A Beginners Guide Base Coating Tabletop Miniatures


This tutorial series is for beginner tabletop miniature painters. It is divided into the six steps I use to get the models to the table quickly with minimal effort with a good tabletop quality paint job. For an explanation of what is meant by tabletop quality read this article.

Note: Even though this tutorial uses a unit of Rebel Troopers as an example the skills demonstrated will apply to any other unit of models that you want to get done in a short amount of time.

The steps I use to paint gaming miniatures to tabletop quality are as follows:

Tools You Will Need

For painting the base coat you will want to use the largest brush that will allow you to control your paint on the model that you are painting, and not paint over areas that you have already painted. If you base coat with a fine detail brush it will take forever for each model and you will get frustrated and bored.

Base coating can become the most time-consuming step of the model painting process. Using the correct brush for the job will make it take less time and less tedious. There will be areas that will allow you to use a great wide brush to paint open areas, but there are also areas on every model that will require fine brushes to get into the area that needs coverage. So have more than one size brush on hand for this part.

Determine your Color Scheme

The first thing you should do, before you start to put paint to model, is deciding what colors you want on your finished army. Take the time now to figure out how you want your army to look. Will you follow the same color scheme that was used by the studio painters that made the game? Or will you go in your own direction and choose your own combinations.

When you are just getting started, I will recommend keeping it simple. Focus on getting the models to a tabletop ready status and later, once you are more comfortable with painting your army, you can focus on the centerpieces of your army to enhance with more advanced techniques and multiple colors.

To begin I recommend choosing these colors.

  • Skin
  • Cloth
  • Metal
  • Weapons
  • hair / fur

Once you have come to a decision about the color scheme of your army you will begin to apply the base coat to your models. Most gamers consider the minimum to be three colors with a clear distinction between skin, armor or clothing, and weapons. This tutorial will be a little more than this minimum but getting there efficiently.

Thin Your Paint

When you thin your paints before applying them you will get smoother results.  Put a few drops of the paint that you are using onto your pallet and then add a couple of drops of either clean water or flow improver. (Don’t use the water from your brush cleaning water, it can affect the color of your paint leading to inconsistent colors across your army.) I keep another small cup of water on my painting desk for mixing etc.

You may need to apply two coats of some colors but it will be worth it to avoid losing detail in your models. Dark colors will still have a good amount of coverage even when thinned slightly.

Paint Light Colors First

Since it is easier to paint dark colors over light colors I suggest that you begin with light colors and then work your way to darker colors. As I began to paint this rebel leader I began with his white undershirt that shows through his open overcoat.

You can see that my first layer has been thinned to the point that it is semi-transparent. This allows me to have more control over the opacity of the color. I could stop here if I wanted to have a darker color or apply another layer if I want a more solid white look.

This model has only had one coat of off white paint applied to its shirt
This is the same model as the above photo with a couple of layers of paint on it

Also, you will notice that there are a couple of spots that got onto the collar of the overcoat. This is not too much of a concern because we started with a light color. The green that we will use on the coat will cover these small mistakes easily.

TIP: I like to keep some paper towels on hand to clean up any small mistakes or if my paint begins to pool on my model.

Start with Colors that are slightly brighter than you want to end up with

After base coating, we will be applying a wash over the base coat of paint. This will create shaded areas on your model quickly and easily, but will also darken your model’s overall appearance. Beginning with a color that is a shade or two lighter will allow you to get the color that you want to end up with more easily than trying to lighten it after the wash has dried.

Choose the right pallet

Your pallet is where you mix your pain for use on your projects. You can use anything you want or have handy but there are certain things that you should keep in mind before you begin.

  • Porous materials like paper and cardboard will dry out your paint quickly.
  • Using something with an indentation, called a well, will let you mix your paint without it running all over, it also helps it stay concentrated
  • Small bits of scrap plastics are nice because they are disposable and inexpensive.
  • Wet Pallets allow your paint to remain usable longer

What is a wet pallet you ask? Essentially it is a plastic container that has a sponge that is wet. On top of that is parchment paper that allows some of the water to wick through it. This water keeps your paint hydrated and usable for a much longer period of time. When properly thinned it doesn’t take very much paint to cover a squad of your models. However, it may take a little while to move this paint from your pallet to your miniatures. Having a bit more time to use your paint will save you paint in the long run.

For more information I have written an article all about the use of wet pallets.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Growing up, my dad would often tell me “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s almost all small stuff.” When trying to paint up an entire squad, or several squads, quickly, small imperfections will happen. Sometimes you will miss a small part in a hard to get to area. Or perhaps you will inadvertently paint a shirt the same color as the overcoat, or forget to paint a belt or gun holster differently.

Don’t get too hung up on these small mistakes, especially when you are just beginning this hobby. Your skill will increase as you get more practice.

If you zoom in on the picture posted at the beginning of this article you will see several areas where the paint was missed and the dark gray primer is showing through or paint got on other areas.

This is a good example of why I recommend priming with either black or a dark gray color. Or as close to the final color of the model as possible. These areas that were missed look like shadows to the naked eye. Remember that these pictures are close-ups of a model that is barely over an inch tall. The pictures show imperfections more easily than holding them up in front of your face without any magnification.

You could stop painting your army right now and have quality equal to or better than many of the armies that you will face, but I will show you some small and simple things that you can do to make them look even better. At this point, you have also only applied the base colors of your model’s final color scheme. If you follow these recommendations you will still apply a wash and highlight that will help to compensate for small imperfections.

When you are painting the rank and file forces of your army it is easy to get caught up in the quality of each individual model. Sometimes it is difficult to think that you can stop improving on that particular piece.

Just remember that these are the pieces that you will have many multiples of. One grunt is exchangeable with any other grunt in your tabletop army. Small imperfections on these models will not be noticed by the majority of people unless you obsess over them and point them out. I know that I am always just happy to see a fully painted army across from me because it makes the whole game more enjoyable.

Recommended Base Coating Tools

  • Some good paint brushes
    • I like The Army Painter triangular-shaped brushes they are more comfortable in my hand for a long time than smaller brushes. I generally use either the Regiment or the Character size depending on the mini that I am painting.
    • I use a good brush cleaner from time to time, just to make sure that they are nice and clean.
  • Use a good quality paint
    • Citadel is the most popular paint brand, they make good quality paint, this is a good starter set from Citadel
    • I like the droppers that The Army Painter comes in. It makes it easier to just use a bit if you are painting just one model or a short session. This is a good starter set from The Army Painter, or if you have the funds you can get their complete set here.
  • You can always use some quality flow improver to help get good coverage

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