Underpainting Grayscale Example: Barglemore and Camille

Patreon supporters receive a PDF copy with high res photos and better formatting!

Underpainting is using an initial layer of paint to establish some element(s) of a paint job. Zenithal priming is a great example of this – it establishes the direction of the light falling on the figure.  Zenithal priming is just one of many types of underpainting that we can use to improve our painting, however! For the pair of miniatures in this article I used a more traditional greyscale (grisaille) sketch underpainting technique. I think this approach can be much more helpful to creating (and understanding) the necessary contrast on a miniature figure than zenithal priming alone. Another benefit is that it does not require any supplies other than a brush and paint.

Zombie servants front full

Barglemore the zombie butler and Camille the zombie maid are great subjects for the technique. Their clothing is sculpted to resemble the traditional/stereotypical butler and maid uniforms, which are black, white, and shades of grey, and I wanted to paint them that way as well. I wasn’t able to find any freely useable reference images to include in this article, but you will find plenty of examples if you do an image search on ‘butler’ and ‘French maid’. Note that this greyscale sketching technique absolutely works with more colourful figures, I just think the more subdued colour schemes on these zombie servants help demonstrate the principle and application of the technique more clearly.

Value scale bw

Value refers to how light or dark a colour is. Value contrast is the most fundamental type of contrast we can use. Miniature painters tend to think of value contrast as referring to the contrast between the darkest shadows and the lightest highlights. Shadow/highlight contrast is crucial to making miniature figures look fully three dimensional, but there is another type of very useful value contrast – contrast between the values of adjacent areas. This is a strong tool we can use to make figures easier to read for the viewer, especially from a distance. It’s also a valuable tool to creating focus, mood, and conveying story/character. Note that every colour has a value scale, such as navy blue to baby blue. A full value range for blue and yellow would include black and white on the extreme ends of the value scales below.

Valuescale combo

When we are actively painting it is very challenging to juggle all of the elements we need to think about at the same time – choosing colours, selecting the appropriate value for each of those colours, painting sufficient shadow/highlight contrast, depicting the light source correctly – all while trying to create smooth blends or texture strokes with our brushes and paints. To try to do all of that at once is expecting a lot of ourselves, and it’s no wonder we often fail to get all of that right! In my study of traditional art I have found that traditional artists often break these tasks up into separate steps. This allows them to focus on one or two challenges at a time, which makes it more likely to achieve a successful piece. I think adopting a similar approach in miniature painting would be helpful to most of us.

The purpose of starting with an underpainting layer is to separate out a few of our tasks. For example, a zenithal prime underpainting establishes the overall direction of the light and creates areas of light and shadow so we don’t have to constantly stop to visualize where those should be. The greyscale sketch underpainting approach that I use here also establishes the direction of light and the rough range of contrast between shadows and highlights. The difference is that it also establishes the overall value of each area on the figure in comparison to each other area. So on the butler below, each area has some shadows and highlights applied with the direction of the light source in mind, but it also defines the value contrast between areas: the head is very light, the coat is very dark, the pants are somewhere in the middle, and so on. I think of this as mapping out my values over the surface of the figure, so I often refer to it as value mapping. The term value sketch would also apply.

11a sophie18 barglemore blockin frontThe underpainting stage on Barglemore the zombie butler.

I combined my underpainting step with my priming step by using Reaper’s brush-on primers. They’re available in white, black, and gray. I usually mix one or two more shades of grey so I have a value scale of four or five steps including black to white. These are metal figures, so it is necessary to prime them for the paint to adhere well. I live in a fairly humid climate, so I often use brush-on primer instead of spray cans. But if you’ve already spray-primed your figure or you’re working with a Bones plastic figure that doesn’t need priming, you can do this same step with black, white, and grey paints instead of primer.

Maid blockin front 400The underpainting stage on Camille the zombie maid and her ‘feather’ duster.

The underpainting looks rough, and that’s okay! My goal is to establish the big picture of the figure by answering a few questions. Which areas are darker, lighter, or in between? What is the value range between the highlights and the shadows on each area? Where should the main highlights and shadows be placed to establish the light direction I have chosen for the figure? I completely ignore all detail elements like the eyes, buttons on the butler’s vest, edge highlights like around the rips in the cloth, the crevices in between the tiles on the floor, and so on. I just want to make the overall big picture decisions so I don’t have to think about those when I am concentrating to paint tiny details, refine blending, or add textures. It’s easier to get more elements correct if you are only concentrating on one or two at a time.

That said, it may be that some of you look at those photos and feel that my underpainting is actually pretty detailed. Or you might be wondering if you have to address all of those factors at once with underpainting. It is a flexible technique. Just blocking in your basecoats for each area is a form of underpainting that lets you assess your colour and value choices for the figure as a whole. You could rough in just the direction of light and the main areas for highlights and shadows. You don’t even need to try to paint smoothly at all! In the example below, I used only three colours – black, grey, and white. The grey represented the midtone for each area. I painted black in the location of shadows, and white in the location of highlights. When I applied colour paint over the value map I applied it in a similar way. I applied highlight colours over the areas of white, shadow colours over the areas of black, and midtone colours over the areas of grey. (This is kind of a brush painted version of zenithal priming.)

Tara map final front crThis underpainting example does not include establishing values between areas or being at all smooth. It was still helpful to achieving the end result. You can see more steps of how I painted this figure and other forms of underpainting.

Since the next step involves applying paint over the value map, I recommend taking some pictures of your figure at this stage so you can refer back to your value map stage if you need to. You don’t need a fancy camera set up like I use for many of my pictures. Most cellphones made in the past few years take good photos. Pose the figure against a plain background if your camera has trouble focusing, and try to take the picture in a well-lit area.

Butler cellThis cellphone picture is blurry and a little overexposed, but since the value map is not about details, it gives me all the information I need.


My next step is to apply coloured paint. Even though these figures are dressed in shades of black, grey, and white, I still painted over the primer with opaque paint colours. Black and white primers are not as dark or light as black and white paints, and they sometimes have a different finish than matte paints. I also wanted greys that were not true neutral greys for the butler’s vest and pants. Both are warmer greys, and the vest has just a hint of purple in the shadows.

For each area I created mixes of paint similar in value to the primer mixes, with a few additional mix steps to allow me to make smoother transitions. When applying the paint, I used the underpainting as a road map for where to apply the various value mixes of the colour. Let’s look at the knee on Barglemore’s left leg as an example. I applied a lighter mix on the top of the knee, and a dark value underneath that, then smoothed the transition line between the two sections as necessary with midtone value mixes.

11 sophie barglemore front combo cr

Once I establish the main highlights and shadows and smooth the blending between them, then at that point I work on the details. For these figures that stage included such tasks as adding highlighting to the edges of the cloth tears and deep shadows within the recesses of the tears, lining around the buttons and other areas, adding detail to the facial features, and painting highlights and shadows into the smaller details of folds and wrinkles on the cloth.

12 sophie camille face combo cr

The front side of Camille demonstrates how the value mapping stage can help – if you remember to follow your map! When working with the black, white, and grey paint/primer colours, the only thing I need to think about is where areas of the figure should look darker or lighter based on my imagined light source. For this figure I pictured the light as coming from the upper right corner and slightly in front of the figure. If you look at the value mapping stage, you can see some nice highlights on the stomach area of the bodice that evoke that light. Unfortunately, I did not follow the map that I had laid down when I applied the final paint colours on top of the primer. I did highlight some wrinkles on the cloth in that area, but in a way that was less interesting and less true to the light source I was trying to evoke.

