Bloody Birds, Free Hand, and Video Games

September 20, 2004

It was a coldish day and I, as a young high school graduate, was doing what a stereotypical high school grad would do: Nothing. In the years since my mother’s passing, I had dived deep into video games, using the hobby to escape and stay connected to my brother. My nights consisted of World of Warcraft and my days were occupied with sleeping and not much else. 

My brother and I tried very hard to spend time together. We found Dawn of War, a Warhammer 40K real-time strategy game (RTS). At first, it appealed to our love of StarCraft. We saw the scenario as: “What if the fantasy races of Dungeons and Dragons jumped 40,000 years into the future?” 

Boy, that game did not let us down.

Fast forward to the release of Warhammer 40K: Leviathan, 10th Edition. I hit a roadblock painting Space Marines. I liked the Black Templars, but I wanted to do something new, something I had not seen anyone else do.

Inspiration hit me when I was cleaning out an old junk drawer and I found the manual to Dawn of War: Blood Ravens. I could paint my space marines like the Blood Ravens. Some quick internet searches revealed some people had tried this technique, but not many. There were jokes about how Space Marines were super space-nerds because they had the highest count of librarians out of all the chapters. There were other jokes about how they were horrid kleptomaniacs, stealing everything. Even the jokes about them being called magpies were not lost on me. 

And so, I committed. I stripped all my Black Templars that were not sculpted to be Black Templars. Then, I re-primed them and set them aside, ready to be painted as Blood Ravens. I have painted the Captain in Terminator armor, Lieutenant with Combi-Weapon, Apothecary Biologis, five Terminators, and the Ballistus Redemptor all as Blood Ravens. 

This endeavor presented a unique painting challenge.

I am a fast painter and an accomplished artist. My volume output is abundant, as others often tell me. Additionally, my standards are high for painting. I dislike producing janky paint jobs, yet my painting has a chunky choppiness to it. I paint for aesthetics, so you can enjoy looking at the models on the table. My models are not designed for up close, in-your-face inspections. That being said, I wanted to push my painting skills.

I have been drawing since I could hold a pencil. I wanted to incorporate my other art skills with my newer painting skills. Many people will say they are the same thing, but they are not. The skills to draw on paper or a tablet are not transferable to the skills to paint with a brush on 3D objects. Specifically, the brush part adds a new layer of difficulty. Therefore, I set out to push myself and learn something new: freehand. 

Freehand painting is a monster in itself. The technique differs from drawing with a pencil or pen. See, with those tools, the tip of your instrument does not bend. Brushes bend, making the process difficult for me to perfect. Controlling a paintbrush to either not bend at all or to bend in the exact way you need is a learning process. 

It was rough at first. The Ballistus Dreadnought was first on my to-do list but it took a while. I had to strip and repaint the Dreadnought’s panels 3 or 4 times until I achieved the desired artwork on the sides. 

And I was hooked!

Now, to get to my real reason for this article: I am going to be documenting my processes for painting a Blood Raven’s Redemptor Dreadnought. He is built and primed, but before I get going on my painting, there are a few things I prefer to do first.

First, I glued my model to the base while fully built. No sub-assemblies. Over the past 3 years of painting models, I have concluded that sub-assemblies can often be more of a hindrance than a helper. Since I am not painting for Golden Demon (maybe one day)I made a decision: If I cannot see an item on the table, I am not painting it. The Redemptor is pretty open to begin with and there is not much on the model I cannot reach. I also glued the tomb in place along with the Redemptor doors. These doors cannot open. I also added a Macro Plasma Incinerator. I know the guns can be held in place by friction, but honestly, I will eventually get another Redemptor. Maybe I can magnetize that one. 

I also glued The Redemptor to the base without cork or anything else under his feet. I have lately been embracing the “less is more” route for basing. I still want some drama and lore in my models, so I placed bricks, skulls, and other detritus around the Redemptor. Still, he is firmly attached to the base. And that is done; he is ready to go. 

As a side note, I decided what I am painting for the Redemptor’s free hand. I found an amazing stock photo on Google depicting a raven with Norse runes dangling from its wing tips. This image inspired me to create a raven with his wings spread and blood falling from his wings. I am placing this art on my model’s shoulder above the Redemptor Fist. I am not sure what to paint on the Redemptor’s other shoulder yet. I will burn that bridge when we get there.

Here is my process:

  • Step 1 – Lead Belching goodness… And some contrasting opinions!

