How to Paint Miniatures

Different strokes

There’s painting… and there’s painting. That is to say, slapping a new color on your wall is not quite the same as painting an intricate fresco. Sure, they both involve paint, but the tools and techniques required are very different. An inexperienced hand can do a relatively decent job with the first, whereas the latter takes many years to master. As for painting miniatures, you’ll find that simply slapping on some paint will result in flat looking, rather uninteresting creations. They’ll be missing something: a touch of realism. And that takes an eye for detail, as well as a little bit of skill. You don’t exactly need to channel your inner Michelangelo, though. A few simple tricks can make a world of difference. Read on as we explore how to paint miniatures, by means of some basic principles and a couple of must-know techniques and effects.

All that being said… channeling your inner Michelangelo could lead to some truly amazing miniatures.

How do you start painting miniatures?

Before getting into how to paint miniatures, we should start with a different question: what kind of miniature will you be painting? After all, painting miniatures is a process that can look quite a bit different from one miniature maker to the next. Those who are into making dioramas or miniature rooms will find themselves working with varied materials such as wood, foam, paper, and clay. In contrast, if your hobby is to paint figurines for tabletop gaming, you’ll mostly be painting on plastic and resin surfaces. While they’re all tiny things, there’s no single set of rules for painting miniatures that applies to the whole lot of them.

We’ll be covering a variety of principles and techniques below. Some of them are commonly used for painting all kinds of miniatures, whereas others are more specific for certain mini crafts. For that reason, we’ll be highlighting examples of actual miniature builds where you’ll see each of the techniques put in practice by talented makers. So you might also discover an inspiring miniaturist or two, who are a bit further along the crafting path you’re about to follow.

Do you need primer before painting miniatures?

Many miniature paint jobs start off with applying a primer. This initial layer of paint can have multiple purposes. First of all, primers have special properties that makes them adhere well to the surface. This is needed especially when working with plastic, resin, or metal, so that the actual colors are not applied to these materials directly. Otherwise, all your hard work of perfecting your minis may be wasted as the paint just ends up rubbing or flaking off. Covering your miniature in a layer of primer, in other words, prepares your minis for the actual painting steps that follow.

Black primer and white primer used on miniature mage figurines

What color should my primer be?

Typically, primers come in three neutral colors: white, black, and gray. This is because the brightness of the primer tends to affect the colors that will cover it, unless they are very opaque in nature. Choosing a white primer is a good idea if you’re planning to paint your mini in light tones, because the underlying white layer lends a brightness to any color that covers it. In contrast, when using a black primer, it could take quite a few layers of paint to offset the darkening before achieving a similar bright result.

However, many miniature makers prefer using a black primer, as it comes with its own advantages. If your model has folds, crevices, or other areas that need to have a dark appearance, having a dark base is very useful. Specifically, a black primer prevents the need of fiddling with additional layers of paint into such crevices to darken them. Having a light primer comes with the risk of areas that ought to be very dark, looking too bright, or taking many coats to achieve a sufficiently dark result.

Taking both of these considerations into account, many miniaturists choose for the happy medium, with a gray primer. Though you may find that the primer of preference will vary from project to project. You may use one or the other depending on the (intended) properties of the miniature you’re painting. So, you’ll probably want to have the different primer options at hand.

A miniature Mario Odyssey ship, primed with brown paint, by Studson Studio

Besides the neutral options discussed above, it is also possible to use a colored primer. For example, Studson Studio used a brown primer while creating a miniature of the Odyssey ship. This warm undertone made a good basis for the old, rusted metallic look he was going for.

How to paint miniatures with primer

Ideally, you want your coat of primer to be evenly applied, without visible brush strokes. Also, you don’t want to slap it on too thick, because you might lose some of the textural details of the surface you’re priming. For these reasons, the best tip we can give for how to paint miniatures with a layer of primer, is to use an airbrush with a compatible primer. By spraying on the paint rather than using a paintbrush, you achieve the most even coats, while using the paint sparingly.

While at first, an airbrush might seem a bit daunting – especially compared to something as basic as a regular paintbrush – it is a tool that many a miniature painter has quickly grown to love. Considering that it gets the basics covered more properly as well as much more quickly, it is no wonder. After all, the sooner you get to the fun part, the better.

