How To Paint Miniatures – A Guide

In the series of how-to and tutorials on my site, today I will be talking about how to paint miniatures.

Before, I tried to help you out with several other things, like 5 tips on miniature wallpaper, how to craft stone walls, how to do miniature floors, and so much more. Have a ‘search’ on my site, and you might find what you are looking for 😉

How to paint miniatures.

In this article, I will explain the basic techniques that can be used to paint your metal, plastic, clay, or other materials miniatures, and ornaments. These techniques originate from painting classical “tin soldiers”, but are perfectly applicable to certain aspects of wooden miniatures.

Materials used – Water-based paint, oil, enamel, etc.

I tend to use acrylic (water) based paint wherever possible because it dries quickly and it is easy to process. To use acrylic paint on metal/clay or plastic miniatures it is best to first coat your figurines with a “primer” undercoat. We call this a “base coat”.

Usually, oil paint is used, because this would be the only paint that attaches directly to raw metal surfaces, and so doesn’t need an undercoat, but nowadays, there are special acrylic paints for miniatures on the market that applies pretty good, to even metal, without the need of an undercoat. And dries in like a few minutes.

An example could be this brand, which is actually made for miniatures in the ‘wargame’-world.

How to paint miniatures

But it is your choice to pick whatever acrylic paint suites you the best and which one you prefer to work with, of course.

Materials needed.

This tutorial is based on acrylic (water-based) paint because as I said, nowadays there is special acrylic paint for miniatures, and it works fine.

The techniques explained here can also be done with oil paint, but that requires a little more patience because oil paint often takes days to dry!

Therefore, I would advise you to always use a test surface, where you can try out your paint and technique before you start working with a real model.

You need:

  • Paint Brushes: medium, fine, and large
  • Matt/Satin spray paint (black, grey, white), preferably water-based
  • Acrylic paint from a tube or a jar
  • tissues, a bowl of water, a hairdryer
  • something to mix the paint with
  • a cardboard box (to make a DIY spray booth)

Prepare your materials.

1 – Remove “flash” and “mold lines”

If you do not use a 3D printer or make/have miniatures in clay, you will most likely have metal or plastic figurines, that are cast in molds.

When miniatures are removed from the molds, ‘flash’ and thin ‘mold lines’ are often still visible on the mini model. Use a file or a sharp crafting knife, to gently remove them. You can often easily hide mold lines, making your miniatures look a lot neater.

2 – Make sure that your figurines are formed in the shape that you want.

Make sure, that when you start painting, that your miniatures are in the exact shape that you want them to be. Oftentimes, metal/plastic figurines are warped/curved. Mostly the materials are somewhat flexible.

Anyway, if you would still deform the miniatures after painting, chances are that your paint will be damaged.

3 – Degrease them.

If you work with miniatures, it is important to always clean and degrease them before painting them, as the paint needs to adhere strongly.

One way of doing this is to just rinse them in a bowl of lukewarm water with a little bit of dish soap. Then dry them with a tissue and blow dry them well. (obviously not applicable for wooden miniatures).

Do you want to work in extreme-clean conditions, from now on, then use, for example, latex gloves, but really thin ones.

Make sure to keep ready:

  • a bowl of water to rinse your brushes
  • a cardboard box, the front and top is cut out. This way, you have a free and simple ‘spray booth’
  • just some tissues to dry your brushes after you have rinsed them to remove paint
  • a piece of (news)paper that you can mess on
  • having a blowdryer around can be handy to dry the paint in between. But this is only useful on acryl paint, drying oil paint takes days.

4 – Apply basecoat/undercoat.

When painting miniatures using water-based paint, it is recommended to apply a good first coat, before you start painting for ‘real’.

Applying acrylic paint directly is certainly possible with some brands of paint (see the beginning of this article), but I always spray the miniature with a primer first. We call this the base coat.

You can do this with a paintbrush, but spraying gives a quicker and smoother result.

Spraying is not your thing? Then you can always apply oil paint as a basecoat or go straight ahead to the ‘color block’-step in this article.

Choosing a color for the basecoat (black, grey or white, or even color), depends on the colors that you will paint on your model afterward.

A black basecoat would be fine if the piece is in dark colors, such as brown, green and blue. For lighter colors, such as yellow and red, a white or light grey basecoat would be a better choice.

If you need to paint 100 miniatures in dark blue, for example, then it would be better to paint the basecoat in the same color. So then you have your first ‘color-block’ (see further).

5 – Spraying the basecoat.

