Painting for the Tabletop, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the brush.

We all want pretty armies to play with, but painting an entire army can be intimidating. Doby from Art Dragon and Kav from Wayward Brush Studio are incredible painters who give incredible advice for painting display quality models.

Display quality isn’t feasible however when you have to paint an entire army.

It works great for key models, but when you have to paint multiple squads of infantry for games like 40k or Bolt Action you need another approach. An approach called tabletop quality.

Models on the tabletop are usually viewed from about 50 cm away and the only models people will ask to see up close and personal are your centerpiece models. Ultramarine  Intercessor Cassius Augustus and Rookie Soviet Infantryman Dimitri Volkov will be admired from a distance no matter how lovingly you named them. Finely blended layers of highlights on their cloth pieces and the reflection of light in their eyes will be lost. 

The first thing you need to do then is to accept that after the majority of your models are painted, they will rarely be examined closely again. 

This is OK.

Go have a glass of beer and break the news to yourself. Once you process the 5 stages of grief, continue on to the rest of this article.


The good news is that we paint armies. Armies have uniforms or are composed of critters that look enough alike. That means each squad or unit can be painted in a similar fashion.

Examine a model for the squad and note the key parts of the model. We’ll use the Rubric Marines from one of my previous articles for that.

Each marine consists of the following:

  • Blue armour
  • A gold trim  
  • White cloth
  • Weapons
  • Skull details
  • Gems
  • Helmeted eyes

Now we break down each component into a base, wash, and highlight. The advent of Contrast paints from Games Workshop meant that we can even combine the base and wash into one.

The colour recipe then becomes:

  • Blue armour – Talassar Blue Contrast, with Thousand Sons Blue Highlight
  • A gold trim  – Base Gold, with a Reikland Flesh Wash and a Gold Highlight
  • White cloth – Skeleton Bone, with Apothecary White Contrast and Ivory Highlight 
  • Weapons – Boltgun Metal, with Nuln Oil Wash and Chainmail Highlight
  • Skull details- Skeleton Bone Base, Agrax Earthshade with Skeleton Bone Highlight 
  • Gems – Talassar Blue Contrast, with Lothern Blue Highlights
  • Helmeted eyes – Talassar Blue Contrast, with Lothern Blue Highlights

Try to limit the number of colours needed as well. In our example, we use a total of 12 colours to paint the squad. Resist the urge to do layering and more than basic highlights, very few people will notice them. Make a note somewhere on this pattern so you can duplicate it for similar squads.

The paint needed

 If either of the gentlemen mentioned previously suggest adding another highlight or blended layer, ignore them respectfully and make a note of what you can do to make the unit leader pop. Our goal is to have an army that looks great on the tabletop, but doesn’t take forever to paint. The good news is that if you try to work as neatly as possible, the practice you get will help you when you paint to centerpieces with the techniques from the pros.

Break the squad up into smaller batches 5 – 10 models make a good batch and get ready to paint. 

A batch of Rubric Marines

Put on some music or a series you don’t need to concentrate on while you refill your water containers and such.

Look for areas where the colours align, e.g. the Skeleton Bone and Talassar Blue Contrast and paint all the areas that need that colour at the same time across the batch.  In most bases when you reach the last model, the first model is dry and ready for the next coat.

As with most things, the more you do, the quicker you’ll get and soon you’ll have a decent looking army. Sure Cassius and Dimitri won’t win you any painting competitions, but your army will look great on the table when you play.

For most of us in the end, that’s enough.