Saturday, March 10, 2018

Painting Gloomhaven: Six Characters, No Spoilers

I vaguely remember my brother pointing me toward the first Gloomhaven Kickstarter. I looked at it, thought it looked a bit grim for me, and passed. No need to get the Kickstarter if there's any doubt, since if it's good, I can get a copy at retail, right? Several months later, it was gaining a lot of hype, and I looked around for it. In theory there were some retail copies; in practice, none could be found. The designer ran a second, wildly-successful Kickstarter, which I happily backed. My order was unfortunately one of a small set that was mishandled, so I didn't get my copy until several weeks after everyone else. Now, though, I have a painted set, and we've had it to the table a handful of times. More on the game later; for now, let's talk about painting the six starting characters. There are no spoilers here: these are just the six you have access to from the get-go.

For those who don't know this story, I will quickly share. Gloomhaven's designer is Isaac Childres of Cephalofair Games, which is based in Lafayette, Indiana, about two hours' drive from here. I reached out to Dr. Childres (yes, he has his PhD) and he agreed to give the closing presentation at the 2017 Symposium on Games in Academia which I chaired. He was a gracious guest, his talk centered around what he learned about running Kickstarter campaigns. A few of us had dinner following, and he was great company.

OK, back to the painting. My wife, my eldest son, and I each picked a character—Cragheart, Spellweaver, and Tinkerer, respectively—and so I started by painting these three.


I believe we can reach the morning light
I started with the spellweaver. As usual, I based my color schemes for this project on the fantastic card art. The blue magic aura at her feet ended rather precipitously, so I added a little bit of heavy gel and sculpted it out a bit. It's subtle, but it does make the edges of the aura more attractive. There were no great tricks here, just applying and practicing techniques I've learned. As I described in my previous painting post, I have been using Vallejo Glaze Medium to do rough wet blending of base coats, followed by a wash, followed by layered highlights. I think I did a fair job here capturing the otherworldy skin pallor and the energetic crystals and magic waves. For all of these characters, I was not going for competition-quality painting—as if I ever do!—I was really just trying to get something that looked good and would get us into playing this game soon.


Next up is the Cragheart, who was the easiest to paint, with his limited color palette. I mixed some yellow into the grey to keep it from being neutral, and while highlighting the cracked, rocky skin was a little tedious, it was straightforward. There is some purple ink in the recesses to give some color to the shadows, but it's faint and doesn't really show up in the photos. I wish I could remember what I did for the gold, but I can tell you for sure it was frustrating. More on that later.


More Tinker Yet
This little guy was frustrating to paint. He would be my character, and so of course I wanted to do a nice job on him. I don't know how long I spent looking at the sculpt and just trying to puzzle out what on earth was going on. I ended up using my metallic medium to mix up some moderately-shiny underlayer of armor with the leather cloak on top of that. There were several parts that I ended up repainting as the colors evolved; I didn't write them down, though, so I'm afraid all I have is a vague memory. It's hard to tell with the incredibly small detail, but I also used several layers of glazing to make the bright blue areas appear to be glowing.

He clearly has a potion in his hand, and there were other baubles on the character that I thought could be potions as well. I cannot remember now where I last did fluid-filled vials, but I was able to dig up some of the tutorials I followed back then, particularly this one from Fantasy Games. I didn't go to that level of detail, but the result is decent for the one in his hand. I did the same thing for the one on top of his backpack, seen in the second picture above, but in retrospect that probably wasn't the best way to go about it: I probably should have tinted that one toward the leather color of the backpack rather than pale purple, since from almost every angle, you would be looking at the back of his head or his backpack. In the end, you cannot paint plastic to be clear, so there's no perfect answer.

