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Big Model Nerves -or- Just Do It!

Abstract: I painted a thing, a thing I'd been procrastinating over for ages, because I was afraid I'd mess it up. The theme of today's post is: 

The thing is a Warpfire dragon – a mixed resin and plastic dragon kit from Forge World’s overlooked and ultimately abandoned Warhammer Forge project. I bought this for my Skaven as a potential ally, a plot point and as a way of getting rid of Charlie’s annoying in-universe stone elemental; about three years ago. This thing, to be precise

I built, based and primed it, and then immediately got an attack of the nerves and it got shelved for three years as I sorted out house and baby stuff.

Three years later, and for various reasons, I found I had time to properly look at it again. But I still had the same problem in that I couldn’t work out how to paint it without borking it right up.

Like this, but more dragony, and less likely to give small children nightmares.

However, I girded my loins, screwed my courage to the sticking place, set my heart to the killing position, verbed my cliché and had a damn good go.

As usual, I forgot to take enough photos or break the process down into enough stages to sensibly follow or understand. So I’m going to explore some aspects of how to go about tackling your own big model nerves, or as Nike say: Just get a load of Cambodian Children to Do It for a pittance.

In addition, I got a couple of the other Bunker denizens to contribute their ‘Big Model Nerves stories’ and explain how they tackled a project that they initially were worried about also messing right up’.

My Dragon

In general terms, I worked with a mix of Army Painter’s hardened carapace (Dark grey stone colour) and GW’s Camo green for the entire model. This gave me a base to work up from. For colour choice I wanted a muted, desaturated green as the colour for the flesh rather than a more highly saturated (Dork Angels style) green. Both these paint choices worked together to give me the darker tones without altering the general hue of the paint.

Initial colours sprayed
I made mixes of these two colours with successively less hardened carapace. I airbrushed the base and next layer before switching to brushes for the more visible layers of the body. For the wings - which I wanted to have a much more gradated effect - I airbrushed all the way to the top colour, as the opacity of the spray allows for much smoother gradation of colour. I also went  beyond the top colour (Camo Green) and mixed a little GW Averland Sunset with Camo Green for the final highlights, which I tried to apply sparingly.

Building up the wing colour
The harder tissue parts of the dragon (head crest, neck, elbow and knee scales) got painted up in a much more saturated tone to help differentiate the hard bone/scale from the softer general flesh. For the head, this meant drybrushing through a more saturated green and building up these layers with a more strident yellow - In my case, 25 year old Bad Moons yellow. Hey, it still works. 

I decided to paint the spines in closer style to the Monstrous Arcanunum artwork which started off as a dark red base rising to a bright yellow. This gave the model a touch of contrast, welcome in a big and predominantly unicoloured model.

For permanence, I finished the model off with a coat of Vallejo gloss, then matt Varnish, allowing plenty (24 hours) of drying time between coats. 


And this is the finished product and overall, I’m chuffed. It:

1       Is finished
2       Is the largest non-scenery and non-vehicle unit that I’ve ever painted.
3       Actually, looks pretty good for my general level of skill

Whilst its far from perfect, its pretty good for me, and that's about the best anyone can say for a model. In retrospect, I should have picked out the chest bellow things in a different colour but, never mind. 

I dealt with my big model nerves by starting with things that were easy – doing simple base coating on the model broke the psychological seal and gave me the confidence to progress to the wing and body colour build up. Once I’d finished those steps, I’d painted 70% of the model and the end point became visible.

More Raaargh!

Emma’s Ghorgon

"My Beastmen army was starting to feel pretty solid, with several big units of grimy Gor and Bestigor, lots of Warhounds and a unit of Minotaurs. 

The next logical step was to add some characters or big monsters. I procrastinated for as long as possible but eventually was sat face to face with a big, black primed Ghorgon staring back at me. 

I hate centerpiece models and characters and would much rather batch my way through dozens of uniform infantry models - probably because I enjoy painting more as a chance to enter a therapeutic day-dreamy state, with repetitive stages that allow my brain to switch off from the world. Characters and big monsters require lots of DECISIONS. I hate decisions. 

Anyway, I was on my own with none of my usual painting advisory board available to answer questions, and no Duncan tutorial to look up. I hunted down a suitable bovine reference picture which I stuck pretty close to (a Hereford Bull) and after a few ups and downs, was very happy with the final result - one big ginger cow that looks good stomping across the gaming board, chomping on the occasional hapless Empire peon. 

To be honest, I really overdid the Agrax wash at the end and should probably have highlighted him back up a little but my whole Beastmen army has this issue and I like to just pretend it’s a subtle layer of goat excrement they wear to protect from the mozzies."

Angry Moo!

Dealing with Big Model Nerves

So if you’re facing your own version of Big Model Nerves, here are some pointers from me:

Use source material

Get some source material. If the internet doesn’t provide, there is usually some in whatever rule book the model comes out of and there is often a real-world equivalent of the fantasy thing. Certainly, Emma used a picture of a bull to get the facial colouring for her Ghorgon looking realistic and right for the context.

I realised that I didn’t want to paint my dragon in the same way as the illustration in the Monstrous Arcanum – I don’t think I could have pulled off the extreme colour changes, but I did take inspiration from it when painting the red based spines.

