Painting Miniatures—A Newcomer’s Primer
Over the past few years, I’ve watched a number of guides on getting started in painting miniatures. They’re all very informative, they cover super important details, and they’re delivered by individuals who are FAR more experienced than myself. However, if I had to name one consistent issue I’ve had with these guides, it’s that many of them are not very approachable.
I’m firmly of the opinion that the biggest hurdle for newcomers in painting minis is putting the first brushstroke of paint onto your first miniature, so I would like you to feel like you could be painting a miniature by tonight.
Before you get to that first brushstroke, the hobby sort of controls you—there’s a sense that there are so many different supplies to obtain and techniques to learn before you feel “ready to start.” But after that first stroke, the hobby is yours to control. You paint when you want; you learn new techniques when you want; you obtain new materials when you feel like they’ll be a fun addition to your kit.
You get to decide all these things along the way.
So let’s make this first step simple. Here’s what you’ll need to start painting the moment you want to start painting.
Your supply list includes two or three items specific to painting minis, and a few other items that you probably already own.
- A Brush (or two)—You can get by, and paint a perfectly decent looking mini, with just a single brush. Having options will make your life easier, so it’s nice to have a small detail brush and a slightly larger brush—I prefer Army Painter’s Highlighting brush for most projects. Army Painter also has a great starter set of three brushes that served me well when I was first getting started with painting.
- Paints—I’ll cover how to select your first paints further on. Acrylic miniature paints are relatively non-viscous compared with many acrylic paints. They come in small containers, but those little bottles will go a LONG way.
- Primer—A can of spray primer. Read the instructions for application of your primer, and you’ll always want to apply it outside or in a garage or other well-ventilated space. Black primer works best with dark paint colors. White with lighter colors. I like gray primer, because it goes pretty well with everything.
- Wizkids miniatures are pre-primed in the packaging. Some people prefer to give them another coat just in case, but while you’re starting out, the packaged primer will work just great.
And as for the stuff you probably already have around the house:
- A Water Cup—Old coffee mugs are a personal favorite (it’s what my dad has always used), but anything that will hold water, and not tip over easily, will work.
- Palette—An inexpensive plastic palette is ideal, but because you’ll be working in such small quantities of paint, a plastic container lid (wider is better; think cottage cheese, peanuts, etc) also works surprisingly well.
- Paper Towel—You’ll be painting with multiple colors. To clean your brush between colors, give it a good swish in the water cup, followed by a wipe-n-dry on the paper towel. When you’re wiping the brush, pull the bristles like you’re painting with them, don’t push against them or you’ll damage the brush’s form.
- Toothpicks (sometimes)—If your paints are in wells, meaning you could dip your brush straight into the container, you’ll want some toothpicks or popsicle sticks for portioning the paint onto your palette in small quantities. Your main method of accessing paint should not be to dip directly into the wells, because the longer you have them open, the more you dry out your entire supply of that color.
- Light—You’ll be working with some pretty small details, so having a light source, like a lamp, directly above where you’ll be working will make a huge difference.
(This list also assumes that the first miniature you paint requires no assembly, and is standing on a base ready to go. If your mini is in pieces or is in a plastic sprue, you may also need items like superglue, a hobby knife, plastic cutters, files, etc)
Picking your Paints
In another universe, every new painter could drop hundreds of dollars on a full line of 150+ paints and have the entire color spectrum at their disposal. However, that’s not at all feasible—and could actually become overwhelming.
There’s actually a lot of fun to be had in collecting paints slowly, adding new colors as they become relevant to your needs. So, let’s aim for 8-12 paints as a starting set. You should pick your first paints based on the first mini(s) you want to paint. Choose a mini that’s not overly complicated or detailed—and make sure it’s one that you want to paint! I find that one of the biggest contributing factors in painting well is actually wanting to paint the mini that I sit down to work on.
Next, examine the miniature and decide what colors you’d like it to be. For larger surfaces, you’ll probably want two different shades of the same color, so that you can add some shading and depth to that surface. You can go up to three shades if that surface covers most of the mini, like an animal’s hide, or a knight’s full plate armor.
It’s also always nice to have plain white and black paints on hand, both for painting eyes and for lightening/darkening the shades of your other paints.
Then for your next project, you can pick a miniature that has many (or all) of the same color needs, perhaps picking up two or three new colors, and so on from there!
Mixing Paints—Do It: There are a lot of reasons to work with paints. They adhere beautifully to (primed) surfaces, you can undo mistakes by painting right over them, and when you mix them together, the color changes easily and uniformly.
You can do some basic mixing by adding white or black paint to a color to lighten or darken it. Doing so will also de-saturate that color, so eventually just having more colors available will be preferable, but for early on, white/black mixing works just fine. No matter what, mixing paints is a fun way to make sure you remember your color wheel and discover new tones. A word of warning—if you end up with a color you really want to use on your mini, make sure you have enough mixed, or make more of it right away. Wouldn’t want to run out halfway through applying it!
