As I mentioned before, the latest project at my local club is the Dark Ages of fifth century A.D. Britain. This seems to be a very popular period at present. There are some fine miniatures available at very reasonable prices and the attraction of the period has been reinvigorated by a host of different media, principally Gripping Beast’s very interesting set of rules, SAGA, and several films and books over the last few years (Beowulf, Game of Thrones, Outlander, etc.).
So, I should be excited, eager and enthusiastic about painting my first war band of 50 Saxons from 450A.D. Well, I should be ... but things for me worked out slightly differently.
It’s not the first time I’ve tried this period. In the dim and distant past, better known as the 1980s, I tried building a WRG 6th edition Dark Age Irish army. It was a truly dark experience for me. The 25mm figures I used were pretty dreadful. When painted they looked like a diseased, filthy, under-nourished rabble – in other words, quite accurate, but not attractive. I have bitter memories of painstakingly replacing their spindly swords with flattened wire swords, which periodically fell off during their tabletop battles. Grim, dark memories ...
Worse still was the history. Glimpsed dimly through the shadows of fifteen centuries, all I got was a few dramatic images from the fragmentary chroniclers. Welsh cavalry pounding a rainy North British hillside at the battle of Catraeth ... ravens gnawing on the severed head of a Scots-Irish chieftain at the battle of Strathcarron ... lines of incomplete poetry about a rain of spear points visciously coursing into the flesh of an enemy. All vivid and colourful. But nothing at all about where they were fighting, how many were fighting, and how they got there. As far as a wargame went, you could sort of make it up. And we did.
It was fun for as long as it lasted (and as long as the flattened wire swords remained glued into the drilled holes in the figures' hands). But in the end, finding out about the period was just very hard work.
So I was more than slightly pessimistic when the idea of Dark Age warfare was suggested again. Would it be better the second time around?
“Quicker to a field of blood, Than to a wedding”
I’d bought the 28mm figures for the Saxons from Gripping Beat about two years ago. (And yes, that is the normal painting schedule at Roundwood Towers). They are fine, strong figures, made with good quality metal. They’re also a very reasonable price when you purchase in bulk. I’d like to say that preparing them was a simple easy process, but I’d be lying slightly. The problem I found was that the figures are cast open-handed, which gives you a lot of options but is a real fiddle when you’re gluing the weapons to the figures.
I replaced the cast white metal spears which come with the figures with wire ones for strength, and made the best effort I could in fixing the weapons into the open hands of the figures. I started supergluing the weapons to the hands, but I was unhappy with the result. I resorted to epoxy resin after first gently “closing” the open hands of the figures with a pair of pliers so that the weapons would fit snugly.
The whole process was a bit of a palaver and took a few hours. I resisted temptation to throw the whole lot in the rubbish bin several times.
Once the weapons were glued into the hands of the figures, things got better. I based the figures on 3mm depth MDF round discs (or hexagons for “Big Men”) with a quick coating of PVA, sand and gravel on their bases.
I scraped the excess glue and sand on while the glue was setting.
I primed the figures with Halfords car primer, which holds paint really well and is as cheap as chips. I then had a war band, ready for painting. Although it was about then that some of my problems really started ...
The (slightly dubious) Joys of Dipping
As I was reticent about the whole project from the start, I’d already decided to try and get the figures painted as quickly as possible and on the table. Seduced by the lure of “painting and army in a weekend”, some spectacular videos on YouTube and some fine painting on other blogs, I decided to use Army Painter Strong Tone dip for the figures.
It felt liberating, at least at first. I perked up as I raced through painting the first 30 figures. Without shading or highlighting, the whole process of painting the figures was speeded considerably. I felt like I was going back in time. The years fell away. This was how we painted in the early and mid 1980s – flat, solid colours on (pretty hideous) club wargames armies which numbered in the several hundreds.
Non-metallic metals? Counter-shading? Four or five different paints and shading for a figure’s face. Don’t make me laugh! For several hours, I was in heaven. This was Old School painting, and I loved it.
Of course, I was telling myself that the Army Painter dip would make everything perfectly shaded. By now, those of you still reading will have a face frozen in a rictus of horror or will be laughing uncontrollably. I think you know what comes next.
The dip is pretty easy to apply. I painted it on, as very ably shown by Pat Lowringer of SoCal Warhammer in this great video. It certainly does the job of staining the figures, covering them all in a deep gloss shade. The hands and faces are easily visible, and it does a great job on the metallic in toning them down.
But, as you can see, what I was left with was a dark, grungy force, coated in a thick gloss varnish. While the Army Painter Strong Tone dip did its job, it isn’t a miracle worker. I probably chose the wrong colours for the base coats on the figures, and will need to do a little highlighting to lighten up the figures.
Matt varnishing, which I did last night, did help slightly.
The overall look is of a standard, ordinary, distinctly-average set of figures – OK when seen from a distance, but not great close-up. But then, what did I expect after spending next to no time on them?
On the whole, I’m pretty happy – I had a lot of fun painted the figures in fast, simple block colours, although my hopes were unrealistically high for how the dip would look on the figures. On the plus side, I’ve now got a load of (slightly uninspiring) figures painted, we can start playing a few games at my local club. And there’s still chance to add a few highlights, some fancy banners and shield transfers on the figures I've done, and to try something a little different with the the next 30 figures for the war band.
I’ll see if I can smarten up the next lot of Saxons for next time. Wish me luck!