Miniature painting as a hobby seems to be a bit of a unique beast: popular enough that you can find models for nearly everything under the sun, but so niche that the methods of doing it are most often still passed down in the oral tradition, despite the numerous awesome resources available.
Here are five fundamentals every beginner needs to know as they embark into the hobby of painting (and hopefully playing) with their awesomely paint-clad miniatures.
Prep Your Models By Washing Them
Despite advances in 3D printing, the vast majority of models are typically made by putting material (plastic, resin or metal) in molds. Those molds are coated in various release agents which allow the material to be removed from the mold without destroying both the model and the mold. Washing your model removes that release agent and helps release the mold. I use a mixture of lukewarm water (too hot might bend or misshape certain plastics or resin), dish soap (soft on hands), and vinegar for additional grease cutting. Get an old soft toothbrush to give the models a bit of a scrub on both the broad surfaces and in the crevices.
Remove Mold Lines and Flash, Then Assemble and Fill Gaps
Nearly every model will have excess material on it, whether it’s mold lines (material that gets into the part of the mold where the two halves of the mold meet) or flash (where material enters the mold’s vents that allow air to escape the mold and prevent air bubble imperfections in the mold). Taking the time using an hobby knife and clippers to remove this excess material will give you a better overall result in your paint job and a more refined and finished end result.
Moreover, after assembling your model, you may find the opposite issue also arise. Gaps from where the model may not fit perfectly together, or air bubbles that cause imperfections in the surface of the model can also undermine the end result, so take the time to fill them. You can use a 2 part putty (greenstuff) for large gaps but most models made by the larger model companies tend to require minimal gap filling, for which I use some white glue. Just fill the gap with glue and let it dry. Double check that it dried flat and move on to the next step.
Primer & Sealer Are A Must
Priming your model does two things. First and foremost, it allows your paint to adhere better to the model. It means that paint will stay where you apply it, which makes your job easier as a painter. Second, and equally critical, is that it gives you a basic color to work your model from.
The key to priming is priming in multiple thin coats. It’s easy to be tempted to spray it on in a single solid coat, but the likelihood the paint will go on thick and obscure the model’s detail (making it harder to paint your model) is quite high. Instead, go with several thin coats, letting them dry between coats.
Priming in black tends to be easiest for people just starting out, as places you can’t easily maneuver a brush with control are often places where a natural shadow would occur anyways, so leaving it dark (black primer combined with a thin base coat) is easiest. There are also a variety of model primers that allow you to prime in other colors, which makes it easier if you have a single predominant color on a model (particularly helpful for brightly-colored, heavily-armored models like Space Marines.)
Once you’re done painting your model, seal the model. For chip-prone models (typically metal models), I use a couple (thin) coats of gloss varnish, and then matte it all down with Testor’s Dullcote (AKA Spray Laquer). For less chip prone models (resins and plastics), two coats of Dullcoat is sufficient. Sealing your model protects the paint you’ve spent the time carefully and lovingly applying from wearing off from the oils in your hands and just the wear and tear of handling. Take it from personal experience: Painting a model for the first time is fun, painting it again because the paint job got chipped is significantly less fun.
One last thing for aerosols: Shake the can a lot. Shaking the can consistently every time you spray will make sure that the can’s contents will always apply the same from the first spray to the last, rather than having a can’s dregs ruin a models with a bad priming job because you didn’t shake the can when you first started using it. Spray in low humidity environments for the best result. And don’t forget to do it in a well-ventilated area. I often say primer and dullcote smell like cancer, but also progress and accomplishment. Take in the feeling of being awesome, not the fumes of being poisoned.
Thin Your Paints
If you’re just starting out, water will do fine to thin your acrylic model paints (you want those ones rather than finicky oils or enamels). I often joke that there is no paint that includes this simple instruction on the label, even though everyone should. Take the paint to the consistency of milk (or thinner) in all applications but drybrushing. You should be able to paint a 1″ line across your palette surface without it beading, but it should puddle (rather than sit like a dollop of sour cream). You may have to do several coats to get a solid color but as mentioned previously, thin coats will ensure the details of the model remain intact rather than get obscured under a thick blanket of paint.
Wash Your Brushes
If there’s any one thing I would tell every gamer starting out, it is to wash your brush. Wash your brush before you load it with paint and when you’re done painting. Vigorously swish it in room temperature water to remove any trace of paint. Paint dries in the ferrule of the brush (the metal part joining bristle and handle) which will ruin the brush and destroy the point. It’s a very good and important hobbying habit. (I go into detail on how to neurotically care for brushes in this G&S vlog, since all the cool kids take good care of their brushes.)
Got tips, tricks or questions about painting miniatures? Share them or ask me (Teri) by leaving them in the comments, and I’ll get back to you!
Featured Image Credit: Teri Litorco (With Permission)
Teri Litorco is the senior miniature wargaming fangirl of Geek & Sundry. She’s also the author of The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming. She loves talking shop so send her questions and photos of your models via social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.