Oil paints work great on miniatures. Sure, oil painting miniatures is a challenge. But, the rewards and the refreshing change of pace in how you apply color to models is worth the learning curve. Oil paints are a slow drying medium that allow you to easily blend color directly on your miniature’s surface. You can achieve truly smooth blends, or go for a painterly look that adds a bit of texture and character to your model. For those starting out with oils or looking to up their game, I suggest painting larger models to get a feel for oil paint medium.
In this article, I show you a quick overview of how I painted a 54mm scale miniature with oil paints. “Ashtooth” is a sculpt from the Judgement miniatures game. For a similar sculpt, you may also like this Circle of Ouroboros “Extreme Feral Warpwolf” from Privateer Press.
All Paintings Start with Reference Images
I start all my miniature paintings with some conceptual idea of what I want to paint. Reference images I collect on Pinterest or Google Images help me choose a color scheme. I don’t copy the exact colors or ideas. Instead, I use those images to feel out what the model should look like when I’m done.
The idea here is to gather enough information so that whatever is in my head doesn’t deviate too far. Think of reference images as a blueprint or outline that you continuously modify while you’re painting until your project is complete.
In the studio painted miniature, I notice a few elements I want to copy. The green feathers and the brown fur, for example, are things I want to replicate. I’m keen on how dark the model is, so I know for my project, I’ll use a much brighter brown for the fur and skin.
Look for Composition
Composition is the way you place your colors so a viewer’s attention moves toward certain parts of a model. For example, in most pieces, you’ll want to compose your painting so that your viewer’s attention focuses on the face. You can do this by making the facial parts of the miniature brighter (or darker) than the rest of the model.
In most pieces, you may have more than one or two interesting elements that you can leverage to keep a viewer’s attention. In the Ashtooth sculpt, I notice two major elements, and a minor element. The face and the claw on the pillar are the two major elements of interest. And, for me, I saw the left hand reaching out as another element I wanted to emphasize a little.
From the photographs, I think you can see that even in the unpainted miniature, these parts of the model (the face, the right clawing/pillar, and the left hand) are places that draw your eye.
Ultimately, it is the structure and silhouette that draws a viewer’s attention to the model. Use paint to help leverage these structural compositions to your advantage.
Why Use Oil Paints for Miniatures and Models?
The best reason to use oil paints is due to their slow drying properties, which allow you to blend color while they are on the model. You won’t need a wet palette and can avoid using any slow drying mediums that you would otherwise need when painting with acrylics. Because oil paints allow you to work with colors for a long time, you can also skip all the other fancy techniques that you would need to learn for painting with acrylic model paints.
Of course, oil paints have their drawbacks. The slow drying property of oil paints also means you can’t simply finish a project and handle the model right away. You will also need to use other mediums (mostly just mineral spirits) to thin and work with your paint with the proper consistency. Lastly, there is a somewhat heavy upfront cost because you’ll need to buy tubes of different paints. If you’re savvy, however, you can find some pretty good bundled deals in oil paint sets. Here’s a review of oil paints you can use to paint miniatures.
READ MORE: OIL PAINTING MINIATURES (TIPS AND TUTORIAL)
You can see another article where I use oil paints to paint a miniature, which included mechanized elements and a dwarf. For most of the oil paints, I use student grade oils which are less expensive but just as useful for miniature work. Overall, if you’re willing to put the time in to learn the oil paint medium, you’ll be richly rewarded!
What is an Oil Painting “Pre-Glaze”, “Conditioning”, or “Toning”?
When you’re painting with oils, there is an important first step after applying a primer to a model called a “pre-glaze”, “conditioning” or “toning” step. This is where you apply a thin sheen of oil paint to a model to ensure subsequent layers of thicker oil paint will stick and blend on the model.
Without getting too granular about the reasoning why you want to do this pre-glaze or conditioning step, you’ll find that it is also a relaxing and fun warm-up for painting the model. Traditional oil painters will condition their white canvases before sketching in their subject, and have often referred to this as a way to get into the mood of the painting.
You can use any color you like for the pre-glaze step, of course. I recommend something on the darker side of the value spectrum, as this will help you shade your model in the subsequent steps. For Ashtooth, I’m painting up the fur for most of the piece, so a brown shade makes total sense!
For mixing up pre-glaze, I add mineral spirits to the paint on the palette (e.g., baking parchment paper). You are looking for a gel-like consistency. Apply this mixture liberally over your entire model.
For Ashtooth, I coat the entire surface of where most of the brown oil paint will go later. Although I don’t show a lot of steps. I also coat the pillar and the clothing (e.g., his loincloth and armbands) in dark grays and blues as a conditioning layer.
