15 years ago, I picked up some miniatures from the then new Lord of the Rings miniature game. I was in love with the dioramas you can recreate with hundreds of these miniatures but quickly lost interest once I realized that I am completely out of my depth when it comes to painting them. I still vividly remember trying to apply some of the various common painting techniques (dry brushing, for example) without success and getting more demotivated by the day. My biggest problem in retrospect was using way too much paint, not thinning it at all.

One way or another, I started to look into miniatures again a few weeks ago - maybe to establish a hobby away from my computer that I can more easily work on while overlooking an infant in the living room ;) These 15 years made all the difference: Of course there is a vibrant community of miniature painters on YouTube now. Back then, at 13 years old living in a remote village, there was no-one to reach out to and little opportunity for me to learn. Maybe I also just got better at following instructions.

Anyway! I picked up a Necron painting starter kit and followed Dana Howl’s excellent Hobby Basics series to paint what I consider my first few miniatures. In this post I want to show and critique the results and the process with pictures because I personally always find it difficult to see the effects of, say, dry-brushing in a video.


Before we look at the process, here is what I learned:

  1. Patience! Thin coats take some time to show an effect, but it works. If you are impatient and apply thick coats, you might as well skip the zenithal highlighting. That will then make it harder for you to introduce proper contrast.
  2. Plan your color scheme. I ended up abandoning an idea mid-paint because I wasn’t confident I could make it work. That would not have happened had I made a sketch or an overpaint of a photo. Similarly, I swapped a color out last minute because I couldn’t get it mixed (presumably because I don’t know how to mix acrylic colors yet). I don’t think this last minute change was helpful and it’s the result I’m least happy with. There is a lot to say here in general: I think my models suffer because their colors do not create enough contrast and the brightest parts don’t necessarily draw attention to where it is most appropriate (e.g. the head). Also, using yellow on a mainly black priming is just another way of asking for pain.
  3. A smaller brush is not necessarily better. I found it surprisingly hard to apply even coats using a small brush. The ideal brush size depends on what size of an area you are painting, and a large brush will make applying paint evenly easier on large areas.
  4. Contrast! I found myself going into the painting process thinking OK, contrast is super important!, then did the thing, and then realized that I had somehow forgot about it. Contrast doesn’t just happen. You have to actually plan for it. I think in retrospect I would have liked to have a clear white and a clear black paint at hand. I am not quite sure how to fix this, but I do remember that I thought the primed miniatures looked better than after the first base coat, so presumably something went wrong there and I didn’t fix it properly (ideas: more aggressive priming, thinner coats, learn to properly highlight afterwards).
  5. Highlighting is hard. I found it exceedingly difficult to see what I should highlight and why. I understand that you’d want to highlight specular reflections and can use the zenithal highlight to understand where light is most present, but there’s a difference between intellectual understanding and being able to intuitively apply it. I think this is a particular subskill that could be practiced in isolation. I will definitely look up some guides and ideas to get started.
  6. No large metallic areas. I think I would not recommend using metal paints exclusively on big parts of the model. Metals are shiny and draw attention, spreading them out just dilutes attention.
  7. Fight the sculpt. It is generally a good idea to not limit yourself by the sculpt of the model. Just because something is sculpted as a smooth area doesn’t mean you have to paint it as a contiguous area.
  8. Clean your brushes and learn how to handle them. Did you know you are not supposed to let brushes stand in water vertically? (Ruins the bristles.) Or that you should not let paint go too far up the brush? (Will break hairs.) And that there are plenty of tools available for cleaning brushes that will help you prolong the lifespan of your brushes?
  9. Experiment! I think I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much from these three models if I had chosen to paint them all in a similar color scheme.

The raw models

I bought a package containing 3 Necron warriors from Warhammer 40k, 9th edition, plus some colors. As a bit of commentary on this box: Wow did Games Workshop miss the mark here. It is obviously aimed at beginners, yet it comes without any painting instructions (like “Hey, maybe thin your colors!”). There’s a comment there that you should look at their Citadel Colors app to get help though that particular Necron figure is hard to find in the app and there is no painting scheme that corresponds to the colors in the box.

For a hobby that is already challenging to get in, I’m amazed how bad of a job this particular box is at getting anyone into it. They should instead hire some of the most excellent YouTubers to record a tutorial and place QR code on the box.

It’s worth noting that while following Dana’s tutorial, I realized that my brand new plastic glue was clogged with, well, glue. I was able to clean it using water, a small needle, and lots of patience.

Here are the models I am painting.

Black priming

Not much to say here. Black priming it is! I should point out that opening the army painter spray can requires a screw driver, and even with it you may just hurt two of your fingers. I am happy to report that even with this handicap, it is possible to continue painting. It is also pretty well visible that a black priming makes it harder to see all of the details (look at the chest plates).

Zenithal priming

Zenithal priming is the process of using a lighter color from above to simulate the conditions of natural light when the sun is at its zenith (hence the name). Note how the chest plate is still dark while the shoulder plates got a fair bit of light.

First dry-brushing

Dry brushing brings out a bunch of details. I’d like to call out the face of the first model, the chest plates on all of them, and the finer parts of the weapon.