12 sophie camille front circle

It is also possible to make mistakes during the underpainting stage, or to change your mind about some of the decisions you made. My underpainting of the back side of Barglemore was really quite dull. When I started applying paint over it, I decided I needed to increase the value of the highlights on the folds of cloth to better accentuate the deformity of the shoulder and to just generally add more visual interest. The areas of shadow should probably be a little larger/darker in my final version, but I felt it was better to sacrifice the light direction and dark ambiance a little in this area to better bring out all the lovely sculpted details on the figure.

13 sophie barglemore back cr

Think of an underpainting is a useful road map, not a cage locking you in. You can reinterpret and enhance your vision as necessary when painting your colour paint over the underpainting. The rear view of Camille shows a mix of following the value road map from the underpainting and also making some changes. Overall the values are pretty true to my initial value map – look at the location of the highlights and shadow in the hair, and the bright spots on the elbow and side of the hand on the arm to the right, which are present in both the underpainting stage and the final painted version.



14 sophie camille back combo cr

I did make two major changes, however. During the painting stage I decided I wanted the skirt to look like more of a gauzy type of fabric, so I painted it as grey instead of black, and applied the highlights with vertical brush strokes to indicate ruffles in order to try to convey that texture. I think the colour switch and additional texture adds a spot of interest that the underpainted sketch lacked. I had painted the stockings more grey than black in the underpainting, and switched to black with hints of transparency during the painting stage. I think this helps keep more focus on the top half of the figure and breaks up the areas in a more visually interesting way.

Related Articles

My article about painting ReaperCon Sophie 2018 provides another example of this process with a more vibrant colour scheme. I used both greyscale and colour value mapping on this Christmas dragon.

The Contrast Series links to all of articles about contrast available on this site, some of which use different methods than that demonstrated here to help you achieve more contrast on your figures.

The How to Paint Faster article explores the idea of starting with a rough colour block-in or sketch to get paint on the figure faster.

My testing colour schemes article is an example of a way to separate out the task of choosing and composing colours before you begin painting, which traditional artists would call doing colour studies.

This short video from Zumikito Miniatures demonstrates three different methods of value sketching and how to proceed from the initial point to a fully painted figure.


History and Variations of Underpainting in Miniature Painting and Traditional Art

The underpainting technique that I demonstrated here is the process of blocking in the major areas of dark, light, and midtone using greyscale. This is similar to longstanding traditional art concepts. Value studies and thumbnails are common methods traditional artists use to determine the value composition of a piece as a whole, and they are often done in greyscale.

Traditional underpainting can be fairly roughly applied in order to figure out the big picture values, similar to what I have done on my figures in this article. This type of underpainting is not done only in greyscale (grisaille), however! Artists may use brunaille (browns) or verdaccio (greens), or any other colour. An initial rough sketch layer can also be done in the colours intended for the final piece. Miniature painters often refer to this as sketching. Benjamin Kantor has a video demonstrating greyscale sketching and another demonstrating colour sketching on a bust.

Sergio sketch comboThis is an example of making the initial sketch of hue and value choices and then refining the blending and textures once the painter is satisfied with the colour composition. This figure was painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio during a painting class.

Traditional underpainting, particular grisaille, can also be applied in a much more detailed and complete fashion. Detailed grisaille painting is sometimes also called the dead layer. Painters then glaze transparent colour on top of that, adding additional opaque highlights and making other tweaks as necessary.

Zenithal priming is a form of underpainting popular amongst miniature painters. It can be done with either an airbrush or spray can primers. You begin by priming/painting the entire figure black. Then you spray white from the direction of your light source. Adding a step between the black and white by spraying grey from a roughly 90 degrees can give a more refined result. Alternatively, you might used white paint to smooth areas and paint on the very brightest highlights. The painter Matt DiPietro popularized using the term sketch style for this slightly refined version of zenithal underpainting, though as I mentioned above, some miniature painters have been using the concept and the term sketching for a while now to refer to underpainting in colour and greyscale.

I mention the terms above so that if you’re interested in more information on the traditional use of underpainting or the way miniature painters are incorporating it into their process, you have some starting points for web search terms.

Zombie servants back full


Barglemore and Camille Paint Colour Guide

Barglemore and Camille are available in metal. All paints are from Reaper Miniatures. Some of the paints listed may be discontinued or special edition colours and not currently available on the Reaper Miniatures site. The dirt and stains were added with weathering powders.

Midtones: Ghoul Skin + Tanned Highlight
Highlights: Bloodless Skin + Tanned Highlight, Bloodless Skin, Pure White
Shadows: Ghoul Skin, Twilight Blue, Midnight Blue
Glazes painted in selective areas of skin shadows: 9602 Bruised Purple, 9667 Rattlesnake Leather, Icy Violet + Nightsky Indigo – experiment with dull purples, greens, and blues on zombie skin!

Barglemore’s Black Coat and Camille’s Black Corset
Midtone: Solid Black
Highlights: Dusky Skin Triad
Shadows: Blue Liner

Camille’s Skirt
Midtone: Dusky Skin
Highlights: Dusky Skin Highlight, with a dab of white added to it for brightest highlights
Shadows: Dusky Skin, Dusky Skin Shadow, Solid Black

Barglemore’s Vest
Midtone: Vampiric Shadow
Highlights: Vampiric Skin, Vampiric Highlight, Pure White
Shadows: Stone Grey, Shadowed Stone, Grey Liner

Barglemore’s Pants
Midtone: Stone Grey
Highlights: Vampiric Shadow, Vampiric Skin, Vampiric Highlight
Shadows: Shadowed Stone, Grey Liner

Camille’s Hair
Midtone: Shield Brown
Highlights: Driftwood Brown, Terran Khaki
Shadows: Woodstain Brown, then add a touch of Blue Liner for final highlights

White Accessories (Barglemore’s Ascot, Camille’s Apron and Hat)
Midtone: Creamy Ivory
Highlight: Pure White
Shadow: Terran Khaki

Metal Tray and Buttons
Midtone: Honed Steel
Highlight: Polished Silver
Shadows: Midnight Blue, Blue Liner

Midtone: Sunburn Flesh
Highlight: Tanned Highlight, Bloodless Skin Highlight, Pure White
Shadows: Bruised Purple

Floor Tiles
Midtone: Chestnut Gold
Highlights: Burnt Orange, Creamy Ivory
Shadows: Woodstain Brown, add Blue Liner for darker shadows

Same colours as the floor, with a bit of white mixed into highlight colours.

Floor Marbling
Streaks of colours used on the figures include Ghoul Skin, Sunburn Flesh, Bruised Purple, Twilight Blue, and Midnight Blue

How to Mix and Test Washes

Patreon supporters receive a PDF copy with high res photos!

In my last post I discussed the idea of shifting your thinking and asking different questions to find ways to help you improve your own painting experience and results.

The question of how much water to add to your paint is a great example of conducting tests and experiments to be able to answer a painting question. The correct dilution of paint for various tasks like a wash or a glaze is a vexing issue for many painters. What ratio of water to add to a drop of paint to make a wash/glaze/etc. is a very common question that experienced painters are asked. The usual answers are:

It depends.

3 drops water to 1 drop paint for a wash (or similar specifics.)

