Well Oil Be! Using Oil Paints for Wargaming Miniatures

30 September 2021
Add alkyd colours to your repertoire in this article from the archives

Stokes Schwartz has become an evangelist for oil paints and wants to encourage you to have a go with this under-used medium yourselves. Here, he provides you with plenty of reassurances that it will be worth your while.

Recently, the subject of using oils to paint wargaming miniatures came up in a conversation between me and two companions of long-standing as we dined at the club one chilly evening. To say there was some disagreement on the matter is putting it lightly. Colonel Galsworthy (Ret.) sounded off at once when the subject of using oil colours to paint wargaming miniatures was brought up, and he did not mince words.

“Except maybe for the wipe-off method of painting horses, I see no redeeming value in using oils in this day and age when acrylic paints are so good,” he opined hotly. “Why anyone would prefer oil paints to acrylics escapes me!” He punctuated his statement by tossing back the rest of his single malt and signalled to the waiter for another.

“I say!” broke in my other dining companion Cholmondley-Warner. “You’re missing the whole point, old man,” he sputtered. “When working with oil paints, you use a different technique and are looking to achieve different results. Acrylics really cannot compare to the fine lustre of oils. The subtle blending from light to shade and from colour to colour that is possible with them is entirely different to the way acrylics are usually worked.”

The Colonel snorted derisively in reply, and the two men glowered across the table at each other without saying anything further. Fortunately, another tray of beverages arrived at that point with our suppers shortly thereafter, moving the conversation on to other things.

But the exchange between Colonel Galsworthy and Cholmondley-Warner got me thinking. What exactly is the problem? Why don’t we see more wargamers today using oils to paint their metal and plastic armies? And why do so many wargamers seem to feel almost pathologically wedded to their acrylic hobby paints? It must have to do with unfamiliarity and imagined levels of difficulty where oils are concerned on the one hand, and the perceived degree of ease and convenience of acrylics on the other. Tabletop wargaming and how we paint the figures used for it have certainly moved on since 1967 when Young and Lawford’s Charge! appeared with its short appendix on painting wargaming miniatures with oils. Almost half a century later, acrylic paints dominate the hobby. I’ll go out on a limb, however, and suggest that acrylics don’t necessarily do full justice to our tabletop forces.

More to the point, acrylics yield a dull, lifeless finish regardless of one’s painting skill. That’s hardly in keeping with the wonderful miniatures available today. Oils, on the other hand, actually enhance the appearance of wargaming figures, contributing more to the overall ‘look’ of our tabletop 
units. Wargamers, therefore, ought to give serious thought to incorporating oils into their painting processes in some way. Let’s examine the issue in more detail now by considering some common misconceptions, complaints, and arguments against the use of oils for painting our tabletop armies.

Q: “Don’t you have to be artistically gifted, or have an art school degree to paint your wargaming miniatures with oils?”

A: On the contrary, using oils to paint wargaming figures demands no special talent or education. In fact, it’s not any harder applying them to your wargaming figures than it is hobby acrylics. There is a slight learning curve, of course, but that is true of painting with acrylics, enamels, inks, or indeed just about any other hobby pursuit. Getting decent results with oil colours is simply a matter of technique, which you can learn in fairly short order.

Q: “What possible advantage could oils offer over acrylics?”
A: In a nutshell, oil colours impart a richer, more brilliant appearance than acrylics. Figures have a more interesting appearance thanks to the higher quality of pigments used to produce oil-based colours and the medium’s translucent properties, which give the colours greater dynamism. Acrylics typically look somewhat flat by comparison. Oils offer an endless array of possibilities, and once you learn the rudiments of how things work, a vast range of colours is possible with just a few tubes. After a bit of experimentation, you’ll learn how two colours combine to create a third, and how that can be toned down with a smidgeon of another to provide just the right shade of weathered brick red you need for that new battalion of Peninsular British.

Q: “That sounds involved. Aren’t oil paints too labour intensive?”
A: Not at all. Consider the time it takes to spread acrylics around the various surfaces of the figures we paint, especially when applied at full value. Oils require less time to apply when thinned in contrast. They are also easier to control than you might think. Good quality brushes with sharp points help immeasurably, as do the physics of surface tension. The type of base- or undercoat you use also influences how the colours flow from your brush onto the figure, and here I would suggest using artist’s acrylic gesso in white. Two thin coats provide a bright, highly receptive ‘canvas’ for your oil colours.

