Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Dip It (Dip It Good)

I've become a devotee of the "dip method" for rapid army painting. I have seen the light and shan't be looking back. I know several gamers who are dippers. I've scrutinized their results and found them to be a delight to the eyes. But I've been hesitant to adopt it because it's such a departure from my traditional method. Old habits die hard, as the saying goes. I've also been reluctant to adopt a "quick 'n' dirty" method, simply because it seems like a cheat.

My traditional method developed over years with only incremental changes. It involves an intricate combination of highlighting, shading, and washing and can be painstakingly slow. As a result, my output over the years has been pitiful. I have many projects that are started but stalled. I have boxes of figures that have been cleaned and primed for painting—or partially painted—and then left to languish. Motivation is certainly a problem, no matter what painting method I use, but the knowledge that I'm facing a slow, painstaking process to get figures painted is no aid to motivation.

When I really concentrate on a figure, I'm very happy with the results. My test case for painting the stalled 1672 project is based on a Swedish uniform color from the Scanian War. It represents the best I can do with my traditional method, although for painting large numbers of figures, it's prohibitively slow, so the units I've already painted for the project use a bit more streamlined process.

Sätt i gång! (fire away!)
Note: The slightly bent musket is post-painting damage from when my evil cat Maebh the Merciless, batted it off the shelf and played floor hockey with it.

When I finally got to the point of trying the dip, I thought about a long-stalled batch of 12 Thirty Years War musketeers, a drummer, and an officer from The Assault Group range. These are beautifully sculpted figures and I wanted to do them justice with a great paint job, but after starting them, I shelved them for years because a) I'm lazy, and b) I didn't want to launch into a solo Thirty Years War project. However, a group of gamers down at The Panzer Depot have been working on a big communal TYW project, so my efforts can supplement that with a tercio or two. The time is right.

So what is the dip method? It's basically using Minwax Polyshades Tudor wood stain to do instant "miracle" shading on figures that are otherwise just blocked out in solid colors (i.e., not shaded or highlighted).

In my lead-up to dipping, I've thought a lot about the mechanics of it. While many dippers actually dip, most use a brush. Actually dipping the figure, apart from getting it all over your hands, requires a lot of flicking to get rid of the excess. Too much stain and you've got a discolored blob. Having watched Steve Puffenberger dip and flick a pile of figures, I decided that's too much work and would probably give me tennis elbow or something. So I opted for brushing.

The trick while painting for the dip is to refrain, despite all temptation, to do anything more than solid colors (although highlighting is up for reconsideration in some cases). That's what speeds it up.

The method also removes detailed face-painting from the process. What to do about faces has always been my downfall. For the dip, I just use my base coat of Howard's Hues Ruddy Flesh and leave it. No sepia wash and detailed eyes. Thank goodness. My hands have never been steady and I'm already using 3x magnifiers to paint with. Any method that produces satisfactory results without painting eyeballs on 28mm figures is OK by me.

Pre-dip blocked out in solid colors
After all the colors were blocked in for the figures, I gave them a spritz of dullcote as final prep for dipping. My impression was that at this point it was an OK paint job, pretty much as when I started painting minis 40 years ago.

With the figures ready to go, I still hestated. I thought of doing one figure and seeing whether I would just ruin it. But after a few days of hestitating, I bit the bullet and went into my garage on Saturday morning with my figures, a can of Minwax Tudor stain, and a brush.

I started with an officer figure in a buff coat. The stain was thinner than I expected (I'd stirred it with a little wooden paddle for a while before brushing it on). It oozed and flowed and puddled into the nooks an crannies of the figure. It also made the detail pop amazingly. I wicked out some excess here and there using the brush and looked on what I'd done. I liked it. With my fears of ruination ameliorated, I went on to the other 13 figures.

The stain dries very glossy. On the recommendation of John of the Panzer Depot, a true dipper himself, I let the stained figures dry for 24 hours before giving them another spritz of dullcote.

The results are very satisfying. The stain darkens the colors overall--not surprisingly. Some would say that the colors become dark and grimy. I think you can counter that by the colors you use. Brighter colors stand out more, but even the darker colors are OK if you go into it understanding that the colors will be some degree darker.

First batch post-dip, post-dullcote
Thoughts on the process

I need to do a bit more wicking away of the stain puddles, I think. I might experiment with a hybrid flick 'n' wick. Even though brushing lets me control how much stain is applied, the stain still puddles like crazy.

I wonder if using a satin or even a gloss coat before dipping would reduce the darkening of the colors. I assume that dullcote has more "tooth" than gloss and therefore keeps more of the stain on its surface. The stain may repel a bit more from glossy or semi-gloss surfaces. I'll have to give it a try.

I think that for some colors that are applied on large areas, like uniform coats, a drybrushed highlight might also help make the post-dip colors brighter.

I might also tend toward lighter colors, which I could get by mixing in a drop or two of white when I'm mixing the paint. I also think that using thinned paints to get a heavy wash will self-highlight to some extent. (I use white primer, so the substrate for the wash lightens the color.)

Online resources

I've found a few places online--though I'm sure there are many more--that offer some advice about the dip:
The future

I'm well-committed to the Thirty Years War project. I've had a large number of figures sitting around for a long time and I just acquired many more. As soon as my recent orders arrive, I'll have enough figures to do two large tercios, two units of dismounted dragoons, three heavy/medium guns, two light guns, two commanded musketeer units, and various command figures.

I've also got many more candidates for dipping. All those primed or partially painted figures imprisoned in boxes can be set free!

I have a lot of single-mounted figures for English Civil War skirmish gaming that are primed and ready. These are Renegade and Bicorne figures, which are BIG 28s (more like 30s). My plan was to do my best traditional method on them, but now I'm thinking that the dip may be the best way to go. I've completed two figures, a Royalist musketeer and a Scots musketeer to see how the dip works for them. Single figures tend to get looked at more closely, so I'm a bit more sensitive to painting them well.

Renegade ECW blocked and ready to dip
There's also the buckets of medieval figures that I have and a big, big box of 28mm Dixon American Civil War figures. (Talking with Kevin Smyth the other day, he's mentioned wanting to paint up his big box of 28mm ACW for Regimental Fire and Fury...)

So, now I've got my marching orders:

When a project comes along
You must dip it
Before the figures sit too long
You must dip it
When the paintin's goin' wrong
You must dip it

Dip it, pilgrim. Dip it good.


  1. They look great! I saw the light and started dipping this year as well. Went from 80 figs painted in 2014 to 300 odd this year. Still not earthshaking, but a big improvement, and without much appreciable drop in quality, I'm ashamed to say!

    Good luck with your projects and happy dipping!


  2. Beautiful job and fantastic details on these figures!

  3. Using the dip (brush) method is great for doing a lot of figures. Especially if (like me) you aren't a great figure painter. Hopefully it will help clear out your closet some.