People expect answers like the second one. They think that there is a formula, and they just need to learn what the formula is to experience better results and less frustration in their painting:

1 drop paint + 4 drops water = wash
1 drop paint + 1 drop water = layer

If you aren’t very familiar with paint that’s a natural expectation, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. There are variations in paint opacity between manufacturers, and much more critically, there are variations in paint opacity between colours. Almost all yellow or magenta paints are very transparent, whereas darker black or brown paints are much more opaque, and paints with a lot of white in them are more opaque. Even within those broad colour categories there will be differences of opacity and transparency, as we’ll explore below with an assortment of black paints.

You may have already noticed some of these tendencies yourself, perhaps becoming frustrated at how many coats it takes to paint an opaque base coat with some of your paints compared to others. That is the start of learning your materials and making observations! Make notes on your observations when you use new colours or ones you don’t use as often so you won’t forget. If you have paint left over after your session, you can use it to test dilution or study how colours mix together and learn a little more from something you were only going to throw out.

Following are some photos of some tests I did with a few colours. I chose one paint from each brand I own. You can see the tested paints below. The Kimera bottle has the paint name on the back instead of the front. It is called Magenta.

Dilution paints colour

I put the paints out on a piece of palette paper. One pool straight from the bottle/pot, and then one drop mixed with one drop of water.

Dilution palette colour

I painted stripes of each paint onto a piece of paper with text printed on it. Using the paint straight from the bottle/pot allowed me to observe the viscosity of the paint, so I could judge whether it was fluid enough to use straight from the container, or might need a little water added to avoid creating texture when applied. It also demonstrated what is called the mass tone of the paint – the paint’s colour at full strength.

Mixing a little water into the paint allowed me to make additional observations. A lot of darker colours can look pretty similar in mass tone. You often need to thin them down with water or add a little white paint to get a more accurate idea of their true colour. Thinning the paints reveals what is called the undertone. The purple and magenta on the far right both look much more vibrant when thinned down with water and painted out than they did as drops on my palette straight from the bottle.

Dilution swatch colour1 crTop row: One drop of paint diluted with one drop of water.
Bottom row: Paint straight from the container.

Adding water increases the transparency of the paint. But you can see that the degree of that effect is not universal. One drop of water had a much stronger effect on the green paint than the others. It’s pretty much wash consistency already.

I have a lot of general knowledge related to colour and pigments, so I wasn’t too surprised at the results, but it’s still helpful to me to do testing with my actual materials and not rely on theory alone. The transparency of the green with water added surprised me a little. I am sure that other greens from that brand, or similar greens from other brands, might not act the same way, since they will have been mixed from different pigments.

I was lazy and didn’t clean up my desk immediately after, but that ended up being a happy accident. The next day I saw some interesting results in the dried paints. Some of the paints mixed with water had dried surprisingly shiny, and one had a lot of cracking in the wash. I would have to do additional tests to see whether either thing would have any effect when actually used for miniature applications, but it was a graphic reminder that there are also differences in the base formulations of every acrylic paint, as well as differences between pigments. (My guess on the shiny ones is that they had deeper pools and the matting agent sunk to the bottom. You can read more about the characteristics of paint.)

Dilution palette colour dryThe thinned and undiluted paints from my test after drying on the palette paper.

The fact that you can’t follow a standard formula like add 3 drops of water to make a wash doesn’t mean that there are no guidelines for deciding how much to dilute your washes. What you need to do is shift your thinking. What questions could you ask or what tests could you do to find out what you need to know. To my mind the formula for diluting paint looks more like this:

1 drop paint + X drops water = wash consistency

You are looking for the answer to X, and the people who tell you ‘it depends’ are right. The answer for X isn’t fixed, it depends on the characteristics of the paint you are diluting. The first step to solving for X is to understand your desired solution as well as possible. What is wash consistency? It’s a paint mix that is transparent enough to tint underlying paint, but with enough colour/opacity that the colour builds up where it pools in sculpted recesses on your miniature.

So how could you solve for X? You could brainstorm possible ways to test the consistency of your washes, and then try them out to see which works best for you. And the great thing is, there isn’t necessarily only one right answer! If you’ve painted enough to have an idea of the consistency you like in a wash, I invite you to pause reading for a moment and think about ways you could check your paint mixes to see if they match your desired consistency before scrolling down and reading my suggestions.

One way to check your wash dilution is to study the paint behaves on your palette. I often use a welled palette. I can assess paint dilution and consistency by pulling a stroke of paint up the side of a palette well and then observing it. How much of the underlying white surface can I see? How long does it take the paint from the stroke to fall back down into the main pool?

On a flat palette like a wet palette, painters might move the paint around a bit with the tip of their brush and assess how strongly or weakly the paint covers the palette surface. They may also consider other properties, like consistency. It’s pretty common for painters to compare how paint behaves on the brush to other liquids, like you might want to mix paint equivalent to a cream consistency for a basecoat, and to more of a skim milk consistency for a wash. Judging by consistency can work well if you always use the same paint brand and diluent. However, different paints have different consistencies out of the bottle. Water and mediums are equally transparent but differ in consistency. Water is a very fluid diluent, but matte medium or glaze medium are more viscous.

Over years of teaching people miniature painting and trying to come up with a simple but still accurate answer to that question, I finally figured out a way to visually test the paint. I use a piece of paper printed with text. I paint stripes of a paint mix on the paper to assess whether it seems like it is the correct transparency/opacity for my paint task. I am judging the visual appearance of the paint, so it doesn’t matter if I use a paint or diluent that is more fluid or more viscous. (Ben Komets came up with a very similar answer to the question with his Dilution Helper strips.)

You can see me demonstrate mixing and testing a wash in this video, where I also performed more dilution experiments on a selection of black paints. I gathered up nine black paints to test.

Dilution paints black

I painted swatches of each paint straight from the bottle, and then swatches of one drop of each paint mixed with two drops of water.

Dilution swatches black corrected2 crTop row: One drop of paint diluted with two drops of water.
Bottom row: Paint straight from the container.

As you can see from the diluted paint swatches, the opacity of the paints differs a fair bit. Paints that all looked pretty similar out of the bottle look different in a 2:1 mix of water to paint. Some of those paints are ready to use for washes, others would need to have more water added. The diluted paints also demonstrate slight differences in colour, with one black being a little cooler or warmer than another. Those differences are pretty subtle in black paints, but you would find them much more noticeable with darker colour paints. 

If you find this kind of experimentation interesting, you might want to check out my show on Reaper Miniature’s Twitch channel. It airs live on Mondays at 2-4pm Central time. You can also watch on demand on Twitch, or when it is uploaded to Reaper Miniature’s YouTube channel.

BWAB OpenScreen Cream

The Contrast Series Guide

Patreon supporters receive a PDF copy with high res photos!

The most common advice miniature painters receive is to paint with stronger contrast between their shadow and highlight areas. I’ve written several articles over the years on this topic. This post collects those articles together for easier reference, and for the benefit of those who missed reading them as they first released.

More contrast

One article in that series is far and away the most popular page on this site: How to Paint Contrast – Hands On*. I’m pleased so many people like it and find it useful! But I think you will find it most useful if you also read the articles that explain more of the theory and psychology behind why we like looking at contrast (more than we realize we do), but nonetheless still find it difficult to paint.

I also took this opportunity to add additional links to the older articles, clean up the formatting on them, and add additional examples.

Defining Contrast

The Catalog of Contrast
There are actually many different kinds of contrast you can use in miniature painting. This is an overview with some suggested tips for use.

Understanding Shadow/Highlight Contrast

Compare and Contrast
A visual comparison of a miniature painted with fairly low contrast, and the same figure painted with much higher contrast. This introduction to the subject gives a detailed look at the difference between various areas of that figure with more and less contrast.