Those were the initial party of three, although when I first painted them, they looked like this:

Original outdoors basing

I had decided before starting that I wanted scenic bases, particularly after my last several painting projects that had none. I wanted the Gloomhaven figures to look good on the table without undue process, so I even picked up some Vallejo Earth Texture after having seen Sorastro get quick and easy results with it. As I was working on it, though, I had flashbacks to working on my original Imperial Assault set years ago, when I tried scenic basing and then realized it wouldn't fit all the environments, and ended up stripping it all off. With our starting Gloomhaven party, the bases turned out quite well. However, the game doesn't take place on free wilderness areas: it's primarily dungeon-crawling on hexes. I decided to change tactics, so despite the potential danger to the painted miniatures and their bases, I scraped away all the earth texture and flock.

Naked bases. Take that, SEO.
You can see here the Spellweaver base pre-modification as well.
I remembered watching Brant "Ghool" Benoit's video about his Massive Darkness basing technique, and I decided to try something similar. In a rare moment of clarity and foresight, I decided to work on a test piece rather than one of the existing guys. I was terrified I would muck it up and have to repaint a part or, worse, the whole thing. I grabbed a spare base and set to it.

Close-up of a Tiny Base
Test piece next to Cragheart, for scale
The flagstones are all painted on with cheap craft paints, and the mounds are construction sand with an ink wash and drybrush. I think the flagstones look pretty good, but the mounds I was not sure about. Perhaps I used too much glue, because the edges pulled in, making it look like sculpted mounds rather than piles of scrap. I decided to move forward with the rebasing, but without Ghool-style debris—just classic flagstone dungeon base.

All your rebase are belong ... Hey, I think I made that joke a few posts ago.
Here is the semi-final attempt. I took this photo to share online, and at first I was really happy with it. The more I looked at the figures, though, I worried that there was too much contrast on the bases as compared to the figures themselves. I went back in and lightened the spaces between the stones. You can see the lightened Spellweaver next to the original Tinkerer below.
Original on left; lightened on right
Convinced this was the right move, I fixed up all three:
Less contrast on the base, more attention to the miniature.
Now in this case, I did actually take some notes about how I did the bases, since I knew I'd want to match future characters as well as I could. Unfortunately, I cannot remember if I took the notes of what I did on the original approach or the lightened approach. What I'm sharing here is my interpreted notes, in how I did the next set of three:

I used Americana paints that I had on hand from other basing and craft projects. The basecoat is a mix of lamp black and slate grey; I started 50/50, but that was a bit too dark, so it needs a hair more grey. I added just a hint of burnt umber as well. Then I painted the lines, originally using a roughly 2:3 mix of lamp black and burnt umber, which gave me the overly-dark version; it was softened with some slate grey. The first stone highlight was done in a 1:3 mix of lamp black and slate grey, and the second was done in straight slate grey. I mixed a 50/50 very thin wash of brown and sepia inks, splotching some down on the stones and feathering it around with a damp brush. (For the record, on the test piece, I used that same wash, less diluted. Then I drybrushed first with a 3:1 mix of desert sand and burnt umber and then with straight desert sand.)

We played the introductory scenario and had fun, but it had all the rockiness of a new game. There were a few things we got wrong, some only coming to light after re-reading rules afterwards. This kind of thing drives my wife crazy, and after trying the scenario again (but with most of the rules right), she decided to back out. This left a Tinkerer and Spellweaver, which my son and I didn't think sounded like a viable team. We busted out the rest of the starting characters and decided to continue our adventure with a Mindthief and a Scoundrel. However, I painted the Brute first, so here he is:


The gold elements were among the last I painted on the Brute, and I sent my brother a message along the lines of, "I am not happy painting gold." I was tempted to go try some other brand or type of paint to see if I could find something to alleviate my pain, but I ended up taking a different tack. Regular readers may recall that I've been mixing metallics and non-metallics for a while to reduce the shine and control the tone of the metals. I did something different here, taking plain old Vallejo Model Color Gold—one of the first paints I bought when I got back into painting—and I added a bit of the metallic medium as a thinner, with maybe a touch of matte medium. This made it a bit less gloopy, so I applied it to the Brute. It was mostly OK for a start, except for the shield: the paint left a roughness behind what had been a smooth plastic surface. It was aggravating, but I really didn't want to strip the whole miniature, and there's a sense in which the roughness added unintentional weathering to the shield, so I decided to try moving forward.

