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Trireme painting tutorial

Before painting some new ships that just came out of the yards, I looked back at the fleet and realized that keeping all units a natural wood colour might look a bit dull. Moreover, I realized that having coloured ships would allow me to easily recognise squadrons between green (no painted ships whatsoever), average (a few painted ships) and veteran (mostly painted). So I am going to paint the new units with the brightest paints a rich trireme owner might afford. But first, I had to find out what colors trireme actually were. So I went back to the library and did a little research, and realized how few are the discussions related to colors.

Everyone remembers about homeric "black" ships, which were "black" as a result of the application of paints based on different mixtures of pitch, tar, resin and wax (these could even result in a white painting) collectively known as hypaloiphe (this is from Morrison et al., The Athenian Trireme, see my review here). In classical times, these were applied to the ship's bottom or on the wetted surfaces, even if it seems for example that wax would be used to keep tenons together and therefore on the whole hull. Anyho, if the hypaloiphe goes below the lower wale only, then it is not showing on waterline models such as my minis.

The wales in evidence on Morrison's plan of the Olympias

Above the lower wale, according to L. Casson in his seminal Ships and seamanship in the ancient world, ancient ships might have used colours much more than one might suspect. Ships, Casson says, could be painted with a wide variety of colours that were mostly mineral derivatives and were purple, white, blue, yellow, brown, green and red. Scout ships and pirate crafts would often be painted some graysh blue, to camouflage with the sea. He supports his theory convincingly with several sources both literary (ancient authors' descriptions and citations) and iconographical (sculptures, frescoes and paintings showing reamaining traces of paints). It is true that many of those sources relates to Roman-era shipping, but I am willing to believe that, say, Athenian golden age vessels would be just as bright - if the trierarch could so afford.

Now, I am not sure wether this paint should go on the whole hull or just on some parts of it. There surely would be no paint visible in the middle part of the models, as this part would be covered by the parexeiresia (which I was never able to sculpt convincingly...) with its sidescreens, and by the moving oars. There would be no paint on the bridge, where people would walk on. And maybe, there should be no paint between the low and the top wale, where paint would risk to be wetted a lot? Painting would be expensive and only partially water-resistant. After one try, I decided to just paint it all, it looks better!

So, this is how I am going to go about it: purple, white, blue, yellow, brown, green and red, at the epotis and the prow and along the raised part of the stern. Maybe also add some symbols at the prow, representing the ship's namesake, as Casson has it.

So there we go. First of all, I paint the ships with the natural wood base color. I like to use three different but similar paints: below are shown, from left to right, Vallejo Buff, Iraqi Sand and Dark Sand.

It is not very clear from the picture, but you could actually see that these are different colors if you'd look at them live. The differences between the three are subtle and give you some kind of natural variating shades while mantaining some overall uniformity in the fleet.

Then, I give them a good brown wash (I use GW's ). This exalt the entrance on the bridge and clearly defines the oarage, the raised prow and the topwale in front.

Now is the time for colors. As you can see I tried to paint a prow only topwale and above (the green one), but I am not very keen on it. I just prefer the fully colored version.

Now we might want some highlights, even if it is not strictly necessary. For the natural wood colors, I use the 3 original colors in drybrush over the oars and a full coverage of the bridge. Just take care not to touch the "hole" in the middle. For the colored parts, I only add tiny lines, of a lighter nuance, at the top of the prow's extension towards the ram, on the wales and at the top of the stern.

And finally, you want to add the ophthalmoi, the eyes which will allow your ships to find a safe passage through the sea. Since these are reaally small models, you just want to use a very fine brush to do one short horizontal stroke in white, and then add a very small black dot in the center of the white stroke. Anything fancier will result in a mess.

Done! As you can see, it is a very straightforward process. Very easily, you can paint a dozen ships at the time and finish in one short session. Here is the full oligarchs' squadron! Check here for more pictures.

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