I painted my first Warhammer miniature around 2007. It was a dwarf from the old Dwarf Battalion box, and I painted it entirely with base paints and a crappy brush. It didn’t look too bad, but there was plenty of room for improvement. The paint was thick, the colours were flat, and the model was just a bit of a mess.
Jump forward 12 years and I like to think I’m at least passably good at this point. Shock-horror, I’m still painting dwarfs, but over those 12 years I’ve picked up some techniques that have improved my painting immeasurably.
In all honesty, I’m convinced that 90% of miniature painting is technique rather than skill. If I’d known these techniques back in 2007, the miniatures I’d have painted then wouldn’t have looked much different than those I paint now. Of course, there are things like colour theory and speed that can take your models to another level, but that comes later.
Without further ado:
0. Prime your models
This tip is free because it should go without saying, but you need to basecoat your models. What colour you choose is up to you (I like to prime black), as is whether or not you choose to prime using a miniature spray, an airbrush or by brushing a colour on manually, but this is arguably the most important step.
Priming gives the paint a surface to stick to, preventing your paint from pooling or breaking up after you’ve applied it. I’ll get into this a little more as I go on, but having a surface that the paint sticks well to will make the process much easier.
Bear in mind that the colour you use as your base will influence the colour of the paint you layer over it – for example, red painted over black will be darker than red painted over white. So you might want to use a different colour for a grungy underground criminal than you use for, say, a royal bodyguard. (If you’re used to painting over grey, you can find grey primers out there too).
1. Thin your paints
This is the first step on the road to making your acrylics look clean and natural. I held off on doing this for ever, and honestly sometimes I still try to get away without thinning my paints – but it never works! Too much paint on the brush and it looks gloopy and thick on the model, too little and it looks chalky.
There are many ways to thin your paints, but the easiest way is to make yourself a wet palette. They’re super simple to make and you can find tutorials online, but the best I’ve found by far is this one from Tabletop Minions.
You want your paint to be the consistency of skimmed milk.
The only time you dip your brush directly into the pot should be when you’re doing some drybrushing. Drybrushing is a magical thing that makes painting areas of high detail, like guns or chainmail, quicker and easier. It might sound scary, but you quickly get used to it – if you can, practise on a couple of old or ruined miniatures so you know what you’re doing before you come to paint that dreadnought you skipped last week’s food shop for.
- Get a good amount of paint on the brush.
- Wipe the brush on some tissue until there is almost no paint being left behind by the bristles.
- Brush back and forth lightly over the area you plan to drybrush, over and over – you’ll see the paint slowly layer up, brightest on the raised surfaces, creating the effect of depth.
You can get away without learning drybrushing, but it’s a great way to make miniatures look grungy or to quickly paint up surfaces that would otherwise take an age. It is especially useful for painting large areas of terrain, like rock.
3. Brush in the same direction
This piece of advice is often understated but it’s very important: always move the brush in the same direction. Not like you see people painting fences or walls in films, going up and down, but for example, by brushing down, taking the brush off the model, then brushing down again slightly further, pulling the paint across the surface.
I’ve heard people say you should imagine the paint is a bit like thin gum, and this is what they mean. Try to pull the paint across the surface you’re painting, all moving in the same direction, and you’ll get a much more even finish. Go back and forth over it and you’ll break it, making it splotchy.
4. Layer over thickness
This one can be a killer if you’re impatient but it’s very important, especially once you’ve decided to thin your paints, to work in multiple thin layers rather than a single thick one.
When putting down a layer of paint, you should try not to brush over the same area more than 4 or 5 times because you risk breaking the surface of the paint. Put down an even layer and let it dry, then go back over it and do the same again. Keep doing this until you’ve built up a smooth, vibrant colour.
5. Base – Layer – Wash – Highlight
Following this sequence is the best way to get models to a decent tabletop-standard quality. Broken down into specifics, this is how it works:
- Apply the base colours to the miniature.
- Apply the layer colours to the miniature, leaving only the base colours in the deep recesses.
- Apply wash/ink to create shadow.
- Touch up the layer colours.
- Apply highlight colours to the areas that would see the most light.
This technique implements the use of triads – creating a single colour by using three paints: a base colour, a layer colour and a highlight colour. The base colour is left in the recesses of the model where there wouldn’t be much light and the highlight colour is applied to the areas that would be hit by the most light – edges of capes, noses, shield rims etc. A wash is used to heighten contrast.
A few more words…
By following these techniques, you will be able to put miniatures out there that are at least as good as the competition, and often a whole lot better.
You might find that switching techniques slows you down a bit at first as you re-train your muscle memory, but don’t get discouraged! Speaking as someone who only started doing most of these tips after years of painting, it is genuinely surprising how quickly you adapt if you stick at it, and you’ll soon be painting at much the same speed as before, but producing infinitely better models.