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Collection of various characters from tabletop games Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

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A beginner’s guide to buying and painting miniatures

Quick tips on where to get great advice online

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I’m trapped at home right now, same as you are, because of the coronavirus pandemic. While I’m stocked up on supplies, and have family and streaming television to keep me busy, many of my favorite video games just don’t sit well with me at the moment. It’s times like these that I usually turn to board gaming with my friends, but social distancing requires that we stay apart.

So, I’ve taken to painting miniatures. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to rest my body and clear my mind, and getting started wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be. Best of all, you can actually get some amazing results with just a few basic techniques.

Where to begin? First you need to find some minis. If you have a modern tabletop game in your collection, you might have unpainted miniatures sitting in a box already. It seems like just about every major Kickstarter board game campaign includes dozens of unique sculpts. While it can be difficult to get folks to sit down with you and learn a new game, now might be the right time to crack open those boxes and paint those monochromatic miniatures.

a photo of miniatures from the board game Scythe
The miniatures from Scythe are remarkable little works of art. Those mechs also look grand with just a basecoat and some simply drybrushing.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Painting minis is also a great way to plow through your backlog of podcasts. I learned to paint a few years ago, and all it took was one box of Warhammer 40,000 minis and a few dozen episodes of Welcome to Night Vale. Moreover, painted miniatures are a great way to spice up your favorite tabletop role-playing game. Once your regular group gets back together to play in person, you could have customized minis waiting for each of them.

So why not use this weird window of time to pick up a new hobby, one that can easily fit into any living space? I’ve written lengthy guides on the subject before, but here’s a quick rundown on what you need to start painting minis, and some quick tips on where to get educated.


Finding a workspace

You shouldn’t need all that much room to get started painting miniatures. You’ll want a comfortable chair, of course, and a sturdy table. But also consider your lighting. Shadows can play with your perception of miniatures and their details. That could cause you to miss a spot, but it can also easily lead to eyestrain. Consider getting a few movable lights mounted on arms. I use two, each one outfitted with 1600-lumen daylight bulbs.

Also, get a hold of your favorite coffee cup, paper towels, and some water. Everything included in this guide — except the glue — cleans up easily with water if you spill it on a hard surface.


Assembly

Star Wars: Legion - Luke Skywalker, AT-RT, Rebel heavy weapons trooper, generic Rebel trooper
Fully assembled miniatures from Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars: Legion.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

If your miniatures don’t come pre-assembled, you’ll need to spend some time putting them together. That can be as simple as shaking the bits out of a plastic bag and gluing them together (as with Star Wars: Legion from Fantasy Flight Games). For most others, you’ll need to cut the pieces free from their plastic sprue. For that, you’ll need a hobby knife, a cutting mat, nippers, and some glue.

105 Piece Precision Hobby Knife Kit

  • $11

Prices taken at time of publishing.

I prefer hobby knives with breakaway blades, mainly because there’s less for me to lose. But for the price, why not get both kinds? This kit also comes with a cutting mat, which will keep you from damaging your table.

Beadalon Nipper Tool

  • $11

Prices taken at time of publishing.

You might be compelled to dip into the toolkit and just grab a pair of pliers or a wire cutter. Don’t do that! Nippers have a specially shaped edge so you can get right up against the models without damaging them.

Games Workshop Citadel Plastic Glue

  • $6

Prices taken at time of publishing.

Don’t be fooled by the name. This is not actually glue; it’s cement. It’s a chemical that melts plastic pieces and fuses them together. Most, but not all, miniatures require this stuff. Read your directions to see if you need cyanoacrylate — Super Glue — instead.


Priming

After assembly and cleaning, the first thing you’ll need to do is prime your bare plastic miniatures (unless you buy ones that are primed ahead of time).

I recommend the pre-primed miniatures from WizKids, which come ready to paint right out of the box. The company sells minis from tabletop standards like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, as well as brands like My Little Pony and Transformers. On the ones I’ve seen, the details are a little softer than I’d like, but you can’t beat the convenience.

