The Wargamer's Guide to Painting Historical Miniatures

By Bill Gray 19 Mar 2019 2

It’s either the best thing going or the bane of one’s existence if you are into miniature tabletop wargaming. By this I mean, of course, prepping, painting and deploying all those colorful lead figures, not to mention the buildings and terrain they fight on. Sure, you could hire one of the popular overseas services, such as Fernando Enterprises, to paint your collection for you, but that is expensive and you often have to wait virtually forever to get your armies back ready for play. So you paint them yourself, which is cheaper (but not cheap) and also so very time consuming. Or is it?

Well, I once painted 2566 figures in 3 months and 10 days to a 7+ level of goodness (on a 1 to 10 scale) according to the Mr GAJO painting service. During that time I could usually mount, paint, flag and flock 12 figures in 1 hour 10 minutes. Yes, these are the smaller 15 mm or 10 mm figures, and old age has gifted me with arthritis to boot, but still a mouth dropping speed for most folks I know. Admittedly, I’d like to advertise myself as a painting wizard, genius at least, but I’m not. The trick to painting high quality figures, replete with shading and edged belts, is by painting less, not more.

Interested my young Padawan? Then on must you continue.


The Wargamer's Guide to Miniature Paints

In the beginning there was Testors, and quite frankly, not a whole lot else. If you play historical miniatures wargaming, and unless you have a basket of shekels for professional artists via firms like Fernando Enterprises in Sri-Lanka, you do a lot of painting in your hobby. Grognards know what I’m talking about here, the lack of just about any paint palettes directly related to toy soldiers. Testors was one firm that did produce matte military colors, but only in World War II hues. Humbrol from the UK was a little better in that there were a (very) few colors like Prussian Dragoon Blue geared towards combat prior to 1939. Unfortunately they were all oil based enamel paints and these had an odor, especially the thinner that needed to be used on occasion. Given my spouse’s cheerful habit of incarcerating . . . I mean, inviting . . . me to my man cave for painting sessions, scuba tanks remained a consideration. These were the Dark Ages.

Fortunately things have changed. Oil based products have given way to water based acrylics with two exceptions, and that’s the undercoat and  final protective spray coating applied when your miniature X Legion is all finished, ready for battle. Enamels are simply more durable than water, with gloss stronger still when compared to matte or semi-gloss. Otherwise you now have regular paint, metallics, primers and inks (or stains, thinner colors that settle in crevices for a shaded appearance), all water based.  This means an easier, less odorous cleanup and the happiest news – there are now companies that produce these paints in hundreds of different shades specifically for tabletop wargaming, and a few primarily for the historical side of the house.

So this is my list of the best out there and my reasoning why. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference, but hopefully reading further will expand your pigment horizons and make your decisions easier on your way to becoming a battlefield da Vinci. Let us begin.

Not Recommended

OK, there is one exception, so let’s get this out of the way first. I normally avoid direct criticism in my reviews because so much comes down to personal preference and not a single whit more. But with Games Workshop’s (that’s spelled Warhammer, folks) line of Citadel paints, the issue goes beyond that. The paints are good, high quality paints, so that’s not a problem, and neither is the fact that the line is relatively small and geared towards fantasy and science fiction gaming. This means you won’t find Polish lancer crimson in the catalog, but if you need Nurgles Rot Green or any of 13 flesh tones, this is your lucky day. The road block is that a 10.3 oz can of Death Guard Green spray undercoat costs $19.50 US. Krylon, a generic paint brand used quite often for undercoating and protective finishes, will set you back $ 4.56 for a 12 oz spray can. Similarly a 12 ml “pot” of Citadel Blood for the Blood God costs $4.55 while . . . well, just keep reading and you will understand. Now, the quality of these paints is absolutely top notch, but $19. 50 top notch? Not so much.