Put your miniatures in the cardboard box and get it outside for better ventilation and to prevent that you spray on furniture or any other household items. It is better to stay out of the wind and not into bright sunlight.

Because the bright sun can be the cause that your paint droplets already dry up while you are spraying and thus not end up on the model. Spray at a distance of about 30 cm’s, in short puffs.

Do not spray for longer times, because this will lead to the result of paint layers that are much too thick and your details will disappear.

( Do you wonder where to buy these cute little mini-sprays? They are right here on Etsy 😉 ).

There could be a problem with miniatures that have many details. If that’s the case, you can put your model on top of the box, so that you can turn it around and spray it from every direction and fill up every crack and bend.

Leave it out to dry, most of the time acrylic spray dries within half an hour.

6 – Painting: make it easy on yourself.

As we all know, miniatures are small ( yeah, deu 🙂 ). And can be difficult to hold while painting them.

An easy trick to solve this problem would be to attach some double-sided tape on your piece and attach that on a piece of wood or a little pot of paint, temporarily.

This way, you don’t hold on to the miniature piece itself (and paint your fingers!), and you can turn it around easily to paint everywhere.

The next picture basically sums it up, but we will be going into detail of course.

How to paint miniatures, step 1: Color Block.

After you have applied the basecoat, then you can start ‘color blocking’. This basically means that you paint on the basic colors of your miniature piece with a medium-sized brush.

Faces get a skin color, clothes, miniature food, etc are all painted in the correct base color, etc. The intention of this would be that from this coat, nothing will remain visible unless you have chosen this one as a ‘color-block’ color.

How to paint miniatures, step 2: Wash.

An easy way to quickly get a lot of depth and detail in your mini piece is to do a ‘wash’. It basically is very diluted paint or ink.

Apply a wash over color blocks that are flat, and it will automatically flow into the lower parts and dry up there, as it is thin.

This base ‘color block color’, will be a few shades darker than how you want it to turn out. Don’t panic, it is supposed to be like this because the wash will bring out the details and work as a ‘shadow’. Further on, you will apply the final color.

The color of your ‘washes’.

Choose the color of your ‘wash’, based on your color block. If you wash a doll’s face, for example, use a brown or reddish-brown wash over a light skin tone. You could use some brown on a miniature green pear so that it seems to have some brown spots.

The drying of washes.

As a ‘wash’ contains a lot of water, it has to dry for a longer time, also because it is better to wash the miniature piece ‘excessively’. Some washes have a bit of a shiny look when they are dried, you can solve this by applying a matte varnish as a final step.

This video also tells you a little bit more about how to ‘wash’ miniatures:

How to paint miniatures, step 3: Highlights.

Finally, in the last step of the basic technique, we apply ‘highlights’. It is simply applying a lighter shade (or a range of shades), on top of your base color, to create even more depth.

Since your miniature piece has darkened after applying the wash, highlighting it can bring back a brighter color and light details. Applying highlights after you have used a wash has the advantage to see the details of your piece much better.

Keep it simple- Highlight 1.

If you have ‘washed’ your miniature piece, it will have turned out 1 step darker than your original base color block color. This will allow you to use the same color block-color as the first ‘highlight’.

Use a fine brush to paint it back in broad strokes, but this time, leave the ‘deeper’ (shadows) areas free. In this way, you will have a darker shade that changes into the ‘full’ color.

If you would like to stop after this step, that is totally fine, because your piece will already look beautiful as it is! But, you can:

Next level: highlight 2

Would you like even more detail and depth, then there is a second step.

Mix or use a lighter shade of the color you want to highlight. For example, mix some white with your green color to get a highlight for the pears.

Use a fine brush to apply some small highlights, but this time leave some more spots open to see the color underneath. Just think about where the light would normally be, and highlight those places. Like the ‘cheeks’ of the pear would be lighter than around the stem.

Here’s another great video on the topic, this time about highlighting your miniatures:

The sky is the limit – use more highlights or advanced techniques.

There is no limit to the number of highlight stages that you can apply to your miniature piece. Some miniaturists apply as many as 5 to 10 different layers of color shades, to get some volume and light into it.

But you don’t need to make it too hard on yourself and if you want a relatively natural look, stick to 2 or 3 highlight steps.

Also, on the other hand, if you use too much contrast, it will look less realistic in combination with wooden furniture or a wooden dollhouse, so there’s that.

Another way of highlighting = use the ‘dry brushing’ technique.

You don’t have a steady hand or you simply want to use fewer steps and still get a beautiful result? Then I would advise you to use the ‘dry brush’- technique.

