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Freehand painting tips (part 1 of 2)

For those of you who didn’t know, I really, really enjoy painting freehand banners. Here’s one I painted earlier:

People tend to have two responses to a reasonably well-painted bit of freehand: “Ooh, shiny,” or “I can’t do that. You’re clearly a mutant. I mean... it doesn’t seem physically possible.” There is some discussion as to the best way to follow up on the latter response, although many plump for raising their fists to the sky, shouting, “Curse ye gods for my untalented fingers!” before sundering their brush across their knee and leaving for a temple in the mountains.

It may therefore surprise the budding banner painter that freehand isn’t a mystical art that requires you to have been born under the moon as it waned gibbous. You just need a pair of eyes and the ability to measure stuff.

Obviously, artistic talent definitely helps, but if you’re a decent miniatures painter who still struggles with freehand, chances are you already have the skills you need, but lack the knowledge.

By way of example, I’m going to go step-by-step through a work-in-progress, the second half of which I’ll do in a fortnight’s time (I’m away next week, and won’t be able to paint). The banner in question is for my new Hochland army, for a regiment called the Blades of Taal. I’ll talk about the background for the army in my next post, but suffice to say, I decided a stag’s skull would be an apt symbol for the regiment.

I should mention that I’m not going to go into any detail about the blending or highlighting techniques used here. That said, there’s stuff on composition and drawing that should still contain helpful information for those who haven’t yet learnt those two techniques.

Right. That’s quite enough preamble. Off we go...

If you’re going to paint an object, you need some reference, or you’re going down like an airship made of kittens. As such, my friend Google found me this:

This told me a bunch of stuff I didn’t know about stag skulls. What’s with all the weird broken textures below the eye sockets? What are the holes on top of its head?

Having now seen this, and checked other photos to make sure this chap wasn’t a mutant (he wasn’t), I took some time to make some artistic judgements: other people may not be expecting the broken texture below the eye sockets, so I wouldn’t emphasise that too much, and put more emphasis on the eye sockets so that the design would work at a distance.

Look at the reference image. What’s the basic shape of the outermost points? In this case, a slightly elongated triangle. I therefore put three dots on my banner, making careful reference to my, er, reference to ensure that the angles were correct. The important thing at this stage is that you’re looking at the placement of the design on the banner. Do you want it central? Higher up? Place thy dots accordingly.

This stage is really two stages, but I’ve only got one picture. Gutted. Step 3A is a more complex version of step 2; look at the defining points (the widest and tallest points of the skull, the various antler tips) and look at where they are in reference to the triangle (or hexagon, or square, or whatever shape your design is). Plot them out with more dots. In this image, for example, the top of the skull is vertically central and horizontally 5/8ths of the way up the triangle. Boop. In goes another dot.

Step 3B is to sketch the basic shape. I used watered-down bleached bone (i.e. a colour that would both stand out from the background, and also be the major colour of the design anyway). You’re basically joining up the dots, and don’t worry about making it look pretty, just do it quickly and loosely, like so:

Now hold the model at arm’s length and look at it. Are the proportions correct? If not, re-basecoat the offending parts (or the whole thing) and do it again. The above picture was actually my second attempt! In the first, I made the skull too short in relation to the antlers.

Once you’re confident that you’ve got the right shape, give it a strong basecoat and tidy up the shape. Here I used both Bleached Bone and Chaos Black (with the black working like an eraser). Don’t think like you’re using a pen on paper; you’ve got two colours, and you can use either of them as much as you want.

Side note: having got the design basecoated, I could now paint the black background. I blended Graveyard Earth with Chaos Black (the yellow in the Earth neutralises the blue in the Chaos Black), and then highlighted the trailing ribbons by adding bleached bone into the mix.

I softened up some Chaos Black with a little Bleached Bone, and watered it down to use the colour to sketch the cracks and holes in the skull. Any mistakes were painted over with Bleached Bone (yay erasure!).

Note that the top of the skull’s shape has changed – I realised I’d made a mistake with the basecoat. The lesson here is that it’s never too late to fix things.

Look at the texture of the horns in the original reference photo. It’s not smooth like many of the miniatures you see, because that kind of detail would be impossible to represent on a wee plastic man. Or stag. Manstag? Manstag, bray-shaman of doo... ok this is why it’s important to pin hobby butterflies down.

Whenever you have a high-contrast texture to paint on a flat surface, you need layers, so I started the speckled texture with a mix of Scorched Brown and Bleached Bone, every now and then doing a line of dots hinting at the grooves in the horns.

I then did some more dots with pure Scorched brown, almost low-lighting the texture. To further aid the colour, I applied a glaze of Gryphonne Sepia.

The time had come to work on the bone itself. Using sequential highlights of Bleached Bone, I added Skull White into the mix, making sure to leave some of the Gryphonne Sepia showing in the skull’s recesses.

I was concerned that the horns looked too dark at this point; I didn’t feel the design worked from a distance of 2-3 feet (the distance at which people will usually be looking at it during a game). To fix this, I applied a glaze of Bleached Bone to the antlers, washing out the colour and bringing it closer to the skull itself.

All that’s left to do now is to tidy up the edges of the design a little more, and then paint the other side of the banner.

I should also apologise, at this point, for my bodge-tastic photography skills – the colours are a little washed out, but rest assured I’ll get a better photograph of the finished result in Part Two.

Equally, if there are things you’d like explained or discussed in more detail (like, for example, what aspect of freehand do you find the hardest?), leave a comment below and I’ll incorporate that into Part Two (or just respond in the comments, depending on the question).



  1. Awesome tutorial dude! I might have to refer to this next time I do freehand.


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