Like a Pro
Part One: Getting Started
by Mike McVey
Welcome to the first installment in our online Dungeons & Dragons Chainmail painting guide! This monthly series looks at what it takes to get started in the miniature painting hobby. If youre interested in the D&D Chainmail game (coming in October 2001) and are new to the world of miniature painting, I will take you through all the techniques and methods youll need to know to become a miniatures expert.
This series isnt just for beginners, either. Even though Im going to start with the basics, there still will be plenty here for the experienced miniatures artist. If you have ever painted miniatures before, think of this as a refresher course, and I guarantee that youll learn new techniques and time-saving tips.
One of the most common reasons people are put off from miniature painting is that they see beautifully painted models in hobby stores and say, "Id never be able to do that!" Well heres a secret: Yes you can! Just remember, the people who painted those display miniatures had to start somewhere. Their first faltering steps were just the same as yours, and this column is here to help you.
Over the next few months, Im going to introduce you to the world of painting miniatures. Well start at the beginning and work our way up -- from applying and mixing paints, through creating realistic shading and highlighting, right up to special painting techniques. I cant guarantee youll become an award-winning painter overnight, but if you follow the series and put in a little time and effort, youll be surprised at what you can achieve. And who knows? In a few months time, it may be someone else admiring your work.
The first couple of columns will address what youll need to get started and how to prepare your miniatures for painting. While you may be itching to get going, its worth taking the time at this stage to get set up right and learn some of the absolute basics -- it will serve you well in the long run.
What Will I Need?
Before you can apply paint to miniature, there are a few things you will need. Most importantly, of course, are the paints and brushes, but you also should have a palette (a surface for mixing paint on), something in which to wash your brushes, and something to dry them on.
Paint can be an area of confusion for those new to the hobby, as there are many different types available -- oil, enamel, and acrylic to name but three. Rather than go on about the pros and cons of each, I am just going to recommend hobby acrylics: the sort that come in small pots or jars, and not tubes of artists acrylic. These are bright, clean, and easy to use and, whats more, provide by far the best results.
Start with a small range of colors. In fact, many manufacturers have boxed starter sets aimed at the beginner. Acrylic paint is thinned with water, so you dont need to bother getting special thinners. If you have to buy paints individually, go for: red, yellow, blue, green, flesh, black, white, silver, and a rich leather color to start with. You can build this up later with other colors until you have a range you are happy with. I have 50 or 60 pots of paint on my desk, but in reality I only use about 25 on a regular basis.
Inks are another medium ideally suited to miniature painting - but the techniques used are a little more advanced, so well deal with them in more detail later in the series.
Your paintbrushes are the tools of your trade; to a large extent, the quality of the brushes you use will govern your finished results. That doesnt mean that as soon as you take up painting miniatures you need to rush out and buy the most expensive brushes you can find. There are plenty of mid-quality artists brushes available that will stand you in good stead when you first get started. I strongly recommend sable brushes - they may be more expensive than synthetic ones, but they will outlast and out-perform them if properly cared for.
This is the most important thing: Look after whatever you buy, Im still using some brushes that I bought several years ago. I would recommend two brushes to start with - size 0 and 1. The 1 can be used for general painting, and the smaller 0 is useful for awkward places. Two golden rules of brush care are:
Dont leave paint on the bristles for too long either, I like to wash my brush out every few minutes, even if Im still painting an area - just give it a quick rinse, dry it off and dip it back in the paint. This just ensures that the paint doesnt start to harden and build up on the bristles. Dont throw old brushes away; once their "quality" painting life has ended, you can still use them for other things, such as applying glue to bases or drybrushing (a technique we will be looking at in detail later in the series).
Bits and Pieces
As I mentioned earlier, youll need a palette to mix paint on, I use a sheet of thin plastic card, but many people use either a tile or an old plate. Ceramic surfaces are ideal, because they dont absorb water, and even old dried paint will clean off with a little effort. Just as long as the palette is clean and white, itll be fine.
I use an old coffee jar full of water to clean my brushes, and have a small stack of paper towels to dry them. These are also really useful for removing excess paint from the brush and cleaning up spills.
Where Do I Paint?
One of the great things about miniature painting is that you dont need lots of equipment or space. My entire painting kit packs down into a small shoebox (and Ive got far more paints than I really need). So that means I can paint pretty much wherever I want. The only real must-have is good lighting. Natural daylight is best; I like to paint right next to a window, but not in direct sunlight.
Most peoples painting time is limited to the evenings, though, and they have to rely on artificial lights. Fluorescent lighting is the number one choice, and these lights are even better if they have daylight simulation strips fitted. They give a softer, more even light than standard light bulbs, which means they cast less shadow on the miniatures.
Even if you are lucky enough to have these lights, you will still need some kind of desk lamp. The best sort is the kind with a long, positionable arm, so you can move the light source to your best advantage. If you are using a desk lamp to paint under, make sure its not too close to your work, or the heat will cause the paint to dry too quickly.
The only other concerns about your painting area are that you work on a sturdy, flat surface, and you sit on a comfortable chair so you dont hurt your back. The ideal situation is to set up a permanent workstation, but this may be a luxury you simply dont have space for. So get a good sturdy box to keep all of your kit in when not in use.
Its also a good idea to cover your work surface with a couple sheets of newspaper to protect it from the paint, and have some paper towels ready to mop up any unwanted spills. Wearing old clothes is also recommended - acrylic paint is almost impossible to get out of fabric, so dont wear anything you would mind having paint on.
Thats all you need, really! Its important to look after all your painting kit and keep it clean and in good order. These first steps might seem boring when youre dying to get on with the painting, but believe me, youll get better results if you use the right equipment and set yourself up correctly.
Thats it for this month. Next month well start looking at how you assemble your miniatures and get them ready for painting.
Check out "All the Small Things," an interview with Mike.
Miniatures sculptor and painter Mike McVey started out by just painting miniatures for his D&D group growing up in the northwest Englands Lake District. He worked for Games Workshop for 12 years as a miniatures painter and manager of the minis painting team. He wrote four books about painting and converting miniatures, along with a number of articles for White Dwarf magazine. After achieving his goals as a painter, Mike switched to designing miniatures, and in 1999 he joined Wizards of the Coast's miniatures division. Here he has sculpted some of the D&D figures for the new edition of the game and written a series of painting articles for Dragon Magazine.
to the D&D
main news page for more articles and news about the new D&D
or check out
the D&D message boards for a lively discussion of all aspects of the D&D game.