Freehanding – A Look At My Process

The most common question I’ve been asked in the last week as I’ve been prepping my Knight Tyrant to lead my army at the Tacoma Open is “How do you even start something like this?” and my answer has been a dissatisfying “you start with some basic shapes and then refine from there”.

I decided that I could skip homework for a morning and write up a workflow so that when I get asked that question in the future, I have a better answer, which is what this is going to be.

Couple quick things. First, I’m going to include the paints that I used in this specific project, but I’m not going to talk about when I used them or why I used them. Color theory is its own topic and I am not comfortable discussing how and why I choose colors since most of the time it’s something like “this looks right”.

Second, I painted the entire thing with a Rosemary and Co. Series 33 Size Zero brush, except the first few steps which were painted with a Rosemary and Co. Series 33 Size One brush. These are easily accessible in Europe and most parts of the world, and they have a single company stocking them in the USA, linked here. I’ve been very impressed with these, especially for the price.

Paint List:

ProAcryl Dark BlueProAcryl Burnt Sienna
ProAcryl Burnt OrangeProAcryl Jade
ProAcryl TurquoiseProAcryl Bold Pyrrhic Red
ProAcryl OrangeProAcryl Golden Yellow
ProAcryl PlumVallejo White
Vallejo BlackFormula P3 Beaten Purple
Formula P3 Cygnar BaseKimera Kolors Magenta

As you can see by my pallet, this is a messy, mix heavy process. The red square is the section I used when painting this segment of the greave.

With that in mind let’s get going.

The first and most critical thing to find when starting a freehand is a piece of art to follow. I’m not a good enough 2d artist to make my own art and then follow that, so I tend to use existing pieces of 40k artwork and then miniaturize them. I bounced back and forth between several options for this Bloodthirster panel, and ultimately settled here due to the incredible composition and color contrast.

I made some mental alterations immediately – I wasn’t going to paint all the extra guys or the army in the way background – but the core of demon, character, and a split background of tawny colors to blues would stay.

Speaking of background, this is pretty much where I always start, roughing in colors over black primer to set largely where I think the tones should be.

Spoilers: I was way off in this one and I had to go back later and fix it, but that happens.

In this picture I had already started adding in the big shapes for the stone/ice shards before I decided to take pictures.

Speaking of the grey shards, it’s a good time to make a couple of points about freehanding – when it comes down to it, most everything is made up of triangles, circles, ovals, or lines. Notice here how the big ice/rock shards are all pretty much triangles on their sides for the top basic shape.

Adding more definition to the shapes with darker colors, things are still basically triangles, but for the shapes that aren’t I often make a line delineating the edge and then fill in the rest of the area with that color.

Using my reference picture as a guide, I’ve now gone in and added detail to the triangles of grey with some lighter colors and with some darker colors. This is a back and forth process that I’m going to be playing with in almost every instance because it’s absurdly difficult to get something perfect with the first brush stroke at this scale, so going back and destructively shrinking the area of the bright color with a darker tone is a useful tool.

Even though this looks complex, almost every single stroke there is either a straight or straight adjacent line or some kind of triangle, and they are just very carefully put next to each other to create the impression of rocky or icy terrain.

Now that the background is largely done (again, it wasn’t, but we’ll get to that), I sketch in the major portions of the Daemon body. This can be done with a micron pen if you feel uncomfortable using a paintbrush for thin lines like this. (Good Brush Control exercise – sign your name with a small paintbrush several times a day).

This is a good point at which to talk about paint thinness and composition. First, at this scale, paint that doesn’t flow very easily is effectively useless. Paint will need thinning down to nearly water consistency in order to be precise. Also, wet blending on a scale this small is extremely difficult, and I would recommend letting each layer of paint dry fully before adding more layers of paint on top.

Composition wise, I’ve moved the Daemon closer to the place where the hero will be and kind of slanted some of the proportions up and thinner so that it makes sense in context of the taller, thinner panel area. This is a choice you will have to make most of the time, as it is rare that the aspect ratio of your reference art will exactly match the place you want to paint. A good tool for this until you can eyeball it is either the crop tool on your phone to get a frame that is about the right proportions, or a warp tool in photoshop/gimp to see where and how things can still look okay if distorted slightly.

Nothing too special about this, adding in the main shape for the character opposing the hero Daemon in black using more triangles and lines.

Actually, let us break this down carefully.

As you can see with my photoshop assist, the character is basically five triangles right now that sort of get smoothed together.

I start working on the first wing because it honestly requires the least amount of “figuring out where things go”, and I find that if I can get through the first big piece of a painting successfully, I am motivated to keep going.

Side note – this is a really important thing to understand about the human animal, small goal completion gives you a dopamine hit, and dopamine in addition to making you feel good has some effect on your energy system to help you push forward.

I always start with the most extreme edge highlights on a surface for spindly things like this because I can always go back and cut into them with the dark color later.