This application of thinned, pre-glaze oil paints provide me with a foundation for thicker layers of oil paint later. The photos show how messy these first steps are, and that is okay! You want the paint to get into all the nooks and crannies.
Wipe Off Excess Oil Paints
To finish the first pre-glaze step, you’ll need to remove the excess oils on the raised surfaces of the model. To do this, I use cosmetic makeup sponges.
Cosmetic sponges aren’t expensive, and work much better than cotton-tipped buds which tend to leave behind tiny fibers. I’ve also tried tissue paper, but they end up ripping and leaving behind little bits of paper fiber in the paint, which is annoying. Use sponges, they are great!
Go over every surface until you have a fine sheen of oil on your model. The residue paint in the recesses and crevices are useful for blending shadows with your subsequent layers of brighter oil paints.
Make sure you the mineral spirit in that first pre-glaze layer has had time to evaporate a little. This helps keep the paint workable and less slippery.
Give your model about 30 minutes to rest to allow the mineral spirit thinner to evaporate. Then, you’ll be ready to add more oil paint colors on top.
Paint with Oils like Acrylic Paints
When I first started with oil paints, I was intimidated by the slow drying property of the paint. But, I slowly learned that this slow drying aspect of oil paints was a huge advantage that far outweighed its limitations. In fact, with bit of practice and some playing around with homemade blends of oil paint and mineral spirits you make the oil paint work almost like acrylic paint. See the video by James Wappel as a great example.
For the most part, once you get the hand of painting with oils, you can do so much…more! A fantastic tips I learned is to make sure when you’re blending the oil paint is to avoid “washing” your brush off between colors using solvent. Instead, use a clean paper towel to pull/wipe off excess oil paint from your bristles.
This helps your brush blend without making a mess that a solvent-soaked brush would. Mineral spirits tend to make a mess, so try not to use it too much while painting with oil paints. To blend oil paint on a model, clean your brush as shown in the image above, leaving behind a film of oil in the bristles. Use the bristle hairs on the tip to gently pull-push wet oil paint colors together on your model.
Layer Up the Oil Paint and Blend
Painting with oil paints is not that different from painting acrylics once you get the hang of it. I skip many steps here. But you’ll find that once you get your pre-glaze step done, and understand how layering with thicker paint over thinner paint works, followed by blending, you’ll want to paint all your models with oil paints.
It’s that much fun.
Here are a few more tips for “layering” with oil paint:
To get more oil paint layers to stick over other oil paint, remember this rule. Thicker paint (less mineral spirit thinner) will adhere better over thin layers of oil paint (more mineral spirit) that has dried a little. And, vice versa. If you want to layer more oil paint color over thick wet layers of paint, you’ll need to add more mineral spirits to your oil paint.
Dab or stipple your thinner oil paint color over the thicker, wet paint to add the color. Then, give is a few minutes so the mineral spirits evaporate (up to 30 minutes). After the mineral spirits in the overlying layers of oil paint has evaporated, you will be able to work with those pigments and mix/blend them easily with the underlying thick oil paint.
Varnish and Photograph Your Model
When you’re finished painting your model, allow the oil paint to cure/dry for a few days. You’ll want to protect your model from ambient dust or other debris in the air while it cures/dries.
After the paint has become touch-dry (where paint doesn’t come off on your finger when you touch the model), you can varnish the model if you like in a thin coat of sealant. I’ve found with a thin coat of lacquer, the oil paint can still continue to cure.
In these photographs, I only did a light misting of varnish to even out the reflections. When the oil paint has cured further, I’ll come back and coat the entire model with 2-3 more layers of a matte varnish.
This is a gaming miniature afterall and I expect will be handled while on the tabletop. Fun fact, oil paints when cured properly are more durable than acrylic paints. This is likely due to the fact that oil paints a tad more flexible. I mean look at all those classical paintings in art galleries that hundreds of years old. All of them were painted with oils!
I hope you enjoyed this overview of how I painted this model with oil paints. I’ve been having a lot of fun experimenting and learning about the oil paint medium. For most new painters, acrylic paints are a fast way to start. You can pick up a model acrylic painting set and play with color immediately. If you’re planning to use your models in tabletop games, e.g., board games, tabletop wargames, then acrylic paints may the fastest and easiest way to get models colored up for gameplay.
If you’re looking for a deep dive into the miniature painting hobby, then oil paints are a great way to push your skills further. You can create super unique pieces with incredible pops of color without much effort with oil paints. Starting is easy. Pick up a oil paint set from any art store or online, and a bottle of mineral spirits. Here are a few recommended oil paints to start with.
You don’t need expensive brushes to work with oil paints either. You can take your time making the paint do what you want. The precision in painting details with oils paints comes with time and your patience in pushing the colors where you need them to go.
Thank you for visiting and checking out my work!