A Beginning Mini Painter's Shopping List
By Ron Vutpakdi
Part 1: For Single Piece Minis
So, you've finally decided to take the plunge and start painting miniatures. You've purchased a few minis, but what else besides some paint and a brush do you need? What would be helpful? And, where can you buy this stuff? This guide lists the items that I consider essential, important, and helpful for beginning mini painters and has details about where you can buy these items.
This guide is intended for beginning painters who are painting single piece minis that require no assembly (most Dark Heaven Legends miniatures). A second beginning guide will cover an additional shopping list for minis that require assembly (including all Warlord miniatures).
Where to Buy
You will probably need to purchase items on this list from several different sources since none will provide them all. There are items that you probably already have in your house (like an old toothbrush and dish soap).
Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS)
Your FLGS should be your primary source for miniatures and paints and may also be a resource for some other hobby supplies. In addition to minis and paints, the FLGS can be a terrific source of advice and guidance.
Arts and Crafts Store
Stores like Michael's and Hobby Lobby (in the USA), are gold mines of helpful products including artist supplies, hobby knives, glues, etc. Michael's and Hobby Lobby also often run 40% off coupons in the Sunday paper, and Hobby Lobby often has 40% off coupons on their website as well.
Artist Supply House
An artist supply house can be a good source for artists supplies, particularly the higher end products that an arts and crafts store will not carry. Prices tend to be higher, but if you want to be able to personally select your Winsor & Newton Series 7 brush, they can be invaluable.
Modeling shops are good sources for tools, glues, primer, basing materials, and some paints.
Your local hardware store can be a source of a couple of useful items like ceramic tiles (if you want a cheap palette), spray primer, and tools.
Internet retailers can be alternative sources for all of the above. Keep in mind that shipping can be expensive, and you may not save on any sales taxes.
Of particular note is Dick Blick, an online/catalog artist supply house that also has store fronts in some locations. Dick Blick's prices are particularly good for Winsor and Newton Series 7 brushes.
Another notable supplier is Micro Mark, a good source for specialist tools such as clippers, diamond files, and pin vises.
This list contains items which are the bare minimum that you should buy or acquire for your new hobby before you start or shortly after you start. The items are listed in the order of use.
A Hobby Knife
Having a hobby knife, like an X-Acto knife, will be essential for removing flash and smoothing mold seams, especially if you do not have any files. Hobby knives are available at arts and crafts stores, artist supply houses, hardware stores, and internet retailers. Hobby knives cost about $3-4.
Toothbrush and Dish Soap
After you have cleaned your miniature of flash, mold lines, and other artifacts of the casting process, you will want to give it a good scrub with an old, soft toothbrush and some dish washing soap.
After cleaning and drying your miniature, you will need to prime it before painting. Primer comes in both aerosol spray cans and bottles. Most people prime in white though there are some that swear by priming in black or in gray.
Spray primer is fast, relatively easy, and generally covers well but requires good ventilation, relatively low humidity, median temperatures and some practice. A wide variety of spray primers is available and used: ask a group of ten painters which spray primer that they like, and you will likely get ten (or twelve) answers.
A good sized camp likes Citadel primers. From what I have heard, the primer available in Europe is quite good, but the version available in the US is not so good. Citadel primer is available at your FLGS and Games Workshop stores for about $8.
Some competition level painters prefer Tamiya Fine Surface Primer or Floquil Spray Primer. Both can be found at modeling shops or online for about $5-$8 a can.
Another group finds that Krylon primer or Rustoleum is just fine. Krylon can be found at arts and craft stores and artists supply houses. Rustoleum can be found at arts and craft stores and hardware stores. Both will cost about $3-$6.
I personally like Duplicolor Sandable Primer. Duplicolor primers are made for the automotive use, but it goes on smoothly and gives a fine surface without obscuring detail (unless you have poor priming technique). Duplicolor primer comes in several colors including white, black, and gray. Avoid the Filler and Primer version though. Duplicolor primer runs about $5 at most automotive parts stores, some stores will carry only certain colors.
