A Quick Guide to Miniature Painting Terminology

This guide attempts to define a lot of the words you’ll hear from seasoned painters when describing how to paint your model using acrylic paints.  Rather than being ordered A-Z, it’s grouped by the rough stage through the process, so you’ll find terms that are often used together grouped together.  The phrases are generally applicable, but generally refer more closely to GW terminology as the market leaders in miniatures.


Priming a model, or Undercoating, is applying a type of paint called Primer that goes on the model first, and is designed to grip to the surface, providing a base for the other paints to stick to.  It’s particularly important when painting metal models, as acrylic paint can chip off metal models easily if they are used heavily as game pieces.  The colour of this undercoat has quite an impact on colours painted over the top – black primer will tend to make the model feel subdued and realistic, while white primer will pop and be vibrant.  Grey colour starts with a neutral palette.  Some techniques will require specific undercoats to work – Citadel Contrast paints, for example, require a very light primer, normally a off white cream called Wraith-bone.  Some coloured primers will also effectively work as one of the main colours on the miniature, saving you a lot of time.

Primers can be applied by brush, airbrush, or by aerosol cans.  The latter requires a certain amount of caution – a small number of materials on the market can react badly to spray primers.  Reaper Bones in particular shouldn’t be primed by spray aerosols as a rule of thumb.

Zenithal Priming

Zenithal priming is an interesting concept.  Essentially, we aren’t going to cover the model with a single colour undercoat.  Instead we prime the whole model in a darker colour, and then pick a direction.  We then spray increasing lighter colours from that directly, moving in smaller arcs to cover less of the model each time, so the effects is to have gradation of colour from light to dark for the painting to go over, creating subtle shadows. 

Because this gives a gradation of colour from dark to light underlying the other paints, this can sometimes be referred to a zenithal highlighting.

Tabletop quality or Battle ready

Not every miniature is going to be a golden demon award winner, and if you want to field entire armies for games, you simply won’t have time!  There’s nothing wrong with painting to a decent basic standard that looks great at the average 3ft distance when playing games.

There’s no exact definition of what constitutes tabletop standard.  Perfectionists might call a beautiful layered and highlighted model table top, because they haven’t added a few last touches.  Tournament players sometimes use the minimum tournament standard as the definition of tabletop, which is a 3 colour minimum for tournament standard, but most people accept that normal tabletop standard involves basecoating the various parts of the models cleanly, together with at least one technique to add depth or highlight to those colours.  It might be a wash, or a drybrush, or the initial base coat may already include that depth with contrast paints, but some technique to accentuate the details.

Display Quality, Competition Quality or Parade Ready

Like tabletop standard, there isn’t really an exact definition of this.  Essentially, it involves painting the miniature to the best of your ability, aiming to produce a model that could enter a competition like Golden Demon, or be displayed on a display shelf.

Generally you’ll use multiple techniques to add not just highlights and shadows, but also simulate textures and lighting directions, and all the smaller details will need to be added.  For tabletop quality models designed to be viewed from a distance, painting eyes really isn’t essential.  For a display piece?  You’ll need to master all those additional detail techniques.

Parade Ready can be  a little lower than full competition quality – it essentially takes all the processes through 2 or three more layers or finer highlights to achieve a much better finish, but it may still fall short of a full Display Quality piece, and be closer to what some people call “High tabletop”


Basecoating is the process of putting an initial set of the main colours onto the model.  If you’ve sprayed the whole model in a coloured primer, like blue, all the blue parts may already be done!

There are some subtleties to base coating a model.  If you intend to “layer” your colours up, your first base coat will be much darker than the final colour.  If you intend to “wash” or “dip” your model at the end of the process, then your base coat will need to be lighter than the final colours.

If following a painting guide, the base coat will be the first colour in the process on each of the areas.

“Two Thin Coats”

This is a phrase often used in painting circles, and refers to the fact that it is much better to be patient, and build up multiple thin coats of paint to get a solid coat of colour than to apply thick paint that will dry unevenly, show brushstrokes, and flow unevenly off the brush, leading to mistakes.  Don’t take the name too literally – you aren’t aiming to apply two thin coats in reality.  You want to apply enough thin coats of paint to achieve a consistent colour, letting the paint fully dry between each coat.  Paint should be thinned to around the consistency of semi-skimmed milk.  With dark colours like black or brown, two thin coats will probably work perfectly.  If you try to apply a yellow over a black undercoat, you’ll probably need more!

