The realms of fantasy and science fiction have long been refuges for creative minds. Fantasy, which has spent decades living in the pages of pulp novels, has begun to appear on the big screen in more audacious and bombastic films and video games. However, one old-school aspect of the best fantasy properties remains extremely popular. I’m talking about tabletop gaming.
Whether it’s Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer, or any of the countless other games that show up on the tables of game stores around the world, one thing binds them all: miniatures. Those cool little metal, plastic, or resin baubles that can represent anything from a noble hero to a wicked villain and everything in between, are miniatures. In Dungeons and Dragons, the miniatures represent the players and the monsters that oppose them. In Warhammer, players use miniatures to represent entire armies.
One of the most daunting parts of getting to tabletop wargaming, for many, is the barrier of painting these miniatures. While some companies sell pre-painted models, a lot of hobbyists love the experience of painting their own models. After all, you can personalize to your heart’s content when you’re the person with the brush.
Don’t let the idea of painting be a barrier for you. Instead, treat it as a challenge to learn a new skill. Painting is relaxing, fun, and, best of all, a great way to express your individuality through your models. Let’s take a look at all the basics you need to know so you can get started painting miniatures with the best of them.
First Things First: Gather Supplies
Firstly, you’re going to want some basic supplies. You’ll need at least a couple of brushes. Any kind of brushes from a hobby store will do, but you should prioritize getting a few small brushes for fine details and a few broader brushes for laying down base coats. Next, you’ll want a palette. You might be picturing the kind that Bob Ross used, and that would do fine, but many people today use palettes as simple as wax paper.
Next, you’ll want a nice coffee mug. Not for your coffee, though! You’ll be using this for your paint water. You should preferably get a mug with a white interior for this so you can see when you’ve fully cleaned your brushes. Once this is secured, get yourself some paints!
For this article, I’ll be discussing the techniques you use to paint with acrylic model paints. While you could theoretically use another form of paint, like oil paints, these require thinning with turpentine and they’re significantly more expensive than simple acrylic paints.
You can acquire acrylic paints from any hobby store. I suggest getting a decent selection of each color. If you’re particularly well-versed in color theory, you technically only need red, blue, and yellow paints to get any color of visible light on your palette. However, I’d suggest newcomers get a good selection. Start with red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, black, white, and brown to begin with. If you’re going to be painting things like guns or swords, make sure you get some silver and gold, too.
Finally, you’re going to need a model. Let’s take a quick detour and talk about models. If you’re planning on painting a pre-primed, pre-assembled model, feel free to skip ahead to the subheading “Let’s Paint”.
What Kind of Model?
There are a lot of different kinds of models, or miniatures, as they’re also known. The two big games in the tabletop world are Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer. Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop RPG that uses pen-and-paper and dice to depict the action. Several companies make models for D&D, including Wizards of the Coast’s own bespoke line of unpainted, pre-primed miniatures. These are dead easy to prep for painting: you open the box and they’re ready to rock.
Warhammer, and many other tabletop wargames like it, is a bit different. Instead of just opening the packaging and finding a model that’s ready to paint, Warhammer (and its sci-fi cousin, Warhammer 40K) provides their models unpainted and unassembled. The models are provided on sprues, these gray plastic support structures.
If you’re planning on painting a model that comes on a sprue, you need a couple more supplies than I’ve already listed. You’ll also need flush cutters, a hobby knife (be careful with these, they’re sharp), plastic glue (or super glue), and a spray-on primer. Let’s check out some tips on assembling models off of sprues.
When you’re building a model from a sprue, first use the flush cutters to cut the components from the supports. Use the assembly guide the model comes with to make sure you’re putting things in the right place. Use the hobby knife to trim off any excess plastic that is left behind from cutting the model from the sprue. While using the flush-cutters, try to get as close to the model as you can. If you don’t have a hobby knife, you can use fingernail clippers to help trim off excess plastic.
If the model is made of hard plastic material, odds are good that plastic glue will work on it. Plastic glue is preferable over super glue for most hobbyists because it won’t glue your fingers together. Plastic glue also doesn’t smell as harsh as super glue, and it won’t ruin your clothes. If your model is made from soft plastic, resin, or metal, however, you’ll need to use super glue to assemble it.
Sometimes, a model will be complicated enough that you might want to paint it in sub-assemblies. Some examples of this could be models with complex faceplates that obscure important details like faces. In these cases, I’d suggest assembling the model in pieces, priming them all at once, and then painting the parts that will be obscured before gluing on the things that cover them.
