So, you’ve got a plastic miniature to paint. Now what? Painting plastic miniatures is a simple process. But, I know that the sight of an unpainted model’s surface triggers a kind of fear in some people. I’m here to show you how I paint any plastic miniature without worrying about messing it up. Once you understand the basics of miniature painting, you can apply this knowledge to any miniature you own.
In this article, I simplify the miniature painting process using a plastic model for a Warhammer 40k campaign I’m in. Of course, the approach for how I paint this mini uses working principles that will apply well to any model you plan to paint. So, if you’re looking for a basic overview, I think you’ll find this article useful!
Other Great Articles for Miniature and Model Painting
- How to Batch Paint Miniatures Armies
- Top 8 Must-Know Miniature Painting Techniques
- Recommended Hobby Lighting for Painting Miniatures and Models
- 3 Ways to Improve Your Hand-Eye Coordination
- How to Prepare Miniatures for Paint
Summary: Painting Plastic Miniatures (Basic Steps)
|1. Preparation||Clean and remove parts from plastic sprue and clean up mold lines. Assemble the entire miniature to identify gaps or blemishes. Filling in gaps with putty or other filler. Full assembly before priming and painting helps visualize the final appearance and saves time.|
|2. Priming||Priming ensures paint sticks. Spray primers work well for large batches; otherwise use a regular brush. Black primer is recommended for beginners or speed painting. Apply in thin layers, ensuring all recesses are coated, and dry fully before painting.|
|3. Basecoating||Apply main colors for the model’s color scheme. Thin layers of paint preserve details and prevent brush streaks. Repeat the process to achieve sufficient color coverage and saturation. Spray paints or airbrushing can be used but may require cleanup, masking, and some planning.|
|4. Layering||Add vibrancy and other color accents. For simplicity, apply thin coats from dark to lighter colors. Techniques like dry brushing help pick up details and mimic light reflection, e.g., create highlights. With experience, color blending through layering is an essential skill for every miniature paint job.|
|5. Shading||Apply shades or washes to create shadows and increase contrast. Shade paints like those by Games Workshop or The Army Painter can be used. Shading adds depth and volume. Avoid using pure black paint as it may look unnatural.|
|6. Highlighting||Improve color brightness and saturation after shading. Highlighting techniques include dry brushing and edge highlighting. Dry brushing can brighten raised areas of a model and improves underlying color vibrancy. Edge highlighting enhances a miniature’s silhouette.|
|7. Base the model||Give the model context with decorative material like texture mud, basing sand, flock, etc. Basing adds visual appeal and helps the model stand out.|
|8. Varnish||Protect the finished work with clear coat varnish, like Testors Dullcote for plastic models. Varnish preserves the model and creates a uniform finish, beneficial for photography. Matte varnish is often recommended for plastic models.|
Is Painting Miniatures Worth the Effort?
I don’t enjoy looking at bare plastic. Do you? I don’t think most people do. If you want to bring your miniatures to life for whatever tabletop game or hobby collection you have in mind, painting the miniatures is…well, the thing to do.
As someone who has an impulsive streak, it didn’t take much effort to start painting. Metal miniatures from Privateer Press (i.e., Warmachine/Hordes) triggered my imagination, and I wanted to know if I could pull off the process of painting the models.
In essence, I started painting miniatures for “me”. And, that made the effort worthwhile. Of course, as I learned the technical nuances of the hobby and experienced the awestruck feeling of inferiority when viewing the “pro painted” work, I walked right into reality of what it takes to improve my results.
But, I know from experience through other challenging endeavors that you can get really good at something if you work hard and persevere. You learn from your mistakes, apply the lessons learned, and continue to paint until you’re proud of what you create.
If you plan on painting miniatures for a game that requires them or as part of a hobby collection – I think it’s worth the effort. Yes, there’s a learning curve. And, yes, it will take time and practice to get your ‘mini painting game’ up to speed. But, that’s all part of the hobby!
What Do You Need to Paint Miniatures?
The good news is that you don’t need much to paint anything. The essentials for painting minis are 1) paint, 2) brushes, and 3) a model. You can check out the details of this basic miniature painting supply triad in this recommended material guide.
Recommended Supplies and Equipment
To start painting miniatures, here are a few things that you’ll want to have available.
