Picking Up The Brush Part IV: Preliminaries!

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.

I have been knocking around what to call this edition to the series for some time; Priming &… was my original thought, but then I wanted to add this and that to it, and it grew out of proportion. So preliminaries it is, and here’s what I’ll be covering today.

  1. Colour Theory
  2. Thinking ahead
  3. Priming
  4. Undercoating
  5. Do’s and Don’ts

Basically, I’ve tried to group all the things that need to be done before you go ahead and start putting on the topcoats or washes. Some of these may not be obvious to a beginner, indeed, I still fall foul of a couple of them, though to someone with experience they can be worked around.

Colour Theory

You may ask yourself why you need to know anything about colour theory, after all, you’re just going to paint a miniature, not create a masterpiece on canvas. But actually, the same principles apply whatever medium is used, and a little insight into how colours work together will pay off in the long run.


  • The three primary colours (red, blue, and yellow), when mixed in equal measure, theoretically make black.
Primary & Secondary Colours
Mixing the primary colours
  • Mix any two primary colours together in equal amounts, and you get what is called a secondary colour – red and yellow make orange; red and blue make purple; yellow and blue make green.
  • Mix the two primaries together in unequal amounts and you get a colour between one of the primaries and the secondary colour.
Colour wheel
A simple colour wheel.
  • Colours in the colour wheel that are opposite to each other are called complimentary; in theory they cancel each other out when mixed in the correct quantities. Orange is the complimentary colour for blue – as orange is made up of equal measures of yellow and red, twice as much orange to blue should make black.
  • Colours that are adjacent to one another are called harmonies, they blend together particularly well. Use three adjacent colours from the circle, and as long as these included one Secondary and the two Primary colours used to mix it, is said to be one of the most harmonious ways of using colour. White, Black, and Grey will also harmonise well with most colours.
  • Discords – Discord colours are colours that clash, but if used correctly, can make things stand out and provide excitement to a piece. To create a discord colour find its complementary colour and add black to one and white to the other. For example; On a blue cloak you could paint the trim in a discord colour – the complementary to blue is orange, add black to the blue and white to the orange and you have your discord colours.

You’ll notice I’ve used a lot of the words along the lines of ‘theoretically’ and ‘should do’. This is because these ideas are based on using pure colours, unfortunately paint is often made up of a combination of different colours, and different manufacturers create their paints in different ways. So, mixing paints often produces unexpected results – experiment with the paints you use and see how they mix.

The things I’ve mentioned above are worth keeping in mind, especially using complementary, harmonies, and discords; it will come in handy when you start creating your own paint schemes.

Thinking ahead

This is the bit that anyone who’s attempted to paint a miniature for the first time has probably missed out! Even now, with a year or so experience, I still don’t adhere to this principle, and I kick myself half way through.

So, what am I going on about?

It’s very simple really; think about what you want to achieve, and how you intend to achieve it.

Before you start painting your miniature you need to have a good idea of how you want it to turn out. From this you can then work out the following: what colours you’ll require, what colour to undercoat, what techniques to use, and the order in which you’ll apply the paint.

Lets split that down into two:

Think about what you want to achieve.

So you have your miniature, let’s say it is a typical male elf, it’s all too easy for an eager beginner to start slapping on the paint without any prior thought to the end result. Where do you start? A bit of pink for the flesh? A bright orange cape? Dark brown hauberk? Silver for the weapons? Black boots? Yellow hair? The list goes on, and the end result is a colour clashing, unrealistic, mess!

I know this for a fact… I’ve been there!

Having a clear picture in your head, or better still one on a piece of paper or a screen, is a good place to start. Let’s take our elf, how do you imagine him to look? I would simple type ‘elf miniature’ into Google and click on images. Up pops a multitude of examples, of which I’m sure you’ll find one that you like the look of; of course, you need to take into consideration the range of colours you have at your disposal.

It’s even easier if your looking at a specific game miniature; Type in ‘Heroquest elf’ and you’ll see plenty of images of that exact figure, all painted up in differing ways; this will give you a good idea of what your finished mini should look like.

Find a paint scheme you like the look of, and use it to give you inspiration.

Of course there are also lots of tutorials on the net, some video, some written, both a godsend to the beginner. I use tutorials a lot, usually to see what colours are used rather than how they actually paint the figure, I mean, how else do you get to know what colour an Ettin’s skin is?