Before and After Feedback Example
What would implementing feedback look like? I critique a figure, and then touch it up using value, colour, and texture to address the issues. This example uses less complex painting techniques and a lower contrast level than the above. A video version is also available.

Contrast versus Realism
Miniature painters receiving the criticism that they need to paint with more contrast often object because they feel that high contrast isn’t realistic. Take a look at the real world a little more closely and you’ll see there’s often more contrast than you think. And even when there isn’t, there are reasons we need to exaggerate it on our figures.

Painting Shadow/Highlight Contrast

Prepare your Mind and your Eye
Understanding why it’s so hard for you to paint with more contrast can help you push yourself to do it more successfully. This article also includes additional before and after examples of figures I have revised to add more contrast.

Paint Methods
This is an overview of several methods of applying primer and/or paint that you can use to help you push the contrast between your shadows and highlights. Several of these methods can also help you figure out where you want to put those shadows and highlights.

Vic1 wip combo 800

Supplemental Information

The Constraints of Miniature Painting
These articles aren’t about contrast specifically, but they can help you better understand why miniature figures need it. We don’t control the background of our figure. We also have much more limited tools to use to direct viewer attention than illustrators, movie makers, or photographers. Part I includes a comparison of two painted versions of a Death Dealer figure with higher and lower amounts of contrast. Part II discusses additional issues.

Visualizing Contrast and Lining
I compare two similar figures I painted to one another, and explain why one is a stronger figure. I also compare the painted figures to digitally edited photos of what they would look like with stronger contrast and darklining between sections.

Before and After Blacksmith Touchup
I critique a miniature to highlight common issues you might receive as feedback, and then do paint touchups to address those issues so you can visualize what they look like. Includes link to the video where I paint the touchups live.

The Power of Light
I observed strong contrast in an everyday scene in my home. In this article I have photo examples that demonstrate the powerful effect light can have in creating strong value differences between dark shadows and light highlights.

More Contrast can be Subtle
This article includes a more subtle comparison of painting more contrast. I revised an area I had painted to have slightly darker shadows and slightly lighter highlights. 

Character/Story versus Visual Impact
How can we approach the conflict between a character concept or story of a figure that is dark or blends into the background, but also create a miniature that attracts the viewer’s eye to look at it? Here are some ideas for handling this issue that often holds people back from painting with more contrast.

Study Guide for a Video Example
I wrote a guide for how you might study and practice from a great video that demonstrates how to apply highlights and shadows to a face. In the article (and the video) you can see the level of contrast between shadows and highlights.

Use Your Primer to Add Contrast
For Sophie 2018, I used grayscale brush-on primer mixes to rough in the shadows and highlights on the miniature. I applied paint to the figure using the primer values as a guide to where to place darker and lighter areas.

Lighting Reference Photo and Colour Block In
To paint Caerindra Thistlemoor I took lighting reference photos of the primed figure. I first roughly blocked in the areas of light and shadow, and then refined the blends and added details.

Lighting Reference Photo and the Types of Shadows
I angled a light into position and took photos of Ziba the Efreeti to have a guide for where to paint areas of shadow and light. This article also include information about cast vs form shadows and how we approach those in miniature painting.

Primer Contrast and Colour Block In
For this Dragon and Stocking figure, I started by using greyscale primer to rough in the location of shadows and highlights on the figure. Then I applied the main colour paint in a similar way using the primer as a guide. Includes WIP photos from the rough block in to finished figure.

Erli original cr

* At time of writing the Hands On Contrast page has had almost 9000 hits.

How to Paint Baran Blacktree – Extended Edition

Patreon supporters receive a PDF copy with high res photos!

Throughout 2018 Reaper released a special Dungeon Dwellers figure each month, and these continue to be available. The figures were sculpted and painted by a variety of talented people. Each is accompanied by a free painting guide PDF, and there is also a fun role-playing adventure you can download. All these documents are available on the Dungeon Dwellers page at Reaper Miniatures.

Baran front full

I painted the February figure, Baran Blacktree, and wrote the accompanying PDF painting guide, which includes information on painting black fabric, non-metallic metal, and scratches. Since I knew I would be writing a painting guide for him, I took a lot of work-in-progress pictures as I painted him. I ended up with more pictures (and more tips) than could reasonably be included in the painting guide. So I thought I’d dig up some of the ‘deleted scenes’ and share them with you now.

Members of my Patreon will be getting additional bonus content some time soon, as I will be sending them a copy of my draft for the PDF that includes my full resolution photos.

Preparing to Paint

In the PDF I discuss how I used a mix of primer colours to block in the major value areas on the figure. (If you’re unclear on terms like value and saturation used in this article, here is a handy guide to colour terms.) This gave me a chance to consider the composition of values across the figure. It also gave me the chance to create my own lighting reference photos. I positioned a small LED desk lamp where I wanted to have the light appear to fall on the figure, and took pictures.

If you struggle to figure out where to put your shadows and highlights, this is something you might try. You can do this with the base coats of your major colours, not just in black and white. Here you can see the lighting reference photo of my primed figure next to the final version of the figure. There are areas where I added some nuances to the lighting (the reference photo lighting is pretty blown out), and the NMM is handled a little differently to try to evoke the appearance of metal. But you can also see that I followed the reference photo pretty closely, and it was very helpful to me to have.

Baran light comp

My article on painting Caerindra Thistlemoor has another reference lighting example, and so does my article on painting Ziba the Efreeti. It’s an effective tool to help you push the level of contrast on your figures.

Weathering Metal Areas

In the non-metallic metal section of the PDF I talk about general principles of painting NMM, and painting the scratches. I also share the colours and materials used for the general weathering. Unfortunately there wasn’t really space to talk about the process of the weathering apart from the scratches.

The way I paint NMM and my general blending approach can result in a sterile or boring appearance for NMM. A little too ‘factory fresh’, if you will, especially for a battled-wearied character like Baran, who has damage sculpted into his equipment. In addition to painting on scratches and damage as appropriate, I also like to use glazes to add wear and tear and visual complexity to NMM. (I use pretty much the same techniques to add interest to true metallics, too, this idea is definitely not limited to NMM.) 

I often apply a dull dark brown like Reaper’s Woodstain Brown or Blackened Brown to areas that are more recessed and less likely to be cleaned thoroughly, like the bottom quarter or so of the sword where it meets the hilt and crevices in armour. I also added hints of rust to areas of scratches and damage on Baran. Applying thin glazes of colours used elsewhere on the figure is a simple way to create the impression of surrounding items reflecting on the metal areas. Baran’s colour scheme was fairly subdued, so I didn’t really do that here, but it’s a trick to keep in mind. 

Baran front fullYou can see light rust in the sword cracks, dirt on the armour, and dust on the floor stones.

Sometimes I use paint glazes alone for this kind of wear and tear and colour interest. In this instance I also used pigment powders. These are finely ground powders that you rub on to areas of a figure with a dry old brush. They can be applied with a damp brush, as well, but this gives a different appearance. You may need to use fixative on them for gaming figures that will be handled frequently. Several companies produce these products. I bought my set years ago at my local HobbyTown, and I’m not finding the producing company online to link to. You should be able to find recommendations for pigment powders from other miniature hobbyists in your favourite discussion venue.

