Assembly and Painting – Composition

Lets start off with the really hard one – Composition.  Composition is basically EVERYTHING that makes up your finished mini, and as such, I suspect I’m going to revisit this post lots of times as I go through the individual stages.  Given that, why am I tackling it first?  Because we need to have an overall eye on the goal when we go through each of the individual stages.

Every choice you make as you assemble and paint your model is going to make a difference.  If I pose and sculpt a miniature to look brooding and evil, and then paint it in cheery bright colours, it won’t be as potent as matching at overall theme.

A word used a lot in Golden Demon (and I’m going to refer to Golden Demon a lot in this process, as I’m going to try to use this to build a Golden Demon entry for 2020) is Narrative.  Your finished model is going to tell a story, and thats what the whole composition should be about.   In the same way that the best writers say “kill your darlings” to remove passages you love but don’t add to the story, you aren’t looking for excuses to use your favourite painting techniques or colours.  You want the model to tell the best overall story possible.  That isn’t to say you can’t use your best techniques – just don’t use them where they don’t work with the theme for the model.  Obviously a smart move for a painting competition is to work out your very best techniques and build a theme that really uses and highlights those!

Now, for Golden Demon, we’ve also got to make the narrative for our miniature tie to the world of Warhammer.  We can enter the best miniature in the world, but if it’s a Khorne Beserker in pink armour sipping a cup of tea, it doesn’t match the underlying official narrative of Warhammer.  (Incidentally, I love pink Beserkers – I just might not choose it for a competition judged on official themes!)

So, how do we tell a story, and what makes up the composition of our finished model?  We have an assembled model which is posed to reflect some underlying intent.  The pose should also be designed to draw attention to key elements of the miniature – if you plan to spend 90% of your painting time on one of the best faces the world has ever seen, you don’t really want the pose to emphasis a plain sword – you want the pose and lines of the model to draw the eye to that face!  You also don’t want the lines of the model (or overall diorama) to draw attention away from the model unless its to something specific elsewhere on the model or base.  We’ll talk about posing in detail, but its really a key part of the composition, and you need to take your final goal very much into account when posing a model.

We might have used some custom parts from other minis to customise the model, or gone as far to sculpt or alter the miniature.  We shouldn’t make these changes in isolation without thinking of the overall composition.  Putting a massive siege weapon on one army of the model may look cool in theory, but might make the whole model look unbalanced and clumsy.  Generally, most of these decisions are made for us when assembling a mini out of the box – when we start customising, we need to think much harder about the overall balance of the piece.  Is the miniature too busy?  Is it too plain?  If its plain, do we want to add details to the sculpt, or use the space to add details with the brush? If we haven’t thought about the overall goal, the end result will fall short of other pieces, regardless of how well each individual change is executed and how solid the paint job is.

Colour theory is a fantastic basis for picking the colours we want to paint with, allowing great choices for contrast and complementary colours to really build a fantastic, unified model.  But we still need to pick those colours in relation to what we intend to achieve.  A dark knight painted in bright blues won’t be a dark knight!  A battered, weary warrior painted in really crisp bright white won’t look like they’re straight from the battlefield.

A really important aspect of painting a display piece is understanding light sources – where the light should fall.  Where the shadows lurk.  Its very easy to mechanistically simply darken recesses and lighten raised points, and that works well for a tabletop mini, but when painting a display piece you need to go a step further and really work with light.  The process is still fundamentally the same, but the lightness of colours will be affected by where the light originates, not just the folds of the miniature.  And those choices of light sources again need to tie into the narrative.  Is there an unworldly glow from the minis eyes and hands?  Are they standing in the dark, illuminated by a nearby fire?  if they are simply on the field in the sun – where is that sun beaming down?  Where should the metals be reflecting that light?  These choices all tie into the story your piece is telling.

