Have you ever wanted to try something new with your miniature painting? I love experimenting with new art mediums when painting miniatures, if only to learn something different in my approach. For most miniature painters, the most outlandish thing you can do with your miniatures is to use oil paints instead of conventional acrylic model colors. Oil paints are more often associated with traditional canvas painting. And, for those who use oil paints on miniatures, it is rare to even consider oil painting small 28-35mm miniatures. The smaller size requires much finer control over how oil colors behave on the model.
In this article, I show you my initial impression of painting a 28mm scale “Zombie Brute” miniature from Origin Miniatures. You check out this model in the “Origin Miniatures Enemy Minions Battle Pack“, which is a fantastic bundle of miniatures for role playing games (RPGs), including Dungeons and Dragons (DND)–the pack even comes with a handy foam carrying case box.
If you’re look for great quality bulk RPG miniatures at a great value, check out the miniatures from Origin Miniatures! Read on for an overview of how I approached painting this 28mm scale miniature.
Starting with the concept art
As with any project, I like starting with a “blueprint” or an “outline” of where I need to go. For painting miniatures, this means using the concept art or some reference images that I collect as a road map to guide my color composition.
You can see a short video of the oil painting process for this model on YouTube. As one of the first models I tried to paint with oil paints, exclusively, I admit I struggled quite a bit. As you’ll see below, I highlight a few of these challenges with painting with oil paints.
How to prime a model for oil painting?
I’ve read and see a number of tutorials suggesting different primers for models you want to paint with oil. In general, it seems that the type of primer doesn’t matter as much as how well you apply it. The best primer for painting miniatures are those that you can apply in thin layers. Usually, this means spraying on a primer is better than brushing it on. Here is a full review and guide for the best primers for painting miniatures and models.
My recommended primer for painting any miniatures with acrylic or oil paint is Vallejo Surface Primer. It provides a nice even surface for paint to adhere, and with oils, especially, it is durable and automatically smooths out any surface imperfections.
For this project, the model was so small, I decided to skip the airbrush for priming and instead used a cosmetic brush to apply the surface primer. Deposit a bit of primer on a dish or other palette, and use your brush to dab the primer evenly across the model. It should only take a few seconds. Make sure the primer doesn’t build up any bubbles.
Apply 1-3 coats of primer to make sure you cover every surface evenly. Ideally, allow the primer to dry for 10-30 minutes. You can use a hairdryer to speed up the drying process. It doesn’t need to be an expensive hair dryer. There are 3 reasons to get a blow dryer for painting miniatures.
“Pre-glaze” or tone your model’s surface
In traditional oil painting, many artists suggest toning your canvas. This gives you a color to work on that is different than white. I don’t like working on blank white surface. Sure, I could have used a black or other dark primer. But, a brighter working surface lets you see details better before you start.
To “pre-glaze” your working surface (as James Wappel calls this step), I like to start with Vandyke brown or other brownish color. Not only do these colors add some warmth to your starting surface, but these oil paints also tend to dry faster than cooler colors.
Simply, put some of the paint on a palette and mix in a bit of mineral spirits until the oil paint is thin, like a runny gel substance. I use a glass palette for a lot of my work. I don’t think it’s the best material for oil painting on a miniature because it doesn’t absorb excess oils in the paint. For oil painting, I will likely be using a paper palette to help me work with the oil paint medium. Moving forward, I think this will speed up the oil painting process and reduce the issues I’ve had with too much oil paint in the pigment.
Coat the entire model with the thinned oil paint. Make sure to fill every nook and cranny with your oil paint. Don’t worry if the paint is too thick or too thin. In the next step, this will be fixed. The idea here is to cover everything in this brown oil paint so that no more of the white primer is showing.
Remove excess brown oil paint to reveal raised surfaces
Use cosmetic sponges or a clean rag to remove excess oil paint. The brown paint will stain the surface of the model. A bit of pigment will have built up in the recesses, darkening these areas. Overall, this process of “pre-glazing” reveals details and adds some contrast to the miniature.