- Acrylic paints: These are most commonly used for painting miniatures. They dry quickly and are easy to work with. Here are some popular paint sets if you’re starting from scratch or want to expand your collection.
- Hobby knife: You’ll find a hobby knife universally helpful for preparing your models for the project, e.g., remove mold lines, cleaning up excess dried glue.
- Sprue cutter: This affordable tool is all you need to remove parts from plastic frames and sprues to assemble your model kit.
- Brushes: You’ll need a variety of sizes for different levels of detail. This is a complete brush guide for mini painters.
- Paper towels: These are handy for wiping off excess paint or cleaning your brushes. Just make sure those paper towel fibers don’t rub off too easily.
- Water: Used for thinning your paints and cleaning your brushes.
- Good lighting: It’s a visual art; see better. This article has a full hobby lighting guide.
- Comfy chair and workspace: We are in this for the enjoyment, not pain.
- A wet palette (optional): This tool helps keep your paints from drying out and can also help with blending colors. I don’t fully recommend wet palette for beginners, but they are a useful tool if you learn to use them effectively.
How to Paint Plastic Miniatures (Step-by-Step)
I will get into more depth into each of these 8 basic steps. For this general guide, I’m painting a Warhammer 40k Tau Stealth Battlesuit (Games Workshop). For all intents and purposes, painting any plastic model or even resin miniatures will follow the same core painting techniques.
1. Preparation: Getting your mini ready to paint
Plastic miniatures often come on plastic frames (or sprue) as part of the manufacturing process. Because plastic model kits are often mass produced through an injection cast-mold process, there may be residual lubricants or oils on the surface of the plastic frame.
To prepare your miniature for paint, you’ll first want to wash off your model parts. A simple rinse with a tiny bit of soap (i.e., any kind of dish soap will do) right over the plastic parts, and a rinse with fresh clean water is all you need.
After you’ve removed the parts from the plastic sprue, cleaned off excess mold lines, I strongly recommend assembling the entire miniature. Use plastic cement or super glue. In fact, I always suggest fully assembling your entire miniature before proceeding to the next step.
The reasons for assembling miniatures before painting them are:
- You get a better idea of the model’s overall appearance and size.
- It allows you to see any gaps or blemishes that need filling in with putty, greenstuff, etc. Resin miniatures, especially, benefit from this.
- You don’t have to worry about painting the parts separately and then assembling, which can be a bit tricky.
2. Priming: Getting the paint to stick
Priming helps ensure the paint adheres to your model’s surface. See more details here about proper priming techniques.
Spray primers are fast and easy, but they work best if you’re working on a large batch of models. Otherwise, I suggest using an airbrush or a regular brush to prime your miniatures.
My preferred spray primer or surface primer that works well with an airbrush or as a brush-on primer is Vallejo Surface Primer, which I review and show you how to use in this priming miniatures article.
There are a lot of different priming techniques that you can already start applying at this stage. Some such as a zenithal highlighting require an airbrush or spray primer, for example. But, for simplicity, I would recommend everyone first learn to paint plastic miniatures with a black primer as an undercoat.
A black primer speeds up any paint job, and teaches you how to see how to apply paint without struggling against the dreaded brush streak effect you may likely get with a brighter colored primer layer, e.g., white primer. In general, a dark primer is best for those who are just learning to paint miniatures or want to work quickly.
To understand the pros and cons of different primer colors, you can check out this post.
For best results, apply primer in very thin layers. This preserves fine details and is much more effective in the long run and a one thick layer. Make sure all the recesses receive a primer coat.
Note that spraying primer is often the easiest way to apply thin layers, but will require proper ventilation to avoid inhaling fumes or aerosolized paint.
Finally, allow your primer to dry completely before moving on to the next step.
3. Basecoating: The stage where the main colors are applied
This is my favorite step. This is where you get all the main colors you imagined for your model’s color scheme painted. Make sure you keep your paint thin when you apply your base coat.
Base coating is a crucial step because it is the foundation for everything that comes after it. In fact, base coating is the same technique you should master for every kind of miniature or model you plan to paint.
While everyone has a personal preferences for how to layer colors; base coating is where every miniature painter starts to understand how paint behaves on a brush.
The process for base coating are simple and straightforward; all you have to do is:
- Choose and decide what colors you want to use on your model.
- Apply the base coat of paint onto the primed surface of your miniature, using very thin layers of paint. Make sure to use a brush size suitable for the job so as not to obscure details in the process.
