How To Prime Miniatures

You’ve clipped, trimmed, filed and glued and you’re all set to start putting paint on plastic. You obviously want to make sure you get the best possible result for the tabletop, so make sure you’re getting the foundations right. Priming minis might not be the most glorious aspect of painting, but without it your finished product is going to sub-par. We want to make sure you start your paint scheme off on the right foot, so read on for our primer on priming and learn how and why to prime your miniatures.

Why You Need To Prime Your Models

The logical first question to answer here is why would you need to prime your miniatures? You’re about to paint them, why do you need to paint them first? Well there are a couple of reasons.

First and most simply the acrylic paints you’ll most likely be using to paint aren’t going to paint well directly onto plastic. You’d end up needing to layer the paint of quite thick and risk losing the smooth finish and fine details that make models look so good. A layer of primer gives the other paints a much better surface to adhere to, allowing you to get even coverage with thin coats to capture all the intricacies of the plastic with a smooth finish.

Secondly, more modern paint formulations give us the beauty that is contrast paints. Contrast paints are specially formulated to go over a base layer and sit into recesses on the model, giving you instant highlights and shading. If you plan your contrast scheme to work off your priming colour you’ll be saving yourself tons of time and ensuring that high quality finish. Games Workshop (and other paint brands) have already considered the most common colour choices and sell them as spray cans to make life even easier.

Picking The Right Colour To Prime With

Speaking of this, when you’re considering priming your miniatures, pick the right colour options for your finished product. A simple consideration is that dark priming colours (Chaos Black, Mephiston Red or Mechanicus Standard Grey) suit dark, rich tones while light priming colours (Grey Seer, White Scar or Wraithbone) will give you lighter, brighter tones.

So picking your primer should be based off how you want your finished mini to look. Do you want your Ultramarines to have that classic deep, dark blue? Macragge Blue spray with blue/black recess shades and lighter blue edge highlights will get you that classic ‘Eavy Metal version. Want a bit more of a stand-out bright blue? Start with a lighter base and use Talassar Blue Contrast, with some darker and lighter blue shades/highlights, and you’ll end up with a much more eye-popping blue finish.

Choosing a primer that matches a large portion of your scheme is a real time saver. Image via Warhammer Community.

Bare in mind that you aren’t stuck with the base colour you’ve used to prime the model. Say you wanted a deep red armour with some light robes to give you a high degree of contrast across the model. Start with a dark primer, then get your reds on to create a rich, dark tone. Then carefully re-prime the robes in a light colour and paint it up appropriately.

Brush, Spray Or Airbrush

The next obvious question to answer is how to get the primer onto the model. You have three options; brush, spray paint (otherwise called a rattle can) or airbrush. The truth is each options has it’s own place in the painting process and it depends on your goal when you’re starting out.

A brush is probably the most accessible option for priming a model, and the easiest one to control as a beginner. Thin down some base paint (if you don’t thin it you’re risking a lumpier finish), pick a brush you aren’t too worried about maintaining and thinly apply to the model. You’ll probably want the classic two thin coats to get good coverage without losing detail. Using a brush is a great way to prime small areas, like the robes I just said about. However, it’s probably the most time consuming way to prime models, so if you’re working on an army you might want to consider a different option.

Rattle cans are likely the most common way to prime miniatures, and for my money the easiest option. As long as you have a well ventilated area (most people do it outside) and the weather is dry, not too hot, not too cold and not too humid you’ll be able to spray minis at a rapid pace. Follow the can instructions carefully. You need to shake thoroughly (I normally set a 2-3 minute timer on my phone to make sure I’m not skimping on it) and continually move the can while you spray. Get a smooth, thin coat by spraying in several quick passes. It’s easy to overdo it and lose the details on the model. Unfortunately if the weather is rubbish (we’re UK based, so it frequently is) and you don’t have indoor space suitable for spraying you might need to look at using the brush method.