Another advantage of dry brushing is that it gives your miniature piece a somewhat ‘grainy, chalk-like’ – look, which makes them look a bit older and less ‘bling-bling’.

  • Do the exact same steps as above, until you get the full basic color. ‘Wash’ it and let it dry. This last one is very important for dry brushing.
  • Make a drybrush: use a larger and older brush (it won’t look good after some dry brushing), preferably a stiffer one. You could make your own by cutting the hair to about 1/3 length. This will get you a very short and stiff brush, suitable to dry brush your mini piece.
  • The process: Here comes the trick; dip your brush with your base color again, but dry it almost completely on a tissue. There should be hardly any paint left on the brush, you can test it out by brushing it over the back of your hand. Little or nothing should be left on it.
  • Now dry brush the mini piece with the brush all over your miniature. The finer details that are higher up, will pick up the last bit of paint from your brush. Do this with the entire model. The deeper parts of your base coat and wash will remain dark, while the small details will come to life.

Do you want more information on dry brushing? Here’s another video for you:

If you wish, you can repeat this process with a progressively lighter color, but do not overdo it. Because as I said before, the contrasts in your miniature piece will stand out too much, compared to your wooden furniture or dollhouse.

You could always add another level of ‘highlight’ if necessary. The advantage of dry brushing is also that you will be making a lot less of a mess 😉

Finally, a few tips as well for your wooden dollhouse and/or furniture.

The tutorial above is mostly suitable for any kind of miniatures that are made of plastic (3D printed), metal, clay, and others. So I wanted to add a few tips for your wooden pieces. (if you’re not bored yet of this long article haha)

  • the inside of your dollhouse needs a coat of flat white paint, which gives a better surface color for adding wallpaper or the background of your final color.
  • if your dollhouse is built with top-quality plywood, there is no need to use a sealer or primer.
  • when sealing and priming are necessary, remember to first remove all the windows and doors.
  • always make sure to use a good quality paintbrush to paint your dollhouse, so they won’t leave bristles.
  • before you start to paint, always sand all rough areas of the raw wood.
  • it is better to paint thin coats of paint and to sand between coats, this gives a much more professional look.
  • spraying small parts of your dollhouse or wooden furniture with an aerosol paint spray or airbrush would be easier than painting them by hand, but of course, you don’t have to.

Finally, when you have finished the painting part, you can also use this technique on your furniture, for example, to make it look a bit fancier by applying ‘Bas relief’.

My final conclusion.

I hope this new blog post on how to paint miniatures wasn’t too long for you? There seems to be no other way of explaining it the right way and make it shorter, I tried haha!

Do you have any questions about this article, or would you just like to make a comment, then please leave a message below in the comment section, or you can now join me on my newest Facebook group.

I wish you happy crafting!

Best regards,

Lizzy

6 thoughts on “How To Paint Miniatures – A Guide”

  1. Hi there, The most fundamental thing to learn miniature painting is layering because it’s a foundation of pretty much everything. If you have a good understanding of layering you can do any technique out there with some practice.

    A good tip for applying traditional painting techniques is simply just follow how 2D painters work and use a brighter primer color to start miniature painting and the workflow will become natural as you practice everyday.

    It is important to use a brush with a good tip for detailing and highlights. Blending techniques for painting miniatures and models are really important as well.

    I think painting miniature takes time and mastering the art of painting them is an even longer venture so have patience, you’ll get better for every single miniature you paint. 

    Thanks for sharing very detailed step by step article on how to paint miniatures with us. Much appreciated.

    Reply
    • hello there, thanks for the extra information on how to paint miniatures and I wish you happy painting them indeed;-)

      Best regards,

      Lizzy

      Reply
  2. Thanks for this guide to painting miniatures.  As you rightly point out, these techniques can be used for painting anything of a similar nature such as dolls houses etc.

    You certainly have went into great detail and have given an excellent step by step and easy to follow process.

    You have included great tips too, like the cut out box for spraying and sticking down the figures to steady them if your fingers aren’t too steady.

    Enjoy your painting.

    Reply
  3. Wow! So much information to paint miniatures. It is well explained from the beginning till the end. My question is it very easy to paint small miniatures or is it best to practice before painting the one item you really desire to paint beautiful? Very interesting article. Thank you for the article!

    Reply
    • Hi there,

      Thanks for your positive comment! If it is your first time painting something,I would definitely try to test it out on a piece that you can ‘mess up’ first;-) Good luck!

      Best regards,

      Lizzy

      Reply

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