Buying miniatures can be expensive! One way to save on the cost is to buy unpainted minis and paint them yourself; however, this can be an intimidating endeavor, especially if you don’t consider yourself an artist. I know how that feels. I can’t draw an identifiable stick figure, how in the world am I going to paint a detailed miniature?? I thought, but I did it! And so can you! This post will give you a list of all the tools and techniques you will need to start painting incredible miniatures right away as a first timer!
To begin painting incredible miniatures you will need the following tools:
- Paint brushes: round brushes sizes #2, #1, and #0 and a flat brush size #2
- Paint: A beginners kit of modeling paint (recommendation below)
- Primer: I recommend black to start (brand recommendation below)
You will also want to know how to use the following techniques:
- Hot Water Trick
- Dry Brushing
- Find and Fix Seams
- Ink Washing
If you have these basic tools and knowledge of these basic skills, you can paint miniatures that look just as good, if not better, than the kinds you can buy at the store! Guaranteed! Here’s how!
There is a mind boggling amount of sizes and styles of paint brushes, and just as many opinions of which ones you should buy. The paint brushes you will be looking at for miniature painting are going to be “round” brushes categorized by size. Round brushes come to a point, which is essential for painting details. “Flat” brushes do not have a point, but flatten out creating a much wider painting area.
Here are the sizes of round brushes you will want:
- Size #1: This will be your general purpose brush. You will use this brush for large sections of clothing, shields, large miniatures (such as monsters) and other bigger areas.
- Size #0: This is the brush you will use for nearly all your details. It is slightly smaller than the Size 1, allowing you get paint details more easily. I paint nearly all my details, even the smallest ones, with a Size 0 brush because it is large enough to hold paint, but small enough to fit into tight spaces. I do recommend having a few sizes smaller for really tight spaces, but those tiny sizes will not hold much paint. The key is a sharp point, not a smaller brush.
- Sizes #00 (2/0) or 000 (3/0): These are the smallest brushes I would recommend using. Brush sizes can go all the way down to 10/0, but they aren’t as useful as you might think.
- Size #2 Flat Brush: You will also want to pick up a CHEAP size 2 flat brush for Dry Brushing (a technique covered later in this article). Dry Brushing is really hard on brushes and not an exact science, so you don’t want to spend much on the brush you plan to use for this. You also don’t EVER want to use your good brushes to Dry Brush.
Style & Brands
There is a lot of discussion about synthetic brushes vs natural brushes. At the beginning, you shouldn’t worry about this debate. You should get the cheapest brushes you can because you WILL ruin them. Practice with cheap brushes until you are more confident, then gradually start purchasing some more expensive ones. For now, I recommend this set from Amazon. It is a decent quality that comes with all the sizes you need, plus some of the smallest sizes you can play with (because I know even if I tell you not to use them, you will. It’s ok. Your only human).
As for brands, this, again, doesn’t really matter at the start. My first paint brushes were a used set from a local hobby store for .99, and I survived and even managed to get some great results! You will want to experiment with different brands and styles as you progress in your skills. Each brand and brush has a different personality, you just need to find one that fits you. For my first few sets I just bought the ones that looked the coolest, after all, I’m human too. I tested several styles and brands of brushes before finding my fit.
Don’t invest in the expensive stuff until you are far enough into this hobby to appreciate your tools. I am not saying that brushes don’t make a difference, they most certainly do, I am saying you won’t be able to recognize that difference from the start. So start cheap and as you advance in skill, invest in your tools.
However, the brush you choose to start with, or even the brand of brushes you invest in later on, will do you no good if you don’t care for them properly.
Caring for Your New Brushes
Everyone talks about which brushes to get, but no one talks about taking care of them. An expensive brush can quickly become a crappy brush if you aren’t caring for it correctly, and a crappy brush can last for years and do a great job if given the proper attention. If you notice that your brushes are starting to split and fray, making it impossible to paint details, it is much more likely that you have mistreated your brush than that the brush was a terrible brand.