The first step is a simple one. I painted the under-body of the Redemptor with lead belcher. Many tout the merits of priming the entire model with lead belcher, but I feel this process creates more work. For some reason, the lead belcher spray makes the entire model too smooth. I have to spray it with varnish afterward so the next layers of paint will not stick. I do not thin my metallic paints as I prefer the paint to be as close to “out of the pot” as possible. I do use a wet pallet, though. I use a Masterson Sta-Wet Palette. It is cheap and easy to use. Maybe someday I will upgrade to a nicer one.

Next, I took Ratling Grime and thinned it down to use it as a wash. This results in a wash similar to the old Nuln Oil Wash. I like how this made the metal look, and I have been using rattling grime this way for all my Ravens. It simply works. This mindset is a theme in a lot of my work: I use contrast paint in ways other than how it was designed.

I used to hate contrast. I thought people who used it were bad painters. I thought it was cheap, cheating, and a crutch for people who did not know how to paint well. Then I saw Juan Hidalgo’s painting series, “Eavy Contrast” on YouTube. (If you have not watched this series, go now. Stop reading this and go watch). Juan demonstrates contrast game changers in every one of his videos.

I now see contrast painting as a tool with many different uses and applications. Again, we can use these products in ways other than how Game Works advertises them. I specifically like to use them for blending. On my Blood Ravens, I used Baal Red Contrast as the final step in painting my red.

  • Step 2 – Red, why did it have to be red?

Red is a crazy color. It is one of the primary colors, meaning you cannot mix any other colors to create red. As such, it can be a sort of diva, refusing to play well with others. If white is placed under red, or if even a small bit gets mixed, everything turns pink. If you put black under it, the black shines through, leaving the red looking like splotchy poop. If you then try to layer on more red, you’ll have thick layers hiding your model’s details along with the poopy splotches under the red. 

Red is very translucent and can be a pain in the butt to work with until you learn how to seduce the powers of red to bend in your favor. The weakness of red is also its strength. Red allows other colors under it to show through. You can build red up layer by layer to reach a richer, more vibrant color. All it takes is layers and patience.

To start, I layer on Mephiston Red. I make sure to do two thin coats. However, lately, I have abandoned smooth even layers. Instead, I leave a little black showing through. I use Pro Acryl’s Pyrrole Red for the next layer. I make sure to get a solid even coat of this layer in places I want to highlight. I decide which areas on the model get the most direct light. These areas always receive the brightest red. I do not like edge highlighting and tend to do it less, but this model needs it to pop. The armor panels on the top of the torso armor are pure red with no shadows; just bright, vibrant red. Panels facing away from the light source are dominantly Mephiston Red. 

Next, I use Wild Rider Red and I edge highlight. I know I said I don’t like to do edges, and I don’t. Why? Because edge highlighting is not a real-world thing. Sure, some super reflective materials might naturally have a highlight on the edge, but this does not happen that often in reality. Once this step is done, I take a mix of 50/50 Troll Slayer Orange/Wild Rider and go over places where the edges might be in more direct light. I repeat this step with Flash Gitz yellow, but I use it very sparingly, only highlighting corners and rivets.

The last part of this step brings the colors together. I take Baal Red Contrast paint and thin it down. Then, I cover everything in red, and I do mean 100% of anything red. This has the effect of blending all the red layers together. It tints the oranges and yellows to make the red armor more red. The Pyrrole red paint increases in vibrancy. It is like turning the red all the way up to 11 Then I touch up any edge highlights that need it.

  • Step 3: The Creamy Shoulders

The Blood Ravens have a creamy color on their shoulder armor. So for the Redemptor, and all my Blood Ravens, I paint from the black back up to the cream color. Here is how I do it.

First, I paint the shoulders with a smooth layer of Rhinox Hide. Then, I paint over that with Zandri Dust. Depending on how “CLEAN” I want the shoulders to look, I take Ratling Grime, thin it down, and use it as a shade. I am messy with this shade. I let it pool, go over it without letting it dry, and tear it. I mess this shade up to give the cream sections a more used look. Before this coat is fully dry, I blend back up to Zandri Dust and start mixing in Arid Earth by Army Painter. Basically, I highlight the spheres of the shoulders. When I decide I like the layer, I leave it alone.

  • Step 4: Free-hand and Deck-Alls

This step is one of the hardest to describe because it is a step that I do without a process. Honestly, there is no real process to it at all. My best suggestion is something I learned in Squidmar’s videos:  “Paint Bravely”. 

First and foremost this is just plastic and paint. If you mess it up, you can always strip and redo everything. You can even apply primer over the previous work and restart. Loosen up and lighten up. If this is something you want to do, do it. Put the brush on the model and get a picture on there. This is honestly where drawing skills help. There are tons of videos about how to freehand on the internet. I suggest pouring over videos if you want. 

