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Warrick's Marder II The Tao of Drybrushing

By Warrick Main

For the last sixteen years, my leisure time has been consumed with the endless cycle of acquiring and painting miniatures. From science fiction through to fantasy and historicals, I’ve spent at least two house deposits buying these addictive little lumps of lead. I’ve tried a lot of games and a lot of scales, and although many of them were fun to paint up, something always seemed lacking in the gameplay department. I was mostly a painter anyway because my dice rolling is impossibly awful. I have a pair of dice known by my gaming mates as ‘the betrayer dice’. Before you laugh - nobody else touches the betrayers lest my bad luck implant in them instead…

In April 2003 I was browsing through what I consider to be the finest miniatures shop in the southern hemisphere, the Tin Soldier in Sydney, Australia. For a year or two previously I’d seen a display rack of very cool WW2 miniatures in camo boxes, and I’d even been interested in buying and painting some just for the fun of it. I never did though, because I’d never seen a set of WW2 rules that captured the feel of WW2 combat.

I decided that this trip to Sydney was to be different. I was going to get some of that 15mm goodness no matter what. I asked Drew (the southern hemisphere’s coolest miniatures shop manager) if there was anything new in WW2 tabletop rule sets - and he told me about Flames of War. One quick phone call to my good friend Gordon back in Bendigo clinched the deal. When I left the Tin Soldier that day, my backpack had a blister of panzergrenadiers, a blister of Tommies, a Matilda II and a Pz 38(t). After reading the rules, I took the Brits, Gordon plumped for Italians, another good friend by the name of Kip blagged the Germans, and the cycle of ‘acquire and paint’ started anew.

I’d developed a number of techniques for shading and highlighting but I liked drybrushing the best.

However, I’d found that even the subtlest drybrushing could be chalky or unattractive on 28mm miniatures if I wasn’t careful. The Battlefront miniatures loved the drybrush though. Their sculpt job really benefitted from a nice wash and drybrush; they came alive with crisp detail and realistic colour, and they were far more natural and attractive than anything I’d seen in 28mm.

I painted a unit of Marder II’s for Oz_Mike (you might see him around the newsgruppe) using drybrushing and was so pleased with the results that I had to post on the BF forum showing my miniatures. This led to calls of ‘how did you do that?’ and ‘I suppose you think you’re good!’ from the peanut gallery. So I reposted a ‘how-to’ in the Modelling and Painting section, and got some great feedback. Thanks to all you flatterers. It’s because of you that the next part of the story happened.

The ultimate honour arrived a few days ago; Wayne (Prince among men) sent me a P.M. asking if I’d like to expand on the ‘how-to’ I’d done on the Marders for the website. I felt that I could not refuse (I love attention). Rather than just reposting that article verbatim I asked if I could do an article on drybrushing and painting in general, and here I am. 

What I hope to do in this article is to show you, my fellow lead addicts, what sort of effects can be achieved through drybrushing. The black undercoat/base colour technique works very well with Battlefront miniatures, but for a really realistic job you can’t go past drybrushing. If you have any questions, please PM me on the newsgruppe(Forum) and I’ll be happy to give whatever advice I can.

Lastly, I’m sorry if this is a bit wordy at times. I’ve learned a lot about the subtleties of this technique and not describing every nuance is pretty hard!

There are a couple of terms related to the techniques I use that I’d like to explain before we get started.

The three components of a brush are the handle, the ferrule and the nap. The handle is self-explanatory, the bristles that comprise the brush are called the nap, and the ferrule is what keeps the previous two together.

Brushes can have a number of different fibres in their nap. Common nap fibres include nylon, taklon, sable, fox, hog bristle, camel, and many others. I have painted with just about all of them and I will give you this advice for free.

Wise saying number one: You cannot achieve a natural effect with an unnatural brush. Natural fibre brushes have a number of advantages over artificial fibres such as nylon or taklon. Natural fibre brushes retain their shape better, rinse cleaner and last longer than their artificial counterparts. They are more expensive but will provide you with better results for a longer time. After a certain period you will learn that every brush has a ‘character’ and will paint better under some situations than others. If you do not make an effort to learn which brushes perform best under certain circumstances you will not get the results you desire.

Wise saying number two: If you do not respect the limitations of your paint your painting will gain limited respect. A lot of people do not look after their paint and their painting suffers as a result. They will blame the brush, the paint, even (blasphemy!) the miniature, but the fault lies with themselves. The second your paint stops flowing cleanly and evenly off your brush, you need to slightly dilute and re-shake your paint. Wetting the nap of the brush also helps a lot, just make sure that the nap isn’t so wet that the paint is diluted. In the case of drybrushing there is obviously no need to wet the nap but you should still make sure that your paint is free-flowing and smooth.

