Painting Miniatures - The very basics

I am going to start painting some miniatures on a low intensity, casual basis. I used to do it, and my results were always pretty middling. I’m just not an artist/steady hands guy. But I like it, so I’m going to renew the hobby.

Here is a very basic question that I do not think I have ever seen really answered (I’ve dug around on websites, looked at beginner painter stuff, etc.).

When painting and doing the base coating, do you generally work from inside out (i.e skin/flesh, then the layer of clothing/armor above that, then stuff outside of that like weapons, etc.)? Or do you work outside in (obviously the opposite)?

I’ve been trying to think through the answer intuitively, but I can’t come to a conclusion because I could make arguments for both. Inside out lets you start with the hidden stuff and then make the stuff on top of it, like studs on leather, etc. “pop” better without having the inside paint rub over part of it, while outside in would allow you to cover with the inside paint any outside paint that “leaked” to a lower level.

How about dark to light?


The order I tend to do things is as follows:

First I do all the messy stuff - any area that’s likely to be difficult to paint without hitting the surrounding areas. Drybrushed textures or areas that are going to get heavy washes etc such as armour are good examples of this.

Then I tidy up any fallout from that if needed before blocking in the base colours on the rest of the figure. I tend to work from the inside out - so flesh then clothing, then cloaks/robes etc. I’ll block in the base colours first to get an idea of how the final scheme will hang together then go to town shading and detailing each area in turn. I’ll finish one area completely before moving on to the next.

I have a gallery of things I’ve painted over on my painting blog which also includes workthroughs and some guides to techniques.

That makes sense as well, I’ll try to work that in while following the tips IainC put forth as well.

Or maybe light to dark, I guess it depends on the paint. If the light is going to be transluscent then you would want to start with it as a base coat, if not you could build up dark to light.


Generally speaking it is easier to make a light thing darker than the other way around. So, you should be trying to paint from light to dark where possible unless you are after some fairly specific effects. I regularly repaint areas white if I’m going for a translucent effect or to make a colour ‘pop’ more.

Always lay down a primer coat first. It jumps out at me when people don’t do this basic step. Never figured out why people use gray - I always use white.

Then I lay down basic colors or basic undercoats. If it is going to be armor, a dark drown for warm metallics like bronze/brass/gold/copper, black for silver/gunmetal. You need contrast to make it look bright and shiny. For a color that doesn’t cover well such as white or yellow, you might want to lay down a gray or brown, respectively.

Raised detail vs. lower areas. Try it both ways on which you paint first and see what works for you. I do the lower areas first and then the raised, but you don’t want runny paint for the raised areas - I dab some of the paint onto a palette and let it thicken just a bit if necessary.

Eyes. I can lay down exactly what I want for the most part, but the easier way for the less steady is just a sideways dash for the whites, a thinner vertical line for the pupil, then go back with whatever flesh tone you are using and shape the eye. Get a steady hand and know what viscosity of paint you need, and it will get easier.

Basic shading. A wash (perversely referred to as “inks” by a certain manufacturer - maybe it’s just a Brit thing) is simply thinning paint down and letting it naturally run to the lower areas on the figure. Make them darker than the base color. Easy depth. Drybrush in high-lights with lighter colors - stroke most of the paint off the brush and then lightly drag it across the surface you want to highlight. It doesn’t take all that much practice to figure it out. I tend to do broad areas first so I can work quickly and errors are going to be covered up when I do the finer work.

Steady hands: the exact opposite of making a painting, where you should hold the brush looser and let your strokes flow. I used a two-handed death-grip, where I hold the figure with one hand, and brace the brush hand against the holding hand.

I work deep to close, larger areas to finer areas. That’s it - my crash course in painting figs usually has people painting solid figs very quickly.

When I used to paint miniatures for playing Warhammer when I was younger what seemed to work the best was to paint everything the main color you wanted the model, then paint all the hardest to reach places first. That usually meant working from the inside out, but the skin wasn’t always the hardest thing to reach so it might wind up being the last thing painted. Drybrushing the edges of things and detailing is the last thing you do of course.

Working from light to dark or dark to light was a secondary concern since all the model paint I ever used was pretty opaque and painting white on top of black isn’t that hard. One tip to make things easier is painting everything in simple workmanlike fashion, then making liberal use of ink washes or glaze type stuff to get really easy detailing of cracks and crevices. It will make it look like you spent way more time on it than you really did.

EDIT! Since corsair posted while I was reading the thread, I should add that when I say ink washes, I don’t mean trying to thin your own paint down. There are a lot of things called inks or washes or ink washes that you can buy that are almost transparent and watery. You can’t paint with them, but you can paint over your already painted areas and it will tint it whatever color the ink is and collect in tight spots so you don’t have to try and paint into tiny cracks. Some are kind of glaze-y and will make your model all shiny and awesome if you want that.

Mind you I’m curious from a strict attracted-to-the-obscure standpoint, but is there special paint for miniatures that is thinner than other paints so you don’t round out the details of the casting/engraving as you add layers?


