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How to Improve Your Hobby Painting Skills

In part two of Improve Your Hobby Skills series, I want to share some ways to improve your hobby painting skills. I’ve broken this huge topic down into eight areas that can improve the way you paint.

improve your hobby painting skills

As painting is a huge aspect of our hobby, this is going to be a rather long article, but don’t forget you can download the article as a PDF, including part 1: building skills.

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Painting ability is where a lot of us focus when we think of what we need to improve. Understandable since there are so many aspects of painting to learn, so many incredible artists out there, and we spend so much time on it compared to the build.

But just as with the build suggestions, I recommend you focus on one idea at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed. Also, let your painting style build upon itself, don’t pressure yourself to be the next Blanche, ‘Eavy Metal, or name-your-favorite-artist. Get comfortable with what you can do already, and progress from there.

1. Prime Your Minis Right

From Part 1: Improve Your Hobby Building Skills, you should have a well put together model ready for paint. But you can’t start laying it down just yet. Most paints will not readily adhere to plastic, resin, or metal and will chip off when you start handling it.

Instead, you need to use primer, which is a special mix of paint designed to adhere to the mini’s surface.

Prime in ideal conditions

The most common primer is an aerosol spray as it is quick, easy, and can provide an even coat. But it is easy to spray too much which obscures the details, or spray when the weather isn’t ideal, causing the paint to ‘dust’ and add extra texture.

While you can sometimes remove the texture, it is much easier to spray it correctly the first time.

To properly use a spray primer, it is important to read the label and see what temperature range the paint can work in. Too hot and it dries before reaching the model. Too cold and it doesn’t dry right at all. Humidity and rain can cause bad priming conditions.

Some hobbyists take advantage of the seasons and will build and prime a bunch of models in ideal weather and paint them through the winter months.

You can spray inside

Because of the temperature and humidity restrictions, it can be tempting to spray inside. And while possible, you need to take care of the fumes – and overspray. When you use a spray can, the paint is mixed with chemicals that allow it to spray out. These chemicals are dangerous to breathe and need to vented outside.

Airbrush Spray Booth

Spray Booth from Amazon

A spray booth allows for the fumes to be filtered out as well as capturing the extra paint that gets sprayed. As a bonus, you can use the booth for airbrushing if/when you get to that stage of painting.

If you are going to use the spray booth for aerosol sprays, make sure the booth can handle flammable fumes. The chemicals in the spray cans can be dangerous and the fan motors must be designed to extract them correctly.

Tips on spraying

When you get set up to spray, place all the models onto a piece of wood or cardboard that keeps them upright. Use sticky tack or double-sided tape to hold the model down. Place newspaper underneath and cover about two feet out – the paint sprays long ways and you don’t want to explain why the floor is now black.

Start spraying just to one side of the model, move across the model, and let go on the other side. The start and stop of the spray can add extra blobs of paint, and this method prevents it from landing on the model.

To make sure you don’t overdo the primer, do quick, light coverage on each side and let dry for a few hours. If it needs more primer, move the model to expose missed areas and give it another layer. Multiple thin layers are always better than a thick mess.

Spray can isn’t the only way

When spraying isn’t an option you can use a brush-on primer. While slower than spraying, it can be done at your painting space with little fuss. Just follow the same tip: multiple thin layers is better than one overly thick one. As the primer is the first layer of paint, this is extra important as it can prevent any further layers of paint from showing the details.

What color to prime

When it comes time to painting on the primer, the question gets asked: “what color should I use?”

The two traditional primers are black and white. Using black has the advantage that if miss an area of the model it just looks like a shadow. Black also provides a great base layer for metallic paints. The downside is that lighter colors such as yellow or white will take more layers to cover the black primer.

White has the opposite problem. Light colors are quicker to paint and tend to be brighter, but if you miss areas, they will pop out. Models primed white have a lighter composition which works well for certain armies and looks but not so much for models that you want to look dark and sinister.

Brown and gray primers are less common in spray cans but are available in brush-on or airbrush paints. Gray provides a balance between the white and black primers as it allows colors to cover quickly, but without being overly bright. Brown is helpful for rusty metal armies (like my Orks) or ‘natural’ looking armies.

Example of Zenithal Priming

If you have only black and white rattle cans to work with, a great technique is called a zenithal base coat. You start by priming the model black, making sure everything is covered and dry.

