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How to Paint Figures | Tips on Painting Military Miniatures Quickly

Updated on May 31, 2013

By Natasha Hoover

Tips for Painting Miniatures
Tips for Painting Miniatures | Source

Tips on Painting Military Figures

Do you want to play a miniature game or create a diorama, but are overwhelmed by the thought of painting dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of figures? Don't stress - it is actually possible to create a good-looking army without spending the rest of your life painting it.

If you need to paint an entire military miniature army, each infantryman does not need to be a work of art. I have learned that consistency is key - having a uniformly painted and well-based army looks fantastic on a gaming board. These tips tell you how to develop and execute a plan that helps you paint and base military miniatures so that they look good without taking years of effort.

As both a WWII and fantasy miniature gamer, as well as a former hobby store employee, I know how daunting the task of painting military miniatures can be, especially if you are painting several units or an entire army. Over the years, I have painted multiple 15mm Russian armies, two British armies, an entire D-Day force, countless Americans, and more than a handful of Germans. Other painting projects, several of them on commission, have included 28mm fantasy and historic miniatures, as well as 6mm figures. These tips are versatile and easy to apply to any era, genre, or size of figure so you can 'quickly' create an impressive-looking force.

Camouflage is a nice touch, but are you ready to paint it on a figure that's just 15mm tall?
Camouflage is a nice touch, but are you ready to paint it on a figure that's just 15mm tall? | Source

Develop a Paint Scheme

Before you pick up a brush or open a bottle of paint, develop a paint scheme. Look up your figures, or similar figures, online or in painting guides to see what others have done and ask yourself a series of questions:

  • What do you like about figures you see? What do you not like?
  • What colors do you want to use?
  • How skilled are you? Are you comfortable with dry brushing, wet blending, using an airbrush, etc.?

After formulating a plan of attack, ready all the colors you need and check each paint to make sure it is usable and you have a sufficient quantity before beginning your project. If you need to purchase more paint, do it before starting your project. Paint companies actually change paint formulas over time. It's really annoying to buy a bottle of paint from the exact same company that sports the same name only to discover the two are not an identical match!

These small, 6mm figures are based for painting.
These small, 6mm figures are based for painting. | Source

Prepare the Figures for Easy Painting

There are several different schools of thought on how to prep miniatures for basing. I tend to paint 15mm, and smaller, figures, so holding and painting each one individually is typically not a realistic option. If you are panting larger figures, such as 28mm figures, you can easily hold each miniature by the base while you paint it. For smaller figures, you need a different approach.

Some people like to use a dab of white glue to affix each miniature to the head of a nail or golf tee. They stick these tees or nails in a box lid, piece of floral foam, or something else to keep the figures upright and can easily grab the figure by the new 'handle.' This gives you great all-around access, but I do not believe each figure in a large formation of small-scale miniatures needs precision painting. If you want to spend the rest of your life creating a single, perfect army, this technique is for you. If you want something you can actually play with, this is not your technique.

Others prefer to base stands of miniatures before painting them. I like this when the miniatures are based in a row, like the figures to the right, but I do not like this on more free-form stands because it limits access to each figure. If one figure is partially blocked by another, how can you paint it?

My favorite way to prepare 15mm figures for painting is by using white glue to temporarily attach them to popsicle sticks. Sort through the miniatures and group them by pose. For example, group all the guys carrying their rifle together, all the guys with their rifle on their shoulder together, and all the command figures together. Glue four or five figures to each stick, making sure to use figures in the same pose on a stick, whenever possible. This makes them much easier to paint! When you're done painting, simply grab onto the figure and give the stick a twisting pull to pop them right off.

These figures are primed and ready to paint.
These figures are primed and ready to paint. | Source

Spray Prime Figures

When I worked at a hobby shop, customers would constantly complain about the cost of high-quality spray primer and ask if they could use a generic spray paint. If you are going to spring for one nice piece of painting gear, it needs to be primer. Several model companies make primer, but the Games Workshop primer is the best. Of course, it is also the most expensive, but it is worth every penny. It coats smoothly without being overly thick, and the nozzle rarely ever clogs. Inexpensive primers usually either go on too thick, obscuring the miniature's detail, or come out grainy, making the figures look terrible. The primer coat is the foundation for everything that is to come. If the primer flakes off or has an inconsistent texture, even the best paint job in the world will be ruined.

