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Step-by-step: How to Paint Your First Miniature

Are you a budding hobbyist just starting out on your miniature painting journey? Are you someone looking for some advice on how to paint your very first miniature?

Well look no further friends. Hi, my name is Niall and I’m a miniature painter. I’ve been painting little metal and plastic monsters for more years than I care to count. 

While I’ve touched on this topic before, I would like to dedicate this article solely to new painters or potential painters eyeing up the hobby or starting to dip their toes in this weird and wonderful world of ours without too much overlap on previous writings.

It can be intimidating at first, painting your first miniature. You take it off the sprue, glue it together and it looks so pristine, so full of possibilities.

Yet due to this and, many other factors, a lot of some people have a fear of “messing up” their first miniature or making mistakes but as with many things making mistakes is how we improve.

I try to think of it this way: you either win or you learn. 

While miniature painting as a whole is a very dense topic my intention for this article is for it not to be very dense.

I will give you a detailed guide on how to paint your first miniature that hopefully you find straightforward and easy to put into practice. I’ll cover the steps and try to guide you around and sometimes through any and all mistakes or pitfalls that one might come across.

So without any further ado here is a concise yet comprehensive step-by-step overview of my recommendation for how to paint your first miniature.

Feature image for our article on how to paint your first miniature. The image is some space marines painted blue.

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1. Choosing your first miniature

First things first you have to build the model.

Games Workshop supplies their miniatures in kits where the pieces of the miniatures are set in a small grey plastic grid commonly referred to as a “Sprue”.

However, Forgeworld and many other miniature companies can come in pieces that aren’t attached to a sprue or are instead mounted on small blocks of resin. It’s important to know the difference between plastic and resin when painting miniatures as resin requires some extra work to prep before assembly and painting as does metal.

However for the intents and purposes of this article and your own first experience I would recommend choosing a plastic kit from the wide range of Games Workshop miniatures for your first miniature. Some hobbyists recommend different miniatures for first-time painters for ease of painting however in my opinion I think what’s far more important is that it’s a miniature you’re enthusiastic about. 

Pick something that excites you from a lore or visual perspective that you can’t wait to open and get to work on.

In my experience, if you run into any issues when painting or find any particular part of the process I describe frustrating or difficult, it’s that excitement that will help you push through and make it to the finish line.

2. Snips and Sprues explained

Once you have your miniature picked it’s time to start building and for that we will need some tools. I will cover each one, what it is and its purpose in detail in the coming steps, however the tools I would recommend are as follows:

The first step is to free the pieces of our miniature from the sprue and the best method for removing pieces from a sprue is with a hobby snips.

This is a tool that resembles a small pliers with edged jaws. Many hobby companies will often charge quite a lot for one of their branded hobby snips. However in my experience there is rarely a huge difference in quality between the cheap and expensive ones, certainly not enough to justify the price.

Carefully place the flat side of the jaws of the snips along the segment of plastic that joins the sprue to the piece of your miniature. Make this cut as close to the miniature as you feel you can perform comfortably without damaging the miniature.  

Side note: I would recommend cutting and sticking pieces one by one rather than cutting them out all at once before assembly as sometimes that can be a little confusing and it can make it a lot easier to lose track of some more delicate fine parts. While many Games Workshop models are relatively simple to put together they do come with instructions that make the assembly process even easier.

3. Superglue and plastic glue compared

In terms of glue there are many people I know who are very good hobbyists that swear by plastic glue, however I myself have always favoured simple superglue. While it is without question that plastic glue will form a stronger bond. I find that superglue is far easier to work with due to the fact that it sticks faster and is far more forgiving.

For instance if while assembling your first miniature you find that you have glued a piece in the wrong place it can be very difficult to separate the pieces again if they were glued with plastic glue. Whereas if you have glued them with superglue in my experience they are relatively simple to separate. 