To properly care for your brushes:
- NEVER get paint up into and onto the metal part holding the hair. The pigments will never EVER come out and when they harden, they will cause the fiber to split.
- NEVER hit or grind the brush onto the bottom of your cleaning glass as this will cause fraying. Simply move the brush back and forth in the water.
- ALWAYS dry your brushes after cleaning. Use a soft towel and gently pull it from the handle to the tip to avoid split hairs.
- NEVER press the brush into the towel to force the fluid out while drying.
- BEFORE putting your brush away for storage, form the tip to a nice and sharp point with your fingertips.
- If you can, store your brushes by hanging them with the tips down to help them dry and maintain a sharp point.
- REGULARLY use Brush Soap. You won’t believe how much unseen pigment comes out.
Some More Tips for Brush Care:
- Don’t put the plastic tubes back on the brushes after use. It is far too easy to accidentally catch a few fibers and kink them.
- Only use old or cheap brushes for mixing colors, the motion will work too much paint into your brush and cause fraying.
- Metallic paint are harder on brushes because they contain larger pigments, use a separate set of brushes for metallic paints.
- Never push your brush over raising areas or into corners as this will bend the tip of the brush and cause it to lose its sharpness. The trick is to pull the brush’s side along the border. If it does not work you probably did not thin your paint enough.
Once you have learned to properly care for your brushes (even the cheap ones) and you begin to see the difference a quality brush will make, then it is time to upgrade. But, again, upgrading will do you no good if you don’t take care of your tools. If you are ready to upgrade, I recommend the Winsor & Newton Series 7.
Even if you can’t afford expensive brushes for a while, taking care of your cheaper brushes will ensure you get quality results and are not constantly having to buy brushes. The greatest factor is in the care for the brush, not the brand itself.
“This one will be easy! I can just grab any paint from the store because paints are paints, right?” NO.
Do not try to paint your miniatures with cheap acrylic paint! This kind of paint is much too thick and will cover the details or you miniature. Similarly, don’t try to use watercolors, as they are much too thin. You will want to use a brand of paint specifically designed for miniatures. There are several types to choose from and you will, eventually, want them all. I will outline the purpose of each below, but note for your first few miniatures, you will only need a starting set of miniature paints, I started with this box set and still use it! It has everything you need to get started.
Primer– Do not skip this! Yes, I know some miniatures say “Primed and ready to paint!” but you will want to prime them anyway.
The purpose of priming is two-fold. First, it serves to create an even surface for the paint to stick to, minimizing differences in surface quality. You will want to go ahead and prime all your pieces because, even after washing, some parts of the miniature will repel paint, making it difficult to paint and creating spotty results.
Second, priming gives you a base color. It is incredibly time consuming to try to paint all the “background” areas, that is, the nooks and crannies of your piece. If, however, you prime it with black or white primer, then those areas are already done. I almost always prime my piece with black primer, unless I am painting something that is going to end up primarily white, like a unicorn, or a piece that will have a lot of bright colors I don’t want darkened, then I use white.
Can you use acrylic paint on miniatures? Yes, but it has to be the high quality kind, and you will need to thin it considerably to be able to use it. There are tons of videos and articles out there about using acrylic paints, and I can see the appeal. They are, most often, much cheaper and can have greater color variations, but unless you are skilled with thinning and mixing paint, you will not achieve the results you would using model paints.
Modeling paints are specifically designed to stick to plastic surfaces and are much thinner than other types of paint, helping them to flow into nooks and crannies much easier than thicker paints.
Even modeling paints will still need to be thinned, but much less than other types. If you are a beginner, you will want to invest in the more expensive modeling paints as they will be much easier to work with and give you better results. If you try to use acrylic paints right out of the gate, there it is likely you will get frustrated, be unhappy with the results, and give up on this hobby. I don’t want that!
You don’t need an entire collection of paints right away, that will happen naturally over time. Just pick up a set, like this one that I started with, or a few basic colors, then branch out from there.
