Picking up the Brush Part II: Tools of the Trade!

Picking up the brush is a miniatures painting series aimed at the complete beginner.

I’ll be running through all the steps required to do a reasonable job of putting paint on plastic (or metal!). I’ll be pointing out all the mistakes I made (I’ve only been painting just over a year myself!), along with all the good tips I’ve picked up. I’m by no means an expert, pretty average Joe really, but hopefully we can learn a few things together.

So, you’ve been down to the local hardware shop, picked up the smallest brush you could buy, dug out the paints you got free with a comic 20 years ago, and you’re ready to go, yes?

Maybe not!

In this part, we’ll be looking at all the things you need to get started in painting your miniatures. We’ll take a quick look at everything, and I’ll point out the things you really need, and the things that you can aim to add as your skills advance.

So, let’s get started. I’ll break it down into sections for ease of use – Before you start; Preparing your miniature; Applying the paint; Basing; Finishing and protecting; And …and finally!

Before you start.

Okay, there are a few things you need to think about before you even pick up your miniature, let alone a brush. Let’s take a look:

  • Where am I going to paint my miniatures?
  • Sitting comfortably?
  • Lighting.

These three things need to be right, otherwise, no matter how hard you try, your experience of painting isn’t going to be what it could.

Thinking about where you’re going to paint can affect some of the other choices you need to make. For example: I paint in two different places; my main ‘base’ area is in the garage; I have a large desk all set up, but it gets too cold during the winter, so I move inside and paint at the kitchen table. This means that all my essentials need to be easily portable, so are contained on a large, deep tray.

My ‘essentials’ can easily be moved around.

The surface you choose, be it a table, desk, or whatever, needs to be firm. You don’t want it rocking around on you whilst you paint. It also helps if its fairly solid and can take a knock without moving too much, otherwise your miniatures will end up taking a swim! And on that note, the surface needs to be protected, especially if it is your kitchen table. Size is also another consideration, too small and you’ll find it cramped, easily knocking things over, or finding you have nowhere to put things down.

A comfy chair or stool is a must. Though it’s always a good idea to have a rest every twenty minutes or so, you inevitably find yourself painting away for far longer than you believed. You then find you’ve lost all feeling in your legs/back/neck, and end up not painting again for another month or so! The type you choose is really down to personal preference, and how you like to paint – I place my elbows on the desk, but others like to use the arms of a chair, and some can just hover! Either way, it needs to be comfortable.

Finally lighting. This is the most important decision you’ll make before picking up a brush. Get it wrong and it will affect the finished article. Ideally, for the best results, bright, natural, daylight is required. But, how many people have a place they can paint that provides this all year round? The next best thing then, is to acquire a lighting source that simulates daylight. There are various bulbs out there that can give the required lighting, and fitting one to a desk lamp is ideal. I currently us an old fish tank light that simulates daylight, and have it rigged up to a movable vice!

Artificial lighting can be used, and if you’ll only be using your painted miniatures under such lighting, it won’t make too much of a difference. But, if you use them in a room lit brightly by daylight, or you want show your figures, then you need to consider proper lighting.

Tools for preparing your miniature.

Maybe I should have included a section before this one – choosing your miniature!

Sounds obvious really, but is it?

For beginners there are a few things to consider, don’t just grab the first figure that comes your way. Get a miniature that has lots of fine detailing, or a closed pose (the figure has areas that are hard to access), and you may find yourself getting frustrated and overwhelmed. Conversely, painting a figure that is very plain, with little detailing, can lead to boring and drab results; to get the best out of these kinds of figures you need to add freehand detail, not something for the complete novice!

So choose wisely – go for an open posed figure with some detailing, and you should be pleased with the results.

Earth Elemental03
Earth Elemental from D&D: Temple of Elemental Evil.
Earth Elemental02
This is really easy to paint, and can give a beginner a big confidence boost.








Okay, you’ve got your mini in hand, here’s a list of things you may need to prepare it for paint:

  • Clippers
  • Superglue
  • Plastic or model glue
  • Craft knife
  • Cutting mat
  • Craft files
  • Old toothbrush
  • Modelling putty*
  • Plastic putty*
  • Sculpting tool*
  • Small vice*
  • Fine-toothed modellers saw*
  • Micro mesh polishing kit*

* Not essential for starting out.