While never an ideal situation, if you find that you have made such a mistake it’s often best to act sooner rather than later as the more bonding time the glue has the harder this will be. Though even if the super glue has fully bonded in many cases you can encourage the glue to break by applying some pressure.

Side note: Always be careful when trying this as it can run the risk of damaging your miniature but sometimes we make a mistake, it happens and we need to work to rectify it. If you are applying pressure to break a glue bond I would recommend doing so with your thumb as close to the glued area as possible. If you apply pressure a distance from the glued area it’s more likely that the plastic might snap. Another big plus in my opinion for using superglue is to protect your model if it were to fall.

When the dreaded moment happens and a model that you have put so much time and effort into falls it usually breaks at its weakest point and this is where super glue shines. 

Because the bond that super glue makes isn’t that strong, more than likely the miniature will break across one of these joins and it might not sound like it but that is a good thing. If your miniature is going to break this is the best place for it to do so as it will be quite simple to apply a little more glue and to put the piece back where it was. 

The alternative is that with plastic glue in my experience will be far too strong and won’t break across these lines. You might get lucky and the miniature might not break at all however if there are any imperfections in the plastic it can cause your miniature to truly break. Meaning that something has snapped that was never intended to be apart and that is much harder to fix.

In simple terms my opinion is to use superglue because for one it’s faster and it also builds in these makeshift “fault lines” in your miniature that it can use to break safely.

Editor note: I have tried the method of using superglue on plastic miniatures. It strongly prefer using dedicated plastic glue. I simply find it far easier to work with.

4. Cleaning, what it means and why it’s important

With the miniature assembled it’s now time to clean it. Cleaning plastic miniatures refers to the process of removing any marks or excess plastic left on the miniature from the molding process or from removing them from the sprue.

If left intact these marks can often detract from the overall look of the model and make painting certain areas much more of a headache. At this stage you might notice small raised lines that run across the surface of the miniature, these are called mold lines and are marks left behind from the mold that the plastic piece was cast in. 

I recommend removing all mold lines along with any other larger chunks of plastic from the miniature before painting. 

In my experience the best tool for this job is the humble craft knife. A craft knife, sometimes called a scalpel blade, is a small razor sharp blade on the end of a handle that is proportioned closer to a paintbrush than a regular knife. As a very common tool for many hobbies you can usually find craft knives at almost any shop that sells hobby supplies of any kind. 

Side note: Don’t be confused with a “snap blade” knife that’s used in other hobbies. They usually consist of a handle like a plastic track where a blade is slid down through an opening at the end. In my experience the blades of these knives are not suitable for us as they are designed with purely vertical cutting in mind resulting in them being brittle and could potentially be quite dangerous for us due to snapping. 

The kind of hobby knife we need has a solid handle and a fixed single blade that is set or sometimes screwed into the end. 

A Lot of companies will try to sell you often over priced “specialist” tools for removing mold lines however in my opinion all of these fall short of the humble craft knife. It removes mold lines exceptionally well, it’s cheap, easily acquired and very useful in a lot of other circumstances.

Do keep in mind however that if this is your first time using a craft knife be very careful as these are very sharp and if mishandled can lead to quite serious cuts, so proceed with some caution. However, if you find yourself already with one of these specialist tools or you prefer the reduced risk, there is nothing wrong with using them, they are just not the most optimal tool in my experience.

Editor note: I use a combination of a craft knife and the citadel mold line remover. It makes so the job of removing lines more mindless, freeing up part of my attention to watch or listen to something.

Once you have your tool of choice you can begin to remove mold lines. Carefully place the edge of your tool or knife perpendicular to the mold line and gently drag it down the length of the mold line to remove it. It might take a few attempts to remove the line if this is your first time trying but my advice is to perform this gently and slowly while you get the hang of it so as to ensure that no damage is done to the model.