Paint the Figures

When painting your figures, consistency is key. Even if you paint with the exact same colors, a unit you paint one day will look a little bit different from a unit you paint another day. To make your figures look as uniform as possible, work with one color at a time and paint as many figures as you can stand to look at. For example, if you have 50 Russian infantrymen, get out the bottle of uniform khaki grey and paint every single figure's uniform. Then, take out the wood brown and paint every rifle stock, and so on. If you have to stop part way through your painting project, all the figures should be at the same stage, making it easier to paint them uniformly. In the project below, each figure's metal-color was painted first, followed by blue on some of the figures.

Painting in Stages

Click thumbnail to view full-size
First, the silver was applied to each figure.Next, the first accent color - a blue - was added.
First, the silver was applied to each figure.
First, the silver was applied to each figure. | Source
Next, the first accent color - a blue - was added.
Next, the first accent color - a blue - was added. | Source

Time constraints (and, sometimes, physical difficulties like aching fingers or strained eyes) make it impossible to finish every painting project in one sitting. If you need to mix a custom paint color, try to paint everything that needs that color all at once. Even if you know you mixed a color 50/50 from two different shades, it may not turn out exactly the same the next day. A simple change in humidity may cause the paint to dry differently another time, giving it an entirely different appearance! Look at the American armor below to see the importance of a uniform paint color. The base coat of paint was applied all at once, giving them their necessarily uniform appearance.

American Sherman tanks from Flames of War
American Sherman tanks from Flames of War | Source
Silvered decal on an IS-2. The camera didn't even want to focus on the decal, so I had to focus on the cloth behind it, instead!
Silvered decal on an IS-2. The camera didn't even want to focus on the decal, so I had to focus on the cloth behind it, instead! | Source
Well-applied decal on a T-34/85
Well-applied decal on a T-34/85 | Source

Pick out Some Details

If you have a little extra time, add some realism to your army by picking out a few details. Belts and belt buckles, tool heads and handles, and even eyes are a great way to add a finished feel to your pieces. Add mud and weather effects to vehicles to make them look well-used - tanks only go in to battle brand new one time! Whatever you decide to detail, keep it consistent.

If you want to use decals, take the time to apply them correctly or don't apply them at all. Poorly or incorrectly applied decals 'silver,' or create a visible mark on the piece. This does not look at all realistic and can ruin a careful paint job. To apply a decal correctly, paint the desired area with a clear gloss coat, such as Citadel's Ardcoat or Vallejo's gloss varnish. After the gloss coat dries, cut the decal out and let it soak in water until it floats free. Carefully scoop it up with your paintbrush and position it in place over the gloss coat. Hold it in place with the brush and soak up any extra water with the corner of a paper towel. If the water's movement shifts the decal, use the paintbrush to add a little water and reposition the decal. Then, use a setting solution like MicroSet, to help the decal soften and sink down onto the model. Most decal setting solutions are basically just vinegar, so use white vinegar if you don't have any specialty solutions.

Finally, once the decal has tried, coat the area with a clear dull coat. If this sounds like a lot of work, just compare the photos of a silvered decal and a well-applied decal to the right. The silvered decal ruins an otherwise nice Russian IS-2, but the well-applied decal on the T-34/85 is a fantastic finishing touch on a fairly basic paint job.

These Panzers have a lot of detailing, and even attached foliage as camouflage.
These Panzers have a lot of detailing, and even attached foliage as camouflage. | Source
This Sturmtiger has decals, rusty tracks, and painted shovel.
This Sturmtiger has decals, rusty tracks, and painted shovel. | Source

I used these Gale Force Nine products on many of the figures seen in this hub. The sand and grass contrast beautifully with one another, and their products are very affordable.

