Apply Primer to Your Miniature
An entire page devoted to applying primer to miniatures may seem like overkill. Here's why this may be the most important step in the entire painting process.
Why Prime Your Miniatures Before Painting?
Primer serves two main purposes:
Primer Makes Acrylic Paint Stick
Acrylic paint doesn't adhere well to metal, no matter how clean your miniature. Primer bonds to metal, giving acrylic paint something to grab hold of. This was something I didn't understand well when I first began painting miniatures almost 20 years ago, but this has a lot to do with how my painting techniques have evolved over the time since.
Without primer, acrylic paint can flake or chip off easily. This was easy to understand. However much more recently did I begin to really get how important the surface of the primer is.
I painted primer pretty thick, so I could get bright colors (more on that later). What I didn't realize was that I was making two major mistakes:
Less Primer Means Sharper Details
The more primer you apply to a miniature, the less fine details remain unburied in primer. The best miniatures often have the finest detail. It's a shame to cover up all the hard work of a skilled sculptor and the best casting techniques.
When I prime now, not only do I apply less of it, but I use very thin coats. This helps you to control how much primer you apply. It does one other thing; it gives a slightly rough surface to the miniature.
Thin Coats Prevent a Plastic-like Surface
This is one point I didn't get until recent years. Thick priming results in a smooth, plastic-like surface. Why should you care? Simple. Think of it this way. If you're standing on an inclined ramp, will you slide more easily if the ramp is smooth or covered in a sandpaper-like surface?
Naturally, you don't slide as easily on a rougher surface. Acrylic paint needs something to grip to not only so it won't flake or chip off, but also so the paint can't move around as much as it dries. This is very important if you don't want rings of color when you wash or blend.
Primer Provides an Undertone for the Color You Paint Over It
If you have ever painted a bright color over a dark primed miniature, you have experienced how difficult it is to get brilliant colors without priming with white or a very light color.
Similarly, you may find that it takes many coats of a dark color to obtain full coverage over a white or very light primer.
Some recommend priming with a gray color as a compromise between the two. In my experience, this is the worst of both worlds. You can never get truly vibrant colors over gray. They will always be somewhat subdued.
You will need to paint several coats over gray primer for either bright or very dark colors. This often covers details without applying very thin layers of paint and carefully preventing accumulation in detailed areas. Much more importantly, painting over gray, with acrylic paint, it's very tough to get the full dynamic range of bright and dark colors.
What Color Do I Prime With?
I always prime with white. Why? I like vibrant colors. Several years ago, I went for the Citadel/Games Workshop look, which at the time used vibrant colors, bording on the garish. I didn't do much miniature painting for several years (Damn you, World of Warcraft!). In the meantime, gaudy circus colors fell out of fashion.
Realistic blends are now in. Lifelike miniatures win awards. However, for either style, you still need to be able to obtain a full spectrum of color, from sparingly-applied brights to earthy tones.
OK, you may think, that's great for bright colors, but what about dark ones? Here's a secret of the pigments in paint. Light colors are far less opaque than darker ones. Dark paint covers over white primer far easier, and with fewer coats, than painting light colors over a darker primer.
Advanced Technique - Blackwash
Some miniature painters use a technique called blackwash or preshading to prime their miniatures. This technique involves priming with black primer, then drybrushing highlights with white. Using blackwashing to prime this way, you can achieve both dark shadows and bright highlights. Click on the link below to learn more about blackwashing.
What Kind of Primer Should You Use?
If I sold expensive miniature primer on my site, maybe I'd steer you in that direction. :) Since I don't, I recommend you use what I do.
Head to your nearest hardware store and pick up a can of white automotive primer. I use Krylon primer myself, but any major brand will probably work fine. Avoid the really cheap stuff.
I've found the nozzle often clogs up and you can get uneven coating of paint, especially when priming when it's colder than room temperature where you prime. I've also found that some of the cheap primer I've used is too thin, and easily flows into cracks, filling in details.
Paint With Primer Where It's Warm
Avoid spraying primer in conditions much cooler than room temperature. If you apply spray paint in the cold, you may find that the paint applies unevenly. You won't like the results. For those of us who live in areas where it gets pretty cold in the winter, I've found that spray-painting in a garage, even if not actually heated, often gives better results than doing so out in the cold.
If you spray primer in a garage or other area where you don't want to get primer all over the place, you want to control overspray. You can do this with a simple cardboard box. Cut away one side and place the miniature inside. Overspray coats the box, which you don't care about.
If you've ever gotten spray on your sidewalk or a car in your garage (Sorry, Grandpa), you'll be happy for the extra few minutes you spend to keep overspray contained.
Often, only after applying a coat or two of primer will you see mold lines or flash appear which you had overlooked. Remove mold lines or flash as detailed in the page linked to below, then apply a thin coat of primer.
Testor's DullCoat applied in thin layers over the miniature when you're done painting avoids the shine you can get with other protective coatings.
If you need the best protection possible, apply a semi-gloss sealer, then coat with DullCoat to remove the shine. This is sometimes called "Bullet Coating."