Hey there Persons!
I completely agree with you on how much a little planning with your basing can really make an army stand out. I especially, with the advent of 8th ed and all the huge blocks of troops, have become somewhat enamored of unit fillers and grouping models. These days, combats are about sweeping handfuls of troops at a time and I've found that a little attention to fitting in fillers with interesting terrain not only makes for a better looking unit, it also cuts down on the costs of fielding stupid-large blocks of figs. This generally means for me that I spend a lot of time pre-planning my blocks on graph paper to see how they rank up before I start even assembling my figs.
What I tend to start with then is a formation of bases that are all fit together in the rank and file size I expect to use and then I get my texture and height put onto them. I usually use Black Lava or Grey Pumice (as it doubles nicely as an adhesive) as my base, then add in bits of stone, pine bark and shredded cork depending on the look I'm going for. Once I have the formation of textured bases, I then glue the models down - I've found that superglue adheres much better to the pumice texture than to plain plastic or stone, so it can be handy for anchoring your figs well.
Once the texture is on and the mini attached, THEN I prime and paint the whole piece. Once the fig is painted and sealed, I add any foliage / static grass to finish it up.
A few tips:
1. Texture is the key to depth of color and visual interest in base materials - be sure to really tear up the cork or put stone into a thick ziplock bag and take a hammer to it to get some nice pieces to work with; just be careful as some rocks can split into sharp shards (I recommend using freezer bags as they're nice and sturdy for this)
2. Found materials can keep you in basing for years - I buy the Vallejo pumice and lava as effectively a gritty glue. A massive bag of pine bark (if you don't have any around naturally) will run you about $5 at a garden store and will last forever - just always be sure to bake the bark in an oven on a sheet pan with aluminum foil under it at VERY low heat for a few minutes to make sure they're properly dried out and there are no bugs to deal with
3. Visual contrast between the base and the mini is important so all your hard paint-work doesn't get lost to the eye when viewing from a distance; try to pick a contrasting color or temperature for the basing when you can
4. Build up height when you can on some of the bases within a unit - it gives more visual appeal overall and will make those back rank figs stand out more. If you're going to spend hours painting them, it's nice to see more than just the tops of their heads!
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