For Baran, I applied dirt and rust coloured pigments in various areas of the figure, with a concentration on the NMM to add interest to it. Some lighter dirt coloured powders were also used on the base. In the picture below you can see a comparison of some of the NMM areas before and after weathering glazes and powders. Although the effect is subtle, it’s quick to do and I think adds a lot of visual interest to the figure, even if the viewer isn’t always consciously aware of it. You can also use these powders on areas depicted as cloth and lots of other materials.

Nmm glaze comp

Contrast of Hue and Temperature

One of the biggest challenges in painting Baran is that the overall colour scheme was dark and the colours used were fairly low in saturation. Strong differences in value and hue are very effective tools for creating contrast. Most miniature painters rely heavily on one, if not both of those tools. 

I think Baran is an interesting example of how colour elements always need to be considered in the context of the overall figure. A strong colour like bright blue or vivid red would stand out too much and look weird on this figure. In this kind of somber colour scheme, even subtle differences in colour saturation and temperature can create some contrast.

Color v bw

As an example, look at the lighter brown leather accessories of Baran’s bags, pouches, and straps in the photo above left. These stand out pretty well against the metal armour plates and the darker leather armour and boots. Looking at the colour picture you may feel this is because the colours are lighter in value than the surrounding colours. But if you look at the picture converted to greyscale on the right, you can see that the value of the leather accessories and even the face is close to or even darker than the value of the metal areas. Those areas do not stand out much at all in the black and white photo, so they definitely do not have much value contrast with the surrounding areas. (Differences in temperature and saturation are only apparent in full colour. Looking at something in black and white is a great way to assess its level of value contrast.)

Instead, those areas stand out due to contrasts in temperature and colour. In isolation, I would classify the colours I used on the NMM as warm greys – they are grey paints with a little bit of brown in them, not true neutral greys. There is some dull blue (Blue Liner) and neutral grey (Grey Liner) in the shadows that makes them cooler there, but this is a much warmer NMM colour than one painted with neutral or blued greys. However, in the context of this figure, if you compare the armour colours to the leather and skin colours, the armour colours by comparison are both cooler and less intense in colour saturation.

This is an example of what we mean when we say colour is relative, and why it can understandably feel a little frustrating to try to figure out sometimes! Below is a photograph with some additional figures that show more colour relativity. These are all NMM figures, but you can get similar contrasts of temperature on true metallics depending on the colours you use in the shadows.

There’s no one right answer as to which way to go with your colour use. But one other thing you can see in comparing the figures as a group is that stronger contrast makes it easier to delineate a smaller scale figure and make it more readable to the viewer. The hue contrasts on the left figure make it pretty readable. The centre figure has strong value and texture contrasts that would help it stand out on a tabletop or shelf. Keeping Baran dark and moody and limiting both the colour contrast and the value contrast means he doesn’t quite have the same visual oomph when you look at him in a group of figures, nor when you look at him at the smaller size he would appear on a table or shelf rather than larger photos online. I should have pushed the saturation and value contrasts just a little bit more than I did. (The white/black contrast on his shield definitely makes that area stand out though!)

Nmm contrast

The metal colour of the figure on the left is quite cool. The blues in the shadows are not strongly saturated, but they’re obviously blue. It is also cool in the context of the figure, since the skin and leather colours all incorporate warm yellows and oranges, even though they are likewise fairly low saturation versions of those colours. (Speaking of weathering, the dried mud on the bottom of her skirt was applied with paint glazes, but you could also use weathering powders for this kind of effect. You can also see some light glazes of dark brown in the crevices of her swords and armour plates, similar to what I described painting on Baran above.)

The figure in the centre has fairly neutral colour metal. The paints are true greys with touches of weathering and reflected colour added through glazes. The colour looks pretty neutral in the context of the figure, as well, since she has warm colours in her skin and leather and a cool colour on the pants, so it keeps the steel metal colour between the two and feeling neutral. However, if you transplanted that same metal colour NMM to either of the other figures, it would look cool in contrast to their colour schemes. Neither of the other figures has cool blues or greens or even purples used in their overall colour scheme. All of their colours other than their metal areas are warm. In colour schemes with warm colours and no cool colours, neutral greys would look cool by contrast. The reverse is also true – if you placed that same NMM colour scheme on a figure painted completely in cool blues and greens, it would look a little warm in contrast.

Then we have Baran on the right. His overall colour scheme is warm, though dull in saturation. But the skin and leather areas are a little warmer in colour than the armour, so in the context of the figure’s overall colour scheme, the armour is a cool colour.

Additional Photos

Here are some additional angles and uncropped photos. I’ll have one more behind the scenes article on Baran coming up, with step-by-step photos and tips for painting freehand like that on his shield.

Baran s face 500

Baran s shield 500

Baran s back2 500

Baran back right 500

Paints Used

Please see the PDF Paint Guide available from the Reaper site for a complete list of all paints used on the Baran Blacktree figure, as well as additional information on how I painted him!

Figures in this Article

The Female Dual Wield Fighter is based on a Larry Elmore drawing.
The Female Demonkin Warrior with Sword is also available from Dark Sword Miniatures.
Baran Blacktree is available in metal from Reaper Miniatures. 

How to Paint Miniatures that Survive the Apocalypse! (Or at Least a Minor Fall)

Patreon supporters receive a PDF copy with high res photos!

Edited October 20, 2020 to add additional information in the Seal Your Figures section.

A lot of people believe the key to a strong paint job that doesn’t chip or scratch is using a good sealer. But in my experience, creating the sturdiest paint jobs starts before you even put any paint on the model, and even before primer! You might not be able to follow all of these steps every miniature, but the more you can do, the tougher your paint will be.

IMG 0409Examples of what we want to avoid.

Sturdy Paint Steps Checklist

I’ll go into each of these in more detail below, but I thought a shorter checklist might be handy for people to refer back to.

1. Prep the Miniature
If you can, do messy and potentially damaging filing, conversions, assembly, and base work prior to the cleaning step.

2. Clean the Figure
Dip/brush the figure with isopropyl alcohol, or scrub with dish soap and a toothbrush and then rinse thoroughly.

3. Prime the Figure (Except Reaper Bones)
Whether you use aerosol primers, brush-on, or airbrush, you need to use a primer. Unless you’re painting Reaper Bones.

4. Let the Primer Cure for One Day or More Before Painting
Primer is touch dry in minutes, but takes minimum 24 hours to cure to full sturdiness.

5. Don’t Touch the Miniature while Painting
Affix the figure to a handle while painting to minimize touching it.

6. Maintain the Paint Film
Use stronger paint brands for tabletop models, and don’t add more than 30% water (and/or additives) to any brand on foundation coats. Use medium instead.

7. Let the Paint Cure for One Day or More Before Handling or Sealing
Acrylic paint seems to dry quite quickly, but like primer, it doesn’t cure fully for at least 24 hours.

8. Seal the Paint
Gloss sealer is the most protective. You can use matte sealer over gloss to dull the shine. Avoid aerosol sealers on Bones.

9. Safe Storage and Travel
A lot of damage occurs not in play or handling, but in storage and transit.

Orc skin left damage cuWe definitely want to avoid this.

Now I’ll go through the steps above in a little more detail, as well as explaining how those help create a sturdier paint job.

Miniature Preparation

It’s worth taking a little time and extra effort to assemble your figures well. Use pins to attach multiple parts or affix miniatures to bases. Paint gets damaged when parts break off, so repair usually involves not only reassembly, but repainting.

Harbinger damage fullIt’s only a flesh wound, but it’s going to take pinning and paint to fix it.

If possible, do as much assembly and base work as possible prior to painting. This helps avoid damage, stray glue, debris, and other issues that can damage finished paint work. 

