It can be intimidating to hop into the world of tabletop war games when you’ve never painted a miniature in your life. Thankfully, there are a lot of great, inexpensive products for you to choose from that will serve you well.
But before we get there – let’s take a look at the types of paint you’ll need to get started, the big brands that exist in the tabletop world, and what I personally recommend for beginning hobbyists.
1) Types of Paint
First things first: you’re looking for Acrylic paint. Why? The other type of miniature paint, enamels, is generally too thick, too hard to mix, worse for your brushes, and harder to remove if necessary. Also, it’s toxic. Acrylics are cheaper, easier to use, and non-toxic!
And, specifically, you’re looking for acrylics made for miniature painting, because the smaller pigments allow you to get more definition and details on your models than standard student-quality acrylics.
But within even that subset of acrylics, there are four primary types of paint you’re looking for:
Unlike some beginner-focused miniatures, Legion models are not pre-primed.
What does that mean? Well, paint won’t stick to the mini’s surface unless you prime it with a special type of paint that allows other paints to stick. There are a number of different primer brands to use, but the main thing to know is that you’ll generally want to buy primers that are specifically for miniatures.
Some generalist brands, like Krylon, can actually work just fine. But others will come out too splotchy on miniatures and should be avoided.
In an ideal world, you’d start with black, grey, and white primers – the color of your primer can affect the end result of the paint you put on top, making it darker or lighter. But if that sounds like too much for an initial buy-in, just go for a neutral grey tone. It won’t affect your colors much at all, and will instill better long-term habits than the usual advice I see of purchasing only black primer.
The obvious: you’re here to paint things different colors.
The vast majority of paints in your arsenal are going to be for doing exactly that, and the longer you’re in this hobby the more random colors you’re likely to have. To begin with, though, a dozen or so colors will almost certainly be enough to get you through whatever you need.
Legion is especially good for this: you can paint the entire Imperial core set convincingly with brown, black, white, and red (plus green and blue for embellishments).
Shades or washes serve to add depth to your miniatures, and are applied after you’ve gotten a base coat of color down. Washes are made up of a medium (like water), the pigment (the paint), and a surfactant, which reduces surface tension. All of these add up to allow the wash to flow into the nooks and crannies of your miniature, where you would expect shadows.
Mostly these will come in black and brown (Army Painter is especially known for their brown quickshade “dip and flick” method), but you can find plenty of color-based washes in most major paint lines.
You might see these occasionally referred to as “liquid magic” – and indeed, the first few times you take a well-based model and throw a clean wash on it can be breathtaking.
Some (but not all) brands also have something called technical paints: these create specific effects instead of just adding color. Vallejo has a rust & corrosion set, for instance, but certainly the most well-known line of these comes from Citadel. I use their Leadbelcher color for gunmetal constantly, and rely heavily on Typhus Corrosion for rust effects.
Metallic effects can also fall under this branch, depending on how intricately they’ve been designed (a regular dropper of gold from Vallejo, for instance, is not – but Citadel’s Runelord Brass, which I used to great effect when creating a Sheev statue, certainly is).
2) The Big Three
For beginners, it is absolutely best to begin with one of the big three paint lines – they’ll give you some combination of the best prices, the best quality, the best selection, and the best availability.
- Army Painter
- Citadel (Games Workshop)
At the end of the day, if you buy any of these three you’re going to be just fine.
If I were to include a fourth there it might be Reaper – I own a couple of their paints but just have a personal preference for Vallejo.
The primary difference for beginners is that Army Painter and Vallejo (and Reaper) come in dropper bottles, and Citadel comes in pots (you can see the difference visually above). I have personally preferred dropper bottles from the beginning since it’s easier to control the amount of paint you’re putting in your palette without overusing a brush, and they’re less likely to accidentally dry out.
Contrast Paints from Games Workshop recently became available, and I’ve had plenty of people ask about these as well. I stand by Miniac’s review of these paints: they’re great for speedpainting, but they’re not so groundbreaking that beginners should feel the need to get them.
Indeed, I think you’re much better off learning how to actually shade and highlight your minis first and then switching over (if so desired) once you’re comfortable and want to knock things out quickly. And, of course, models like Bossk with lots of colors and ridges and details will looks better with contrast paints than flatter models like Vader or Krennic.
3) Imperial Discipline Recommends…
Taking all the above into account, here is what I personally recommend for beginners. Prepare your hot takes lasers.
Please note that I never use referral links and do not make money from the products listed below.
I like Tamiya Fine Surface Primer ($12 USD), but Krylon and Citadel (nearly double the cost but a fairly large can) are just fine.
Like I said above, ideally you’d get white, grey, and black primer. But if you must start somewhere, get a neutral grey color.
I purchased the 16-color Vallejo Basic USA Colors Set ($40 USD) when I started painting in 2018, and most of the colors still haven’t run out. I can’t recommend this set enough.
Similarly, the 10-color Army Painter Hobby Starter Set ($29 USD) comes with a great array of bold colors for mixing, plus a free strong tone wash and a detail brush.
You might also choose to wait until the Star Wars Legion-specific paint set comes out in Q3 of 2019.
I would recommend against Citadel pots for basic colors to begin with: they’re more expensive, and are better for people with more hobby experience.
Army Painter is a strong second place, but the wide range of colors from Citadel’s shade line and their mini-painting-magic nature puts Citadel on top.
Here, again, I’ll recommend a couple of Citadel products because they just do it best.
At minimum, I think you should pick up Leadbelcher ($8 USD) for metal parts like guns and vehicle bits. I go through this stuff like candy. If you’re planning on really gunking up your vehicles, you might also pick up Typhus Corrosion ($8 USD) for a solid rust effect. Stormhost Silver ($8 USD) is my other favorite metallic.
And there you have it.
Now, as a reminder: this is just my opinion. There are very few ways to go wrong with your paint choice if you stay in the accepted miniature family, and especially in that “Big Three” area. But given my own experience and the experiences of those I’ve talked to, I genuinely believe that this is the best way for a new hobbyist to start their journey.
Don’t forget to check out the Five Steps to Table-Ready Minis once you’ve purchased your paints!
Happy painting, Commanders!