Applying washes

I find it hard to see the difference this step made in these pictures - though keep in mind that the pictures are not a perfect representation of the models anyway. The lighting might change between pictures, so the subtle effects of Nuln Oil and other washes might be hidden. You can see some of the effects on the coil of the weapon, in the recess just between the glowing bit and the generator part. The third model’s head with its brain piece is also a good place to see the effects of the wash.

Manual highlighting

I don’t blame you if you find it hard to find any differences to the previous step. There are some small things that I manually highlighted, like the eyes and the lower part of the blade that is attached to the weapon. I struggled a lot to figure out how to meaningfully highlight things, and I think none of it survived the base coating.

Base coating

My plan was to paint the models in three different paint schemes (one red, one yellow, one blue). I figured I’d probably learn something from each of them. The first coat of color was fairly unproblematic for red (I used a Vallejo Extra Opaque Game Color). It was a struggle to make the coat thin enough to still maintain the zenithal highlight but on the other hand be convinced that I’m actually applying enough paint.

For the yellow version, I found it quite challenging to apply the yellow paint on the black primer. I think it would have been a better idea to use a lighter color as the primer. I originally had quite a strong idea for how I wanted the model to look (all yellow! with blue highlights) but somehow this clear picture immediately fainted once I started painting. It would have been an excellent idea to mock up the color scheme first. I ended up painting a coat of black over the yellow since I just couldn’t convince myself that it was good enough. At this point, the yellow one was probably my least favorite of the three.

Finally, the blue one. I wanted a night blue necron with green highlights. However, I just did not have a blue that would work and I did not manage to mix anything close to what I wanted, so I figured I might use purple instead.

A thought about this step in general: I used the brush that came with the Necron painting starter kit. I did not expect that one of the biggest problems I was hitting in the entire process is applying even coats. I reckon that a larger brush than the tiny one from the starter kit would probably do a better job.

Metals and another coat

I added another coat of the base color to the red model. Arguably that was a little bit too much in places - it does undo a bit of the work of the zenithal base coat. For the red model, I decided to paint most of the body in metal colors, leaving only the chest plate black. I was not a fan of this decision to generously use metallic paints. I later covered the metal in Nuln Oil, which markedly improved things, but I probably wouldn’t use a metallic color on large areas of a model in future.

For the yellow model, I completely dropped the initial idea. At this point, I was just lost. I figured I might as well try orange instead. That turned out to be a good decision. While the model still looks pretty crappy at this point, it will improve and it was nice to see that you can actually correct errors easily.

The purple one only had its inner body parts painted in a metallic silver. I think it actually works quite nicely. I wasn’t too concerned about this model at that point.

Also note that most of the weapon parts are now black.

Glow, more color, and details

This step marks a nice step up from what I had before. I added the blue I originally had planned for the yellow model to the red one. I did experiment a little bit with placing manual highlights on the weapons, though I would have loved to do some wet blending there instead. I just didn’t realize that was an option. The blue works very nicely on the red model and at this point I was sure I’d be happy with the final result.

The orange model, previously yellow, was still giving me trouble. I decided to use a darker green for the highlights to contrast the orange. This worked nicely, but the model only really came together for me once I realized that I can do whatever I like to the model! There’s no reason not to just add little bits of color in places where no details are sculpted. I experimented with adding green highlights to the head of the model and immediately loved it. Maybe the other random green bits of color on the body are unnecessary and don’t add as much, but I don’t hate them either. This saved the model for me.

The purple one was pretty straight forward: I just applied the tesseract glow technical paint to see how it would work. I don’t hate the result, but it lacks some personality.

In all of the three cases I felt that I would benefit from a pure white color for highlighting. I have since added one to my pallette. I’m curious to see how that goes.

More dry brushing and washes

After my revelation about doing whatever I like, I added a splash of blue to the red model’s face. What a success! As on the other models, I painted some of the remaining unpainted details with the bronze metallic that comes with the Necron painting box. I actually quite like it. In general, I think the model turned out great. I like the colors and the zenithal priming still shows through a little bit.

The orange model really benefitted from some dry-brushing. The face looks way more interesting. I am amazed that this model turned out so nicely, compared to all of the headache it caused me.

Now for the purple one. It’s OK, I guess? At this point I’d say its main problem is low contrast. The purple doesn’t really hit hard enough. I also managed to screw it up some more with dry brushing. Turns out that when you are not careful you might get paint further up in the brush, and even when you brush off the tip you can still ruin your model when you dry brush too hard (because you’ll leak paint from the back part of the brush). It’s been the model that I had the least concerns with going into this, but in the end I find it the weakest of the three, by far.

Basing and finishing

Finally, basing and some last minute changes. The base is just a generous coat of Astrogranite (seriously Games Workshop: how can you ship a beginner paint kit with two technical paints in there but no painting guide?) with an Agrax Earthshade wash plus some dry brushing. I also painted in a slight drop shadow below the model.

The last minute changes mostly affect the purple model. I gave it another coat of purple (plus dry brushing and washes). At this point, none of the priming shows through anymore. I didn’t like the look, so I painted the shoulder plates yellow. It didn’t help. For now, I’m cutting my losses with this model, take the learnings, and will move on.