Q: “But isn’t it only those annoying, pretentious, artsy-fartsy types in black turtleneck sweaters with ponytails and Van Dyke beards who actually use oils to paint their figures?”
A: Not really. In some circles, oil paints have, sadly, a reputation of being a medium that only the snobby, arty set has the wherewithal and/or resources to use. While there might be some irritating wargamers who embody this particular stereotype, I have yet to meet one. Most of my wargaming friends and acquaintances are happy enough just to discuss tabletop exploits, rules, favoured miniatures, and their particular approach to painting and wargaming without looking down their noses at how others in the hobby go about it. And besides, many wargamers are constantly looking for new ways to improve their painting skills and results.


Q: “But aren’t oil paints simply too hard for the average figure painter to use?”
A: No, using oils to paint your wargaming figures is every bit as easy, fast, and effective as acrylics, especially when combined with various mediums that speed up drying time. Use a product like Winsor & Newton’s Liquin Original to thin your oil paints before applying them to your figures. Your mix of oil pigment and Liquin should resemble ink in consistency, helping your colours flow easily onto your figures and also dry overnight, negating the primary argument against oils. Once you get the hang of things, the uniforms you approximate in miniature take shape before your eyes quickly and easily.


Q: “What about the stench of thinners like turpentine and white spirit?

A: As far as cleaning brushes and thinning colours goes, it’s easy to find odourless paint thinner in most arts and crafts stores nowadays, making unpleasant, nauseating smells a non-issue.


Q: “Okay. But what if I can’t find the kind of alkyd oil paints you describe?
A: Again, Liquin Original, which has a barely perceptible, pleasant scent, helps here too. When mixed with a dab of normal oil colours, it speeds up drying times appreciably once the mix is has been applied to figures. Try it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.


Q: “Won’t I need to wait before I can continue work on my figures after I’ve applied the oils though?”
A: Well, maybe for a little while. But many of us already attach our little works-in-progress to fairly large temporary painting bases these days anyway – cardboard squares, plastic bottle caps, and the like – regardless of how we might paint them. So, there is no appreciable waiting period before continuing to the next painting step. Just don’t bump the figures with a stray finger or knuckle.


Q: “What about paintbrushes? Won’t oil paints ruin them?”

A: All brushes eventually wear out regardless of the paint you use. However, oils are generally easier on paintbrush bristles than acrylics. Oils take longer to dry, giving you ample time to clean your brushes thoroughly before their points and metal ferrules become gunked up with dried paint. Moreover, the oils into which pigments are suspended act as a conditioner of sorts for natural hair bristles, meaning that, with just a little TLC, your paintbrushes should last a long time before they need to be replaced. I’m still using one small sable that I’ve had for almost 20 years!


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Q: “But tubes of oil paint are expensive, right?”
A: Not unless we’re talking about large tubes of top-of-the-line artist grade paints. When you consider figure prices these days, and what most of us spend to assemble a tabletop army, metal or plastic, what’s the cost of half a dozen or so tubes of student grade oils? Besides, unlike bottles and pots of acrylics, a tube of oil paint lasts anywhere from several years to a lifetime. I’m still using several 40+ year-old tubes of colour that once belonged to my mother! While your initial outlay for, say, six or eight small tubes of oil colour might seem a bit pricey, in the long run you’ll save money because they won’t dry out nearly as often as small containers of hobby acrylics.


Q: “Don’t other painting techniques, like the layered Foundry method, yield a more realistic appearance though?”
A: I’ll be contrary here and say no, they don’t. If realism is what you’re after, oils will give a more nuanced, less contrived look to your figures. Too often, the layered acrylic techniques seem to produce figures that have an almost 1950s ‘Technicolor’ appearance thanks to poor blending of colours. Granted, some artistic license is necessary with 15mm or smaller figures to ensure that certain features show up at all. But if you really want to be able to see the nostrils, eyebrows, fingernails, and epaulette fringe on your French Napoleonic voltigeurs, you ought to be collecting much larger 54mm or 90mm single display figures anyway. For 20-30mm wargaming miniatures, however, opt for more subtlety in your painting. And here, oils reign supreme.


Q: “But oil paints stand up less well to constant handling than acrylics, right?”
A: Oils are surprisingly durable. They hold up very well on figures that are handled a lot or dropped accidentally, and they react better to temperature fluctuations. Their oil base gives them a flexible nature, so they are also particularly suitable for plastic figures which don’t always take or retain paint well. Of course, with any paint, you’ll want apply one or two coats of protective varnish of some kind to your figures before basing them. That’s just common sense. More important, oils also retain their brilliance for years and years. Just look at various world famous paintings that were completed centuries ago.

Q: “Isn’t it easier to slap on some acrylic mid-brown, and then hit the raised areas with flesh tone for any flesh areas on figures?”

