How to Paint Plastic Miniatures
Painting plastic miniatures can be a fun and rewarding hobby for anyone who has the time and a little bit of patience. You might ask, why paint miniatures? Some people collect military, fantasy, or science fiction themed miniatures to showcase, while others use them for gaming. Regardless of their reasoning, it is hard to resist the allure of almost anything that is miniaturized (toy dog breeds, slider burgers, etc), and what doesn't look good with a fresh coat of paint on it? Personally, I paint my gaming miniatures because it distinguishes them on the game table, and it makes for a more realistic experience. I've found that with each passing year my imagination suffers a little more, and a fully painted miniature is much easier to relate to than a dull off-white miniature. Also, I don't consider myself an artist, so it is pretty rewarding when the occasional guest at my gaming table compliments my work.
For the sake of this guide I will be using miniatures from the Castle Ravenloft board game, but you can use any plastic miniature. You can even use miniatures that are already painted such as Heroscape minis, D&D minis, or any other miniatures that you want to customize. I prefer to use the miniatures that come with adventure board games such as Descent, Dungeon Quest, and Castle Ravenloft because they are fairly high quality and they require little to no assembly.
You will need some basic supplies to get started, but the entry price isn't that steep, and you can continue to add to your collection of paints as needed.
Supplies: Available at Wal-Mart and Most Hobby Stores
Newspaper (to protect your work area from spills)
Paper plates or dental cups (for mixing paint)
Dishwashing liquid and water (clean-up, etc.)
Paint brushes (various sizes)
Acrylic paint (I use a mix of Model Masters and the cheap Folk Art Acrylics)
Acrylic Gesso (more on this later)
Flat clear acrylic (Model Masters)
Round 1: Scrub-a-dub
Before you do anything you will want to wash your miniatures in some mild soapy water. I use a dish washing soap that is gentle on the hands, but tough on the grease. This will remove any oils or unseen dirt that the miniatures picked up during the manufacturing process and ultimately help the primer and paint to stay stuck. Just remember to be gentle because you don't want to bend or break any of the thinner pieces of the miniature (weapons, pony tails, wings) during the cleaning process.
After you soap them up and rinse them off, let them air dry before proceeding. I usually setup my work area while the miniatures are drying. Just choose a spot that you won't have to move or clean for a while because the painting process can take a day or two or longer sometimes. I use a small personal desk that I cover in newspaper. You will also need some decent lighting. My desk has a built in overhead lamp, but you can use any good light source. Set out your paints, brushes, Gesso, a couple of small cups, and a paper plate. By this time your miniatures should dry, and you can move on to the next round.
Round 2: Optimus Priming
This part of the process is debatable. Some will tell you to use a spray primer, others will say Elmer's glue and water, and others still, will mention Krylon Plastic Fusion. All of the afore mentioned methods might be perfectly suitable, but I haven't tested them. I live in an apartment complex, so I don't really have the opportunity to use an aerosol primer, and Elmer's glue sounds a little shady. Instead, I mix my own primer using Acrylic Gesso, water, and a drop of black acrylic paint. It bonds well with the plastic and it creates a superfine grit that allows the paint to stick. Regardless of which method you choose, priming is important because acrylic paint doesn't usually stay on non-porous plastic.
Just pour out a small amount of Gesso out onto your plate or into a dental cup and add a few drops of water. Mix it and repeat the process until it has the consistency of school glue. After you have a good consistency, add drops of black acrylic and mix until you have a nice shade of medium gray. Now brush it onto your miniature and its base evenly. I like to coat multiple miniatures at a time, so I don't have to waste any of the primer I mixed. Let the little guy dry for about 25 minutes and then add another coat to cover all the thin and missed spots. You will want to let the primer set for several hours before moving onto the next round.
Round 3: Painter's Thumb
Painting can be the most fun or the most frightening part of the whole experience. I generally recommend practicing on some of your cheaper or more disposable miniatures before going full steam ahead. I didn't care to waste time practicing on plastic army men, but I'm pretty bold, and you might want to be more conservative with your good miniatures. In my opinion, every time I paint a miniature I am practicing, so it didn't bother me to jump right in.
I'm not going to discuss which brushes to use, how to shade, or anything overly technical because like I mentioned before... I'm not an artist. I tend to use common sense and a lot of experimentation. I will give you a few quick pointers along the way though. Just remember to use multiple thin coats of paint. If you lay it on thick you will lose details. Generally, you should use a couple drops of distilled water to thin your paint, but I use tap water without any negative effects.
I always paint the base of the miniature first. You can hold the actual miniature and rotate it as needed to get good coverage. You will probably need about 2 or 3 coats before the base is looking smooth, but be sure to wait about 20 minutes between coats. I don't paint the bottom of the base because no one really sees it, and it is a pain to hang the miniature out to dry. Just paint the top and the edges and let it dry for a good long while because you will be handling the base a lot while painting the actual miniature.
When painting the actual miniature it is a good idea to give it a solid base coat. If you want you can even use a color that will be visible after everything is said and done. After the base coat dries, start painting your miniature from the inside out. Start with skin, then clothes or fur, then accessories, etc. Make sure you wash your brush in the water cup between switching colors. Try to stay within the lines as best you can, but it is okay if you stray a bit. Just touch up the little guy after you finish. When you are satisfied with your work, let the mini dry (I know it sucks, but waiting around for these things is the patience aspect of the ordeal), and then use a really fine brush to paint in details (eyes, jewelry, cuffs, designs).
At this point your miniature might look a little surreal. Don't worry, I was a little freaked out too, but there are a couple more things you need to do before you're done painting. First, you need to do what is called a wash. To do this, you choose one of the colors on your miniature, mix some of that color with a dab of black, and then dilute it until it is watery. Wash the watered down paint over the colored areas of the miniature and it should create a shadow effect. Do this for each colored area of the miniature then let it dry completely. This method takes some trial and error, but it really pays off when you get it down. Second, if you want to highlight any features that were dulled during the washing process you can use a dry brush with a little bit of undiluted color on it. Put some paint on the brush then rub most of it off on your newspaper, and lightly brush it over the areas that need highlights.
Your miniature should be looking pretty freaking awesome by now, but there is one last thing you need to do. Go ahead and let the paint set overnight to be sure it is good and dry before you move on to the last round.
Round 4: Use Protection
There are just as many debates on how to clear coat your painted miniature as there are for priming it. Many will warn you against the dangers of frosting (a dull haze that ruins your paint job). This happens when you use an aerosol clear coat that isn't properly mixed, or when the humidity is too high. Some people swear that aerosol sprays provide the best protection, and if you are careful you won't run the risk of ruining your miniature. As you know, I don't have the option to spray, and I really don't like going outside if I don't have to, so I am using a different method.
Basically, I apply two coats of flat clear Model Masters Acrylic. Just wait around 30 minutes between each coat, and then let the finished product dry for several hours. It isn't the toughest form of protection, but if you don't plan on rubbing your miniatures together or throwing them on the floor, it should do just fine.
You can finally enjoy all of your hard work. Display your miniature or put it through its paces on the game table. Just remember to relax for a while before you start painting another miniature. I know it seems like you will never get them all finished, but you don't want to lose sight of what is important. Once you get into the flow you will be able to paint multiple miniatures at a time, and you might even be able to convince someone to contract out your services so they can have sweet looking miniatures too.
If I missed anything or if you have any questions feel free to comment. This guide is based on my own experiences, and it isn't the be all end all guide to painting miniatures. It is just what works for me. I have had great success with the methods I listed, but if you have any other great tips to add please do so in the comments.