This residual oil also provides you with an oily surface that will help overlying colors blend into the model. There are many philosophies on how to approach these first phases of painting oil paints. Given that painting miniatures with oil paints is a niche approach, you will have to experiment to find out what works best for you.
After you’ve wiped off the overlying brown oil paint, you should wait a few minutes to allow the solvent (e.g., mineral spirits) you mixed with the oil paint to evaporate. This will make it so the oil paint is less slippery and easier to work with. The pigments should dry a bit matte, less shiny. There is no rush for this step as oil paints do take a while to set.
Start blocking in your main colors
Painting miniatures is almost like using a coloring book. At least the first few steps of adding colors are like that. Take your main colors and paint them on. With oil paints, you want to use as little paint as possible. This means mixing the oil paint with a bit of thinner and loading your brush with enough pigment to do the job, but no more.
The best brush for painting miniatures with oil paints are synthetic brushes, since they are more durable and generally have a stiffer characteristics than sable natural bristle brushes. You can pick up a nice set of synthetic brushes for painting your miniatures with oils from any art store. Or look online for bundles of synthetic brushes. You want a nice variety of shapes since you’ll be spending some time blending and different brush shapes can help you access different surfaces.
To begin blocking your main colors, deposit your paints one by one on your palette. Because these are oil paints, they won’t dry for a while. You won’t need a wet palette. I like using student grade oil paints, like Winton, as well as model grade oil paints, such as Abteilung 502 (which have a variety of nice colors to choose from). Check out some highly-recommend oils paints for working with miniatures and models.
I won’t get into the specifics of all the colors as I used for this model. But, you can see in the video and photos what they are. The color theory behind why I chose these colors is simple. I merely copied as closely as I could the reference art, and threw in some imagination. The miniature is a zombie after all and envisioned dead, pale skin and ragged clothes. In general, I was more concerned with choosing the right paint values (brightness vs. darkness) than color.
Pro tip #1: Apply oil paints as thinly as possible
For best results with oil painting, I learned the hard way that you want your oil paint to rest on your model in very, very thin layers. Thick layers of oil paint take forever to dry and are hard to work with. To keep your paint applications thin, make sure to add a bit of solvent to your oil paints on your palette. Also, make sure that your brush is soaked through with paint, not solvent.
This is a balance you’ll have to keep in mind when working with oil paints: too much versus too little mineral spirits on your paint brush. You need to be somewhere in the middle. I learned that too much solvent will ruin how the paint behaves on a model. And, worse, too much mineral spirits on your brush will act as an eraser and dissolve your painted work that you already did. Ultimately, you’ll figure this out through practice.
If you’re naturally a fast painter with acrylics, then you’ll be forced to slow down with oil paints. Although the advantages of using oil paints lies in the wet-in-wet blending technique, there is a challenge and limitation in how fast you can work.
As a loose rule I suggest you follow, don’t apply more pigment than you need to cover any surface. If a surface doesn’t cover in a single coat with oil paint, then you’ll need to wait a little (10-30 minutes) before applying more paint. Trying to add thicker and thicker paint to improve coverage does work, but this hinders your ability add further paint colors later, and significantly slows down how quickly the paint will dry.
As someone who has painted miniatures with oil paints, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that painting smaller miniatures, e.g., single trooper 28mm scale, is a lot harder than larger miniatures, e.g., 54mm scale, terrain, monstrous sized models, or vehicles.
Pro tip #2: Avoid cleaning your brushes in mineral spirits until you complete the sessions
When I first started painting with oil paints, I kept up the habit of washing my brushes in between paint colors. With acrylics this is necessary to avoid mixing colors on your brush or having acrylic paint dry on your bristles (which is bad for the brush!). With oil paints however, you don’t use water to clean your brushes. Instead, you use the solvent mineral spirits (the same stuff you thin your paints with) to clean your brushes.
