What is Grimdark? Miniature Painting Dark Fantasy and Reality

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What does Grimdark mean to you? Is it a genre of art, visual style, or something else entirely? Players and painters tossed around the term a lot in the miniature painting community. What does Grimdark describe in regards to miniatures painted for Warhammer 40k or other tabletop games, like Dungeons and Dragons? What are some examples of what Grimdark means as an aesthetic theme within miniature painting?

This article will answer all these questions and more about the meaning of Grimdark when it comes to miniature painting.


What is “Grimdark”?

“Grimdark” or the related “Blanchitsu” artistic terms refer to models or miniatures painted with descriptive adjectives, such as dark, drained, beaten, battle-worn, melancholy, foreboding, or heavy laden.

The definition of “grimdark” has been a moving target over the years. Grimdark takes on different meanings depending on who you ask, or what fictional lore reference point you rely to define it with Warhammer 40k being only one example.

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A classic image with grimdark feels.

For tabletop gamers and hobbyists who are familiar with the far future universe of Warhammer 40k, the images you can find online are replete motifs of dark realism, dystopian struggles, and dark fantasy.

I think most artists would agree that the Grimdark visual style portrays the dark side of reality, while set in a fictional world. Unlike horror movies–the B-rated kind–grimdark is a theme of epic fantasy clothed in horror stories that could be real. As in reality, there are no true villains and heroes, only a moral ambiguity.

Are there supernatural elements in grimdark fiction? Sure! Stephen King writes speculative fiction, some may call it horror. But, whether there are ghosts or other deliciously creepy fiction elements in his stories, Stephen King’s novels could be argued to have a grim and dark tone that we associate with any grimdark novel.

Grimdark is a subgenre of many speculative works, including Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451. Fahrenheit 451 is a 1953 dystopian novel by American author Ray Bradbury. The book is often considered one of his finest works, depicting a future American society where books are banned and “firemen” burn any that are discovered. In many opinions, Fahrenheit 451 is one of the first grimdark novels that reached mainstream culture, embraced as a true classic in the grimdark genre.

Suffice it to say, if you’ve never read a grimdark novel, you can find these stories nowadays in the popular fiction section of your local bookstore, not just in the science fiction shelves.

As with any art, grimdark fantasy comes down to a personal definition of a more cynical reality. A reality where our own world exists perhaps, but with all the wrestling personal struggles we have, along with the moral failings and flaws of our cultures.

In other words, the term grimdark is more than a person living a dark life. Grimdark fiction depicts a real world devoid of rest, peace, and contentment. Grimdark is a fantasy writing, stories, images of an unending struggle, a place and time of only war with one’s self and the uncaring world.

The good guys don’t win, because there aren’t any real good guys. Good fights worth fighting aren’t really valuable, because there’s always another battle around the corner.

How to Paint Grimdark Miniatures

Whenever I paint a grimdark miniature, the first thing that comes to mind is contrast. This can be used in many ways depending on what type of scene you’re trying to create. Deep rich shadows and light intense highlights are often necessary when painting miniatures for this genre because they convey more than just realism.

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High contrast, a range of color and style emerge from every compelling Grimdark painted miniature. Image credit: Grimdark Compendium
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Smoke effects are a way to create mood and drama in miniature photos.

It’s also about conveying an emotion or sense of moodiness which evokes something deep within us as viewers–for example, fear! A lot has been said about narrative realism, of course. Grimdark is one way painters have found success in projects painting exclusively in sci-fi genres like Warhammer 40K.

But, lately some painters seem unconvinced by its merit, considering it a lazy and cliche style. Here’s why I enjoy Grimdark as a theme and think this style actually resonates well with everyone. Hint: It’s about great storytelling.

Two Key Concepts for Painting Grimdark Miniatures

  • Emotional contrast
  • Narrative realism

Emotional contrast

At first glance, Grimdark as an idea is moody, dark, and depressing. But, this doesn’t mean you paint models with a very dark tone and no light. That’s not what Grimdark is about! Grimdark isn’t simply “darkening” your models, literally with shades, inks, or oils.

Instead, the secret to a truly Grimdark piece of art, relies on leveraging extreme emotional contrasts–sad/depressing versus happy/optimism. On the one hand, you visually see darkness. But, at the same time (in your head, your mind’s eye), you maintain high ideals of optimism, peace, and tranquility.

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Bright and dark visuals with miniatures help tell a story.

I think the best representations of Grimdark miniature paintings incorporate bright, elevated elements in stark contrast to a visually “Grimdark” atmosphere. Grimdark means adding horror elements to the details of miniatures, or making them look weathered by battle, but it doesn’t mean you can’t explore color palettes that are brighter than dirt brown or the darkest night sky.

In the end, the conceptual contrast in the grimdark style makes for an interesting constraint on painting projects because you want to create realistic scenes without being too depressing or devoid of life’s beauty.

Narrative realism

Another way to think about Grimdark themes is to think about what makes painted miniatures appear realistic. Grimdark is about living in the middle of birth and death. There is a lot of story here.

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Image Credit: Pinterest

As Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

In my opinion, Mr. Hemingway (an injured WW1 Veteran) captured the Grimdark atmosphere in much of his writing, because he likely lived it everyday after returning home from war. He ultimately committed suicide in 1961.

Forget the comic book look, or the ‘eavy metal style of miniature painting. Instead look at the photographs captured by photojournalists embedded with soldiers in the war torn Middle East, or the historical images of the aftermath of war.

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Infinity miniatures are often associated with bright colors and comic book styling. But, that doesn’t have to be the case.

