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  • Freehand Painting - Step by Step


    One of the things I love to add to my figures is a design or pattern, something unique to make it stand out from the many other versions you may see around the web. This can take the form of a small detail like a line or pattern on a piece of clothing, an emblem on a shield or flag, or something much more complex. Painting designs on your figure can really be as simple or as complicated as you'd like. I recommend starting small with simple designs and then working your way up to more complex ones as your confidence and skills increase. This tutorial will show you one approach and will hopefully help those of you who haven't had much experience doing freehand on your figures.

    While some people can just pick up a brush and start painting, for me the first step is always to plan out my ideas on paper. Even for simple designs there are things that can trip you up. Where should the design be placed, what are the relative proportions, what about the size? I find it's much easier to work this out on paper than on your mini. I also recommend drawing the image to scale. If you're painting a shield, as I am here, that's simple... just trace the shield onto a sheet of paper. In other cases you'll just have to estimate the size you're working with. Feel free to measure but close is probably good enough.

    Let's start with an example. Here I'd like to paint a lion on a shield. After a little research I came up with the following design:

    This first version is just to figure things out, so I'm not worried about drawing it to scale. Now, for a reasonably complex design like this, I will go back and create a simplified version that will be easier to transfer to the figure. I just want to block out the key shapes and get the proportions right.

    The last step before going to the figure is to practice the design to scale. I simply traced the shield several times and drew the design where I'd like it on the shield. In the first case I wasn't happy with how it was centered (too far to the right). So I tried again. Happy with that, I made one more copy and added some details over the simple sketch. If you're not very confident in your drawing abilities, make a few more copies. Once you can draw it without any major mistakes (minor ones are fine), you can move to the real figure.

    Normally I'd paint the background first, but this was just for a demo so I left it white. To transfer the figure to the shield I took a pencil and drew on the simplified version, then I went back and filled in some details. Notice this is still less complicated than what my end goal is. I just want enough of the pattern to use as a guide. Ideally you'd use as few pencil strokes as possible. The next step is to simply trace over the pencil lines with your paint brush. I find it better to do the outline first before coloring it in. At this stage I can see if any areas need to be corrected. For example, the left leg is a little wiggly so I'll need to fix that. Make any tweaks you need to the design and then fill it in.

    At this point you might still have some pencil lines showing around the figure. Take your background color and touch those up. If you've strayed outside the lines with your design color go ahead and clean that up too. With that done it's time to add any final details you want. In this case I need to put in the claws, the tufts of hair on the arms and legs, the eye, and the detail on the mane. After that it's another round of clean up. Use the background color to help straighten your lines and sharpen any points on the design.

    For a slightly more complex example let's look at the shield for Pegaso's 54mm Roman Aquilifer. My chosen design for this shield was a gold laurel wreath on a red background. I also wanted to include a sign for the 10th legion. As before I began with the design on paper. I started with two arcs for the path of the wreath and a rectangle for the legion name. I then drew the leaves over the arcs, starting with the central shape and then the two outer shapes for each leaf. I began by just working out what I wanted the design to look like. Next I went to my traced shield (with the boss added) to see how it fit. Notice that even for this simple pattern I'm breaking it down into simple shapes.

    Moving to the actual figure, I painted the background red with a slight gradient from top to bottom. Once the background was dry, I took my pencil and lightly drew the image onto the shield. Then with my desired design color, yellow, I began to trace each of the leaves. The consistency of the paint at this point is somewhat up to you. You can thin the paint if you want. This means you'll have to trace over the design multiple times but any mistakes will be quick to correct. If you don't thin or don't thin very much, you won't have to retrace but mistakes will be tougher to erase. I lean towards the latter approach, but go with what works for you. Once I had finished the outlines I began to fill them in. Since the leaves are overlapping I left a small space at their intersections. At this point you'll notice some of the pencil lines are still visible around the yellow. That's to be expected. Once I'd filled in the leaves I took my background color and cleaned up the design, painting over any remaining pencil marks.

    I wanted to use multiple shades to give the design a more 3 dimensional look, so I began to carefully add more detail to my pattern. Since the initial shape was already there, painting the next level of detail freehand was easier as I could use that shape as a guide. I began with a dark shade to outline the boundary between the leaves. I then layered several intermediate shades to get the look I wanted. You'll notice that as I added more detail some of my edges and corners lost their sharpness. To correct this I would periodically go back with my background color and clean them up.

    Once I was happy with the leaves I turned to the LEGX label. I added a few more off white background layers to smooth it out. Then I wrote LEGX in dark brown. For this part I skipped penciling it in first. It all depends on how you feel about your brush control. Again I took the off white background color and cleaned up my lettering.


    In the grand scheme of things both of these examples are relatively simple. But if you're new to freehand that's the way to start. You don't want your first attempt to be recreating the Mona Lisa on a banner. Pick something that will stretch your abilities but will still be manageable. Just like anything else it takes practice. As you continue to do freehand work you'll be able to handle more and more complicated designs.

    The key things to remember are:
    - Plan out the design first
    - Draw/practice to scale
    - Break down the design into simple shapes
    - Don't worry about being perfect, you can always go back over your work and correct it later

    Freehand takes time, but I think the end result is well worth it.
    Comments 5 Comments
    1. Darklord's Avatar
      Darklord -
      Another excellent article and great results
    1. phatkid1966's Avatar
      phatkid1966 -
      Brilliant and another fantastic share. Really appreciated as always!!
    1. Normski's Avatar
      Normski -
      DP that Rocks mate nice one!! thanks for taking the time to do it!
    1. vegascat's Avatar
      vegascat -
      Very nice! Love this article. Any advice for repeating patterns, such as scales, leaves, etc?
    1. dpowell's Avatar
      dpowell -
      Thanks all.

      Vegascat, yeah, repeating patterns can be tough. In most cases the trick is to find a way to keep everything uniform. If you're repeating a pattern but the design grows and shrinks, becomes taller or wider, it's not going to look good. The trick is to (a) break down the design into a simpler version that can be easily repeated and (b) find a way to keep the size and spacing consistent. I was talking with another painter who wanted to cover a flag with fleur-de-lys. Below is what showed her. I started with an inverted cross. I measured and marked the size on an index card. I could then move the card around the flag and sketch on the cross. I could use the same card to mark off the spacing between them. Once all the crosses were in place I'd fill in the details (3-8) one step at a time. I'd make sure each fleur-de-lis was on the same step before moving to the next one so it'd be easy to see if I was keeping everything consistent or if I needed to make a correction.

      For doing something like scales you have to decide if you want them to be uniform (for example, man made) or more random (would lizard or dragon scales all be the same size or vary?). If they are uniform I might start by sketching on a grid pattern that I would then paint over. Every other row would have scales based on the grid (the tips of the U would be at the grid intersections and the bottom would touch the box below) and the inbetween rows would be offset by half a grid box. Does that help?