Top 10 Beginner tips for miniature painting

Top 10 tips for beginner miniature painters


Hey folks! Today we are talking about some of the best tips that could help you not just progress your painting ability, but progress quickly and efficiently.  Now all of these tips are not techniques or methods that most people would attempt to teach a beginner.  I believe however, that the more you learn about the basics at once, the sharper your learning curve will ultimately be.  So that is my goal today, to get you into the habit of incorporating these tips into your painting routine which will become more and more easy to do the more determined you are to become good at it.

1. Thin those paints!

This is one of those obvious ones for most people, but it seems that even with the knowledge that you are supposed to thin your paints to get smoother layers some folks still have a hard time with the level to which you want to thin your paints.  The best way to do this from my experience is to add about a 1:5 of airbrush flow improver to my paint.  Sometimes I’ll mix some water in, but generally the flow improver does the best job for me personally.  With that being said, what I may use personally could change one hundred times but the important thing to remember here is you want to get the paint to the point that it flows smoothly across the model, and you aren’t leaving a wake of uneven brush stokes.  

2. Efficient strokes!

Okay so this was a HUGE help for me.  In the beginning of incorporating this you may feel that you aren’t seeing the results, but trust me, you will.  The idea here is to basically pull your brush strokes back towards you as often as you possibly can.  So what this means is instead of moving your painting hand around to get to certain parts of the model, you move your hand with the mini in it.  That way you are always getting the smoothest stroke for every pass.  This will also help you with something that a lot of beginners have a problem with, and that is painting one piece of a mini with strokes moving in random directions.  Let’s say we are painting the leg of an Astartes.  Something that most people will do is just apply the paint with an up and down motion, or really any motion that gets the paint on the mini.  What you want to do to achieve the smoothest possible finish with a brush is one motion for one part.  So when I go to paint the Astartes leg, I will start at the top, and make nice soft smooth strokes down towards the foot.  At the end of the stroke, pull away and start the stroke in the same way you just did.  If you are going from the top to bottom, then you never want to brush from the bottom to the top on that part or you will have a much less smooth surface. 

3. Priming

This is a pretty important one, and it causes a lot of headaches for even some “adept” painters.  Priming can be done one of three ways.  You can use a spray can (preferably with a paint intended for minis).  You can use liquid primer in a pot.  Or my personal favorite method, using an Airbrush.  

A lot of people have a hard time with spray cans, and will most often blame the manufacturer of the can for their botched paint job.  While in some rare cases it is the manufacturers fault, generally it’s user error.  The first mistake you will see people make is holding the can too far away, which will cause the paint to dry before it even hits the mini, leaving a powder like look to the mini, as if it were made of stone or something.  The second problem you will see is people holding the can too close which will result in a webbing effect on the surface areas and will clog up details.  The ideal distance to hold your spray primer will most likely be on the back of the can, but it seems 20cm-40cm/8″-16″ will give you the best results.  Also a couple of other really good things to do before priming with a spray can is to run it under slightly warm water, and then shaking it for a solid 2-3 minutes vigorously.

The second method is using a liquid primer from a standard paint pot.  This is still do-able but will render the least smooth of the three ways to prime.  If this is a step that you want to do know that it will take a good bit longer than the other two methods, but with this pot to mini method you will be relying on the first two tips a lot to get you the finished product that you desire.

The last, and my personal favorite method for priming is by using an airbrush.  I personally prefer Vallejo Surface Primers.  Grey is usually the go to as it is more versatile, however it is also situational dependent on what color scheme you are going for. With using this method though, here is a couple helpful tips.  If you go the Vallejo Surface Primer route than you will also want to use some Vallejo Airbrush Thinner and a bit of water to get a nice workable consistency.

4. Obtain a wet palette asap!

So this is a huge money saver as well as a huge time saver!  You can buy a wet palette at any hobby store for around $10.00 – $25.00, it depends on how big of one you want.  It will generally come with five or so replacement sheets.  

If you don’t have an art store around anywhere then good news! It is super easy to just make your own wet palette!  All you need is a shallow flat tupperware or similar style container.  Something around 5″x8″ would be ideal for most people.  You then take a sponge that is around the same size as your container and place it at the bottom.  You will then wet the sponge so that it is completely wet, but the container isn’t full of water. The idea here is to keep most of the moisture in the sponge and not in the base of the container.  After this step, you need to pick up some non-wax parchment paper.  You will lay a piece of the paper, generally the same size or a little bigger than the sponge, over the sponge.  You can use a plastic card from your purse/wallet to smooth out the paper on the sponge, doing your best to make sure there are no pesky bubbles anywhere on the surface.  And just like that you have a wet palette!

