I am an avid player of Warhammer 40K, and up until the past year I have not been very productive as a painter. The reason for my lack of painting was that I, like many other players, enjoyed the gaming aspect so much that I chose to ignore the painting aspect, moreover, using professional Painting Kits also made a huge difference between the final painting. This is slowly changing because I have finally compiled enough techniques to make a decent looking army in a relatively small amount of time. I will use Warhammer 40K and Citadel paints for my examples, but the following techniques are basic enough to be applied to almost any wargame.
The first thing to pay attention to is modeling. Figures that wear helmets take much less time to paint than those with bare faces. For the Space Marines, this is not a problem; but an army like the Imperial Guard generally has a lot of bare skin to paint. In this case, I recommend purchasing the Cadian faction of the Imperial Guard, as they are modeled with gas masks. As a rule of thumb, try not to model anything that you’re not comfortable painting. Skin is not difficult, it is just more time consuming and will be covered at the end of this article.
The next rule that has made my painting life much less difficult is color choice. Certain colors like yellow (Imperial Fists) and bright red (Blood Angels) are a nightmare to try to paint quickly. Choose a palette of dark colors and the project will go much faster. As mentioned previously, I play as the Space Wolves whose primary color is grey, and I use blue as an accent. Grey and Blue cover extremely well over a base coat of black, and they also go well with metallic colors. Choosing a palette of a dark primary, a complimentary accent, and a metallic (usually silver) will make a striking unit without much effort on your part.
Once your color planning is complete, place the entire unit on an upturned box lid (to protect your hand) and spray paint them black. Any matte black paint will work, I usually use the Krylon brand. Hold the can about 6 inches away from the models in a well-ventilated area. Use brisk, sweeping motions and rotate the box every so often until all sides of the models are completely covered. Try not to spray directly at your models with your hand stationary as it tends to apply paint too quickly and obscures the details.
The reason I use black spray paint is that the eye expects shadows to be in recessed areas. Spraying a model black is the easiest way to accomplish this. Also, metallic colors look much more realistic over a base coat of black. If you must use a lighter color like yellow, by all means, use matte white as a primer, but the final product will look much different than darker colors on a base of black.
Once the models are completely dry, take a cheap brush about half an inch thick (I use a round tip, but everyone else I know uses a flat tip) and wet the tip with acrylic paint. Rub the tip of the brush onto a folded paper towel in a circular motion for about a second. This will seem like a waste of paint, but the idea is to let the majority of the water draw away from the pigment in the paint so you can do a technique call dry-brushing. Dry-brushing takes some practicing to get right but is the bread and butter of speed painting.
Starting with the area that has the least detail, usually the rear of the model, quickly swipe the brush over the entirety of the model (avoiding the weapon, if possible). If done correctly, the paint should cover the raised areas of the model and not fill the recesses. If too much moisture is left in the brush, the paint will run into the recesses. In this case, dry it off some more and try again. Once you get the feel of the process, you can apply a coat of your primary color within about 20-30 seconds. In my experience, a single brush’s worth of paint will cover a model before it stops covering well. Just dip, dry, and repeat for the rest of the squad. As a final word of warning, dry-brushing tends to destroy a brush much faster than normal brush strokes; so you generally don’t want to use an expensive brush for the process.
Optionally, you can enhance this look by lightly dry-brushing each figure again in a lighter shade of your primary color. This is a basic form of highlighting and is a great way to take full advantage of the intricate detailing of Citadel models.
Now that the squad has a coat of their primary color, it’s time to move on to metallic. Look at each model and identify anything that looks like bare metal. In the case of space marines: bolters, cables, armor gaps, and backpack vents. Lightly paint these in Boltgun Metal or whatever metallic you desire. The technique should be similar to the dry-brushing you just completed, but with a much smaller brush so that you don’t accidentally get paint on the rest of the model. Also, you don’t need to dab paint off your brush, just wipe any excess on the lid of your paint container and stroke lightly over the area to be painted.
Your accent color comes next. In the case of Space Marines, the rims of the shoulder pads and the casing (upper-middle area) of the bolter are great places to start. Draw inspiration from the pictures in the codex or online, if you’re unsure of what to accent.
I usually save bare faces for last, because they are harder to touch up if marred by an errant paintbrush. Cover the entire face with a coat of flesh tone. Once dry, apply a brown ink, like Flesh Wash, to the face. It will gather in the recesses and create dark areas that lowlight the facial structure. Because inking darkens the entire area it is applied to, it is a good idea to use a lighter color like Elf Flesh so that the final product is closer to the desired skin tone. In my experience, the ink takes longer than paint to dry; so make sure to give it a little extra time before moving on to the next step. Finishing the face is easy, lightly dry brush more of your original flesh color on the raised areas of the skin much like you did when painting the metallic areas. Practice makes perfect here, so don’t be afraid to re-ink and try again until you’re happy with the result. Eyes are a much more advanced matter, and usually don’t need to be painted on a basic squad if you’re uncomfortable with the process. Remember that 95% of the time your figures will be viewed from a distance, so the objective is to get your unit presentable. Save your effort for your special characters.