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Preparing to Begin Miniature Painting: 30 Key Terms

Chante is a miniature-painting enthusiast and Dungeons & Dragons player.

Getting Started With Miniature Painting

Are you a beginner to miniature painting? Are you playing a tabletop game such as Dungeons and Dragons or Warhammer? Are you interested in representing yourself or others in miniature form? Are you interested in painting on a very small scale for fun or competition? Are you interested in painting on a very small scale to punish yourself? Then here are 30 key terms you need to know!

If you’re an aspiring miniature-painting enthusiast like me and you’re stuck inside due to a COVID-19 lockdown, you might have been watching a lot of YouTube videos about the hobby. In my experience, jargon gets thrown around, and it can get a bit confusing and intimidating. Additionally, this jargon is not always explained, and if it is, it’s not always collectively done in one comprehensive video. Not that you can’t find these types of videos at all, it just takes a bit of digging. So, I decided to put all the terms that first baffled me into one article.

Now, the reason I decided to write this article before any article about equipment a beginner needs to start miniature painting is this: not everyone starts miniature painting for the same reason. You might want to paint miniatures for the sole purpose of putting them on a board to play Dungeons and Dragons. You might want to compete in competitions. You might want to take it on professionally to generate an extra income. Whichever reason, not every aspect of miniature painting will apply to you. Therefore, perhaps before going all in and buying all the recommended paints and brushes, know which approach to miniature painting is best for you. So here goes:

1. Tabletop Standard

You won’t be winning any awards with tabletop standard quality. Tabletop standard means the quality of your paint job suitable for gaming. Typically, this means that you won’t be spending hours painting a miniature’s face or creating an extravagant base. You probably won’t practice intense feathering or weathering and you probably won’t need to buy the best brushes or the most expensive paint. However, this doesn’t mean that your miniature has to look bad.

2. Contrast

Contrast on a miniature refers to the difference between elements such as colour, or highlights and shadows. Painting a mini with a decent amount of contrast is important in making it “pop”. Additionally, you can use contrast to indicate different light sources or to add realism to your mini.

3. Saturation

Saturation refers to colour intensity or how vivid it is; the higher the saturation of a colour, the further it is from grey. But this doesn’t necessarily refer to the brightness of the colour—a colour has a high saturation when it is in the middle of the spectrum between black and white. Hence, if a critical critic critiques your saturation, this is what they’re referring to.

4. Value

In the same vein as saturation is value. This refers to how bright or dark a colour is. Whereas saturation refers to the middle of the spectrum, value refers to a colour’s position in relation to either black or white.

5. Priming

Priming is essential for miniature painting (unless your miniatures are pre-primed like the Dungeons & Dragons Nolzurs Marvelous miniatures are). Primer helps your paint stick to your miniature (AKA paint adhesion). Furthermore, a good primer is measured in terms of detail retention, finish, sand-ability and durability. You can paint primer directly onto your mini, use an airbrush or use a spray can. And finally, a matte primer is better for paint adhesion.

6. Zenithal Priming

Zenithal refers to a light source from above, like the sun. Zenithal priming is adding white/grey over your black primer to show where light will hit different parts of your mini, helping you determine where to add highlights.

7. Block In

When you hear this term, it means painting in a certain area with a chosen dominant colour. It helps differentiation areas on you mini and thereafter, you can start adding detail.

8. Underpainting

Underpainting is one way to get a light or a warm colour to look good on top of black primer by painting a grey or brown over the primer.

9. Object Source Lighting (OSL)

This is when you have a light-creating object (like a fire or a glowing hard) on your diorama/base/mini. This light source then dictates how your miniature will be highlighted and shaded.

Crystal Brush 2019

Crystal Brush 2019

10. Edge Highlighting

Highlighting the most pronounced details on your mini. This help very small details to “pop”.

11. Washing

Lazy man’s shading. This is when using a wash or a very diluted dark paint to create natural looking shadows when it settles in the recesses of your mini. Washes work better on glazed finishes instead of matte ones.

12. Layering

Layering is another way to highlight. Just as the name suggests, it’s adding thin layers on top of each other to create a desired highlight.

13. Glazing

Adding a diluted paint in order to tint a colour on your miniature.

14. Wet Blending

Blending colours while they are still wet on your miniature.

15. Feathering

Feathering is a technique to create a smooth transition from light to dark (and vice versa) or from a translucent to opaque colour.

16. Loaded Brush

Similar to wet blending and feathering, it is when you have two paints in your paintbrush to create a blend.

17. Two-Brush Blending/Spit Blending

This is when you have two brushes in your hand. One is to apply paint to your mini and the other is to manipulate this paint using a blending medium (like saliva) to create smooth transitions.

18. Stippling

Applying paint in small dots to create a specific texture or blend.

19. Weathering

Weathering is a technique to make your mini or parts of your mini look old, used, worn, banged up or, you guessed it, weathered.

20. Blacklining

Blacklining is used to show a separation between different colours especially in the folds of your mini. Blacklining, however, doesn’t mean you have to use pure black—any dark colour will do.

21. True Metallic Metal (TMM)

Painting using reflective paint such as metallic paint.

22. Non-Metallic Metal (NMM)

This is a technique of painting parts of your mini to look like metal without using metallic paint.

Crystal Brush 2019

Crystal Brush 2019

23. Dry Brushing

A quick and dirty way to create highlights by brushing raised parts of your mini with a brush on which most of the paint has been removed.

24. Varnish

It’s important to varnish your mini if it’s going to be handled a many your companions with their oily little fingers. Your best bet for a long-lasting paint job would be a gloss varnish but some might opt for a matte or satin finish. However, varnish is not necessary if you’re painting for fun or competition as it can change the brightness of your colours.

25. Pinning

You’ll need some wire and a drill. This is for pinning a mini onto a base or for assembling minis such a pewter minis.

26. Volumes

When you hear someone refer to a miniature’s volumes, they’re referring to the shapes it’s made up of.

27. Airbrushing

Lazy man’s painting (kind of but not really). Airbrushes are great for priming, base coating, shading, highlighting and painting large amounts of minis at the same time (like armies, goblin hoards etc.).

28. Colour Schemes

Choosing a colour scheme is choosing the colours you want to use on your minis. This is up to personal preference but there are a variety of colour schemes that you can use.

29. Mould Lines

Miniatures are usually cast in a two-part mould and then stuck together. When it’s put together, its molten plastic can ooze out at the seams. If you want a seamless looking mini, you should remove these.

30. Basing

Basing adds realism to you miniature, especially for display or competition purposes. However, creating a beautiful base might not be for you in a gaming setup.

Final Thoughts

I hope defining these terms helps a bit when they’re casually brought up in your research. I’m definitely excited to start painting; which mini do you think I should paint first when my miniature paint arrives?


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© 2020 Chante van Biljon


Υο on April 30, 2020:


Chante van Biljon (author) from Bloemfontein on April 06, 2020:

Thanks for the feedback Prateek :)

Prateek Jain from Madhya Pradesh, India on April 06, 2020:

I really liked this article. You have shared a lot of valuable information. This is something new i came to know today about the painting art. Thank you for sharing this wonderful article.