That ties into the next piece of theory – understanding the materials you want the miniature to exhibit.  Is that armour metal?  Bone?  Leather?  Is it hard or soft to the touch?  Is it woven, and need to exhibit more texture when painted?  What animal is that fur from?  Do you need to think about patterns like leopard spots?  Is that leather old and cracked, or new and shiny?  There are lots of painting techniques to reflect the possibilities.  If you don’t think of the overall composition, though, you’ll have jarring elements.  A weary battle scarred veteran with shiny new leather boots and battered armour?  That doesn’t quite gel.  Black and white zebra stripes on that leather cloak may look amazing, but animal hide patterns on a civilised knight will again tend to jar against the overall picture.   If we’re painting a glass bottle, do we need to paint the contents as well as the reflective surface?  And if that’s a liquid, it’ll look very wrong if you paint it so its an angle on the finished mini.  Liquid tends to stay level – what is level for this piece?  That may not be down for unusual magical or sci-fi environments – if you paint a zero-g piece, the liquid in the bottle actually runs around the internal surface, rather than being level!

Basing your miniature falls into painting for some, and assembly for others.  You may want a simple base to avoid detracting from the mini.  The base may be fully part of the story.  In some complex dioramas, the terrain on the base may be the key element of the story, and the minis only there to highlight a reaction to it!  No matter how simple or complex the base, though, it needs to tie into the story of the whole piece.  Having pristine grass underneath a being of molten lava doesn’t really work.  Having a delicate water elemental on a lava base will look wrong too, no matter how well done the elements are.  Basing is often forgotten or done as an afterthought, but it should be tied to the overall narrative.

In short, while we need to understand a lot of different concepts that we need to execute well to put together a fantastic model, we also need to keep our eye on the overall theme.  We need all of the elements to work together to tell our story.  We are composing a narrative, not slapping some parts together and executing separate painting techniques.  We all do this, but its often quite rare to step back and do this consciously … and for a top level piece we need to make decisions for the best results, not expediency.  If I just have standard flock, that’s probably what I’ll use for the base of a tabletop piece for a game next week.  If I’m painting for a competition, I need to use the best basing material for the piece, even if I have to order some or sculpt something from scratch.

Further reading suggestions on Composition

Creative Twilight has an excellent article here on composition in miniatures, touching on many of these points.  Well worth a look.

Warlord Games has a fascinating piece on How to Diorama, which covers lots of aspects of the overall composition, and I find a truly valuable reference.

Arcane Paintworks has a fantastic article focusing on integrating basing into the overall composition of display pieces here.


Assembly and Painting – The Craft

One of things we generally aren’t good at in the hobby is actually looking at the wider craft, skills and knowledge that underpin our fascinating pastime of assembling and painting little models.

That isn’t to say we don’t share skills and knowledge.  We do, all the time.  So many terrific painters will demonstrate individual techniques, or answer questions about specific paint recipes, or explain why they did something specific.  There are cracking tutorials out there for painting all sorts of different materials, colours, faces, animals.

So what do I actually mean?  Well, we aren’t often great at stepping back and looking at the overall process, and providing a wider context for those individual techniques, so I thought it might be interesting to try to do just that.  I’m not a naturally artistic person in many ways.  I can replicate techniques, and understand theory.  I’m good at the craft of hobby, rather than art, and so putting together a wider understanding of the field helps me attack top end work in a solid, methodical way.

I’m not looking at the gaming side here, purely assembly and painting, with the goal of producing the very best miniature I can at the end of the process.  And looking at it very much as a process, trying to understand what choices we should make as we go through.

Here’s a preliminary list of areas where I think I can put things in context and maybe put together useful links and examples to actual techniques.  I’m going to try and go through these all step by step over the coming year as part of putting together a Golden Demon entry  for 2020.  Lets see if we can make things as methodical and common sense as we can.

Theory – Composition and the iterative process


Theory – Posing 

Theory – Basing (as part of the structure)

Practice – Understanding Sub Assemblies and Dryfitting

Practice – Fixing the build

Optional Practice – Conversions


Theory – Colour Theory

Theory – Light and Reflection

Theory – Understanding Materials

Theory – The use of reference

Theory – Basing (as part of the overall paint theory)





The Cheap Gamer – Saving money building models

Erk, this is a tricky one!  Its pretty difficult to save money actually assembling models.  After all, you already have the models to assemble.  If anything, you probably need to spend MORE money on this bit!