- Allow the paint to dry before adding additional layers or highlights.
- Repeat this process until you’re satisfied with the color and brightness of your base coat.
For best results with a brush, use thin layers of paint in multiple passes instead of applying one thick layer of paint.
This layering technique helps prevent brush strokes from becoming visible and also helps to preserve the details of the model.
Indeed, you can use spray paints for base coating your models. Note, however, that miniatures painted with spray painting approaches do require a bit of clean up due to overspray or careful planning.
4. Layering: Adding vibrancy and other color accents
Once you’ve blocked in your colors in the base coat stage (above), you’re ready to add more paint. Here’s where a variety of other color application techniques come into play.
Suffice it to say, the idea here is to keep your process as simple as possible to achieve your vision for what you want your model to look like. The best way to do this is to layer paints in a few coats at a time.
Applying light coats from dark to lighter colors is often the easiest way to bring up your colors and add contrast. Most people would suggest using dry brushing where possible. A dry brush technique (detailed tutorial) is simply a process of brushing on paint using a “dry brush”, with only the slightest bit of moisture left in the brush.
This will help you to pick up even the smallest details on your model and mimic light reflecting on the raised surface of your model.
With experience and practice here, you’ll get a sense of how to use your brush tip to pick out details, applying thin coats, and ways to blend colors.
5. Shading: Adding shade or washes to the recesses of the model to imply shadow
The main goal of using washes is to shade your model is to add extra depth to help the overall piece “pop”. Shading or the process of creating the illusion of shadow increases contrast on your painted model, giving it volume and table presence.
You can use shade paints, like those offered by Games Workshop or other brands like The Army Painter. You can even try the Quickshade Dip method, which is a very quick way to add darkening pigment to the recessed texture on your model.
Of course, there are many approaches to shading your painted model. The key is to get your first colors painted, e.g., the base coat, the decide if shading or washing your model will help you move toward increasing the contrast on your model (tips for painting higher contrast on miniatures).
Also note that shading can be done with a brush as well, again by using the layering technique to build up shadows in the recesses of your model.
For example, you can use a dark paint color or tone painted right into the crevices of your model. Then use layering to blend those back into the mid tone color. You can see this performed in this tutorial.
For best results painting shadows with a brush, try to avoid using black paint. Black paint can cause contrast to appear too high, making your model look unnatural or cartoony.
6. Highlighting: Edge highlighting and dry brushing
Contrast is the key to any amazing miniature paint job. After you’ve applied a darkening shade or wash over your model, you’ll want to increase the color brightness (or value) to your model.
To do this, I often recommend new painters highlight a model using a dry brush technique. Yes, I mentioned this above in the laying step #4. And, this is why every painter should learn how to leverage drybrushing.
Dry brushing is basically brushing dried paint on your miniature’s surface. The dried paint pigments in the brush rub off on the raised areas of your model. By the way, this creates the reverse effect of what happens in the shading step above in #5. Instead of darkening the recesses of your minis, you’re making the raised parts brighter.
The easiest and best dry brush color to use after the shading step is the same paint color you washed over, e.g., the base coat paint. By dry brushing the base coat color back over your model–following the darkening wash step–you bring back the original color’s vibrancy and highlight the miniature in a single step.
For an even higher contrast, you can also edge highlight. This is where you take a finer detail paint brush, often a #0 or smaller pointed round detail brush, and paint a highlight color along sides of panels or “edges” of each part of the miniature.
In deciding what paint color to use in edge highlighting, you can paint the edge highlight using a similar, but brighter color hue or tone than your base coat paint, or add a bit of white paint to a color you’ve already used (aka make a white paint “tint“). In either case, this kind of “hard” edge highlighting approach is a common technique in many styles of Warhammer 40k paint jobs.
Edge highlighting is best used for painting armor panels, the raised edges of clothing, and other festooned parts of a model. This kind of highlighting approach is best done by using a high quality sable paint brush that holds a pointed tip. To help paint flow if your stock is too thick, you can thin your acrylic paints with a few drops of water or thinning media.
7. Base the model: Add decorative material, e.g., texture mud, flock, to give the mini context
A often maligned step in the miniature painting process is to base the model. It’s not exactly “painting”, but basing a miniature that you’ve painted helps to give the model context and helps it stand out on the table.This means adding a decorative material, such as texture mud, basing sand, flock or other material to help set your painted model on the tabletop.