Basic Techniques and Guidelines
None of these tips are necessary to get started, but they will make your life easier. If you feel like you’re ready to start painting right now, by all means, go for it and come back to these later. But for a few quality-of-life improvements for your first project, read on.
Start with Less Paint than You Think You’ll Need
A little bit of paint goes a LONG way on a miniature. Start with less on your palette than you think you’ll need. Occasionally, you may find that you need a little more, but really, you’re more likely to find that your paint on your palette has begun to dry out than that you didn’t portion enough.
Thin your Paints with Water (When Necessary)
Some acrylic paints are just a hint thicker than is ideal for painting the fine details on miniatures. First, shake your paint bottle. These acrylics definitely separate over time, and shaking will re-mix your paint to the proper portions.
Once you start applying your paint, if you feel like it’s keeping it’s form on the surface, leaving streaks or globs behind, then it should be thinned (very slightly). Take a half-drop of water from your water cup, and mix it into your paint. If your paint is still holding its form while you’re mixing it, then add another half-drop, until you notice that the paint acts more like milk than like ketchup.
Use Only the First Third of your Brush
We mentioned putting less paint on your palette than you think you’ll need—you should also start with less paint on your brush than you expect. Use the tip of your brush like a tiny paint scoop: when painting full surfaces, scoop a small bead of paint and apply it to the mini; and for small details, just touch your brush to paint source so you’ll have exactly the brush tip’s worth of paint to apply exactly where you want it to go. Most of the time, you’ll only use the first third of your brush, so don’t dip it any further into the paint.
Work from the Inside to the Outside
Imagine you’re painting a magma elemental. You’re picturing blackened igneous rocks on the outside, but with the cracks between glowing a hot orange. You paint the dark rock exterior with a couple different layers, adding ashy details here and there. Then you load up your brush with the orange, and… how are you going to add the glowy lava without messing up the nice rock-work you’ve already done?
New rule: Cracks, Folds & Crevices First!
It is far easier to avoid a deeper inner surface than it is to maneuver your brush through a gauntlet of outer surfaces just to get to the inside. So, work from the inside to the outside.
Work by Paint Color, Not by Section
This is a basic time-and-sanity saver. If you’re painting a mini’s hand with your fleshtone, apply that same paint to the head, hands, ankles, shoulders, knees and toes, ♪knees and toes♪—wherever the same color of skin/flesh will show. The same goes for matching fabrics, steel chainmail and weapons, etc. If you are applying a paint, apply it everywhere that color will appear.
More advanced painting techniques will have you take into account that skin and hide change tones throughout the body. You can worry about giving your mini a farmer’s tan or nuanced shifts in the color of a lizard’s scales later on—for now, applying some smooth, uniform coats is a great step forward.
Make a Plan
The last two guidelines introduce a little bit of pre-planning to the order in which you’ll apply your colors. If you want to paint a mini’s helmet silver, and you want to paint a fine silver chain necklace that wraps around the mini’s big fur jacket, it won’t help much to apply your silver layers first. Instead, work from the inside-out, getting at least your base color on the fur first. Then, take care of all your silver base coats.
Consider the Lighting
Where the light hits, that surface should be lighter—and there is a scale to this. When you go to paint a surface, take a look at a similar surface in the room around you. Check out the folds in your clothes before approaching your mini’s clothing (If you paint in the buff, you’re on your own here.) Glance at a spoon before painting a helmet. Even your own skin will give you huge insights into how light falls.
Again, I would suggest starting with one or two layers per surface. You can go up to three if there’s a large surface you want to attempt it on, but trying to layer for lighting on that tiny silver chain will just be tedious and not fun.
Go at your Own Pace
I do not paint quickly. Most normal-sized miniatures take me 3-4 hours to complete. A larger mini might be 4-6 hours total. Many painters do great work while painting much more quickly, and there are definitely incredibly talented painters who go even slower than I do. The fact is, you can paint at whatever speed you wish, making adjustments as you start to get in a groove.
Create your Own Guidelines!
These are just rules of thumb. They’ll get your started, but you’ll soon find many exceptions where it just makes sense to do it a different way. And at some point, you may find that the exception works best for you, and it will become your rule. So don’t be afraid to try it a different way and see what feels right!
Brush—Run your brush under a faucet, gently rubbing the paint out of the bristles. Then dry, and store in a place where the bristles won’t be bent or crushed.
Water Cup—Rinse your water cup thoroughly. If it still has paint settled on the sides and bottom, wipe it down and rinse again.
Pallette—You can clean your palette as often as you wish. If you clean it after each painting session, the paint won’t be entirely dry, and you’ll be able to rinse most or all of it away with your hands and some running water. If you wait days, weeks or months, until you’ve run out of space and have no choice but to clean it, you’ll actually be able to peel the paint off (I suggest doing this at least some of the time. It’s incredibly satisfying.)
Pro tip: Your toothpicks and/or popsicle sticks can be re-used after the paint on them dries!
Excellent. You’re ready for brushstroke #1. Your first mini will not be perfect, but it will be a whole lot more exciting than it is right now!