Here's where I hit struck gold. Ha!


Rather than do anything extraordinary here, I just went back to the old classic of mixing my Model Color Silver in with my Gold, except I was more intentional about using some metallic and matte mediums to control the consistency. This really worked fine for a highlight, and it's basically my old way of highlighting gold, before I was trying anything fancy. Wat really made it work was controlled application of an ink wash, a mix of brown and purple ink (which I don't have, so it was actually brown and blue and red ink). Many thin layers of this added depth to the shadows in a way that I am quite pleased with. You can see it most directly in the bottom side of the shield. I really think this adds more flavor to the gold than the highlights did.

The rest of the Brute is pretty standard fare, really. An overall wash followed by some spot washes helped bring out the texture of the muscles and the fur. The cloak highlights are primarily from the wet-blended base coat followed by a wash, but I did also paint on some of the brightest ones by hand.


This is the Mindthief, who my son was interested in playing. The card art is awash in glowing runes and magical symbols, which gave me pause as I was planning out my colors. I decided to go with a straight-up light blue for the outfit, accenting the shadows with some purples. I will also point out that I suspect vermlings suffer from identity problems because of their cat ears and rat tails.

In the card art, the runes on the knife are glowing blue and purple, and I wanted to capture something like that. I know the general approach for this is to lay down a mid tone slightly wider than the runes, then trace inside of that a brighter tone. My first attempt was flubbed and painted entirely over, but once I switched to my finest brush—the one I use only for pupils, and only then sometimes—I was able to get something that I was happy with.

The other story behind the Mindthief is about the base. Like some of my Myth figures, the Mindthief was cast on a narrow plastic "surfboard" and then affixed to the base; unlike the Myth figures, he has a small rat at his feet, which meant that I could not cut the mindthief off of the bizarre plastic mini-stand without almost certainly mangling the little rat's tail.  When I prepped and primed the miniatures, I was thinking about the outdoors theme, and I decided to cover the plastic strip by making it appear the Mindthief is standing on a hill: a bit of Milliput on the base, and presto. (Sorry, no historic pics of this.) With the switch to an indoor theme, I knew I couldn't take that mound and make it a believable pile of rubble. I also was not sure I wanted one of them on rubble while the rest of the characters were on "neat" bases. I knew I could make it look like it was standing on a loose flagstone, but I was worried that would also look goofy: why is this one character standing on the one loose piece of stone? I showed it to my wife and asked about it, and she suggested I could make it look less out of place by adding more stones. Brilliant! I ended up extending the bit under the Mindthief to more triangular, less oblong, and worked out a few different Milliput "stones" to try in place. Painting it all up, I think it is fit for purpose: the Mindthief just ended up standing in an area that had a few extra stones laying around, and being of diminutive stature, it leapt onto one of the larger ones, you know, to stab somebody or reach the plates or something.


Don't trust humans
The last figure to paint was the one that I chose for our revised, smaller adventuring party: the Scoundrel. I'll point out here that the card art for Gloomhaven is quite good, but many of the portraits have questionable lighting. The Scoundrel takes the cake: she is backlit by some kind of green glow, or something. There was a lot of room for interpretation on the color palette, that's for sure. I ended up going with different brown tones: the innermost one is green toned down with red, while the medium brown is VMC Flat Earth, and the lightest one is a mix of Medium Fleshtone and brown. The shoulders, chestpiece, and sword hilts are done in gold, similar to how I painted the Brute's gold, but starting with Game Color Glorious Gold mixed with a little Flat Brown; this gives it more of an orange or copper cast. The hair was done with Flat Brown, and I think the slight red of the hair gives a good subtle contrast against the green and yellow tones of the brown.