There are a few ways to base your miniatures, depending on what kind of terrain you want for them. One popular way is to use texture mud or other similar “spackle” material that can be found at any home improvement store or hobby shop.
For more insights and tips for the basing your plastic models and approaches for finishing your painted minis, check out this overview of essential basing kits.
8. Varnish with a clear coat: Protect your work with a durable sealer
Protect your painted plastic miniatures with a clear coat varnish. This is especially important if you’re planning to play tabletop games with your models or display them in varied environments, e.g., near a sunny window.
Varnishing your model will ensure that it lasts for years to come. Remember to check the label of any product you buy and make sure to use a specific varnish formulated for plastic models (as opposed to those made for wood or canvas).
For plastic models, I often recommend using a matte varnish like Testors Dullcote (my favorite for years). A matte varnish helps to protect the model from scratches and other wear and tear. It also helps create a uniform finish which can help bring colors together more seamlessly.
The non-reflective surface also helps in miniature photography, where hotspots or specular highlights from studio lighting can interfere with the photo.
5 Quick Tips for New Miniature Painters
1. Use Acrylic Paint
I’ve written about why acrylic paint is the best kind of paint for miniature and model work. It has a lot of advantages over traditional oil-based paints, like the fact that it’s quick drying and water soluble. Acrylics also doesn’t require solvents or other harsh chemicals to clean up.
I’ll note that there are tons of applications, special blending techniques, and whatnot that you can do with acrylic paint. Of course, make sure you get high-quality hobby-grade acrylic paint, i.e., not all paints are created equal. If you’re searching for a good paint set to jump-start the hobby or expand your color collection, then you may be interested in some of these affordable paint sets.
2. Thin Your Paints
It’s usually better to apply multiple thin layers of paint rather than one thick one. This helps retain the details of the model and prevents the paint from clumping up. You can thin your paints with water for simplicity, or consider additives. Though, for anyone who isn’t sure, I highly recommend you just use water.
Using thin coats of acrylic paint also saves you paint in the long run. Good quality acrylic media go a long way when it comes to a paint job on small models. Learn to mix and thin paints properly for best results with your painted miniatures. And remember, thin layers allows you to make mistakes and study your progress.
3. Avoid Spray Paint or Airbrushing (at Least for Now)
This is not a hard and fast rule. But I’ve taught many miniature painters how to get started with the hobby. Through this experience, I know that you’ll want to feel very comfortable with core, foundational techniques before moving onto other, more advanced methods.
The use of spray paint or an airbrush in miniature painting may seem easy at first glance. But they are not immediately useful for getting the results you’re looking for (e.g., a clean, tabletop game-ready painted model).
Learn how to use a regular brush. Observe and internalize your understanding of how acrylic paint flows and behaves when you apply it on a miniature surface, while it’s on your brush, or simply the way pigment behaves as the paint dries. These subtle bits of knowledge will form the required skillset to advance toward more complex methods.
If you’re already comfortable with a regular brush to paint models, take a look at this simple airbrush guide for miniature painting. It’ll cover every facet you need to know about how to find the right airbrush, how to use it, and the best special effects you can create with an airbrush.
4. Invest in Good Brushes
High-quality brushes can make a significant difference in your painting. Look for brushes with fine points for detail work and flat brushes for larger areas. For more information about finding the best brushes for painting miniatures, take a look at this miniature paint brush guide.
If you have a local game store you can visit that stocks Army Painter hobby products, then you could take a closer look at the “Regiment” brush which I highly recommend.
5. Read Tips, Tricks and Tutorials
The internet is an incredible resource when it comes to learning the craft of miniature painting. Many tutorials are available online (check out these tutorials & tips), or as part of books that can help improve your techniques and inspire you to try new ideas. Experiment with different techniques and find what works best for you!
So, there you have it! In a few simple steps, I’ve shown you how you can paint plastic miniatures. I think most scale model or tabletop miniature kits use plastic as their primary material. Fortunately, plastic is easy to work with and makes for a great painting surface!
As with any other creative skill-based project, practice makes perfect. And, keep it loose and fun. No pressure…unless you’re painting for competition. And, that’s certainly a discussion for another time.
Until then, happy (mini)painting!
Thanks for reading. Please leave a comment; I’d love to hear from you 😀.