Using a brush on primer has the advantage of being more practical when spray priming will not work and gives you more control over priming. The Reaper Master Series includes a brush on primer, and most paint lines (Vallejo, Floquil, Tamiya) also have a brush on primer. Even if you prefer the speed of spray priming, you might want to keep a bottle of brush on primer around to do primer touchups. Brush on primer will be available where the rest of the paint lines are sold. The Reaper MSP Brush On Primer is $3 a bottle.
What paint to buy will be one of the more important decisions that you will make. A number of different paint lines specifically for miniature painting are available from different manufacturers, and you can also use artist paint, craft paint, or even animation cel paint. Using paint specifically designed for miniature painting will make your life easier, even if the miniature paint costs more initially. The choice of which brand will partly be determined by what is easily available and what your personal painting style is.
Naturally, I am going to recommend the Reaper Master Series Paints. The paints are available in a wide array of colors organized into triads, are smooth, dilute well, and come in dropper bottles. The triad organization is particularly helpful when starting out since most of the triads are organized as a highlight color, a mid or base tone, and a shadow color that are designed to work together. The Reaper MSPs retail for $3 a bottle and are available at your FLGS as well as online.
Having the right brush will make learning to paint a much more enjoyable experience. Trying to paint with a bad brush will make painting a more trying and frustrating one.
Even if you are just learning to paint, I recommend getting at least one (if not two or three) of the highest grade of brushes: Kolinsky Sable brushes. A good Kolinsky Sable brush will form a very fine point, last a long time, and have good spring and good snap. I prefer Winsor and Newton Series 7 brushes (in normal size), though the Reaper, Da Vinci, and Raphael brushes are also good. Note that not all "Kolinsky Sable" brushes are of the same quality: even if the brand has two "Kolinsky Sable" lines, the more expensive line will likely have a different feel and performance than the cheaper line. A Winsor & Newton Series 7 #2 brush will cost $28 at an artist supply house, but Dick Blick sells them for about $10, so shop around a bit.
If you want to economize a bit, you can buy a Golden Taklon or "White Sable" brush at an arts and crafts store or artist supply house. These synthetic brushes will work fairly well, but won't last as long before they splay and hook at the tip. Even if you buy a set of Kolinsky Sable brushes, you will probably want to pick up one or two synthetic brushes for mixing colors, applying paint over rough surfaces, when you are in a hurry, doing dry brushing, or when you need to reach a tight, highly recessed part of a mini. Look at spending about $3-8 per synthetic brush.
In terms of sizes, I recommend getting at least three to start: a #2 (or a #1), a #0, and a #3/0. The #2 will be useful for basecoats, and if you get a good Kolinsky Sable brush, it will have a fine enough point that you can use it for most of your painting. The #0 will be useful for details and for working on shading or highlighting. You will probably only use the #3/0 for the tiniest details.
You will want some surface upon which to dilute and mix paints. Some people use old CDs, disposable plastic plates, or even mini blisters. A 99 cent ceramic tile from the hardware store also works well. I like using a round porcelain artist's palette with multiple wells. I have a 7 well flower version for when I am traveling and a 12 well one for use at home. If you to purchase a porcelain palette, go to an artist supply house or look at an internet retailer like Dick Blick. The palettes cost about $5-$13.
Water Cup, Paper Towels, Newspaper
These are just the other basics that you will need to paint. The cup is for your wash water; paper towels are for unloading your paint brush and clean up; and you will want to have some newspaper, a plastic garbage bag, a rubber placement, or something else to protect the surface on which you are painting from accidental spills.
If you take good care of your brushes, they will last months or even years (if they are good Kolinsky Sable brushes). Essential to making brushes last is rinsing them out frequently when painting and then using brush soap religiously after painting. Brush soap is designed to clean the paint off the brushes without drying the hairs and can also be left on the brush to shape the brush. I prefer Master's Brush Cleaner and Preserver which seems to keep my brushes very clean and performing very well. Master's Brush Cleaner and Preserver can be found at arts and crafts stores, artists supply houses, and online for around $4-$8.