A: You can do that, but oils provide more realistic flesh effects regardless of the precise flesh tone you want to approximate. Just apply a very thin flesh tone or a medium to light brown for instance, over a white undercoat, letting it run thin on the higher areas of the figures (foreheads, chins, cheeks, and noses) and pool in the recessed areas (between fingers, eye sockets, etc). It’s a rapid step that accomplishes highlighting and shadowing for you, producing more realistic, subtle impressions of skin on wargaming figures than garish, multi-layered painting achieves.


Q: “What about using oils to paint horses and other animals?”

A: Here too, oils offer distinct advantages where ease and range of colour are concerned. Indeed, many figure painters out there feel that oils remain the ONLY way to paint horses. You can slop a runny brown wash – Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber work well for example – over a white, yellow, tan, or light brown undercoat, and let that settle into the low points and crevices of your figures. Alternately, you can brush on a thick coat of oil paint at full value and wipe off the high points of each horse. Either method takes very little time and provides a wide variety of horses or other fur-covered animals.


Q: “How about highlighting and shading my figures?”

A: You don’t need to. When thinned enough, oils actually render highlighting and shading unnecessary, enabling you to kill two or even three birds with one stone. When you base- or undercoat your figures with white, or possibly a very light tan, sand, or light grey, highlighting and shading become much easier. Just like the flesh tone, other thinned oil colours run off raised figure surfaces and settle into recessed areas. The end result will be lighter tones of colour on noses, cheeks, shoulders, upper chests, and forearms, for example with darker tones where more of the pigment settles like eye sockets, between arms and torsos, and between equipment items and the torsos of figures. So, you don’t need to come back later to add highlights or shadows, although you might want to shade red or scarlet uniforms with some medium or dark brown.


Q: “Isn’t it harder to fix mistakes?”

A: Not if you act fast and soak or wipe away the problem before it sets with a handy brush or bit of kitchen paper. If that doesn’t work, put the figure in question aside, and fix the problem during your next painting session. Artists who paint with oils routinely work around their mistakes, and you can do something similar. It just requires a tiny bit of experience to learn. Most of the time, the mistakes we are talking about are so tiny that you can safely ignore them and continue with the next painting step. When your armies are deployed en masse, no one will notice, and neither will you after a few days.


Q: “Won’t I ruin a bunch of figures before I get the hang of things though?”
A: Some trial and error is necessary when it comes to painting your wargaming figures with oil colours, but that’s also true of acrylics. It might be reassuring to try things out with some less expensive plastic figures first if you are nervous about taking the plunge though. The important thing is to get comfortable with using oils, and learn by doing.

Q: “I still don’t see the point in changing from acrylics to oils. Why bother?”
A: Because many, if not most, of us want our tiny warriors to look as eye-catching as possible, and we are always on the lookout for ways to improve our craft.


Q: “Is there anything else I should know?”
A: One more advantage of oil colours is that they remain workable for several hours before they dry. So, it’s possible for you to achieve understated blending and highlighting effects easily. Want more highlighting on the upper arms and shoulders of those ACW Union Zouaves or Macedonian hoplites? Gently drag a clean brush, or even your finger, over those surfaces to remove a tiny bit of paint, which will allow that light undercoat to show through a smidge more.


Q: “Okay, I’m sold. But must I absolutely restrict myself entirely to oil paints from now on?”
A: Of course not. You can easily combine oils with acrylics and enamels for a mixed media approach, something I’ve done to one degree or another for years. While flesh and larger areas of my figures are painted with oils, I routinely use acrylics for smaller details like facings, turnbacks, and other assorted bits. But I find that oils have become increasingly prominent in the way I approach figure painting as I gain experience and confidence. Regardless of how you incorporate oil paints into your own painting process, they will nevertheless give your figures a livelier and dynamic appearance that is more worthy of the high quality castings sold today.


By now, it should be clear that the benefits of using oil colours to paint our tabletop forces far outweigh any imagined shortcomings. My enthusiasm for the medium has its origins in all of those wonderful photos of Napoleonic figures from the collections of Peter Gilder, Doug Mason, Bill Gaskin, and Phil Robinson as seen in old issues of Military Modelling, Miniature Wargames, and Wargames Illustrated. Many of those iconic figures were painted, in part at least, with oils. And there’s no denying that even today it is a look and approach worth emulating in our own hobby endeavours. Hopefully, this article will encourage you to re-examine your current painting attitudes and practices, and give oil colours a shot yourself. So, let’s conclude now with a challenge. Try painting some figures with oils – a small command vignette is a fairly safe way to start – and see how it goes. You’re sure to like the results.

This article originally appeared in issue 371 of Miniature Wargames. You can pick up your issue of the magazine here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.


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