If you find that you still have some larger pieces of sprue still attached to your model I would advise snipping off as much as you can safely with your snips before using a craft knife to carefully remove the last remainder. If you still find yourself with a mark left behind repeat the process described previously for removing mold lines until the mark is fully removed and no longer visible. 

Side note: we will cover basing in more detail later in the article however you might find it easier to glue your model to the circular black base provided in the kit at this point.

However as an alternative you can also make use of a cork from a wine bottle and some adhesive putty like blue-tack to hold your miniature in place while you paint.

5. Undercoating, setting a firm foundation for your miniature

Once you have removed all of the mold lines and secured your miniature to either a base or alternative it’s time to start painting and the first step in painting your miniature is an undercoat.

An undercoat is the first layer of paint applied all over your miniature, this is also called priming. The color of this undercoat will affect the paints you apply over it and it will also allow those additional coats to adhere properly to the miniature. If you were to paint directly onto the grey plastic without first applying an undercoat you risk a lot of issues with the paint chipping off. It is just very hard to get a neat base.

My recommendation for undercoating your first miniature is using Games Workshop’s Chaos Black spray primer.

It’s simple to use and as long as you’re not too heavy handed it’s very difficult for things to go wrong. One thing to consider though is that you want to make sure that you use it in a well ventilated space. I would recommend either a very well-ventilated shed or to just spray outside. However if you are priming outside be careful of the weather. 

Even the slightest misty rain can leave an undesirable texture on your base coat when you want at this stage for it to be as smooth as possible.

Also be wary of the wind, as if you are not careful the wind can catch the spray and throw it right back at you.

6. Choosing the right colors, paints and brushes for your miniature

Once you have a solid coat of black primer on it’s time to start choosing colors. Depending on the model you have chosen you may want to paint it in any number of different ways.

If you chose a space marine for example you may want to paint it in the colors of your favorite chapter or legion, or you may want to do something entirely unique.

I would recommend having a think about this but I would caution not to do so for too long.

Overthinking ideas when it comes to painting can sometimes lead to a kind of paralysis where we become afraid of making the “wrong” choice and the miniature or miniatures never end up getting painted.

So my advice would be if you already have an idea or something that inspires you to paint your miniature a certain way then fantastic, however, if you do not I would recommend that you spend a minute or two thinking about your options and then move forward with whatever you think is best. 

Once you have decided what colors you want to paint I would like to briefly cover some of the types of paint that you may come across or hear being mentioned and try to dispel some of the mystery around them.

Games Workshop’s citadel paints in particular are broken down into the following different uses. 

  • Base paints give strong solid colors and are often used as the first paints put down over a primer. 
  • Layer paints are designed to be slightly more translucent and are intended to go down over base paints. 
  • Metallic paints as the name suggests give the appearance of metal. 
  • Shades or washes are very thin water-like paints that flow into the recesses of a miniature and provide contrast. 
  • Dry paints are quite thick and are intended for a technique called dry brushing that I will cover later in this article. 
  • Contrast paints are a very flexible tool with unique properties that can be used for many different purposes. 
  • Technical paints are used to create specific effects for instance some are designed to be used as mud on bases while others are used to create a look of rust or oxidized metal. 
  • Air paints are thinned down versions of base and layer paints that are designed to be run through an airbrush rather than applied with a brush. 

When it comes to choosing brushes there are two general schools of thought on the matter. Those two being cheap brushes and expensive brushes.

On one side painters continuously buy cheap brushes that are good for a few weeks or months and then wear out and are cheaply replaced.

On the other hand, there are painters who invest in quite expensive brushes that take great care of them and make them last for quite some time.

For a first time painter I would definitely suggest that you stick with cheap brushes, great results can be achieved with cheap brushes and it is definitely not a requirement to buy expensive ones. 

I myself have always preferred buying cheap brushes over expensive ones. I would recommend a cheap pack of synthetic brushes if can find them at a local hobby shop that has a variety of brushes from small fine tipped brushes to larger broader ones.

