50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

I’ve painted miniatures for a long time. Along the way I’ve gathered up a collection of miniature painting tips that have helped me. Many of the tips and tricks I’ve learned are from providing a miniature painting service. Through the years, I’ve learned how-to be a more effective painter. Of course, I’m always looking for ways to improve my work.

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8 MUST-KNOW PAINT BLENDING TECHNIQUES FOR MINIATURES

I don’t like taking the beaten path. I love striking off on my own and trying new ways of doing the same thing. That’s just me.

In this article, I list 50 miniature painting tips that I learned through the years. I hope you find these quick miniature painting tips helpful for you as you start painting miniatures, or face more advanced painting challenges.


50 Miniature Painting Tips

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

1. Prime black to paint faster

It is easier to add contrast with a darker colored base on a model. For example, you can use a black primer base to perform zenithal highlighting.

Other methods for speed painting do involve brighter primers, such as the use of Citadel Contrast Color paints. But, even so, if you start with a black primer, painting techniques are generally much simpler to apply, e.g., highlights application with dry brushing technique.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

2. Prime gray or white for general and advanced painting techniques

For the traditional painter, a blank canvas (or paper medium) is often a bright color. The addition of paint darkens the working surface. For the miniature painter, a good tip for applying traditional painting techniques is simply following how 2D painters work. Use a brighter primer color to start your miniature painting work and the workflow will become natural as you practice.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter
Bare pewter looking for some skin.

3. Spray primers are better than brush-on primers

Spraying a primer allows you to evenly coat a model in thin layers. You have a lot of control with a light spraying primer. And, because the primer is atomized into small particles, you run almost zero risk of producing bubbles.

Just be aware that for best results, a good tip is that you should apply primer at room temperature (72F or 25C) with relatively low humidity. Check out our professional primer guide here.

4. Varnish your miniatures with a matte sealant

For best results, use a spray varnish. As above, a spray varnish will allow you to evenly coat your model without obscuring details or risking other problems like bubbling or pooling.

Make sure you varnish your models at normal room temperature, and avoid high humidity at all costs to prevent “frosting”. A high quality matte sealant will reduce uneven reflections on your model and will improve the contrast of your paint job. Overall, this also helps you produce better photographs of your models with a photo light box.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

5. Use a gloss varnish first to help prevent frosting from a matte varnish

There are a number of reasons for how a gloss varnish will reduce the risk for frosting a matte varnish (see here). In traditional art technique, a gloss varnish provides a base that protects the underlying paint from potential environmental insults that could occur on top.

6. Dry brushing is powerful

Don’t ignore dry brushing or underestimate its power for painting miniatures to a high quality. You can, in fact, use dry brushing to also apply more advanced painting effects on your miniatures. For example, you can use dry brushing to apply object source lighting (OSL) effects.

7. Save money by using cheap synthetic brushes for base coating

It doesn’t take much to destroy a brush. The worst thing you can do to make your miniature painting hobby or business a budget failure is to use expensive tools unnecessarily.

Base coating models doesn’t require the costly kolinsky sables or even sable natural hair brushes at all. Simply use synthetic brushes that last a long time under abuse, inexpensive, and can handle more aggressive cleaning and maintenance.

8. Always use the largest brush you feel comfortable controlling

Bigger is better!

A wise proverb for painting miniatures is that “the bigger your brush, the bigger your thinking”. This means that if you want to keep the big picture in your head, make sure your brush is big, too. It’s a philosophy that has helped me immensely.

Your brush is the bridge between your mind and hand.

You’ll have more fun when you’re not stuck on the small, itty-bitty things. That #2 point round brush is much better for productive work than the #000 pointy thing with a single hair.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

9. Clean your natural hair brushes with brush soap

A high quality sable hair brush should last you years with good care. Brush soap is amazing. It not only cleans brushes, but conditions the hairs so they stay moisturized.

Yes, like those hairs on your head (if you’re not bald). Keep your brushes in good condition and they will provide you with hours upon hours of pleasurable miniature painting.

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10. There is no perfect brush or tool

Your tools are merely that: tools. Never think a new tool or gadget will quickly solve your problem with a painting. Sure, you’ll need some essentials to get specific tasks done. But don’t get into the trap of buying new things in the hope those products will magically make you better.

Although I’ve learned a lot about tools, including tips and techniques working with them, my budget has suffered from the “pay-to-win” mindset. Don’t make my mistake. Be willing to pay for the quality you need, then stop.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

11. Practice, practice, practice

There is no substitute for hard work. None. If you want to get better, you have to stop reading or watching videos about painting miniatures and start painting. I have thousands of hours in the paint seat. I’ve got callouses, neck pain, and cramps in my wrists. Do you?

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

12. Experiment with different techniques

I personally love trying out new painting techniques on my miniatures. The constant discovery motivates me to keep painting. Sure, when I’m working on a commission project with a set of client instructions, I put the riskier technical approaches aside.

