Recently, a friend asked me how to start painting miniatures. He wasn’t asking for painting tips. Instead, he was looking for the foundational knowledge of what is needed in order to get started in the hobby. He wanted to know if special paints were required and if so, what brand I recommended. Did he need a certain type of brush? He had quite a few of these introductory type questions and after our conversation I began to take note of all the similar posts on Facebook. It seems that a lot of people don’t know where to begin. There are countless tutorials out there about how to paint and how to improve your painting skill, but all of those assume you’ve already begun the journey. They take it for granted that you have paints on hand and are ready to follow along. Almost none address the fundamentals. Hopefully, I can shed some light on these “where to even begin” type questions.
The first thing you’ll need, aside from the actual miniature, is paint. It seems the question of which paint to buy stumps a lot of people. After all, there is a lot to choose from: Citadel, Vallejo, Reaper, etc. Deciding on which brand to buy is ultimately a personal choice, but you do need to buy paint that is specifically formulated for miniatures. Cheap craft paint, for the most part, is really thick and doesn’t have enough binding agent to adhere well to minis. It takes a lot more effort to make a mini look good with cheap craft paint and it simply isn’t worth the effort. Also, stay away from glossy paint; no one wants a glossy mini.
My particular paint brand of choice is Vallejo. I really like their eye dropper style bottles (as opposed to the pots from Citadel) and they are cheaper than Citadel as well. They have a very wide range of paints, including specialty paints such as Fresh Blood, Rust Texture, and Foam & Snow. One nice thing I will say about Citadel paints is that they are labeled by usage. For instance, they have Base Paints, Dry Paints, Layer Paints, etc. Ultimately, you can use just about any paint for almost any purpose, but using paints designed for a specific task makes painting a lot easier.
When starting out, it is easy to look at all the different colors available and want to own every single one of them. I recommend curbing that urge as much as possible and only buying a few core colors and then mixing them to create colors you don’t have. For example, you can easily mix white and black to get gray. You can always add more paints as you continue with the hobby.
Shopping online for paints can be a challenge. For one thing, it can be difficult to tell what the paint color actually looks like. Another issue is finding colors you like/need. If you don’t know a certain color exists you might never see it when conducting an online search. To combat this, I recommend going to a large hobby store, like Hobby Town USA. At places like this you’ll be able to see almost every paint color and type ever made, alongside other cool tools for painting miniatures. You can also check out your friendly local gaming or comic book shop, but their selection of paints is often a lot more limited.
In addition to your core colors, you’ll need a few specialty bottles as well. You’ll definitely want some primer. Some people like spray primer but I prefer the brush on variety. This is really a personal preference. It is almost, more or less, a personal preference whether to use a black, gray, or white primer. Sometimes, the type of miniature you are painting will dictate the choice of primer, but for the most part it is entirely up to you.
Another specialty type of paint you’ll need is called a wash. Washes come in a variety of colors, but when starting out you’ll probably only want a black wash or a brown wash. Washes are really thin paints that run into crevices and recesses in miniatures, and really just do a good job of tidying up and tying everything together. Applying a wash to your mini immediately makes it look like you’ve gone up five levels in skill. Plus, using washes makes painting a whole lot easier as you’re letting the wash do most of the work.
In addition to a multitude of colors, washes also come in various forms. Some people use the “dip” method, which entails dipping your entire miniature into a can of wood stain. Some brands, like Army Painter sell cans of dip that say they are specifically for miniatures, but if you read the ingredients they are just repackaging a white label brand of wood stain. I’ve use this method and it works, but I’m not too keen on having wood stain on my minis. While this makes them extra durable, I’d rather use something less potentially harmful to my health. Personally, I prefer the brush on bottles of wash from Vallejo. This allows me to have more control over the final look and is less toxic.
I’ve talked a lot about paint, but the other thing you’ll need is a paint brush. Again, there are plenty of brands to choose from. Currently, I’m primarily using a set of Reaper brushes. Treat your brushes right and they’ll last a long time. You’ll want at least one of the following types of brushes: a tiny detail brush, a slightly larger “regular” brush, and a sizeable flat brush for dry brushing. I say “at least” because you’ll want one brush that you don’t really care about. You’ll use this brush to mix your paint and other such bristle damaging things.
You’ll also need some boring things like an old cup you don’t mind never drinking out of again. This will be for you to rinse off your paint brush when changing colors. You’ll also want something to mix your paints on/in, such as a paint tray. After a while, you might want to buy (or make) a wet pallet as this helps to keep the exposed paint from drying out. You’ll probably want a container for your brushes too. I use an old plastic bottle that originally contained minced onion. The holes in the lid are perfect for holding brushes.
Now that you’ve got your brushes and your paint, what’s next? Before you do anything, you might hear some people say that you need to wash your minis. I only do this for certain manufacturers. Maybe I should do it for every mini, but I’m fairly lazy. A quick bath in warm soapy water will do the trick, although some people scrub their minis with a dishwashing brush. If you skip this step, I won’t tell anyone.
Next you’ll want to prime the mini. Primer creates a nice surface that makes painting a lot easier. I’ve seen people forego primer, but in my experience that just means it is going to take a lot longer before you’re finished. Without primer, most paint won’t stick very well to the mini. You’ll end up painting and painting and painting the same area over and again because the paint simply doesn’t adhere to the surface of the mini. You’re basically just moving paint around without it sticking instead of actually applying the paint to the mini.
Now what? Regardless of the type/brand of paint that you choose, you’re going to want to thin the paint. A lot of people, including myself, use regular tap water for this purpose. If you want to get fancy, you can use clear acrylic medium or flow improver. And you if you are searching for online tutorials, you might hear about people using floor polish. Don’t do this, water works just fine. Once your paint is appropriately thinned, you’ll want to start painting large areas that will be the same color. Usually, you’ll want to start with recessed areas first and then work your way up. Next, you’ll focus on smaller detail areas.
At this stage, you can get really fancy and use a ton of layers and create a masterpiece. This takes time, as in days, sometimes a month or more of painting, to complete just one miniature. Most of us don’t have that kind of time (or patience) and have a lot of minis to get through so we go a different route. After you’ve given your mini a nice, even paintjob, you’ll want to apply a wash to the entire miniature (just make sure the paint is dry before starting this step). Applying the wash is almost magical. There is a lot of information out there about how to apply a wash so I won’t get into to the “how to” portion. After the wash has been applied and is dry, you’ll then want to dry brush on some highlights. Again, there are plenty of tutorials to be found about how to dry brush. When you are finished dry brushing, BAM, you should have a pretty nice looking mini. That wasn’t so hard, right?
Maybe some of you are still a little intimidated. The sheer amount of paint colors and brands is daunting. But, fear not. Every major brand puts out their own “Learn to Paint” or “Starter Set” that contains everything you need to get started. They include a few minis, brushes, and about a dozen paints all in one convenient box. Pick one that has miniatures you like (or seems like a good deal) and dive in. Don’t worry about making mistakes. You can either just paint over them, or if you catch them quick enough you can dip a clean brush in water and rub it over the bad brush stroke to kind of rinse it away.
And there you have it. Now you should be ready to embark down the wonderful path that is miniature painting. Be warned: as calming and rewarding of a hobby miniature painting is, it is also addicting. If you are like most of us in the hobby, it won’t be long before you have more minis that you know what to do with. But you’ll always need another one. Have fun!