“One Thick Coat”

Games Workshop have recently released a range of paints called Citadel Contrast.  These paints are designed to be applied straight from the pot, but actually dry as a very thin layer, effectively going on a translucent coat that recedes from the edges, giving the effect of a “base coat”, a light “drybrush” and a “wash”.  One thick coat just means you apply it carefully from the pot rather than thinning it down like traditional paints, and the way the paint  works means you only normally need to put a single coat on.  Do not deliberately try to put a “thick” coat on by slapping loads on.  That isn’t the intention of the phrase at all, and caused more than a few people to discount a wonderfully effective technique.


A wash is heavily diluted paint or ink applied over an area of a model – in some cases, a wash may even be applied all over a model to give a consistent tone and simple shading all over.  While it’s often used for large areas,  it can be applied much more carefully for specific effects like on hair.

  • Pin Wash – a pin wash involves applying a small amount of wash around tiny targeted areas of a model, like around rivets or bolts on a metal panel.  Its a technique most often used when painting vehicles as washes don’t work as well used over big flat panels.


Drybrushing is a technique where you apply some paint to a brush, then take most of the paint back off again with paper towel or something similar!  Now, when you drag the bristles gently over the model, only a little paint catches on the tops and ridges of the models, applying a quick and easy highlight.

Drybrushing used to be a more prevalent technique, but it is deprecated in the current very clean look popularised by Games Workshop’s display team, the ‘Eavy Metal painters.  Their own terminology guide relegates dry brushing to use on bases or terrain only.

Many experienced painters love drybrushing for organic materials.  The slightly random way the paint adheres to the raised surfaces gives a very natural look, and on surfaces like rock, bark, fur and hair, it can give better results than manual highlights for all but the very top painters. 

  • Over-brushing is an interesting variation on drybrushing, where you take off less paint from the brush, leading to the paint effectively covering the model except in the recesses.  I’ve also seen this referred to as slop-brushing.  Its a quick but effective technique for layering, especially when combined with a lighter drybrush afterwards.


Layering is the process of adding multiple layers of paint to an area of a miniature to achieve a gradation of colour – from light to dark, dark to light, or even across a spectrum in odd circumstances.  For a simple effect on a red cloak, you might start with a dark reddy brown, then paint a layer of mixed brown and red slightly higher on the folds, then paint a layer of of red higher again.  Advanced painters might put on many more layers of slightly different colours between the top and bottom of the range.  The more layers, the smoother the colour transition appears.

Layering is often combined with Blending to smooth the transitions between the different layers even more, or with a Glaze over the top to smooth the transitions out by filtering it through another thin level of paint.

In general, most painters will start with simply basecoat, wash and highlight or drybrush techniques, and gradually increase the complexity of their starting colour with additional layering over time.


Blending is the process of mixing two different colours together in a transition on the model.  Some people see layering as a form of blending, and use the terms interchangeably.  There are various techniques for blending colours effectively, including:

  • Wet blending – essentially, you paint some of one colour on, and before its dry, paint some of a second colour on, and mix the still wet paints together to blend together on the model itself.  It sounds simple, but can be very difficult to pull off!  
  • Feathering – feathering is a technique of using the brush in a gentle zig zag pattern, like tickling with a feather, to thin out a little paint over another to achieve a transition.  Because of the gentle erratic effect, it breaks up the sharp line between colours for a much smoother 
  • Two Brush Blending – Here you use one brush with paint, and one brush with water to thin out the edges – you’d often use feathering with the second wet brush to achieve the blend.
  • Double Loading –  load your brush with the lighter of the two colours, get the paint off the tip, then carefully load the tip with the darker colour.  Now, if you sweep the brush sideways, the colours will blend with the pressure of the stroke as they leave the brush. This is fast, but can be a little rough, and often softened with a glaze afterwards.