But, when I’m on a personal project, I apply every tip and technique I’ve learned from other miniature painters. And, here I am sharing this great info with you (check out these must-know painting techniques).

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

13. Put less pressure on yourself

Do you know about burnout? Burnout is common among miniature painters, as well as other creative people. A lot of it comes from undue expectation placed on oneself or from the perceived expectation from other people.

Take the weight off.

You’re doing this painting thing for fun, remember? When you have more fun, you’ll be more productive.

14. Paint in thin layers using water, except when you’re wet blending

In general, thinned paint layers is better for getting good results. However, a pro tip for wet blending on a model requires that the paint stay wet longer. In this case, don’t thin your paint too much with water. Water-diluted paint will dry faster. This has something to do physics, e.g., increased surface-to-air exposure, reduced surface tension, or something….

If you are going to thin your paint for wet-blending, you can use an acrylic medium or slow-dri retarder. But, a general tip for painting with the more advanced miniature painting technique of wet-blending, don’t use too much water in your model paint.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

15. Don’t try to stick to a single painting technique for every situation

For example, if you want to wet-blend, it works best when you have room to work. Wet-blending works best on models with larger surface areas. Don’t try to apply every advanced painting technique in every situation.

You’ll find simple painting techniques are best for some places and times; whereas other painting approach are more useful elsewhere. You’ll have to play and learn this with time.

One key tip here that is related is that the more techniques you know, the less surprises you’ll find when painting a more complicated, unfamiliar miniature.

16. Saliva is arguably the most useful paint blending medium for painting miniatures

Easy access, constant supply, and perfect viscosity when mixed with good model paints, e.g., Citadel, P3, Vallejo, Scale 75, make saliva the best paint blending medium. I would suggest you make sure your paints are non-toxic and you use a clean brush.

A pot full of clean water would also help, and a handle napkin or tissue paper will also make your life less gross should you choose to use saliva. I use it all the time for painting miniatures. Saliva is simply the best!

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

17. Make sure your paint is non-toxic

In most developed countries, government regulations compel paint manufacturers to label whether their paints are non-toxic. This ensures that you, the consumer, are in a position to make good decisions.

If you have a family with young children or pets, reducing the risk of having a hobby that will harm them is good sense. For different painting techniques, you may consume small quantities of paint. Do you lick your brushes?

18. Saliva is safe and healthy for your brushes

I’ve written elsewhere that saliva may be great for your brushes. There are chemicals and compounds in saliva that could extend the life of the hairs on your brushes. So, in case you were wondering, saliva on your expensive kolinsky sables should be totally fine!

19. Use a wet palette to save paint

You can blend paint well on a wet palette. But a key feature of a wet palette is being able to keep your paint wet for a long time (even after mixed).

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

20. Use a dry palette to save time

You can blend and mix paint on a dry palette as well as you can on wet palette. In fact, many competitive miniature painters prefer using a dry palette. With a dry palette you can predict the consistency and behavior of paint better than on a wet palette (which tends to dilute paint unpredictably over time even under good conditions). A dry palette will save you time, too. Compared to a wet palette, maintaining a dry palette is less work.

21. More expensive tools make you a more reliable painter, not better

You are the most valuable part of painting a miniature. Not the tools you use. More expensive tools will generally means better reliability that won’t fail you at a moment’s notice.

Predictable behavior from your instruments means you’ll be a more reliable miniature painter. You’ll be a more efficient painter. But, the tool itself won’t make you better at painting miniatures. I’ve learned that nothing beats repetition when it comes to improving miniature painting results.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

22. The best paint is the one you use all the time

Does this make sense? For best results, you can paint a miniature or model with almost any paint brand or line. Paint is merely a mixture of colored pigment and a binder medium (usually a cocktail of things) that lets you apply the paint with a brush.

This means that if you know what you’re doing, you can use oil paints, watercolors, and acrylic based paints. It doesn’t matter.

Don’t let anyone tell you what the best product is for a particular project. Unless you’re going for a specific “look” or outcome, the miniature painting world is your oyster. Revel!

23. Contrast is the key

If you can maintain contrast on a miniature, then you’re well on your way to an awesome paint job. Remember contrast means more than simply light and dark. Contrast also involves the dichotomy between warm and cold, hard versus soft, and other binary extremes.

If you can incorporate more contrast into your miniature paintjob, the more interesting and attractive your final result will be. Remember, you can maintain contrast and still be a messy painter!

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

24. Sacrifice color and “clean” for high contrast

You can maintain high contrast without being a “clean” painter, e.g,. staying in the lines. For most tabletop quality paintjobs, if contrast is maintained, you don’t need to worry so much about color and messy paint. From the tabletop gaming distance that most people play at, models with good contrast look great.

