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A Beginners Guide To Figure Painting

More and more these days, boardgames come with plastic figures to enhance the game experience. Whether they’re an essential part of the game, like the armies in BattleLore, or a nice atmospheric substitute for cardboard tokens, like the characters in Middle-Earth Quest, plastic playing pieces can bring life to a game. But there really is nothing more satisfying than playing a great game with fully painted figures, and though it can seem a daunting prospect if you have no experience, this article aims to give you a few tips to get you painting those little men and making your game look as good as it possibly can.

Preparing Your Workspace
There are a few essentials you’ll need to paint figures—paint, of course, is one! I’ve used Games Workshop paints for many years and find them perfectly adequate for my needs, but there are other alternatives on the market such as Vallejo paints and the P3 range from Privateer Press. Plenty of painters will swear by their favourites, and some will use a mix of different ranges, but to start with get yourself a good selection of basic paints. Remember you don’t necessarily need a wide range of paints as you can mix colours—a little bit of colour theory will help you here, which you can easily research on the internet.

We’re not finger-painting here, so you’ll need some brushes! This is not the place to try to save money—good quality brushes will make your job immeasurably easier and more enjoyable, so get yourself a couple of good sable brushes from an art shop. The Games Workshop ones are pretty good too. You’ll be doing most of your painting with about a ‘1’ size brush, but a ‘00’ is good for details as well, and you’ll need something larger for drybrushing (you can buy a cheaper synthetic brush for this as drybrushing is hard on the bristles).

You can buy a palette to mix your colours on, but I’ve been using the same white, smooth ceramic tile I bought from a hardware store for years. Also you’ll need a little pot to keep your water in, some way to store your brushes—with the tips upright!—and I also find a few layers of paper towel useful for wiping your brushes after washing them, and wiping off excess paint. Find a table space with good lighting—you’ll need it, these figures are small—and be sure to cover your workspace with newspaper or other protection, especially if it’s the dining room table!

Preparing Your Figures
The first step when preparing your figures for painting is to have a look at them and see if they need any improvement. Sometimes a figure will have obvious mould-lines or ‘flash’, which is where the mould joined together on the figure. Whether you want to go to the trouble of removing these imperfections is up to you, but keep in mind they will become even more obvious to the eye when your figure is painted. And it’s the work of a moment, so why not make your figure worthy of all the attention you’re about to bestow upon it? Get yourself a sharp blade and/or needle file and carefully scrape or file away the offending bits. Be careful! You don’t want to get blood all over your nice new figure!

Plastic figures tend to come with a little bit of greasy residue from the mould they were popped out of—you wouldn’t notice this normally, but it can make it hard for paint to adhere to the surface. The trick is to give your figures a little scrub with a toothbrush in water and a bit of detergent. Then let the figures dry and your ready to undercoat.

Undercoating is the ‘primer’ layer of paint that is the basis for all the detail work to follow. Just like painting a room, you need to undercoat your figure first. This is a matter of personal choice—my preference is ‘old school’: I undercoat figures in white (I use Games Workshop spray white for this) because I can see the detail of the figure better, and colours go on brighter and in one layer. A lot of people these days prefer to undercoat in black, as the black ‘fills in’ any little details they might miss during the painting. You’ll have to experiment to see which method you prefer. Whether you choose black or white, make sure you spray your figures carefully, with even strokes, and outside with plenty of ventilation. Try not to breath in that paint or spray it over anything except the figures. I have an old table out in the back yard I use exclusively for spraying figures. Another good tip is not to use spray paint on a humid or wet day—this can make the paint go on in a strange way, trust me.

Time to Paint
Once your undercoat is thoroughly dry, you’re ready to start painting! This can seem daunting at first, but the only way to get better is to practice, so you have to start somewhere! The first thing to do is put your base colours on. Carefully apply your basic colours onto the figure and paint in the areas neatly. It’s often helpful to start with the ‘skin’ if there is any, and work your way ‘out’ through the layers of clothing. Detail work like belts and swords can be left until last.

If I can give you one really important tip from this entire article it is this—thin your colours! Depending on the paint, a brush-load of water to every brush-load of paint is about right. A dead giveaway of an amateur paint job is gluggy paint, filling in the fine detail of the miniature. If the paint is thinned it will flow off your brush a lot easier and with more control—several thin layers of paint are far better than one thick layer!

So what colours do you pick? Well, it’s up to you. Sometimes you’ll be painting within historical boundaries; for example, a little bit of internet research can give you the correct colours to paint the American and German forces from Memoir ’44. Other times, you might want match game illustrations of the characters, or save yourself the trouble of picking colours and use someone else’s choices (say, from a picture posted on But don’t be afraid to make your own colour selections if you want—just keep in mind that you usually want a roughly realistic look with appropriate colours, so maybe painting that Nazgul from Middle-Earth Quest a bright pink isn’t such a great idea!

There are lost of ways to paint, and you can find alternative methods on the internet, but for now I’ll take you through the system I find easiest after painting for some 25 years. The next step after the base colours is to apply shading. This has been made vastly easier by the introduction of quality washes (which you don’t have to thin, by the way), and the Games Workshop range is excellent. I use Gryphonne Sepia to wash flesh tones and Devlan Mud a lot for other areas, but you can also get more specific and use the green for greens, the red for reds etc. Experiment a little.

