Saturday, February 1, 2014

Painting Boardgame Miniatures

As game pieces come out of the box, sometimes they don't fit the story in your head. They're too boring or too badly painted. Sometimes you get confused because the red guy and the orange gal look too similar and the wrong piece gets moved for a few turns. For whatever reason, sometimes your board game bits need some classing up.

We're here to fix that.

You'll need:
  • Acrylic paint. I use the craft acrylic tubes from various sources (Delta, Ceramcoat, FolkArt... Whatever's on special, essentially)
  • Small brushes. Like, impractically small. My largest common brush is an acrylic size 0. It goes down from there. I suggest a 0 for blocking out colors and a 10/0 or 20/0 for details.
  • Future Floor "Wax", now called Pledge Premium Finish with Future Shine. Clear acrylic for use on floors, thin like water, mildly fragranced. Does not taste good.
  • Paper towels.
  • Clean water.
  • OPTIONAL: Xacto knife for cleaning mold lines/details.
  • OPTIONAL: Palette for mixing. If you want to make your own, buy a picture frame at a dollar store and some duct tape. Instructions below.
I'm not, at the moment, going to start regular articles on painting miniatures. There are a number of fine sites out there that discuss precisely this concept, all of which are worth your times should you want to pursue it. Rather, I'm talking about the little plastic peoples that come with your board games, some of whom are sad little gray or pre-painted lumps that may or may not resemble human beings. Solving this problem can be as simple or dramatic as you want.

Unpainted Last Night on Earth heroes. Photo by James Culshaw.
Basic miniature painting comes down to three key concepts: Miniature preparation, base color paint application, and finishing technique.

The first concept is miniature preparation. To help the miniatures slip out of their molds, they have usually been treated with a release agent. You may not feel it, but it will prevent paint from adhering. Also, by the time you decide to paint board game pieces, you've likely handled them a fair amount, coating them with a fine film of human filth. This is also not helpful to the paint process. Wash them in soapy water like a dinosaur, dry them off, and set them aside for a while to dry thoroughly. You may want to prime your miniatures with spray paint to provide a coat for paint to grab onto. I usually do for hard plastic and bare metal, but for these soft vinyl pieces for boardgames I don't. If you do, consider how the piece will be painted. For more contrast or a more realistic palette, prime dark and paint up. This leaves dark shadows at the edges and helps some finishing steps later. For cartoon color schemes or other brightness, prime white and paint down. Fewer coats will be needed to come up from black. Consider compromise with gray primer, but make sure you aren't using a sandable "filler" primer for cars or something, as it is thick enough to fill all your facial features. Light coats, gentle touch. There will be more info on spray paint and miniatures/models/terrain in the future. Until then, just be gentle.

Whether you based them or not, the next step is the hard one: Coming up with color schemes. For a wargame or some board games, you pick a combination of your favorite colors, described color schemes from source material, and so forth. For others, you can work from source material. I'll give examples of both.

For Betrayal at House on the Hill, you only get names, birthdays, and hobbies for the character. The portraits are ink drawings over a colored background, so there's no detail for their outfits. They do, however, come pre-painted. From a factory, by someone who has to paint a bunch of green dudes an hour with varying quality.

Betrayal at House on the Hill original paint jobs. Photo by Christopher Beck.
I took these figures, used poster putty to stick them to bottle caps and other objects on my work table, and basically painted my version of their original color scheme over the top. Nothing fancy, just red for red, blue for blue, etc. I changed most dramatically when it came to skin tone. All of the original figures were the same shade of Jersey Shore orange. When your character names range from Peter Akimoto to Madame Zostra and Darrin "Flash" Williams, one skin color simply won't do. Enter the Multicultural Super Friends! Together, they explore haunted houses.

I decided some time ago not to worry about painting "proper" eyes. There are artists who can get individual twinkles in the iris of a blue-eyed beauty, even at 28mm scale. (Jennifer Haley can do mascara and eyeshadow at that scale. I'm 96% certain she's a sorceress in real life) I am not one of those people. Mine get base coats, skin tones, a solid color in the eye socket to avoid the "staring wildly" vibe that usually happens when you do the black dot in the white eye and a couple of details for table top use. Remember, it's a board game and you want the pieces to read at a distance. Don't get too fussy and remember that most of your friends will pick up their piece, go "Cool, it's painted" and then ask how to play the game. Block color is your friend at this point.

Ox Bellows, Level 17 Bromaster/3rd Level Douchelord.