The idea of the wet palette is in the name, it helps keep those paints wet for very, very long amounts of time.  I have literally stopped painting after a days work, come back into the studio the next day and the paint is still nice and wet on my palette, albeit a bit thicker but some flow improver smooths it right back out.  It isn’t always still usable after long times, it really depends on the formula for the paint that is on the palette.  Also thinning paints is a lot easier to do with a wet palette so all the more reason!

5. Time to do some pinning!

Okay so this may be one of those tips I was talking about that a lot of people may not recommend to beginners but I believe in you!  Pinning is what people use to for two important reasons.

The first reason is that it makes it easy to build your minis in sub-assemblies. Lets do an example for clarification.  Let’s say Ashley wants to build a Lord of Contagion.  She also wants to paint all the tiny little details to drop some jaws at the next tournament.  However she can tell that it is going to be difficult to paint all those details behind where the Lord of Contagion is holding his giant axe! Also how is she supposed to get to every little detail on the armor behind the cloak and the cloak itself?!  The answer is sub-assembly.  You can take a cork from a wine bottle (You can commonly by a box of corks from stores like Target/Wal-Mart), and then take a paper clip and stretch it out to where it’s straight.  You can just stick the little bugger down into the cork and break off any paper clip that extends past around 3″ by bending it back and forth until it snaps.  Then you have a couple of options.   Lets say we are doing the Chest\Legs part of our sub-assembly, if you want to use adhesive putty  you can just stick some on the end of the paper clip and stick the bottom of the foot to that.  If you want something that may have a better hold, and also prep for the future at the same time you can start off by carefully drilling a hole in the bottom of the foot that is the same general size as the paperclip so it can be inserted into the drilled out hole.  You can then just use some super glue on the end of the paper clip and throw it in there.  Now you have the chest/legs on a piece of cork that can be easy picked up and held in the palm of your hand while leaving you plenty of room to get into all the details without hands or light holding you back!

Now for pinning!  This is super easy, and very effective!  The idea is to do the same thing like we did for the sub-assembly in that we are safely drilling holes in the point where the two surface areas that are to be glued together will connect. You then take a pin of whatever type works best for you, I use paperclips, and glue it into the arm part of the chest for example. Then you would take the arm that now also has a hole that was safely drilled out, as to not damage the mini and line them up.  That is key here too, you want to do plenty of dry fitting before using glue to make sure they are placed correctly.  This can be tricky when you first start doing it, but the only way to become better at it, like most things, is to practice!  Once you have it all pinned together you can rest comfortably knowing that your mini is rock solid and ready to accidentally get dropped on the floor at your F.L.G.S. about a hundred times lol.

6. Dry Brush in moderation!

So dry brushing is one of the techniques that most people tend to pick up early.  It can give great effect to your model for doing something as simple as pulling some highlights out of the ends of feathers or something as complex as doing origin source lighting or “O.S.L.” as it is commonly referred to, to give the effect of, for example, a plasma gun giving off a blue light from the glowing part of the gun to the armor around the immediate area.

However dry brushing is really easy to overdue.  You see a nice result from subtle dry brushing and may think “Wow! I’m just going to do this for all my highlights!! It’s so easy!!!”  This can turn a model with a nice subtle dry brush feature on one or two parts to making the whole mini look like primarily your highlight/dry brush color which can easily kill all transitions developed before hand and render you with a very lackluster paint job.  

The best rule of thumb I can give for dry brushing is always start with less than you think you want/need.  After all it is a lot easier to add a bit more rather than having to repaint the model because you got way too much on it.  Also a worthy side note for dry brushing is take it slow with your strokes, especially on smaller models.  Dry brushing can be forgiving on most larger vehicles and similarly sized models, but on infantry and characters it is easy to accidentally get your paint where you really, really didn’t want it!  

7. Using Retarder!

Here is a great versatile tip for anyone not already doing it!  Getting a hold of some retarder will save you time, money, and generally render a smoother and more consistent finish.  The purpose of using a retarder is to make your paints stay wet for a lot longer.  Mixing this with tip 4 will prove to be quite a helpful combo.  I personally add about 1:3 to my paint on the palette after I have already thinned it down. So for instance, if I put 5 drops of paint on my palette, then I would put one drop of flow improver to thin my paints and give me the 1:5 flow improver:paint ratio as mentioned in tip 1.  Once that is done I would then add two drops of retarder to the thinned paint.  Seeing as we have 6 equal drops on our palette, two drops of the same size would give us a 1:3 ratio of retarder:thinned paint.  