Why?  Well, top quality tools for cutting things of sprues are worth it – though you can pick them up cheaper in a hardware store than a hobby store.  You still need to make sure they are fresh and sharp though, or you’ll be ruining expensive models.

The same is true with glues.  You can probably save a little by getting plastic glue from general hobby stores, and superglue from hardware stores rather than gaming shops, but you need decent quality glues to keep your models together with a good method of application to stop you spraying glue everywhere and ruining models.

Where you can save money, though, is making sure you are taking full advantage of your bits box and kit bashing.  Assemble models you can use, and save money to do it.

Need 2 units of Rubric Marines, one with warpflamers and one with bolters?  If you have a unit of unassembled chaos marines floating around, you can pick up a few heads from either bits resellers or their parties, and kit bash them up. I have absolutely tons of unassembled chaos marines from previous projects, so its a no brainer for me.  Its not worth going out and buying all the bits – that’d cost more than just buying new Rubrics, but if you have them lying around, think about reusing them.  Be careful if buying third party bits though – you aren’t going to tournaments or official painting competitions with those.  If its for casual gaming though, go for it.

One of the single best money savers when it comes to building units is to know exactly what models and parts you actually have already.  Need a Chaos Lord for a game?  You can probably knock one one if you have a fair few custom parts across marines and chaos already.  Seriously.  Spend a few hobby sessions just sorting out your extra bits and boxes of unused models.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve accidentally doubled up on a cool model it turns out I already had.  (I may have 3 Eldrads… and at least 5 Dark Elf Sorceresses.)

Kitbashed models may not look quite as good as some of the brand new models … but then sometimes they can come out looking even better to your eyes, and be genuinely unique.  In addition, moving beyond the Cheap gamer for a moment – practising kit bashing for this sort of thing really improves your conversion skills for actively putting something really special together, without costing much right now.  Save the money for all the bits for your unique centrepiece … but practise putting bits together now.

In addition, there are lots of techniques to improve the finish of kitbashed models.  Drilling out gun barrels is fantastic for top end models, and its better to practise on knocked together bits than a forgeworld special character!  Assembling odd bits often needs filling with green stuff, zap a gap glues or liquid green stuff, and this sort of thing can ruin a model.  Practicing on these simple cheap options can really raise your skills.

The Lazy Mini Painter – How to save assembly time

Honestly, there are only so many things you can do to minimise your assembly time, but it is worth thinking about those things in advance!

First, make sure you have decent, high quality, sharp tools.  If you have really good, sharp sprue cutters, you’ll waste almost no time in cleaning up the  parts afterwards.  If you have old, blunt cutters, you’ll spend more time cleaning up the kit than you do actually cutting the bits off!  Or waiting for replacements if you’ve buggered them up.

Using sharp hobby knives and mould line cleaners also help.  And …. though it burns my mouth to say so … if you are doing a quick tabletop job with modern quality minis, you don’t even really need to worry about mould lines.  At 3 feet distance with modern kits and paint, you won’t see them.  For display and close up photos?  Oh god yeah, and I hate the sight of them.  But honestly, you probably don’t need to bother with the cleverer placement of mould lines on modern plastics, or at least just tackle just the worst examples.

Drilling out gun barrels?  A slow precise task that you can replace by dabbing a little blob of black paint on the end of the gun later in the painting process.  Again, not quite as good, but more than adequate for tabletop level armies.

How can you speed up assembling a unit?  The best trick I’ve come across is the use of the humble egg box (ideally an empty 12 egg box).   As you cut parts off the sprues, put the bits for each man into one of the egg  bits.  It makes such a difference sorting it out and assembling each one rather than trying to cut and glue, or sort through a big mound of parts.

