I feel like I’m at a really good point in the hobby to write this article. Over a year in, I’ve been doing it long enough now that I have a lot of experience.
At the same time, I can still remember back to when I was brand new to miniature painting. So this will cover a fair amount of ground.
I’m aiming to cut this down to the really big and impactful lessons I’ve learned. This won’t be about specific techniques. It will be more about the big picture. The stuff I take for granted now but were big “Aha” moments at the time.
I think that’s the problem with following people who have been painting for years, they all know so much and have been doing it so long, they forget the beginner questions.
“Doesn’t everyone know about color theory and contrast?” Yeah… no. I can for sure say I did not know about it in any depth at all when I started out.
So with all that said, here are my top tips for miniature painting:
- Paint consistency.
- Shades and highlights.
- Enjoy your time painting. Paint bravely, have fun, be fearless.
- Walk before you run: Fundamentals first, start simple.
- Continuous improvement: Intentional practice.
- Action knowledge vs Learning knowledge.
- Paint in a good environment: Lighting, music, quiet, whatever appeals to you.
- Stability – handles, bracing, elbows.
- Magnification: makes it easier!
- Don’t use tiny brushes.
- Pay attention to the “other” stuff too: Bases and other small touches.
One of the biggest impacts on your painting will be the experience you get working with the actual paints you’re using. Each brand, each color, each medium, will have a different consistency.
By consistency, I’m talking about the thickness of the paint. You don’t want it too watery either, as that will be very difficult to control. The pigment will be so diluted that coverage will be terrible.
While there is a wide range of how thick or thin your paint can be, it’s important for you to get a feel for what goes on smoothly and doesn’t leave visible brush marks. Work on finding that sweet spot of smooth flow of paint, no resistance to it, but not too runny.
Many people reference milk as a consistency to shoot for. I find that a little on the thin side for my taste. I like to just make sure it looks and performs well by testing on my thumbnail. You’re looking for clean lines with good coverage, not thick or gloppy.
When you look at a well-painted miniature, it’s common to think “Why does hers look so much better than mine?” The same basic colors, yours is neat and clean. The other one just looks like it has so much more depth
It comes down to basic contrast usually. Dark and light. Shadow and highlight. Warm and cold. Colors, saturation, all kinds of contrast exists in the physical world and our brain is trained to look for it subconsciously. If it’s there, it reads as “real” in your mind. If it’s not there, or if it’s “wrong”, it won’t look as good.
So the tip here is to start thinking about contrast. For colors take a look at a color wheel. For light take a look at your miniature under a lamp and see where the reflections, highlights, and shadows fall. It is incredibly important to painting and it’s something you’ll learn more about over time.
Shades and Highlights
This is the corollary to contrast. If you’re a beginner, look into shades and washes. Nuln Oil is one of the more popular ones in the Warhammer or DnD miniature painting communities. It’s a simple way to get some shadow and depth on your miniature. For highlights think of an ever lighter gradient… say a dark deep blue, gradually going up to a lighter sky blue.
Keep in mind that by definition, miniatures don’t have a lot of space to work with. If your highlights and shadows are too stark and drastic, it might end up looking cartoonish. The goal is finding complementary hues that make sense. A lot of paint brands will have specific colors that are meant to be highlights or shadows for another color.
You can always mix colors too. A touch of white to your blue will lighten it up just fine for a highlight.
Enjoy your time painting. Paint bravely, have fun, be fearless.
Remember that the goal is to enjoy your time painting. I found that many times in the beginning, and even now, I’ll worry I’m going to ruin my paint job.
I think that’s a natural reaction to something you’re putting time and effort into. The tip here is just to remind yourself that this should be fun and enjoyable.
Push yourself to either try something new or get better at painting in some way. Try not to fall into the trap of doing the same exact things every time, for weeks and months, and telling yourself that is practice.
There is nothing wrong with repeating something to practice, but remember to try something new as well!
Walk before you run: Fundamentals first, start simple.
In miniature painting, there are a lot of fun and interesting techniques to learn and master. When you’re starting out, be proud of learning the fundamentals. Things like smooth coats of paint, rather than advanced techniques like object source lighting or non-metallic metals.
If you can learn basics like keeping your hands stable or using a brush with a sharp tip to do details, learning the basics of color theory, you’ll be laying the foundations for success.
In a short while, you’ll be more than ready to tackle things like edge highlighting or wet blending.
Continuous improvement: Intentional practice
This is the other side of the “try something new” coin. If there is something you struggle with, practice it intentionally. That doesn’t mean you can’t also try something new, but if you struggle painting eyes and it’s important to you, practice eyes.
If you struggle with glazes, practice glazes. If you struggle with smooth coats, practice that.
