Saturday, August 10, 2013

Painting Reaper Bones for Newbies: Skeletons

Did you get your Reaper Bones shipment? Do you suddenly have hundreds of miniatures beckoning to be painted? I've seen a huge upswing in the number of new painters who have jumped into the hobby with the Bones kickstarter which is great, but I can see how tackling a project like this could be a little intimidating for folks new to the hobby. Since I'd be working on painting up my own Vampire package of Bones, I thought I'd share my thoughts and tips for anyone working their way through the mountain of plastic Reaper delivered to us.

I'm getting started with the Skeleton warband. My tips for getting started painting Reaper Bones after the jump.
Previous Articles: I've already written up a few articles about painting Reaper Bones. You might want to check out:

Planning the Project

There are a lot of miniatures in that Reaper box. Instead of painting them up one at a time, I'm using a technique I learned to employ went painting up massive amounts of figures for the various army size wargames I play. To make the project more manageable I broke the figures down into subsets, the first set to tackle being the skeletons.

For new painters, the skeletons are perfect. Check it out, you only need a handful of paints for this project:

I've linked to some paints by Vallejo and Reaper (my preferred brands), but Games Workshop, Foundry, Coat d'Arms, and even craft paints (in a pinch) will work. Just look for water based acrylics.

I used cheap hobby brushes from craft stores for decades before finally upgrading to Army Painter and Winsor & Newton this year. Those dedicated brushes are awesome, but I'm sure they can appear pricey to someone just getting started, but they are worth it.

You'll also want a hobby knife. I'm not going to cover basing in this post, but if you are making a run to the hobby store to stock up on supplies keep an eye out for static grass and either basing material or sand (available from hardware stores, pet shops and coastlines. Be sure to clean it!)

Prepping the Figures

It's not the most fun part of figure painting but it needs to be done. Look carefully all over the figure for mold lines, thin ridges of material that typically run vertically around the edge of the figure. Use your hobby knife to slice those mold lines off. Be careful, it's easy to hack too much off and lose detail or slice into your thumb! If you miss a few mold lines, relax. We aren't entering these into a competition, I'm sure the painting police will forgive a few errant mold lines.

For normal plastic or metal figures I'd suggest priming them next, but Bones don't seem to need primer. Give them a good scrub in warm, soapy water to remove mold release grease so the paint will adhere better.

Finally, you probably have some Bones that were bent out of shape. A quick dip for 15 seconds in boiling water and then a bath in ice water allows you to reshape the figure to its original sculpt.


Finally! We get to the fun part. We're going to work through several phases: Base Coat, Ink Wash, Highlights, and Detailing.

First up is the base coat. That's simply putting a solid block of color on each unpainted surface of the model. For these skeletons I chose three simple colors: bonewhite for the skeleton's bones, leather brown for the bows, quivers, straps, backs and rims of shields, and sword handles, and black for the sword and spear points as well as the fronts of the shields.

If using a dropper bottle, put a few drops of paint on a palette. If it's thick and clumpy (like toothpaste) add a drop of water. If it seems thin and watery and not the shade of paint you expected (grayish pink instead of red for example), the paint may not be properly mixed. Give it a good shake until it is thoroughly mixed.

Thin paint is better than thick paint. With a single coat of thin brown paint on the figure's quiver, it doesn't cover completely. The paint settles into crevices and seeps away from ridges. That's ok. We're going to use an ink wash later to create a similar effect, but for now we can just give this area a second thin coat of paint for better coverage.

Once the base coat is done, double check that you didn't miss anything (arm pits, behind shields, etc.)

The Ink Wash

Next we'll be inking the figure. The base coat gives color to the figure, but the ink wash will help give definition. The ink is very thin, it seeps into crevices (simulating shadow) and seeps off high points (mimicking highlights).

Once the base coat is dry, put a drop or two of brown ink on your palette, add a drop or two of water (you can always apply a second or third wash if the first is too thin), and give all of the bonewhite and brown areas a dose of the brown ink.

