Painting 101 – Lesson 2 – Priming the Model – Theoretical

Well, I’m aware I haven’t done the first practical yet, but some of the points to think about in the first theoretical haven’t really been covered.  We discussed assembling the model in sections based on ease of painting and priming – but we haven’t discussed our basic priming and painting options!  Although this is the second practical stage to implement, it’s something we need to think about before we even put the model together.

Priming (or undercoating) a model

Why do we prime a model?  2 main reasons.  First, it is designed to grip to the surface of the miniature and provide a good surface for the rest of the paints.  A good primer will minimise chipping, and the more “grippy” the primer, the better the paint job will tend to do with the rigours of play.  Why not just use the strongest grip primer?  Well, we’ll discuss the impact of colour later, but some technical effects actually rely on less grippy surfaces.  Most of the “crackle” effect mediums designed to look like broken earth as it dries won’t work well on a very grippy primer – the effect is minimised.  The paint tries to pull apart as it dries, and the primer holds it tight.

Second, the primer offers a consistent colour to layer our paints over.  Because they underlay the others, they subtly affect the overall scheme.  The three most common colours of primer used when miniature painting are black, white and grey.  Black is very common currently, as it leads to slightly muted colours and fits well with a realistic or grim war environment.  White, on the other hand, is a fantastic platform for bright and brilliant colours.  Grey is neutral, allowing you to highlight or darken down, and in my opinion is the best starting point for a miniature with a wide range of colours.  However, grey is also the most common colour of plastic and resin, and it can sometimes be difficult to tell you have really good coverage.

Matt and gloss makes a difference too.  One of my favourite primers is the Vallejo Gloss Black from their Metal range.  Metals painted over the top just amazingly pop!  But for predominantly flesh and fabric models, you may want to avoid that extra touch of shine.

Not all primers are monochrome, and some acrylic sprays are “grippy” enough to function as primers even if technical just a base coat, like the current coloured spray cans provided by Games Workshop.  Spraying your Stormcast or Rubricae with a gold undercoat can really save time, getting much of the base coat down at the same time as your undercoat.  Companies like Army Painter offer a wide range of spray cans, and  for complex models you could prime different chunks in different colours before you glue them together – a great example of this is in White Dwarf with their recommendations or St Celestine, priming the wings white, the body gold, and so on.

As you look at priming a model, then, you need to look at your intended final colours, and the techniques you plan to use to paint the model.  If you have an airbrush, you’ll have much more control than spray cans, and a much wider range of primer colours, in addition to being able to mix them yourself!  If you want to use washes over a plain undercoat, you’ll generally want white (or maybe grey) as washes over black will barely show up.  You might prime with a brush, and carefully define areas exactly in different underlying tones!

If you really plan to push your painting skills to the absolute max, I favour one colour of primer over the main model.  It sets a consistent tone and it means tricky colours can be applied evenly rather than trying to colour match over black and white.   I like the though of starting at one colour and everything else is down to me!  It means it’ll be longer to finish the model, though, and sometimes may need to be varied for technical effects.  If breaking it down, I’d generally look at:

Prime the base with a less grippy primer if using technical effect paints.  I’m going to cover the base in a separate section of these thoughts.

Prime the head in a grey or black for muted matt effect.  The head generally is a separate part.

Prime the weapon in a gloss black for a shinier metal effect, or a grey or even white for bright power weapons.  The weapon is often separate from the body and arms, or with a distinct section like a blade that lends itself to priming by airbrush.

Prime the body appropriately for the brightness of the main colour to be used, and how dull the material of the model should be – I mean fabric, flesh or armour, not plastic or resin there!  If I was painting metallic alpha legion, I’d go black gloss.  Flesh, fabric or matt ceramite, I’d think grey.  Shiny whites and brilliant blues really pop with white.

Sneaky tricks post priming – Preshading

Once a model is primed, particularly in a monochrome shade, there are some useful tricks to preshade a model before you start applying colours.  Fantastic cheats!  But you need to plan them, particular Zenithal Preshading.

With lighter primers, you can add a dark wash, to act at shadows.  This is before painting any colour over the top – with thin coats, you get graduated highlights and dark recesses showing faintly through, even before you do any real shading or highlighting in the painting stage!

You can airbrush preshading onto the gaps between panels on larger models like tanks! A gentle surface spray of the real colour won’t hit the recesses as hard, leaving a gentle shading effect perfect for tanks.

You can drybrush a lighter colour to act as a subtle highlight and help pick out details on darker primers. This both helps show a gentle highlight through the thin coats of paint you’ll be applying, and also gives you targets for your brush – details can be hard to see on black!

Zenithal PresHading

This is a particular sneaky time saving option, though you will need to have at least dry fitted your model together if not glued it.  Ideally, you use 3 shades of primer (black, grey and white classically).  Cover the entire model with the darkest primer.

Next, pick spot that you want the light to be coming from – straight above is a solid option for tabletop, as it’ll look great from the players perspective.  Spray on the medium primer lightly from the point, but circle the can a bit, rather than keeping it fixed.

Finally, get the lightest primer, and give a light spray from that one light source point – no moving.  You’ll now have a range from dark to light on the model, all aimed towards one point – just as if there was one light source shining down creating shadows.

You can do this with just 2 shades, or even go to more shades, reducing the angle from the light source each time you get lighter.

Its very effective, particularly if you then apply washes, glazes, or just thin coats over the top.  I think its a good time saver


So, priming!   Not just as simple as grabbing a spray can and having at it all the time (though thats still what I normally do!).  We need to pick our primer colour or colours based on our final colour choices and proposed techniques….  so we may have to go another theoretical or 2 before we really work out how to put our models together!   If spraying several different primer colours, we definitely need to assemble in sections to spray easy one.  If using zenithal shading, we need to assemble the whole model (although maybe using temporary connections) or the highlights will look wrong.  If spraying all one colour, the main focus will be assembling in sections to allow easy access for our brush.