Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Painting Question: Line Highlighting

by SandWyrm

Dear SandWyrm,

If you have a moment I would like to pick your brain on the popular painting style "line highlighting". Ron at From the Warp brought it to my attention recently with his "Back to Basics" series of articles. I guess I haven't really been paying much attention to it but after it was mentioned I noticed that its something that the staff at Games Workshop likes to use almost exclusively. Personally I am not that much of a fan. I have tired it on a few minis and I cannot seem to get the look to come out right. Even when I have painted the model the way that I intended it just doesn't seem to look "natural" for a lack of a better term. To me it appears that its a method to create a false contrast.

Looking to your models I noticed that you don't appear to use this technique ( and if you do please forgive me for my lack of observation ) and yet you still get a good look and can differentiate between colors/textures without issue. Could you possibly point out some of the pros and cons as to why you should/shouldn't use this technique and why you do/don't for your own personal painting style? Any and all feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you in advance,
SandWyrm's Reply:

For those that don't know, I suppose I should define what Line Highlighting is.

First off, here's a pic of my own IG commander conversion and his two advisors. To paint them I used a standard dark-to-light shading technique where I sort of generalize the light as coming from above the model.

And here's a pic from GW's online catalog showing two of the same models with loads of line highlighting. In particular, note the Officer of the Fleet. I deliberately copied the color scheme and many of the painting details, but left off the line highlighting.

So simply put, Line Highlighting is the technique of adding lines of high-contrast color shades to the raised surfaces and leading edges of models. This makes it look like your model is wrapped in vinyl.

Here's a Space Marine example:

First, we have my Emo-Wing test model alongside another Tallarn model. Both have been painted with dark-to-light shading.

And here's some GW Death Company in a similar scheme, but with Line Highlighting everywhere.

So What Do I Think Of It?

In a word: Overused.

There's nothing wrong with it as a technique, but it's not appropriate for every model, or even most of them. I can understand GW's desire to accentuate every detail for it's photographs, but this degree of overuse indicates that the painters have turned their brains off and are blindly adding lines to every surface without thinking.

Besides the lazy monotony of it, doing this to every detail destroys your ability to draw attention to certain features on the model. In my Sanguinary Guard model, I wanted the blood-colored bits to "pop" and draw attention to themselves. But on GW's models, those details just disappear into the sea of contrasting lines.

That said, there are some models for which this technique really adds something:

For the Dark Eldar I think the technique works very well, giving them an otherworldly feel and contrasting the technique's high-tech Tron-like look with the more archaic details of their models. This painter just blindly put lines everywhere. But If it were me, I'd not use Line Highlighting on the organic and metal bits to give the model more thematic contrast.

So to everyone: THINK as you paint! Have a reason for using a special-effect technique like Line Highlighting, or don't use it at all.


  1. Yet another great article on painting... Good show!

  2. For those not aware, Ron and I used it in our Back to Basics series because it's easy. We're trying to demonstrate simple methods (in some places exaggerated) for new artists who would be overwhelmed if they tried to jump right to complicated techniques such as blending. (hence the name of the series)

    Perhaps this is why GW uses some simple painting steps as well - making their models appear attainable to new artists rather than scare them away with Golden Demon level advertising.

    Personally, I think you need to start with the basics and become comfortable with what you're doing before moving on to more advanced or complicated things. (Advice that works with many aspects of your life)

  3. Line highlighting was never one of my favorite techniques.

    Then again, I tend to paint brighter, then shadow everything with wash, and pick out a few things I want highlighted. Then again, I prefer what I consider a more 'realistic' dirty, grimy look.

  4. being a guy that almost never uses line highlighting, i have to say i love it with space marines, eldar and dark eldar. using it on something that has more of an organic feel does not work. including the imperial guard. clothes do not generally lend themselves to good use for line highliting, and in todays miniature style of painting, line highlighting is looked upon as an "old school" approach to painting, and generally has a more cartoonish style to it. im not saying thats wrong, just a dated approach to painting miniatures. "lining in" on models like the dark eldar though are pretty much the best way to do it, unless of course you are looking for lavish blends that show an amazing amount of zenithal lighting, which is fun to do, but takes forever. i should probably write an article on zenithal lighting sometime. lol. rock on


  5. sandwyrm: i was also looking at your emo-wing guy. as cool as it looks with the whites, i might consider adding some of those line highlights to the black or possibly using some shading on the blacks. mainly because they seem too flat to me. but then again, after writing this, i realized, your probably not done yet with it. /facepalm.

  6. The pic I used of the Emo-Wing test model is a bit dark, so you can't easily see that there is some shading there. Specifically, two washes (blood and black) with the original color over the top.

    But yes, it could use a few lighter tones here and there to accentuate things. Particularly on the kneepads. These don't have to be artificial-looking lines. I usually use shapes of color instead.

  7. I redid the lighting on my tanks so that they'd be visible on the tabletop. Although it looks overdone up close you can barely notice on the tabletop. It's sad but despite the subtle shading I tried before, the tanks just looked flat from a few feet away.

    Line highlighting is too time consuming for me but I think it can work in a similar way. It looks dumb up close but you barely notice on the tabletop and it just makes the models pop more.

  8. I think the color you are using can have some bearing on using line highlighting. Black in particular can be difficult to obtain a clean look on, but line highlighting makes it a bit easier.

  9. My Eldar are the rulers of Tron. It befits them to appear so.


out dang bot!

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