Cheap Synthetic Brush set

When painting a miniature I will use a cheap synthetic brush for about 60-80 % of the work, and then good detail brush for the rest. A lot of painting techniques will naturally damage the brush, so having a lot of cheap expendable brushes is a must.

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Considering the huge number of models that are available to choose from it can be difficult to describe a single process that will fit any model as often different models require different things in order to make them work.

However, I will do my best to put forward as close to a universal system as I can that is quite simple and approachable from the perspective of a first time painter yet provides a solid tabletop ready result. 

7. Layering and the importance of perspective

The first technique that we come to that I feel is very important for a new painter to learn is layering.

Layering is the process of applying the base colors to your model.

For example this could be the red of a space marines armor or the blue of a chaos warriors cloak. The trick to getting a good solid base color in this step is to make sure that you apply thin coats of paint to your primed miniature.

If you try to rush things and apply too much paint to your miniature you may find that many of the details have become clogged and less sharp. 

It might take you some time to get a feel for what the right consistency is for painting layers. Using your brush you want to mix a little water into your chosen paint until you have a consistency that is somewhat like milk, meaning that it is a little thicker than water yet still quite easy to apply.

The famous saying from legendary painter Duncan Rhoads is to always apply “Two thin coats” however in my experience as an often cautious painter it can sometimes take more than two coats to achieve a really solid color. 

Though I would recommend you use your best judgment on this as what’s most important when you’re painting your first miniature is that you have fun. It’s important to remember that we were not painting the sistine chapel here, we’re painting little plastic monsters for fun. 

When it comes to your first miniature, remember that as long as you are pleased with how it looks and you’re having a good time you’re golden. 

Once you have your base colors layered down take a moment and see if there are any other details on the miniature you would like to add. Does your space marine have a leather pouch you would like to paint brown? Does your ork have large tusks that you would like to paint a bone color? 

Have a look at your model and see are there any small details such as these that you might like to add a little extra too. Though don’t feel any pressure to do so, the goal here is to get a model up to a simple solid tabletop standard that can easily be recognised and have a good time doing it.

8. Adding definition with shading and washing

Once those steps have been completed and the paint is dry it’s time to move on to the next step. Next up is to apply a wash or shade to your miniature.

As mentioned previously a shade is a thin, quite watery type of paint that we apply to a miniature in order to darken the recesses and gain a level of contrast. Considering this is a guide on how to paint your first miniature I would recommend finding a shade that you quite like or that compliments your chosen base paints and applying it all over the miniature.

If you’re unsure of what shade to use I would recommend games workshops Agrax Earthshade.

It’s a dark brown shade that is in my opinion very flexible and will compliment the vast majority of models. Whether there is a lot of armor, fur or skin it will work well.

When it comes to actually applying the wash I would recommend using something other than a fine tipped brush and to be quite generous with the application. Apply the wash all over the miniature working it into every crevice and surface. However, do be careful that it doesn’t pool too much in undesirable areas as this can create large globs of wash that will work against the effect that we are trying to achieve. 

Once it has been applied you should allow a couple of hours to ensure that the wash has properly dried before you handle or work on the miniature again. What you should have now is a model with its recesses shaded providing a nice bit of contrast however the shade will more than likely have dulled your base colors somewhat. This often provides a nice blend between the darks of the recesses and the base colors but now it’s time to bring back some highlights with a great technique called dry brushing.

9. Bringing back the highlights with dry brushing

Dry brushing is a hugely flexible technique that can be used to achieve many different effects depending on how you use it.

In my opinion it’s a particularly great skill for new painters to develop as it is relatively quick and easy to get started with and there’s little to no chance of it causing any large headaches. Another great thing about this technique is that it’s often been quite useful to people who find it difficult to hold a brush steady or struggle with hand eye coordination. 

When it comes to choosing what color to dry brush with I recommend using a lighter version of a color you have already used.

