Monday 27 July 2015

French Line Infantry Painting Tutorial Part One - The Base Colours

The illustration helps to show the effect I am trying to achieve with the
variation in shade as the light hits the more exposed areas of the uniform

It's been a while since I went through a painting tutorial, and now being very much involved in adding significant numbers of French line infantry into the collection and with the 206th anniversary of the Battle of Talavera tomorrow, I thought it might be of interest to illustrate the process and colours I prefer to use when painting these troops.

Getting efficient at producing a nice looking unit is what this series of posts will be a about and lets face it, if you are into Napoleonics you are probably going to want some of these chaps in your collection and probably a lot of them.

The battalion shown below was waiting for the first colour to dry on the groundwork as I began work on the base colours for the third battalion to complete my second regiment, the 96e Ligne. It occurred to me to photograph and record the work to illustrate my method.

The 2/96e Ligne on the desk with the ground work to be finished 
I tend to have two battalions of French primed with undercoat at a time to allow work to proceed seamlessly from one to the next as we want to get on with playing as much as we enjoy painting.

My battalions are in units of twenty-eight including the four skirmishers and my senior or first battalion would normally have the mounted colonel on the command base, my second battalion a sergeant with the fanion group and my third with a pioneer with the fanion group. In addition I like to put in the odd personality figure like a cheering soldier, or in this case a fusilier falling wounded.

First stage base flesh and coat colours
The first stage is to apply the base flesh colour, which I tend to do with Citadel Ratskin Flesh. I find this colour gives a really satisfactory dark base to my flesh and although I have experimented with adding Citadel Riekland Fleshshade wash, now only use this on bareheaded individuals to contrast their hair from the rest of the face. To see the effect of the wash then follow the link to the 2/96e Ligne to see the cheering soldier.

At this early stage I am focused on making the greatest progress and getting the work done in the right order. The right order of putting colours on takes a bit of time to work out, but when faced with working through multiple units it becomes an important aspect. I will write down my sequence so I can come back to a project and pick up where I left off without having the painful process of re-learning it.

Next base colours to add, browns and greys. Greys include lapels, trousers, great-coats and shako covers. Note I will do straps and lace in grey at a later stage
So in this case, the last major colour to apply will be black because black gets applied over the top of other colours to finish off the base set up, such as black musket barrels over brown wood-work. Not forgetting of course that black is not a colour!

After the Vallejo Dark Prussian Blue jackets, I applied Coat d'Arms Dark grey to some great-coats, some trousers, all lapels and waistcoats, metal mess bowls and water bottles.

Brown include trouser, great-coats, back-packs and bayonet scabbards - fusiliers carry bayonets on the right, elite company on the left with their sabre-briquet 
Next colour on was Vallejo Burnt Umber to my Spanish cloth clad trousered soldiers and all the back-packs.

I then took Vallejo Chocolate Brown and applied that to the muskets, other great-coats and bayonet scabbards - yes French bayonet scabbards are brown, not black, as shown in the header illustration.

"Blacking up" - shakos, musket metal work, boots, swords and scabbards and ammunition pouches
The final large colour - shade, call it what you will, is the black over the primer to finish off the boots, shakos and peaks, musket and sword metal work, sword scabbards and ammunition pouches.

For variety I do shako covers in black, grey and white, thus for a white cover I would use a base coat of Vallejo Buff
With the black work done, the base boundary colours start to take shape and you feel you are making good progress.
All the black done, completes the first main base colours
With this big chunk of block work done it is time to go and make yourself a well earned cup of tea before getting stuck into the final base coat preparation covering the straps, laces, cuff/collar/shoulder straps/plumes and water bottle work before we can start to make these chaps come alive.

If you are interested in your painting skills, I would really recommend checking out the article published in Wargames Illustrated 287 which was available as a downloadable pdf called "The Four C's of Painting" by Joe Sleboda that covers off Colour, Composition, Contrast and Correction and is a very good summary of the basic skill set on deciding what you are going to do, where and correcting those little errors that can creep in to brush work.

So whilst prepping these guys I have been thinking about the groups of four figures that will be together on a base. The stick is organised so each group of four are together and I can make sure that there is plenty of variation in the group as far as castings and colour choices. In addition I will correct errors in the painting as I go ending up a little bit Obsessive/Compulsive but at least I can walk away and do something else afterwards, because I know the job has be done right! - "calm down Jon, step away from the figures!!!"

All the base colours added and stage one complete. Here the four elite figures in my Voltigeur base can be seen together on the stick with three figure variations and different colour combinations to provide variety for the eye
The final stage of getting all the base colours on to your figures should leave your models looking like the picture above. Having done all the large areas we are now doing the smaller detail areas such as small straps, lace, chords, musket slings, turn-backs, plumes, pompoms, brass/gold metalwork and water canteens.

Hopefully my pictures of the finished base coat figures will show you the colours I use for these little areas. Others that I noticed I hadn't highlighted include the raised gold buttons on the backs of the officers habite jackets that are found at the back on the waist line. I touch these in the Camo Black Brown as they will come up a treat when tipped with gold.

