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How to Improve your Tabletop Miniature Painting ?

Right, you’ve been painting for a while. Perhaps you got one of the excellent “Learn to paint Kits” from Reaper and now want to take things on a bit. But how? Well I’m going to give you the benefit of my extensive painting experience, and in future hopefully get a few pro painters to give they’re thoughts too. Sitting comfortably? Then I will begin.

Understanding the Material

I’m going to skip preparing and priming your miniature as that is more beginner level. What I’m going to explain is how the material your miniature is made from will affect your finished result.

There are three main materials that miniatures are made from. Metal, Plastic and Resin. Metal has long been the main player here. From lead, through to lead alloys and now lead free pewter it has been the material of choice for nearly every manufacturer. It’s getting more expensive now as metal prices have been rising steadily over the last 15 years. But metal miniatures are also the most enviromentally friendly as they can be recycled again, and again and again. They also last a long time. Baring lead rot, they will last a lifetime, are easy to strip and re-paint, and most importantly, they hold a very good level of crisp detail. Soft rounded edges on armour and other hard surfaces will frustrate even the very best painters. Fingers without definition, hair without strands, and even fur that’s just blobby clumps will be impossible to do a good job on. A metal miniature, especially something from one of the top line sculptors, will give you a strong canvas on which to work.

Resin is now a more cost effective choice to those manufacturers who used to use metal. It’s pretty easy stuff for small batch production and doesn’t require a huge outlay in equipment. When cast well it also produces the best reproduction of the original master sculpture possible. Crisp, sharp with complex textures and features all intact. So why aren’t all miniatures resin if it’s so good? Well it does have a few drawbacks. Chiefly it’s brittle, especially in small thin sections. A sword blade will really look the part, but accidentlly drop the mini, and it’s not going to forgive you. Secondly, they don’t really work well at 28 – 32mm scale. Busts and bigger minis like giants and dragons, and yes it comes into it’s own. But for the smaller stuff, it never quite feels durable. It’s also a bit more shiny than cast metal so a good coat or even two of primer is essential. Acrylic paint will pool on shiny suffaces and not cover correctly.

Plastic is what all the high volume manufacturers have turned to in recent years. All Games Workshop’s stuff I think is now plastic, and they’ve got a good level of quality built into them. Reaper miniatures Bones line is also plastic and are the miniatures you’ll get included in one of their kits. These wew never intended to be competition winning pieces, but to allow you to field vast numbers of whatever you want at a budget price. Bones Black is better, Bones USA is better still and a viable choice to improve your painting. So to sum up, it’s good detail reproduction, crispness of that detail, and someting you really want to paint.

Let there be Light !

Pretty obvious but you need good light in order to see to paint properly. Daylight is great but not always reliable. Also it’s most likely that you will be painting in the evenings, and here in the UK we don’t get a great amount of light nights. So it’s put the electric light on and problem solved, right? Well it’s not quite that simple. Light affects how the colour renders to your eye. A lot of older light bulbs and flourescent tubes produce a yellowy light that isn’t the best for artistic pursuits. Flourescent tubes actually flicker at 50 Hz so these can make your eyes tired too. At the very least get a day light bulb which simulates natural light. If you can afford it, get a daylight bulb equiped painting light. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but will make a big diference to how you see your work, and how tired your eyes get. These are some examples

The Brush

Now this is a minefield as everyone and their dog has a view on the best brand, best brush material, and whether making an offering to the brush god really makes any difference.

First off there are natural bristle brushes and synthic bristle brushes. The best natural are Kolinsky Sable, made from the tail of the Kolinsky Weasel. These are becoming harder to find as the raw material is getting less easy to acquire. They are more expensive, though it’s often said a well looked after sable brush will last a lifetime. This is rubbish. I’ve had a lot over the years and looked after them too. They’ve split, worn and most importantly, lost their point just as quickly and any other brush I’ve ever owned.

Synthic bristle have come on a lot in recent years. I’ve been using some from Rosemary & Co and found them quite good, and more pocket friendly too. Again they need looking after, and they also wear and loose their point, but are cheaper to replace.

