How to Paint Red Without an Airbrush

One of the things that I found difficult when I was starting out painting miniatures was painting bright colors so that they looked nice. I have found that I am not alone in my frustration with red, yellow, and orange in particular. This article is about the method that I use to make red look better on my miniatures.

Simple Base Tutorial
Simple Base Tutorial

What you need

The right primer makes a big difference

The first thing to know is that for bright paint the color of your primer really affects the end result. so If you are going for a really bright red then you want to prime your mini white. If you are going for a deep dark red then use grey. Black primer makes it really difficult to paint red on your minis.

Proper paint consistency is key

it is more important with bright paint colors to get your paint consistency correct than it is with darker colors. The pigment in the paint seems to be less dense and it is easy to get separation if you paint straight out of the pot or don’t prepare it correctly.

I like to use a couple of drops of flow improver mixed into my red paint to get it to flow better. It really makes a difference, and I have better coverage than if I use a couple of drops of water like I can do with most other colors.

You need more than one layer

One of the most frustrating parts of painting bright colors like red is that there is often a lack of complete coverage with the first layer. Your undercoat will show through in some places.

This is normal so don’t panic. Simply let the first layer dry and then apply a second, and sometimes a third layer. This will build up enough paint pigment that you will have nice complete coverage.

If you have properly thinned your paint then you will greatly reduce your chances of paint buildup that blocks the details of your model.

Patience is necessary

One of the most frustrating things about painting these bright colors is the fact that you absolutely need to let the previous layer dry before adding a second layer. Many of us just want to get on with it, after all this isn’t a piece for a competition, it’s just a unit of blood angels.

The biggest problem with rushing the second layer is that once it is mostly dry but not all the way dry. You run the risk of it sticking to your brush. I have been adding a second layer of red paint to a model, really liking how it looks, only to have a section suddenly pull up and I have an obvious part that is several shades lighter than the others around it.

It is nearly impossible to recover your paint job when this happens. That spot will always be one layer behind the rest around it. Your paint will get thick and gum up your details before it all looks the same.

Highlight using orange

This might sound counterintuitive. After all, orange is a different color completely. However, orange is made up of both yellow and red.

As I experimented with different colors to highlight red. I tried all of the usual things, I mixed a bit of white into the red paint, I tried pink, I tried white. These all produced results that were acceptable to a point.

But then I came across a model that I really liked, and I noticed that the person who painted it had highlighted their red to orange. It just looked more natural than the results that I had been getting. This led me to my color theory about highlighting and shading.

When highlighting, I use the next color on the color chart that is in the direction of yellow. In the case of red, it is orange.

Apply your highlights like a glaze

I have found that thinning my orange paint to the consistency of a good glaze has helped me to build up the effect gradually and have more consistent results. The desired effect here is to lighten the red using the color orange, not necessarily make an obvious transition from red to orange.

Apply the first layer of highlights, let it dry, and then apply the second layer to a slightly smaller area. Repeat until you have several thin layers that have a smooth transition to a brighter color. If you have done it right it won’t be obvious that you have painted orange at all, it will just be a natural transition to a brighter color that is orange but not a glaring change.

Shade using blue

Like many people, I felt that nuln oil was the go-to answer for shadows, It is easy to apply and gets good consistent results. You could use it instead of my method and be just fine, but I think that this color theory gets better results.

Just as I found that using the color in the direction of yellow helps to achieve a more natural-looking highlight, I also found that the most natural-looking shadows are the next color toward purple. Blues make excellent rich shadows on red models.

There are several ready-made washes out there that will get you good results here. I use generally use Citiadel’s Drakenhof Nightshade to do my shadows on red areas.

Apply your shadows like a wash

washes pool in crevices and the folds of cloth. This is perfect for shadows. These areas will naturally get less light than the raised areas and need to be darker in color to show that.

I have written an article all about washes that you can read here.

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