25. Clean your models before assembly and priming

Commercial plastic, metal, or resin miniature kits are often created with a cast mold process. Hot, molten material is poured into a mold. After cooling and solidifying the casted part is removed. To assist in the removal of these parts from the mold, a lubricant is used.

When you purchase a model, this lubricant can still be on the surface of your miniature, which can repel adhesives, glues, and primer. To clean models, merely use a warm soapy water and a clean cloth to dry. Cleaning your models and miniatures go a long way to a more pleasant hobby experience.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

26. Fill in gaps and clean mold lines before you paint

The more work you put into preparing the surface of your miniature, the better and easier your job will be to paint it. To clean mold lines, you can use a hobby knife, a Dremel rotary power tool, or get a dedicated mold scrapper. For gap filling, you have a number of options. Each gap filler has pros and cons.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

27. Use a hair dryer

Did you know waiting for paint to dry is a waste of time? Of course, you did! So, if you want to paint miniatures faster, use a hairdryer. It doesn’t need to be expensive. A hairdryer also has many other uses for miniature painting, including improving the application of matte varnish.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

28. A hair dryer can prevent varnish “frosting”

High humidity contributes to the risk of matte varnish “frosting”. For a clearer finish that maintains the high contrast you’ve worked so hard on, use a hair dryer to reduce the ambient humidity around your miniature.

Heat is your friend, but don’t use too much. Some plastic or resin miniatures are more sensitive to the hair dryer, so use it judiciously.

29. Airbrush at low pressure for more control

At low pressure, an airbrush becomes prone to clogging. But if you’re painting details with an airbrush, or going beyond the simple base coat, a low-pressure air flow will give you more control.

You will have to learn how to keep the viscosity of your paint thin enough to flow properly. At around 25 PSI, most airbrushes with a 0.3mm nozzle will work well if your paint is at a “whole-milk” like consistency.

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30. Airbrush at high pressure to prevent clogging

For more gross level base coating, use more air pressure to keep your paint flowing. Of course, this also means that you’ll probably want to use thicker paint in your airbrush to prevent “runny spiderweb” effects on your model’s surface. Overall, you’ll have to play around with the air flow to find that happy place that works for your particular application.

31. Learn how paint viscosity, air pressure, and airbrush nozzle size work together

The more knowledge you have about how these 3 variables work in conjunction, the better prepared you are for painting miniatures with your airbrush. Airbrushing takes time to learn to do well, and is a very different tool than any other painting instrument you’ll likely use for miniature paint work.

32. Keep your airbrush clean

Most problems you’ll encounter with airbrushing come from a dirty airbrush. Keep your airbrush clean and don’t neglect rinsing the airbrush after each painting session. Keep your nozzle unclogged with a good airbrush cleaner or use an ultrasonic cleaner like these.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

33. Failure is normal

Everyone fails to achieve their objective in painting miniature (or any challenging endeavor). This hobby is no different than any other. There is a skill cap, and to break through that upper skill level, you’ll inevitably fail. Live with failure and learn to expect disappointment. This is grit.

Sounds cynical, but you’ll feel a lot better knowing you can learn from your mistakes. This is what makes the miniature painting hobby so awesome. You can fail safely and keep going forward knowing you’ve learned something and can always get better!

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

34. You learn more from completing a model than starting a new one

Going through the entire workflow of starting a miniature to finishing off the piece is more informative than learning through constant starts and re-starts. The techniques you use at the beginning of a miniature paintjob are different than those you use near the end.

By completing a model, you experience the entire gamut of painting a miniature. And, at each juncture in the project, you learn more about your own painting habits. Are you a slow, methodical painter? Or, are you an impulsive, go-with-your-gut painter? Learn more about yourself as an artist by struggling through the entire process!

35. Take a break: if you’re unmotivated, stop painting

Everyone burns out. It’s a normal point in your hobby when you’re still not in the mood. It doesn’t matter what the reason is; taking a break can do wonders for you.

After all, it’s a hobby and its meant to be fun, an escape from other responsibilities you have in your life. Allow yourself time to relax from making this creative activity into a thing you hate doing. Rest.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

36. Productivity trick: paint multiple models at the same time

For most people, starting a paintjob is more fun and exciting than the middle or ending parts (e.g., blending, dark lining). Trick yourself into feeling that excitement by switching your painting between several models at once. That way, you’ll always have the sense of starting somewhere.

This is a tip I use when I have a lot of different models to paint and I want to feel like I’m making progress. It works to keep me motivated, even if my progress hasn’t actually sped up.

37. For speed painting, choose fewer colors

Restrict your color palette. The more choices you have for colors to apply to your model, the slower you will go. Analysis paralysis is a threat to good productivity in miniature painting.