After getting the triangles (see? they’re everywhere) of the wing membranes established with the edge highlights of the fingers, I block in the major colors. Most of them have two ish tones making up the shadow and highlight area, and getting the approximate shape of the color blocks is what we are aiming for here.

Looking at the reference photo, we can see the light area of the second membrane triangle is also a triangle and the dark area is…also…a triangle. Getting those rough shapes in there will help make it look correct faster than fretting about each individual nook and cranny of the shading.

I also added the talons at the ends of the wing fingers here.

At this point I went in and started figuring out where the rest of the colors need to go. The Daemon is a mix of pinks, reds, and warm purples. The little hero is some combinations of icy blue and royal blue. These are pretty much all just blobs of color at this point, following the theme of triangles, circles, and lines.

Here I’ve “finished” the left side wing. You can see the contrast is better and the shapes of the fingers are more refined and accurate. I also started working on the left arm, which you can see I’ve started with the lightest purple tones in sort of a “this is a bicep and this is a deltoid” shape. There’s a cool glowing blue tattoo in the original art, I will not be adding that to the picture. If it was 50% bigger I might be able to, but this is really small.

Here I’ve added some shadows to the left side arm and put a nice stripe of bright red where his vambrace is going to be. This is actually where I noticed I’d made a pretty major error in the background.

See I had been trying to shade the underside of the left side arm to get it to pop against the background like the concept art does, and I’d gotten to the point where I was using pure black and it STILL was not working.

Then I looked at the picture and saw how far the orange/rusty background extended into the picture, smacked my forehead, and started adding it. It’s reasonably rough in this image here, but I slowly glaze that down to smooth it a bit later and there’s also a fire trail that goes across it to help as well.

Point being here, don’t be afraid to drop what you are currently doing to fix a structural problem that will haunt you repeatedly.

Continuing with my theme of “figure out a thing and then refine it”, I’ve added the rough shape of the armor panels with bright red. I don’t know if this is the best way to handle it, but I really do find that anytime I want to add something to a freehanded piece, the easiest way for my brain to handle it is to make it as glaring as possible and then refine from there.

Speaking of which, I’ve added some shading blobs and some lines to differentiate between where different overlapping panels should be.

And then used some thinned down orange to block in where the trim needs to be. Yes, this part is annoying, and yes, those lines are a little too thick in places.

Fortunately, we can go back in with the red colors and push the boundary of the red back against the “gold” so that the lines get thinner.

I also started blocking in the face here, again using the brightest colors to define the two little brow horns and then the two BIG horns. I’ve opted not to include the nifty little skull icon between the horns as I do not trust myself to get the intense contrast needed to show if off as metallic in there at this scale.

I then used the pale blue to edge highlight the ridges of the face. This was mostly looking at the reference art for where the placement needed to be to sell the effect.

For the eyes of the Daemon, I first blacked out the area I wanted them to be, then put a dot of red, and a smaller dot of orange. It doesn’t look at all correct yet because it’s a circle and the artwork has a much more angular eye.

But once again, going back in with the black to refine the shape helps correct the error. I’ve also added the handle of the axe and edge highlighted it with the pale blue to make it stand out.

I moved on to the right side of the panel, blocking in colors for the arm and the new wing membranes. Once again, approximately the right color in approximately the right place here is what will sell the effect. I also went ahead and added some colors and shadows to the legs. I think right around here I stopped taking quite so frequent pictures because the processes stay largely the same.

I got out the black to block in the axe head and then also outlined the whip and the straps from his belt at the same time. I outline the front edge of the axe with a lighter gray so I could see it better.

In this step, the axe got a stronger edge highlight on the places that would face the bright blue source of light. I also refined the edge highlights on the right panel side membrane wings with some orange and figured out the decorations of the right panel vambrace.

At this point, I was ready to add in the flaming trail off the axe. I did this first with not quite the brightest color I wanted to be able to add some variation inside the flames.

Next, I glazed some red over the areas to simulate a glow effect.

Re-Traced the area with the original orange again – note how much it improves the overall look and sells the idea that it’s glowing.

And then finally punched up the contrast with some bright yellow in strategic places.

Next, it was time to work on the little (and soon to be dead) human. This step refines the shapes of the cloak and robe, adds the ice crown, and with a thin glaze start to create the glow around the sword. I also added a little warm looking splotch for the face, and that is all the detail I’m going to add on the figure. It’s small, it’ll be surrounded by ice, and the Daemon is the focus anyway.

Continuing with the glaze theme, I block in all the areas I want to be glowing ice shards. Throughout this whole process, it’s consistently the same – start with the broad shape, add details on top, refine using darker tones to bring it into the background properly.

For the ice, I placed a bunch of thin, short lines with the light blue. Thin paint is a must here, and not too much on the paintbrush either.

Finally, add some tiny dots of pure white to the different shards to simulate highlights and the freehand portion of the piece is done!

Finally, I blocked in the NMM trim to simulate how the piece is going to look when done.

I hope this was a useful look into freehanding a complex piece such as this dramatic scene, if you have questions or comments please feel free to leave them below, and thanks for reading!

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