Getting started with painting

There was an interesting thread on twitter where someone about to pick up a brush to paint miniatures for the first time got introduced to about 20 of the top painters, and me for some reason.  Unfortunately, I would have found the thread profoundly unhelpful, as it turned into quite a complex discussion of paint ranges, brush types and the like as all the painters started interacting.  It really didn’t seem very very helpful, and I thought “Maybe I could put down some of the things that would have really helped me decades ago when I picked up a brush for the first time, and address some of the phrases that get thrown around a lot.

Getting ready to start painting

If you are just getting ready to start painting miniatures, what do you genuinely need?

You don’t need a lot to give it a try.  There is a heck of a lot you can buy, but honestly, to give it a go, you basically just need:

  • some test models.  Faces are often quite hard, so helmeted models are ideal.  I’m assuming you are happy building plastic models – I’m just looking at the painting side.  If you aren’t happy, look for all in one models like Reaper Bones, or push fit models like the “easy to assemble” line from GW.
  • at least one general purpose reasonable quality brush.
  • enough paints to cover the basic colours of your chosen test models.  You’ll hear lots of pros and cons of various ranges.  Honestly, when starting off, any standard starter set is probably fine, or just get the mini paints you need from the easiest supplier for now.  I’d suggest at least one neutral or sepia wash, like Agrax Earthshade from GW or Army Painter Strong Tone, as this will really help let you see a big jump forward in your painting effectiveness early on.
  • a jam jar or mug to have clean water in to clean your brushes and thin paints with.
  • a smooth surface to use as a palette.  A plastic palette from a starter set, an old tile, palette paper, plastic from packaging.  It just needs to be pretty level and not going to absorb the paint.
  • Stuff to put down on your painting area to stop getting paint everywhere.   Newspaper, old paper, painting tables, it doesn’t really matter.  Just don’t ruin the furniture!

You’ll hear all sort of suggestions, and honestly there is a lot you can add or try.  But to start painting, I think that’s all you need, with one more thing.  Patience.

There are two ways this is important.  In the process of painting, you often need to step back.  Let a model dry properly before putting more paint on, for example, and make sure the glue is dry on a model you’ve assembled before you start painting.  It  seems obviously, but it makes a tremendous difference, and its easier said than done when you want to get cracking!

Second, you aren’t going to turn out award winning models overnight.  It’s possible to do really nice tabletop models quite quickly, and practice and experimentation can let anyone get to the top end of the field over time.  But if you aren’t patient, accept that you’ll get better over time, and work on the basics, you’ll never improve.  You’ll either burn out by trying too much too quickly, or give up in frustration.  If you can enjoy putting paint on the models, and aim to do a little better than last time, you’ll have terrific fun and improve surprisingly quickly.

Painting your first models

Ideally, you could pop into a Games Workshop store and ask them if you can give it a go.  They’ll provide a model and paints, and an area designed to let you sit down and give it a try, and talk you through it.  It can be a fantastic introduction.  Of course, that’s not always convenient.  So whats important?

Well, this is where it has to get a bit vague, by necessity.  I don’t know what you are trying to paint, or what paints you have to hand!  Its really, really useful to find some youtube videos of people painting those specific models so you can actually see what someone does.  However, there are a some general principles that can really help.

First, you’ll hear a lot of talk about priming or undercoating your model.  Anyone who is a bit more experienced in the hobby does this for everything.  Essentially, if you spray or brush the entire model with a paint designed to go between a hard surface like metal and other paints, you’ll find the other paints rub off less.  If you use a spray paint coloured primer, you can also cut out the need to put on one of the big basic colours on the model.  Honestly, though, this step isn’t really that important for most modern plastic miniatures.  Resin and plastic models need it more.  If you are just giving model painting a go, I wouldn’t worry about it right now.  Even the latest introduction guides to painting, such as those found in Warhammer Conquest, tend to skip this step now.

Next, don’t paint straight from the pots.  Put a little paint on your palette, and add some water.  It should be about as thin as semi-skimmed milk.  When you paint it on, you may find it doesn’t cover very well like this, especially lighter colours like yellow, and the temptation is to just ladle on the thick paint from the pot instead.  It’s far better to build up the coverage from lots of thin coats of paint that flow precisely from the brush than blobby, over thick coverage that will invariably not come off the brush smoothly and spoil the painting between the edges of different colours.  This is where patience comes in, as you need to let each coat dry completely before doing it again too.  As long as you don’t rush, you can take it slowly, treat it almost like a complex but fun paint by numbers.