Then take your white spray and do a quick spray from above.

The white paint settles on the top side of the model while leaving the bottom and recesses black. Not only do you have instant shading, but when you add layers of paint, they will be brighter where the light would hit the model.

2. Thin Your Paints

All of you have probably heard countless times to thin your paint. But why?

Thin paint = happy minis

It comes back to not covering up details. If the paint is too thick, it can fill recesses that were supposed to be folded cloth and leave brush marks that are hard to remove.

Yes, thin paint doesn’t cover as well and can require multiple coats. But when you thin paint correctly, it is also faster to apply as more of it gets pulled into the brush and is easier to pull back out of the brush.

How thin is thin?

How much to thin your paint depends on the brand and color. Not trying to be cryptic, but different paints have different chemical makeups to provide the coverage and hue the manufacturer wanted.

Using a Wet Palette

So to thin your paint, I recommend using a palette of some type (more below) and apply some of your paint to it. Then dip your brush into clean water and mix it into the paint. If it all starts to run, it is too thin. If it has ridges and peaks, it’s too thick. So either add a bit more paint to thicken the mix or a bit more water to thin it.

The idea is that when you fill the bristles and brush it on the model that it leaves a smooth layer of paint behind. If it starts running into the recesses like a wash, clean of your brush, dry it on a paper towel pressing it into the runny paint, the dry brush will pull the paint back out, and you can try again.

Much of the skill of thinning your paints comes from experimenting with different amounts. But even just adding a little bit of water can make a big difference.

Water isn’t the only solution

Liquitex Airbrush Medium

The next step past using water is adding mediums to the paint. ‘Medium’ is a technical word for the liquid the pigment is suspended within. Some Mediums can change the paint’s properties.

Games Workshop’s Lahmian Medium, otherwise called matte medium, increases the paint’s transparency while not making it runny. This makes for nice glazes and using it to highlight. Note that this doesn’t thin the paint, but rather dilutes the pigment to make the paint more transparent.

I like to use Airbrush Medium as it is a nice mix of thinning the paint with water and decreasing the opacity with matte medium. Add a drop or two of your paint and mix it in.

3. Use The Right Brush

We paint tiny models in our hobby. And with some kits, the details can be hard to see without lenses. This makes it tempting to grab a tiny little brush to paint the model.

Just as trying to drybrush with a traditional brush, using the wrong brush will kill the bristles fast.

Use a bigger brush

Don’t give into the temptation of trying to paint the whole model with detail brushes. A brush that is too small will not only take a long time for you to paint but will often cause you to add too much paint in an attempt to make up for the lack of progress.

My workhorse is the #2, which is about the same size as GW’s Standard Brush. This brush gets me from basecoat down through most of the highlighting. I will usually only switch down to a 1 or 0 to get the finest details like eyes and text.

While it was terrifying to take such a large brush to the model, it has helped with both my painting speed and quality.

So switch up your brushes and try painting more of the model with a larger brush and work your way down as the details get smaller.

Learn your brush types

The ‘standard’ brush we use in our hobby is called a round or pointed round brush by traditional art conventions. The size of the brush is classified with a number where a #2 is similar to Games Workshop Standard Brush, #1 being a bit smaller and the #0 being similar to the fine detail brush. Being named by the creative types, smaller brushes just add on a few extra 0’s so a 000 is about the smallest brush you can buy.

A dry brush is similar in looks to the round brushes, but the bristles are selected to be stiffer so that they can hold up to being knocked about your miniature. While you can use normal brushes for this, they won’t last long before bristles start to fall out. But if you wash you brush out after each use, a dry brush can last a long time. If you need an alternative to a ‘dry brush’ grab a small flat brush as they are often made of stiff bristles as well.

I think Games Workshop created the ‘wash brush, ‘ but it is another specialty style of round brush. Here the bristles are selected to hold more paint in the belly (the fat part of the bristles) so that it can grab a bunch of wash and dump it onto your model. Other brush lines might call this brush a #3 pointed round or something.

4. Get a Good Brush

Just as a larger brush helps get more done, getting a good brush makes a huge difference. But don’t skip over this step if you are a frugal hobbyist – instead, check out my review of WarColour brushes. They are great brushes and very reasonable prices.

