How to Paint an Army Before You Die

The greatest enjoyment in miniature gaming for me is visual.

Other types of games can match the scale or strategy or worldbuilding you’ll find in miniatures games, but no board game matches the spectacle of two lovingly-painted armies of figures battling over well-crafted terrain. No RTS video game will give you the feeling of accomplishment and ownership that an army of models you carefully crafted and painted yourself can.


Now, this is what I like to see!

So why, so often, do we see tables of half-painted miniatures, riots of mismatched color schemes, and grey hordes of plastic marching drearily to war?

Well, because it’s hard. Miniatures games require an investment of time outside of actually playing that’s unprecedented with essentially every other comparable type of game (and typically an unprecedented financial investment, too). When what you really want to do is start playing a cool game, skipping over that visual awesomeness seems like the price to pay in order to start enjoying yourself before the sun burns out. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Since getting back into 40k a few years ago, I’ve thought a bit about the advice I’d give to friends who might like to join in but would be apprehensive about the commitment of time and effort seemingly required to play with a painted army. It occurred to me that the ideas I had might be useful to a wider audience, so consider this my manifesto for actually getting to play with a complete, great-looking army.

Before the Reaper comes to claim your ancient, paint-splattered soul.


First, pick up a couple basic troop models for your chosen army and work out your color scheme before getting started on anything else. Having a scheme that keeps changing as you paint different units leads to wasted effort and an incoherent mess on the tabletop. Experiment all you want beforehand, but once you start painting the army proper you should have a plan you can stick to.


Experimenting with a handful of minis at the beginning will save you a lot more time later

You also want to have an idea of how large the project will be. It doesn’t need to be a complete army list, just a list of units and an approximate number of models. This is important in order to know how much effort and detail you should be putting into each figure.

Keep track of your milestones – even just having a list of units that you can cross off is a handy reminder of the progress you’re making. I still have the list I made when I was painting my first 40k army as a teenager, with every item crossed off. Even long after parting ways with the army itself, I’m still proud of that list.

Stay focused

It is way, way too easy to get distracted by a shiny new release or cool unrelated model and find yourself derailed from your primary project. Taking the occasional break to paint something else can be a good thing, but ideally, you’ve planned out the scope of your project small enough that you shouldn’t need too many breaks in order to keep yourself enjoying painting. In the case of a larger project, try breaking it down into smaller (but large enough to be playable) chunks that you can focus on and complete, then work on something else as a palate cleanser before coming back to your main army.

Choose a main color that’s available in a spray can (and has a matching paint pot)

The availability of color spray paints with matching brush-on paint colors is a godsend. In a single step, your figures already have a lot of their color blocked in and ready to have detail added. While this does significantly reduce your choice of color compared to the vast variety of non-spray colors, the trade-off is absolutely worth it for actually having a completely finished collection that much easier.

The matching paint pot color part is important, too – without it, any mistake with another color later means that your timesaver has now become a painful liability since it will be much more difficult to fix. This isn’t really much of a restriction anyways, since Army Painter, Games Workshop, and Vallejo are great sources for miniatures spray paints and all have a matching paint pot for every spray they sell.

Choose a secondary color that’s darker than your main color

Since you’ll usually be painting this color over a large portion of a miniature (think fatigues, carapace, or sections of armor) you want to choose one that will cover over your chosen main color with a minimum of fuss. This usually means a darker color – this is something you should test when picking your color scheme. The Citadel base paints in particular usually have quite good coverage and are a good place to pick out your secondary color.

Use washes

Duh. Premixed washes are available in a wide variety of colors from basically every paint supplier. They give an improvement to your miniature’s appearance all out of proportion to the time and effort they take to apply. I can’t think of any other technique or product that gives you the bang-for-your-buck that they offer. Bright or eye-catching parts of your models can benefit from applying a specific colored wash, but most smaller details or darker areas only need a simple black or dark brown wash to look just fine.


This Tau Fire Warrior makes good use of the three points above – sprayed with a Dark Yellow color with a matching pot for touchups, fatigues, and gunstock painted with dark brown and black and finished with a brown wash.

Change the order of techniques around if it makes things faster

While highlighting is usually done later in the painting process, techniques like drybrushing tend to make a mess of adjacent areas. It’s worth planning around this and getting techniques like this done before you put any effort into painting other areas nearby. Similarly, difficult spots that you’re more likely to make mistakes on are best finished before nearby colors that you’d have to touch up.

The flip side is true, too – if you’re going to be painting over the adjacent parts later anyway, why waste time being more careful that you need to? Grab a bigger brush and get it done.

Find the details you want to concentrate on

One of the biggest risks with trying to paint an army quickly is that things end up looking flat and boring. But it doesn’t take exhaustive effort on every little thing in order to avoid this. Spending a few extra minutes to make a feature or two on each miniature stand out, draws the eye, and elevates the whole miniature without taking a lot of time to do. Bits like lenses and gems are some of my favorite targets for this approach, and decals offer a lot of added detail compared to the time it takes to add them. A Space Marine with the shoulder insignia decals looks way more complete and detailed than just a blank, boring shoulder pad.

Use a basing method that doesn’t require paint (or, do the bases first)

This may seem like an obvious thing but it’s a mistake I find myself making all too often. I’m focused on painting the miniature itself and I don’t think of the base until after I’m done. Unfortunately, most basing techniques use drybrushing to bring out texture and detail, and it becomes almost impossible to finish the base without having to go back and repaint the figure’s feet. Find a basing style that only requires you to glue layers of material on, or get the trouble of texturing and drybrushing bases out of the way before touching up becomes much more complicated.

Figure out which corners to cut

Even painting tutorial videos produced by a large corporation and (ostensibly) aimed at beginners seem to expect layers of highlight on pretty much every part of a miniature. I’m here to tell you that contrary to what they (and the rest of the internet) might tell you, this just isn’t necessary to have an attractive, complete army. Choose one or two large or focal-point areas and concentrate your highlighting efforts there. Most other areas and especially smaller details like straps, claws, or pouches will look just fine after hitting them with a wash. If you really want to, you can always go back and add more highlights after your army is done and you’re already having fun playing games.


Only this Ork’s skin has been highlighted – everything else is fine with just flat colors and a wash

Save that extra effort for large or important “focal point” models

Extra detail added to your rank-and-file goons has to be multiplied over every single one of them, but taking the time to add that detail to a handful of heroic or otherwise important miniatures takes much less time and will be much more noticeable to anyone looking at your army. Put an extra highlight on all your Warboss’s tiny pouches or freehand a cool crest on your Space Marine commander. Such models are really the crown jewels of your army and will be the first thing that most people will look at and remember.

Now stop reading and go paint something

This certainly isn’t the only way to go about actually painting and finishing your projects, but it’s the advice I’d give to someone who wanted to join me and my friends in playing and enjoying games like 40k (and also advice I could stand to remember myself from time to time). If it gets just one more army out of the depths of plastic-grey despair and on to the table in glorious color, I figure it’s worth posting about.



Thanks for reading, and happy painting!

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