So if you have already painted and washed a red miniature I would recommend dry brushing it with a lighter red or even an orange. If you have painted a green miniature you could use a light green or even a yellow. You can even use white if your miniature has a lot of different colors.

But as a general rule dry brushing often works best when using a brighter color as we want it to catch on the edges of our miniature and highlight them in a quick and easy manner. 

The technique itself involves getting a very small amount of paint on a relatively wide brush. The best way to do this is to either put some paint out on your palette or take a little bit straight from the pot with your brush. Whichever option you choose, remember that less is definitely more. 

Once you have the paint on your brush get some tissue paper and dab your brush gently on it. The goal here is to get the paint almost entirely off the brush leaving only the smallest amount left on the end. You can always add a little back on if you take too much off.

So if this is a technique you are using for the first time my advice would be to err on the side of taking too much off rather than leaving too much on. With that done the next step is to apply the paint to the miniature. Gently run the brush over the miniature with a mild level of pressure. 

What I always think of when I’m dry brushing is that it reminds me of a similar motion to dusting. 

As you do this you will slowly see the paint begin to catch on the raised areas of the model. The goal here is to hit all of the raised edges on the miniature.

This can work whether it is the armor panels of a space marine, the fur of a chaos warriors cloak or the bark of a fallen tree. If you find that you still have too much paint on your brush after your first try you can always dab it again on the tissue paper to remove any excess paint

10. Basing and conclusion

With that done your miniature is very near completion! The next step to discuss is the base. The base is the round black plastic disk like object that comes with most miniatures. The base provides a stable place for your miniature to stand along with giving you an opportunity to set your miniature in a fitting environment. 

I advise considering this from both a narrative and color perspective. Do you think your ork army would spend a lot of time in muddy swamps? Or maybe they occupy a desert like sand strewn wasteland? Might your space marine army be from an icy frozen deathworld? Or assaulting a hazardous volcanic fortress?

Ask yourself similar questions to these and then consider how the colors of these environments might work with the model that you have painted. While it can often be interesting from a narrative perspective to consider an army as being camouflaged in their environment it can be quite difficult to pull it off on the tabletop. 

Generally, we want our models to pop on the tabletop and be easily readable from a distance and the best way to create that is with contrast. 

While I do not wish to get into the complexity of colour theory here it might be of use to look up contrasting colors (we have a chunky article about colour theory here).

For instance a green ork will stand out nicely on a red or orange desert base and a bright yellow space marine will stand out nicely on an icy snow base. But whatever environment you decide to go with I would recommend that you choose one of Games Workshops technical paints to bring it to life.

They have a huge selection of paints to choose from that are quite easy to use and very effective. When it comes to applying these technical paints to your miniature it might be easier to cover the base all over if you haven’t glued your miniature to the base yet.

However, if you have then do not fear as you can still add it around the feet of the miniature and even if you get some on the miniatures legs or feet don’t worry too much as its quite conceivable that the character would have gotten some mud,snow,sand etc on them while traversing their environment. 

Depending on what technical paint you have decided on for your base you might wish to wash and dry brush it to give it an extra bit of contrast though with many this is not a hard requirement by any means.

Once your technical paint is dry and you are finished applying any tweaks you can now glue your miniature down and congratulations you have finished your first miniature! 

As an entirely optional side note if you want to add any additional character to your miniature you can once again lean on the Games Workshop technical paint range.

You could add some blood to the sword or claws of your model, you could add some rust or chalky oxidized patches to some of the metallic areas if there are any. I find these little extra details are a lot of fun to play around with but it is perfectly valid for you to just leave it as it is. 

What matters most at this stage is that you find a process that you enjoy and that gets you a result you are pleased with in the end.

Another recommendation that I always find adds something special to a building or painting session is to listen to some lore videos or battle reports while you work. It can pull you in just that little bit more and immerse you in the process. I hope you found something useful in this article and good luck on painting your first miniature! 

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