How to paint miniatures with an airbrush, demonstrated by Lyla Mev

If you want to learn how to paint miniatures with an airbrush, this video by Lyla Mev is full of great tips.

But with all the perks of the airbrush, one disadvantage comes along: spraying paint causes tiny paint particles to float about in the air. This paint dust will settle on absolutely everything around you – as well as yourself. At first you may not notice, but as it accumulates over successive paint projects, you will. Therefore, it is highly recommended to set up your workspace with a paint booth for airbrushing. And be sure to wear a mask, too!

How to paint miniatures with a base coat

Once your miniature has been primed or sanded, and thus ready for the actual painting stage, it is time to apply the base coat. Typically, this is to be the dominant color of (a section of) your creation. For example, if you’re making a tiny redcap mushroom, you’ll apply a deep red base coat onto the cap, while the stem gets a white base coat. The color of the base coat will normally be the mid-tone of a color range, as you’ll often add darker and lighter variants of this color to create shaded and highlighted areas. But those are later painting steps that we’ll get into below. As with the priming layer, if your base coat is to cover a larger surface area in one color, using an airbrush will come in handy.

Exposing the dark wooden base coat of a miniature bed by Hitsuji-no-ie

While for many miniatures, the base coat is dominantly present in the end result, this is not always the case. For example, Youtube creator Hitsuji-no-ie crafted a miniature antique bed out of wood, to which she applied a dark wood stain. After this, she painted the bed completely white, hiding the dark base coat. Then, to achieve a shabby chic style, she scraped and sanded along the edges of the bed to simulate the wear of use. This exposed the underlying base coat, giving a glimpse of a former darker appearance, as you typically see with painted antiques.

How to paint miniatures with techniques for adding dimension

After applying a base coat, your mini creation will usually look a bit flat. This is because the shapes and details are so small, that light hits them more evenly, without creating the naturally deep shaded areas that their life-sized counterparts have. Moreover, natural objects typically have some subtle color nuances,  rather than the very homogeneous color of the base coat. These are effects you can create with the next steps of painting. In this section, we’ll start by looking at a group of three techniques: washing, shading, and glazing. The three are closely related, as they are done with paints that are more diluted than those used for the base coat. However, they serve different purposes in the painting process.

Washing

A wash is the most diluted paint of the three. Typically it is black, brown, or another dark color, like the ones in this set. You apply a wash generously over the surface of the mini. The runny nature of the paint makes sure that the paint sinks into all the crevices. After having applied the wash, you take a piece of cloth, tissue or sponge, and wipe the wash off of the surface. The dark paint will remain in the folds and crevices, creating natural looking shades that instantly give your mini more dimension. Moreover, many miniature makers like washes for the touch of dirt or grunge they can give the overall surface if you’re less rigorous in rubbing it off of the surface. Especially when working with genres such as post apocalyptic creations, war scenarios, medieval scenes or dilapidated places, this is a very useful effect.

Demonstration of how to paint miniatures with a wash, by YouTuber North of the Border

YouTuber North of the Border applies a generous wash to give Mario’s gloves more dimension and make them look less pristine.

Shading

As the name implies, shading is the creation of darker areas on your miniature, so as to enhance the appearance of shadows. But whereas a wash is generously applied over a large area, shading is done very precisely and locally. It is a process of fine-tuning and deliberately creating details with deeper shades. Like washes, shades come in a variety of dark colors, but they are not quite as diluted. As you’ll be working on tiny details and the smallest nooks and crannies, having some micro detail paint brushes can come in very handy for this type of painting.

Micro succulent held by fingers and being painted with a fine paintbrush

Small details call for fine tips.

Glazing

The third of the miniature painting techniques involving diluted paint, is glazing. Unlike the previous techniques, the main purpose of glazing is not to create areas of shadow. Instead, to glaze is to apply a very thin layer of paint, which slightly alters the color tone of the layer underneath. Like this, you create subtle color nuances. Moreover, by applying increasingly more layers of glazing from one area toward another, you achieve beautiful gradients. As glazing is about changing hues, they come in a large variety of colors. There are not a lot of dedicated glaze paints, but with a glaze medium you can dilute regular acrylic paint to obtain the right consistency.