Note also that, unlike the British, the French didn't have a standard water canteen and so these figures carry three examples, the ghorde, the whicker framed bottle and the metal canteen, each requiring a different paint job. The four fusilier companies are represented with three groups of four fusilers having blue, orange and purple pompoms. I represent the first company with my drummer having a green pompom. The staff (officer and fanion bearer) have white pompoms and the elites including the pioneer either in grenadier red or voltigeur green/yellow. Note also that my elites carry distinctions peculiar to the 96e Ligne, hence the illustration at the top of the post as another reference to commonalities between regiments.

The volitigeurs of the 96e Ligne wore yellow cuff slashes as seen above, instead of the more standard white. Note that I haven't done all the piping, such as around the collars, some cuff slashes, turn-back and lapel piping. These will get done in the next stage as they can get in the way of the primary highlighting and it is simpler to add them later in the process. Likewise there are some small straps across the front of some of the fusiliers from which the water bottles are hung and are easier to apply later in the job.

So that is the base coat finished and now we can move on to the really fun stuff of shading up to a third coat to try and make these little chaps pop. However it is worth stressing that a good result relies on the foundations laid in the first stages, undercoat and base coat and attention to detail at this stage will reward you later.

The other aspect I would highlight here is that of colour selection. The predominantly blue coats of the French lends itself to a "cold" white, hence I have based my white areas on a grey. The British and Spanish in the red and brown coats lend themselves to a "warm" white and thus I would tend to base coat the white areas with a buff base coat.

You will note that the figures look dull in their dark colours. This is deliberate as these dark shades will underpin the more vibrant upper shades and provide the contrast in the shadowed areas. This technique is the same for painting 28mm figures and we are not relying on any black lining to delineate colours or areas of shadow.

Next up - Part Two and the first highlight colours


  1. Great stuff Jonathan, a useful resource. Glad to see a fellow black undercoater - although other than than I fail to get the same results as you! Thanks for taking the time.

  2. Great stuff. Excellent timing for me too as I start work on my next French project. As always being able to mimic your style of painting is my goal with all of my projects.

  3. I have to say I really don't miss painting at all. Since my failing eye sight robbed me of this part of the hobby and self employment has taken most of my time I have to employ mercenary brushmen. I do appreciate your results though, heaven knows how many thousand I must have painted over the years, keep it up, you need these beauties for the big game JJ. Be good, jj

  4. Really great tutorial! I wasn't expecting such a detailed report, but this makes it much easier to see how you paint.

    Thank you!

  5. Excellent post JJ. I am always interested in how fellow gamers achieve their excellent results and what paint shades etc. they are using.

  6. Great tutorial, always good to see people helping out with articles like this thanks!

  7. Nice work Jonathan I will be looking forward to the next one, I do have a question I am painting two units of French infantry I have painted white slash on the cuffs . But a lot of pictures I see have them blue . I have the osprey book for line infantry and I think it's not the best for uniform detail it's quite frustrating . I know there was a lot of uniform difference for the French but I thought most of the pre 1812 units had white slash on cuffs . And don't get me started on the drummers and voltigures.
    Regards Furphy .

  8. Hi guys, thanks for your comments. From the response I have had it seems these kinds of posts are in demand and, if the response to the Wargames, Soldiers & Strategy poll is anything to go by, painting is an important aspect of the hobby which is as it should be, although I wish the scores on terrain importance had been higher.

    Furphy - you will find quite a bit of variation in French uniforms, particularly before 1812, so much so that you can't be wrong unless you are trying to produce a look of a particular unit. With this project I have gone back to an original source, ie the Otto Manuscript that has illustrations of all of Victor's infantry as they appeared in 1807 in Hamburg. Other illustrations I have put up on posts are following these original pictures. Even with a primary source you end up with as many questions and doubt as the answers you hope to gain and in the end the artist has to make an interpretation. Sadly Napoleonics attracts some who insist on an exactness that defies all the issues of time and insufficient source material. Ignore all that nonsense and find an illustration you are happy to work from and go with that content with all the caveats mentioned. The illustration of the Grenadier at the top of the post shows a very nice blue cuff slash and it would work for me. I will put all the references I have used on my posts so you can track down any gaps in the personal research library

    I hope that helps.

    Cheers all

  9. Cheers Jonathanfor the advice I will stick with what I am doing then many thanks .
    Regards Furphy .

  10. Yep, you paint much in much the same way as I do Jon. I think we read the same article !

    I tend to think "start dark, go light" because you can't easily go the other way.


    1. Yes that is a good way of thinking about it and the beauty of using the modern acrylics is the ability to thin them as required to allow the foundation base coats to impact on the overal look which I will demonstrate with the white work

  11. This is a great tutorial Jonathan! I like your tip on the different undercoat for white straps on the red British uniform and cold grey for French blue. I had been thinking that one myself for Leib Garde Cossacks I'll be painting. I planned to use a CdA buff/mushroom colour.

    1. Thanks Paul. Yes the warmth or not of a set of colours can really determine base colour selections as, having experimented, it is amazing how the eye spots the irregularity without being able to register why at first. With greater scrutiny it becomes more obvious and I now choose my base colours on this principle.

  12. Very insightful to watch the master at work. Interesting and comprehensive tutorial.
    Now on to Part II!

    1. Hey Jon that's very kind of you. This is just my way of painting, with techniques and ideas I have gleaned from others in the approach of "adopt, adapt, improve". It seems only fair to pass it on and hope that others might find some useful ideas.

      Glad you are enjoying the journey.