I’ve painted several plastic models over the years and I can say with 100% certainty that I have absolutely zero skill when it comes to doing a good paint job. I’ve always marveled at how well other people’s models come out, only to have my own look a bit like a toddler just dipped them into random paints.

I have, however, been trying to get better and the internet is filled with plenty of tips for those of us who still suck at painting models and miniatures. Here are the ones that I have found the most useful in getting my painting skills from “Kill me” to “Hey, it could be worse”.

Be Realistic About the Time Commitment

I have a tendency to think of the painting part of having miniatures and other plastic models as a chore. It’s something I want to get out of the way so that I can either have the finished product on my shelf or actually play with it.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that this attitude is a mistake. You need to prepare yourself for the fact that painting miniatures well is going to involve a lot of tedium and patience. Think of it as a sort of zen meditation. Put on some music, close the door, and sort of zone out as you go through all the steps needed to get from a blank canvas to a kickass miniature.

Be Organized

You need to set aside an area that you use only for painting. All your supplies should be stored in an orderly way using some sort of sorting system. Not everyone has the space or money to set up a table just for painting – at least not at first. If your painting habit becomes more than just a mild distraction, it’s better to have a dedicated space where you can be productive.

Use Quality Ingredients

Whether you’re making an omelet or painting figures, you limit the quality of the final product by limiting the quality of the ingredients. In this case, that means it’s best to use good brushes and paints. While a terrible painter can’t do anything with the best tools, once you get better you want to use paints that look great. The cheap hobby shop paints are often crude and ugly when applied to a miniature. It might seem like a gimmick, but buying paints from people like Games Workshop can really raise the level of your models.

Wash Your Miniatures

I had painted quite a few models before anyone told me this. It turns out that plastic parts that have been created using a mold are usually covered in a special substance that helps release them from the mold without damaging the figure. The problem is that this stuff also makes it hard for the paint to cling properly, which is why you should wash the pieces of your miniature collection before painting them.

A soft brush and some lukewarm soapy water does the trick. Then let the pieces dry properly – often overnight, unless you live in a hot and dry climate.

miniature painting

Spend Some Time Knifing Your Miniature

Even in this modern day and age, plastic molding is pretty much the same as it always was. Although the dies themselves now have incredible levels of detail, some molding imperfections are always going to be there; specifically the lines where the two halves of the mold meet and little blowouts or “flashes” where the vent holes on the mold are. The same hobby knife and hobby scissors you use to remove the parts from the sprue will work for trimming these imperfections.

Putty is Your Friend

Sometimes the problem isn’t too much plastic, but not enough! If the parts don’t fit together right it might be because of a dodgy mold or an air bubble. You can fill gaps that shouldn’t be there with a bit of putty.

Prepping with Primer

This is another thing the pros do that I was completely unaware of. Although you have to wash off the mold-release substance, the bare plastic is not optimal for getting paint to cling and display well. So the best painters prep their models with a coat of primer. When they are done painting, they’ll use a sealer to preserve the paint job.

Don’t Use the Paint As-Is

This would never have occurred to me, since I assumed that the paints you buy are already mixed to the right consistency. Actually, the pros thin paint down with water to get thinner coats and preserve more of the model’s detail. It also lets you layer more colors than you would otherwise be able to get on there.

Start With Easier Models

I once thought that the first ever “Metal Earth” model I should build was the USS Enterprise NCC 1701-D. Why? Because I loved that ship and wanted to make the model. It turns out that starting with an advanced model isn’t a good way to begin a hobby.

The same principle applies to miniatures. You might want to start with the biggest, most bad-ass and complex model. This is probably a mistake. It’s better to start with something that’s relatively easy to paint; something without too much fine detail so that it will look good even if you paint it quite badly.

Preview Your Colors

Models usually have two or three primary colors that define their look. If you are creating an army for games like Warhammer, that’s probably the motif that will define the look of your entire force. Before you start painting your figures it’s probably a good idea to put those colors next to each other to make sure they actually work together.

figure painting

Don’t Overdo It

One of the things that really gets me excited about model painting is seeing the masterpieces at conventions and other events. Some people can paint the finest details you’ve ever seen – details in the eyes, weathering, rust, and more amazing techniques. That’s fantastic, but you actually don’t need to paint figures that well for them to look awesome. After all, it’s not as if everything you paint is going to be scrutinized by a judge or something. What matters is that your army or party looks great on the tabletop. Unless your friends are jerks, no one is going to take every figure and look at it up close.

Even the great masters didn’t bother to paint detail in their paintings where no one would ever look for it, so rather spend your energy painting more models or getting the basic details spot-on.

Do the Tough Parts First

I’ve read this tip in a couple of places and it’s actually quite brilliant. After a while you’ll know what types of details or objects you suck at the most. So when starting a new model, paint those first. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it actually makes perfect sense. If you paint the parts you aren’t sure you’ll nail first, it means you haven’t wasted time if you need to restart the model.

Get Practice Models

Keep old models, pieces of unused models from friends, and whatever else you can get your hands on to practice painting. In other words, don’t learn to paint on the models you actually want to use.

Watch a Lot of YouTube

When I was a kid there was no place I could actually go to learn things by watching a pro do it. These days you can learn almost any practical skill just by looking for a tutorial on YouTube. So you’d be a fool to not make use of such a wonderful resource!

For the Love of Art

I think painting models is one of the bigger perceived hurdles in getting into tabletop gaming. It’s not learning the rules of the game or any of that; it’s the idea of needing arts and crafts talent that really puts people off. The most important thing you have to remember is that it doesn’t matter if your paint jobs aren’t exactly the best. What matters is that you put in the work and did your best. Your next army won’t be as shabby!