This will make your paint last a very long time, and that means that your paint won’t be getting dried up as quick, which in turn means that you will have a more consistent viscosity throughout the paint job and as such will leave it much smoother. On top of all of that you now are saving money on paints that aren’t drying really quick!


8. Using varnish to wash!

This is a super helpful tip for applying washes that may leave you feeling like you cheated a little bit lol.  Once you get to the point of your paint job where you want to start bringing out those details and add some washes then a good first step is adding a gloss varnish!  I know what you might be thinking “Hey guy from Dark Millennium Studios, I don’t want my entire army to be glossy glass warriors of shininess.”  Nor do I, but this will make the surface of your model extremely nice and smooth.  Just hang with me for a moment. We then use some gloss washes instead of the normal variant.  I know, I know, glass warriors, don’t wont them, and all that. They won’t stay that way I promise!

When you are applying your gloss wash on your gloss varnished surface you are going to notice a couple of things. One of which being that the wash is just falling into every detail no problem. The second is that you aren’t getting that coffee stain effect that most normal washes can give you on all the raised surfaces where you don’t want any wash.  So now is the part where it comes full circle!  

This is when you use a nice flat varnish.  I personally use, and HIGHLY recommend Testors Model Master Lacquer Overcoat Lusterless (Flat).  Doing a couple even a few of nice even sprays with this and your mini will be nice and flattened back out.  You can always use something like W&N Matte Varnish, but I personally am liking the Testors a lot right now.

9. Using droppers!

This is actually a really handy tip to keep your consistency up.  This will also give you the ability to write down formulas for paint mixtures you came up with to reference in the future. Trust me, there is nothing worse than coming up with a dope paint mixture and then forgetting how you did it and wasting a lot of paint trying to replicate it.  You can buy dropper bottles from some hobby stores but for a very decent price online as well.  Also if you add a glass bead (the type used for making jewelry found at hobby supply stores and online) to your dropper it will help tons when you go to shake your paint up, making sure that the medium gets worked back into the pigment nicely!

10. Using an Airbrush!

Okay so this is a great tip, but again not quite as accessible to begin doing quickly as most of the other tips in this list.  None the less though, this is a good one.  Getting an airbrush as soon as you can will see that your paint job quality goes up exponentially.  Make no mistake though, it still takes a lot of time and practice to get good with it but once you do, it is truly worth it.  It can take me personally about 2 hours to put a primer and base-coat down on about 20 Ork boyz with a paint brush (more of a guesstimate but for the sake of the example realistic).  With an airbrush that time goes down to about 15-20 minutes and I will have a much smoother finish.  It also allows you to do things like pre-shading and a bunch of other really cool effects to increase your ability tenfold! So it is definitely worth looking in to!

Personally I would very highly recommend using an Iwata Eclipse HP-CS.  It is very affordable in comparison with some other very over priced guns.  This is a gravity fed airbrush made for pushing heavy acrylic paints (the type most painters primarily use for miniatures).  All of it’s moving parts are stainless steel, which make for a long lasting air brush that is easy to clean! As for the compressor I would recommend a Master ABD TC-20T, which is an oil-less single piston compressor that is pretty quiet as far as compressors go.  It comes with a psi regulator and has a pretty strong 1/5 horsepower rating.  Works really well and comes with a nice size tank so you wont have to worry about pulsing at all!

Taking care of your airbrush is as essential as taking care of your paint brushes and we will be doing a guide soon on how you can do that for cheap with maximum results!


So let’s review what we’ve learned.

1. We learned that it’s a great idea to thin your paints, sometimes with things other than just water.

2. We learned that being aware of how you go about doing your paint strokes can either help you or hurt you on the molecular level, and that keeping with one motion leaves a smoother result!

3. We found out about the different types of primers you can use, and the results you can expect to obtain!

4. We also learned how useful a wet palette can be in both time and money saving ways.  

5. We then learned how sub-assembly can make it easy to get into all those little places that are otherwise difficult to get to, and also how pinning can make your models stronger and survive what would make most snap.

6. We learned that dry brushing is awesome, but in moderation!

7. We also learned that using a retarder is another sound method for saving even more time and money!  

8. We even learned how to cheat a little by using a gloss varnish and gloss wash to obtain the perfect wash effect with no coffee staining!

9. We learned about using droppers to save time, money, and make it easier to log colors you have created!

10. Lastly, we learned that using an airbrush can open up a whole new world of effects and techniques that were otherwise impossible to achieve before, at least with such seamless transitions!

We hope that this list has been helpful!  From the team at Dark Millennium Studios we thank you for taking the time to read this list and hope that you will see a solid improvement in your painting ability!

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