Once the model is assembled, you’ll need to prime it. While you could paint directly on the model, doing so could result in the paint just rolling off of the smooth material. Priming isn’t too difficult, and it’ll make your finished product look much better. You can buy spray-on primer paint from hobby stores.
When using spray paint, make sure to take the models you’re priming outside and aim the paint stream away from furniture, houses, and pets. Of course, you need to also avoid hitting yourself or others with the paint. If you can, try to spray on a clear, dry day. Humidity or moisture could ruin the primer coat. Spray from about twelve inches away from the model, and try to get a nice, even coat.
With a primed model in hand, you’re ready to paint. Get yourself a nice workspace, like a desk, and lay down something to catch any flecks of paint. I use a plastic cutting board, personally. You’ll also want a good light to illuminate the model’s finer details, a comfortable chair, and something to listen to. Okay, you don’t need that last thing, but I personally love to listen to podcasts or radio shows while I paint.
Make sure you’ve got your paint water on hand, and a cloth or napkin to use to help clean your brushes. When you’re painting with acrylic paints, you’ll want to use a palette to thin them down and control how much paint is on your brush. Remember, you’d rather get out less paint and need to refresh your palette than get out too much and waste paint.
Get a bit of the color you want to paint with on your palette, and then use your brush to mix in some water from your paint water cup. You’ll want to work the water into the acrylic, thinning it down significantly. You’re actually aiming for a rather fluid consistency out of your paint. Ideally, when painting with acrylics, you’re better off getting two thin coats on the model, letting the first coat dry a bit before applying the second.
This is to help ensure a nice, smooth finish. Thick acrylic paints that you don’t thin down can look granular, heavy, and unpleasant. Thinned layers, on the other hand, look smooth and natural.
Be patient and take your time while painting. It’s okay to miss a few spots and to need to go back over things you missed but try to remain neat and tidy throughout the process. The neater you stay, the less backtracking you’ll need to do.
So, you’ve put some base coats on a few models and you’re getting comfortable with the idea of putting your brush to your miniatures. You might be wondering why things look so flat and lifeless, though. A few quick techniques can go a long way to bringing your painting up a notch.
The first advanced technique you need to know about is called ink washing. You can get washes from the same store you found your acrylic paints. Once you’ve painted a base coat on a model, you can add a lot of depth to the paint scheme by layering on a wash. An ink wash will seep into the low points of the model, giving it shading that looks more realistic. Ideally, you’d prefer to use a shade that matches the model’s existing color palette. For instance, a silver gun brushed over with a black ink wash will look better than one coated in a red ink wash.
To apply a wash, use a broad brush and simply coat the areas you want to add definition to. Alternatively, if you want to get fancy, you could use a thinner brush and only apply ink washes in the recesses of the model. This technique is more complex but could result in a more vivid-looking paint scheme.
Once the wash has dried, you’ll notice an immediate improvement in your model. However, there’s another advanced technique that can take your models to the next level, and it’s easier than you might think.
Catching the Highlights
The difference between good model painters and great model painters is highlighting. Once your model has its wash shade and is showing some depth, you can go back over the raised areas with a slightly lighter shade and make it really pop. For instance, if you’ve painted blue armor paints and coated them with a black wash to make them look realistic, you could come back and catch the edges of the armor plates with a pale blue.
This makes the model look even more realistic and creates a contrast between components on the model. Edge highlighting is a bit trickier than anything we’ve discussed so far. In order to properly highlight a model, make sure you’re using a thin brush with a defined point. Catch the very edges of the model, the most raised points, with the lighter shade. Be very neat while catching these edges, as a slight mistake could set you back a lot of effort. Accidentally getting a bright paint down into an already-shaded recess could make your model look very bizarre, so just be careful here.
Once this is done, you’ll notice a huge improvement in your model’s appearance. There’s one more thing you can do to make it really shine, too.
Once you’re pleased with the final result on your model, you can “lock” the paint scheme by varnishing the model. Most hobby shops carry paint-on varnish. If you want a nice, shiny finish, the kind you’d see on metal armor, you can use normal gloss varnish. If you’re looking for a smoother finish, get matte varnish. Once this dries, your model will be more insulated from the elements, and it’s less likely that touching it with your fingers could erode the paint job.
And there you have it! Those are the basics of painting your very own miniature. These techniques are universal and can be applied to anything from tabletop wargames to old-school role-playing games and even to board game pieces. I hope you found these tips helpful, and remember, perfect is the enemy of done. The most important skill any painter can learn is the ability to put the brush down and be happy with their work.