Beach Basing

with Mike
(Cross-posted from Behind Enemy Lines...)

As I draw closer to basing my Marines, I've been experimenting with some different techniques to get a good beach effect. As usual I always start with photos and there's always a lot of great South Pacific holiday pictures to look at.

My objective with this experiment is Betio Island during the Tarawa landings. Using a collection of photos, I had a go at a few different bases to try a few things.

After many years of basing with sand and trying to recreate different types of sand colors, (thanks North Africa!) I've come to the conclusion that choosing the right colors for your base hinges on three things:

  • picking a color photo sample, 
  • choosing the right base and top colors, and 
  • developing a color scheme.

Choosing Sample Photo
First you need to know what scene you're looking to recreate. It turns out that sand doesn't remain the same color throughout the day and very much depends on the position of the sun (the Sahara sands often turns pink during dusk and dawn hours, and yellow during midday), the presence of water (and what type of water? usually salt). You will sometimes find photos of the exact same piece of ground taken at different times of the day and end up with radically different colors. You'll go mad if you let this get to you! So rather than worry about these factors, I've found it easiest to just pick a color photo and go from there. For this experiment I chose this photo from Betio Island:

As you can see this sample actually has a rich range from dark to light, and ends with a nice bright color that will compliment the Marine's darker green uniform. This is something else to consider. the figures that will go on the base. I'm actually looking for basing scenes that contrast or compliment the figures's uniform colors so that the base works well from a composition point of view.  It's a bit counter-intuitive when it comes to camouflage, but I believe it makes for a stronger model.

Base Color
The second most important thing that you need to do is select the correct base color. More than anything, the base color defines the overall tone of the base. This is pretty critical so its worth spending the time to do it properly and really have a good look at the photo for the darkest colors, being careful not to be tricked by the shadows.

In the example above I chose the Vallejo color, Brown Violet (VP887).

Top Color 
This is the brightest color you want on the base. It should be relatively easy to choose compared to the base color. As with the shadows, don't be fooled by the brightest reflections from the sun.

For my base I chose Pale Sand (VP837)

Color Scheme
This can be the most daunting part, choosing the colors to build up from the base coat to achieve the top color. However, I've found this terrific article by Jeremy Painter to be one of the best on the subject of basing:

Desert Basing (by Jeremy Painter) ...

Here's his cheat sheet for choosing the right colors:

Even if you don't chose the same colors that Jeremy did, you can get the impression of what the middle stepping stones are between your base and top colors. For my base I thing the example to the top right was the closest and therefore I started down that path. I ended up choosing Dark Sand (VP847) as my middle step.

Test Basing
I find this step rather important to actually put into practice my theoretical scheme and see if I like it. I grabbed some medium bases, spackled them up and glued a layer of sand to the top. A quick word about choosing your sand... 

The granularity of your sand is pretty important, but the trap I see most folks fall into is trying to find the most fine sand possible. While this is totally legit, it's not something that a must-do. If you look at the photos above there is some variety between the fine sands and the rocky sands. Again, like with the color, it's all about choosing the scene you want to recreate and sticking to it. As with my selected photo above, the sand has a lot of racks and stuff in with it, so a courser sand was totally appropriate 

Good sources for sand is your local beach (assuming is OK that you take some),. hardware shops (look for children's playground sand), or other powdery stuff that will show a texture that you can paint. In fact straight vinyl spackling can be smoothed out and give a terrific fine sand effect. 

What I don't recommend are the hobby grits from Games Workshop, Army Painter, or GF9. These are typically too grainy, unusually consistent in size, and a lot more expensive.

Anyway, back to the bases...

When I applied the spackle, I built in some high points and low points to give the base some elevation, but this is totally optional, especially if your scene is more of that idyllic holiday beach. I glued a very thin layer of sand over the top.

After the sand dried I added some basing highlights, such as palm frondds (cut from plastic palm trees), rocks, and seaweed (ground tea leaves). On the seaweed, I tried to push the tea leaves into long lines to outline a tide mark.

Next I painted the base from bast coat to top coat using the color scheme I chose earlier. I applied a heavy base coat of Green Violet, then a medium basecoat of dark sand, then a light highlight of Pale Sand. I did the example below as a piece without basing highlights to show the color application process.

Then I painted the rocks Stone Grey (VP884) and highlighted them with Pale Sand. I added some very small beads of PVA and applied some GF9 static grass (Winter/Dead Grass). I did this sparingly.

I also painted the palm frond and seaweed, choosing a dead color scheme for the frond and dark greens for the seaweed. I also took a detail brush and picked out small grains of sand to paint white, recreating (at a distance) sea shells concentrated around the tide mark.

Finally, I experimented with wet sand. I wasn't totally happy with the results in terms of color, but I liked the technique and will improve on it. For this I used a series of dark Khaki washes, adding a little bit of dark brown as I went.

Here's the bases all together so that you can see them.I'd say a'm mostly happy with the results, but I'm going to try some other schemes before I pull the trigger and base all of my marines!

So, what do you think?


  1. This is really useful. I'm doing a fantasy army that requires shoreline bases and was struggling for ideas. You've given me lots to consider, thanks


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