Make sure you use a nice clean brush at every stage.  Thin the paint with clean water.  Clean your brush regularly – not just when you finish a colour, but if using a colour for an extended period, rinse off the brush every so often to avoid paint drying in the bristles and affecting the paint going onto the models.  Make sure your thinned paints on the palettes aren’t drying up, but keep them at the semi-skimmed milk consistency by adding more water every so often.  Once again, having the discipline to stop after a period of time, clean the brush, then keep going with the same colour will really pay off over time.

Once you have a reasonably tidy set of basic colours (and they are dry!), add a little water to your neutral wash, and paint the entire model with it.  It’ll instantly add depth, shade next to the corners (which helps tidy up any accidental brushstrokes), and the model will suddenly pop.  You’ll have done a model, and it’ll look pretty damn good.  I see plenty of models that haven’t had a wash and haven’t thinned their paints, and honestly, just with this you can get pretty nice tabletop quality minis.

Of course, that isn’t all there is to it.  So what are the next steps?

Well, a lot of it is basically doing this to enough models until you become sure and accurate with your brushstrokes!  Every model will improve.  There are specific ways you can expand your painting though.

Next Steps – Painting

Again, be patient – try these, but 

Undercoating your Model

We skipped past this for your first few models.  However, it’s really useful to spray them with an aerosol (except Reaper Bones miniatures – never use an aerosol as the propellant reacts badly with the material – they don’t need a primer!)  before starting to paint for several reasons:  

  • You can spray it a light colour like white, and lighter colours will look very vibrant painted over the top.
  • You can spray it a dark colour like black, and colours will generally look a little darker and more muted.
  • You can spray it a grey and have a neutral starting point on a surface all different types of paint and technique will set well on.
  • You can spray the whole model the main colour of the model, and reduce the amount you need to put on by brush.
  • You can spray the whole model the colour that is hardest to reach with the brush, so you don’t need to worry about trying to do it later.

It’s a fantastic way of getting consistent results, or saving time. In addition, it makes a massive difference with resin and metal models, where normal paint often doesn’t adhere as well.  Even on plastic models, it can help, and certainly starting with a colour or a light, neutral or dark shade all has effects.

As a bonus, if you give a quick spray with a lighter colour from just one angle (like a white over a grey), you get fantastic underlying colour layering with no effort.  Bonus!  This is called Zenithal highlighting and you can find much more detailed explanations elsewhere.

Adding more depth

We’ve basically looked at doing a simple base colour and covering the whole model with a single simple wash.  That’s actually really effective!  But we  can improve on it!  There are several ways we can add more effective depth to our colours.  We can do something called layering – manually add layers of colours, so we might paint a green area of colour a dark green, then leave the recesses and paint the rest a lighter green, then paint the top level an even lighter green.  My recommendations for a next step here are to try using 3 layers at first for colours that are on large areas.  The more layers you use, the better it will look.

We can apply more targeted washes or shades rather than just using one shade over the whole model.  You can get shades in gloss and matt variants – using a gloss version over metals looks much shinier.  Using appropriate colours, like a flesh wash over skin does look a bit better.  Using a very dark wash over strong colours like lead or gold looks great (in GW colours, that’d be Nuln Oil instead of Agrax).  Using a coloured wash adds depth without changing the underlying colour as much – you can match colours and add depth without changing the colours tone as much.  My recommendations for a next step here are to use a gloss darker shade on metal, flesh shade on skin, and still use Agrax for everything else. 

Finally, while a wash really helps add shadows, we often want a point at the very edges of a model that have really caught the light.  There are two main techniques for this – drybrushing and edge highlighting.  Drybrushing involves putting a very light colour on the brush, getting almost all the paint off a brush, and gently rubbing the brush over the model, so the very edges pick up the lighter effect.  You might use a lighter gold or even silver on gold, for example.  This technique looks particularly good on natural substances like fur or mud, where the element of randomness looks right.  Be warned, though, dry brushing ruins brushes, and you only want to use older brushes or dedicated dry brushes for it.   Edge highlighting involves a very careful tiny line right along the very edges of hard surfaces, like armour, and can really make a model pop.  Don’t use it on soft surfaces like cloaks, though, as it’ll tend to make it look like a fixed shiny surface instead.  There are lots of guides to both these techniques, provided by a range of professionals and companies.  I’d recommend trying drybrushing as the easier next step unless you feel really confident in your brush work.  If you want to paint fast to do an army, definitely look more at dry brushing!

