How to paint great minis, quickly

Well painted models are a joy. It’s even better if you did them yourself! Trouble is all those beautiful pro-painted minis can be intimidating. When your model doesn’t look like it’s just stepped out of the pages of White Dwarf, it can put you off ever trying again. If that wasn’t bad enough, you can spend days on a single mini, and still not have it look any way decent to your eyes. 

I spent 10 years teaching people the basics of painting at GW stores. Without exception, I found people had more of a mental block to painting than a technical one. I can’t make anyone a Golden Daemon winner (me included), but I can show you how to get decent results, at a much faster pace than you might think is possible.

The very first thing to do is set your expectations. You have to know your limits. Your model is usually going to be seen from three feet away, in amongst plenty of others, as well as terrain, dice and all the rest.  Novice painters have asked me if I use a magnifying glass in the past. The answer had to be ‘no’, given that no-one gets out a glass to look at them when they’re finished! There’s nothing wrong with ‘good enough’, especially when misplaced notions of ‘perfect’ put you off starting in the first place. 

Enough talk, let’s paint. Here’s my top 10 tips for getting well painted models on your table, pronto.

1.       Get organised

You can lose a lot of time by not having your kit ready and to hand. You want all your stuff in a box, or case, and you want it all together. The only thing you should need to get is a pot of water (and you should have the pot in your kit box already).

Make sure your paints have their colour easily visible. Best advice is to paint the lid next time you use it. Simple. If you can separate out the metallics and inks into a different section, it does make it easier to find the colours.

Get yourself set up so you won’t have to do anything but paint. That means getting your music sorted. It means getting some snacks sorted (M&Ms don’t get in the way). Trust me, if you have a cup of tea or coffee on the go, you will wash your brush in it at least once. If you have a cat, put it outside.

You don’t need much, just a sheet of kitchen towel, an old white saucer, and most importantly, natural daylight. Painting at night, or by artificial light, just not worth it.

2.       Work to a plan

You need to have a good idea of how you’re going to paint your model. Don’t just start and see what happens (nothing good usually). You don’t need every detail planned out in advance, just a basic plan.

A tried and tested method is to ‘dress the model’. This means starting with the flesh, and working your way though the clothing as if it were getting dressed in the morning. Start with shirt and trousers, then jackets, then belts and stuff, finally cloaks, boots and weapons. Basically, it’s from the inside to the outside.

 I like to work on the messy parts first, that way I can cover up any mistakes with the next layer. For example, I always dry-brush hair, fur and metal weapons. If I do these first, then when I do the clothing next to that part it covers up the inevitable overspill.

Finish with the bit you intend to hold while painting. This is often a sword or a staff. You won’t be able to get away with just holding the model by the base as you paint. Sometimes you’ll want to invert the model to get to those hard to reach bits (by the way, hard to reach usually means hard to see as well, so don’t sweat it too much). To do that you’ll want something to latch onto, and if you paint that too early your fingers will have rubbed off all you hard work by the end.

3.       Undercoat with black spray

Seriously. Don’t waste time with anything else. It’s really forgiving, really quick and does half the shading work for you.

4.       Use a bigger brush

A really simple tip is to use a bigger brush than you think you need to. Much bigger. There’s a few reasons for this.

The thing that really slows down your paint job is anything that isn’t actually getting the paint on the model in the right place. Tidying up mistakes, going back and forth to your palette and water, changing brushes, whatever. Most mistakes happen the second your brush first touches the model. If your brush is small, it carries very little paint, so you have to keep going back for more. That means literally starting again with every stroke and that’s how slips happen.

Most novice painters believe the smaller the brush the better the detail. Not so. I never use anything smaller than a standard brush (third one down in the picture), and even then that’s rare. All decent brushes come to a single hair at their very tip in any event, so what you really need is control, and only practice will get you that. That and confidence. If you try to paint a space marine’s armour with a fine detail brush, no wonder it takes all day.

5.       Dry-brushing and washes

Learn these tricks. There’s loads of tutorials for these and they are the two best techniques for the fast painter. No, Golden Demon winners don’t really use them, but us lesser mortals have to. They’re lightning quick, and incredibly effective.

There’s some great all-in-one ‘dips’ available these days that act like a complete wash for your mini. You just base coat your model, and then dip the whole thing in what’s basically a brown-black thin ink. It does work, so be brave, and try it out. I prefer to pick my washes (I recommend Tamiya Smoke for any non bright areas and all metals) but the ‘dip’ deserves a place in this list.

6.       Use recipes

Eventually you’ll get little combinations that really work for you. These will usually be triple sets of colour. A dark, medium, and light set. If you hit upon a great combo, write it down! Stick it on a Post it note, and put it in your case. I (almost) always use the same three colours for flesh, because it’s proven to be ‘good enough’ and I know what it’s going to look like. By all means experiment, if you have the luxury of time.

7.       Pep it up

Going faster makes you faster. Sounds stupid I know, but it’s true. Just try upping your pace a bit. Try to paint that cloak in only 5 or 6 strokes instead of 10 or 20. Be confident in your strokes. If it doesn’t look right, don’t try to fix it there and then, keep going. Most models never look right until the moment they’re finished. Until then they’re only a work in progress.

It not about rushing or panicking, it’s about pace and control. If you’re tentative, you’ll get shaky. Get stuck in, and believe in yourself. Ask any golfer, they’ll tell you.

8.       Wet brushing

The hardest technique to master is blending, and obviously it’s the one that gives the best results. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to cheat. When your pace is good enough you’ll be putting paint on your model while the last layer is still wet. If you’re clever you can use this to your advantage and get a mix going on the model itself. I won’t lie, it’s not easy. It’s most likely to happen by accident, so if it does, be ready to go with it.

Incidentally, this is why you always see GW staffers with coloured lips because they use their mouths to wet their brushes (don’t worry, it’s not toxic). It’s cleaner than their water pot and it’s more immediate so they can blend on the model.

My technique is wet-brushing and it comes from being lazy, and impatient. You simply need a loaded brush, and the same handling technique as dry-brushing, but with a lighter faster touch. It’s harder to describe than I’d like! It’s great on texture that dry-brushing is too subtle for, like faces and clothing. Just flick your brush against the grain and let the sculpt do the hard work. Even if you don’t get the coverage you want first time, you now have some paint on the model and a guide to where the highlights should go.

9.       Paint in batches

If you paint 4 or 5 models in a batch, it doesn’t take 4 or 5 times as much as a single model. You do all the faces, and by the time the last is done, the first is dry and ready. Actually, paint dries incredibly quickly anyway, but you know what I mean. It all prevents opening and closing paint pots and washing and drying brushes. That’s what really slows the process (and army painting is a process).

If I’m doing a regiment, it’s not unheard of to do batches of 20.

Even single models, try doing them two or three at a time. If you get into a groove, you’ll find yourself surprised when three come to life all at the same time. It’s incredibly gratifying.

10.   Use a pen for lining

Get one of those nice black pens from a stationer. You know, with the thin nib, and a 0.3mm tip. Make sure it’s waterproof (spray varnish would make it run otherwise). Use it to black line. This is a technique to separate colours, much like an inker does in comic books. I use it on cuffs, tops of boots, eyes, mouths, any armour plating. It makes for a striking and clean finish. It also covers up any little mistakes too.

So that’s my top ten. Don’t forget, none of this wins you prizes for quality, but it does get stuff finished, and you have too many unpainted models already don’t you? Actually, you’ll be surprised at the quality you get. Practice, don’t get disheartened, and push your pace. Bet you love the results.

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