Originally, I painted her eyes dimly under her domino mask, despite the fact that the card art gives her glowing green eyes, like her sword and throwing knives. "Why would she have glowing eyes?", I thought to myself. When I showed my wife, however, she pointed out that the glowing eyes on the card art have a more important purpose: since she is backlit and, hence, standing in her own shadow, the glowing eyes serve as a focal point for what is otherwise a low-contrast, slightly drab drawing. From this artistic rather than fantastic perspective, it made me realize that I should copy the aesthetic of the card art and not just the colors.
Turn around
Bright eyes
Every now and then I make an art. Note that in the photo, the glazed-on glow effect around the eyes looks a little splotchy, but that's not visible to my eyes even in the best light on the miniature itself. In fact, it surprised me when I zoomed on the photo just now!

Seeking Fame and Fortune
I want to record a note here about airbrushing. Once again, I was very happy with zenithal priming from the airbrush. For the varnish, I decided to order larger, 60mL bottles of the Vallejo acrylic varnishes that I use. However, I was surprised to find that the consistency of the "Matt" acrylic varnish from the large container is very different from that of the 17mL bottle I picked up locally. In fact, when I put it straight into the airbrush, it didn't go anywhere. For the first three figures, then, I varnished them in the old, thinner, easily-airbrushable matte varnish from the smaller bottle. When I got the second set of three complete, I decided to just brush on some gloss varnish for protection's sake, and then I returned to the airbrush to lay down a coat or two of matte. I had read some more about pressure control, so I dropped the compressor to about 15psi, and I was able to force some varnish—barely—out of the airbrush. What was interesting to me is that it came out "dry" and immediately reduced the shine of the gloss layer underneath. However, after about two figures, no more would come out, so it was disassembly and cleaning time. Now, I cut the varnish with about 25% airbrush thinner, mixing it in a small cup and pouring it into the airbrush. This came through the brush with no trouble at all, although it came out "wet", more like when I brush on the matte varnish. As expected, once it dried, and with a few extra touches as necessary, it took the shine off with no trouble. I think next time I will try doing the gloss and matte through the airbrush, but I'll have to remember to thin them both, and hence this note to myself.

Back to Gloomhaven. My son and I have played several times, although that's only going through two more scenarios. The new party has two wins and three losses, which is a bit frustrating. The first loss was because we misplayed some critical cards, as we kind of expected to happen. Without giving any spoilers, the second scenario we did had our two characters in a position where we had to dish out an incomprehensible amount of damage across a large number of figures, with none of us having any area-of-effect powers. It was disheartening, since we felt like we played it well, but still had no chance of hitting the required kill count. We dropped the scenario level to zero, which I felt a bit guilty about, but then we were able to manage the scenario. Turns out, the only difference in reward between level 0 and level 1 was two experience points per player. Two! That's like one good XP-generating card. For the creatures we were fighting, though, it turns out we only had to dish out approximately 25 points of damage each instead of 40, which is obviously a huge difference for a tankless party. He just leveled up, so we may go back to the recommended difficulty next time, but it was definitely good to know we could scale the difficulty back if something looked out of our league, while only suffering minor setbacks. I am curious whether the difference between scenario level 1 and 2 is the same scale as the difference between 0 and 1, but I haven't looked into that yet.

That little bit of complaint or criticism aside, we are absolutely loving the game. The atmosphere is amazing, the unlockables are rewarding, and the tactics are engaging. It's possible that the game runs better for two players than for three; it is certainly faster, which means we can fail faster and try again without running out of time and having to put this giant game away. The flexible nature of the campaign and scenarios are such that my wife could always join in again if she wanted to, which is also fantastic: more multiplayer games could consider baking this right into the campaign. In a sense, Gloomhaven can get away with it since it's more about the world changing than the party changing. I look forward to many happy returns to the dark and gritty world of Gloomhaven.