You really should prepare and wash all your models and make sure they are thoroughly free of any oils and release agents, particularly resin.  If you are feeling very lazy, you can actually normally get by without this if you have a really good grippy primer, like Halfords grey.  If you are using GW or Army Painter primers, you can still get away without it for plastics or metals, but you should still clean resin as it can be quite oily.

Other assembly tricks?  Well, if you want to be really lazy, make sure you plan your models out in advance, during non-hobby time.  Try to get parts in one consistent material if you want to kit bash stuff – its a lot easier to glue plastics to plastics than resins to metals!  Don’t fall for the trap of assembling all the models you have – make sure you’re only assembling the ones you need.  If you’ve got a start collecting box but you only want to add the tank from it to your army right now, just build the tank.  It saves time right now, and it also reduces the chances that when you add another model from the kit to your army, you won’t have assembled it earlier with the wrong weapon choices.

On the flip side, if you have a planned army, don’t waste time – assemble everything you have planned, so you can minimise the shared priming afterwards!  The real key is just don’t get distracted by ad hoc assembly and hobby – build the models you need to build.

These tips won’t massively reduce your assembly time.  But reducing it even a little, and actually focusing just on the models you actually need to do makes a difference.  If its just enough time to let you quickly undercoat or prime the models this session, so they can dry properly before your next hobby session, even a few minutes can make the difference between wasting a full hobby session with just a few minutes of priming and then having to wait.  Its all good, and gets us closer to deploying a painted army onto the field.  

Painting 101 – Lesson 1 – Building the mini – Theoretical

Building the miniature

No matter how good your paint job, you are a bit limited by the model you are painting on.  Thats not to say you can’t add detail through painting extra features on, but if your model is badly assembled, that’s going to show through.  A good paint job will highlight a models best features and make a good mini great, or a bad mini look good, but there’s a lot you can do to start from that higher starting point.

How can we improve our work on the build itself?  Well, we can actually do those bits and pieces we sometimes skip out of boredom or laziness!  

Check the mini

Check the minis and sprues, and swap them with the manufacturer if of unacceptable quality (pretty much unheard of with plastics unless somethings missing in packing, but resin can have casting issues).

Clean the minis!  

Wash the resin, metal or plastic, and you can find major differences in priming and painting later.  Some people like to do that on the sprue, to help keep little parts together, while others prefer to do this later on, so any dust from filing or oily fingerprints are removed as well as any oils from the mould removal and packing processes.  Its a matter of preference – I tend to lose little bits so I do this on sprue, but its fractionally better to do it later on.  Just rinse the models off in warm soapy water, then rinse any soap off with clean water.  Simple!

To be fair, its a bonus extra step if using top quality grippy primers.  I’ve seen some people not even clean resin when using sticky car primer and get away with it.  Still, best practise!

Remove bits from sprues

Now, be really careful when cutting the mini from the sprues.  Use a decent set of sharp cutters.  I’ve tried lots of brands, but honestly, the only important thing I’ve found is to make sure the blades are sharp.  The brand doesn’t matter – a cheap set from a hardware store is just as good as expensive fine cutters, if not as pretty, as long as the blades are fresh.  Its amazing how much of a difference it makes.  I’m terrible for using old dull cutters for ages, and it can really impact some of the details on your models.  Check the instructions to make sure you aren’t cutting off attachment pins and that you are keeping the relevant bits together.  If doing a unit, a really nice trick is to get a big egg box and put the bits for each model in each egg section as you cut them off to stop them getting mixed up and you using the wrong bit on the wrong model.  Take your time, and look at how each piece is attached to the sprue.  The force of the clippers can twist the part slightly, so you want to try and cut the piece off in such a way the more delicate parts won’t bear the brunt of the force.  If its a bit difficult, generally cutting any attachments on the more delicate bits first is a good rule of thumb.