Don’t set yourself an impossible task – some of these miniatures will be painted by people with vast amounts of talent and experience, just use what you see to get idea for a colour scheme, the essentials – Flesh colour, clothing/armour, weapons, and ancillary items.

Flesh/skin/fur colours are often difficult to pin down to a certain colour. Human flesh differs from elven flesh, and both are quite different from a dwarf’s flesh, and everyone seems to have an opinion on what colours these should be! Take a good look at what colours other people are using, try them out, eventually you will form your own ideas on what colours these things should be, and who’s to say you’re not right?

There’s also nothing stopping you from creating your own colour schemes, especially when it comes to clothing, just make sure you have an idea in your head before you start – and bear in mind the colour theory mentioned earlier.

So now you should have your miniature, and you should have a good idea of what you want it to look like, let’s move on to the next thing…

How are you going to achieve it?

For a beginner this can be broken down into three simple things:

  1. What colours am I going to use?
  2. What techniques am I going to use?
  3. What order am I going to apply them?

Let’s look at these in order:

What colours am I going to use?

The chances are, if you’re just starting out, you’re not going to have a great range of paints at this point, so sticking close to what you have is going to be easiest. Mixing colours is an easy task, and just requires a bit of confidence to give it a go. However, without some experience, you’ll often end up mixing too little, and forgetting how to reproduce the exact match leads to frustration.

So, for the base colours, choose ones you don’t have to mix.

If you chose a picture, or a figure painted by someone else, to base your colour scheme on, don’t worry if the colours you have don’t match exactly, it’s the idea that counts and should provide a path to follow.

What techniques am I going to use?

Okay, if this is your first miniature then you’re not really going to be aware of the differing techniques you can use; layering, blending, drybrushing, and overbrushing, are some that can be employed, but for the beginner, the best technique is simply painting flat colours.

Painting flat colours is exactly what it says – you paint the areas of the figure in a solid, even coat of paint; no shading or highlighting is applied. On some models this can look quite effective, but on the whole it will lack depth and drama.

So, why would I suggest that this is a good place to start? Painting flat colours, especially if you have no previous experience, enables you to concentrate on other important aspects of painting. Simply just working out the best way to support your hands, hold and use a brush, and how to apply the paint, are all essentials.

Once you’ve done a few miniatures in flat colours, then it’s time to start to widen your repertoire; drybrushing, layering, overbrushing, and washes, working your way up to blending, which is a more difficult technique to master.

I’ll be covering these techniques in future posts.

What order am I going to apply them?

There is no definite answer to this one, as it depends upon several factors – The miniature you’re painting, the techniques you are using, and your own personal style of painting.

The miniature can often dictate that a certain part of it has to be painted first. This is usually a part that is difficult to get to, the rear of a shield for example, or the inside of a cloak. I know when I first started out, with shaky hands and poor brush control, these parts had to be painted first, otherwise I would get paint over everything trying to get my brush in there when painting them later!

The techniques you have chosen can also dictate which parts require painting first, and this often goes hand-in-hand with your own personal painting style. I like to do all the drybrushed areas first, if possible, as I find I’m not always that accurate, and can get paint on adjacent areas.

As you develop, gaining experience with every figure you paint, you will be able to look at a mini, and pretty quickly decide which order you’ll paint it in. Till then, try this – I used to, and mostly still do, try to paint inside to out – like you’re dressing the figure – skin first, then the clothing, armour, weapons, boots, belts and ancillaries, finally finishing with the fine detail. But everyone will probably tell you something different, find what works for you.

So, now you have a better idea of what colours, techniques, and the painting order you’ll be using, let’s move on…


Let’s start with asking, ‘What is priming?’

Priming, often called undercoating, is the application of a paint that is specifically designed to help the topcoat adhere to the material being painted. Think of it as a double sided glue; it sticks exceptionally well to the plastic or metal of the miniature, at the same time it provides a ‘key’ for the topcoat of paint to stick to. It makes the topcoat more durable and less likely to release from the medium being painted.

It has other uses too, especially if applied with an airbrush or an aerosol; both of which give an excellent flat finish to paint on. I have used aerosols, and when painting large batches of models, still do. However, I’m not a fan of this actual method of applying the paint, it’s just a personal thing. Airbrushing though, is something I’m currently looking into, and hopefully Santa will have one in his sack this year (and if my wife is reading this… a compressor too!).

