Painting Miniatures – The Basics

I posted a few pictures on Twitter as I was getting models ready for our Painting Skytear stream. I was using a priming technique called ‘Zenithal Highlighting’ and there were a lot of people asking me questions about what to buy and the basic steps to painting, so I decided to put all the advice I sent them in a long series of tweets in this blog.

Before I continue, I want to be clear that I by no means consider myself a great painter and only sometimes consider myself a good painter. If you’re looking for advanced techniques and incredible tutorials, I’d recommend you check out YouTube channels of Sorastros or Angel Giraldez.

While I am no expert, I am an amateur who has spent the last several years wading through the process of learning how to get paint on models and not be totally disappointed with the results. The reality is, painting can be a pretty intensive and overwhelming process. Even though they do a great job teaching, videos by experts like those linked above can be incredibly intimidating for someone just starting out.

So, the goal of this post is to give you the basics you need to start your journey to begin painting miniatures. The aim is for you to be able to get your models looking decent quickly and to introduce you to the wider world of painting. If you decide you like it, as I do, I highly recommend scoping out the content I linked to above.

Part of what makes painting miniatures so intense is how much you need to know to just get started. There’s not a product or box you can buy to really be in a position to start painting. I’ve created a list below that is ordered based on the tools you’ll need to paint your models. The very fact that paint is the fifth item on the list makes it easy to understand why painting is a process most people get overwhelmed by. Hang in there though, it’s not as bad as it seems!

Most of these items are things you can pick up locally. With isolation happening all around the world right now thanks to the Coronavirus, I’ve linked to various places online for you to get these essential tools. So, let’s dive in!

  1. Files – Many models come with what are called ‘mold lines’, which is where the plastic forms a line that pops out from the model. These are created during the manufacturing process and are very common with miniatures (particularly those that don’t require assembly, like Skytear). They can easily be removed though, which you’ll want to do before apply primer. To do that, I recommend a set of files like these.
  2. Beyond Files – There are a couple of other tools worth having, particularly if you’re playing a game that does require assembly (this doesn’t include Skytear). Those include superglue, with my favorite being Loctite Gel because it can give your pieces a bit more to hold on to and seal in place. An Exacto Knife is also incredibly helpful for getting rid of mold lines, especially when they are in places difficult to reach with a file.
  3. Primer – You’ll apply primer to models before painting them. To do the Zenithal Highlighting method I mentioned, you’ll actually need a black, grey, and white primer compatible with plastic. Since these are aerosol products they can be tougher to find and much more expensive online, so I recommend picking them up locally if possible. I picked my primer up from Wal-Mart. Just make sure you don’t get ‘airbrush primer’ unless you own an airbrush. Also, be sure that the primer you are getting specifically lists plastic as an applicable use and isn’t labeled “paint + primer”, as this is very hard to paint with.
  4. Brushes – Now that the pre-painting items are covered, we finally get to the actual paint and brushes! There are plenty of brush sets out there that will work just fine, but my biggest recommendation is you get small, medium, and large tipped brushes. My specific recommendation is the Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinksy Sable Miniatures Watercolor Brush, sizes #000 (small), #0 (medium), and #1 (large).
  5. Paint – Again, there are a lot of paint options out there that will work just fine. My recommendation is to start with the Vallejo Basic Set. This includes all the foundational colors you need to paint most models and the colors you don’t have you can usually create by mixing other colors in this set. This paint is also water-based, which makes it easy to ‘thin down’, a concept I’ll cover again when we actually get to painting.
  6. Beyond Paint – Being honest, the Citadel Shade Paint Set almost feels like cheating. It takes decent looking models and totally transforms them. It’s currently out of stock on Amazon, but the most important pieces of the set are Nuln Oil and Fleshshade, which you can buy separately.
  7. Paint Pallet – You really can’t go wrong here, but you’ll want something to put your paint in! These are a great and cost-effective start, as they allow you to have a lot of colors down and then have separate spaces to mix and blend. If you want something a bit more advanced, I recommended the Everlasting Wet Pallete from Red Grass Games.
  8. Lighting & Posture– Beyond making all the difference when it comes to good posture while painting (something you’ll quickly figure out if you have), good lighting really makes it a lot easier to paint. For great, cost-effective lighting I recommend the OttLite 326003 13-watt HD SlimLine Task Lamp. Beyond good lighting, another really useful tool is a Citadel Painting Handle. These get your hands out of the way of your field of vision and lights, which also helps with posturing while painting. It also prevents hand cramps from holding small models for hours on end.
  9. Odds and Ends – The last few items I recommend are “The Masters” Brush Cleaner and Lusterless Flat Lacquer Clear Coat Testors. You’ll use the brush cleaner after each painting session to clean out your brushes and give them a much longer life. The lacquer will be applied to your models once they are finished, protecting the paint from wear and chipping.

Once you’ve done all the work to gather all these materials, only now are you ready to start the journey of actually learning how to paint. With any type of painting, there are a number of techniques, styles, and skill levels. When you’re first getting started though, a Google search looking for advice on how to paint might lead you to some very skillfully painted models. If you’re anything like me, this might be enough outright to convince you that you probably won’t ever have the talent to paint your models.

While natural talent with art and painting doesn’t hurt, I consistently have seen even the most novice and intimidated painters quickly pick up the skills necessary to start painting miniatures and having models look much better than plain plastic. Part of the fun of painting is trying out the many different styles and finding one that suits you.