Base damage fullExamples of damage along integral base edges and texture.

The one area I do regularly have problems with paint rub-off is on bases. I often paint metal miniatures with integral bases. The outer edges of metal bases and those with Bases with sharp textures near their edges are prone to paint rubbing away when they are picked up or slid across tabletops. The best way to prevent this is to glue the miniature to a slightly larger base. This might be a plastic base, coin, washer, or a number of other options.

Arilynn damage fullThe paint ended up being much sturdier than my assembly method.

The base for the above figure is made of Sculpey. Only the top area of the ’tiles’ was painted. The metal figure detached from the base soon after it was finished. I’ve just left her lying on top of the base for years. It got moved repeatedly around my display cases. And then up and downstairs during a renovation. And then to add insult to injury, I dropped her on the vinyl tiling floor that was installed during the renovation when I took her out of the case to take pictures for this article! There’s a tiny chip on her thumb and another on the hem of her dress, but considering the way this has been treated, the paint has held up pretty well due to the kind of prep steps I’m describing. The familiar is lighter weight, but eventually detached as well.

Clean the Figure

Filing off mould lines and other types of figure preparation creates debris, and you are depositing finger oils on the surface as you handle it, so I always recommend washing a figure, regardless of what it’s made of. The moulds used to make metal figures are dusted with powder prior to casting, and resin mould release agent is even worse. People involved in production may have handled the miniature with greasy fingers at several points, as well.

Primer and paint will not adhere as well to surfaces that have debris or skin oils on them. Sealer cannot hold on primer and paint that is flaking off due to issues with the underlying surface. Cleaning your miniatures is probably a more protective step than sealing! I know there are lots of painters who do not bother with this step and rarely have problems. To me it is such a simple step and not that time consuming, so it’s worth the effort to avoid even rare problems.

Bones baggie fullFine for unpainted Bones, but not a great storage method for anything with paint on it.

My preferred method of cleaning is to dip or briefly soak figures in isopropyl alcohol. I’ve also used it to ‘spot clean’ miniatures if I had to do some putty work or filing after I already started priming and I was concerned I’d gotten oils on them. If I can’t do that, I want to scrub them with dish soap on a toothbrush and then rinse thoroughly. I even do this with miniatures I’m prepping for convention classes and paint & take events.

I also always wash my hands before I sit down to paint in case I have lotion or anything else on my skin that might get on the miniature while I’m handling it during painting.


Metal and resin are slick materials. Primer is designed to adhere well to these slick materials. It is also designed to be a surface that acrylic paint adheres well to. 

I’ve long believed that aerosol primer is a sturdier coating than brush-on primer, but I have no evidence one way or the other and I’m not finding much about whether durability varies in doing some casual research.  So I’d suggest picking on the basis of what you find most convenient.

Many people find it quicker and easier to spray aerosol primers. However, as with any aerosol product, they should not be used in certain climatic conditions. Generally speaking they work best in temperatures between 60 – 90 Fahrenheit and at less than 60% humidity, but check the brand you’re using for its specific guidelines.

Pencil case exterior fullI store and transport class example miniatures in hard plastic pencil cases.

It is possible to spray in less than ideal conditions, particularly if it’s a little too cool. You can spray outside, and then bring the figures inside to cure. However, be aware that the fumes are still off-gassing throughout the curing process. If you or other members of your household are sensitive to fumes and chemicals, this may not be a great idea.

One issue that can occur when you use aerosol primer in less than optimal conditions is ‘fuzzy primer’. The surface will look bumpy or gritty, and the grit may rub off when you touch it. Vigorously brushing the surface with a hard dry toothbrush or similar can help. You can also paint on a coat of brush-on sealer to smooth and seal the surface. However, if you want to paint a high quality paint job on such a figure, it’s best to strip off the fuzzy primer and start over.

Brush-on primer is ready when you are regardless of the weather, and is easily used indoors without issues of fumes. It can take a little more time, but you are familiarizing yourself with the figure during that time and discovering elements that might need special consideration in painting. You can spray brush-on primer through an airbrush and get the best of both worlds. A general purpose airbrush with a larger needle is best for this task. Primer will quickly clog a detail needle airbrush.

Depending on your primer, it may say that it is touch dry or safe to handle within minutes or an hour. Dry enough to lightly handle is not the same as fully cured. If you can, allow a freshly primed figure to sit for at least a day before handling it extensively or beginning to paint. I believe that heat can help primer cure a little more quickly, but I have no idea how much running a hairdryer on it it would take to equal waiting a day.

Pencil case interior fullWhen I travel with a pencil case I wrap the figures in bubble wrap. The unwrapped figure is metal, and is one of several metal figures I have taken to numerous conventions where they are handled by dozens of people. I only starting mounting them on holders a few years ago. None have chips or damage.

Note that your primer coat doesn’t need to be thick and 100% opaque to be effective. In fact, some primers can form a slick surface that repels paint a little if applied in too thick a coat, in addition to the danger of filling in fine detail on your figures. You also don’t need to worry if you don’t get primer into every crook and cranny, since heavily recessed surfaces and under-hangs aren’t likely to be touched in game play. Aim for a decent coat over the areas that will be handled often, and you should be good to go. If you use black primer to ensure crevices are shadowed, you can use brush-on primer to touch up areas you missed when spraying.

It is a good idea to keep some brush-on primer on hand even if you primarily use aerosol primer. This will allow you to prime in periods of inclement weather, and to do touch-ups if there are areas you missed or which experienced rub-off during painting. When I repair a chip or scratch to a paint job, I always try to start with a layer of brush-on primer to help the paint stick.

Primer fullMy favourite primers. I live in a humid place, so the brush-on and airbrush primers get the most use.

NOTE: Use of aerosol primers is not recommended for Reaper’s Bones plastic figures. Many people have experienced issues where the primer doesn’t cure and remains sticky or occasionally outright gooey. Primer is not necessary to paint these figures – acrylic paint adheres well directly to the surface. See the Bones FAQ reference for primer alternatives.

Minimize Handling

Once you do start painting it is helpful to minimize how much you touch the surface of the figure. Holding the figure in your hand causes a lot of paint and primer rub off. This is most likely to happen on sharper areas like weapons or outward facing areas like the top of the head. Those are the areas most likely to be touched in game play, so are the ones you want to have the strongest primer and paint on! Touching the primer surface can also deposit skin oils or debris that might interfere with how well the paint adheres to the primer.

To minimize these problems, attach the figure to a holder. You can use anything that is comfortable in your hand – dice cubes, dowels, wooden spools, old pill bottles, I’ve seen a ton of variations. If the base of the figure is flat on the bottom, double sided mounting tape works best to attach it to the holder. If it’s a slotta-base or concave on the bottom, strong poster tac can work well.

Mini holdersJam jars, pill bottles, spools – there are lots of different options for painting holders. The mini holder with a hand brace is from Rathcore. They offer different heights of braces and a smaller size holder as well. Games Workshop sells two sizes of holders that clamp bases into place while painting. (More info on holder options.)

If you need to brace your hand against the miniature while you paint, you may prefer to buy a few purpose-made holders that have finger bracing frames you can use while detail painting.

I also always wash my hands before I sit down to paint in case I have lotion or anything else on my skin. Even using a holder and the best intentions you’re bound to touch the figure now and then.

Acrylic Paint Considerations

To understand the reasoning behind some of the suggestions in this section, it may help to know a little more about acrylic paint.

