Thursday, July 11, 2013

Testing Techniques for Painting Horses

Oh horses, why do you vex me so? I've found cavalry to be an essential branch of the ancient and medieval armies I'm painting up. They typically have dynamic movement capabilities and impressive combat stats in game, and a large mass of cavalry figures looks impressive. But I still can't find any enthusiasm for painting up that much horse flesh.

In an effort to determine the quickest way of painting up mounted troops, I tried out three different techniques on some Conquest Miniatures Norman cavalry. Painting to wargame standard, I wanted to compare the final product with regards to the time and effort required to complete the paint job. My horses after the jump.

The horse blankets and straps haven't been finished, and some of the subtleties of the shading are lost in these photos (I'm really looking forward to getting into the new house with it's proper studio lighting), but hopefully there's enough detail to discern differences between the three techniques.

3 Color Steps 

This is a standard painting technique that's become associated with it's most proficient practitioner, Kevin Dallimore. I started with a dark base color, and then worked up two shades of highlights on the raised surfaces. I'm still finding my way around horse musculature in order to pick out the muscle definitions, but I was fairly pleased with the results. I followed the colors suggested in the Wargames Soldiers and Strategy article in issue #66. Trying to create my own three step shades was difficult. If the jump in color from one highlight to the next is too great the result looks stark and unnatural.

Effort: Challenging
Time: Several painting sessions
Result: Good

Oil Wipe 

This is an easy technique I read about online, but requires quite a bit of patience. The horse is given a relatively light base coat with your standard water based acrylics (Vallejo, GW, etc.). Once dry, the figure is slathered with a darker oil based color, which is then wiped off with a towel. To get to tricky parts (the inner leg for example), I used a q-tip to navigate into hard to reach areas. The darker oil paint is removed from the raised surfaces, and the wiping process tends to create a subtle gradation from highlight to darker recesses where the towel or q-tip can't reach. The oil paint takes a long time to dry though. I believe these horses took a week before they were no longer leaving a residue when touched. I really like the effect on dark horses, but I haven't risked doing lighter dun, gray or white coats yet.

Effort: Easy
Time: 1 painting session, 1 week drying
Result: Fair

Army Painter Dip 

For the dun horses I tried the dip method using Army Painter Soft Tone . I gave the horses a base coat of yellow / tan, and brushed on the Army Painter dip. When using Army Painter on humans, I'll often go back and pick out a few highlights, but for these horses I wanted to see how they turned out with just the dip technique. The dip works best with plenty of deep crevices and fine detail, and I think it got a little muddy and pooled on the larger surfaces areas of the figures flanks. Still, it gives some shading and requires very little effort.

Effort: Easy
Time: 1 painting session, 1 day drying
Result: Acceptable


A shot of the large flank areas, of the (L to R) oil wipe, three step, and dip methods.  

I'm glad I undertook this exercise. For show pieces or commanders, I think the 3 step process gives the most amount of control, and can be further expanded into four, five or more steps to capture some truly dynamic or subtle shading.

For the rank and file though, I didn't find the three step process produced a notable improvement over the other two techniques. The Army Painter dip is quick, but I think it needs a layer of highlights to avoid a dingy final product.

The oil wiping technique takes quite a long time to cure, but the ease of applying it and the results make it the clear choice for pumping out tons of cavalry.

Hope you found this helpful. With the horses done, I'm on to the riders next. I might even get them done before Historicon. :)


  1. I also hate painting horses. I'm a dipper/washer myself, mainly because I don't want to deal with oil paints. It might be worth a shot though.

    1. The oils can be messy, and you need to keep your horses under a tupperware container or something to avoid the oil picking up dust or hair, but otherwise it's quick and easy.

  2. This is really excellent work. Thank you for sharing!

  3. I just acquired a mounted Dark Ages war band. I'm constructing a backstory wherein all members ride ONLY shire warhorses -- black with white feathers.


  4. Excellent post and thanks for sharing. I must try the oil method one day.

    1. Try it! It's very easy, and I've always been happy with the results.

  5. Nice tuto, thanks for sharing, good lessons for me!

  6. Thanks for this. I have a lot of mounted troops that I haven't painted simply because I can't paint the horses even to tabletop-acceptable standards. I'll try these approaches (well, 3-step and dip anyway) and see how they look.

  7. One extra tip. Drag a small flat headed brush gently through the oil to give a hair impression. Very effective.