Talk Tiny To Me #1: So You Want To Paint A Mini

You’ve seen them on gaming tables or in display cases, preserved and painted to amazing quality. If you’re a Dungeons & Dragons player like myself, odds are you have one of your own to represent your fantasy persona. They come separately packaged or in multi-figure kits, typically sculpted from plastic or pewter. These days, they can even be bought pre-painted for the avid gamer who would rather spend more time rolling dice than sitting at a painting table.

But where’s the fun in that?

If you’ve ever looked at a beautifully painted miniature and said to yourself, “I wanna do THAT!” then this, my friend, is the column for you.

I’m sure some of you may be thinking, “There’s no way I could ever be able to paint like that,” but don’t be discouraged! The people who do those incredible paint jobs started off just like you, and with the right guidance and plenty of practice, you could be giving them a run for their money in no time.

For the duration of this column, I will be discussing the techniques of painting your own miniature. I do not profess to being a professional by any stretch of the imagination, but that is the beauty of this rewarding and relaxing hobby… You don’t have to be a professional to share the tips and techniques that you’ve discovered!

Eventually, I will be touching on topics that I myself have never attempted! Those articles will be more experimental in nature, and as I try each technique, I will share with you all of the experiences I’ve gained in the attempt. (It’s my hope that you will leave comments with your own experiences, too!)

Whether you are new to the concept of miniature painting or you are an old hand, here is one of the most important things I will ever say to you, in this or in any other article: EXPERIMENT. If I bring up a particular manner of painting that you want to try, by all means try it! But, don’t be afraid to deviate from what I’m saying. If you think my way of doing things isn’t right for you, try your own methods of painting! There is no right or wrong way to paint a miniature; what matters is that you’re happy doing it.

That said, let’s start at the beginning:

So You Want To Paint A Mini!

To paint a miniature, there are a few essential things you will need. Some are more essential than others.

1) The Miniature! There are many wonderful websites where you can find hundreds upon hundreds of miniatures, all waiting to be discovered and painted. Some of my favorite miniature producers (in no particular order) are Games Workshop, Privateer Press, Reaper Miniatures, and Rackham. Unfortunately, Rackham has recently STOPPED producing new paintable miniatures in lieu of the pre-painted plastic kind, so if you find you like them, get them while you can! You can also find many websites out there that sell miniatures at a very reasonable price, like www.miniaturemarket.com.

For my first set of articles, we are going to use some very old Ral Partha figurines. Behold!

I am lucky enough to live near a gaming store with a “bargain bin” where very old miniatures can be bought for an excellent price. If you can find a place near you that offers the same, I highly recommend it; those old, unloved miniatures make excellent pieces to test your newly-found techniques. Or hey, you might find a gem of a miniature that you never realized you wanted to paint!


Find the miniature that you want to paint. Do you want to try your hand at something simple? Or do you want to jump right in and choose an intricately-detailed miniature? Whichever you choose, it should be a figure that will keep your interest; you are likely to spend quite a few hours on it!

That said, we move to:

2) Brushes! Most people say that you want at least two brushes: a size 0 (small) and a size 1 (not-so-small). Test them out, see how they work for you; I sometimes feel more comfortable using a size 0 constantly on a very finely-detailed miniature. In the picture below, the brush on top is a size 0, and the one on bottom is a size 1.

Here’s a better look at the difference between the two brushes:

The brush on the left is the size 1, while the one on the right is a size 0.

Try them out and see if they both work for you. If not, find something else that’s more comfortable for you. One important thing: it may be your first instinct to grab a brush that has all of two hairs on it, figuring “I’m going to be doing tiny details, this brush’ll be perfect!” STOP RIGHT THERE. I have actually found that using a brush that small is a detriment; I get greater control with brushes that have more hair on them than that (say, a size 0).

I have also heard that many people prefer sable brushes as opposed to synthetic hair. Maybe I’ve been using synthetic so long that I’ve grown “numb” to using them, but I have not noticed much of a difference. I will make a point of testing that out in the future!

Either way, if you care for your brushes, you should be able to hold onto them for a good, long time. Always clean them after you’re finished painting, and never leave them tip-down at any time, in water, on a stand, or in a supply box. You want to keep the point of the brush as long as possible. If you’ve used the brush for so long that it’s started to bend or fray, you can then do some brush surgery! Brushes that are no longer good for painting miniatures as-is have become some very wonderful detailing or specialized brushes. I will get into this topic in a later article, so keep an eye out for it!