Vallejo Color Palette

Hall of Fame

  • Gold Medal – Howard’s Hues. Clever name, right? Karl Kruger and the gang at Last Square Hobbies now own and produce this fine line of wargaming paints which are unique in so many ways. First is cost. A 29.57 ml (that’s an ounce here in the Colonies) costs $ 3.99, so look at the paragraph above and you can see my point. The colors themselves are almost all dedicated to historical military subjects, to include Ancients, World War II, American Civil War, Napoleonics and without question the most complete and accurate set of horse colors anywhere (I have a niece that owns two of the animals). The colors are deadly accurate as well. The original owners actually modeled their colors on how a uniform would look at a distance in actual battle, also considering that colors like red and blue were actually much darker back then vice today. Thus French Blue or Russian Green actually looks black with a mild blue or green sheen. Austrian Artillery Ochre (really, they make this color) is not simply yellow, but yellow with an almost Afrika Korps muddy texture. I’ve seen some of these guns in Vienna, and they nailed it. Ground covering colors were actually modeled to duplicate the old GeoHex terrain system with that unique Ground Work Green or Tan with Woodland Scenics flock the company used. The paints are a skosh thinner and the large mouth will cause them to dry quickly, so be careful. Sadly, I’ve never seen them listed outside the US for sale. The line contains 119 water reducible colors.
  • Silver Medal – Wargames Foundry. Produced in England, this line of 255 water based paints is a little pricey at $ 4.38 US, but you do get 20 ml of paint vs Citadel’s 12 ml in each pot. Three of the same shade is $10.00 US, so that’s a very good discount, but why “three of the same shade” might you ask? Like Howard’s, the line has paints specifically made for horses, the American Civil War, Napoleonics and are deadly accurate, the Bavarian Cornflower Blue the closest I have ever seen to what they display in German museums. What really makes this line special, however, is that it offers “three shades of each colour: building up in layers from dark to light to easily achieve a realistic three dimensional shaded effect without the need for blending.” Thus paint 71B French Chasseur a Cheval Green also comes in one shade darker (71A) and one shade lighter (71C).  This is truly one of the more “out of the box” painting processes and very highly recommended.
  • Bronze Medal – Vallejo Paints. This is an uber extensive line of acrylic paints from Spain (yes, they do wargame over there) and includes not only regular paints, but washes, inks, gels for rivers and an awful lot more. There is even a specific range called Panzer Aces produced in conjunction with a magazine of the same name. What made this line so popular when it first hit the US is that the paints come in 17 ml dropper bottles ($ 3.29 each, or $ 2.99 on sale at the War Store Inc) which makes it easy to mix shades when you need to. Personally, I prefer regular bottles as I simply shake then up and use the face down cap to access the paint, but a LOT of folks really like the dropper method. While most of the 233 paints in their Model Color line are not history keyed, several are (Dark Prussian Blue) and the firm has conveniently produced sets of 8 ($29.09 or $21.09 sale)  or 16 bottles ($52.09 or $42.99 sale) specifically for some conflicts and eras to get you started. There are Imperial Roman, Napoleonic, equine, American Colonial sets and so on. Every person I’ve know who uses these paints have raved, and you can even get them thru Amazon Prime.

Battle Front Paints

Honorable Mention (in no particular order)

  • Battlefront Paints. Think Flames of War, this line of 42 individual paints, 7 spray paints and 7 paint sets is obviously geared to the FOW gaming system with colors like Sherman Tank Drab or Comrade Khaki. Individual dropper bottles are $2.75 for 12 ml and $4.50 for 20 ml. Sets include German Panzer or Soviet Paint sets with five colors ($ 15.00) each or a Quartermaster’s set with 10 bottles ($30.00). You really need the latter set as a starting point from which you can add other colors.
  • Stone Mountain Colors Paint. This is a 92 color paint line that I only recently discovered, but reviews on TMP (the Miniatures Page) are excellent. The line is nearly all historical except for several Victorian Science Fiction colors. This means equine, English Civil War and so on. A 29.57 ml (one ounce) bottle is only $ 2.25 and you can mix and match three bottles for $ 6.50 and six for $12.50.
  • Reaper Master Paints. This is a line of 216 core colors plus 54 HD colors sold in 14.28 ml (1/2 ounce) dropper bottles for $3.29 each. There are no historical wargaming specific hues, but the line is large and offers some shades not seen elsewhere.
  • Army Painter Paints.  With 96 primary colors as well as separate listing for washes, effects, licensed paints, boxed sets, the paint line of this company is in many respects the American version of Vallejo. However, nearly all the paints are generic or keyed to the fantasy realm with names like Abomination Gore. Pricing is good, however, with an 18 ml dropper bottle going for $2.99.