A highlight is a lighter shade of paint painted over the normal colour that will stand out.  Sometimes layering can be described as highlighting, but in modern miniature painting highlights generally refer to sharper changes in colour than gentle layering.  It is normally intended to simulate the effect of light on the surface, but can be an artistic decision to draw attention to a particular part of the model.  There are many different type of highlight in miniature painting.  4 specific type of common highlights used right at the edges of panels by the ‘Eavy Metal team are:

  • Chunky Highlight – This is about 1.5 times bigger than your final highlight, and only slightly lighter than the main colour of the panel, building a transition.
  • Edge Highlight – This builds on the chunky highlight, and starts building the contrast.  For simple use of the edge highlighting technique, this may be the only highlight applied.
  • Final Highlight – This is the brightest highlight, defining the shape of the panel. It should be reserved for the most prominent edges, and help illustrate light falling on the model.
  • Spot Highlight – This is the last highlight, applied only at the very corners to initiate light catching on the hard surface.  On hard surfaces, this is generally very bright, often white.  Soft surfaces may miss this step, or use a softer colour contrast than hard surfaces.


Stippling is an interesting technique, using a stiff bristled brush or a dedicated circular stippling brush.  Essentially, you make sure the paint is loaded evenly, and then, instead of painting with brush strokes, you dab straight down onto the surface, using the pressure to govern the amount of transfer straight under the brush.  This is a fantastic technique for breaking up edges of overlapping colours when blending,  applying spots of colour for animals, or over a surface to apply texture to cloth.


A shade is used to define the form of a model, defining recesses.  2 types of shade as used by the ‘Eavy Metal team are:

  • Soft Shade – A soft shade is used to define softer shadows than the tighter recesses that we need to deep shade.  Applying gentle shadows to the folds of  a cloak with very dilute shade paints is a great example of a soft shade.  In many ways, soft shading can be a form of layering building darker colours down into gentle folds.  It can also be used to add contrast to normal layering – a soft shade with a hint of red on a green cloak in the recesses can be very effective if you study the colour theory.
  • Deep Shade – A deep shade (or recess shade) is only applied in the very deepest recesses of the model, like shading the fine panel lines on armour.  A useful tip is that diluted normal paint will give better control than using normal shade paints designed to be applied as washes.


A glaze is quite difficult to define.  Essentially, it’s a thin coat of a colour applied to gently tint the model.  Unlike a wash, we aren’t intending for paint to settle more in recesses and define shadows – we want to tint the area of the model evenly.  There’s no hard and fast rule as to how thin the paint should be, as that will depend on how well the starting paint covers.  Dark colours will need to be thinned significantly more than lighter ones for the same translucent effect on the whole.

Applying a glaze over gently layered colours will unify the tone and improve the colour transitions.  Glazes can also be used to make colours seem richer and more vibrant while preserving the subtle colour differences from layering or highlighting underneath the translucent glaze.

 NMM – Non Metallic Metals

Non Metallic Metals are a fantastic concept.  If you read a comic book, or study a lot of art, actual reflective metals weren’t available.  Using the reflections to simulate the colours we see on a gold, running from brown, though yellow, to pure white glints, we can paint the illusion of metal reflecting light from a particular angle.  It’s a very advanced technique, as to do it well you have to really understand light sources and how it reflects from metal surfaces.  Many people frown on the technique for tabletop minatures, partly as it is very time consuming, but also because NMM involves assuming the location of imaginary light sources.  Multiple models reflecting apparently different light sources because of their position in the game can look wrong to the eye, though they look fantastic posed together as a display unit.

TMM – True Metallic Metals

TMM or True Metallic Metals is synthesis of using NMM techniques to simulate metal from dark to light, with actual metallic paints!  Instead of painting silver straight on and then applying a wash, you’d paint dark metals to the very lightest metals as if you were simulating metal with non-metallic paints – maybe a very dark metal in the shadows, through gun metal and up to silver on the edges catching light from an imaginary light source, and maybe some brilliant white glints to simulate the normal reflections.  It can be tremendously effective, but requires all the expertise of NMM painting and understanding of light, combined with working with metallic paints, which don’t always flow as nicely as many acrylics.  But when done successfully the metals truly pop amazingly for display pieces.

OSL – Object Source Lighting

Object Source Lighting is a tricky concept to implement successfully.  Essentially you need to paint light sources on a model, like headlights on a tank or a candle next to a miniatures leg – but you don’t just paint the source, but paint nearby surfaces to take into account the brighter or coloured light.  A glowing blue sphere in a wizards hand might tint nearby surfaces blue as well, for example.  This might be achieved by glazing surfaces to tint them, or can be achieved in a very quick and effective way with an airbrush – spraying the light source with an airbrush gives a hit of colour in the centre fading out as it gets further away, and works perfectly for this effect.

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