How to Paint Miniatures for Beginners | Complete Guide

A paintbrush above a miniature Viking with a shield and an ax.

It might seem a bit overwhelming to paint your first miniature. Or maybe it’s been a while since you last painted something and a LOT has changed! I know that was the case for me. 

Fear not – you can absolutely get a result to be proud of regardless of any artistic ability.  

When it comes down to it, a good looking miniature is a matter of applying some smooth, even coats of paint and adding a bit of contrast to it, but more on that later.  

No matter what you’re painting, these steps will get you to a finished miniature you’ll love. 

Either for your tabletop game or just to display, miniature painting can be a lot of fun and extremely rewarding!

The most important thing to do here is get started. After that keep going! 

Here are my first 3 miniatures:

Miniatures

I love these guys, and I realize the paintwork is nothing spectacular. But they’re mine. 

This is one of my more recent models:

Painted Miniature Front And Back

I love this guy too, and I can see his flaws and strengths just like the first three! Miniature painting is an art, and like anything else, it’s something you can improve at over time. 

This hobby can be very personally rewarding, or it can just be something you do to play your games and have fun!

For this guide, I’m going to give you simple steps to follow along with.  

How to Paint Miniatures in 7 Simple Steps:

  1. Assemble: Gather your supplies of paints, a brush, and a miniature.  
  2. Clean: Prepare the miniature and remove all excess material like mold lines.  
  3. Prime: Apply a paint primer to the entire model.  
  4. Base Coat: Apply smooth, even coats of your base colors.  
  5. Contrast Shadow: Apply a wash or shade to add depth and shadow to the figure.  
  6. Contrast Highlight: Consider adding a highlight color to select areas to further increase the contrast, depth, accents, and interest of the miniature.  
  7. Base: Finish by creating a simple base for the miniature to sit on.  

Assemble  

In this phase of getting your miniature painted you’re going to gather all your materials and decide on some basic colors. 

Here is your to-do and supply list: 

  1. Pick a miniature that interests you.
  2. Decide colors, and have the paints you need ready to go.
  3. At least one paint brush.
  4. An inexpensive model tool set with clippers, files, and a hobby knife.
  5. A primer, either brush on or a spray can.
  6. Potentially you might need glue if your model requires assembly.

Once you have all your materials ready, you can get started on getting your miniature prepped to paint!  

Pick It Out

Find a model that interests you is my best advice here. There are a lot of great beginner sets, like Reaper’s, and those are always my recommendation. 

It will fast track you in getting everything ready. You’ll have cool miniatures, paints, basic instructions, and usually even a brush is included. Perfect. 

My Reaper Learn To Paint Kit

  Warhammer 40000 Kit

Clean and Put it Together

Some miniatures require assembly. In those cases, you want to clip the pieces off of the sprue. I recommend Citadell Sprue Snips – super sharp!

Clean the pieces of all mold lines or extra plastic. 

Cleaning involves using a hobby knife (I use this one), files, and sandpaper to carefully scrape off unwanted lines or extra material. 

Dry fit all the pieces before you glue them just to make sure they fit. Glue it together.

Sometimes people like to leave a few pieces off the model so it’s easier to paint them and then glue them on later. This is called painting in sub-assemblies.  

For example, if your model has a sword that would block his body, you might leave that off, paint it all up, then glue it on. This is up to you! 

Sometimes I’ll do this, and other times I’ll adopt the “If I can’t see it, why paint it!” philosophy.  

Usually though, I think it makes it easier to paint if I do sub-assemblies for any parts that really block the model.

Stormcast Eternals Citadel Miniature Set

Prime It

Grab your rattle can/spray primer or your brush on primer and a brush. You are trying to achieve two things: fully cover the model and apply thin, smooth, even coats.  

Spray cans: Shake well, go somewhere well ventilated like outside, ideally not too hot or cold, spray 6-12 inches away, use short sweeping passes across the model. 

Brush on: The primer should not be too thick. If it is, you can cut acrylic primer with a little bit of water or thinner. Go for smooth, even coats.  

Base Coat

Time to paint! In this stage, you’re applying your basic colors to the miniature. 

Typically you want to work from the “inside” out, meaning if your character has a vest on with no shirt, you want to paint his skin first, then the vest on top of his chest. 

Work one color at a time. So if you need leather boots, gloves, and chest armor, do all of those at the same time. 

Try to start with the colors that are used on the majority of the model.

Loading Your Brush  

This is a key skill to learn when painting. It’s how much paint goes on the brush and what consistency is the paint. There are a lot of questions here. 

Is it too thick, too thin? 

Do I need to wick any paint off on a paper towel?

Is the paint drying too quickly on my brush?

Does the paint look gloppy or show all my brush strokes when I apply it?