I’m not going to go into airbrushing, at least not until I own one; as a beginner, mastering the use of a brush will stand you in good stead; you can’t paint everything with an airbrush, but you can with a good old piece of sable!

Primer paint is a very thin paint, and the Vallejo polyurethane primer I use is also supposed to be self-levelling! Primer needs to be thin, you don’t want it obscuring any of the surface detail, but it can be easy for a beginner to apply too much of it when using a brush, at least it can with the Vallejo one. Apply a single coat and you will clearly see the plastic/metal of the mini showing through; adding a second will give similar results. By the time you’ve added six or seven you might just have obscured the medium, but believe me, you should have stopped at the second coat!

Troglodyte Primed white
Troglodyte primed white using a brush. Don’t worry that you can still see the medium through the priming.

Even though you can see plastic showing through, as long as there is actually some primer on there, it will do its job. You only need to get an opaque coverage if you are going to use it as an undercoat, personally, I put two coats of primer on, then paint the undercoat using paint from the main range, or better still, the extra opaque range from Vallejo (Citadel has its ‘base’ paints, which do the same thing).

Top Tip

After you’ve primed the miniature it’s a good idea to give it a good look over; check that all the mould lines have been removed and gaps filled – the primer will really show them up.


Undercoating – isn’t primer the undercoat? Yes, and no! If applied to give a consistent, opaque, coverage, usually with an aerosol or airbrush, then yes, it can be used as an undercoat. But, if applied very thinly, almost translucent, as with a brush, then no, primer is just primer.

Don’t worry about it, call them whatever you wish, so long as you understand the principals. This is how I will be referring to things: Primer – a very thin layer of paint used to ensure the paint keys to the medium; Undercoat – the layer of paint applied directly over the primer. (Wait until we start talking about basecoats, then things get really confusing!)

As you build paint up in layers, each coat has an effect on the one going over it. To a beginner it may be hardly noticeable, but with experience you’ll learn to notice the differences and techniques used.

Traditionally, everything used to be undercoated white. Then black started to become popular, and now you see people undercoating in a variety of colours. If you are using an aerosol or airbrush to apply the primer, you can prime in the colour you wish to use as an undercoat, thereby missing this stage out, and saving time.

Troglodyte undercoated grey
Troglodyte undercoated grey.

White undercoat

If you are going to be using bright colours, especially reds, yellows, and oranges, then white is the colour you should use; it makes these colours look bright and clean.

White also enables the details of the miniature to be picked out very easily, something that can be a little trickier when working with a black undercoat. If you do have any difficulty in picking out the detail though, you can simple apply a thin wash or ink over the model. This is called a guide coat, and will highlight the detailing.

Black undercoat

One of the main uses of a black undercoat is that you can leave the recesses black when applying the topcoats; using it as the darkest level of shading.

Black Dragon undercoated black
A Black Dragon Undercoated…. you guessed it… Black!

It also gives the topcoats a toned down look, which may be desirable, but certain colours just don’t cover black well, and require extra coats. It is very good for figures with lots of armour, giving a more realistic finish, and metallic paint on the whole looks better over black.

Again, choosing the colour of the undercoat often comes down to personal preference, how you like your figures to look, and the techniques you use; try experimenting and see how the same figure appears when painted with different colour undercoats. Greys can be especially useful when applying washes followed by a light drybrush.

Do’s and Don’ts

Finally for this part, a few pointers to help you on your way. I will keep popping back to this list and adding anything I find useful as I go along.


