Friday, 15 January 2016

On Being Shiny

Der Kriegspieler and Hinton Hunt Napoleonic Infantry and Artillery
Types of the French and Bavarian Armies.

One of the things I'm most frequently asked is: "why all the shininess?", swiftly followed by: "so how do you get them so shiny anyway?"

I could waffle on for ages about why I opted for a high-gloss finish, but all it really boils down to is that I like them that way and it's the way I've always done it. Why I like them that way is for three main reasons.

The first is nostalgia: it is what the very first soldiers I ever saw looked like.

The second is bloody mindedness: I've always had a bit of a contrarian streak and occasionally like to do things because they are unfashionable.

The last, and by far the most important, is that it looks great! A gloss finish will make even the most pedestrian painting suddenly start to look altogether more glamorous.

What is all this wizardry?
There are other reasons too, of course. A gloss finish is arguably more in keeping with vintage Napoleonics, and a couple of coats provide a tremendous amount of protection for figures destined for quite extensive handling. But it is the aesthetics that are the main thing as far as I'm concerned. I like my toys to look like toys, and I like them to look like the very old-fashioned toys that they are too.

Pictured is one of the very last figures I painted before I took up with Hinton Hunts. He was painted in about 1983, when I was seventeen, for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game that a small group of the more miserable and lonely of us used to play during the lunch hours at Cherwell Comprehensive School in Oxford. I painted him this way because I had a pot of purple Humbrol paint that I couldn't find any other use for. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament symbol was meant to be a kind of back-handed, ironic statement about how deeply and irredeemably uncool we were compared to just about everybody else in the 6th Form. What really enraged my fellow AD&D comrades (who were a rather Thatcherite bunch), however, was not the leftist symbolism but the fact that I'd made him all shiny. They thought it was dreadfully unrealistic. I still laugh about this.

Drago the Magnificent (for it is he) was varnished with a plain old Humbrol Gloss varnish which has stood up rather well, but then he has spent all but about three weeks of the last 33 years in total darkness. Nowadays I use something that looks altogether more advanced:

It is Winsor & Newton "Artisan" Water Mixable Oil Gloss Varnish. I buy it from a local art shop. It only comes in quite small bottles, unfortunately, and it's quite expensive. The bottles are also very easy to tip over, as happened to me a couple of times. I now decant the things into a sturdy jar.

I use two coats. I find that it adds tremendous depth and contrast to the colours on my DKs and Hinton Hunts. Black, for example, goes really black, and it makes reds, whites and yellows positively glow. 

I give the first coat half a day to dry before adding the second and it takes quite a while to dry out properly. Although you can handle the figures after a couple of hours, it doesn't really dry out for a week. When it does, however, it dries very hard and provides a really tough protective coating for the troops. It stiffens muskets, flags and other bendy bits pretty well too. It also provides UV protection, according to the bottle, and doesn't yellow with age. Brushes are washed out with water.

It has no adverse effects on Humbrol enamels, and the ever troublesome metallics remain absolutely solid. It does, however, tend to make water-soluble inks run. As a result I have a second, oil-based gloss varnish that I use to dab onto any areas where I've used inks (such as white waistcoats and flags). A word of warning: I've no idea how it behaves with acrylics!

Der Kriegspieler and Hinton Hunt Napoleonic Infantry and Artillery
Types of the Prussian Army.
Yours, as ever



  1. Interesting read Matt, thank you.

    Keep it shiny!

    1. Thank you, 'Lee! I was met with something close to ridicule when I first declared my intent. Not the done thing at all these days!

    2. Never a aman to strike a blow for fashion ;) all my minis are painted in either gloss or satin varnish. I used to pain matte but I think that gloss/satin adds a lovely rich depth to the colours. Even my WW1 aircraft have a satin finish :)

  2. A great post Matt (or should I say "shiny"?). You're right about the way the gloss brings a figure to life and I can remember the transformation it gave to my poorly painted 1970s Hinton Hunts when applied. When I started my current HH project everyone was using matt varnish and I felt that satin was as far as I dared go. Thank you for reminding me of the true way...

    1. Mr Shiny is the seemingly menacing head of a Trollish mafia gang in the Terry Pratchett novels, isn't he? I like the sound of it.

      On re-reading this I realise that I've been grossly misrepresentative of the Cherwell School AD&D Society. They were brilliant blokes. The games we played were all gloriously silly and tongue-in-cheek and very effective in keeping away the night terrors as we approached the dreaded A-level finals.