The bottom line with any brush regardless of the bristle material is will it hold a point. Remember we’re painting miniatures here, emulsion brushes just aren’t going to cut it. Your miniature has very fine details on it, you need that point so the paint is delivered exactly where you want it.

Optivisor

I need glasses for distance and have done so for many years. However my close to vision has always been pretty good. Never thought I’d need help seeing the miniatures and so I always resisted getting an optivisor. I was finally talked into it and even though only bought a cheap one. But wow, what a difference. It takes a little while for your eyes to re adjust to the shortened focal length, but now i wouldn’t paint without one. It’s not so much that it helps you see more detail, it’s that it allows you to get your brush onto that detail more precisely. Also, if you consider that your hand sculpted miniature was probably made by a sculptor wearing one, it makes sense to see the miniature how they did. There are lots to choose from and amazon is a good place to start.

Primer

I’m not going to tell you what primer to use, again there are loads on the market. Even car body primers in spray cans can provide really good results. No I want you to consider the colour of the primer you’re going to use. You see the primer colour affects how the top colours appear or render to the eye. For example say you wanted to paint a particular part of a miniature yellow. Now yellow is a fairly weak pigmented colour whatever brand you buy, it’s just the nature of what it is. Over black primer it’s going to really struggle to cover the black and will look pretty bad. Over a grey primer it will fair a bit better, but still not give you the render you want without a few more coats. But over a white primer it will look vibrant and fresh.

Choose your primer colour with the miniature in mind. Dark grungy minis of a nasty nature do better in black. Bright more wholesome characters with white. If you only want to have one colour primer, then the best to cover all bases is grey.

Paint

Again this is another minefield. There are more quality paint manufacturers available now then there have ever been. I would recommend sticking with acrylic paints as they are kinder to brushes, dry quicker, and there are so many to choose from. Some painters do use oils, and schieve incredable results with them, but for improving right now, stock to acrylics.

But what brand? Well here it does get complicated but the final solution is also pretty straightforward. Buy a couple of pots from every manufacturer you like the look of and try them out. Everyone has different expectations as to what they want from a paint, and the only way to find what suits you is to experiment. Personally I have Reaper, GW, Dark Star, Model Color, Vallejo and even some survivors from the old Citadel paint sets. Don’t stick to one brand unless you really like their stuff.

Thin your Paints

This might sound daft, but always be careful using a paint straight out of the pot or dropper. The manufacturer has carefully formulated the paint which is made up of the pigment and a carrier meduim so it covers what it should do evenly and with the best uniform colour possible. For a base coat this is fine, but to paint better you need to learn to blend and shade.

This is a topic for another post, but one of the great aids in doing blends well is knowing how to thin your paints, and with what. You’d think it would be simple, just add a drop of water. This does work, but it dilutes the pigment and carrier so neither are doing their job as effectively as before. Flow improver is your friend here. Reaper sell MSP dropper bottles of the stuff and you can also by it from artists supplies. Add a drop or two of this to your paints and they will work much easier with no loss of colour. The second elixir to successful blending is Drying Retarder. As the name suggests it slows the drying time of the paint you have applied. Thus allowing you to add more of different shades and wet blend them together.

I have a little dropper bottle with a 50 / 50 mix of flow improver and drying retarder in it. A drop or two added to your original colour really makes all sorts of things possible.

Practice

No one has ever picked up a brush, painted a mini and won the Golden Demon the next day. Some painters are gifted artists, others have spent many years learning, but they all have one thing in common, practice. If you’re serious about improving then read articles, watch YouTube videos from some of the many fine painters who post their content, but most importantly, work at it yourself. It’s not quick, you may well paint a hundred minis before you see an improvement. But with every one you paint you are building the eye and hand skills, and experiance that will allow you to progress in a quietly fascinating hobby. Paint all sorts of minis too. Space marines, Fantasy, big ones, small ones and of all different materials. I started painting in 1984 with Humbrol enamals and a few old airfix paints. I’m still at it and still learning nearly 40 years later. TTFN.