Generally people use acrylic paint that is formulated for model painting. This is then thinned down with water on the palette prior to being painted onto the model. The most popular brands are Citadel (by Games Workshop), P3 (by Privateer Press), Vallejo Model Colour and Coat d’Armes. A lot of military modellers also use the Tamiya acrylics.

That depends on what you are trying to accomplish. There are some pretty thin lacquers, but I really wouldn’t paint pewter (not that many of mine fall into the safer category) figures with that (they can be great on plastic models). I just used a spray primer, which is usually pretty well thinned and acryllic paint, which isn’t the the thinnest stuff in the world, but you have to balance opacity with thinning (easy to do with water).

Get the Dallimore book. It is fantastic for a new painter and will walk you through nice highlighting and shading. Regardless of what you think of the Dallimore style it is a fantastic learning book.

The answer is “it depends.” Generally I’d work outside in, laying down a layer of basecoat for everything before I’d start detailing.

Paint should not “leak” and if it does so what, slap a little bit over it and you’ll be OK. :)

This is very useful advice. Trying to highlight a dark tone can be very painful. It will require tons of paint for the light tone to be visible. Painting shadows on a light base coat lets you really thin your paint in water. Layers of thinned paint have a much smoother effect than thick paint, and is required if you want to do any feathering.

I learned that you should prime your mini with white paint (using the spray cans or an airbrush), and then your base coat for a part of your mini should be a light tone of the color you want. Then you highlight the exposed parts and paint shadows in the crevices and hidden parts.

Also, a bit of blue paint for your shadow tones gives them a sense of depth, while a bit of yellowish paint (like Vallejo ivory) for your light tones gives them a sense of proximity.

It’s been a long while since I’ve painted anything. This thread makes me want to paint NOW. I’ve got a bunch of unpainted minis around, including an Imperial Guard Elysian Drop Sentinel from Forge World, but I’m not sure I should paint that without an airbrush.

While a white primer will result in brighter colors a black primer is nice as well. It makes shading recessed areas easy because the mini is already black. I use the cheap Krylon black primer you can buy at walmart, I actually like it more than the $15/can Citadel primer I used to buy.

I just started painting again this past summer, it’s a lot of fun. One of these days I’ll actually build an army for either WH40k or Warmachine and go play but until then I’m just enjoying painting stuff.

Edit: One of these days I’ll get brave enough to actually paint my Space Hulk minis too but I don’t have the confidence yet.

A primer is what you use to seal in stuff that shows through normal paint, and to prevent your lovely paint job from coming off in flakes when you touch the mini.
A base coat is the first layer of (ordinary) paint you apply to your mini.

I don’t for one second believe anyone can tell the difference between a mini that’s been primed & base coated, one that’s only been primed, and one that’s been neither. At least not unless there was something on the mini that actually needed to be sealed in (and for what it’s worth, my experience is that varnish is much better for that than miniature primers).

One of these minis were neither primed nor base coated. The other was both. Do let me know if you see a difference.

The colour of the primer is less important than the quality, but it’s obviously quicker & easier to use the same colour as the base coat, or failing that, a colour you don’t need 10 coats of paint to cover - like grey or white.

A wash (perversely referred to as “inks” by a certain manufacturer - maybe it’s just a Brit thing) is simply thinning paint down and letting it naturally run to the lower areas on the figure.

You’re sort-of right about washes, but in practice shop-bought washes tend to have a higher pigment count and finer pigment.
Inks are something altogether different. Inks have very low pigment counts, but very fine pigment, and they’re in a glossy solution. They’re for making stuff shiny. In the pics above, inks were used to add a bit of a wet look to the tube-like stuff in the limbs, and to make the carapace shine.

Steady hands: [snip]

Heh, you and me both :D

That said, you should mount the mini on something, and hold on to the something instead of the mini. An empty GW paint jar & a clump of blue tac should work. Alternatively drill a hole in the part of the mini that “stands” on the base, glue in a bit of wire, and mount the thing on a wine cork.
If you hold on to your mini while you’re painting, you’ll both wear off the paint and risk all manner of annoying smudges.

Not that I know of. If that’s really an issue, you can try using airbrush paints (very high pigment count & very fine pigment).
It has never been a problem for me, though. Do you thin your paints at all? Because generally speaking, you should. One trick is to use something like this:

Then lay down a bit of toilet paper and add just enough water for the toilet paper to almost drown in it. Then put globs of the paint you need on the toilet paper.

That way the paint will stay at a good viscosity, and you can easily thin it down further by the brush-stroke. Incidentally I’m not suggesting you should buy the pictured thingy. Make your own.

Having said all that, I suggest you listen to IainC (because holy crap that guy can paint), and look for tutorials on specific stuff at places like YouTube & DakkaDakka.

So I just started painting a mini today. It was already primed (although somehow I managed to screw up even the priming; it was too thin in some ways in some areas but too pooled at the bottom where the mini base is. I added the base coats.

I soldiered on. I know that I have always read that you should not use paint straight from the bottle, but I ran into the same problem I remember having years ago. When I thin the paint with water (even a little water), it then seems to flow too much. I end up with stuff that flows into the corners/boundaries of whatever I am working on, but at the same time leaves very little paint in the highlighted area (such that it basically looks white with a thin film of paint).