The problem with using mineral spirits on a brush you’re still painting your models with, is that the solvent tends to also transfer back to your other paints and on the miniatures itself. If you accidently dip your brush in mineral spirits before you’re done actually painting, wipe off the solvent on a paper towel and set the brush aside. Let the solvent evaporate before using that brush again.
How to clean your brush between oil paint colors?
To properly clean your brush to switch colors, simply take a clean paper towel and wipe off the pigments. Pull the bristles through the paper until the old colors don’t show up much. The bristles will remain “oily” but you can then load a different colors without too much issue with color mixing.
Of course, in contrast to acrylic model painting, you won’t be using a single brush for most of the work. You’ll want to have several brushes to work at the same time. One brush may be for applying oil paint color to the model, and another clean brush will be used for blending. You may also want to reserve a brush for bright colors, and another for dark colors. This way you won’t accidentally contaminate your color tones as you paint.
How to “layer” oil paint colors
In fact, when you’re painting a miniature with oil paints, you won’t be using the layering and glazing technique as you would with acrylics. Instead, with oil paints, you will add colors through a wet-in-wet approach. Oil colors will be applied over each other and allowed to mix.
Here’s the hard part: how do you get one oil paint color to “stick” over another? To get one color to stay over another, you’ll have to allow a base layer to “set” before applying a new color on top. This is particularly key to painting miniatures with oil paints.
Oil painting is also an artform with the oil colors expressing nuanced behaviors that you need to learn. Some colors stick better than others. To help you figure this out, keep to the rule of painting with as little oil paint pigment as possible. Internalize to the principle that thicker paint layers love sticking to thinner layers of paint.
It also helps to allow some of the paint to “rest” before working with it again. That means you should consider waiting between 10-30 minutes before really working on new colors. If you allow the oil paint to “set”, then you’ll discover that it becomes tacky, or sticky. This is the perfect texture or “tooth” feeling in the wet paint you want before really getting into adding more colors and blending.
To also help you visualize whether your paint is the right consistency and texture for blending and adding more colors, consider the sheen or reflection of the painted surface. You should for the most part see few bright shiny reflections in the surface of your model. If there are “hot spots” of reflected light, then your oil paint is still too wet to work easily with. Using a good hobby lamp with diffuse light will help you see the oil paint texture. I use the Neatfi XL lamp daily for any miniature and modeling work. See the review of my lamp.
Pro tip #3: Hurry up and wait
Oil painting is a lovely approach to working with your miniatures. It adds a different pacing and rhythm to painting miniatures. Patience is key to oil painting models.
As you apply highlights and shadows on the model, remember that you will blend afterwards. As the paint “sets”, you can take a clean brush and gently feather, stipple or dab at the edges of two colors you want to blend. The wet-in-wet blending will happen naturally. It’s quite satisfying when you get the blends smooth!
Repeat the oil paint application, waiting for it to set (10-30 minutes), and blending. You will find a nice rhythm of work as you play with the oil paint colors. It’s quite the process and I found the results to be worth the effort!
How to blend oil paints on miniatures (it’s a cyclical process)
Oil paints take a long time to “dry” (e.g., it actually cures through oxidation into a hardened material). This works to your advantage once you figure out how oil paints behave on small surfaces. I’m still figuring this process myself. What I do know is that the principle is the same across any oil painting, and it takes practice to figure out the most efficient process to work with the oil paint medium.
To blend paint, make sure you use a clean brush without solvent in it. Using the soft end of the bristles, gently swish between the two colors you want to blend. For lack of better verbs, you’ll stippling or dabbing the clean brush and picking up pigments of both colors.
In the quick examples in the images here, you see me applying a bit of purple oil paint over the flesh tone oil color. I try not to use too much mineral spirits in the mixing of the purple paint. But, I do use a little to make it flow off the brush easier. Now, you still need to keep as little of the mineral spirit off your brush. So again, you’ll have to find that balance of solvent to paint.