Prepare the bits

Next, clear off mould lines or any excess plastic (or resin) from where you cut them off the sprues.  It sounds obvious, but honestly, with the decent positioning of mould lines on modern models and the better initial production values, you can often get away without this for tabletop.  I’m lazy and rarely bother unless I’m pushing myself!  But it does make a difference!  Even if you don’t bother for troops, try to make sure you clean up the model right for those special paint jobs.  The GW mould line scraper is great for this, and a small set of decent quality files are great.  Just be careful not to damage any details in the removal.

This is a good point to consider any kit bashing – adding any extra pieces in from for bits box.  You’ve got most of the pieces, but are you happy with the weapons load out?  Would a custom Blood Angels bolter look better than the plain one?  Maybe a headswap?  Maybe think about how the pieces might look with some of the resin bases you have available.  You have all the pieces cut out now, try a few options with blutack if you want.  Get a feel for how it looks.

Fix the bits

Once you have the final set of pieces cut out and cleaned off at this point, you may need to fix or manually alter them.  Resin may have some small bubbles leaving tiny holes – these can be fixed by patching them with GW’s liquid green stuff (or similar product from other brands) if small enough.  If the bubbles are larger than that, then honestly, you should probably have got the mini swapped!  Think about replacing the part from your bits box, or patching it with full on green stuff that you’ll need to roll together.

Resin bits may warp slightly, and these can be fixed by heating them and bending back into shape.  Some materials work best dipped quickly into boiling water then pulled out (carefully, watching your hands), and bending back into shape.  Others respond best to gentle heating with a hairdryer or hot steam over a bowl of boiling water.

Improve the bits

So, we have a full set of pieces, all cleaned up and ready!  What else do we need to do now?  Well, the last bit before any assembly here is to think of adding any more details or improve joints ourselves.  This is the time to add any brass etching pieces to the mix, think about small green stuff additions (like using a press mould to add a logo to a pad or a a gun – tweet or comment here if you want this section expanded).

Its also time to get a little drill out, if appropriate, and do some pinning for larger models (you used to have to pin everything in the metal days!), and maybe drill out gun barrels.  This is a lot easier than it sounds if you have a little hobby drill. (drop me a tweet or comment if you want this bit expanded on).

If you want to customise your models with battle damage, you can etch in bullet holes or damage at this point too.

This whole section is bonus extras, though.  If you just want to take a stock mini as far as you can, you don’t need to improve it.

Plan the assembly

Now, its time to actually build the mini!  So, what can we do to make things easier for ourselves?  Well, not build the mini, for one thing.  That may sound counter intuitive, but think – often there are hard to reach areas on a model.  If you paint individual parts, or assemble a marine but wait to put the gun over the front, you can probably reach those parts much more easily.  Maybe use blutack to fit the pieces together in theory, work out which bits we can assemble now to paint easily, and which bits we should paint separately to make life as easy as possible for us.

If you just want a tabletop quality job, its probably not too much of a drama.  Assemble the minis, get a few games in, paint them up when you can.  But if you want to go all out, taking your time and planning the assembly to take painting into account really helps.

Different glues for different materials

We also need to plan out what we want to use to assemble the model in terms of glues.  Everyone knows this, right?  PVA to glue light basing material on.  Superglue for metal and resin.  Plastic glue for plastic,  Easy!

Well, actually, not so easy if you want to do the very best job you can.  You can get glues in a range of types and viscosities, and the wrong glue for the job will lead to problems.  Its something to think seriously about! 

There’s also a few other glues to consider, and sprays to set glue faster (normally at the expense of generating more heat).  Epoxy resin (normally in two parts that needs to be mixed up, and often referred to as araldite in the UK) is an amazingly solid bond, though takes time to set.  It can be a great way to get metal models with a good connection to be set permanently – though a wobbly connection will be a nightmare to set this way.

Both plastic glue and superglue tend to come in thin and thick varieties.  Thin glues won’t tend to make such a strong bond, but be much easier to place exactly and cause less problems with overflow.  Its generally better for smaller pieces and sometimes for display pieces where you don’t need to stand up to tabletop play.  Thicker glue is great for bigger internal connections, but is often actually quite useful for closing  small gaps too (in the case of superglue or epoxy resin, not plastic glue).  Zap-a-gap glue is particularly good for closing small holes, and more of GW’s green stuff can cover up cracks as long as you are confident the underlying bond is solid.

