Part One - a Colour Guide
I was asked by a club member to give some pointers for painting samurai, so I thought I might as well make a short introduction to the topic. In this first part I will not go into specific paints and techniques. Instead, this guide will give some overall pointers that you can use no matter which kind of painting techniques and painting ranges you prefer. Later on I plan to make some more specific guides based on how I paint my samurai, but that’s for another day. I will also do a separate guide for horses, as that's a pretty big topic in itself.
I’ll begin with the topic that I’ve gotten the most questions about over the years that I’ve painted and posted samurai online. What’s a good paint for Japanese skin? My simple answer is that the paints you currently use for whatever you paint will do just fine. Japanese skin is far less yellow than some painters assume, going towards what can end up as almost an old comic book caricature hue.
What you can do is to avoid skin tone paints that tends towards a pinkish hue. Personally, I tend to start with a brown base colour (like Vallejo's Cork Brown) that I mix up with successive coats where I add more and more of a neutral skin colour.
If you want to distinguish your troops lower on the social status, such as ashigaru and lower ranking samurai, you can make the effort to paint their skin as more tanned. At the start of the Sengoku period a lot of them would be part-time soldiers, toiling in the fields under the harsh Japanese sun inbetween campaign seasons. The more peripheral and less influential the clan, the more likely that their troops would not be full time professional soldiers. And even professional ashigaru would spend campaigns like so many other soldiers throughout the ages: digging ditches, carrying heavy loads, and generally doing hard labour while their officers could stay in the shade.
A Very Very Short Historical Period Guide
If you are new to collecting and painting samurai, it's not easy to keep track of the periods and more importantly - what they mean to you as a wargamer. Here's the three most common times you might see in wargames, how to recognize them, and what they mean.
1. The Time of Horse Archery
Once upon a time, the samurai were primarily horse archers. Japan was ruled by an Emperor (sometimes two), and warfare was centered on samurai clans fighting each other for supremacy within this system, or as agents of the Emperor fighting against rebellions, or against Mongol invasions.
The most known military highlights for a Westerner are probably the Gempei War between the Taira and the Minamoto that levelled large parts of the country in 1180-85. and the Mongol invasions 1274 and 1281. While the shogunate had been installed in the latter war, the Emperor was till a potent force and would temprarily overturn the Shogunate through the Genkou War. While this kind of warfare covered several periods, you're probably going to wargame the Heian (794–1192) and Kamakura (1192–1333) periods.
So, what does this mean? Basically, the armies were smaller, and battles would be more like skirmishes. The samurai wore bulky armours that gave maximum protection from arrows, and that were not ideally suited for dismounted combat. The helmets were very wide and combined with huge square shoulder plates protecting weak points while shooting arrows. Since battles were small, back banners were not used as much to identify people, but there were still army banners carried by hand to separate the opposing sides.
Meanwhile, the foot infantry would mostly be part-time soldiers, wearing much less armour and tasked with surrounding the mounted samurai to protect them from being swarmed by opposing foot infantry and torn down from the saddle.
So: no back banners, huge helmets, mounted archers everywhere, and big boxy armour plates.
2. The Time of Huge Armies, Samurai Lords and Flags Everywhere
Takeda Shingen and Kenshin Uesugi traded blows at the 4th (!) Battle of Kawanakajima, but got separated and both survived. Some parts of the older armour style survived, especially with generals who might not expect to see frontline combat (check the unusually big curved plates on the seated Shingen's helmet).
After the Gempei War had burned down most of Kyoto, the power of the Emperor gradually declined. Instead, local samurai lords claimed more and more freedom, until Japan was ruled by feudal lords, each one master of their domain. Then there were a whole bunch of wars as these lords battled it out, often taking defeated enemies as their vassals. As the remaining lords became more powerful, armies grew larger and battles bigger and messier until everything ended up with a big bang, as two halves of the country met at Sekigahara in 1600. The defeated forces tried for a come-back that died with the siege of Osaka castle in 1615, ending this period - the Sengoku (in popular media) or Muromachi (in academic texts) period.
This is the big one for most wargamers. Hundreds of lords with their own armies, large battles, but also tons of opportunity for skirmishes. And if you want to you can involve China and Korea, through the Imjin Wars when Hideoyoshi tried to invade the continent. If you know of any pre-modern battles of Japan, chances are they are from this period. Most ranges of minis are from this period as well.
Typical of the period is that armour styles were simplified. Large armies needed efficient equipment, and the expensive horse archers had no chance against large missile troop formations. So the big boxy plates that sucked for dismounted combat got smaller. Mass produced armour with less lacing became common. And large armies meant a whole new emphasis on making it possible to see which side you were on, with the introduction of back banners and clan crests painted on armour parts as identification devices. Basically if you could stick a flag on it, they did.