A key idea here is that there is a paint film. The paint film is the solid layer of the paint that remains on the surface after the paint has cured/dried. If you think of pieces of paint that have peeled or chipped off a wall, that is a paint film. What we want is to create one that is as sturdy and durable as possible! How sturdy the paint film is largely relates to preparing the surface (cleaning and priming) and how you treat the surface after painting (sealing and storage). But there are definitely some considerations related to paint mixing and usage.

Paint has three main components: pigment, binder, and additives. (I go into this in a lot more detail in another post.)

Pigment creates the colour of the paint. Pigments are dry ground particles that don’t inherently stick to anything. They need to be mixed into a binder to become paint.

Reaper case eggcrate fullEgg crate foam that immobilizes figures during transit is a good storage option. This is Reaper’s new figure case.

Additives are substances added to a paint to alter its behaviour or finish. Most miniature paints have matting agents added so they aren’t glossy in finish. Reaper paints have a little flow improver added to help them flow off the brush. Painters may also choose to mix in additional additives. People who live in drier climates or like to wet-blend might add in drying retarder.

Binder holds the pigment and any additives together. It literally binds. In the case of acrylic paint, the binder is a sort of plastic resin. The binder is what creates the paint film. You need to have the correct ration of binder to pigments and additives for the paint to cure into a sturdy paint film. This important role of binder affects a few things you might not have thought of.

The first is that there is a limit to the amount of pigment (or additives) that you can put in a paint and maintain the correct ratio. Some paints seem more prone to rubbing or scratching off, and this may be a factor. If a company adds a little more pigment to make a colour more opaque or intense, they may also risk making a paint that has a more fragile paint film. Similarly, if a painter adds a lot of flow improver and drying retarder to a strong paint, they are altering the ration of binder and might be weakening the paint film. A general rule of thumb is to add no more than a ratio of 25-30% additives to your paint.

Mediums fullExamples of mediums you can use to thin paint and maintain a sturdy paint film.

Note that water counts as an additive! The more water you add to paint, the more thinly you spread out the plastic molecules of the binder, which reduces their ability to bind together in a strong paint film. I think this is most significant for the first layer or two of paint you apply to the miniature. For base coats and/or initial wet-blending layers, adding no more than 30% water (and/or other additives) is safest. Generally you want those first few layers to be as opaque as possible anyway. For opaque applications, paint only needs to be thinned if it is so thick that it might add unwanted texture to the miniature or fill in delicate sculpted details. If you can run a brush through a pool of paint and the ‘wake’ behind the bristles fills in within seconds, that’s as thin as you need to be. 

Applying heavily water thinned washes or glazes over a couple of coats of thicker paint is less likely to cause issues. Once you have an initial sturdy paint film down, these thinner layers should be able to adhere to that.

Medium info fullWith art store mediums, check the back for information on properties. Look for products that are thin or fluid, transparent, and the finish of your choice.

It may also be helpful to note that we have an alternative to water when we want to make paint more transparent – medium. Fundamentally medium is binder. The main ingredient in medium is the clear acrylic resin that makes an acrylic paint an acrylic paint. The other ingredients are additives to make the medium (or the paint it is added to) behave in certain ways in terms of finish, flow, or dry time. The bounty of medium options can seem overwhelming, particularly if you visit an art store.

Fluid matte medium and glaze medium are the products most often used among miniature painters. For our uses we need products that are fairly fluid, and most of us prefer matte products. For Reaper paint users, Reaper’s brush-on sealer is equivalent to matte medium. Vallejo also makes a matte medium and glaze medium. You can use one of these products or a mix of half medium and half water to make a paint much more transparent, but maintain the integrity of the paint film.

Paint filmThe white circles represent the acrylic binder. You need a specific amount of these for the paint to cure to a sturdy paint film. The pink circles represent pigment, and the blue circles represent water or other additives. The top section is paint from the factory. Water (or additives) have been added to the middle section to decrease the amount of pigment and make the paint more transparent, but note that this has also decreased the amount of binder. The paint film will be weak. Medium and a little water was added to the bottom section. This still decreases the amount of pigment and makes the paint more transparent, but it also maintains the amount of binder necessary to form a strong paint film.

Just as with primer, acrylic paint can feel dry to the touch within moments, but it doesn’t cure to full strength for at least a day or three. If you can, avoid handling or playing with newly-painted figures to give the paint time to fully set.

Seal Your Figures

Sealer (also called varnish) is a protective finish placed over your paint job. However, think of it more as a coat or two of transparent paint than a tough resin varnish or piece of plexiglass. It is a little harder and a little less flexible than standard acrylic paint. It helps, but it’s not a forcefield of protection. It also can only do its job successfully if your primer and paint coats are strongly adhered to the surface by following the practices recommended in previous steps.

There are some differences between gloss and matte sealers. In most brands, gloss sealer is thicker than matte sealer. In the Reaper line, the Gloss Sealer is a little more fluid than the original Brush-On Sealer. Sealer products with matting agents added to them (anything with a matte or satin finish) are less protective than gloss sealer. You are also limited to applying only a few coats of matte sealer on before it begins to appear glossy. It is very important to shake any matte or satin product very thoroughly before every use. The matting agents are actual particles which are heavier than the acrylic polymer and fall out of suspension easily. If you do not mix well before every use, a larger proportion of matting agents may concentrate in the bottom third or quarter of the bottle/can, and become very likely to apply with a visible frost/mist appearance on your work instead of appearing clear.

It is possible to apply a coat of matte sealer over gloss if you don’t like the shiny appearance. In my experience you can only get a truly matte finish over gloss sealer by using either Dullcote aerosol spray or an ultra matte formulation sprayed through an airbrush. If the figure starts looking shiny due to the matte coat rubbing off in play, just apply another coat of matte. I have never been able to get a 100% matte finish with brush-applied products. Gloss followed by matte is my preferred sealing method for metal figures intended for game play. 

This product information sheet is for Golden Polymer Varnishes. I have confirmed that this is very similar to the products used in our hobby, so this may be a useful reference

Sealer fullThe can of spray sealer is at least a dozen years old. I use the brush-on sealers more for prep and as mediums than as sealers.

Note that Bones plastic miniatures can suffer issues with aerosol sealer as well as aerosol primer. I think that paint adheres strongly enough to Bones plastic that no sealer is necessary. It is more helpful to take precautions with storage and transport. But if you want to seal Bones figures with a spray, I recommend getting a cheap airbrush to spray liquid products through over using aerosol cans.

I seal metal figures intended for game play with a coat of gloss followed by a coat of matte. I don’t ever seal Bones figures that I paint. I hardly ever seal metal or resin display figures that I paint. I used to use brush-on sealer more, but I was concerned that it was altering the appearance of the paint jobs very slightly. I choose to put my efforts into the steps I’ve outlined above instead. I have had few issues with damage to the paint that aren’t directly related to storage/transport methods or glued parts detaching. 

A note on some off-label uses of sealer. I don’t know if it’s still popular to do, but for a time some years ago several painters I knew used coats of Dullcote as a sort of ‘save’ feature. If you were going to paint freehand on a cloak, you might do a spray of Dullcote on the painted surface first. People find it easier to use a damp brush to lift up paint applied over Dullcote to correct errors while painting. If you’ve already got the bulk of your miniature painted this probably isn’t too risky. However, if you apply it to a finished cloak but other areas are still just primer, paint applied in those areas isn’t going to adhere as strongly, and it will be more likely to scratch and chip. (I am speaking from experience on this one!) Similarly, when Bones miniatures were first released, people used Dullcote spray as an alternative primer and to reduce the hydrophobic behaviour of the Bones plastic. My tests of various ‘primer’ methods on Bones demonstrated that paint over Dullcote does not adhere strongly and is more prone to damage than other preparation methods. I recommend against using Dullcote as a primer alternative on Bones.