Check out the darker areas created between the skeleton's toes, ribs, ulna, eye sockets, etc. I went back and reapplied a drop of brown ink to the figures eye sockets, and a few areas I wanted to stand out a bit more. The ink wash also picks out the wood grain on the spear shaft, the arrows in the quiver and other equipment.

Painting Highlights

Once the ink wash was dry I moved on to highlights. Although the ink wash slides off the raised areas of the figure, it still tints the original base coat. To make sure the figure "popped", I got out the original bonewhite and applied just a bit of color (sometimes just a single dot or stroke) to the prominent areas of the skeleton that would catch the light:

  • Top of the skull
  • the brows above each eye
  • collarbones
  • a single stroke on each large limb bone (humerus, ulna, femur)
  • kneecap
  • shoulder blades
  • hip ridges
  • a series of dots down the spine
  • dots on some finger and foot bones 

Finally, I used pure white to pick out the skeleton's teeth. If you haven't painted tiny objects before, this can seem a bit intimidating. Don't worry, we are just trying to suggest the play of light over the figure. If you stand two inches from a painting by a Renaissance master you are going to see the individual paint strokes and the blobs of pigment, but step back a few feet and those imperfections disappear as you take in the whole scene. We're going for "table standard", a paint job that looks good in use as a game piece rather than an art piece for a painting competition.

Final Details

The metal bits painted black (spear points, sword blades) should get a few strokes of gunmetal silver. I usually paint along the edges of the weapon to highlight their deadly cutting edge, leaving a bit of black towards the center of the blade. 

I mixed my black and white paints into a dark gray and painted the center of the shield to highlight it. The central boss would be metal and got a bit of gunmetal too.

The shields are a place you can get pretty creative. A number of vendors sell generic decals that could be applied to the shield face, or you could give the shields a coat of color, but I decided to try my hand at some Greek-like designs to suggest these skeletons hail from a civilization predating the typical medieval European fantasy setting.

Hand painting shields is tricky, but all I did was look up some designs on Google and paint them in white, using black to go back and refine mistakes. I could have spent quite a long time on these but I knew I'd be making them look aged and just wanted a suggestion of a design.

I mixed up some brown, sand yellow and bonewhite and gave a light, scrubby drybrush over the edge and bottom half of the shield to simulate layers of dust accumulated during the skeletons' long slumber.

Basing and Finish

I glued each figure to a 1" metal washer, glued sand to the base, gave the whole thing a coat of brown highlighted with sand yellow and bonewhite and finally a few tufts of static grass and I was done!

And that's it! These are simple figures, and some of the detail is a little shallow, but even with a simple paint job they turn out nicely. I'm going to keep posting my progress on these Reaper Bones, and I'd love to see how you tackle the same figures. Let me know if you paint up your own skeletons :)


  1. A great tutorial for all and splendid results

  2. Fantastic group of skeletal warriors. Your free hand shield designs are awesome. Best, Dean

  3. I have my own method for doing skeletons, but I'm going to try this one and see if I can add it to my repertoire.

    1. I like hearing about different techniques, feel free to share!

    2. Mine's pretty simple - base coat white, wash brown, then wash black, then highlight. Now that I have Army Painter Quickshade, I'm going to try it with only the one wash, this time of QS, and then highlight. We'll see how it works!

  4. Great write-up! Those are cool figures :)

    1. Thanks! A little change of pace from Romans :)

  5. Great tutorial and I do love your shieldwork!

    1. Thanks Monty! I was pretty hasty with the shields. I'm just glad they look acceptable :)

  6. What would you (or anyone who'd like to chime in) suggest as a sealant for Bones? I've been reading around various message boards since my Kickstarter arrived and seen warnings against using anything containing acetone because the miniatures will take on a tackiness after a few days or weeks when the acetone interacts with the PVC. Any thoughts on this issue?

    1. I sprayed these skeletons with Testor's Dullcote a few days ago, and so far no tackiness. I also wanted to experiment with priming Bones and feared the tackiness issue. I decided to see if the Dullcote could be used to coat the bare Bones plastic as a pseudo-primer to give the paint something to grab on to. No tackiness, but I haven't had a chance to apply paint yet to see how it acts as a primer.

  7. Thanks for the tutorial! I hope you like mine!