  • Water – I use four jam jars of water, along with my brush preserver/cleaner, to clean my brushes in, one of which will have a mild detergent mixed in. Replace the water often, it’s an easy thing to do, and it will make cleaning your brushes easier and quicker.
  • Keep a separate jar of water for cleaning metallic paint off your brush. Metallic paint contains small flakes of metal and if you clean all your brushes in the same water they will contaminate your paint.
  • Use the right size brush for the task in hand. As a beginner you will probably select a brush too small for what you’re painting, this is only natural. As you get more confident in your abilities, and start to gain better brush control/technique, you will find yourself selecting larger brushes and become a more efficient painter.
  • Choose the correct brush to match the technique you are employing. If you’re just starting out then you’re probably limited in the types of brush you have, and there are a variety of types out there – dry brushes, liners, flats, wash brushes, base coat brushes, and so on. Out of these, if you have a selection of dry brushes and a few flats, you’ll be okay. Don’t use a perfectly good, nicely pointed brush, for dry brushing though; it will ruin it!
  • If you’re mixing water with paint, try and use filtered or distilled water. Hard water and mineral waters can leave stains on your paintwork.
  • Try and get a good selection of colours to begin with – Black, White, Blue, Yellow, Red, Green, Brown, and a Silver – One each of these is good place to start, and through mixing, provides plenty of possibilities.
  • Paint a 5mm spot on the top of your paint pot/bottle, it gives you a clearer indication of its actual colour.
Paints with lids coloured
Paint on the lid helps to quickly identify colours.
  • Mount your miniature using Blu-Tac on an old cotton reel or similar, it makes for easy handling whilst painting.
  • If spraying several miniatures with a primer or undercoat, mount them all together on a piece of card and spray them all at the same time.
  • Use a brush with short bristles when painting details; this gives you greater control over where the tip is going.


  • Don’t rush! Take your time; rushing will only end in poor results. Speed will come with experience.
  • There is often the temptation, especially when painting a larger area, to just nip back and go over a part you’ve missed. Don’t try to touch up, or go over wet paint, you’ll leave brush marks and regret it.
  • Don’t store your paint in extremes of temperature, they don’t like it.
  • Don’t keep varnishes in the cold, especially those in a bottle to be applied by a brush. The medium separates out, especially in matte varnish, and you won’t get the best finish from it.
  • Don’t leave brushes resting on their bristles, it will cause them to deform.
  • Don’t clean brushes in hot water, warm water will do, otherwise the glue that holds the bristles in will fail.
  • Don’t leave the lids off your paint, they will dry up very quickly, especially Citadel paints!
  • When mixing paint don’t go straight for black/white to darken/lighten it with. You are better using a darker/lighter shade of the colour you’re using to mix with it, and obtain a colour between the two. For example: Mix a light red with a dark red to obtain a mid-tone red, the final product will be a much cleaner colour than when adding black or white.
  • Don’t try and apply one thick coat of paint, layers of thin coats will give a much better finish.

So, that’s it for this part; next time I’ll start taking a look at the different techniques that can be used.

Don’t forget, I’m pretty much a novice myself, and still learning. So, if I have erred in any way, or missed something out, please let me know in the comments below.

1 thought on “Picking Up The Brush Part IV: Preliminaries!

  1. nice overview for the new painter!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

The Bovine Overlord

An Edinburgh Gaming Blog



Take on Life After 50

The trials and tribulations of life after 50.

DeathWatch Studios

Commission Miniature Painting and Hobby Tutorials!

Chicago Dice

Rolling in the Windy City since 2015

Wargamesculptors Blog

Tabletop Games Blog, News, Reviews and more...

PM Painting

Tabletop Games Blog, News, Reviews and more...

WarGamer Eric's Hobby and Gaming Emporium

“All you need to paint is a few tools, a little instruction, and a vision in your mind.” ― Bob Ross

candore et labore

A Blog about any Thoughts in my Head: Politics, Writing, Life

Kuribo's Painting

Fallout, MESBG, and Hellboy Painting, Terrain, Dioramas, and Battle Reports

Scent of a Gamer

From the computer to the tabletop, this is all about games. Updated each week-end.

Model Airplane Maker

Building and improving scale models

Dagger and Brush

Miniature painting, wargaming terrain tutorials, reviews, interviews and painting guides


A Blog About Marvel Crisis Protocol - The Tabletop Miniatures Game by Atomic Mass Games


Wargaming with the ability of a dull nine year old

Double Down Dice

Painting miniatures and rolling dice!

Fighting Toy Stories

Exploring vintage military toys

From the Lands and from the Landsknecht

A Miniature (Painting) Blog


Collecting, modelling, painting and wargaming in 28mm

Xavier Protocols

Level up your Marvel: Crisis Protocol game with more XP.

The Dark Muse

A Warhammer 40k Drukhari, Craftworlds, Ynnari, and all things Aeldari Resource


dave's gaming adventures: faithandsteel.wordpress.com

The Regimental Standard

Required weekly reading for the modern guardsman

Ann's Immaterium

Mostly physical culture but also writing, gaming, and other dark procrastinations

Just Needs Varnish!

My ongoing wargames projects!

Mark A. Morin

Life, Golf, Miniatures, & Other Distractions

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close