So stippling, just what is it? How does one stipple? What can it be used for and how can it best be used?
Hi my name is Niall and I am a miniature painter. In this article, I am going to cover all aspects of the stippling technique in our little miniature painting hobby from the beginning right to the end.
The intention of this article is to be useful for all levels of painters from the new budding hobbyist to the more seasoned painters alike. So without any further ado let’s jump right into the article.
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What is the stippling technique for miniatures?
Stippling is a painting technique used to get a wide variety of effects. It can be used to slowly build up a smooth clean surface, it can be used to build up texture to get a rough battle worn or corroded finish and it can also be used to great effect when it comes to creating more abstract ideas like freehanding or even to create mud, blood or chipping.
Generally and broadly speaking the stippling technique is the act of applying paint to a surface by gently dabbing the paint onto the work surface as opposed to the traditional brush stroke.
As a side note and fun fact, stippling is a technique that is regularly used in a lot of other traditional painting circles, not just us miniature painters.
Stippling can be compared and contrasted with the standard brush stroke in certain situations but in this painter’s humble opinion, it seems to me that while its important to consider one or the other for what you are trying to achieve they should not really be looked at in a sense of direct competition.
So to put it more simply, stippling is not better or worse than painting with brush strokes and painting with brush strokes is not better or worse than stippling.
I would encourage viewing this technique and its different aspects and applications that we will cover in this article as another tool in your tool box as opposed to the “Correct” way of achieving a particular effect.
As I have touched on in other articles I think there is too much emphasis put on the right or wrong way of approaching certain aspects of miniature painting so I would encourage all painters to go off the beaten track, take in all the lessons you can step by step as presented by others of course but my advice is don’t be confined by them.
Of course, we learn by repeating what others have taught but experimentation is how new techniques are discovered. So lastly I would like to put forward before I get into the technical aspects of this technique that none of this is set in stone. If you want to deviate or mix up any of the steps or ideas I will put forward here I would encourage you wholeheartedly to do so and who knows?
You could discover something brand new and as of yet unseen before. Okay rant over, lets get into it then.
Stippling is the action of applying paint to a surface by gently dabbing
This can be done with either a large or small amount of paint or a large or small amount of pressure depending on the desired result. This action can be performed with a wide variety of tools and applicators however the most common two are the brush and the sponge.
What kind of brush you are stippling with is often best considered against the surface area you are trying to cover and the type of effect you are trying to achieve
For example, if you are painting a large rocky piece of terrain or a base and want to add a little bit of green to the color of the stones a larger brush may be a better choice to cover a greater surface area and to add an additional level of natural looking chaotic patterns to the area.
Whereas by contrast if one isn’t careful when using a smaller brush to try and achieve the same effect on the same areas we often see that we end up applying our stippling in a more uniform or almost patterned fashion which can often lead us to have a less natural looking end result.
The opposite is then true if, for instance, you are trying to stipple some light texture or even to get a blend of colors on the panel of a miniatures armor.
A large brush will simply cover the area in too much paint and lack the precision necessary to achieve the desired effect so in this instance it would often be a better choice to use a smaller sharply tipped brush to gradually and slowly build up your texture or blend while diluting your paint with water to an almost glaze like consistency.
So to sum this up general wisdom holds that if you are stippling something large over a large area use a large brush and if you are stippling something small over a small area use a small well pointed brush.
Sponges are another great tool you can use when it comes to stippling
When it comes to using sponges some companies will try to sell you stippling sponges or artists sponges but when it comes to miniature painting I can assure you that you are just as well to get standard cheap home cleaning sponges. These so-called artist sponges or stippling sponges offer no additional benefits to miniature painters and often are quite a bit more expensive than the humble household sponge.
Side note: when using a household sponge do be sure that it is a new one. As one that has been used to clean a home with may have remaining residue from cleaning chemicals that may mess with our paint texture and they may also contain dust or particles that can affect a painting surface in ways that can often not be predicted. So stick to new sponges and save yourself the headache.
Once you have your hands on a sponge the next step is to tear yourself off a piece. I usually start at a corner but that doesn’t really matter so much. As previously discussed, depending on the size of the area you are working on and the kind of stippling you wish to apply you can judge how small or large a piece of sponge to tear off.
When tearing there is no need to try and get a “clean tear” in fact if you were to be successful at this more than likely it would be counter productive. We want to try and make a tear so that the torn side of the piece is quite uneven.
In fact once I have torn off a piece I would usually proceed to tear off a few much smaller pieces from the torn side of the sponge just to make sure that the piece isn’t too uniform. At this point, you are now ready to go.
Stippling can be as broad or as detailed as you need it do be
As I previously touched on, stippling is the process of applying paint to a surface in a gentle dabbing or tapping motion. The technique is quite straightforward and very forgiving when it comes to new painters and is also quite an accessible technique for those who may have a harder time with keeping a steady hand.
However, while it is quite an easy technique to learn it can take a long time to truly master. Where the nuance of the technique comes into play is in the pressure applied when tapping along with the amount of paint as well as the consistency of the paint used.