I’m sure I’ll figure it out somewhere. I read somewhere that the paint should have the consistency of whole milk when properly thinned. That just seems to leave it far too runny for me.

On the other hand, I’m sure I’m obliterating tons of detail the other way.

Also, curse small white patches in impossible to reach crevices that border different colored impossible to reach crevices.

I recently took up WH40K after a decade or more of yearning to do so. I’ve been doing an Ork army, so I’ve got tons and tons of figures to paint, and I’ve been doing it mostly assembly-line style. Paint the skin on one figure, then ignore everything else and paint the skin on the next figure, and so on. It’s a bit frustrating because it doesn’t result in any finished figures, but it does motivate to think in terms of getting the whole army painted and prevents the discouraging thoughts of “one down, 119 to go” and such.

As for base coats, I think there are good reasons to use different ones. A white base coat would be better for bright, bold colors (Eldar or Space Marines as a 40k example). Black is better for achieving a dirty, roughly-used look with a minimum of work. Naturally, I’m using black for my Orks. It shows through in gently shaded patches where the paint is thinner and looks like an accumulation of dirt.

Another thing to consider is what type of paint you’re going to use. Citadel water-based paints are by far the most popular, but I’ve been using Testors enamel paint. They have some advantages, cost and gloss among them. The individual bottles are significantly cheaper (about a buck apiece, as opposed to $3 or so for Citadel), and I had a decent stock of them leftover from childhood model kits as a starter. Also, most colors come in gloss and flat varieties, which gives a bit of appearance control that Citadel paints don’t have. Gloss draws attention and gives an impression of high quality and maintenance, where flat colors look more weatherbeaten and utilitarian.

Slyfrog: get a palette. Anything can work. I used to use the caps from beer bottles. Whatever, it just needs to hold a little liquid.

Have a few brushes around. These are your measuring brushes. Dip into the paint, slop some paint into your palette.

Now dip a brush in water, just a little bit, and dip it into the paint. Mix it all up. You don’t want to go overboard, but you do absolutely have to thin the paint.

As far as priming goes: I used to prime almost everything in black. The only things that got white primer were figures I really wanted to stand out. White primer will result in a brighter overall look to the model; for my troops and grunts I tended to prefer the darker look that a black primer got me.

For practising, I’d suggest you use metal minis [edit: because it’s easier to strip metals of paint] and start simple. The first thing you want to do is to paint by the lines. Old-school GW Space Marines would be pretty ideal, and you can probably find them cheap on Ebay or something. Get 5-10 and paint the lot simultaneously. If you can get a couple wearing some type of fur [edit: to practise drybrushing], that’d be perfect.

Try the wet palette thing I mentioned. If the paint gets too thin for you, try again with less water in a different slot. There’s no trick to it, you just have to try it enough times to, I dunno, “get it”, for lack of a better term. That said, you may want to use a pipette [edit: to count drops]. You will want one of those anyway for mixing colours, washes & whatnot.

Viscosity should be such that if you set the tip of your brush on a piece of toilet paper, it won’t instantly soak through. It should be very close, though.
Apropos, you’ll want to do the same before applying washes/inks to stuff. Not to test the viscosity, but to test how strongly it colours the toilet paper [edit: when it insta-soaks, as washes & inks should] - because it’s a pretty fair indication of how it’ll look on your mini.

Once your paint is thin enough to not leave streaks & stuff, but thick enough to control with your brush, start with the big, flat surfaces. It’s not necessarily the optimal way to paint the minis, but for the first 20’ish attempts you shouldn’t worry about the paint jobs, you should focus on learning how to “stay within the lines” on the minis, and on drybrushing.

Speaking of drybrushing, if you can’t find some Space Marines with fur cloaks, or knights in shiny field plate & fur, or whatever… You should have a go at painting some sanded bases (like the ones the bugs I posted are standing on). Because you will want to nail the drybrushing right away. Staying within the lines & drybrushing are all you need to do a passable paint job - which means it’s what you need to know to have painting go from a chore to something enjoyable.

  • Mind, if IainC says anything contrary to what I just said, you should listen to him. I try to, because he is very, very good at this stuff.

Edit: Also!!! I forgot to mention that you shouldn’t expect one coat of paint to be enough. Count on 2-3 coats of paint for the basic stuff, and far more for the detail work.
Additionally, if you decide to try using a wet palette and when you start using washes & inks, you will want to get a hold of some rinsing agent. You know, the stuff you use in the dishwasher to prevent streaking. It decreases the surface tension of your paints (or the water in it anyway), making it much, much easier to spread them evenly on your minis, and minimises the annoying rims that inks & washes tend to leave behind. But keep in mind that surface tension isn’t always a bad thing. You do not want rinsing agent anywhere near your paint when you’re doing highlights.
Finally, if you manage to accidentally drown some detail with way too much, way too thin, way too fluid paint, do not despair. Just stop what you’re doing & rinse your brush. Before you wipe it, use it to apply a drop of water on your spillage. Then dry the brush and use the dry, paint-free brush to “paint” away your spillage. With a bit of practise most of those little accidents won’t leave a mark any more.