If you’re just starting out, then do yourself a favor and get something medium-sized, like the beholder from the Dungeons & Dragons Nolzur’s Marvelous Unpainted Miniatures line. It has lots of texture and is a great platform for beginners.

Otherwise, allow me to recommend a basic black primer from Games Workshop’s Citadel line. I’ve used the Army Painter rattle cans before, but I’ve gotten very mixed results.

Spray paint can be egregiously expensive online. If your local hardware store is open, you can probably find something much cheaper there. Just be sure to read the label and make sure it’s good for plastics and compatible with acrylic paint.

I’ve gone through a lot of rattle cans in the last few years, and it’s always a drag to spend a ton on a nice can of paint and then throw it away after a week of use. I recently bit the bullet and invested in an airbrush. While not recommended for beginners, it’s really not as intimidating as I originally thought — certainly something to consider down the road, if miniatures painting sticks with you.


Start painting

The two big players in acrylic hobby paints right now are Games Workshop and Vallejo. Both sell basic sets of paint that are great for beginners. The Vallejo kit comes with 16 colors to Games Workshop’s 11, but the Brits throw in a great paintbrush to make up for it.

Whether or not you end up with the Games Workshop paint set, do yourself a favor and get two of the company’s medium layer brushes — you might wreck one while you’re learning. Also grab one of its medium dry brushes, as well as some brush soap.

Now it’s time to begin painting.

Option one would be to scour the internet for guides and videos on painting whatever miniature you’ve elected to get started with. But, if you’d rather go your own way or stick to the short list of colors that you’ve got on hand, there’s an app for that. It’s called the Citadel Colour app, and it’s available free on the App Store and Google Play.

Say that your miniature has some leather bits on it. Click on Brown in the Paint By Colour guide, and you’ll be greeted with several options for how to achieve the look you want. (If you went with the Vallejo paints above, here’s a handy conversion chart.) The same goes for virtually every other color and texture in the rainbow. All of these guides rely on three basic techniques: layering, dry brushing, and edge highlighting.

Layering is fairly straightforward. You’re blocking out the colors on the miniature, painting details from the bottom up. Details that are deeper into the surface of the model — the surfaces of armored plates, for instance — get painted first. The details sitting on top of those surfaces — leather belts or decorative elements — get painted next. That way, you’re able to correct your mistakes as you go along.

Once you get the basic colors on your miniature blocked out, you’ll want to do some dry brushing. That’s where you use a brush with barely any paint on it at all. Again, Games Workshop is on hand to give you some great guidance at its YouTube channel.

Finally, you’ll likely want to do some edge highlighting. That’s where you take a lighter color and trace around the edges of a model in a very intentional way. Everyone’s instinct for edge highlighting is to find the smallest brush they can, but that’s not actually the best way to do it; your medium layer brush will work just fine. Check out this video from Scott “Miniac” Walter on YouTube for more information.

Between painting sessions, you’ll also want to be sure to clean and maintain those brushes. The best guidance I’ve found for that is on YouTube, and it also comes straight from the Miniac. In addition, his video includes some great advice for loading up your brushes with paint and getting a good, clean line.

Again, this is just a quick guide with its own integral shopping list. I’ve also written a much more in-depth guide to the wargaming hobby as a whole.


What have I gotten myself into?

Real quick, though: Let’s consider for a moment that maybe my well-intentioned guide has had the opposite effect. After reading all this, you definitely don’t want to paint miniatures.

That’s fine.

Maybe you just want to build miniatures. A good place to start is with a nice Gunpla. They’re robotic Gundam figures that are poseable, which adds to the complexity of the build. But most of them come in multicolored plastic kits that don’t really require any painting. Get yourself a decent hobby knife and some clippers, and you’re off to the races.

If you’d like to stick to gaming, I recommend Games Workshop’s Adeptus Titanicus or the Warhammer 40,000 line of Knights. Both lines have models that are very expensive, but they’re likewise poseable, with hips, knees, and elbows that allow for some interesting options. They will definitely benefit from a nice coat of paint afterward, but for you, maybe that’s just a single color and a dry brush treatment that makes it looks like a statue.