Nice list, but what are they all for? Let’s take a quick look at each of them; I will go into more detail of some of the items, as and when they crop up, in later posts.

Clippers – Snips or wire cutters, they have many names, shapes and sizes. You want small pointed clippers ideally. Many miniatures, especially those for skirmish and war-games, require assembly. The clippers are used to remove the parts from the sprues they come on.

Superglue – Primarily used for assembling metal miniatures, but often comes in handy for a variety of other things as well.

Super Glue and plastic glue
Super glue and plastic glue… Gnoll is optional!

Plastic glue – Polystyrene cement, or liquid poly, are other names for this, and are used for the assembly of plastic miniatures.

Craft knife – A good sharp craft knife is needed. It will be used for cleaning up the miniature prior to paint. It can also be used to remove small parts, or ones that clippers can’t get to, from a sprue.

Cutting mat – Or a surface you don’t mind damaging. I use a block of wood!

Craft files – Used for cleaning up the miniatures before paint. Can also be used to ensure pieces fit together, especially if modifying the miniature. Files come in various sizes and shapes; a good selection is best, and make sure they’re not too rough.

Craft Knife and files
A good Knife, and a selection of files is required.

Old toothbrush – You’ll use this prior to painting, cleaning up the miniature toremove any grease from it.

Modelling putty – Whether your miniatures are self-assembled or not, this is handy stuff. At a beginners level it is primarily used for filling gaps, often found where the appendages meet the body. As you advance in skill you can start modelling your own features to add to the miniature – you can even build your own sculpt! It comes in a two-part strip. You cut the amount you want, mix it together, and apply, easy!

Plastic putty – This is an alternative to the modelling putty for filling gaps. Its a liquid that sets very hard and can be filed once dry. I prefer to use this for filling small gaps, and the putty for larger ones.

Sculpting tool – Can be useful for pushing putty into gaps, and then shaping it. I haven’t got a dedicated tool, I use anything that comes to hand that fits the shape I want – usually and old dentists tool I have!

Small vice – Small hobby vices are ideal, I prefer the ones that are ‘ball’ fit, so they can be tilted or rotated to suit. Some people place a miniature in the vice to paint it, I prefer not to, unless painting a large mini.

Fine-toothed modellers saw – Only really required if you want to modify your models.

Top Tip

Micro-Mesh polishing kit – Once you’ve got a grip with the basics, I would recommend investing in one of these. You can pick up a good one for around £15 to £20. This is ideal for taking off any imperfections on the model, especially mould lines, and leaves a much better finish than using files alone.

Tools for painting your miniature.

Let’s start with a list.

  • Water containers
  • Brush container
  • Cotton thread spools – or similar
  • Blu-tac or similar
  • Paper towel
  • White cloth
  • Toothpicks/cocktail sticks
  • Paint palette
  • Brushes
  • Paint
  • Notebook, paper, and a pencil (and probably an eraser!)
  • Brush cleaner & preserver*

* Not essential for starting out.

Water containers – Obvious really – a container for water! Old jars are best, at least 3, I usually use 4 or 5, I’ll cover why at a later date, make sure they’re clear. Also, ensure they’re not too narrow and tall, you don’t want to be knocking them over!

Brush container – Again, jars are good for this; but anything that will hold the brushes, bristle up, can be used. I use old herb jars. If you gather a few together you can separate your brushes in which ever way you want – by size, make, quality, or use.

Cotton thread spools – You will use these to mount your miniature on whilst painting. you’ll need a variety of sizes to suit the models your painting. I have a range of different things, small jars to plastic lids, whatever your comfortable holding and rotating around in your hand.

Blu-Tac – To attach your miniature to the spool of course!

Paper towel – Used for all the things paper towel is usually used for – cleaning up spills! More importantly though, you’ll use it when dry-brushing.

White cloth – Used to wipe the excess water of your brushes when cleaning them, get white so you can tell if there is any paint still on the brush.

Toothpicks/cocktail sticks –  Depending upon the paint you elect to use, you may need these to stir it; can also be used for mixing paint.

Paint palette – Get a plastic one – better still, get a couple! They’re really cheap, less than a pound in some places, and they’ll get a lot of use. Failing that, you can use paper or plastic plates!

Brushes – As a beginner, there’s no need to go out and spend a small fortune on something like Windsor & Newton Series 7, or Citadel (Games Workshops) sable haired brushes. But it is advisable to buy something of at least reasonable quality. I started off with a Model painter starter set, which provided hours of use before deteriorating.