When I first started painting, I had no idea ink washes even existed. I wondered how people could get shading effects and different tones of colors on their miniatures, mine never looked like that. I thought it was just a difference in ability, until I realized they were just using a simple trick I didn’t know, ink washes.
These come in a variety of colors and tones and are used to create depth and shading on miniatures. Washes are very very thin and you don’t need much to go a long way. Once you are finished painting and the figure is dry, simply coat it in a wash and admire the results! It looks like you spend hours shading in just a few simple strokes! Even as a beginner I would recommend you get a wash or two and try it out. It is just too simple and incredible to ignore!
To make weapons and armor look more authentic, there are metallic paints available. I love to use metallic paints! They add a great pop or any miniature. I even use metallic paints when Dry Brushing to make scales look shimmery. Metallic paints can be used on their own for bright metals, or mixed in other paints for a more subtle effect (like the cast iron pot I painted below). Metallic paints are really no harder to use than normal paints and often come in starter sets.
You aren’t finished with your miniature after it is painted, you still have to mount it on a base. Bases are important because they help to balance the figure as well as allow you to move the figure without touching it. Repeatedly touching the painted figure with cause the paint to fade and chip away. You don’t want that after all your hard work! So put that figure on a base and yell at your players when they move it wrong! (okay, maybe not yell, but correct them! You did work hard on that after all!) You have two options for bases.
When I first started painting miniatures, I chose to mount them on simple back bases. This is a great option if you don’t have the time and money to invest in decorating bases. After your figure is completed, you just need to glue it to the base using a clear drying glue (I use super glue). You are done and ready to start using the piece! If you want to take it to the next level, you can actually decorate the base of your miniature as well!
If you want to really set your pieces apart, decorating the bases of your miniatures is a great way to showcase your hard work. There are lots of ways to base your miniatures, which I will cover fully in another article.
Magnifier Holder/ Handle
Although not necessary, you may find it is helpful to have something to hold the miniature while you paint it, allowing you to rotate the figure without touching it. There are a few styles for this function.
You can get what is called a “handle,” a simple device that lets you secure the base of the figure in the grip so that you can hold the handle while you paint. These are often cheap and many people like them. Handles do have a flat bottom so you can set the miniature down to mix paint, move things around or pet your cat, but they don’t offer anything other than a way to hold the figure while painting. They are a great, cheap option to start with.
You could also purchase a painting stand. This stand allows you to clip the miniature at any angle you need and has a magnifying glass to make detail work easier. This is what I use when I paint highly detailed figures, but for simple figures (which you should start with) a simple handle works just fine!
Head Lamp/Light Source
You will want to make sure your painting area has a significant amount of light available, but not just overhead light. You will want a light source you can easily manipulate and move to best be able to see your miniatures as you paint. This could be a lamp, but I prefer to use headlamps. I look like a dork, but I always have the light I need at just the right angle! Any other kind of light source simply got in the way as I painted because I often lean over the figures as I paint to get better views of them. I found headlamps to be the perfect solution…as long as you don’t mind being laughed at.
Prepping Tools & Techniques For Beginners
There are a few tricks that are essential for a beginning painter to know. Just by using these few, simple tricks, your miniatures will come out 10xs better than if you just starting painting away!
Hot Water Trick
Often, due to packing or shipping, you will find that figures holding weapons will have bends. Once removed from the package, the bend in the weapon won’t go away. Is it faulty or ruined?
Nope, you just need to know the hot water trick. Boil some water and let it cool slightly. Then fill a small bowl with ice water. Submerge the bent part of the figure into the hot water for about 10-15 seconds, just long enough to make the plastic pliable. Then correct the bend in the figure and immediately submerge it in the ice water, re-hardening it. Presto! Perfect figure! See the whole process in the short video below!