There is no single catch-all correct way of applying this technique it really depends on the kind of result that you would like to achieve.
For instance if you are looking to achieve a subtle texture then you would use a narrow tipped brush with a small amount of relatively watered down paint to achieve a level of translucency, somewhere in the region of a 50 / 50 water to paint ratio.
You would then dab the paint gently onto the surface with a motion similar to if you were lightly writing a “.” However in contrast if you are using a sponge to stipple something like blood effects you would need to take the technical blood paint e.g. blood for the blood god from Games Workshops technical paint range, straight from the pot and apply it with the same dabbing motion but with a desire for a more chaotic result rather than a controlled one.
Understand that when it comes to more controlled smoother or detailed finishes a brush is more than likely going to be your best option and when it comes to more natural or chaotic results a sponge is usually the go to option.
I will cover these topics in more detail in the next part of the article but for now, the important part is to understand the dabbing motion and the different ways such a simple technique can be applied. So now let’s move on to covering some techniques.
Using stippling to build texture can often be a delicate balance
When it comes to building texture using stippling there is a vast amount of depth to how much you can do. However, there are some instances where you may want to take a minimalist approach. Firstly however I want to discuss what is really meant when we mention building texture with stippling.
Texture in this case refers to taking a section of a model such as for example a smooth armor panel and giving it an appearance that would suggest it has a more complex surface than what the smooth plastic offers.
This could be to varying degrees and to achieve various effects. Another such example for instance would be to give the cloth on your model a different texture, to perhaps contrast a smoother armor finish.
But for now let’s stick with armor or some other metallic surface as stippling is commonly used in these areas to create a large number of effects. Some use it to create subtle texture as if the surface is burnished or slightly rough to the touch, then it can also be used to give a heavily corroded look as if it has been pitted and damaged greatly by either an attack or time itself.
Luckily however the methods of application for both of these processes are quite the same, that being the process of gently dabbing paint on as we previously discussed.
Where the differences lie is where you choose to focus your stippling, how much water you dilute your paint with, and your color choices. So if you want an effect on the smoother end of the stippling spectrum to perhaps get a gentle or subtle texture I would recommend placing your stippling dots relatively close together as you build up your texture.
This will give the area your painting less contrast between the dots and overall make them more inclined to blend together from a distance. It’s also a good idea when building a smoother texture to thin your paint quite a bit so that the different layers will be slightly translucent and allow the layers beneath them to be seen through, again this will help us achieve subtle blends in color. The last part of this to consider is color selection. When attempting a subtly textured finish it’s often best to stick to colors that have low levels of contrast when compared to one another.
So for instance if you were painting a cream colored robe you may work upwards from dark to light beginning with a brown and mixing in some cream or bone color until you reach just the pure cream. The same would be true of a red armor panel.
You may start with a warm brown and work your way up while stippling to a dark orange highlight. It’s important to remember too that when trying to build a subtle texture that it’s important for the layers of dots to overlap one another almost like a spray and not to be too tight or linear. The next area of stippling that I will cover is chipping.
Chipping your miniatures with the Stippling Technique
Chipping is a method of weathering that is usually applied to a model that has already been painted another color. So for instance, if you have a space marine, a dreadnought or a vehicle for example that is already painted blue, or red or yellow you would apply this technique over that one in order to achieve this effect.
What this technique tries to accomplish is to imitate the appearance of chipped paint.
You may have seen something similar in old cars or bits of scrap metal that might once have been painted. Essentially this is something that happens to painted metal after some wear and tear whether it be by physical damage or over time.
This technique has a number of parts that can be added on after the stippling which I will cover here to give you an option on whether you would like to proceed further with your work. But the first and arguably most important stage of this technique is of course the stippling.
You can use a brush but as previously mentioned for this kind of chaotic or natural technique it is much easier to get a realistic finish with a sponge. So I would recommend using a darker brown color with a good amount of paint on your sponge that has not been too watered down. A good test to see if you have enough paint or too much is to dab the piece of sponge on some paper.
This will give you an idea of where you are at. If the sponge has too much paint on it you will see a large messy smear on the paper and if you have too little you might see little to no marks at all on the paper.
You want to have something in between these two something that looks like a textured spatter with detail that’s still strong enough to come through properly on the paper. Once you have the amount of paint fine tuned it’s time to start applying it to the miniature. It’s important when stippling chipping to choose the correct areas to stipple on as this kind of weathering is far more likely to occur in certain areas over others.
For instance if you were to look once more at real life reference, which by the way is always a good idea you will see that most of this chip weathering happens on exposed corners and edges. Think of it as places where the model is most likely to be scraped or scratched by its external environment.
So when you begin to stipple on your already base coated model make sure to apply the stippling to these outer exposed edges rather than any recesses to ensure a more realistic look. Another note here I would like to add is that the more chipping you apply with the sponge the more weathered and damaged your model is going to look at the end.
Next I would like to cover some additional steps to add on top of this process.