A starter set is definitely the best way to start with, it will provide you with a good range of types and sizes, which should see you through your first few miniatures with no problems.

If you do purchase your first brushes individually, then here’s what you’ll need to know:

Look for brushes specifically designed for painting miniatures with acrylic paint. These will usually have a shorter ‘hair’ length, enabling greater precision, they also won’t hold as much paint as, for example, a watercolour brush would.

Brush point

Ensure the hairs come together uniformly, producing a nice point. and there is no damage to the brush in any way (You’ll be surprised how badly some shops store brushes, they also can get a battering in the mail).

You can start off with as little as 3 or 4 brushes – A small detail brush, a standard size brush, and a dry-bush, are your bare minimum. I would add a slightly larger brush as well. You don’t need to start with sable haired brushes, synthetic will do for starters.

Two types of Dry-Brush.

A dry-brush is used for… dry-brushing! A technique where the paint on the tip of the brush is minimal, and its used over textured detail such as fur. You don’t want to be using your nicely pointed new brushes for this, they won’t last long, so buy a brush that is specifically for dry brushing. Alternatively, use an old brush, just cut it down a bit.

As you get more experienced you’ll become more familiar with what you actually want. The size and feel of brush is a personal thing, and everyone is different. There are many brushes out there with different style handles and ferrules, some are heavier or longer than others, so shop around, try holding them and see what you like. Once you make the move to the more expensive brushes, you’ll probably stick to one manufacturer, as you’ll know what you’ll be getting.

Paint – There are a lot of good paint manufacturers out there to choose from – Citadel, Vallejo, Reaper, Testor, and many more. Some are a lot easier to get your hands on than others, it all depends upon where in the world you are.

Vallejo & Citadel Paint
Vallejo & Citadel – The Citadel paints are from their old range!

Personally I can only talk about two of these, Citadel, and Vallejo. I started off using citadel but quickly moved on to the Vallejo Game Color range. Why? Well, a few reasons really, and none of them are to do with the quality of the paint! Citadel paints are very good, my issues with them though are the pots they come in, and the price.

Citadel paints changed their range around 5 years ago, and they have made it nice and easy for beginner to understand which paint they require for the method of painting they are doing. They have broken their paints down into layer paint, edge paint, technical paint, etc. and  are all nice and easy to find on their Internet Site. However this can lead a beginner into thinking that the paint can only be used in that way, when this is not the case. Also I don’t like the pots – you either have to transfer the paint from the pot to a palette using a brush, or you have to paint from the pot (or lid as is usually the case). The trouble with this is that, in my experience, citadel paints dry out really quickly. So you have to keep thinning them, not ideal. The price – 12ml of paint retails at £2.55 and up.

Vallejo paints, again in my opinion, are equally as good, and have two advantages. Firstly they come in a dropper bottle, so it’s nice and easy to get the paint to your palette. Secondly, for £2.45 you get 17ml of paint! I often find Vallejo paint to be slightly thinner than Citadel, no bad thing.

Both Citadel and Vallejo provide a very good range of colours, as well as various starter and specific paint sets. The starter set is the best way to get your initial paints, this will provide you with the basic colours to build from. The introduction set from Vallejo offers 16 colours for around £30 (Amazon), but this doesn’t include any washes.

Washes are a mix of strongly coloured paint pigment with enough water to give a very fluid consistency. They flow into the cracks and crevices of the model, providing a natural level of shading. They can also be used as a ‘stain’ over very light colours.

There are other things that may come in handy, such as inks and glazes, but you don’t need them to start off with, so I’ll cover these at a later date.

Whichever miniatures paint manufacturer you start off with, as long as it’s one of the reputable  ones, then you should have no issues. You’ll probably start introducing other types in as you go along anyway, some manufacturers just don’t provide certain colours!

One last thing on paint – when you come to browse the web, looking for paint schemes or video guides, on how to paint a Gnoll for example, they will inevitably all use Citadel colours. So, you will need a conversion chart. There are two I use, as for some reason they are both slightly different! You can find them here – DakkaDakka and Vallejo. I’m in the process of putting a definitive one together myself.

Vallejo Paint
All Vallejo paints come in a nice dropper bottle.