As you apply the color, remember you don’t want to add too much oil paint. Just place enough pigment to do the job. And, it’s okay if it looks messy. We will be able to go in later to blend and smooth it all out. In fact, you can remove any excess pigment you want at any time. Just be careful you don’t erase your previous hard work.
When you’re done applying a color, remove as much pigment as possible from your brush. You can use this same brush for your blending, or pick up a clean brush. To blend the oil paint color, sweep the bristles or stipple between the colors where you want the transition. Use a light touch.
You can blend until you’re satisfied with the result. If too much of the oil paint builds up on your blending brush, you can wipe off the bristles on a clean paper towel. Don’t use mineral spirits on you blending brush! You’ll end up making a mess when you place the brush back on your miniature, and perhaps even ruin the hard work already invested into the blending you’ve done.
To add more paint and blend, allow your current oil paint to “set”. Put the model aside and work on another project or take a brief break. For larger scaled models, as shown here, you can work on a different part of the model.
Painting highlights and model details with oil paints
You would think that more detailed painting with oil paints would be more difficult. But, I think with practice it’s easier. The fastest way to grasp how oil paints work for painting details is to try adding bright highlights to raised edges of your miniature.
In the examples in the photos, I’m highlighting the skin. The approach is similar to how you would paint the same surfaces with acrylic model paints, except with oils you have to be aware of not using too much paint. Also, to avoid getting a “muddy” effect, you’ll need to reload your brush for the bright highlight pigment more often as your bristles will pick up older/darker paint colors.
After you apply the highlights, you can blend as you would with any other oil paint surface. You are essentially softening the edges of where your highlights meet other colors. You don’t need this step, but it can help give your model a more realistic look when your highlights don’t overwhelm your piece. This is a stylistic preference.
As with finer details, such as ridges in the ragged trousers on this zombie miniature, you can use a thicker oil paint to the tip of your brush (e.g., thinned with less mineral spirits). Allow this paint to set on the model, and then you can soften them or leave as-is.
The reason I say that oil painting details is easy is because you can take your time. With acrylics, you’re in a rush to apply the paint to the model before the small amount of paint on the bristles dry out. With oils, you can hit your target without that hasty time pressure. Importantly, if you miss the area you want to paint, you can correct any stray marks. Just take your clean brush and wipe away the erred oil paint.
With oil paints, time is on your side!
Other special effects
Scale modelers and miniature artists have used oil paints for years as the favored medium for adding special effects. Things like weathering, color filters, and battle damage effects are easily applied over an acrylic painted model.
For painting blood effects on this zombie miniature, it’s a matter of finding the right colors. In this case, I wanted a dark and bright red. Using all the same techniques for adding colors and blending them on top of other oil paints, I apply these paints according to the painting reference.
This means I apply a dark red oil paint to the chest, the gash on the leg, and around the mouth on the face. I allow each oil paint color to set before working with it, e.g., blending or adding more paint.
Final results and photos
I love how this model came out despite some of my misgivings about painting it with oil paints. At such a small scale, I did have to work a lot slower than I’m used to. But, that’s okay! I think oil paints are wonderful for painting miniatures that require heavy color blending. They also seem to work best on larger models, but do a fine job on these 28mm scale miniatures, too. You only have to take your time to allow the oil paint to do its thing.
Summary video showing the process of oil painting the “zombie brute” from Origin Miniatures:
Oil painting miniatures is a fantastic change of pace from acrylic painting, and I’m learning a lot along the way. I can take my time with my approach, and skip the hassle of maintaining a wet palette. As you learned, using oil paints also allows you to create buttery smooth color blends that would have required advanced acrylic blending techniques or an airbrush. I hope you found some inspiration to give oil paints a try for painting miniatures. I really enjoyed painting this model with oils, and look forward to painting many more!
Thanks for reading!