Keep working on this. Keep aiming for smooth application of paint.

The paint should not have any resistance to it. It should move around on your palette easily.

It should also not be runny where it runs everywhere and you have no control. 

So: Not too thick, not too thin, keep it smooth.  

Once you have achieved a solid base coat, you’re at a point where you can stop and call it done, or continue on a bit to make it even better!

Keep in mind: Base coats can be time intensive. It might take a bit of effort to get nice, clean lines of paint on your miniature. 

So be patient, and focus on improving this step. Doing a good job on the base coat is your first hurdle as a miniature painter.  

Contrast: Shadow

Contrast in this case simply means a variation in color. Place any miniature you have, either painted or not, under a light. Notice the shadow and light. 

If you’d like to get a result that is not quite so “flat” looking, adding some shadow and highlights is the most common method of doing it.  

A very simple way to get some shadow is by using a very thin paint called a wash or shade. 

Oftentimes a simple coat of black or brown wash will instantly transform a miniature. 

There is a joke in the Warhammer community that Nuln Oil (a black wash made by Games Workshops Citadel brand) is liquid talent in a pot. 

Meaning it makes a huge impact with very little effort.  

There are many, many shades on the market. Different brands, different colors but all essentially very thin paint. 

Citadel has my favorites and here are the 3 I suggest you try out:

Nuln Oil: A black wash that can be used on virtually anything. It’s instant shadows.

Agrax Earthshade: A brown was that can be used on virtually anything too. More of a earthy brown shadow or grime look.

Reikland Flesh Shade: Great for flesh tones. Put down a simple layer of skin tone, and put on some Reikland to define the shadows.  

Just get a bit on your brush and paint it all over the area you want to shade. Don’t do too much, and watch for areas that it pools too much. 

Be aware that putting a shade over a large flat surface, like a cloak or shield, will result in a more dirty look. It’s more effective on textured areas.  

Contrast: Highlights

The corollary to shading is highlighting. Simply put, this is the addition of lighter colors to simulate light hitting a surface. 

For highlights, you can use paints that are designed to highlight each other… Reaper has Triads, for example.

Citadel, Vallejo, and all the other brands have their own system of paints to highlight each other as well (read all about Citadel Contrast Paints here). 

Or, you can simply add a bit of white to whatever color you’re using to lighten it up!

So, to sort of bring home the idea of contrast and progressing in this hobby, here is another comparison for you. 

My first couple of miniatures, and similar models around nine months later:

2019 to 2020 Miniature Painting Progression

The main differences really come down to how smooth the paint layers are and the use of shadows and highlights. 

The models themselves also are a big factor; the number of details and the sculpts on the lower Games Workshop models are just objectively better.  

Bases

Make an effort to give the base of your miniature some love. You can make this very simple, but at least do the following: 

Hopefully, your miniature came with a nice round base. I know all the Games Workshop/Warhammer miniatures do, but I think the Reapers are hit or miss. 

So grab some cheap ones if you need them. 

At a minimum, paint the rim of the base black. It will go a long way in framing your miniature.

Next, add some texture. The Games Workshop sets usually come with one of their texture paints – Armageddon Dust or similar. 

If you get something without it,  I would recommend something like this Vallejo Thick Mud mixture. It’s a great all-around texture and you can color it as you like.

Vallejo European Thick Mud Model Paint Kit

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Spread the texture across the base, paint it, and add some color variation, maybe a tuft of grass.

It will be a HUGE difference in how good your final miniature looks!

Games Workshop Texture Paints
Image Credit: Games Workshop

Finishing Touches

At this point, you’ll have a painted, based, ready to rock miniature! 

Make sure you painted that base rim black. It’s the law. Not really, but really, paint it black – it looks so good.  

Varnish

Another thing you can do here is varnish. Varnish is a topic all its own, but here are the basics:

You can brush on, spray on, or airbrush varnish on your miniature.

Whichever you decide to do I would TEST IT FIRST on something you don’t care much about. 

A varnish can do many things to your miniature beyond protecting it. 

It can change the look, sometimes drastically. I personally love AK Interactive Ultra Matte Varnish, but that is a personal preference. 

I like a matte look, and this fits the bill for me. 

I also have AK Interactive Satin Varnish and I’ll sometimes mix the two together to get a look I like.  

Unique Features

This can be something like blood on a sword or drool out of a gaping maw.

Maybe something even more creative, like using cotton as smoke or a tiny led light somewhere.  

Taking Pictures

Another topic that can be a whole article of it’s own… in fact, check this out for the basics.

For now, use your smartphone; give the miniature some good, diffuse lighting; and play with the brightness setting on your phone. 

If you want to get really fancy, edit it in something like Snapseed. You can buy a lightbox, but I found the cheap ones to be very mediocre. 