Studio 22petit demonstrating transparent watercolor glazing on miniature cherry tomatoes

Studio 22petit uses transparent watercolors to create green color nuances in miniature cherry tomatoes through glazing.

Highlighting

Above, we have discussed the technique of shading, to create shadows where miniatures are too shallow to form them naturally. In addition to this, there is a technique that deals with the opposite: creating highlights. This is done by taking a lighter shade than the base color and applying it to the most superficial areas of your miniature. For example, imagine a figurine wearing a coat. Wherever the fabric is gathered in folds, you can highlight the topmost area of each fold. After all, on life-sized objects, the most superficial areas are typically the most well lit and therefore more bright than other areas.

Highlighting the superficial surfaces of a gnome beard with a paint brush

Following a dark base coat, highlighting the superficial areas of this beard creates lots of dimension.

Dry brushing miniatures

One of the most beloved techniques in miniature painting is dry brushing. To use this technique, you apply a small amount of paint to a dry, simple, and preferably old paintbrush. You will then first start brushing onto a piece of scrap paper to get rid of most of this paint, till there’s hardly any coming off of the brush anymore. Your paintbrush is now ready for dry brushing. To put this technique into practice, you gently brush over a surface of your miniature. What this does, is leave traces of paint on the most superficial ridges and edges, where the brush meets the surface.

Dry brushing can be done for different purposes. Firstly, it is a great way to accentuated textures. When done with a light color, it works to create highlights. It can also be done with other colors, such as a shade of brown, to create a weathering effect. Moreover, dry brushing is very useful in its matte effect, which generally does wonders in giving a sense of realism.

Dry brushing demonstrated by Yubisakichan on the roof of a dollhouse

Yubisakichan uses the dry brushing technique to accentuated the shape of the roof tiles on her dollhouse, while also giving them an aged appearance.

Stippling

When painting miniatures, one thing to be wary of is your paintbrush leaving visible strokes, as it is a sure way to break the realism of your creation. Depending on the choice of paint and brush, this can be a very noticeable effect when moving your paintbrush back and forth over the surface. If this is the case, a different painting technique can come in handy. Specifically, stippling. This is a technique with which you dab the paint onto the surface, applying it in discrete movements instead of continuous ones.

Besides the prevention of visible strokes, stippling comes with another perk: it adds texture. Stippling is therefore ideal for painting surfaces that benefit from a somewhat grainy appearance. Like a plaster wall, or rusty metal, for example. To create pronounced textures, stippling with a paintbrush tends to work best. But for more even results, try stippling with a sponge instead.

Stippling on brown paint to create a rusty texture as demonstrated by Hanabira

By stippling on brown paint, Hanabira gives this miniature building a texture fitting the weathered, rusty appearance of decay.

Layering

Above, we’ve discussed several different miniature painting techniques that add more dimension to a mini. Which ones of these are useful for a particular creation, all depends on what natural or imaginary textures you’re trying to mimic or create. Sometimes a surface will have many nuances, and you may find yourself applying layer after layer to achieve the same richness. This is often the case with glazing, as a succession of near transparent layers can create smooth gradients.

Also for opaque coats of paint, some creations call for quite some layering. Imagine, for instance, the color tones you’d apply to a miniature marble sculpture in a diorama of an old abandoned garden. Covering the once white marble, there’d be brown, black and gray traces of dirt and other deposits, as well as green tones of mossy growth. Take note of weathering effects such as these. They just so happen to be one of the secrets to making some of the most striking and realistic looking miniatures.

Layering of paint on miniature metro wagon demonstrated by Nerdforge

In creating their post-apocalyptic miniature metro wagon, Nerdforge applied several layers of successively lighter tints of orange, to simulate the many nuances of rust tones that a dilapidated train would show.

What kind of paint do you use on miniatures?

