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How To Paint 3D Miniatures - The Straightforward Beginners Guide

September 12, 2020
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For starters, if you're completely new to this field, you need to know that you're not alone and we all have been there once. If you go about to paint your 3d figures, it's easier to get some know-how from people who have made a lot of mistakes already, so you can avoid them. Mistakes I mean. Not necessarily people. Anyway, in this note we'll tell you how to paint your fantasy figures step by step, building on our experience. Tested on figures. We lost a few but fortunately, we were able to print out new ones. Don't worry though, we'll get through this together. Off we go then!

Table of content:
1. What to collect before painting?
2. What do you need to do before painting?
3. How to paint your figures?
4. Final stage: details, errors, drybrushing


THE GATHERING PHASE: What to collect before painting

As the Printing Goes Ever On team used to say: you must gather your party before venturing forth. In this case, before you start 3d minis painting, you need to gather:

All items needed to paint your 3d miniatures or sculptures. Paints, washes, brushes, two cups of water, clippers, superglue, handle, waterpad, spray primer and varnish.
Painting items set. Numbered in the order given below. Catch ‘em all before you start!

1. Paints and washes.

2. Brushes – at least three of them: a regular synthetic brush, a dry brush, and a fine, expensive brush. Their size and thickness depend on the size of your figures. In the case of our Patreon minis (LINK), we use 0, 1, and 2 brush sizes.

3. Two cups of water – you may use the first for cleaning off brushes from metallic colors and the second for the others. Or, if you prefer, you can divide them into a cup with clean and dirty water. As you see fit. Anyway, though, two cups is a minimum.

4. Clippers or knife (you don't need them painting our 3d minis though as our figures will arrive set with removable supports – you can watch a video on how easily you can get rid of them).

5. Something to stabilize your miniaturesdouble-sided tape, superglue, or removable putty will do the trick.

6. Wooden or dedicated handle – to stabilize your figures and to grab them comfortably.

7. Wet pad – to prepare one, you need a small, plastic container. Put some paper towels into it and then pour some water to moisturize them. It's very useful if you don't have several spare hours in a row for figures painting. You'll provide a longer life to your paints when you put them into it. Your mixed colors will remain fresh and ready to use inside this box. Alternatively, you may prepare a water pad with a wet sponge and a raw (unwaxed, not silicone-coated) parchment putting on it.

8. Spray primer or airbrush.

9. Varnish (if you like).

THE PREPARATION PHASE: What you need to do before you paint your minis

1. Plan your colors – try to imagine how your figures will look like eventually. What colors do they wear? What about the shade of their skin? Plan all the colors you want to use before painting. You may even list them on a piece of paper, just to make sure you won't miss something. On the other hand, if you don't bother with colors, along with our Patreon Chapters there're also D&D statblocks available for each miniature, with a colored illustration included. You can take it as an inspiration for the color scheme!

2. Mixing colors – remember you may mix colors on your wet pad. If you make some mistakes or create colors you don't like, you may always throw them away and replace old wet paper towels with brand new ones. Keep notes of ratios used.

3. Stabilize your figures – handles are precious. They provide easier access to the figures during painting and keep smudges at bay. Use them wisely! Glue your 3d figures to the removable putty or just stick them to the double-sided tape placed on the handle.

A wizard with a wand, sword and a pointed hat on his head stands on handmade handle made of paper towel tube.
A wizardsicle... or our wizard miniature on a handmade handle. Feel free to use this trick! You'll need a piece of tape, paper towel tube, and something to glue your 3d figurine on the top.

4. Use primers – there're several ways to use primers on your 3d miniatures. Beginners often start by spraying their figures with a pitch black primer. This solution allows leaving some spots uncovered and still good looking as they resemble shades. It has a drawback though – the too dark primer (and the black is undoubtedly so) will affect the paint colors on it. That's why we advise you to start with the grey midtone primer. Keep in mind, that a few light coats of primer on your minis are better than one thick layer. Although if you prefer a bear to a squirrel, it may be, that the zenithal highlighting is a good shot for you. Use two different colored primers and prepare to spray them at your 3d figures roughly. It's important that the primers are in neutral colors – the best will be two different shades of gray (no, not fifty. Just two). Contrastive. Start from the darker gray on the base and finish it with the lighter grey on the top. Thanks to this tiny trick, you'll get a fake light effect and all the details on the 3d figure will be more visible and accessible. If you have an airbrush, be sure to use it in this step. Remember to shake the spray properly beforehand!

Two printed 3d elves miniatures. They reaching for arrows, holding the bow. First one before highlighting (on the left), second one after it (on the right).
Miniature elves before (on the left) and after zenithal highlighting (on the right).
Makes a difference, doesn't it?


IT'S GOING DOWN: How to paint your figures

Let's talk about the colors first. When planning your color set, remember to choose just a few colors, even one, specific to a particular character. If you want to avoid motleyness, use the same color base for most minis of the same kind – you can add just a few differently colored details to them. This approach is especially helpful if you're up to unify a regiment.

