a glossy and a matte finish. I purchased a can and prepped the entire collection by using poster tack on cardboard.
Ready for spraying

A couple of days ago as I write this, the temperature was high enough and the humidity low enough for me to take these outside and apply a couple of light coats, two hours apart. Now I’m letting them dry in my kitchen for another couple of days before I put them back in the box, ready to be played.

So what’s next?

Within the next 3-4 months, Tabula Games will release Volfyirion, which I helped to Kickstart. For those willing to pay extra, the game will include a 120mm (4.7″) dragon miniature. If you don’t like to click links:
Before I started this project, there was no way I could have painted this. Now I’m already planning what to do.

In May, Tabula’s follow-up game to Mysthea will begin its Kickstarter campaign. It’s called Icaion. It will have its own set of miniatures. Tabula has already released a few designs, including that of The Colossus.

These games are not only interesting to me because of their minis and their mechanics, but also because of the way they fit together. They all share the same world background, but what’s more fun is how the games interact: the Volfyirion dragon can be used in Mysthea; game pieces from Mysthea and Icaion can be combined together to play a third game.

When the time comes, I’ll be ready to paint. I hope my gamer friends will be ready to play.


[1] If you put together the hints I’ve dropped about vision issues, you may ask why I didn’t put this project on hold until my vision improved?

The answer is that this project was meant to occupy my time while I was home-bound due to a different medical issue. I needed to be stubborn and push this through because otherwise I didn’t have much else to occupy my thoughts except binge-watch TV.

Besides, although this project is the basis of one of the longest blog posts I’ve ever written with more pictures than I’ve ever included, it didn’t take all that much time. I worked on it perhaps a total of an hour a day, in 10-15 minute intervals before my eye started aching and I’d have to rest it for an hour or two. Most of my “eye time” was spent working from home which had similar limitations.

So although the project took me about six weeks, the actual total time was probably 40-50 hours, including the time painting over my mistakes.

[2] If you didn’t click on the artwork link: My leaving the skin areas of the Champion minis unpainted was not due to laziness or because I never bought any flesh-tone paint. In the original art, the Champions’ skin is either white or very pale purple. I decided the best way to emulate that was to leave any exposed skin, including the faces, the same color as the zenithal primer.