However, this step is about opening yourself up to making mistakes and doing things wrong. Freehand is difficult for many and it often gets messed up. You are going to fail at it. Unless you are some kind of wunderkind making DaVinci-level art, you are not always going to do it right. And that, friends, is ok.

In fact, messing things up is ok at all levels of this process. Failure is one of the greatest teachers in this hobby. It is ok to fail. Learn from your mistakes and grow. Do not expect to get everything correct right from the start. Painting is a skill that you must practice. If you think you are going to create top-tier art only by watching videos, I am very sorry to inform you that is not going to work. Practice gets you to the top. You need to put that brush on the model often. To be quite honest not a lot of people want to hear that. They want a quick fix, a speed method. There is a place for this mindset: if you just want to get armies on the table with a basecoat and three colors, more power to you. Get it done. There is nothing wrong with staying at that level. But if you want to push this hobby and make it “art,” practice is what you have to do.

  • Step 5: All about that base…

… the base of the model. Sometimes this step is just slapping on some texture paint and putting in a shade. But for me, I feel the base is just as important to the model as the model itself. The base solidifies the story of the model. Is this a Space Marine trudging through some blackened char earth? Is this an undead skeleton popping out of the desert sand? No matter what your model is I feel it should have a small story to it, even if that story is as simple as the model marching, pulling a gun, and BANG!

At the start of my painting journey, I did pile on cork layer after cork layer. My Instagram holds the proof when you look at the first Space Marines I did. Wow, that is a lot. I now take a “less is more” kind of approach. I do not put models on cork anymore unless it is for a special reason or I need the model to stand out. I might use cork for the sergeant or champion of a unit. 

Characters get more care to the base than rank-and-file troops. For example, the Redemptor in this article is not a character. He is simply another Redemptor, a fallen space marine placed in the dreadnought coffin to keep fighting another day. His base involves a little more than glue down and texture paint. All I did was add larger rocks, Styrofoam bricks, and a couple of skulls. These additional details make it look like the Redemptor is marching through a battlefield where buildings are blown up.

There is some variation of height on the base too. The back of the model has two bricks, one leaning on the other. There is a giant hole in one of the bricks. Sometimes some texture paint is all you need for these smaller additions. You can then take your details a little further, add some shade, do a drybrush, and put a little spice into the base. You’ll be surprised how a little bit goes a long way.

A little note here: I do all my base work at the beginning of the project so that I do not have a chance to mess up my model’s paint job. The only thing I leave until the end is tufts and such.

  • Step 6: Done

And with those 5 easy steps, the Redemptor is done! I know there is a lot of information here but don’t be discouraged. This model took me about five days to complete. I am still learning how to improve and grow my painting. Never stop learning. Dive into the hobby. Some people that I watch regularly are Vince Venturella, Miniac, Ninjon, Squidmar, Sam Lenz, Goober Town Hobbies, and more. There is a gold mine of knowledge on YouTube. DO NOT WASTE the vast wealth of knowledge available, quite literally, at your fingertips. Never before in any skill or hobby has there been a vault of knowledge like YouTube just available to you.

The last two things I do on a model is the rim and varnish. This is one of my only strong, maybe controversial, opinions when it comes to models. It might rub you the wrong way and you might be offended, but in my opinion, paint your rims black or you’re wrong. Black is the only color for model rims. Every other color that gets put on rims of bases is just wrong.

I use Krylon Ultra Matte Spray as a varnish. I have been told it is more satiny in look but I think it is perfect. It works for me. You do not need to shellac your model so it is practically bulletproof. However, an extra layer of protection against the Cheeto dust fingers of model grabbers is worth it. A varnish places a uniform surface over the whole model. This can unify the model’s colors and appearance. If you want to go over the varnish to help metallic paints shine, do it. But remember that you don’t have to. The choice is yours!

To wrap this up, I had a blast doing this model and pushing my freehand skills! In the future, I will be participating in “New Year, New Army.” I also look forward to having more to talk about with the Soulblight Gravelords of Age of Sigmar!


Hi, I am James. I am a newer painter, starting in March of 2020(Guess I am not really new anymore; I have painted like 300+ models). I am a pursuer of painting knowledge. I love to learn and try new things when it comes to painting. I am in love with saturated colors, and it is all Warcraft’s Fault. I am a Metal-head. I tend to listen to music that I feel suits the models I am painting. I enjoy video games, movies, and D&D. In 40k I am a Red Corsairs kind of guy with Death Guard leanings. In Age of Sigmar I am a Death and Destruction kind of Guy.

Also, Black Rims or Bust!

James’ contributions