Next up should be a series of more serious, work-related posts. I don't even have my next project primed yet, so don't expect more painting notes for some time. Thanks for reading!


  1. Just came across the blog; great work on your painting! As someone who also paints miniatures (and understands the often frustrating journey that is painting metallic areas), I'd like to offer two potential tips:

    1) The Vallejo Liquid Gold/Liquid Metal line is amazing for gold and copper tones. It consists of Gold, Old Gold, Rich Gold, Red Gold, Green Gold, White Gold, Silver and Copper. Since I'll talk about silver/white metals later, let me just say that the White Gold I only use for lightening Gold when I paint it; the others though are quite useful and produce amazing results. The only thing about these paints that need some consideration is that they are comprised of actual fine metallic flakes which are suspended in alcohol; this is because the flakes are so fine and delicate, exposure to anything with water in it (like most acrylic mediums) will cause it to rust. For thinning the paints and cleaning your brushes, you need isopropyl alcohol, at 91% or higher and once you've used any brushes with these paints you'll no longer be able to use them for anything else; no matter how thorough your cleaning, there's always going to be some residue and exposure to water from other paints will cause this to rust. Also, make sure the threads of the bottle are wiped clean and the lid is screwed on tight to avoid the alcohol evaporating; when you use these, you'll definitely to use a paint palette and seal the bottles after extracting some paint. Also, make sure to shake them every so often, even if you're not painting, to keep the pigment/metal flakes from settling. It may seem fussy, but the final result is a smooth and highly reflective finish that looks like real metals.

    2) For silver/white metals, I recommend the Vallejo Metal Color line; these metallic paints are airbrush ready, but can still be painted on with a standard brush with no problems. Their finish is about as excellent as the Liquid Metals line mentioned about, and the only failing (in my opinion) which has kept me from swapping out all my metallics to this line is that, while there a myriad of silver/white metals tones, there are one a single gold and a single copper paint available in the line (hence why I keep using and have mentioned the Liquid Metal line). Other than that, these are superb paints for painting metal areas.

    1. Thanks for the message! I had looked into Liquid Gold when I was doing some research on golds, and I was tempted, but they do sound awfully fiddly. I do have VMC Air Steel and Gunmetal, and I am with you: they are a dream to paint with, so very smooth off the brush. I also just airbrushed with them for the first time the other day and had no trouble. I think my VMC Air Gold was actually a bad batch, since I've not heard of anyone else having the problems I had, but I have not tried getting another.

    2. Hi Paul
      I really like the painting in these minis. Great work. Do you by chance have any more Gloomhaven minis painted? Id be very interested in seeing them for inspiration:-)
      Best regards

    3. Hi, thanks for reading and commenting! I have in fact painted most of the rest of the figures, as my son and I played a ton of Gloomhaven this summer. We've had to slow down with the semester in progress, haven't picked it up in a couple of weeks. My plan was that once we unlock all the characters, I'll post a "spoiler-full" blog post with those guys on it (with plenty of warnings for the cautious, of course). Cheers!

  2. Love the bases! I'm going to try and copy this for mine...

  3. Hey Paul, stumbled upon your article looking for inspiration for my Cragheart. I, too, love the style of the bases, any chance you could share or point me in the direction of the technique used to get that nice "gradient" that illuminates the edges of the tiles ?

    1. You bet! It's based on Ghool's technique that he used for his Massive Darkness figures, described here:

      I used my cheap craft paints (Americana from Hobby Lobby) to do the bases. These paints tend to stay open longer than my Vallejo model paints, which makes it pretty easy to lay down a streak and then use two-brush blending to pull out a decent gradient. I dabbed and brushed on thinned sepia ink at the end to give it a bit more "dirtiness." Thanks for posting!

    2. Thanks so much for that video ! Very good explanation. Can't wait to test it myself, one of those days.