Once you’ve got your brushes, of course, you’ll need:

3) Paint! There are many types of paint out there to choose from. I highly recommend you go with an acrylic hobby paint. Not those huge tubes you see in your local artists media store; unless you plan on keeping that bottle FOREVER, that is way too much paint! With each color you paint, you will likely need no more than one or two drops at a time. Hobby paints, which come in small, manageable bottles, are the way to go. These include paint brands that you’ll find from producers like Games Workshop or Privateer Press. These are the two brands I use the most. Personally, I prefer Privateer Press’s paints, called Formula P3, over the Games Workshop paints, as they have more actual color in the paint-mixture. That means you can thin P3 with water without losing the quality of your color. I have heard excellent things about Reaper’s “Master Series” paints, and the fact that they come in a squeeze bottle (so you only *get* one drop at a time) is a definite drawing factor.

Here we see samples of my two usual brands: Games Workshop’s “Chaos Black” paint on the left, and Privateer Press’s “Formula P3 – Morrow White” on the right.

You will want to get a few basic colors to start with. You can always mix them to create further colors, and until you are certain that this is a hobby you want to follow through with, you’ll want to save yourself the money! (Expect to pay about $3 per bottle of paint.) I suggest your usual ROYGBIV (that’s Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet, for those of you who slept through science class). Or you *could* even cut that down to the essential three — Red, Yellow, and Blue. Aside from those colors, I heartily suggest plain black, plain white, flesh tone, and some sort of metallic — silver, gold… anything you might want to paint armor or weapons with.

Next up:

4) Primer. Now…this is not something that you MUST have. You can still paint a miniature without primering it. The fact of the matter, though, is that the primer really does help prepare the model. The paint will stick better to the miniature and is less likely to chip off if it is primered. It also provides a base color — black, white, or grey — to work over (I will get into the differences, merits, and drawbacks of these in my very next article). I suggest a spray-on primer; I have to date only used the spray primers offered by Games Workshop and find them very acceptable.

5) The Simpler Stuff. These are obvious things like a container to hold water, a palette on which to mix your paints, and something on which you can dry your brushes. Oh, and a piece of newspaper or other spill-preventing surface, because rest assured, no matter how good you are, you will eventually spill some paint, or some water.

Your water container can be anything easy, from a store-bought plastic container to that empty paper cup you’ve had sitting in your kitchen since that party two weeks ago (don’t think I forgot that cup, mister!). Just make sure that it’s clean and can hold water for an extended period of time. I also suggest a separate, small container for clean water that you *won’t* be dipping your brush in; I’ll get into that later. The plastic cover that your miniature came in is perfect for this.

For your palette, you can go to the art store and buy one of those cheapo $0.75, six-bowl palettes, or you can use the (clean!) back of a business card, or even a ceramic tile. I hear that ceramic tiles are the easiest to clean up, aside from the business card, which you can just throw out. For myself, I use one of the cheap palettes so that I can work with several different colors at once, though admittedly of late I have been giving serious thought to the ceramic tile. The down side to the plastic palettes is that they are a tad difficult to clean thoroughly.

Here we see a clean (read: Brand Spankin’ New!) palette, ready for the painting:

To dry the water from your brushes, you don’t need anything special; paper towels work wonderfully well. I find it most efficient for me to cut up a paper towel into four separate pieces. More bang for your buck, and less space on your painting table taken up.

6) The Not-So-Simple Stuff. These are the more intricate things you will eventually want, to better service your miniatures. They include things like needle files, fluid retarder, flow extender, and varnish. I’m going to start us off on the easier side of things, so you won’t be needing the fluid retarder, flow extender, or varnish yet, but you might want to consider getting a small set of needle files. These are files that are small enough that you can file away at the sides of your miniature; sometimes when a miniature is molded, it will come away with lines at the sides where the mold meets itself. Filing those away can lead to a much more realistic appearance to your mini. Again, this is not a step that you HAVE to take, but it improves the appearance of your end product.

And there we have it! Go gather the supplies you need and meet me back here next time for our first real lesson: preparing your miniature for painting!

Questions and comments are always welcome!


  1. Cool to see a painting article on here.

    One quick comment though: those games workshop sprays you are showing aren’t actually primers. They are just spray paints. GW stopped selling primers a few years back.

    I suggest actual primer instead of just paint. Spray paint does stick a lot better then paint and most of the time is sufficient but you will find that it has a tendency to chip especially on resin models.

    Comment by Gilvan Blight — May 27, 2009 @ 8:59 am

  2. I’m sorry; I thought I responded to your post already! O.o

    You’re quite right! Those are spray paints and not primer. I’ve been using them for quite a few years just on habit, but I will definitely try actual primer from now on! :)

    Thanks for the heads up!

    Comment by Witchwater — June 19, 2009 @ 8:25 pm

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