How to Base Figures

Uniform basing is key. With just a little effort, you can give cohesion to an entire army. Additionally, the dirt and grass colors on bases offer a great contrast with most uniform colors, especially drab WWI and WWII uniforms, that really make the figures pop. The easiest way to quickly create good-looking bases is by coating the base with a layer of white glue, dipping the base in sand or a specially-made modeling sand/rock mixture, and then gluing tufts of grass in patches. I like to use static grass, which is readily available at most hobby stores and is made by several different companies. This grass stands up in clumps and looks more realistic than the flat, sawdust-like grass you frequently find used in model train layouts.

Adding the extra layer of sand, or even molding a base with a painting medium from the art supply store, before adding grass makes a lot of difference. Compare the two photos below. One has four stands of WWII infantry. Each stand has a molded base painted a uniform shade of brown and accented with static grass. The other four stands have base colors that don't actually match, some grass, and no additional ground cover. The miniatures with the worse bases are actually better painted, but the better based miniatures look better, overall.

WWII Russian infantrymen
WWII Russian infantrymen | Source
WWII Russian infantrymen
WWII Russian infantrymen | Source

Uniform basing is the cornerstone of any army. Units painted with different colors, and units that are entirely different types of figure, are all pulled together by uniform basing. Just look at the small Warhammer Epic 40K army below. Two different types of infantry and two siege engines all clearly belong to the same army because they have the same basing.

Warhammer Epic 40K Chaos army
Warhammer Epic 40K Chaos army | Source

Painting Miniatures

Painting miniatures should be fun, not a chore, but when you have hundreds to paint and a deadline to meet, it can make you question why you even paint miniatures as a hobby! Luckily, by following the process laid out here, you can cut down on the amount of time you spend painting and improve the way your army looks. I hope you find these tips helpful and, if you have any more to add, I'd love to hear them!

Russian T-34/85s
Russian T-34/85s | Source

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    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      I used to play games online in high school and early college, but there's just no way I'd have the time now! Plus, I didn't have a computer for a couple years after college. When I stopped playing games online is when I started painting miniatures, actually. These days I don't have much time for it, either, though. Thanks for stoping by!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You do this? Your talents are unending Natasha! Amazing! Do you do online gaming? I do content articles for a WWII combat simulation game....Aces High.....and so I know quite a bit about the online gaming, but I've never really gotten into it.

      Anyway, great job on this hub!

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for voting and pinning! Yes, it can be difficult on the eyes, especially the camo on such tiny figures. I also paint kind of hunched up so I end up getting a backache, too. Oh, well. I like the way they look!

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

      Your models look great Natasha, and I kind of envy you - but I see a whole new world of eye strain opening up if I attempted it! I shall stick to admiring from afar. Love the tanks!

      Voted up and pinned.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Thank you! I really appreciate your complements. =) some days I feel far from artistic.

    • jimmythejock profile image

      James Paterson 5 years ago from Scotland

      Fantastic and beautiful, your creativity knows no bounds, you clearly are an artist with passion and love for your art.....jimmy

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Thank you! I have spent many hours hunched over tiny miniatures. The way I paint best tends to get very uncomfortable, especially when there's a deadline and I'm still up at 4am painting! It has been known to happen. Thanks for stopping by and voting!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      Well, you continue to astound me with your creative talent! Wow, this is really detailed work and I can see how this could become a hobby for many people. Voted up.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Hopefully his miniature collection isn't part of why he's your ex! The little things can take up a surprising amount of space and time. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      Great advice for all those collectors out there. I remember my ex husband used to collect them too, so it did look familiar, great info, and voted up!

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      That would be really cool! I've never played 40k, but I've painted lots and lots of figures for others, and I play the less popular games from the same 'universe,' Epic and Battlefleet Gothic. I've made a lot of scenery, too. I really dislike playing on boards without good terrain and I refuse to play a game with untainted miniatures!

    • chrissieklinger profile image

      chrissieklinger 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      My husband plays Warhammer 40K and we have tons of figures in our house. It always has amazed me how he paints the small figures with such detail. He has also learned how to make some neat scenery using Gorilla glue. I will have to refer him to check out this article and maybe feature it on their gaming blog.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for the support! You're right - you have to love it to do it.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      Paiting like these is a passion. I do not know anyone who is fond of it, but I believe this article will be a good help for those who like it.