Foundry 7YW Russians

Painting Miniatures: A Cavalcade of Color – Not

Now, a word about colors, provided solely for information and angst eradication, and here I’ll use the Napoleonic period as my case study. Remember colors back then were a lot darker than we define them today. French Blue was a dark navy blue while Russian Green was almost black, so much so that in later periods the holy warriors of the Tsar actually wore black uniforms. The dye was cheaper and nearly the same shade anyway. It’s no wonder Lord Wellington howled when his light dragoons had their spiffy Tarleton helmets replaced with shakos. From even a short distance his dark blue clad light cavalry looked very much like French chasseurs a cheval that wore dark green. The culprit here was fading. With the use of vegetable dyes, uniforms were colored very darkly in order to retain as much hue as possible for the longest time possible. Thus while Bavarian cornflower blue would seem like a medium blue today, it was considered light blue back in 1809.

And then of course there were variations, primarily because there was no precise formula for what constituted a color like madder red. Contractors pretty much guessed, so one unit’s red may not look the same as another, with officer uniforms providing additional confusion as they were often made of better material than that of the rank and file. For British Redcoats, the officers actually wore scarlet, but everyone else had to make do with brick red. While Austrian infantry supposedly wore white, the reality was that all the rank-and-file wore a very light grey.

Historicon2011 76 Edit

Now toss in the fact that many of the colors listed for uniforms in books like The Methuen Handbook of Colour have no contemporary equivalent today. Austrian Parrot Green was a medium to dark mossy green, while aramanth was a medium violet. Let’s not forget ecru, a type of beige, or crab red/crayfish/lobster which seemed to be a shade slightly darker than scarlet. Not helping matters was the fact that two countries might define the same color differently.

You get the picture, and thankfully there are some companies that produce these exact shades. One of my favorites is Howard’s Hues (clever name, right?), which bottles Austrian Artillery Ochre, Polish Lancer Crimson and so on. The bottom line, is by all means try to get your figures attired properly, but remember what reality was back then and don’t sweat the small stuff.


Attitude and common sense is everything. I’ll concentrate on 15mm and smaller figures here because they are most often used for really big tabletop battles which require players to put a huge amount of troops on the table. Noting that fact, if there is one piece of advice I could give to any budding Napoleon it would be that figures 15mm and smaller do not need to have every sculpted detail painted to look impressive. 15mm gets its visual impact from the serried masses of bayonets, not the detail on each individual figure which is mandatory for 28 mm and above. So, many people use the three-foot rule - from three feet away, if you can't see the detail on the figure (like the lace on a pocket flap), why paint it?


Next I suggest you mount the figures for painting on the actual stands used to move them around, and then hold them by these stands when you paint. One of the best materials for the stands remains Evergreen Plastic Styrene which is both thin and sturdy, and works well with super glue. Thin and sturdy is an important attribute as it eliminates thicker stands that portray your favorite infantry regiment moving around on 6 foot platforms

For priming I use Krylon flat black or satin spray enamel in an open area. There are some hobby specific primers, but I have yet to find any that works with plain old Krylon. This under/overcoat holds paint well, and note too that many parts of a figure were black historically (shakos, boots, cartridge pouches, etc). Likewise, if you paint three out of every eight cavalry or mounted figures on black horses, Krylon works just dandy and becomes an additional time saver. Besides a black under/overcoat is absolutely necessary for the Krylon Detail Method (KDM - yes, I made it up) which I will cover in just a few.