Paint Brush
Down to business

Before you start painting, you should take a few moments to get a good look at the miniature and decide what sort of an effect you want. British tanks didn’t have much camouflage, especially where Infantry tanks were concerned, Soviets sometimes never even painted their tanks before rolling them out into combat, and the US always loved the old olive drab. Even in these cases, a good two-stage drybrush can really bring out all the detail of the model.

Ideally, you should work out and develop a set of 3-4 colours plus an ink for shading. These should be different shades of the same colour, and range from a deep colour (basecoat) to a light colour (final drybrush).

For the miniatures below, the paints are:

- Basecoat: yellow oxide (Matisse Derivan)
- Ink wash: brown ink (Windsor & Newton)
- First drybrush: Desert yellow (Tamiya)
- Second drybrush: Buff (Tamiya)- very lightly brushed on!
- Final drybrush: Bleached Bone (GW)
- Green camo: JN green (Tamiya)
- Brown camo and mud: Scorched Brown (GW)

Basecoat Basecoat

Here are the Marders with their yellow oxide basecoat. Yellow oxide was the basis for the German dunkelgelb (‘dark yellow’) paint used on their AFV’s, and this exact colour is still available through art shops today. I use a tube of Derivan Matisse yellow oxide. It’s a 75ml tube that cost me about $7 and needs to be diluted heavily before it’s ready to use because it’s thick like oil paint.

It’s quite inexpensive to get your acrylic paints this way and the paint tends to be very durable, making an excellent foundation for all the drybrushing you’ll need to do.

For other countries such as the US and Russia, Matisse also make a great colour called ‘Australian sap green’ which is a dark military green. For those without access to Matisse paints you could probably find an equivalent colour; you’re looking for something a couple of shades darker than the olive drab that you want the final product to end up looking like.

Lay a basecoat of your chosen colour on your assembled miniature. Remember that you want the basecoat to be a couple of shades darker than the final product. It doesn’t need to be a perfect coat- one of the advantages of drybrushing is that it covers a multitude of sins.

The Churchill (my Infantry tank PHQ) is there for scale comparison. It was painted last year using much the same technique but a different palette. I know they were green, but the desert is really dusty. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  

Ink Wash

Once this is complete you want to get your ink. Ideally this should be several shades darker than even the basecoat. In order to get the right effect you may even have to change colours. For example, when painting dark yellow on my German stuff, I use a brown ink instead of yellow. When painting green tanks I use a mix of three drops brown ink to one drop of black ink. In all cases you will need to dilute the ink with clean water, using one drop of water per 2 drops of ink. This is important, as you want the basecoat to ‘come through’ the ink wash. This simulates shadow more naturally as a shadow’s colour is affected by the colour of the material it falls across.

Ink Wash
Lastly, lightly drag the nap of your ink-mixing brush across the neck of a convenient liquid dish detergent bottle and give the ink mix a good stir. Detergent helps make sure that the ink and water mix well and dry slowly and evenly.

Slop the ink onto the basecoat on the miniatures. It’ll look blotchy and uneven at first, but remember that most of the raised surfaces will be drybrushed over later on. It will also take a while for the ink to dry so don’t be tempted to poke at your newly inked tanks for at least an hour or so after you’ve inked them. Anyway, make sure that there are no little nooks or crannies that missed the ink and therefore don’t look naturally shaded. Don’t worry too much about little bubbles on the tank as most of these disappear as the ink dries.

Drybrushing Let the drybrushing commence!

Drybrushing is an easy technique to learn but also an easy technique to do badly. The longer you take and the more careful you are, the better the results; just like any other technique.

My favoured drybrush is a ‘Springer Pinsel’ #3 round with a golden sable nap. Golden sable is excellent for drybrushing as it is fairly rigid but still pretty fine. The more rigid the nap, the better your control over the final brush effect, but if the nap is especially coarse the effect won’t be as fine. You’ll need some tissues or toilet paper to dry your brush as well.

Your first colour should be slightly lighter than the basecoat. Many people will add a few drops of white to the basecoat colour, and this works OK, but there is a better way. If you decide to blend your first drybrush shade, try using a lighter version of the basic shade. For green tanks, you could lighten the basecoat with a little yellow; this will give a juicy green effect and may be a bit too bright for some. You could also use a small amount of much lighter green blended with a bit of the basecoat green for a more military feel. Try not to lighten the first drybrush stage too much; you’ll be able to provide paler highlights as the paintjob progresses.