An airbrush is probably the least accessible option for priming minis. You need a lot more kit to get going, but after that investment you’ll have a way to prime (and paint) models that is quick and effective, and allows you to experiment with how you’re applying the paint to get different effects. There’s a reason the best painters tend to have access to airbrushes for their projects.

Make Sure You Hit All The Angles

When it comes to figuring out how to spray prime miniatures you’ll first need to decide how to hold onto your miniatures while you spray them, in a way that will let you get to all the sides of your mini, including underneath.

By far the cheapest option is to get a length of wood or card, and some double sided tape or bluetack to attach models to it. Make sure to position your models far enough apart that they don’t block each other. At least a centimetre between the bases is usually enough but the more space you have the better you can control where your paint is going. Try and also get them close to an edge. That will let you spray up at their underside. We’d still do this if we’re painting a lot of models at once but it can be difficult to hold a longer stick at the right angle if you need to get around some tricky sculpts.

For single models you can get around this using a piece of cork and fixing the model to the top with some blu-tack (this is also a good budget substitute for a painting handle). Holding the cork with a gloved hand lets you easily position the model at any angle you like, letting you get behind shields and under capes no problem. This is also how we typically apply zenithal highlights (which we’ll get into in a second), but can be slow if you’re painting a lot of models.

Another popular option for base coating models is using a citadel painting handle. The shape of the handle with the thin centre means you can get under models easily, while the pivoting arm makes painting the model from every angle effortless. It’s more expensive than the other options, and if you’re on a budget you might not feel it justifies the price, but if you’ve got money to invest in your base coating this’ll get you off to a good start.

Block Colour vs Zenithal Priming

The final consideration you need to make when you’re deciding out how to prime your miniatures is if you’re going to use a block colour or a zenithal. Block colour priming, like the name suggests, involves painting the model one singular colour. Obviously your choice of block colour will influence the finished model, as the undercoat will determine how contrasts will come out. Additionally, if you want to cut down some painting time (looking at HoD’s editor Niall here) you pick a base colour that features heavily on the model so you have minimal steps to finish the recipe.

Zenithal priming however, is a more advanced technique for priming and a way to add a whole new level to your painting. Applying a zenithal requires spray priming the miniature in a dark colour, then applying a lighter coloured spray from a single direction.

It utilises the contrast between paint colours to mimic the reflection of light. Typically this would be from directly above, as though coming from the sun whilst it’s at its zenith (hence the name). The result will be a base coat that leaves the recesses and areas of the model that would naturally shadowed dark, and the areas that would catch the light bright. If you then combine a zenithal with contrast paints they will naturally finish brighter over the lighter areas, and give a natural shading to the areas in shadow. You can then highlight and shade further as your scheme requires, with a natural guide already in place.

Once you’ve got the hang of using a zenithal to prime your miniatures you can start to use it in even more advanced ways to up your painting. While black with a white zenithal is a standard choice and super effective you don’t have to stick with it. Depending on your chosen scheme you could use different colours to either paint a primary colour choice for your mini (think using two shades of green for an Ork) or you can play around with colours to maximise the effects of your contrast paints. You can also use a zenithal for object source lighting. Rather than spraying from above spray from the direction of other light sources like lava bases or glowing power weapons. You can then use the lighter zenithal to develop a glow that will really add character and dynamism to your finished model – like Arron’s incredible Kreigsman below.

Priming Sets You Up For An Amazing Finish

So while priming your miniature may initially seem like a bit of a faff and an annoying extra step it’s actually a crucial part of the process, and can be as involved as you like. At the very least it gives you a surface for your paints to adhere to, and at best it gives you a foundation for a technical and beautifully painted parade ready miniature that’ll stand out on battlefields for years.

Got any tips for how to prime miniatures? Any advice for new painters wanting to up their game? Let us know in the comments below!

Did you enjoy this article? You could always tip the author with a coffee (or something stronger). If you want to try out some of these techniques on some new models, or get yourself some new sprays, then check out Element Games. They have great deals on a wide range of Warhammer and accessories. Finally, make sure you’re following us on Instagram to stay up to date and get involved in our community!

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