Grimdark is realism in its starkest sense. It is often used to make minis look more realistic and moody, as well as create a sense of war-weariness. But, at the end of the day, realism is the key ingredient for achieving a Grimdark theme.

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Image credit: Concept Art World. Fantasy fiction set in what could be a real place. This doesn’t look like it’s in the far future or some unrealistic place. The grim and dark tone places this image in the dark fantasy arena of art. Notice the people in the far right hand corner? What kind of lives do they live?

Tips for How to Paint Grimdark Miniatures

The Grimdark look can be achieved through the painting of the models with a variety of techniques and using a variety of paints. Here are some general tips for achieving the grimdark visuals.

1) Create contrast between the model and the environment. This can be achieved by painting the models as worn and battle-hardened, and painting the terrain around them realistically to invoke an emotional response from the viewer.

2) Choose colors that are bright in contrast to shades of dark colors. The best way to do this is to use bright skin colors on your miniatures and choosing darker backgrounds (i.e., clothing, armor, weaponry) for these miniatures.

Remember to maintain realism in what would be considered the realistic surroundings for your particular fictional space. For example, if you’re painting a brightly armored Warhammer 40k Eldar Guardian, manifest with your art the actual location of where this miniature would exist. What kind of weathering, grime, or dirt coat would armor of this Guardian?

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Warhammer 40k Tau miniature with bright colors and grime effects.

3) A great way to paint models with a realistic Grimdark theme is to use dramatic, dark colors, but not too much! For example, you want a model to have dirt smudges on the face and armor, but not too many stains or grimy dabs of paint; otherwise they will end up looking like just another dull model dipped in Agrax Earthshade. Imagine how a model would look surviving through a hard fought battle, which is actually our next tip.

4) Trying to make miniatures look like they’ve just come out of a real battle is an excellent way to apply the Grimdark theme. This can be done by dirtying up their armor and weapons, making them wear dark clothing that matches their faction’s colors, or painting deep gashes on the skin in order to give the model a battle-hardened appearance. If you decide to use technical paints from Citadel, try not to use too much. Use your imagination or reference images to understand the realistic places grime, blood, and dirt would build up on a model.

Realistic looking tank in battle - grimdark 40k fantasy
This tank emerges from ruins and smoke. For more dramatic miniature photography, check out this article. In the far future, there is only war…

5) Use a variety of colors and techniques for a dark paint scheme. Don’t just use black, brown, and gray. Under explored color schemes for grimdark paint jobs include using bright greens against very dark purples, or rust orange on a twilight blue base. Color contrast will help you “darken” models without changing brightness value.

land raider grey knight - grimdark fantasy
My Warhammer 40k Grey Knight Land Raider. Dark fiction or simply “dark”?

6) Earthtone paint layers combined with a bright base color will quickly achieve a basic Grimdark aesthetic. Follow this with weathering and battle damage techniques, and you can paint a large number of models without complicated color combinations.

7) Don’t show everything. Hide the optimism in shadows. One way to create a grimdark tone to your work is to try using zenithal highlighting along with glazes and washes to add color. Combine some techniques mentioned above, like adding textured/technical effects, e.g., grime, gore, mud, and you may achieve the grimdark look you were looking for.

Speculative fiction doesn’t reveal the darker mystery without drawing you into the drama first. The art here is to paint your miniature so you don’t show all of your effects unless the viewer keeps their attention for a while. Superior grimdark painting is a kind of tease.

8) Give your viewer a lot of hope. Or none at all. Grimdark is about extremes. Of course, developing this concept with your art is a challenge only you can meet. And, I think a part of the reason it is hard to teach “Grimdark” art is because it can mean different things to everyone.

A Miniature Painter’s Grimdark Story

As you’ll learn below, the key to the Grimdark style is pessimism and optimism wrapped in a dirty wet blanket. The visuals of a Grimdark world portrays realism, focusing on the moods and atmospheric motifs of a dark fantasy setting. Grimdark is about contrasting themes, about struggling in the gray zone between life and death. We are compelled, because Grimdark tells our story….

“I can’t do this anymore.” The miniature painter, Chuck, threw his brush onto the table with a sigh of defeat. “How am I supposed to paint Tau models in Warhammer 40k Grimdark style when I’m so far out of my comfort zone?” He glanced at the model on the table and thought for a moment about whether he should put it back into its box.

As he started to reach for it, though, there was an idea that came into his mind. A wave of inspiration washed over him as he picked up one of his brushes again. With a free hand, he scrolled through YouTube until he found what he wanted–battle scenes from Saving Private Ryan, Star Wars, and Mad Max: Fury Road.

As the pop-pop of gunfire, roaring motors, and clank of machinations erupted around him (figuratively), Chuck began to paint with a newfound inspiration. He painted fast, stopping only when he had finished one model or needed more dark brown paint for another part of that same model.

In the end, Chuck had managed to paint his Tau models in Warhammer 40k Grimdark style with a little bit of help from Hollywood and some talented painters on YouTube. While he may not have been as comfortable painting these miniatures at first, they turned out beautifully and are now one of his favorite projects that he’s ever completed.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

― Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Final Thoughts

Grimdark is a term that’s thrown around by tabletop gamers, painters and miniatures enthusiasts. It can be tricky to figure out what Grimdark means in regards to the art of miniature painting. Is it just an aesthetic? A mood or atmosphere? Or something more literal like realistic battle scars for your model?

For those looking for some tips on how to paint their models with this style, you’re in luck! Check articles throughout the site for tips and practice a lot with the hobby tricks you discover.

I hope this article provided you with helpful guidelines for achieving the grim war-torn look we all know as Grimdark when painting miniatures.

Happy (Grimdark) miniature painting!

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