Nine tips for leveling-up your miniature painting skills

While many may consider the practice of painting miniature figures to be a hobby separate from role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, the origin of these games traces directly back to tabletop wargaming, and the painted miniatures associated with them. And although the recent availability of pre-painted miniatures has served to separate the activities of painting from game play, a significant subset of Dungeons & Dragons players and dungeon masters still paint their own miniatures, just as they have for more than 30 years.

Clearly, the idea of buying pre-painted miniatures “to save time,” – as if miniature painting was some sort of chore – is a foreign concept to these game masters, who recognize that painting one’s own figures can bring great satisfaction and can inspire creativity.Prior posts have mentioned that this writer teaches painting classes at a local gaming store as part of Reaper Miniatures’ Black Lightning Team; during those classes, painters new to the hobby have benefited from learning a few “tricks of the trade” that have led to almost immediate, marked improvement in their finished miniatures. Many of these tips have been published elsewhere and have been in common use for years – but every few classes, this writer shares one of the tips and a painter responds with a phrase like, “I’ve been painting for three years, and I’ve never heard that.”

The intent of this post, then, is to list helpful painting tips that readers can reference, supplemented by more tips that will hopefully be left as comments by readers.

This writer’s nine most frequently-offered tips include:

1. Pick figures with a level of detail reflective of your available time and painting ability. Like everything else, painting skill grows with practice; there is, therefore, nothing for which a new painter needs to feel ashamed. That being said, selecting a model that is too highly detailed for a given painter’s skill or time limitations can lead to a finished product that makes a good painter look average, and that makes an average painter look poor. Generally, choosing a simpler figure makes for a better basic paint job.

2. Choose your colors before you start. Discovering that two colors clash after they’re painted on the model is a frustrating experience, one that can be avoided by simply putting paint bottles from a proposed color scheme next to each other on the table before starting. Painters with no knowledge of color theory can purchase an inexpensive color wheel (this writer spent $4 U.S. at a local craft store for his) which shows the relationships between colors.

3. Cheat. This isn’t a general recommendation about morality, but a reminder that a paint job doesn’t have to be awesome to look awesome. Since miniature figures embody such tiny details, it isn’t always necessary to paint every part of a figure to the highest level of detail, especially if the figure will largely be viewed from a few feet away while it sits on a dungeon tile. A painter’s goal is as much to fool the eye as it is to please the eye. If painting pupils and irises in a figure’s eyes is beyond your painting ability – as it is beyond the ability of this writer – you don’t have to do it. By all means, practice trying to do it, but few people looking at a 25 mm-tall figure will notice that there are no irises surrounding the pupils.

4. Prime with black, then drybrush with white. Any ten painters will give ten different answers about whether to prime figures with black, white or gray paint, and why they choose to do so. One way this writer circumvents the whole question is by priming in black, then heavily drybrushing white paint over the entire figure, except for areas intentionally left black to be painted with metallic paints. By using this method, the deepest recesses of a figure remain an unobtrusive black – useful in case any spots are missed (see “Cheat,” above) – but raised areas and areas intended to be painted with bright colors are mostly an easy-to-cover white, so a painter won’t have to put six coats of flesh tones on a figure’s face to cover black primer. This effect also creates built-in highlights, since even the darkest acrylic paints are still slightly transparent; even with a unform basecoat, recessed areas will still appear shadowed and raised areas will appear lighter.

5. Stop using your paintbrush like a pencil. Many miniature painters instinctively hold the brush like a writing instrument. While doing so feels natural, the fingers end up positioned in such a way that the painter’s view of the figure is obscured. Try moving the point at which you grip the brush away from the bristles, to a distance about twice the width of your thumb. It will feel awkward at first, but you’ll like the results.

6. Brush control is your most valuable skill. Of all miniature painting skills, brush conrol – the ability to put paint exactly where you want it – is the monarch, upon which all other painting skills are based. It’s important, then, to learn this first. The easiest way to learn brush control is to use undiluted paint, straight out of the paint pot, when basecoating a figure. When practicing with undiluted paint, you’ll need to put a bit more on the brush or it will quickly dry out, and you won’t want to touch applied paint after it’s started to dry or you’ll end up with a cracked, flaky mess. When practicing brush control this way, don’t worry about details as much as controlling where the paint goes. Wet, undiluted paint is really just thickened water, and you can use your brush to tease “waves” out of the blobs of paint you put on the model, waves which you can push to the very edges of a garment, for example, without spilling over onto another part of the figure.

7. After you get brush control with undiluted paint, you have to learn to do it again. Painters seeking a smoother finish will thin their paints, either with water or an agent such as acrylic flow improver. The good news is that, by using these thinner coats, a painter greatly reduces the chance of fine details, like buttons and belt buckles, becoming obscured by thick globs of paint. Unfortunately, thinned paint behaves a lot more like water, so everything you just learned about brush control with undiluted paint doesn’t apply. If you thin paint, you need less of it on your brush to maintain control.

8. Paint the most difficult areas first. Some painters struggle with painting hair or skin on a figure; others have trouble with gems and jewels; still more have difficulty with freehand detail; this writer has trouble with eyes. Any aspect of a figure that troubles a painter should be done first; this way, an entire figure doesn’t need to be redone because, for example, the face didn’t look right when the painter finally summoned the courage to paint it.