Whatever you do, do not use regular dish soap on brushes made with natural hairs: dish soap will remove the natural oils in the hairs and damage your brushes.
Sealer / Varnish
After you have painted your mini, you will want to protect your hard work with a sealer (aka varnish).
Sealer (more commonly called varnish in the art world) comes in either spray or liquid (brush on) forms. The spray varnish is faster and easier to apply. However, spray varnish should only be used then the temperature is mild (50 deg to 85 deg), the low humidity is low (less than 65% in my experience), there is no wind, and you have good ventilation. Liquid varnish is applied like a clear paint and takes longer to apply. However, you can use brush on varnish almost anywhere you can paint.
Both types of varnish come in gloss, matte, and satin finishes. The gloss finish yields a tougher and stronger, but a glossy finish can make a painted mini look a little like plastic. The matte finish takes less abuse but has a more pleasing matte appearance. A satin finish is somewhere in between. I recommend using a gloss coat followed by one or more matte coats to get the best of both worlds.
I tend to recommend getting Krylon Spray Varnish in both gloss and matte formulations as long as environmental conditions are normally suitable for spraying. I use the UV Resistant variety. The cans cost about $5 at arts and craft stores and can also be found at artist supply houses and Walmart. Many competition level painters do prefer Testor's Dullcote for the matte finish. Dullcote can be found at arts and crafts stores with a model section and modeling shops for $5 to $8.
If you want (or need) to use brush on varnish, I recommend Liquitex Gloss Varnish ($8 at arts and crafts stores and artist supply houses) and the Reaper MSP Brush on Sealer ($3) or the Liquitex Matte Varnish (also $8).
Eventually, you'll probably want to get gloss and matte finishes in both spray and liquid varnishes for maximum flexibility.
This list contains items that are important to have but that you do not need before you get started on your first mini. Again, the items are listed in the order of use.
A good set of small hobby files will make removing flash and mold lines easier than a hobby knife since the files will be able to reach more places than the hobby knife will. Regular hobby files run around $5 to $10 and can be found at hardware stores, modeling shops, and some internet retailers.
Regular hobby files are made of a hard metal. You may want to consider purchasing diamond coated files. Diamond coated files are more expensive ($20 for a 220 Grit set at MicroMark) and harder to find but work faster and better than regular hobby files.
You can paint using a regular lamp or at the kitchen table as long as the light is decent. However, if you can work under a bright natural light, you will more easily see details on the mini. "Natural light" bulbs can be found at hardware stores. Hardware stores carry "natural light" or "daylight" bulbs in both incandescent ($2-$4) and fluorescent ($5+) varieties. I prefer the fluorescent variety since the light tends to be whiter and less heat is generated by the bulb.
Some painters like Ott-Lite lamps. Ott-Lite lamps are advertised as being very good at reproducing daylight and the small versions can be very handy since they can be easily placed in a suitcase for painting on the road. However, Ott-Lites tend to be quite expensive, with entry level models starting at about $70 or so at arts and crafts stores and artist supply houses.
Shown in the picture are my two lights: a portable Ott-Lite on the left and a magnifying lamp with two daylight fluorescent bulbs on the right. I normally just use the magnifying lamp and save the Ott-Lite for when I am on a trip (and want to paint) or need to take pictures.
If you are using paint that comes in a dropper bottle (Reaper Master Series Paints or Vallejo paints), some droppers will clog occasionally. Clearing the clog is very easy but does require something like a pin, needle, or even a staple. I have found that a safety pin works very well.
A jug of distilled water ($1 at a grocery store) can help you avoid problems due to paint reacting oddly to tap water with minerals or chemical impurities. I use distilled water (as part of my "Gunk" concoction) and alone to thin paints.