Warpfire Dragon from Monstrous Arcanum (ISBN: 978-1-907964-91-6)
Image owned by Games Workshop. Reproduced for illustration under fair dealing terms.

 I also took inspiration from two other models that others had already painted:

1. Link to original

This gave me the idea for the de-saturated skin tone

2. Link to original
And this one gave me the idea for the colour gradation on the wings – albeit in a less saturated tone.

Break it down

Any big model will consist of different areas that may need to be painted in different ways. In the case of my dragon, I approached the wings, body, spines, scales, head and base as different sections. When working on a section, I tended to work solidly on that section until it was complete and then move on. That way, I could concentrate on one thing at a time and not worry too much about a lot of different things all at once. As long as you keep your colours across the model broadly consistent, this shouldn’t affect the overall tone of unity of the model too much.

I scheduled sections in terms of size and how likely they were to run over onto already completed sections. Hence, I started with the wings as I knew the airbrush overspray would be likely to mess up detail already completed on the body or head, whereas brush work carried out on the body was less likely to overspill onto the wings.

Give it time

Models like this do take more time than your standard Space Marine / Skaven / Ork / shod unit of choice, mostly because you’ll likely need to stop and think about what you’re going to need to do next.

Acknowledge this and leave yourself time to do them so that you don’t feel pressurised into completing them and avoiding the temptation to rush into mistakes or decisions you regret.

Start on the bits you know how to do

If you can’t think where to start, think about what you do know how to do and maybe start there. Certainly, most big projects will need some form of basecoat. Once you’ve got that on, it’ll help to show up where to go next or hopw to proceed. Certainly, painting over a black primer coat will (if nothing else) at least make the topography of the model more visible. Also, If you can make a little bit of the model look good, it’ll make you feel much more enthused about the project as a whole.

A common recommendation for characters is to start with the face and work out, which is how I paint my in-scale character models

Have a practice first

If you want to use a new technique on a big or expensive model, make sure that you’ve had a practice with that technique on  something disposable first. Certainly, I practice many of the new things that I want to try out on Splodge the Ork first.

Splodge the experimental painting Ork. 

Poor Splodge has been the test bed for a host of weathering techniques, high gloss armour, new paint colours and camouflage patterns. If it goes wrong on splodge, it doesn’t matter. It’ll just get painted over eventually, but it does mean that I know where I stand with a technique before I commit paint to an extensive model.

Indeed, my Panther was the test bed for a lot of weathering techniques I applied to two much more expensive GW ‘Nauts.

Test bed for Borkanaut 

Get help

By which I don’t mean: pay someone to paint it.

What I’m referring to is tuition. If you’re a relative starter, its well worth getting a local GW (or hobby shop employee) to teach you the very basics of painting including brush direction, watering paints, layering, highlighting, etc. This may sound too basic for many of you, but I spent two years painting stuff before I got this sort of tuition and it made a massive difference to how I paint. If you’ve never been shown these skills, it might be worth making sure that you have them.

For those of you with more experience or mad skillz, there are a variety of commission painters, Golden Daemon winners and other professional painters who would be willing to sit down with you and show you how to improve (unless, you’re already Angel Giraldez). Whilst these services won’t be free, money spent on improving skills will pay back for a very long time. Alternatively, find a friend who paints better than you do and ask them what they do.

 Give it a go!

Finally, the most important advice I can give is to give it a go. Nearly everybody learns by doing. You could read a hundred how-to-paint-a-dragon articles on the Internet or in White Dwarf and you’d still be no nearer to completing your dragon.

Sometimes, starting is the biggest part of finishing, and what you may find with your big model is that as you progress, you'll see more of a way through and the nerves will turn to satisfaction as you see the finished effect start to emerge. 

And, if it all does go hideously wrong, there are a variety of materials (Dettol, Fairy power spray, Vallejo airbrush flow improver, etc…) that will safely remove acrylic paint from resin or plastic models and even more materials that will remove acrylic paint from tin or lead models.  

However, you're much more likely to find that it goes pretty well, and you'll be the proud owner of something you're really chuffed with. 

As Above, So Below. 

Although most of this article has been on the topic of painting stuff, it applies equally to making stuff too: 

Charlie’s Kasrkin

"The Kasrkin models were great, fit in really well with Cadians and thankfully lacked the bling trim on the otherwise sexy Tempestus Scions kit. The Kasrkin sergeant was fine as he was, but I like to make things somewhat unique, and since I'd never seen a gender-swapping face-change on this mini I thought I'd give it a bash. The only thing stopping me was fear; this is an out of print mini, and wouldn't be easy to replace if, after ripping this dude's head off, my replacement looked comically out of place.

Ultimately my enthusiasm for uniqueness won out, and a messy clipper-based decapitation was performed in da konversion klinic. Thankfully the nerd gods smiled upon me; I'm really happy with how the head from Statuesque Miniatures sits on the GW sculpt, and it only needed me to sculpt a greenstuff collar to make it look like it belonged"

Finally, Finally.

I made a Warhammer pub*. Here it is: 

*And a hideous non-sequitur


  1. Very impressive, I have a number of large models that have been gathering dust for too long. I'm looking `nervously' at you Heresy Dragon.

    1. Thanks Phil, get some paint on them - they'll probably turn out better than you hoped. Send us a message when you've done one!


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