Ruminant Painter . . .

My knee's playing up again, which means little sleep and periods of feeling sorry for myself. It's also an opportunity to do some of the 'housekeeping' jobs I'm normally too busy (read 'lazy') to get around to. Consequently, I've just come across a note I did for a mate (still one of two left) on painting horses with oils. Now, I know this has just about been done to death on the blogs recently, but I thought I'd include it here as it might be useful to anyone who still needs this sort of information or has been living on Mars for the past year or so. Message begins . . . .

The oil wash technique is straight forward and pretty much idiot proof. It's very fashionable now, but I picked up the idea from Peter Gilder in the early 70's, although he originally only used Humbrol enamels in his washes. It's been used since this time by lots of gamers I know and it has the benefit of being fast and adaptable. You can't really make a bugger of things because there are two easy ways of dealing with 'mistakes' or 'bad' finishes.

A couple of points before you start:

  • you need to make sure that all mould lines etc have been removed because this method will show them up like motorways on an OS map;
  • the whole point is taking paint off a figure so you need to make sure you have a solid undercoat.

I don't go in for any fancy (or expensive) stuff. I first spray the horses with Halford's matt white primer. Usual rule applies: two thin coats are better than one thick one. Over the years I've used all sorts of sprays, even so called etching primers and, to be honest, I could never tell the difference other than the price. This dries very quickly, after which I apply a coat of acrylic paint, which is the proper undercoat and the one which will show through as highlights after the oil wash has been completed. This has to be lighter than the oil paint or it defeats the object, so any light brown through to mid brown will do or even yellow ochre, sand, or cream/tan shades will do too. It all depends on the type of horse you want to represent. Again, two thin coats are better than one thick one. I frequently use craft paint for this because it's only a base coat and it's also dirt cheap. Why waste relatively expensive Vallejo paint or such for a basic job as this?

I think this is a key difference to what I've read some others do, in that it's acrylic paint and so can be washed over far sooner than enamels as it dries so quickly and because it's oil resistant so it's impossible for the two paints to leach into each other. They're also stronger colours and there is a far wider variety of shades available.

Next, I mix some Burnt Umber oil paint to the consistency of, say, single cream or sometimes thinner (depends how it turns out to be honest because it's not that critical) and wash this over the whole horse. Thin the oil with white spirit; turpentine is expensive and stinks. Have a play areound with these mixtures because it really is a matter of what suits you. Too thick and it will take longer to dry and obscure detail; too thin and it becomes purely a wash and too thin to work with. (Try different oil colours too - Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, Vandyke Brown.)

Once the oil wash is applied, do the 'wipe' You can leave the oil for a while (up to 15/20 minutes or so in cold weather), but I usually do a batch of up to about a dozen horses before I begin wiping if that's any use as a guide. Wipe downwards, top to bottom and don't worry about removing too much of the oil paint. If you take too much off (stark contrast between highlight and shadow) you can:

  • add more paint and wipe off again;
  • let the whole thing dry and apply successive thin oil washes until you reach the desired effect.

You can get selective and wipe harder in certain areas for emphasis such as the rump and the face etc., but I don't usually bother.

The wiping 'tool' can be a piece of old T-shirt, kitchen towel, kleenex or bog roll. Any paper product will leave bits on the horse, particularly around the main/tail/ears etc, anywhere the casting has parts that will catch. Cloth can also leave lint; there's no really 'clean' answer, so don't go cutting up a perfectly good T-shirt. It's also an idea to use a disposable vinyl glove on the hand doing the wiping cos it can get messy. Keep a slimmer piece of the wiping cloth or paper to do the job between the legs and other difficult to reach places.

That's it for the man body of the horse. If you want dark legs, add a wash of thinned black oil paint (or GW Badab Black ink or whatever the new one's called) or a staining agent such as the Army Painter washes (not the varnish). Mains and tails are self evident, but just a note about hooves: they're the horses 'nails' so follow the overall colour theme. Don't go painting them black on a chestnut or whatever. Have a look on the net for horse photographs to get the idea. In fact, have a look on the net for lots of pictures of horses to see what the real thing looks like. Google 'horse colours and markings' – probably horse markings are at least as important, of not more so. By the way, try to get the horse colours you use to match the unit(s) you're trying to represent:

  • Horse and Musket period cavalry units tried to colour match horses within squadrons, if not regiments,
  • later Napoleonic French cavalry regiments would not win the Horse of the Year show,
  • try to curb your enthusiasm for the more exotic horse colours (the bulk of regular military horses were/are bays or chestnuts),
  • same with horse markings. Some horses actually don't have any (!) and those that do tend to have a modest representation.

It's not so evident these days, but wargamers (me included) do lean towards the exotic and seem intent on developing a catalogue of rare breeds rather than 'typical' cavalry horses. O.K., soapbox back in cupboard . . .

The next step is to paint in the rest of the horse: eyes, harness etc. The thing to remember with this method is that it's a pain unless you adopt an assembly line approach. You can quite comfortably do a dozen or more horses at a time and do them in stages while you're painting the riders (or something entirely different). The oil paint dries pretty quickly so there's often no reason to have to leave the figures for a couple of days or whatever. The actual drying time is much less than this, but it can fit in nicely with real life.

Now, if you do make a complete bugger of it you can simply use the result as a guide to over-paint with acrylics like normal. Simply paint over the natural highlights with successive lighter coats. In fact this is a good way to paint horses that have more subtle detail: use the oil wash to give you a painting guide and then bash on with the acrylics. I've inserted two photos below: the ECW officer is on a horse which has had the oil wash and the ACW officer is mounted on a horse I wasn't happy with at all so I over-painted it. You've seen the photographs before, so don't get all excited!

For those not yet comatose, I'll do a catch all entry later today or tomorrow concerning various things which need to be highlighted or vented ;O) 


  1. Fecking pretty horses my friend!

  2. I have been meaning to but never actually got around to trying this method, I think you have convinced me though.
    Thanks for sharing,

  3. I think i am going to try this method.

  4. You can use a similar method to do wood grain but use an old brush instead of a cloth.
    Great post


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