Figure painting techniques

Figure painting (hobby)

Figure painting is the hobby of painting miniature figures and/or model figures, either in its own right or as an adjunct to role-playing games, wargames, military modeling, etc.

Because of the small scale of these figures, the often finely sculpted detail can be lost by simply applying solid color. Many of special techniques allow the painter to emphasize the detail in the figure and make it "come alive".



Most hobbyists use acrylic paint, maybe artists' paint (such as Daler Rowney's Cryla) but more often that sold especially for painting minis and other scale models (such as Acrylicos Vallejo's Model Color and Game Color or Games Workshop's Citadel Colour). Some mini painters use enamel paint (e.g., Humbrol or Testors) or even artists' oil paint. Some hobbyists use synthetic Lacquer paints, such as Gunze-Sangyo's Mr. Color paint line. Lacquer paints are less commonly available in the United States do to safety issues.

Because the properties of oils, enamels, lacquers, and acrylics differ, different techniques (see below) suit different paints.


Each kind of paint has a different thinner, used to thin the paint for a smoother coverage, and maybe to clean brushes.

  • acrylic: water
  • enamel: enamel thinners or white spirit
  • lacquer: lacquer thinner
  • oil: white spirit

Thinners for thinning should be kept separate from thinners for cleaning to avoid contaminating one color with another. Ideally, thinners for thinning should be added to the paint using an eye-dropper (pipette) or something similar; paint brushes must be kept out of the thinners bottle!


Water-based inks can be used for washes (see below).


Different agents can be used with different kinds of paint.

  • retarder: makes paints slower drying
  • flow aid: used with acrylics and inks, this reduces the surface tension of the water, to improve washes


Figures are very often varnished (especially if they will be used for game play).

Gloss varnishes are harder wearing than matte varnishes, but matte varnish often gives a more realistic finish. (Exceptions are naturally glossy materials, such as polished leather and metals, and wet surfaces.) Some enthusiasts use matte varnish over gloss varnish. This can also minimize the tendency of matte varnish to form a whitish residue when applied directly to paint.



Sculptors can pack an incredible amount of detail into these figures, and painting may require the finest brushes... maybe as fine as 00000 (5/0). Most painters will use a range of different brush sizes; 1, 00, and 0000 is a likely minimum set.

Good quality brushes are important for the best results. Kolinsky sable brushes that take a fine point are preferred, although hog or synthetic brushes are better for "rough" work: undercoating and dry brushing (see below).

An Airbrush is also a commonly used tool. Airbrushing facilitates leveled painting surfaces and allows for effects like gradiants and soft blended edges. Because of the detail work involved, airbrushes with a small tip diameter are considered more useful.

Brush care

The number one rule is to clean brush frequently and thoroughly to avoid contamination of one color with another. For other brush care, see brush.


A palette is essential for mixing and thinning paints before application. It doesn't have to be elaborate: a plain ceramic tile will do. But it should be non-porous to avoid "sucking" the solvent out of the paint.

Wet palette

A wet palette is especially useful with acrylics that dry quickly on a dry palette. A wet palette is a sealable container with a layer of absorbent material (such as tissue paper) that can be soaked with water and a semi-permeable membrane (such as greaseproof paper or baking parchment (silicone paper)) over that. The paint sits on the membrane and is kept wet by osmosis. Wet palettes can be bought, but are easily made.



Undercoating, commonly known as priming, is essential to good results. It provides a better surface for the paint to adhere to and – with white metal minis – inhibits corrosion of the alloy.

The undercoat may be any color. Some painters always use black, which provides the deepest shadows in hard-to-reach areas that later painting might miss, but which can be difficult to cover with paler colors.

Highlighting and shading

Highlighting and shading are complementary techniques used to emphasize the light and shade across the surface texture of the figure, such as creases and folds in fabric, fur, etc.

Highlighting is the application of lighter tones than the base color to raised areas. Shading is the application of darker tones to recessed areas.


Blending ensures the smooth transition of the different tones into one another to improve the verisimilitude of the faux light and shade. This different tones are simply worked into one another on the figure while the paint is still wet.

Blending works well with enamels (and oils) but not with acrylics, which dry too quickly, unless a retarder is used.

Layering and feathering

The same effect as blending can be achieved with acrylics by applying successive layers of color in smaller and smaller areas ("feathers"). The layers of paint build up a "hill" of successively lighter (or darker) tones.

Dry brushing

Dry brushing is a highlighting technique that works especially well with finely textured surfaces such as fur, feathers, and chainmail. After applying the base color and initial highlighting and shading, a very light tone is applied by lightly dragging an almost-dry brush across the surface.

Using washes

Washes of thinned paint or inks can be used to "fill in" the shadows.


A very diluted transparent layer of color can be applied to soften harsh contrasts.

Outlining and edging

Outlining is painting a solid dark thin line that separates areas and defines details by acting as a bold shadow. The darkest tone should be used. Black gives the greatest contrast and might suit minis rather than larger-scale model figures; this would be blacklining.

Edging is a less-often used complementary technique with the lightest tone.

Painting metals

Metallic paints are available in all kinds of paint and can be used for metals. Some blending etc. may be required; for example, gunmetal might be highlighted with silver. Black or brown ink washes can provide suitable shading and can be particularly effective for large areas of metal such as plate armour. Most of these paints, however, are relatively dull and lack the "lustre" of true metal.

Some painters use alcohol-based metallic paints that have a brilliant finish... but these need to be used with care, especially in conjunction with acrylics, as contact with water can cause tarnishing.

Bright steel can be achieved with white metal and pewter figures by burnishing and gloss varnishing the unpainted metal. This works particularly well with swords, axes, etc.

Non-metallic metals (NMMs)

Many painters prefer to simulate the appearance of metals using non-metallic paints.

For example, steel can by mimicked by using various shades of grey from black to white. The aim is not to define light and shadow but the play of light across a polished surface. This is really the same technique that airbrush artists might use to simulate a glossy surface, but applied to a 3D model.


Some figure producers promote Figure painting through competition. As an example, Games Workshop runs their Golden Demon competitions at Games Day events, which is restricted to Games Workshop's own figures or scratch-built figures for Games Workshop game settings.


  • Sheperd Paine, Building and Painting Scale Figures (ISBN 1-85310-496-5)
  • Jerry Scutts, Modelling and Painting Figures (Osprey 2000) (ISBN 1-902579-23-2)
  • Alex Castro, The Art of Painting Miniatures Faces & Figures (Compendium Modelling Classics) (ISBN 1-902579-62-3)

External links


Miniature-figure painting

  • CoolMiniOrNot?, a huge gallery with minis voted on by visitors; forums and tutorials

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