Lighting and a good background are the biggest factors.  

Okay, let’s move on to a supplies list and wrap up.

Supplies List:  

We have an extensive miniature painting supply list here, but I want to keep this very tight for the beginner painter. Don’t get bogged down on all the gear just yet. 

Basics

A dedicated miniature paint set and a set of basic tools.

Get one Learn To Paint set. Just pick the one you like best of these three, or find one that speaks to you:

Recommended: Reaper Learn To Paint Core Set

Reaper Miniatures 08906 Learn to Paint Kit Core...

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This is what I started with, and I stand by it as the best set for a beginner, period. 

All the paints you need, three miniatures, brush, and best of all… a walk-through instruction book!  

Warhammer Assault Intercessor Set

Games Workshop Warhammer 40,000 Space Marines...

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There is just something about the plastics and paints from Games Workshop.

Amazing sculpts, simple color schemes, lots of details, and they are designed to be easy to paint. 

I think you’ll be very pleased with your results. If you like the looks, go for it.

Warhammer Stormcast Set

Games Workshop Warhammer Age of Sigmar Stormcast...

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Same as above, just a more fantasy look. Games Workshop’s fantasy line called Age of Sigmar features the Stormcast Eternals. 

Great models and a great way to start. THIS is the upgraded version that just includes more tools. 

Basic Tool Set

Keadic 9Pcs Gundam Model Tools Kit Hobby Building...

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This is the one I use. This is great to start. 10 bucks, everything you’ll need to get the job done. Hobby knife, clippers, files, tweezers. Perfect.

Level 2

Beyond the learn to paint sets, you can take it a step further with the following.

Just understand they are NOT necessary. We’re into the nice-to-have section.

Vallejo Basic Paint Set  

Vallejo Basic USA Colors Paint Set, 17ml

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Vallejo is a fantastic paint manufacturer. 90% of my paints are either Vallejo or Citadel. I’d highly recommend trying these out. This is the best of the sets.  

Synthetic Brush Set

Soucolor Acrylic Paint Brushes Set, 20Pcs Round...

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A simple set of brushes like this will be incredibly useful all throughout your painting career. These can be your workhorses.  

One Nice Sable Brush

Raphael Kolinsky Sable, Watercolor Brush, Fine...

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A huge step up in quality, you can get a nice sable for under $20 for sure, and some as little as $10.  

One Shade

Citadel Paint, Shade: Nuln Oil

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When I talked about contrast and shadows, this is the first step to achieving that. Nuln Oil is almost a must-have in your beginner set. 

Not absolutely essential – you can thin down some black paint – but this is well worth the few dollars.

Level 3

At this stage we have things like wet palettes, flow improver, various mediums, inks, lights, holders, etc.

I’d check the Supplies List if you’re at this level.  

Now What?

At this point you should have decided on a beginner set, maybe grabbed an extra brush and a palette, and identified a place to work. 

I’d like to go through a few of the more commonly asked questions I see on forums and Facebook pages.

Should I Varnish My Miniatures?

This is not really essential, but yes, you absolutely can, and I would argue you should, especially if you will be handing the miniatures regularly for gaming or showing off. 😉

Your options for varnish include the hardware store spray cans or brush on versions. I personally use an airbrush, but they can also be used with a brush. 

I’ve never had a problem with AK Interactive Ultra Matte and Satin Varnish.

Can I Use Craft Paints for Miniature Painting? 

My answer is yes you can, but I would not. If it’s a matter of price, the Reaper beginner sets are a good deal and give you the paints you need. 

If it’s a matter of you already having craft paints and asking if you can use them, then just be mindful you might get a poorer result from using those.

They are not as good for this purpose as a basic Vallejo, Citadel, or Reaper paint. 

They are great for some terrain however, so I would certainly use them on a large piece of Styrofoam wall or dungeon tiles.  

How Do You Paint Eyes on Miniatures?

Oof. Eyes can be really hard. They are tiny parts of a small miniature figure. 

They are also very important as our brains are wired to look at eyes and faces. Here then are my tips for good eyes!

  1. Focus on stability. Pull your elbows into your chest, or brace them on the table. Brace the heels of your palms together. Support your brush hand with your pinky. Use a paint handle. Either buy one or make your own with an old pill bottle or piece of wood. Take a deep breath when making small strokes.  

Using A Citadel Miniature Handle

  1. Get the paint consistency right. You want it to flow well, not dry out, and come off the brush without any pressure. I highly recommend either flow improver on your white paint, or better yet, get Daler Rowney White Ink. Fantastic for the white of your eyes.  
  2. If you’re having trouble getting dots on the eyeballs, try a thin line straight down the eye. Then just use your skin color to paint away the extra you got on top and below the eyes. 

Last update on 2021-06-25 at 08:28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API