The following information is a direct quote from Anne Foerster, who designed and mixed all of the Reaper paint lines made prior to April of this year. She was kind enough to reply after some people had questions about my statements on sealers in this article. If you want to know more about Reaper paint and miniature painting in general, I highly recommend her PaintingBIg Patreon. She also streams miniature painting videos on Twitch via the Reaper Miniatures channel and her own paintingbig channel.

In the case of Reaper’s gloss sealer, I would say that it is slightly thinner than the regular Brush-On sealer. 

In this case the Brush-On has additives which make it more matte, which influences the viscosity, whereas of course the Gloss Sealer doesn’t need those!

In other brands than Reaper, however, yes, the Gloss Sealer is almost always thicker than the matte or satin. The reason for this is the way that the resin particles act in thicker layers. If you  have used spray Dullcote, you may have noticed that if you put many layers of the spray on, it will eventually go glossy. This is because the tiny microparticles that create a matte finish eventually build up and start “filling in” their own texture with successive applications. Because of this, it’s desirable to make a matte sealer more thin, to avoid this effect. Whereas, with a gloss sealer, you want the shine, so you can afford to make it a thicker, more protective coat (you will almost always see this in sprays). 

The Reaper Gloss is thinner because it pretty much comes that way. 🙂 You can build up successive layers on top of each other if you would like a thicker coat, or leave it thin. I find it’s more versatile this way so we didn’t really look for a high-viscosity gloss (other brands produce these anyway). 

You’re very close in your conclusion that sealers in water-based paints are usually just putting an extra layer of base on top of the paint! The difference here is usually in the specific resin that is in that layer of base. For paints you typically want something with more thickness, viscosity, and coverage, but with a protective layer, you want it very clear and hard, so most sealers use a high-acrylic resin because it’s the most transparent and durable. Again, of course, this will be different in spray sealers. 

As an aside, if you are using Reaper Sealers to fill in heat pitting or unwanted texture on a sculpt the regular Brush-On Sealer 9107 will work better for that than gloss because it is slightly more viscous.

Storage and Transport

One of the most important things you can do to keep the paint on your miniatures protected is to take care with how you store and transport them.

These are factors to consider when choosing storage options:

Immobilize the Miniatures
Paint damage is much more likely to occur when miniatures bang into each other or jostle around inside the storage container. Magnetized bases on metal trays, bubblewrap cocoons, double-sided mounting tape, and poster tac are all options to keep miniatures separated and immobilized. 

Reaper case foam squares fullThis kind of case (and probably pluck-foam) separates the miniatures, but can still cause problems.

Minimize Scraping
I have a storage case with foam cells. It separates the miniatures. But parts of them often scrape against the foam walls when being placed into or removed from the case. I added a piece of bubble wrap to a few squares to store metal figures more securely. The plastic of the bubble wrap also seems to have prevented scraping damage on them. I suspect just adding plastic wrap to the other squares would be enough to protect the paint on the lighter Bones figures.

Forecales front full

Prevent Bending
A second issue with my foam cell storage case is that for some of the figures a weapon or arm extends up over the foam walls. The flexible Bones plastic material can easily survive a little bending like that. Acrylic paint isn’t quite as flexible, and these figures are exhibiting a lot of chipping and wear. In the centre left of the storage tray above, you can see the two warriors and how their weapons protrude past the foam squares. There’s no damage on the body of either figure, but the paint is flaking off their swords, likely due to the bending in storage. Keeping them in larger sections like the following would help.

Reaper case foam large squares full

The first picture of this article is an example of some goblins that have experienced rub off, likely due to scraping against the foam of the tray. The second picture is an orc that was stored and transported in a baggie with some other half-painted Bones. You can see scraping damage on his armour, and severe damage to the paint on the sword due to its being bent repeatedly in transport.

Patron Spotlight: Dave Cecil

This blog is made possible by the generous support of my patrons, and I want to share more about them and their work with the world! The following are Dave’s words, and I think he has given us all some great food for thought here:

In the forums and most other gaming related places I go by the name “Lord Dave” or some variation of that. This is more a sarcastic title than a statement of nobility, but that is a whole other story.

Dave cecil3Figures from the Song of Ice and Fire game painted by Dave Cecil.

I have been playing and running D&D games since the very beginnings of the game (yes I’m that old). As a natural byproduct of that, I began collecting and painting miniatures, initially to a barely acceptable tabletop standard with crappy paints. For years, I would buy a few minis at a time, paint them, and use them in games.

More recently, thanks to multiple kickstarters, I had amassed an army of hundreds of miniatures, and I began to get more serious about my results and materials. I have since won a several medals and awards at various Cons including ReaperCon and Wonderfest.

I started teaching six years ago after winning a speed painting contest at CONglomeration in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. I was asked to share some of the techniques I used on that piece. After teaching that first class, I discovered how much I enjoyed sharing techniques with fellow gamers and artists. I started to learn as much as I could from any source I could find, not only to become a better painter, but also to be able to share even more with others. As I have said in many of my classes, I am OK at a great number of things. I have taught many classes at conventions, festivals, fund raisers, game stores, and local art centers, and I enjoy that very much.

Dave cecil2Ghoul painted by Dave Cecil. Available in metal or plastic.

My real gift is my speed. I can go from blister pack to “meh thats not bad” ridiculously fast. At heart, I’m still a gamer. While I do very much enjoy painting, I want to get models on the table fast and still have them look presentable. Most of what I paint is completed in an hour or less. True, some of my competition pieces I spent 20 to 30 hours on, but in general those aren’t for my games.

I guess my biggest tip to share with people is to first know what your target is. If you have an army of 100 miniatures for a boardgame, the goal is to have decently painted minis while you play the game, not to win a trophy for each one. Therefore, don your boots of speed and crank them out. If you want a trophy, the approach will be much different. And if the joy of painting itself is the goal, relax, do some research and try new things. In short, it’s OK to be OK.  

Dave cecil1Bones T’Raukzul painted by Dave Cecil.

Figures in this Post

The left goblin is from the Pathfinder Goblin Warriors pack available in metal or plastic.
The right goblin is from the Pathfinder Goblin Pyros pack available in metal or plastic.
The orc berserker is available in metal or plastic.
The Harbinger of the North was available with subscriptions to Harbinger magazine.
His wolf companion is available in metal. 
Arilyn, Water Sorceress comes with the shell.
The fairy dragon I added to the shell is available in metal or plastic.
Ziplock baggies are available from numerous vendors.
The Castle of Deception wizard is available from Dark Sword.
The left skeletal archer is available in metal or plastic.
The right skeleton archer is available in metal or plastic.
Mangu the warrior is available in metal or plastic.
Hajad the pirate is available in metal or plastic.
Orc Marauder is available in metal or plastic.
Anirion elf wizard is available in metal or plastic, or clear plastic.
The Skeletal Archer, Mangu, and Orc Marauder are included in Learn to Paint kit: Core Skills
Hajad, Anirior, and Ingrid (not pictured) are included in Learn to Paint kit: Layer Up!
There are too many more to list in the foam squares case pictures, but if you are interested in getting a copy of one of those, let me know and I’ll find you the information.