Additives (Flow Improver and Drying Retarder)
Flow improver (aka Fluid Additive or Flow Aid) is a liquid that reduces the surface tension in paints and helps the paint flow more easily off a brush and onto the mini. The Reaper MSP Flow Improver is $3 a bottle. You can also buy Liquitex Flow Additive for $8 at arts and crafts stores or artist supply houses. If you are using the Liquitex Fluid Additive or another artist flow aid, you may need to dilute the liquid before use, so read the instructions!
Drying Retarder (aka Slow-Dri) is a liquid that increases the drying time for paints allowing more time to work with the paint (particularly useful when wet blending). The Reaper MSP Drying Retarder is $3 a bottle. You can also buy Liquitex Slow-Dri Blending Fluid (not the Gel version!) for $8 at arts and crafts stores or artist supply houses.
"Gunk" is a combination of water, flow improver, and drying retarder used by some painters to dilute their paints (at least one drop with subsequent drops being just plain water). Formulas for "gunk" vary: I use a formula once (and possibly still) used by Anne Foerster of 5 parts water, 4 parts flow improver, and 1 part drying retarder. I have my "gunk" mixed up in a spare Reaper MSP bottle (3 empty bottles for $3).
Using hair conditioner on your natural hair brushes after they have been cleaned with brush soap will help restore the natural oils in the bristles. Just apply, leave on for a few seconds, possibly painting your finger to help work the conditioner through the bristles, and then rinse off. Then, use a little bit of brush soap to shape the bristles. I recommend using plain hair conditioner and not shampoo-conditioner. The little bottles of hair conditioner available at hotels are of a particularly handy size.
This list contains items which are helpful to have, but they are optional. As you get more experienced, you probably will want to get these items eventually, but they are not required by any means. There are many things that could fall into this category, so I am only going to mention some of the top items. Again, the items are listed in the order of use.
Hobby Shears / Cutters
While the hobby knife will work well for most flash, it is less than ideal for removing some pieces of metal. While not essential for single piece minis, a good pair of shears or cutters like the Xuron Micro Shear, will prove helpful. The shears cost around $20 at a modeling shop or from an online retailer.
Be very careful when using the shears on anything hard, particularly wire: the bits of metal can fly when cut, so you should be wearing safety glasses or at least covering the bit about to be cut off with something so that it does not go flying.
Mini Handle and Poster Tack (or a Hot Glue Gun)
You can hold minis in your hands while you paint, but doing so is likely to be messy and result in some paint rubbing off. Far better to mount your mini on something that gives you a handy handle to hold. The handle can be pretty much anything. While I like pieces of spun craft wood ($1 for 3 at an arts and craft store), I have seen minis mounted on chopsticks, old paint bottles or medicine bottles (filled with sand), soda caps, and even held with a hemostat.
Unless you are going the hemostat route, you will need some way to mount the mini on its handle. I generally use a glob of reusable poster tack putty (around $3 for a package at arts and crafts stores. One brand name is "Elmer's Tack Removable Adhesive Putty"). Others use double stick mounting tape or a hot glue gun. Note that some poster tack putty will not stick very well to smooth metal.
Sometimes, you just want to be able to paint away from home, and it can be very handy to have a case into which you can put paints, additives, minis, brushes etc so that you can take your hobby on the road. There are many options available, many of which can be found at arts and crafts stores, Walmart, sporting goods stores, and hardware stores. Some of the more popular options include arts and crafts cases, artists' paint cases, tackle boxes, and tool boxes.
My personal favorite is the Plano Stowaway Extra Deep (Model #3730) that I found for $7 at Fry's Electronics. The case is a translucent plastic case with latches and dividers. I usually use two and 1/2 rows for paint (about 64 MSP bottles), 1/2 rows for minis and mini holders, 3/4's of a row for paint brushes (secured with poster tack), and 1/4 of a row for brush soap. The case fits very nicely in my suitcase and my rolling demo bag. I also have a couple smaller Plano cases for when I am certain that I won't need but a few paints.