So far, we’ve addressed the question of how to paint miniatures with the different steps and techniques that you can use. But there’s another important question inherent to it: what kind of paint do you use? Turns out, there’s no straightforward answer here either. If you peruse the videos of the different miniature makers that we’ve referenced throughout this article, you’ll see that there’ quite a variety not only in what kind of things they make, but also what they paint them with. Let’s explore the different options.

Dedicated paint for miniatures

Miniature makers that paint figurines or models often have a need for very specific colors, and quite a range of them. When you’re trying to create a close resemblance to a well-known character, or a historical war vehicle, you’ll want to get the color tones as close as you can. To help you along, there are brands dedicated to miniature paint that offer curated sets of paint colors. From skin tones to earth tones to fantastical hues, you name it.

Most of these miniature paint brands produce acrylics. This is because acrylic paint is very versatile. It comes in different types with varying properties, and can be even further modified to your needs. Thus, for just about any kind of paint finish you have in mind, there’s an acrylic paint up for the task. For more on that, check out our article about acrylic miniature paint.

Paint brushes next to a figurine in a miniature castle bedroom

Hair, skin, jewelry… even for fabric, there’s a suitable acrylic.

But before you think that acrylic paint is all there is to it, we need to mention a couple of others. There’s oil paint and enamel paint, which come with their own characteristics that make them perfect for painting certain types of minis. To find out what those are, be sure to have a look at our guide to picking the best paint for miniatures, where we’ve put them all in one handy overview.

Generic acrylic paint

As discussed above, there are acrylic paints that are specifically developed for painting miniatures. Typically, they come in small dropper bottles, as a little bit goes a long way when you make tiny things. That being said, the more generic acrylic paints that you’ll find in craft stores will often suffice just as well. This is especially the case for the miniature makers that don’t aim for very specific colors, or those that know their way around mixing colors to achieve the hue they’re going for. For instance, if you make miniature houses, and most of your painting involves flooring, walls, and furniture and roof tiles, a small set of essential colors will probably be more useful than a extensive one with dozens of colors spanning the rainbow.

Paint miniatures with watercolor

In some cases, the preferred paint for miniature makers is watercolor. For example, if you make miniature food, watercolor offers helpful characteristics. Due to its transparent nature, you can use it to add subtle color nuances through glazing. Moreover, its transparency helps in keeping the underlying textures visible. The latter also makes watercolor paint an option to consider for painting miniature furniture, if you’re not looking for much opacity and like the natural wood patterns to come through.

Paint miniatures with pastels

The last type of paint we’ll cover here, is pastel. More specifically, the paint you can make with pastel sticks. To do this, you simply shave off a little bit, which gives you a a colored powder. To turn the powder into paint, you can mix it with water, which results in a substance similar to watercolor. Alternatively, you can mix the pigment powder with white glue. This creates a paint that is thicker in consistency, more like an acrylic.

Shaving off pigment powder from pastel sticks and mixing with water to make paint as demonstrated by Cecilia P

With a real cauliflower leaf as a color reference, Cecilia P mixed together four different pigments from pastel stick shavings to paint the leaves on her miniature cauliflowers.

Using pigment powder from pastel sticks is moreover an easy way to create any specific color you like. You can mix different colors together with powder from multiple sticks, while having fine control over their relative proportions. If you feel like your color could use a pinch more yellow, for example, it is a matter of shaving off a tiny bit more from a yellow pastel stick and mixing it in. Another reason to love pastel sticks is that they basically last forever, unless you use them, whereas liquid paints have a shelf life of about 5 to 7 years. Then again, that’s plenty of time for the dedicated crafter to finish them!

And that brings us to the end of our guide on how to paint miniatures. To see it all put into practice, we very much recommend checking out some of the videos from the miniature makers we’ve referenced throughout the article. But as with everything, you’ll only truly get into the nitty-gritty of it once you pick up the brush and start doing it yourself. So don’t spend too much more time taking in the theory, and get started with the fun!

About the author

Hey there, I'm Aimee. I have this thing for tiny things, that has grown ever since I started dabbling with miniature crafts in 2018. I started this blog to create a space for ideas and resources for making miniatures, so that they may inspire others and lead to the crafting of many more little worlds within our own.

Aimee River

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