In fact, we recently did a live stream in which I walked Steven, a self-described nervous novice, through the basic steps to get our minions for Skytear painted. Even he was surprised by how quickly his models started looking good!

In the video, we demonstrate many of the steps I recommend for your first few painting sessions. Below the video, I’ve provided the steps in text with suggestions and tips in case you don’t have time to watch the video or need to reference something from the video later.

  1. Cleaning – The first thing you’ll do is use your files and the Exacto Knife to remove any mold lines. From there, you want to wash your models with warm water (not hot, as hot water can make plastic very bendable) and soap. This removes chemicals and residue that can affect your painting in later steps.
  2. Priming – After your models are dry, you’ll want to prime them. When using aerosol spray cans of primer, you’ll definitely want to prime your models outside. Ideally, you do this when there is little to no humidity, so the weather and your location is a big deal for this. If you’re only going to prime with one color, I recommend starting with a grey or white primer. If you want to try the technique we used in the video, Zenithal Highlighting, here’s a pretty good (and quick) video explaining the process. One of the most important pieces of advice I can give you at this point is to be careful not to over-coat your models with primer. If you put too much primer on the model, you’ll start losing a lot of the details on the miniature. You want to apply thin layers of primer with a back and forth motion until the model is smoothly covered in primer. You should have the spray can at least 6-12 inches from the model. If you over prime or overpaint something, reference the last step regarding ‘simple green’.
  3. Basecoating – Thin layers of primer should dry within 10-15 minutes, but you want to make sure it’s not ‘tacky’ to the touch before you start painting. Once your models are dry, now it’s time to actually start painting! When you are applying the basecoat (the first layer of paint), you can use a larger brush and apply ‘paint by numbers’. That is to say, if you want a rock to be brown, paint it brown. If this gets a bit messy, that’s okay as we will clean it up later. The most important thing to remember when you’re painting a basecoat is to thin down your paint with water and apply thin layers. We demonstrate this in the video, but you want to apply a layer, give it a few minutes to dry, and then apply another layer. You want to thin your paint enough that you need to apply 2-3 layers of paint before you really start getting your desired color. The paint also won’t immediately dry, so you can keep moving it around with your brush. As with priming, the most important tip is to be careful not to overapply paint. You can always do another layer if the paint is too thin and the color isn’t coming through, but it’s really difficult to remove paint and get the details covered up back (see ‘simple green’ step below).
  4. Shading – Once you’ve got a solid basecoat on your model, the next step is using the shading we referenced. You want to apply shading anywhere on the model with details that should likely have shadows and any color you think is likely too bright as it is. The shade is very thinned down, so it will naturally run into the crevices of the model and dry. This is a quick way to get a shadowing effect across your entire model. It will dampen/darken the color you just painted, but it will be less severe once it dries. We’ll also be re-applying colors in the next steps!
  5. Dry-brushing – This is a technique that is really best for specific models or areas of models. Steven’s minions in the video were a perfect example of where this would apply, but any time you have a lot of space on a model broken up with lots of small crevices it can be a great technique. You essentially dip the end of a makeup brush into the paint color of choice and then brush it back and forth against a paper towel until basically no color is coming off the brush. You then brush it back and forth on the model in the area where you want to highlight and you should be able to pretty quickly see the difference. This is a technique I use on maybe 5% of my models.
  6. Highlighting – Now is where you get to the point where you can really ‘make a model pop’. You’ll still want to thin your paints down a bit, but not as much as when you were applying a base coat. You’ll also want to switch to a smaller brush, as you’re going to be doing what I refer to as detail work. Here, you want to use water to form a fine tip on your brush and then dip the tip (maybe 10% of the brush) into the paint. Now you’ll want to apply this paint in areas that you’d expect the light to be hitting or that just need more color.
  7. Simple Green – If you thinly apply primer and paint, this is a step you can avoid. If something goes wrong though or you just want to start over on a model, there is a cleaner called Simple Green that can remove all of the paint and primer. The product I linked is a concentrate, so you’ll put roughly 1-2 parts Simple Green for 7-10 parts water. You’ll want to put the mix in a plastic container with enough liquid to completely submerge the models you want to ‘strip’ of paint and primer, letting them soak for 24-48 hours. You can do this to a lot of models at once and you really can’t over soak models or damage them. After they have been soaking for a while, you’ll want to pull them out of the container and use a toothbrush to brush away all the paint. I recommend doing this over a sink, as the mixture will naturally soap up and you’ll have the paint coming off the model. If you’re finding some paint difficult to remove, let it soak for another 12-24 hours and try again.

While this is by no means an exhaustive guide to painting, at this point you should have the basic tools and knowledge to start painting. Even if you never reach an expert level though, that’s totally okay. Once you get any amount of paint on the models, you’ll see how much better even an amateur paint job looks than plain models.

Over time, I definitely recommend checking out the content creators I linked above for more advanced techniques and tips. You can see the results of the materials recommended and techniques outlined here in the pictures below, which feature our in-progress Skytear minions from a before and during the live stream paint session.

Minions after a black basecoat is applied.
The Zenithal highlight, a white primer applied from a 45-degree angle. The minions in particular were a bit of a challenge because they are so small. You can always apply more, so lean thin layers of primer if you’re new to priming!
Our minions after 2-3 thin layers of a single color. You can see the Zenithal highlight coming through with the minion that is turned around on the left. The back of the models only had a black primer applied, so the red is much darker than the front. This is only possible with thin layers of paint.
Our minions after shading and one round of highlights/details.

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