When you first dip the brush the idea is to only get paint on the first few millimetres of the nap. Dipping more than a third of the nap in paint is a waste of paint and also makes it harder it get your brush really dry. A lot of people overload the brush, and this results in a thin, sticky coat of paint instead of a fine dusting of colour.

When cleaning the nap for drybrushing, I use a folded piece of tissue and give the nap a firm squeeze from the ferrule towards the tip of the nap. The purpose of this is to remove almost all the solvent and leave only some traces of the pigment. The squeeze is followed by gently wiping the nap across clean tissue, until little or no visible paint comes off the brush. Once it’s brushing clean, then the drybrushing can commence. Remember to keep the ‘squeeze’ tissue and the ‘brush’ tissue separate, and to always use a clean section of the tissue to dry your brush, during both stages.

Start the brushing somewhere with a little detail. You want to flick the nap lightly over the detail in your chosen area. Work a small patch, about half the size of a postage stamp, until it has become lighter. Remember that a good drybrush job has a few coats, each lighter than the one before, and that your drybrushing at this stage is a general all-over to show you where the most detail will show up. Once you like the effect you’ve achieved you can repeat the process evenly across the whole miniature.

The most important tip at this stage is don’t rush it. Drybrushing is like bonsai or greenkeeping. It may take ages but in the end it’s worth it. Take your time to develop technique, and as you get better you can go faster.

Once you’ve done this, look carefully at the miniature.

-If it looks chalky or dusty, you’ve either brushed too heavily, used a paint that’s too light in colour, or both.
-If it looks patchy, you’ll need practice to become more consistent, or learn to take it more slowly.
-If it looks sticky or like normal paint then you haven’t been drying the brush enough.
-If it looks even and slightly highlighted all over, with detail coming out, well done!

Second Drybrush

The second coat of drybrushing should cover about 20% less of the miniature. Try to confine the drybrushing more to the detailed areas and edges. You can still lightly run the brush over open, un-detailed surfaces to build a little depth, but as each coat goes on you’ll be concentrating on the detail rather than the open areas. The paint you use for the second drybrush coat should be a few shades lighter than the first drybrush colour.

Drybrushing the second time
If you are mixing the colours yourself, keep the lightening shade within the same spectrum: warm, dull yellows for green tanks, desert yellows for dunkelgelb tanks, and beige for brown tanks. Make the same paint colour mix as previously, and only add an extra drop of the lightening agents.  Check the miniature again using the quick reference from the first step above.
Drybrushing the third time Final Drybrush

By this time you should have gotten the hang of this lightening stuff. Take your final paint colour and repeat the process, applying the brush to only the most detailed and raised 50% or less of the miniature. The idea is that three drybrush coats, laid on in this way, with slightly lighter colours and applications each time, will build a subtle but recognisable depth on the detail.

Check the quick reference again.

Green and Brown Camo

This is it… my new technique. This popped into my head one night after I’d toned a Tiger IE (left) in the basic dunkelgelb technique I use. I thought how good drybrushed camo would look and then I tried it.

Not bad, I thought, but I could do better.

Warrick's Tiger with Green and Brown camouflage
Marders camouflaged The next thing I did it on was the Marder II’s in the photos left and below. I used a different brush (a round #1 bristle brush), and a technique of not drying the brush out so thoroughly, and of slowly building the lines in sections. I was pretty pleased with the effect this time round.
If you’re going to try this, remember to keep the line tight. The effect will not be as good if the line is indistinct or blurry; you want it to look like someone with 5 minutes’ access to the battalion paint gun and compressor (in 15mm scale!) had a go. If you have some problems, try getting a soft pencil and lightly sketching the lines you want your camo to follow.

Lastly came the detail and the crew. This was largely devoid of drybrushing, as my infantry technique is primarily basecoat plus wash. But that’s a whole new topic, maybe for another time.
Marders completed except crew
Marders completed The last word

Drybrushing is like any other skill. You may learn the basics but to get good you’ll need to practice. Your first few attempts to follow the steps above might not look quite the way you thought, but as you do more you’ll get better. You’ll learn how to blend colours more subtly, pick out detail better, and produce even and consistent colours.

Patience, a steady hand, and a willingness to learn from mistakes will see your technique improve.

That’s how I learned. Take your time, aim for subtlety, and focus on the task and I guarantee your technique will get better.

See you on the boards! ~ Waz

Last Updated On Monday, January 12, 2009 by Wayne at Battlefront