3. The Time of No Armies, Lone Swordsmen and I Guess Emperors Again?
Once the Tokugawa clan and their allies had won the civil wars, they pretty much organized the entire political and economic society around making it impossible for rivalling clans to ever grow strong enough to usurp them. This worked surprisingly well, and from 1615 to 1868 there were very few military campaigns. The period is called Edo, after the old name for Tokyo, which became the capital of the Tokugawas.
This is the most popular period in Japanese historical movies and TV shows. If you have seen any movie or show where a tough dude walks around and swordfight lots of people, chances are that it does not take place in the period of actual wars, but during the Edo period.
Typical of this period is the lack of armour, and by this time indigo had become a defining colour for the samurai caste. Most common historical conflict, prior to the next bunch of civil wars, is probably the Akou Incident (known as the revenge of the 47 ronin, or Chuushingura), but a lot of skirmish games are heavily inspired by fiction set in the Edo period (Lone Wolf and Cub, Yojimbo, Harakiri, pretty much everything with a ninja in it). You can also reenact the chaotic ending days of the Shogunate, where agents on both sides fought in vicious urban close combat skirmishes.
Few armies had anything close to a uniform clothing during the Sengoku period. However, some areas of Japan were known for specific ways to make and dye cloth, such as the shibori technique that sprung up around Nagoya at the beginning of the Edo Period. The availability of local dyes and some feudal lords providing equipment for their ashigaru is excuse enough if you want to have a sligthly more uniform force.
Lower ranking soldiers would dress in less bold colours, and you’re safe to go with more earthy tones such as unbleached whites, greyish blues, browns, dirty yellows and greens. If you want to spruce them up, a good way is to introduce simple patterns such as stripes, spots or chequered patterns.
For both Ashigaru and Samurai, the clothing visible on miniatures would usually be a pair of pants and a jacket, though you will often see pictures of ashigaru wearing no pants during summer (they would then just wear a jacket and a fundoshi loincloth mostly covered by the jacket).
Ashigaru would normally be wearing just sandals in summer, but in colder times could be wearing tabi style socks as well. For poorer owners, unbleached whites or dark colours are a safe bet when it comes to socks. I've found dark blue to look quite nice, and it's a common colour still for tabi boots worn by carpenters in Japan.
The social ladder for samurai covered a large span, and in the end of the Sengoku period the ashigaru were simply the lowest tier of it. So you would have samurai that were not better off, and would wear just as simple clothes. But as their income increase, you’ll find them wearing more and more elaborate garments, both in terms of boldly coloured silk, intricate patterns and even silver and gold embroidery.
So basically, the sky’s the limit and you can do whatever you want. Which is not a very helpful statement. But fear not: there are some ways to reign in the creativity and get good looking painting schemes for your samurai. One way is to use the traditional ideas of kimono dressing. These are based on seasonal colours, and set ideas of which colours go well with each other. Use any of these, and you should be fine.
Samurai would sometimes be wearing gloves. These would usually be made of very fine deer skin, but could be dyed in many different colours as well. So if you want a high ranking officer to stand out, a pair of coloured gloves is one way to do it.
Most armour plates would be laquered black. It was the common colour on breastplates, shoulder plates, etc. The easiest way to get this effect is to paint them black, and then give them a layer of gloss varnish. If very worn the sheen of the laquer might be toned down, and you get get this effect using a matte varnish instead.
Trailing behind black comes red, brown, and rusty reddish/brown colours. And way, way less common would be spectacular colours like gold and white, sometimes attributed to the most wealthy of lords. But generally, if you see armour that is not black, red or brown, it’s something produced in late Edo period with more modern methods, long after the point that they were regularly used in the field.
Some armours would have a solid metal breastplate, while other would have several strips of plates that would be tied to each other with silk lacing. The smaller the armour strips, the more lacing. In the example above, the strips are narrow, so the lacing covers more area than the plates themselves.
The big one for many painters, especially when they start out. This is where the colour on the armour comes from, not the plates themselves. These are silk chords tying the plates together, and can be a bit fiddly to paint.
Generally, the earlier the armour or the wealthier the wearer, the more lacing. Later on, the types of breast plates without lacing or with minimal lacing became more popular, especially for less wealthy soldiers.
There are three very broad categories to use as a guide.
Other Armour Details
Some parts would be covered with cloth or leather. These areas can be found at the top of some breastplates for example. These can be painted in a single colour, or given a pattern, depending on how confident you are in your freehand skills.