Finding & Fixing Seams
When I first started painting, I didn’t think seams on my figures were a big deal. After all, they would be painted, so no one would see them! I was oh so wrong. After learning how to dry brush my figures, I realized the seams, which were raised, really REALLY stood out after painting. Fortunately, seams are easy to take care of. You just need a cheap model file, like the one below, or a sharp hobby knife. Simply cut away the extra material, if there is enough of it, and file the seam down to match the rest of the figure.
This incredibly simple technique will really take your painting to the next level! Dry brushing adds highlights to figure, making raised details stand out.
To dry brush, take your flat #2 brush and load it with just a TINY bit of white or light colored paint. Now wipe that paint off on a dry paper towel until you aren’t sure if there is any paint left on it. Trust me, there is. Dry brushing requires a precious little amount of paint, and if you get too much on the brush, you will ruin the paint job you just did.
Now test the paint amount by lightly stroking over a not-as-noticeable section (in case you got too much paint). You should just barely see the raised details start to pop as the color is lightened. “Scrub” (or make light strokes in all directions) the brush over the entire figure to create epic highlights. Check out the video below for a step by step tutorial on how to do this!
Dry brushing highlights raised details on a piece, but ink washes create shadows and add depth. You will want both to make your miniatures stand out.
Pick an appropriate wash for the color of your figure, making sure it is not too dark for the colors you have chosen. Then use a large brush to coat the entire figure in ink wash. Simple? Yes. It is. But amazing! And most beginning painters don’t even know it exists!
If, for some reason, you want to add to a miniature, such as adding a magic stone to a shield, or cover some details you don’t like, you need to know about Green Stuff.
Green Stuff (that is it’s actual name) is a plastic putty that comes in two parts. You mix the two together, like Play-dough, and it turns green. You can then sculpt it and attach it to the figure. After drying for 24 hours, it is just as durable as the original plastic and you are ready to prime and paint your custom piece! I use Green Stuff constantly for a variety of things while painting and making terrain. It is great!
What to Paint First
Now that you have your tools, you are probably itching to paint something! That’s good! However, I do have some words of wisdom on what you should paint first.
Keep It Simple
Please, don’t try to paint something with a ton of details right out the gate. Yes, those adventurer figures are cool. Yes, it would be awesome to show off. But more likely you will sit down to paint and have no idea where to start. You will start to paint all those little details and get lost of what things are supposed to be, what colors to use and how to even paint them. They seem impossibly small at first!
For your first miniature, KEEP IT SIMPLE. Pick a monster with very little detail. I suggest a spider, wolf, or a simple humanoid, like an Orc.
Picking a simple first project means you can finish it quickly, feel good about what you have accomplished while still practicing some of the tips above to make it look epic.
Start with these simple monsters while you practice basic techniques and learn how to use your tools, progressing to more and more complex figures gradually.
Try Something New Each Time
Don’t try to be perfect right away. Each time you paint, pick one area or technique to work on. This large snake, for example, is a great miniature to practice dry brushing on, as that is pretty much all that it needs.
Trying to do everything right away will just result in a mess. Take your time and practice just one skill at a time until you feel comfortable with it.
Being Okay with Imperfections
I am a perfectionist too. Most of us who DM and paint our own miniatures are. We love the satisfaction of doing something masterfully. And you will get there, but you won’t start there. I still cringe when I pull out my beginning miniatures, seeing my obvious mistakes and flaws, but my friends don’t see those and even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Stop being so hard on yourself. Your figures aren’t going to be perfect, perhaps ever.
On each piece I paint there are things I don’t like or can’t get just right, and I have learned to be okay with that. If you try to make every miniature perfect, you will be working on the same one for years. Where’s the fun in that? Do your best for now and know that as you practice you will get better and better! Even a poorly painted mini is still better than an unpainted one, right?
So get painting DM! If you want even more tips and tricks for painting miniatures, check out the other articles here at Halfling Hobbies, and like and subscribe to our YouTube channel, /HalflingHobbies.
Until next time,
May your game have advantage, my friends!