WarColours Paintbrushes

So what makes for a good brush?

It comes down to the quality of the bristles: can it hold a fine point and does it transfer the paint well. In terms of holding a point, some of this can be attributed to good brush care (see below) but cheap brushes tend to splay quickly, creating multiple clusters of bristles that just won’t work.

What I mean by being able to transfer paint is that good brushes will pull paint off of your palette into their belly and let it go again as you pull it across the model. Cheap brushes often struggle with this and force you to glop more paint on the bristles and smash it on the plastic.

Natural or synthetic

Brushes come with ‘natural’ vs ‘synthetic’ bristles which is to say, are the hairs plucked from an animal or made in a machine. I’m not going to touch this topic other than to say the ‘nice’ brushes tend to be natural.

Brush Recommendations

Here is a list of quality brushes that I have either used have been recommended by many good painters. I’ve included the price for a #2 brush at the time of ths writing.

  • Windsor & Newton Series 7 $20 – the standard response to the best brush on the market. They are really nice brushes (I have a 1 and 0) but are pricey.
  • Rosemary & Co. $5.20 – I haven’t used these but have seen many hobbyists love them.
  • WarColours $4.20 – I received a set to review and recently bought more. They are great brushes, especially for the price.
  • Da Vinci Maestro $16 – Another recommendation from painters who love their quality.

5. Take Care of Your Brush

Now that you are using a larger brush and bought a nice set, it’s time to make sure you are using them correctly. I’m going to break this into two parts: care while painting, and care after painting.

Care while painting

While you paint with the brush you want to make sure you don’t get paint all the way up into the ferrule (the metal bit that holds the bristles in place). If you do, it can quickly dry and split the bristles.

It’s also a good idea to ‘pull’ the bush along the mini rather than push paint into the nooks. Think of each bristle as a tiny straw, if you smash it against something hard, it crinkles and can snap.

This is the same reason you shouldn’t use regular brushes for drybrush. Instead get brushes designed to hold up against that torture.

And the last tip on brush care while painting is to rinse the brush now and then while painting so it doesn’t dry on the bristles. Pay attention when applying paint that most of it is coming off the brush, if not, give it a good rinse.

Care after painting

This rinse should be a bit more generous when you finish painting. You really want to make sure no paint is left on the brush.

While you can start with just using cold water (warm water can loosen the glue holding the bristles) and hand soap, I really like using Brush Soap. It conditions the hairs while being relatively cheap and lasting forever. Rinse the brush, pull it against the soap, and rinse again. Use a paper towel to wipe the bristles as you pull the bristles through it.

Repeat the process until it comes out clean.

Using your palm to reshape a paint brush

Next, we need to reshape the bristles so it dries back to a point. While I don’t recommend doing it, I often give the bristles a lick (gross right, but it’s a hard habit to break…).

Instead, wet the brush and place the bristles in the crease of your palm just below your pinky. Squeeze your hand just enough to put pressure on the bristles and pull, rotating the brush slightly as you do. This should leave the brush in a nice point.

And finally, don’t just throw your brush back into a drawer. You worked so hard to keep the brush in good condition for that right? Instead, use a pen cup on your desk and place it bristles up. Alternatively, you can keep those clear plastic tubes that the brush came with and carefully put it back over the bristles, just watch that you don’t separate the hairs.

6. Use a Palette

By not painting right out of the pot, a palette helps incentives you to thin your paints.

A palette doesn’t need to be one of those funny shapes Bob Ross used. Instead, find anything that has a smooth, non-porous (doesn’t absorbed) surface. A lid or Tupperware works well.

Using a palette

If you have a paint pot (as compared to a dropper bottle), use the handle of your brush to pull paint out of the pot and onto the palette. Once you have enough, close the container and use the brush to add some water and thin your paint. Mix the paint and water together on the palette.

As the paint starts to dry on the palette, you can add a little more water to thin it down or add more color if you start to run out.

One of the benefits of using a palette is that you can start to experiment with mixing colors and blending. Add a second color on the palette nearby your first and use your brush to mix them together.

Try a wet palette

A bonus level would be to build or get a wet palette. This is basically a sponge that is soaked with water and covered with parchment paper. The paper is absorbent enough to let water through but doesn’t suck in the paint.