Before you start painting, keep in mind that you'll cover every spot of a figure with at least two coats of paint. Start with watering down your paint and then apply two coats. That way you'll get a smooth layer. It's useful to know which color is the best as the base color for a particular mini. To put examples: brown looks best underneath gold, black underneath silver. During your painting, you'll find out that each color is a different kettle of fish. Yellow colors, for example, are almost always highly transparent, while blue ones tend to give excellent coverage.

Having colors planned and prepared the time has come to put the first coat of paint. You'll notice that during painting your fantasy minis more and more details emerge. As well as errors. That's how it works. No worries though, there will be time to fix them later. You may start to put the next coat as soon as the previous one is dried.

Let's start by adding some washes. Washes are the very thin paints that fill out all the deeper, inaccessible spots, making miniatures look more realistic. In normal painting, you would have to draw all these shadows yourself. Although in the case of printed 3d figures it is enough to delicately emphasize the spots that exist on them. It's very easy, satisfying, and makes the Franken–mini-steins come to life! Before covering, take into account that this kind of paint is so thin it runs down along a figure filling all the nooks and crannies it encounters. Be careful spreading it so that there're no puddles left. Washes dry up at different times, depending on their brand and the paint type.

A fragment of 3d sculpture with (on the right) and without (on the left) a wash on it. After wash the chainmail looks less vague.
Here you can see the power of wash. It makes the chainmail look less flat.

Don't forget to paint separate bases. You need to decide if you want to make your own base or use the dedicated one. Making your own base can be very satisfying. You can use texture paste, stones, moss, grass, tufts, or flocking to adapt them. Here's an example base made by one of our Patrons:

A painted 3d bard, straight from fantasy book, with a hat on his head, dancing on the golden leaves. Base made by Patron.
The gorgeous base made by our Patron, Terry. Look at those details!

Now you may focus on giving them a unique character. Do your orcs inhabit a swampy, gloomy turf? Or maybe they're elves surrounded by an enchanted forest? Reflect it on your base! And remember, the base is a truly important element of the whole picture. Think about which colors will look good as the background of your bases.

THE FINAL STAGE: A few words about details, errors, and drybrushing

Once you've painted over the larger parts of your 3d figures, it's time for details! It's amazing how adding small details can boost your minis up. That's also a good moment for fixing some previous screw-ups.

To paint any metallic details use your dry brush and apply the (surprise, surprise!) drybrush technique. It can be quite messy and you don't want to stain your carefully pampered details, believe me. If you need an introduction to the drybrush technique, we're referring you directly to our guide covering it. If you know this story, after you put the bottom layer, use the dry brush with any metallic color on it to subtly scratch the paint throughout the painted detail. Et voilá!

Now it's time for the highlighting! Brighter colors will be more visible on the washed 3d figures. Generally, mixing white, vanilla or yellow color with the one used to the base makes a good color to highlight.

The classical highlighting effect showed on the printable 3d miniature. Fantasy character standing backwards with highlightings on his green cloak.
Loot at this guy's cloak - using the brighter paints you can highlight well-lit elements.

You may paint eyebrows of your 3d figures, or add some color to their eyes, paint tattoos, scars, or even give them a rainbow pedicure… In short – you can make them unique the way you want. Eyes are an important and difficult thing to draw. Consider the direction your character will stare. Choose a very thin paintbrush and, most importantly, stay still just like the Argonath pillars. Rest your elbows firmly and focus. Firstly, cover the eye socket, then the iris oval, and eventually the pupils' circle. The easier way? Cover all eyes with white. Put a black dot on it. And that's it.

Details showed on an example of halfling 3d miniature. He holds a tiny spoon in hand, has a lot of buttons in the coat.
Eyes, buttons, tiny spoon, material textures...You may be struggling with painting those minute details, but the final effect is totally worth it!

The last but non-essential step is to cover your painted 3d minis with varnish. Some people don't like the final effect because colors and details may look different after varnishing. Whether you use the plastic, matte, or satin varnish, some elements will change. However, if you want to use your 3d figures for gaming purposes, you need to factor varnishing in because it's highly possible some colors on your minis will chip or wipe over time. A safe bet is to use a varnish of the same brand which most your paints are. If you painted with Vallejo mostly, use their varnish. It's good to double-check and make a test if the paint looks well with your varnish.

Finally, here are your finished, painted 3d figures! Don't worry if your mini doesn't look so well after your first painting. Practice makes perfect, so don't give up and keep going! Also, if you want to start your painting journey and to get some 3d printable figures to paint, let's have a look at our The Printing Goes Ever On Patreon site!

Printed and painted 3d miniatures of fantasy characters: halflings, dwarves, elves, knights and wizards, all turning around.
The printed fantasy team gathered and painted!
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