Sangu - Leg and Arm Protection
Sangu the term for three parts of the samurai armour protecting the arms and legs: the sleeves, the shin armour, and the thigh armour.
On all three parts, if it looks like chainmail, it is. You’ll often find this on sleeves, with metal plates affixed like brigandine armour. Paint it as you would normally paint chainmail. Sometimes it appears a lot darker than your typical Medieval chainmail, even almost black, so that's also a solid option if you feel that a bright metal chainmail would distract from the rest of the colours.
Armour sleeves (kote)
The armour plates on the arms would usually be affixed to a separe pair of sleeves, that are tied around the arms on top of the jacket sleeves. So these could often be a different colour than what you’ve painted the jacket.
Thigh armour (haidate)
This is the part that looks like your regular European style padded armour or brigandine armour, and covers the thighs. These could be lacquered metal plates sewed to cloth, or more fancy versions with laced plates, or even chainmail stitched to a layer of cloth. If you want to stay safe, paint them black, brown or red. If you want them more colourful, paint the edge of it in a more fancy colour, or go hog wild and paint a pattern on them.
Leg armour (suneate)
There are similar to the kote. The thing to keep in mind is that the shin armour is often attached to a cloth base that is wrapped around the leg and tied over the pants. So the back of the suneate can often be a different colour than the one you use for the pants.
Cords and Sashes
There are several cords used on a samurai armour – around the waist to hold the scabbards in place, the helmet chinstraps, and chords holding the various armour parts in place.
For wealthy samurai these would be silk or fine leather, while lower ranking soldiers would use simpler cloth or rougher leathers to make belts and similar. This means that pretty much any colour goes. On top of single colour cords, striped cords often turn up.
Since pretty much any colour goes for these, I try to go for something that complements the rest of the painting scheme: such as a light blue if the rest of the model is primarily red. If in doubt, you can always go for white, as it will stand out and make the rest of the colours more distinct.
The back banners, or sashimono, saw their peak during the Sengoku period. These would be worn primarily by mounted soldiers and close combat troops, and less often by soldiers armed with bows or muskets for practical reasons.
The purpose of the back banners were to distinguish friend from foe (remember the lack of uniforms) in the heat of battle, and for commanders to easily see formations. Usually these would be how you saw which army you belong to.
The important part of the sashimono was usually not the colour, but the family crest or other design on it. Different parts of the same clan, and sometimes even soldiers following different members of the same family, could use colour variations of the same design. So within the Takeda clan, you could see many different versions of basically the same flag:
As you can see above, additional patterns such as stripes were often used to make variations of the basic heraldry to distinguish branches or members of the main clan.
The flags of the samurai lords of Japan were only systematically written down in the O-umajirushi, published over a period that was 20 to 40 years after the Tokugawa clan had killed off a lot of their opposing clans, or a generational shift or two could have overturned previous designs.
This means that you have a lot of lee-way in that there doesn't remain complete documentation for the sengoku period heraldry for a lot of clans. Was there a lesser known sub-branch of the Azai clan that used a purple version of their clan heraldry on their banners? It's probably hard to prove there wasn't, so go ahead and improvise if you want.
The back banners would be strapped to wood, so paint these in whatever wooden colour you prefer.
Then there are back banners that are not just flags, but that's another rabbit hole that we can cover later.
You have probably seen a lot of samurai swords already, so I won't go too much into details of them.
Sword hilts would preferrably be covered in ray or shark skin (samegawa) wrapped in a a tight pattern. These could be white or black, or dyed. Red and green seems to have been popular, but pretty much any colour is possible.
Sword scabbards were usually laquered wood, so black or red would be most common similar to the armour laquer.
While later sword guards would often have fanciful patterns and be made of exclusive materials, during the period when swords were actually used they would be more practical and made of steel.
Spears would be made out of hardwood or glued together strips of bamboo, and preferrably laquered to become water resitant. So basically any wood colour or the same colours as for the armour (red, black or rusty browns) will work. The fitting that keeps the blade in place can often be brass.
The bows used for war in Japan were laminated and made of wood, bamboo and leather. The construction method makes for the iconic stripes, often in black, red or light leather colours. These stripes can be of different width, so just go with whatever width you prefer, and you can readily mix them as the picture above shows.
That's it for now! As mentioned, this is far from a comprehensive guide. Instead, I hope it will be enough for you to tackle your first couple of samurai miniatures in case you were worried about getting it wrong.
And always keep this in mind: when in doubt, do a search online! There are tons of pictures out there of actual armour parts or clothes. Woodblock prints are a great source for inspiration as they are usually very colourful and makes it easy to see patterns. So if you don't find anything useful, add "ukiyo-e" to your search words.