How to: Pigments

To players and hobbyists, the art of painting miniatures can feel overwhelming. There are so many choices to make – choosing the mini, the scheme, paint brands, paint brushes, and techniques. It seems never-ending, like there’s another whole world that you don’t understand each time you try a new project. Even once you have started to grow in the hobby and have some basics under your belt, the more advanced techniques can feel like an insurmountable wall. My aim here is to break down one of those walls and take some of the fear out of trying something new. My subject today is applying dry pigments.

Dry pigments offer painters something almost completely different from regular paints. You’re not going to be able to dip your brush in and get to painting with these, and that’s the point. With a few simple tricks and some practice, however, pigments can become a useful tool to even a modest painter. Understanding the characteristics of the medium is essential to its successful application. What we are dealing with is paint without the liquid and binders that give paint its body. That means you’ll get very strong color from the volume of pigment compared to paint. It also isn’t going to flow or even stick to the mini. That’s okay, because we’ll deal with that later on.

For this article I’ve used Secret Weapon pigments exclusively. This is simply because I liked their washes and was willing to try another line of their products. Color names are therefore what Secret Weapon uses, and may or may not have equivalents in other lines.

I am going to demonstrate with a GHR-7P Grasshopper mini. It has been cut at several points for a more dramatic pose, and has a cinematic effect from Armorcast added. The paint scheme and markings are those of the Arcturan Guards of House Steiner; the mini has been painted as I normally would, decals applied, and then wear has been added by sponge and brush in two layers. Metallic parts have been washed for extra depth.

Now that we have chosen a mostly-completed mini, it’s time to break out the pigments. For a first use, let’s do something small and subtle. By using Metallic Iron around some major joints, we’ll give them some shade and make it look like those areas get some wear from their rotation. All I did here was dip an old, small (#1) brush into the pigment enough that the pigment covered the ends of the bristles, then brushed it onto the white paint around the shoulders, hip joints, and waist. Excess pigment will fall off, and can be blown quite easily, so take care while working with pigments or things can get quite messy!

While to add a bit of shading is nice, it doesn’t get us much farther than what might be accomplished with a dry-brush technique and standard paints. So let’s dig in a little more and add an extra element: rubbing alcohol. The alcohol can act much like glue, making the pigment stick in place. I like to have two brushes on-hand while working with pigments to ensure that I can have one dry one for applying the pigment, and one wet with alcohol to fix it.

We’ll look at two ways of fixing the pigment with alcohol; applying it after the pigment and allowing it to saturate the area and then evaporate, and applying it before the pigment to have a thicker, more opaque coverage. For this example, we’ll be using Exhaust Black to simulate carbon build up around the jump jets. I’ve used two layers here. The first was much like the Metallic Iron in the previous example, where I’ve brushed the black onto the surface dry. In this step I covered a greater area than in the second, in order to establish a gradient in the effect. After the first layer of pigment was applied, I fixed it to the model with alcohol. This was actually quite easy. By touching the alcohol-loaded brush to the mini just above where the pigment was applied, it should flow down and saturate the area without having to disturb the pigment at all. For the second layer of pigment, the bottoms of the jets were moistened again with alcohol and an additional brush-load of Exhaust Black was applied before the alcohol evaporated. This creates a thick, matte layer of black with a small amount of metal showing through at the edges.

Things can now get more interesting by using multiple layers of different pigments, and by adding another technique. Some will argue that armours built to withstand as much punishment as those in the Battletech universe wouldn’t rust, or at least wouldn’t rust in colours similar to typical iron oxide. That’s a debate for another time. We’re going to throw some rust on here.

First, we’re going to use the trick we just learned, and give the area swipe of alcohol before stippling some Rust Brown onto it. For those unfamiliar with the term, stippling is sort of a gentle jab or poke; it’s going straight in, and straight out again, leaving behind pigment from the tips of the bristles only. The idea is to get an uneven blotch of colour, like an area that was more damaged has rusted while a less (or more recently) damaged area has not.

As a second option, we’ll go back to a straight dry application. Let’s imagine that the area has seen abrasion or other wear, and having been exposed to the elements has begun to rust more lightly, but over a wider area.

Note: It is helpful to fix the pigment on any area that may be handled – this shoulder is bound to be touched, so it’s got to be protected.

Onto a third option, let’s add another technique: using the alcohol to spread the pigment. This is some serious rust, and could be applied well with other colours to simulate other spills and splatters like dried blood or a vast array of sci-fi chemical compounds. By moistening the pigment brush slightly, it will pick up a lot more of the pigment, which will also naturally clump. A clump of pigment onto an alcohol-moistened surface, then spread by your normally clean (and alcohol-laden) brush will create a dense smear of pigment.

Mixing and matching these application techniques allows you to vary the appearance of wear and damage across the mini. To further enhance the effect, multiple layers of colour can be used; Secret Weapon’s Rust set includes four colours, and their example photos include two more to create additional visual interest. Here, I am adding only Rust Orange on top of the brown. Up close, the orange does brighten the overall look to help give it life.

By using some imagination, pigments can offer far more than rust and scorch marks. This base has been covered with sand, then primed and painted a generic sand colour.

By adding various colours of pigment we can turn this monotone into a vibrant desert landscape. All application will be done dry, without the application of alcohol or other fixative until the end. You will definitely want an old brush for this sort of use, because it will get roughed up from the sand and jabbing it into the crevices and holes of the base. The first pigment added is Terracotta Earth, a light brown. It is used mostly where there are depressions in the surface to exaggerate the natural shadows, and to add variety to the surface in general.

Rust Red is our second pigment, and is less about the physical features of the base than generating something that could pass as natural variation. At this point it is quite vibrant, but that will be taken care of in the next step.

To moderate the brighter pigments, Burning Sand can be worked in around the edges, and even over the Rust Red. As the two colours blend, they will take on a much softer hue and eliminate any hard edges you don’t want to remain.

With any project undertaken by a perfectionist, there’s a fine line between “finished” and “too much”. Adding even a small amount of Dark Earth to this base may have crossed that line, but what’s done is done, and you make the best of it.

Once all of these elements are added together, final touches can be made to finish the mini. A few tuffs of hardy grasses break up the desert sands. Cockpit and lasers get jewelled, and glow from the laser blast is added in over everything else.

At the end of the day, what you want and need for your paint jobs is entirely up to you. Pigments aren’t going to replace your paints, and aren’t even going to make it on every mini. What I can say for them is that they provide an option, another way to tackle problems and add to what you can do with your minis. This is by no means an exhaustive treatise on their potential, but will hopefully open a door that may have remained shut.

Until next time, keep painting!