Top Tip

Notebook, paper, and a pencil – It’s a good idea to start getting in the habit of writing down what your doing. By this, I mean the colours you are applying to your miniature. For example, if painting an elf – write down what colours you have applied to get the flesh finish; this may be three or four different colours/washes to achieve the desired look. There’s nothing worse than getting something just right, only to be unable to reproduce it at a later date. I use filling cards, and keep them in alphabetical order. Sheets of paper can be used to paint a mixed colour on, and the mix written down; better still, a primed piece of plastic can be used.

I wouldn’t be without it!

Another Top Tip

Brush cleaner and preserver – All though not essential, I would recommend getting some of this as soon as possible, especially when you start to buy better quality brushes. It’s a paste/cream, just follow the instructions and it will get your brushes lovely and clean. You can also leave them coated in it to preserve them.


There’s no need to rush out and get any of these things straight away. Yes, if you’ve seen miniatures on some of the amazing bases people create, you’ll definitely be thinking of trying it yourself. But, hey, let’s get some practice at painting first!

Fire Elemental D&D temple of elemental evil
I created this base out of modelling putty.

But, I know you won’t listen to me, so here’s a list of things you may need.

  • PVA glue
  • Base materials

PVA glue -Polyvinyl-acetate glue, used to fix the base materials to the… base!

Base materials – There are innumerable types of materials that can be used for basing, and you may have some lying around at home, especially sand. Commercial base materials are readily available, and can be purchased in specific effect bundles; forest, desert, ruins, etc. There are also a huge variety of static grasses and such like. keep it simple to start off with, and just get some sand!

Finishing and protecting your miniatures.

So, you’ve painted your first miniatures, and they’re looking good, you’ve even created a nice looking base for them. Time to put them to good use on the tabletop? Not quite just yet, not unless you want to see the fruits of your labour crumble in front of your eyes!

If you’re intending to use your miniatures, whether it’s a board game or a skirmish/war-game, you’re going to want to offer up some protection for the paintwork. You’ll be wanting to varnish them.

So, you’ll need a varnish, and there are many different ones out there you could use, and people really do use a lot of ‘non standard’ varnishes (by that I mean – not directly intended for miniatures or models).

A matt finish is usually preferred, but does have a tendency to be harder to get the results one is looking for. Gloss makes everything look shiny and new, often not the result you want for a rough and ready dungeoneering ranger! But, it does have its uses, and is worth adding to your collection at a later date.

You can get both spray, and brush applied, varnishes – there’s a lot of contention about which is best, and it may take a few attempts at finding the one you prefer.

Myself I use Vallejo Matt varnish, which can be applied either by brush, or by airbrush.

I wouldn’t worry too much about rushing out to get a varnish at this point, wait until you’ve finished painting a few mini’s, do a little research, and go with what you feel will be right for you. I’ll be covering finishing in a later post.

You’ll also require somewhere to keep them safe – chucking them back in the box after finishing a game, is going to see the finish degrade and chip very quickly. Likewise, keeping them out in the open on view, will see them attracting dust, and they can be a pain to clean.

When your just starting off, clear plastic pots or cartons come in handy, the Ferrero Rocher pyramid ones are ideal. You can display nine miniatures in there, just blu-tac ’em to the bottom, and it doesn’t look out of place sitting on a shelf for all to see.

…And Finally!

You don’t need to worry about getting everything before you start, I didn’t. My first miniatures weren’t prepared very well, I never took the mould lines off or filled the gaps, and it showed. But, it’s a learning curve, and you have to start somewhere. I only had three brushes and a small set of paints, but it’s surprising what you can achieve with so little. I was constantly mixing paint to get the colours I wanted, and again, I learnt a lot through doing this.

So, if you don’t want to jump in and get everything at the start, it doesn’t matter. Get what you feel you need to make a start, and add everything else as you need it.

So, that just about wraps things up for ‘tools of the trade’. As I’ve mentioned countless times already, I am pretty much still a novice myself. I’m sure there are those of you out there with a lot more experience than I have, and if you feel I’ve missed something out, or am in error about anything at all, then please let me know.

Likewise, if anyone has any questions, hints, or tips, then please get in touch.

Till next time then, when I’ll be taking a look at preparing your miniature for paint.

Image Gallery

2 thoughts on “Picking up the Brush Part II: Tools of the Trade!

  1. Great overview and advice mate!


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