Paint Rack / Display
Once you have more than 20 bottles of paint (or so), putting them into a shoe box or arrayed haphazardly on your desk can be a bit messy and aggravating. A traveling case may work, but it is handy to have something that can store your paint bottles and display them such that it is easy to find the exact shade of blue that you want. While you can custom build a paint rack, there are also some of commercially available options.
If you have the desk space, one of the cheapest options is an expanding set of shelves ($10 from Bed, Bath, and Beyond). The shelves are designed for can in the kitchen pantry, but they work well for almost any bottle of paint.
A more expensive option that works well if you are short on desk space is the Paintier 80 ($40 at model shops or online). The Paintier 80 is a tiered lazy susan for hobby paint.
A Painting Notebook
Especially if you are painting minis which are supposed to look like a cohesive group, a painting notebook will prove very helpful. Even if you are painting individual minis, being able to look up what colors that you used on a mini, especially if you mixed up a color is helpful. In my painting notebook, I record the name of the mini, the month that I painted the mini, at least several paint entries, and notes about the painting itself.
Each entry corresponds to a part of the mini (like skin) or a material on the mini (like armor) and includes several lines for colors used (for example, Highlight = XXXX, Base Coat = YYYY, Shadow = ZZZZ).
Matte Medium and "Magic Wash"
Matte medium is used to thin paints and make them more transparent. When matte medium is used with dark paints (that flow well) and water, you can mix up the equivalent of a "magic wash" that makes very short work of shading and darklining. After you have finished the base coat, just paint the wash a bit liberally onto the mini and watch it flow into the nooks, crannies and crevasses. My formula for a "magic wash" (original recipe suggested by Anne) is 1 part paint(normally one of the MSP liners), 3-4 parts matte medium, and 3-4 parts water. The mini in the picture was primed with Reaper MSP Brush On Primer and then given a magic wash.
Matte medium is available from Vallejo and from Liquitex. Vallejo Matte Medium costs $3 for a small bottle and can be found at your FLGS. Liquitex Matte Medium (fluid version, not gel) can be found at arts and crafts stores and artist supply houses for around $8 for a large bottle.
The Reaper liners in the Master Series Paints, particularly the brown and blue liners, work extremely well for making magic washes.
Empty Bottles or Jars
If you have a few empty bottles or jars handy, then you will be able to save "Gunk", "Magic Wash," or particularly good color mixes. Reaper has empty MSP dropper bottles available (3 for $3) and there are other online sources for empty bottles and jars.
You will want to protect the surface on which you are painting, particularly if it is the dining room table. Newspaper works fairly well, but a surface that stops paint (or wash water) from seeping through can be very handy. Some solutions that are improvements over newspaper are a rubber placement or a cutting board.
My favorite painting mat is the Slip Grip Hobby Mat. The Slip Grip Hobby Mat is a thin, easy to clean, no-stick mat. I picked one up at Gen Con in 2006 and have been very happy with it. According to the website, the mats should now be available through your FLGS (for $15-$36 depending on size) if they use Alliance Distributors.
Reading Glasses / MagEyes / Optivisor / Magnifying Lamp
At some point, particularly if your eyes are not as young as they used to be, you will probably want some sort of magnifier to see the details while you are painting.
Reading glasses from the local pharmacy or Walmart work well for some people and are relatively cheap ($5-$20).
MagEyes and OptiVISORs are headband mounted binocular magnifiers. MagEyes are lighter and cheaper (about $20) but do not come with as many options or have as many accessories available as OptiVISORs (about $40+). Both can be found at arts and crafts stores and artist supply houses.
Another option is a magnifying lamp combining a lamp and a magnifying lens. These can run around $50 and up. I bought one early on, but, to be honest, my magnifying lamp sees more use as a lamp than a magnifier, particularly since my paint brush hits the lens often enough to be annoying when I'm trying to paint while looking through the lens.