You can use various fixing sprays to speed up the superglue bond, but this will generate more heat, and some plastics in particular are vulnerable to this (though its fantastic to quickly bond metal to metal). Resin can end up bending with heat, so it can throw your model out of kilter.

Every glue tends to have two times listed – the time to bond, and the time to “cure” or to fully set and reach maximum strength.  Doing a normal model, I don’t worry about it.  If its dry, its on to priming!  For a top notch model, you need to make sure the model has cured too before you do anything else to ensure you don’t get even the slightest movement.

You also need to think about how its applied.  I tend to like brush applicators for a light coat, but they aren’t alway as precise for tiny pieces.  Gel glue has to be squeezed on, by its nature, and can be a bit blobby, but brilliant for core joints.  Gw’s thin glue has a nice tiny applicator, which is really useful.

Look at the materials and joints, and think about the glues you will need to use to do the best job of securing the model together without damaging the details or leaving gluey fingerprints all over the place!  Plan out what you’ll need where.  You might not just use one glue in a joint – in a big metal dreadnaught, I’ve pinned it with a ring of epoxy resin and an outer ring of superglue set with an quick spray of fixer. The superglue held the joint in place while the epoxy resin set and cured and gave a really solid connection.  Generally, though, PVA for the base, and either superglue or plastic glue for the mini are the main focus.

Assemble (or Part Assemble) the mini

Follow the instructions to assemble the mini … in the sections you want for easy painting.  Don’t attach the base, for example – we’ll pop it on a mini holder (like a wine cork!) when we paint it seriously.  We may want to change the angle and get in from underneath, which is tricky with a big base.

Now, we need to talk about which bits to actually assemble!  There are two main goals.  First, we want to put the model into sections that we can prime as one.  If we are building a razorback, we might prime the turret in silver and the main body in a chapter colour, for example.  Some parts of the model might be very bright, and be better primed in white.  Others might be better primed in back.  We’ll cover these ideas in the lesson on priming models, but it helps if you have an idea what colours you are going to paint the model.  There’s a cracking guide to painting St Celestine in February’s White Dwarf that covers building her in bits and priming different sections in different colours

Second, we need to assemble the model in sections that will make it easy to paint, not just prime.  We might prime the whole model in a neutral grey.  We probably don’t want marines holding boaters over their chests so we can’t get at the details.  Work out where there are details that you will want to focus on for the level of painting you want to achieve, and try to make sure you can always get a paintbrush into place.  Trying it out with blutack really helps here!

So … we’ve got all the bits ready to go and sorted out, looked at all the parts, worked out the glues to use on each joints, worked out which sections to build to ease priming and painting.  Now just put them together, and we’ll be ready to move onto priming and colour choices!

Extra Step!

I missed a really useful step, recommended by Leonidas – it can really help to give the model a quick was with paint thinner to break up any remaining oil or soap at this stage!  Make sure you use a thinner compatible with your planned primer!  This really does help make sure the primer gets a good grip, and is particularly helpful if you are just going straight to a base coat or a less grippy primer.  Oddly, I’d say this step is most important if you’ve hand washed the model in soapy warm water – the thinner is particularly useful to help break up any soap remaining.  You’ve probably already got rid of the oils!

Final theoretical

At the end of our first theoretical …. we haven’t done any painting.  But its hopefully a really good reflection on just getting models ready to do our best!  One thing thats sprung out to me is how much the stages of painting inter-relate.  Breaking down the model into sections to prime only works if you know what colours those sections will be.  Often you only pick colours when you see a model assembled.   Which comes first? 

Putting all these preparation notes together really helps you think about the process.   I’ve seen great guides on pinning, on drilling, on using glue x.  Actually putting it together to think about the overall process so you can actively decide which bits to skip for speed, and making sure you cover your bases for your top notch pieces has been really useful.