Using a Wet Palette

The benefit of the wet palette is that it keeps your paints usable for much longer. If you use a closeable container, you can even save your paints on the palette for days. The downside is that the sponge can get a bit gross. So every once in awhile bring it to the sink and give it a good wash with dish soap.

7. Learn Basic Color Theory

Now, back to mixing colors, and what colors to actually use. The next tip on painting is to learn the basics of color theory. Or, in other words, learn what colors look good together, and which do not.

Color basics

While the physics of color is measured by a linear spectrum from red to violet, artists created the concept of a color wheel to understand how each color interacts to shape the color we perceive.

Basic Color Wheel

This handy tool is super helpful once you understand how to put it to work. To start, there are three ‘primary’ colors of red, yellow, and blue.  These are called primary because, in theory, you could mix them to create any other color you need. Adding in black and white would complete the set.

If you look between the primary colors you can see secondary (and tertiary) colors are made by mixing the neighboring primary colors.

Complimentary Colors

Colors that are the opposite colors on the color wheel are called complimentary colors. So red compliments green, and blue to orange. Complimentary colors provide the strongest contrast to each other without looking garish.

Color Wheel Showing Complimentary Colors

Split complementary colors are where you split one end and step it out each way. So green has the split compliments of purple and orange – colors that would usually clash. But the added green makes the model as a whole work.

Complementary colors make good spot colors. That is, while most of the model or army is blue, small bits are painted orange. They stand out in a good way and provide some interest to the collection.

Color temperatures

A term artists use when talking about colors is temperature, which is how warm or cool the color ‘feels.’ Blues and greens are cool colors, associated with water and ice. Reds and oranges are warm colors associated with fire. The temperature can create a mood within your miniature or provide a different level of contrast. Cool miniatures that have spot colors of warm colors, for instance, can look more intimidating than the pose would seem.

Mixing colors

As I mentioned above, you can take different colors on the color wheel and mix them to create new colors. If you take colors nearby, it creates mid-tones between them. Alternatively, if you mix a color with its complement, it creates a gray tone. This is helpful if you want to create a desaturated look such as with Blanchitsu style artwork.

There is a whole science to color mixing and creating brighter or darker hues or different saturation levels of a color mix. These are beyond my skill but are something that you can play with on your palette until you find a mix that fits your need – just make sure to write it down!

8. Proper Lighting

You can only paint as well as you can see the miniature. This applies to both trying to pick out the details as well as the actual color of the paint. Trying to paint relying on overhead lights can tire out your eyes as you attempt to focus on the miniature.

Natural Light

If you have it, painting in front of a window is a great way to get lots of perfect light. Even if it isn’t a sunny day, the light coming in will often be brighter than typical room lighting, and as it is real sunlight, it won’t change the color of the paint as a yellow-hued light bulb would.

Daylight Bulbs and LEDs

For those of us who don’t have the ability to get lots of natural light, grab yourself a desk lamp and either a ‘daylight’ bulb or a bright white LED bulb. Both of these provide light on a broader spectrum than typical bulbs, meaning that they won’t shine yellow onto your white paint.

You can get as expensive as you like here with a lamp designed for hobby work. I have two simple adjustable arm desk lamps that I picked up cheap and daylight bulbs in each. These provide more than enough light and I can move them around as I need to adjust.

9. Varnish Your Work

To protect all that hard work you put into your model, take the time at the end to give it a couple layers of clear varnish. Sprays like Testor’s Dull Coat are a matte spray without any paint color, but dry as a hard layer on top of your paint.

But you don’t have to wait until the model is finished to varnish it. On some models, especially metal or resin miniatures, it can be helpful to varnish after you complete different layers of paint. This prevents them from being worn down as you handle the miniature during your painting sessions. There are some hobbyists who spray between each layer of paint!

For smaller areas, such as protecting decals, you can use brush on varnish so you don’t have to wait for a spray to dry. Another option that Greg pointed out is to use airbrush matte varnish which dries quicker and easier to control if you already have an airbrush setup.

Wrap Up

I know this was a huge article with a lot to take in but I hope it helps improve your hobby painting skills. As another reminder, you can download this as a PDF for reading later, just add your info below and I’ll send you the download link.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the ideas above. Were they helpful, overly simplistic, or only half the story? Leave your comments below so I can fix any omissions or correct any mistakes.