The next step is a custom wash that provides most of your detail. A wash in paint terms is a thinned solution that carries translucent color. Game stores sell pre-mixed washes for something like $6 for a half-ounce pot of premixed wash. One color, one thing. Mixing your own with a full bottle of Future and half a dozen acrylic paints is basically a lifetime of washes for $12. Online, you'll hear Future-based washes called "Magic Washes" because so many painters (myself included) think they finish your models as if by magic.

The secret of my power.
The recipe for me varies a little bit, but is usually three parts water to one part Future and one part paint. I keep a bottle of the water and Future part on hand and just squeeze a few drops of it over a drop of paint when I need a small batch. If I were painting an army, I would just mix a bottle of each color washes and keep them on hand.

Let's compare the flat color version and the washed final version:

On a good sculpt, the wash settles into ridges, defines edges and doesn't sit on top of flat spots. While it's wet you can push it around some with a damp brush and wick out any excess. Let it dry completely and then we can apply the last technique: the drybrush.

You might recall this from previous projects, but for the new folks it takes a brush you do not love, a paper towel, and paint. Wipe nearly all of the paint off your brush onto the paper towel until it only picks up the top of the texture of the paper towel ridges. Then, gently wipe this dry brush over areas of texture on your miniature, like hair, fur, chain mail, or ragged flesh. The paint will only pick up the edges of the surface and gradually highlight the surface. Keep rubbing for more paint (and thus a greater effect) and when you can't see changes any more you probably are out of paint. It is possible to brush too much and start wiping the paint off, so do it in stages.

I've got some zombies that were needed to fill out crowd scenes in some games I've run who were all literally four color paintjobs, some base and drybrush and done. It's a fast technique that provides somewhat generic results, but it gets the job done.

The other option for inspiration is photo reference. For Last Night on Earth, each character in the game is represented on the cards by an actor in costume. Throughout the dozens of shots of each actor you can chart their progress through a zombie film, finding and losing items, getting attacked, making their desperate last stand, and making out while zombies close in (or watch. I don't know what the zombies do for this part). I sorted all the cards by character and used the best shots of each element for the color scheme. For example, it became clear that the Sheriff's son was not carrying a revolver, but the game's most hilarious ranged weapon, the Signal Flare. Also, a can of Gasoline. Actually one of the best combos in the game for reasons which I hope are clear.

Exhibit A: The cards.
Exhibit B: The kid with a very, very good idea.
Working card by card, I could place a photo reference with every element of the game. Was this necessary? No. I liked the challenge. Also, it's fun that the miniature matches as close as I cared to get with each card you could play during the game. Oddly, only one such figure departs dramatically from her depiction on the cards: Nurse Becky.

The nurse in question. Coincidentally, also the kid from above.
In this picture, she looks a little like Taylor Swift on Halloween.

She doesn't wear a nametag, have jewelry, or carry a purse at any point in the game art. The sculptors kept it together for a dozen heroes and a handful of zombies and then went AWOL on the last one. Eh, can't win 'em all. So it was back to making up details like I normally do.

Once you've painted your minis, it's time for securing your work against future damage. You'll notice that final shots of my minis are fairly glossy. That's because the last step, after the paint is dry, the wash is applied, and the drybrushing is over, is a final coat of undiluted Future. It's designed to survive foot traffic, I imagine it can handle board gaming or falling off a scenic element some day. If you dislike the gloss effect, there are various matte sprays and paints that can be applied over it, but gloss sealants are harder than their matte equivalent in my experience, so I go for the durability and then tone it down after the fact if I need to. For game pieces, I think glossy suits them just fine.

We've provided all the shots you could want over on our Facebook page. Check 'em out, give us a Like, and we'll see you next time.

BONUS: If you stuck around to find out how to make your own glass palette, pull the glass (it has to be real glass, not plastic!) out of your dollar store picture frame, and tear strips of duct tape in half, down to about an inch wide. Carefully apply them around the edges of the palette so that half the strip is on the front, wraps over the edge, and on to the back. Make sure you cover the corners! Once the whole thing is wrapped, you should be safe from the sharp edges of the glass and you can mix paint to your heart's content. Once too much crud has built up, scrape all the dry paint off with a razor or window scraper and you have a clean palette forever.

1 comment:

  1. Just went to go look up this floor wax, since I've never heard of making my own wash, and it sounds fantastic. Apparently, the product has gone through another name change, and now it's called Floor Care Multi Surface Finish with Future Shine. The internets has also mentioned that the one they have got for wood floors says Future Shine, but has no acrylic.