Washes are a fast and effective way to get the dark shadows in your figure. You might even want to stop here because a figure can look absolutely fine after having base colours and a wash applied. But if you really want to get a fantastic-looking figure, it’s time to move on to highlights.

The highlight stage really brings a figure to life. This is when you paint in the parts of your figure where, in ‘real life’, light would catch the upper folds of a cloak, or the tip of a nose, or the top of a hat. Of course our little figures are too small to have these natural highlights, so we have to exaggerate them to give the figure the impression of realism.

When choosing your highlight colour, don’t just reach for the white and mix it with your base colour. Again, this is where a bit of colour theory comes in handy. You can get different highlight effects depending on your choice of highlight colour. For example, if you have a bright green, it is best highlighted by adding yellow to the green rather than white (though you can add white if you’re starting with a duller green). Yellow is a good highlight for orange. Black can be highlighted by grey, or even blue, depending on the effect you want.

You can also try the ‘drybrushing’ technique for highlighting, and it’s especially useful when highlighting fur or hair. Get the highlight colour on your brush (use an older or cheaper brush for this) and wipe most of the paint off on a paper towel. Then gently wipe the side of the bristles over your surface repeatedly, leaving just a tiny bit of paint on the raised highlights each time. You can quickly build up a highlight without affecting the recessed areas.

You’re almost there! Now it’s time to go over your figure and fix up all those little details you missed. If you have a tiny brush and a very steady hand, you can paint the eyes black, and then either add two tiny dots of white for the whites of the eye, or dot them with white and then a dot of black for the pupil. Try not to make them look too ‘goggle-eyed’. Fine details like belts are best painted black, then painted again in brown or whatever, leaving a fine outline of black to make them stand out a bit. I use Tamiya ‘Smoke’ to paint a wash over metallics; I find it give a good, slightly oily effect to metallics.

Basing & Varnishing
You’re not quite finished yet however. Depending on the figure, you may want to paint some detail on its base. You can either paint a flat colour on the base that matches the board it will be moved on, or try a flat colour with a few ‘scrunchy’ layers of highlight using an old brush to give it a bit of texture. Or if you want to go all out you can use traditional basing techniques like glueing on sand or ‘static grass’ using white glue. If you’re using both, remember to paint and drybrush the sand before gluing on the static grass.

>Finally, you need a clear varnish to protect your hard work from the rigours of many hours of gameplay. Again, this is a matter of preference; there are both gloss and matt sprays available which give different effects. Some prefer the better protection and brightness of a gloss varnish; some the ‘realism’ and duller finish of a matt varnish. After much experimentation I’ve settled on a semi-gloss varnish available by Tamiya in small spraycan. Again, remember to spray outside and don’t breath it in!

Let your figure dry thoroughly and there you have it—a gaming piece that will give you many years of pleasure and pride!

Other Techniques
Of course, this is assuming you’re painting army or character figures like those from BattleLore or Last Night on Earth—what about the tanks from Memoir ’44 or Tide of Iron? The basic techniques outlined above are the same, though you can easily highlight with drybrushing. For some tanks, I’ve even got out my old airbrush to paint camouflage markings, which worked really well! When painting lots of figures that are the same, you can speed up the process by ‘batch painting’. Using white glue, attach five or so figures to a strip of foamcore or card and paint them in batches. Once you get into the flow of things you can paint a lot of figures quickly this way.

Your figures are ready to be brought to life—get painting!

by Universal Head.

Universal Head (, has been designing graphics from the most corporate to the most creative for more than twenty years. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, most notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent a year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for the computer game ‘The Omega Stone’. In between he’s designed everything from large corporate identities and websites, to packaging, to interactive educational modules. His personal site is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.


  1. Universal Head

    June 1, 2010 at 3:24 PM

    One thing I forgot to mention – buy good quality brushes. The Games Workshop ones are fine, but any quality sable brush will do the trick. Check the point is good by dipping it in a little water and smoothing it sideways through a wrinkle in your palm. Always take care of your brushes by cleaning them carefully after use (try to keep paint out of the base of the hairs) and storing them upright.

    I also highly recommend the paint racks by Miniature Scenery ( for keeping your paint pots organised.

  2. I was wondering what to do if you don’t have prefab washes? Are they simply self-made by thinning acrylic paint with water? Would that cut it as a wash or does it need anything else?

  3. Washes are really worth getting; they’re not just thinned paint, but are specially formulated to ‘sit’ in the crevices and folds of the model to shadow and outline areas and bring out detail. Washing an area with thinnned down colour is called ‘glazing’ and is used to give subtle colour casts to areas, but it won’t cut it as a wash.

    Of course I painted for years without them, painting in shadows and lining and defining areas with thinned down dark paint, but using washes like Devlan Mud to do the hard work has cut my painting time in half. You’ll really be doing yourself a favour if you use them!

  4. Thank you for the info! Finally understood whats the difference between washes and glazing. I found a store in my area that sells the Citadel washes so I can give them a try soon. Today I just did one paint with regular acrylic colors (my first actually) but the result is quite satisfying. I’ve read some people making their own washes, like mixing paint, water with for example floor waxer. What do you think about it?

  5. Considering the affordability of washes and the unaffordability of miniatures and my time, I never bothered with homemade solutions! 🙂

    Glad you’re getting into painting. The best tip for beginners is to thin your paints a bit so they go on smoothly – you can always put on extra coats, but you can’t improve on lost detail without stripping back the mini and starting again.

    Have fun!

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