Force yourself to use fewer paints for a single miniature and you’ll find yourself not only painting faster, but you’ll become more creative! Limitation is a magical unicorn for humans; it makes us think outside the box.

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38. Use photo references to overcome issues with color theory

Why reinvent the wheel when someone else has done it already. Not only do photos inspire, but they can also guide new art.

For a miniature painter, a great tip I learned is to keep a file of photo references (either digital or a hardcopy binder). In fact, you can create your own references by using online color pickers.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

39. Finish your miniatures with a decorative base

Surprisingly, this is often overlooked for a lot of starting miniature painters. A decorative base of a model goes a long way toward achieve a great result. The base is the background for miniature, providing context and atmosphere. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Anything is better than black, flat plastic.

40. Simple bases require two items: glue and flock

It doesn’t take much to finish painting a model, but a simple base goes a long way. PVA white glue and some sand is all you need. This is the foundation for almost every other technique for basing a model. Add glue, stick something to it.

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41. Assemble your models first is the best practice

In general, assembling your model before painting is more useful than painting sub-assemblies later. An assembled model has less surface area to paint (e.g., less work). You also have a better grasp of what the entire model will look like when it is assembled, and therefore it helps you apply paint in the proper places.

This is especially true if you’re trying to paint non-metallic metal (NMM) and want to mimic reflections. Envisioning how light interacts on your model is easier when it is fully assembled.

Finally, if you paint before assembling a model, you do run the risk of getting glue on top of parts and surfaces you’ve already painted. That’s just bad. Personally, I always assemble a model first before painting it.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

42. Use helping hands for more challenging assembly or painting

There are lot of tools that can help you hold small parts for assembly. These include soldering stands, or specific hobby holders, such as the Citadel Assembly Handle. If you don’t want to use these tools, find a friend who can give you a literal hand.

43. Good lighting is paramount for enjoyment

I can’t say enough about how important good lights are for painting miniatures. I’ve written extensively about good lighting is for accurate color and contrast application. Make sure you get the best lights or lamps that you can afford.

Bright, diffuse light with the correct color temperature will make your eyes more comfortable (less strain), and increase your confidence in color choice, blending, and application. Check out some of my recommendations here.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

44. Daylight bulbs provide the best color temperature for painting miniatures

Daylight bulbs are those light sources that cast a sunlight-like illumination on your working surface. Daylight lamps for painting accurately have a color temperature that stays within the sunlight range of lighting, between 5000-6500K (or Kelvin).

45. Use magnification to paint details

If you’re working on freehand details, or line some extreme edge on a miniature, don’t neglect magnification tools. These could be hands-free visor headbands, or magnifying lights or lamps.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

46. For magnifying visors, comfort is the priority

When you paint miniatures, you’ll be sitting down for a good amount of time. That also means that if you’re using wearing magnification visors to help you, you’ll be wearing those headbands for a long time. Comfort is key to working during those longer sessions. Spend a little more for comfort.

47. “Done is better than perfect”

Some of the best advice I’ve heard for project management is to finish things, and not get hung up on things you can fix later. Get to the finish line; it doesn’t matter if you missed a spot. You can always patch your work later.

This tip is probably more important for the commission artist who has a deadline to meet with a client. But, it’s a good axiom to keep in mind if you want to be productive in the miniature painting hobby.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

48. Exert your artistic license

You have artistic license. This means that you have the freedom to do what you want. Don’t get pigeon holed into expectations and dogma. Make art, and remember it’s your art.

Paint miniatures the way you want to and don’t let someone tell you it’s wrong simply because you aren’t following a set framework of technical approaches. Style, voice, and vision are personal.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

49. Teach others how to paint and you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll learn, too

Painting miniatures happens best in a community. Sharing how you work, your approach, your vision, makes for a better experience for those around you.

Share how you do things and you’ll be amazed at how many new perspectives will improve your hobby experience. At the end of the day, making an positive impact on those people around you might be the best part about having any hobby.

50. Have fun

It’s cliché, but it belongs on this list. This is the hobby tip to rule-them-all.

50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter

Final Thoughts

I still have a lot to learn. I hope these tips will inspire you to give miniature painting a try, or simply give you ideas for improving your current workflow.

As a commissioned painter, I’ve had to learn how to be efficient in painting miniatures without sacrificing quality. From this perspective, I’ve learned a few principles that I try to employ in everything I do when I sit at my painting desk.

Whether I’m painting at a professional level for a client, or painting miniatures for my personal collection, I’m continually looking for new ways to enjoy the hobby.

Happy painting!

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2 thoughts on “50 Miniature Painting Tips: What I Learned as a Commissioned Painter”

  1. Terrific post; I think that there is something here for everyone.

    My personal favourites (in the sense that I’d recommend them first to others) are your numbers 11 [practice, practice, practice], 35 [take a break] and 50 [have fun]. Keep up the great work both in painting and blogging.

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