Miniature Painting Basics, Hints and Tips

We’re all at different stages in our hobby journeys and often the real basics can be taken for granted, leaving newcomers confused. I asked around some painters to find out what they wished they’d known when they first started. Here’s a quick guide to some basics, definitions and tips that should help avoid pitfalls.

Basic techniques and terminology

Primer: the initial coat of paint over the bare plastic/metal/resin of the model. Black gives a dark finish, grey is neutral, and white gives a brighter finish. Use a spray – my favourite is Games Workshop as it gives a light, consistent coat. Halfords primer is a good budget option. I’ve used Army Painter in the past and find them a bit thick for my liking, but perfectly workable and they offer a wide range of colours.

Base coat: the first layer of paint over the primer. This is the mid-tone from which you will highlight up and shade down from. Pro tip: even if you have primed your model in a spray that’s labelled the same as your base colour (like Abaddon Black), always put a thin coat of your base colour on anyway. Primer and paint from the pot never match exactly and you’ll get a patchy finish if you have to fix anywhere that you’ve overstepped onto your primer with another colour.

Wash: very thin paint which runs into the recesses of the model. Ideal for shading. When starting out Agrax Earthshade and Nuln Oil are your best friends.

Edge highlight: pick out the raised edges of a model with a lighter colour than the base coat. Just follow the contours with a line.

Drybrushing: load your brush with paint (I don’t bother thinning it for this) then wipe most of it onto a tissue. Rapidly moving the brush back and forth over the model will then pick out the raised areas, leaving the recesses. This will trash your brush so don’t use a new one for this. When my good brushes have lost their points, they become drybrushes.

Overbrushing: almost identical to drybrushing, but keep most of the paint on the brush. I use this for terrain.

Blending: smooth transition of one colour into another. This is more of an advanced technique that can be split into two broad categories. Wet blending is where the paint is not allowed to dry and they are mixed together while wet. Dry blending relies on many layers of very thin paint (glazes) being applies on top of each other, gradually shifting the colour from old to new.

Weathering: applying effects such as rust or grime to a model to simulate wear and tear. This can conjure some compelling narratives on your models.

Thin your paints

The acrylic paints used for miniature painting are generally too thick to apply straight to a model. When applied straight from the pot, you might find that it dries quickly on your brush, and gives a thick, wobbly finish on the model. As a general rule, I use about 50% water, 50% paint on my brush, mixed on a dry palette (literally a piece of wood or a tile). Just mix them together – no magic required. When thinned, you’ll get a smoother finish and your paint won’t dry out so fast. This might require two or more coats but it’s well worth the higher quality.

Drybrushing is not a crime

Drybrushing is great. Like all techniques, it has a time and a place. The texture can be chalky, so it’s not an all-purpose solution, but has excellent applications for quick highlighting. It can help achieve a good, tabletop standard, fast. It’s also my go-to approach for highlighting metallics – see my painting bronze armour blog for a tutorial.

Wait for your paint to dry

Always* wait for your paint to dry before applying the next layer, and be especially careful with washes as these take longer to dry. Your patience will be rewarded with a clean finish. If you add the next layer too early, all you’ll do is mix the new layer with the previous.

*Unless you’re wet-blending.

Use two water pots

One for cleaning your brush, another for loading the brush with clean water to thin your paint. Just look at the contents of your water pot when you’ve cleaned metallic paint from your brush – you won’t want that contaminating your next colour. Also, keep your mug of tea far away from these.

Wet or dry palette, and why do I need one?

A divisive question. If you’re thinning paints (and you should be), either of these will work as they give you an area to mix paint with water or other paint.

A wet palette holds an amount of water inside, often a soaked sponge with some baking paper over the top. Put a lid on it and it can keep your paints active for longer. You can buy these ready made or make your own.

A dry palette is just a surface that doesn’t soak up your paint. This is my personal preference as it allows me to control exactly how much water is in my paint – something a wet palette can’t do as the paint is literally sitting on top of water. A dry palette has the added advantage that when your paint dries on the surface, you can prepare your highlight or shade colours on top of your base colour and see exactly how it looks before you apply it to your model.

Which paints should I buy?

I use a mix of Games Workshop and Vallejo. In my experience, they’re about as good as each other so it comes down to what’s readily available for you and whether you prefer the dropper bottles of Vallejo or the boltgun shell pots from Games Workshop.

Which brush should I buy?

A good brush holds its point.

I mostly use Rosemary and Co Series 33, Winsor and Newton Series 7, Element Masterclass, or Games Workshop. You’ll be fine with any of these. I’ll try out Artis Opus next time I’m buying brushes as I’ve heard good things about these.

Remember that a better point on a brush is generally better than using a small brush. You’ll just make life hard for yourself (and probably have more visible brush strokes) if you attempt to paint everything with a size 0 brush. Most of my painting is done with size 1 or size 2 brushes.

Use a painting handle

Painting handles turned out to be far more useful than I anticipated. While not essential, they help you get into the nooks and crannies, stop you from rubbing paint off the miniature with your hand, and they reduce wrist or hand cramps if you’re painting for a while. I can recommend the Games Workshop handle.

The most important rule

You are going to get better. Things may not be quite as you want them at first, but finish a miniature, then make the next one better. Try things, make a mess, learn from it and try again.

The only person you need to compete with is yourself. Take inspiration from others’ work, but don’t get hung up if someone else blends or edge highlights better than you do. If you like your results, you’re doing it right.

Drop me a comment if you found any gems here, or indeed you have some wisdom to add to the list.

Want to support the blog? You can pick up my fantasy short read, Mysticarium, for your Kindle or buy yourself some gaming goodies from Element Games and I’ll get a little kickback. Or you can always support through ko-fi.

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