Basing

Basing models is a skill in itself, but there are ranges of texture paints you can paint straight on and look pretty good.  You’ll want to pick options based on your normal battlefield, and the army itself, but normally you can just paint the base a light brown, apply a texture paint, dry brush the texture paint a lighter colour, and then either leave it, or glue on some flock or grass effect tufts with PVA glue.    There are lots of guides to basing, and it makes models look more finished, but you can do this to plain bases, or buy resin or plastic detailed bases and simply paint them like the rest of the model.  I really recommend checking into more detailed guides when you want to investigate basing options, but its a fun area to explore.

Next Steps – Equipment

OK, you’ve painted up your first few models and got a hunger for it.  You know you enjoy it.  It’s time to think about spending a little more money on more than the basics.

Brushes

We started off with a single standard brush – probably a standard brush from Army Painter or GW.  Most normal brushes aren’t bad, but will degrade quite quickly.  Over time, investing in a  better set of brushes can actually save you money, and you’ll get more consistent results with your brushwork week to week.  It’s really difficult to suggest brushes, as it is a very personal thing.  Kolinsky Sable brushes are generally accepted to be the best in the industry, but the individual handles and performance are very much down to the individual.  

Army Painter brushes have triangular handles that some people love and feel very stable in the hand.  GW brushes are really easily available!  I personally really rate the Workbench Warriors set from Rosemary & Co, which have been my favourite.  As you get try different brushes, though, you’ll find you like the way some feel in you hand, and you’ll want to look for ones with similar handles.

Its well worth investing in some brush soap to keep your brushes in top condition – think of these like a good shampoo and conditioner for your own hair.  The bristles will degrade quickly with no care, the shampoo will clear paint off the bristles, and the conditioner will make sure the bristles continue to stay soft and flow nicely.  Master brush cleaner is easily available from eBay or Amazon.

As an immediate next step, I’d just expand your brush range a little, and maybe try  brush or two from different ranges to see what you like in your hand, before spending too much.  Trying a few fine detail brushes can be fun, and maybe pick up a drybrush or a big brush to slap paint on a tank or monster.

Paints

Ah, painters can argue for hours about different paint ranges, and again, much of this comes down to individual taste.  It’s worth experimenting with new paints every so often to see if you like them.  My biggest recommendation is to get paints that you feel last, that look right for you, and that are available enough so you can pick up more without too much trouble.  Acrylic miniature paints are pretty compatible between ranges, and especially as long as you wait for one coat to dry before putting on the next, there’s not reason to limit yourself to one company.

Speaking personally, I like a lot of paints!  I think Vallejo metallic paints look amazing, though the GW gold is great.  Generally I like the GW line, but I don’t like their whites which I don’t find last very well.  I really like Army Painter paints as a good cheap option for the basics, and I find their dropper bottles easier to be consistent with if I make a colour by mixing paints.

A good rule of thumb is to stick to whatever line is most easily available that you feel happy with, and if you aren’t happy with how a particular colour goes, try an alternative from a different line.

Equipment

There’s a lot of extra equipment you can buy.  Lamps, painting handles, specialist water jugs, paint tables.  Think about the space you have available, and reach out to people on social media for thoughts on specific items.  If you ask about everything you need, you’ll be flooded with too many possibilities.  If people discuss painting lamps, the remit is more manageable.

Most of the stuff in this category beyond the actual brushes, paint and models are really very optional areas, and I’d recommend investigating them slowly if you feel a need.  Try a painting handle if you find your hand hurts while (or after) painting.  If you don’t have anywhere to leave paints set up, a little painting table you can pop on a shelf and take down for a session will make a big difference.  If you have a regular desk area to paint in, but its away from the window or main lights, look at daylight lamp options – and look at LEDs that aren’t hot to avoid drying the paints as you work!

Summary

Its such an individual hobby that it’s difficult to explain the range of options without making everything seem far too complex.  Start simple, add some complexities as you gain in confidence, exploit the fantastic range of painting videos on youtube and guides in magazines like white dwarf, stay patient and keep trying.  Its amazing fun, tremendously relaxing … and if you play games, is so satisfying using painted minis instead of bare plastic.

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