By intentional I mean think about what the problem is, and make a plan to improve. Then get the repetitions in! It’s more than ok to try and fail, as long as you’re actively thinking about how to improve and making changes until you see success.
Action Knowledge vs Learning knowledge (Model success, don’t be afraid to copy people)
These are two ways of learning that go hand in hand. You need to actively try to paint. Reading or watching a YouTube video won’t get anything painted.
If you’re constantly watching videos or reading blog posts like this, and not taking the action of painting, it’s a form of resistance. You’re just delaying painting.
Once you’ve tried a few times, go back to a video or guide for more learning knowledge. Maybe watch a different video this time. You’ll see it in a different light and it will help you get past the hurdle you’re on.
Keep going through these cycles like a ladder. Learning knowledge, Action knowledge.
Paint in a good environment: Lighting, music, quiet, whatever appeals to you
This is one of my favorites because it’s fun to tweak your environment 🙂 First, though, take a quick check around your work area.
Do you have a dedicated space? If not, look into getting some kind of portable set up or get a simple plastic container to keep all your painting gear. Make it as easy as possible to get yourself set up to paint.
Next, check the lighting. Can you see what you’re doing?
Natural sunlight or a daylight bulb are the best options if you can manage it. Do you like it quiet or prefer some music? I personally listen to the Glass Cannon Podcast or music. Sometimes I’ll have YouTube on my iPad.
Figure out what inspires you to paint and make that part of your environment. I like to paint to relax, so it’s a reward to me. I also get inspired by other people’s work, or a particular model that looks especially badass. Have reminders of that in your workspace. I’ll often have pictures of cool models around, or maybe the box art.
Stability: Handles, Bracing, Elbows
This is such a big one I should have put it first, but here we go…
If you’re not already doing this, think about keeping yourself stable. Miniature painting is very detailed and exacting sometimes.
Bracing your hands against a painting handle, or pressing your palms together is hugely impactful. Pull your elbows into your chest to brace them. Put your pinky out to brace on your other hand to steady it.
Generally, think about keeping yourself steady when painting. When it’s down to the really small stuff I’ll go ahead and take a breath and hold it so I’m as stable as possible (painting eyes!).
Magnification: Makes it easier!
If you have eyes like a hawk and can see the tiny bits very clearly, cool. I personally can not go back to painting without magnification.
I have a small Brightech Magnifying light and I use it each and every time I paint. I use it to look over finished models too. It’s just so much easier for me.
The other benefit is, if the model looks good under magnification, it’s gonna look fantastic to the naked eye from a couple of feet away. Smooth under my lamp, is super smooth from 3 feet.
With good lighting and good magnification, you’ll find things to be MUCH easier.
Don’t use tiny brushes
Little figures = Little brushes? Makes sense but really you don’t want to use the teeny tiny brushes with 3 bristles to paint.
Acrylic paint will dry fairly quickly. If you only have a tiny bit of paint on a super small brush, it’s going to dry out before you can properly apply it to the model.
What you want instead, is a brush with a sharp tip. The brush will hold the paint in the belly, and feed the sharp tip, which applies the paint where you want it to go.
If you’re struggling with this, take a look at how you’re loading the brush. Are you putting in too much paint? You may also need to wick off excess on a paper towel. I typically will get some paint on my brush and twist it on the palette so the tip forms a nice point.
You can then test the stroke on your thumbnail or piece of scrap paper to see how it’s flowing. This is a fundamental skill you’ll have to work on getting a feel for. Keep at it.
Pay attention to the “other” stuff too: Bases and other small touches.
A beautifully painted model on a plain black base looks unfinished. Some people love basing, others not so much. I typically tend to do simple bases, to be honest, but there is no denying the impact of a nice looking base.
At the very least understand that yes, sometimes it’s hard to work on a base after you’ve put all that work into your miniature. You just want to be done! But it is worth learning some simple tricks to getting a nice base that doesn’t take a lot of work.
Here are my quick tips for simple bases:
- Citadel Technical Paints + Pigment. For these Martian Bases, I put down Astrogranite Debris, paint over it with Gryph Hound Orange contrast paint and sprinkle some Vallejo Pigment on top. Drop a tuft and done.
- Paint the rims black! It makes a big difference in the look of the miniature.
- Try to tie in the bottom of the figure to the base, in the example of the martian bases I’ll put pigment on the boots of the figure to tie it in.
- Get some basic stuff like Tufts, Skulls, Rocks, Cork to put on your bases. Or grab a set like this or this . It’s easy to do and makes a big difference.
I hope that was helpful to you! I know it might be a lot to take in. You might be saying, damn man, I just wanted to paint some D&D Minis. I hear you!
The tips here can be used at a very basic level and you’ll get a better result. It’s quite a deep and engaging hobby. At the end of the day, we’re talking about art after all!