I’ve gotten many questions over the years from new hobbyists about what they can do to improve their miniature painting. It’s a common question: “how to paint miniatures better?” or “how to improve miniature painting skills?”. You can watch painting miniature tutorials. Many of these tutorials focus on how to start painting miniatures. But, in general, there are a few key concepts that I keep in mind that have helped me improve my ability to paint miniatures and models.
In this article, I show you the 10 ways how you can improve your miniature painting skills.
Summary (TL;DR): The Big Picture
All miniature painters want a better grasp of how to use basic colors through color theory and learning about painting techniques. But, the ultimate goal I think of any approach in miniature painting is to create something you’re proud of, even if it’s not something you envisioned in your head right away.
You should be perfectly fine with the process of improving you work over time. In fact, it is extremely important to know that getting better at painting miniatures may take a few years. Taking hold of advanced techniques isn’t something you’ll get over night. Muscle memory, seeing the big picture, playing with the entire range of new tools you discovery take energy–dare I say suffering–and of course, time.
Products, equipment, such as good lighting over your hobby desk, a wet palette, along with more paint brands will all emerge onto your “hobby radar screen”. Playing with good brushes that hold a good tip, thinning paints to the right consistency, and knowing how a single miniature can be painted multiple ways and yet still look amazing.
Painting technique, e.g., edge highlighting, dry brushing, and using thin layers, is only a part of the entire picture. A new technique won’t make you a better painter! You can do amazing work with a normal, bog-standard regular brush when you put time into the hobby.
Maybe it’s just me, but all those other models that look so much better than mine serve to inspire me, rather than make me feel like a failure.
The important thing is to appreciate the process, and not worry about the end result; perfection is not something you should aim for. You will make mistakes along the way and this is fine: it’s all part of the learning experience!
Here are the top 10 ways to get better at painting miniatures:
1. Time with a brush is essential
You learn to paint miniatures better by painting miniatures. Experience. Get it. Watching YouTube videos or reading instructional books are great ways to pick up information. But, nothing will improve your work like you actually doing it. Pick up your paint brush and use it! Thinking about painting isn’t going to make your hands more comfortable handling a brush. To improve, your mind and hands need sync up. I can daydream about the great miniature work I’ll accomplish, but I’ll get ridiculed if I don’t produce anything by trying to make it happen outside my head. Paint to learn to paint!
2. Learn to fail.
Enjoy your work by disregarding the end-result. In other words, learn how to enjoy the process of finishing something even if the product you end up with isn’t something you’re pleased with. What is important is to “do it”. Learn how to silence the negative voices in your head that try to judge everything you do while painting. Learn to encourage yourself, whether this is positive self-talking, or simply expecting to fail. You will become better with this process and with practice you will become a better miniature painter.
3. Use good tools.
Whether it is brushes or paint, you should use the best tools you can afford. When you paint minis, your tools become an extension of your hand, mind, and eyes. You will get frustrated if the tools you use slow you down or hinder your progress. Take it from me, don’t cheap out. If you want to improve your miniature painting, use the best brushes and tools. It can make a huge difference in both speed and results if your brushes and paint do what you want them to do on a consistent basis. Make sure your tools don’t get in your way!
4. Sharp brush tips.
Keep the tips of your brushes sharp and pointy. You want control and being able to apply paint in a consistent and reliable fashion on miniatures requires a brush that comes to a fine point. The best quality brushes hold their point (these are generally fine-sable brushes with Kolinsky hair bristles). The best classical mainstream brands are: Winsor & Newton Series 7, Raphael 8404, DaVinci Maestro. For hobby-oriented brushes with excellent quality try: Broken Toad or Artis Opus.
5. You only know what you know.
Learn from many people. Go to workshops. Ask questions from different artists you admire. Miniature painting has many facets of style and technique. Each painter uses a different approach. Take this in, apply what you think works, but never assume you’re done learning. Another note, don’t think that you need to learn from professionals. You can pick up a lot from other new painters. As they grow, follow them.
6. You are free to do what you want.
This is artistic license. As a painter, you are an artist and artists have a freedom in their creativity that you should exercise. Just because your miniature painting doesn’t follow convention, doesn’t mean it’s “wrong”. You can paint something realistically, and someone else might paint the same model with a cartoony style. If you want to paint something in a different style, feel free to use reference photos and copy that approach. Mix it up if you want to be different. But your painting is your expression.
7. Don’t paint yourself into a comfort zone.
Use paint to add variety into your work. Variety could be from color, tone, and value. Don’t get bogged down by color theory and math. Try out different ways to make your paint work for your model. Paint with colors and shades that you like. If you follow a formula, then you may fall into the trap of a routine. Your painting sessions should be a time of experimentation and discovery!
8. High contrast is more important than staying in the lines.
Make sure you keep things bright and dark on the same model. Whether you’re doing an abstract approach or trying to keep the model cleanly painted, make sure your model has a wide dynamic range of bright and dark values. This will make your model “pop” and continue to have that 3D-look that draws the viewers’ interest.
9. Squint your eyes and change the perspective.
Literally, squint your eyes at your piece. Can you distinguish the different parts of the model even with your squinted, fuzzy view? If not, you’ll probably know how to fix that. A model stands out when the viewer is able to distinguish its different parts at-a-glance. Make sure you understand that in some perspectives and viewpoints, the model might look better or worse. Turn the model sideways, upside-down, and every which way.
10. Do what is comfortable.
Don’t share your work if you think it’s not ready. Don’t paint in a certain style unless you really want to try it. Drinking your cleaning pot full of dirty paint water is gross. Don’t do it. If you don’t like using a wet palette, don’t use one. There are certain things you should do for a good paint job, such as using thin paints or applying basic color and contrast knowledge–But, to really get better at painting miniatures, you need to feel good about it. The better painter doesn’t sweat the details, and rather takes those little details and puts them aside for the bigger picture.
How to Get Started Painting Miniatures: Where to Begin?
There are a lot of miniature painting tips out there. Learning how to paint requires you to know how to not use too much paint on your brush, apply foundational painting techniques, such as wet blending, base coating, or why good lighting is extremely important. It’s almost enough to make your head spin!
The good news is that you don’t need to know everything about paint, color, or all that mumbo-jumbo. Your instincts from when you were a child coloring with crayons is all you need. Are you creative? Do you want to paint miniatures? If the answer is yes, then you’re already 90% equipped to jump into a painting session with your miniature or model.
To sum up what I think is the best approach (and place) to get started painting miniatures, here it is:
- Gather your supplies, e.g., model, paint, and brush. Check out the essential tools you’ll want to have to get started to paint miniatures.
- Find a clear area to work on your miniature painting. This could be a dedicated desk or hobby area like mine, or your kitchen table. You won’t need as much space as you think!
- Painters are creative. If you want to paint your first miniature, then do it! Look up tutorials and YouTube videos for inspiration. The important thing is that you enjoy what you’re doing. You’ll get better at painting after just a few sessions of practicing on different color schemes, styles, and techniques. Start with the basics (see above).
- Don’t be afraid to pick up your brush and let others see what you’ve done!
Every veteran miniature painter has come up with some advice for the new hobbyist who is starting their miniature painting journey. It’s only natural to provide technical insight, e.g., “thin your paints!”, but really, I think the best advice is to keep practicing (essentially bullet #1) and have fun. No one is forcing you to paint models and miniatures.
The fact you want to improve means you already have the motivation inside you to act. I hope these 10 tips give you a boost to keep that drive alive. Keep on, keeping on!
Happy miniature painting!