9. Cook an extra steak. One fellow in this writer’s circle of friends is well-known for his uncanny ability to cook steaks over a charcoal fire exactly to order. On a cool evening last July, he shared his secret which, strangely enough, has immediate applications for miniature painting. He cooks an extra steak, but doesn’t tell anyone he’s doing it. Then, as he cooks, he periodically cuts off (and eats) sections of this extra steak to see where the other steaks are in the cooking process. This way, he knows exactly when the other steaks are rare, medium rare or well done, and by the time he’s done cooking, he’s eaten all the evidence that there was an extra steak in the first place. Miniature painters can do the same thing by having an extra, throw-away test model (or model parts) on hand to experiment on, just as the cook uses the extra steak. Wondering if the flesh wash you’re about to use on your figure is too dark? Try it on the extra figure first. And please don’t eat the evidence.

Do you have any other painting tips to share with fellow readers? If you do, please consider posting them as comments to this post.


17 comments on “Nine tips for leveling-up your miniature painting skills

  1. David says:

    I love the extra steak tip! It’s always nice to learn something new!

    Also I need to remember to follow rule #1

  2. Kroenig says:

    succinct, easy to read.
    Useful too, reminded me of brush over black.

  3. subyman says:

    Nice post. I’m going to use the steak tip, not with mini but with steaks. I get to eat two steaks and serve everyone exactly what they want!

  4. David says:

    Something I’ve done for a few years now is make what I call ‘crash test dummies’ .

    You buy some cheap toy plastic figures from a charity shop or car boot sale – or swipe them from any kids you know – and spray undercoat them with whatever primer you like.

    I keep these handy for experimenting on and they’ve proved very useful for quickly trying out things – shades, washes, paint density – particularly with the airbrush.

    You can do this on a piece of paper, of course, but nothing beats a 3d object. It’s closest to doing it ‘for real’ – a no risk way of trying out techniques and ideas. And when you’ve used up a dummy, you can chuck it, strip it or re-prime it again . . .

  5. I just like the helpful information you provide to your articles.
    I’ll bookmark your weblog and check once more right here frequently.
    I’m slightly certain I’ll learn a lot of new stuff proper here!
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  6. It’s nearly impossible to find knowledgeable people for this subject, but you seem like you know
    what you’re talking about! Thanks

  7. Raehartha says:

    A few years ago I was having a very difficult time painting a miniature because I was I having a hard time seeing the details. This led to frustration and I didn’t paint for a while. I then realized it was my eyes that was the issue and I bought an inexpensive pair of reading glasses from my local store. Wow, what a difference! It really helped me see the miniature much, much better. If anyone else is having a problem with seeing the details buying a pair of reading glasses may help.

  8. excellent points altogether, you just won a new reader.
    What might you suggest in regards to your put up that you simply made a few days
    ago? Any positive?

  9. dragongirl75 says:

    Thanks for sharing! Great tips. Here’s a tip I use, as you mentioned, you can base the figure in black or the darkest value of a color you plan to use. Lighten the dark color a little with white or a complimentary color that lightens it and maybe adds an interesting hue. Then dry brush on top. Go another shade lighter and go over the area again. Then when you’re finished do a black wash ( thinned with water. Try it out on your paper towel.) then get in those nooks and crevices with your wash. Either technique is good. Make sure to do something that makes the mini stand out as unique. One detail that is undoubtedly YOU:)

  10. Wow I get miniature painting tips as well as cooking tips. This is an awesome post! I am cooking an extra steak when I paint as well as when I cook! Thanks!

  11. Niccodemus says:

    This may be common knowledge (or just common sense), but a huge part of miniature painting for me is the environment I am painting in. What I mean by that is I find the quality of the painting is directly relational to how well lit the area is, how comfortable I am while painting, and (due to my generally unsteady hands) some sort of hand/arm rest I can bolster my painting hand with as a guide for keeping a steadier hand.

    Most people seem to want to jump right in and begin painting an army right from the rip. I highly recommend taking your time and doing just a single mini from each army you are beginning to paint, and slowly increasing the number you paint in a single sitting as you progress. I have been doing this for quite a while, and I am always surprised at how much improvement I have between the first mini and the last.

  12. mitchell says:

    How Would I Buy Minis If I’m A beginner Painter I Don’t Want To Ruin The Figure And Im Broke So I Cant Just Try Again With Another miniature Plz Help

    • Couple of things- Reaper has been making fantastic resin minis lately- much cheaper than metal, and easier to paint. These also let you use super cheap acrylic paints- Walmart sells bottles for less than $1 a pop, and it’s water soluble for easy cleanup. Resin minis are also pretty easy to strip, so if you mess up you can start over from the beginning with very little hassle. I too am broke, but being able to buy 10 colors for a couple of bucks is really nice.

  13. Brad the Bard says:

    Tip for the writer and anyone else when painting eyes: Don’t use a paintbrush. Dip the very tip of a toothpick in paint (no globs just a spec of paint) and use that to apply a precise dot for the eyes.

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