Roleplaying games originated from miniatures wargaming, as any historian of the genre knows, but over time many gamers moved away from using them. D&D Fourth Edition brought the use of miniatures kicking and screaming back to the table. For some players, accustomed to painting little metal men (and women, and monsters) from miniatures wargames, this was not all that daunting. Others, myself included, who never painted a mini before, found other solutions, such as the D&D Minis prepainted line, or by making tokens from washers or other appropriately sized pieces. Painting those tiny little guys is daunting, especially if you’re doing it for the first time, but as Tycho from Penny Arcade and I have both recently discovered, there’s a big difference between painting and applying paint. It’s not easy to do a paint job on a mini that others will recognize as a masterpiece, perhaps, but it’s not hard to do a paint job that looks good, and while getting enough minis to run an entire campaign can be expensive, if you start small and work your way up, you can find yourself with plenty of nice-looking pieces without a ton of effort, and they really do add a lot to the game—especially since you’ll be able to feel a sense of pride for having painted them yourself!
There are a lot of different sources of advice and tips for all levels of skill out there, and I’m still far too new at painting minis myself to provide any real pointers on technique that you won’t find with a quick google search. I can, however, share some of what I’ve learned since I started.
- Get the right tools for the job, but don’t overpay. Minis don’t require some specific type or brand of paint to look good, and a lot of the hobby-store paints sold specifically targeted at miniatures painting are priced higher than the exact same stuff would be at a regular craft store, and for less paint. Shop around, pay attention to the specific types of paints you’re using, and the amount you’re getting. You can get a very wide range of colors with only a few paints, with a bit of mixing, too, so don’t feel the need to purchase paint in every conceivable hue to get started. On the other hand, if you want to ensure consistent shading over a large number of minis—say you’ve got an army of kobolds that are attacking the town in your campaign—you might consider getting a color you could otherwise mix, just to ensure it matches for every one of them. For brushes, you can get by with a starter pack, rather than buying the individual brushes—once you get the hang of things you may want to invest in more specific shapes and styles, but at first it won’t be as vital.
- Shop around to find minis you like. While you shouldn’t discount cost in your consideration of what minis to purchase, painting a mini or set of minis you don’t particularly like the look of is pretty unrewarding. There are a wide variety of styles out there, by a wide range of companies—look around at galleries and find some you really like. Don’t go wild with buying a huge number of them, though—remember that it takes time to paint everything, and spread out your purchases.
- Take your time. This is probably the most important thing I’ve found. If you try to do a rush job, it will show, and it won’t look good. Be patient, and be careful, and you’ll have much better results. When you get tired of working on a mini (or set of minis), stop. Set it aside and come back to it later. Working on something when you’d rather be doing something else isn’t fun, and you may find yourself rushing to finish, and making mistakes. You may feel like you’re wasting paint if you stop halfway and the paint on your palette dries out, but you’ll be wasting paint and time if you have to go back after and correct the careless errors made in a hurry. While you do paint, it helps to have on some music or a movie in the background to listen to—I personally like to throw on a podcast or audiobook and tune out the world.
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You can always paint over a little slipup, and in the worst case scenario it’s not that hard to remove a “ruined” paint job entirely and start it over from scratch. Every mistake is a learning experience, and every mini you paint is an opportunity to improve. Don’t sweat it, just take your time and go over it until you’re satisfied.
- Read up on what others have to say about painting. There is a LOT of guidance available out there for the beginning painter, from a lot of sources. If you have friends who do it, ask them for tips. Google for guides online for starting painters or advanced techniques. Read through as much as you can to learn the techniques others have used, but remember not to get discouraged if your early attempts don’t look quite as nice as the beautiful paint jobs done by the experts who’ve been at it for a while.
It’s not that difficult at all to make a mini look attractive with basic techniques, and it can be quite relaxing to do and rewarding to look at your finished work. It’s not for everyone, sure, but it’s worth trying out before you decide one way or another.