While these next steps are not directly related to stippling I would like to add them here as an added extra if you wish to add something more to the stippled weathering you have just applied. These are not a requirement but more of an added extra if you wish to avail of them. The first step is to highlight your chips.
What this means is to take a paint that is a lighter color than your base paint. E.g. if your model is painted with a dark blue choose a lighter one for this step or if your model is painted red choose a lighter red or even an orange. With the correct color in hand you should then with a brush try to paint along the bottom edge of the brown stipples you have already created. This can be challenging to get right but with some patience you can find that this adds quite a bit of definition and realism to the stippling that you have performed.
Another step you can use to add onto this further is painting back into the stippled scratches. This can be difficult and should only really be attempted if you feel like there is room for you to comfortably do so.
But the idea is to paint a small amount of steel or iron metallic paint into the center of your stipple so that it looks like the underlying metal has been completely exposed. Its a small touch but it can definitely make a large difference to how your weathering pops on the tabletop.
The last and final additional step that i’m going to cover here is a process that possibly deserves an entire article dedicated to it alone but i’m going to cover the cliff notes here that apply to this particular effect.
That is streaking or streaky grime as some painters call it. What this refers to is the use of washes or thinned-down paints to give the appearance of streaks of rust or dirt that can build up and run down weathered surfaces.
Once again I would strongly advise looking up some reference on this. You might even be able to see evidence of this in your local area but failing this you can always fall back on google images.
If you do want to add this effect to your miniature I would advise that you try to keep all of the lines vaguely parallel as a deviation from this can sometimes lead to a less than natural result.
In terms of what paint to use for this process I would recommend a shade such as Agrax Earthshade or Fuegan Orange or alternatively you can use a regular paint color of your choice and thin it down quite a bit.
However if you are using a paint color of your own choice I would recommend sticking to earthy tones.
With your color selected the next thing to do is to apply it to the miniature.
I would advise using a fine tipped brush for this. Using your wash or watered down paint drag your brush downwards from the central point of your chipping allowing the brush to form a partially translucent line. Its important to not make this line too big as if its too thick or too long it can detract from the realism of the streak.
If once again we look at some reference for this we can often see that the darkest part of the streak is that nearest to the point of chipping and gets gradually lighter as it runs down the surface. I would advise some caution with applying too much of this technique even if you are going for a heavily weathered look.
Oftentimes chipping can work best when taken with the approach of less is more
While I have mentioned the use of fine tipped brushes and sponges I would also like to introduce the idea of using a wider tipped brush.
Sometimes, and this I find is often when going for a more weathered or battle damaged look, it is easier to use a brush of middle size and sometimes also of middling condition.
What I mean by this is that sometimes using a brush that has seen some use, maybe has some hairs that are a little out of place or that might be slightly splayed can in certain instances really help the stippling process especially when the result you’re looking for is on the more chaotic side.
These brushes can often be quite useful when it comes to stippling highlights on your models. When it comes to stippling highlights the effect we are trying to replicate is a low intensity shine on an uneven, dusty or even damaged surface and what I would recommend is working up from dark to light starting with a paint just a little bit lighter than that which you base coated the model with.
So for instance if you are painting blue you would pick another shade of blue lighter than the base coat and then perhaps another and then a small amount of white for the last touch.
This may sound similar to what we discussed previously and to a degree it is but the main difference here is in the application. Whereas before when we spoke about using a fine tipped brush we were trying to produce a smooth gradient with a series of small dots now we are creating a rougher gradient by stippling with a larger more chaotic brush to create a blend that lends itself to a rougher less clean finished result. The method of application is to begin with the darkest color with a gentle stippling motion.
It’s important again to make sure you do not have too much paint on your brush when you do this so I would suggest using the method I previously described of dabbing the brush on some paper if you are unsure of the correct amount to use.
Following this process of gently stippling you should focus on the areas that you think would be hit most by the light. On a space marine for example these areas usually would be the shoulder pads, the helmet and the upper part of the backpack.
Then work your way up through the colors using less and less each time until you make it to white at which point you should only use a very small amount as a final highlight as if you use too much white it will swallow the gradient you have previously built up.
As a final note on stippling, I would like to mention experimentation.
While guides and tips from others are certainly helpful when learning how to perform stippling I would strongly suggest experimenting for yourself and trying different things to see what kind of results you can get as I feel that there is no real substitute to your own experience. Also as a general rule, using too little is always better than using too much as it’s often easier to simply add more if necessary rather than covering up a mistake.
That being said though if you do find that you have over stippled a certain area or been too heavy handed with a particular color you can always paint over it and that’s no big deal.
But I hope you took something useful from my humble offering on the topic of stippling. It’s a fantastic technique that’s very friendly to new painters while still having a great depth of use to be explored. I wish you well in your stippling experiments and i’ll see you in the next one.
Other great resources:
- All our hobby guides and painting tutorials
- Miniature Painting Techniques & Skills Explained
- How to Make a Miniature Diorama
- Step-by-step: How to Paint Your First Miniature