Obviously paint and paint brushes are important tools of the trade, and I do have my favorites. I use water based acrylics such as those from Howards Hues or Vallejo Paints for all colors except metallic, and then I use oil based enamels (gold, silver, iron, etc), or at least I used to. Water based paint has really come along way, so I’ve been slowly switching over, and not having to use enamel thinner (vice water) is really a nice perk. My paint brush depot includes Loew-Cornell #8 7500 Filbert (flat, curved for large areas), #0 7300 Shader, #1 7300 Shader (both flat with tapering, wide right angle tip), and #10/0 7650 Spotter (small details). Again, there are some hobby specific products out there but I find the ones stocked in US arts and crafts supply stores like Michaels do just as well if not better.


Then I start painting using a factory line technique. In other words, I paint by unit, eg, a 12 figure EMPIRE battalion. I paint the same single color across all figures before going to the next color.

For mounted troops, I paint all horses first, while for artillery units, I complete the gun carriages and wheels first. For infantry (and cavalry troopers vice horses, gunners vice guns), I start on weapons then hands/face first and for all units I dry brush large areas and deal with metallic issues last. Then it’s off to KDM.

KDM – Krylon Detail Method

OK, without question this is the biggest timesaver of the entire process, the one that gives the best visual results and while easy and simple in theory, is uber-difficult to master.

You simply note what areas on each figure need to be painted black for shading, edging and detail. This might be such things as joints where arms or legs bend, under arms or inner thighs, edging along cuffs, pleats, gloves and shoulder straps or saddle blankets, inner portion of wheel spokes, etc. Then, because you primed in black, you don’t paint there!!! Instead, paint all other areas outside those noted above. In effect what you are doing is allowing the Krylon black primer to show through and become your edging or shading. For example, there is no need to paint the underside of a leg as it kneels forward, because in actual life a shadow would darken that portion of the limb in question. Have an infantry figure with cross belts. Here you can simply put a dot of coat color paint in the four triangles formed by the overlapping belts. Finish and look again and it will seem as though you edged each (tiny, this is 15 mm folks) strap in black. You also might want to exaggerate the KDM black areas just a little so they will show up from a distance. Like three feet, maybe?

Are there limitations? Yes there are and one is the fact that this technique only really pops when used with lighter colors. White belts across a Russian Green tunic color will not show any of the spiffy detailing no matter how hard you try or how careful you are. The tunic color is near black and the edging is black, so the two hues meld without providing any separation. Thus, in these situations, paint normally.

However, here is the biggie and why some mental gymnastics are mandatory. This process is extremely difficult because it looks like you are not covering enough surface area (say, the left arm) with paint. You will be tempted to paint more than you need, but you will have to resist this temptation. I still have problems with this to be sure, but because you are actually painting less surface area, the process will move swiftly once you get used to it. I do have my own favorite figure manufacturers, but I will say that firms such as Minifigs and those with similar figures seem especially well suited for this process due to their smooth sculpting technique.

Historicon2011 74

Finishing Up

For me the final part of the process begins with dealing with flags and I always use pre-printed standards, either from the Internet or a commercial product. Desktop publishing has made the need for actually painting flags yourself obsolete and has saved gamers thousands of dollars in behavioral health costs after they tried to deal with all those blue and white lozenges on Bavarian Flags. Anyway, put these on last prior to flocking. Use paper flags and attach them to the flagpole, bending the flag into a wave prior to the glue drying (Elmers Glue Stick is good).

For flocking I paint the base a ground color and then drag the base while still wet through something like Woodland Scenics Burnt Turf or similar. Remember that battlefields were normally areas of tall grass and not a parade field, so there is little need to be careful around shoe, boot or hoof. Finally I paint the bottom of each stand. I do this in a color distinctive for me and me alone, primarily to avoid confusion with other gamers’ figures when picking up. I was assigned by my gaming club Floquil Dragon Blue in Germany and have used it ever since.

Then you’re finished and can treat yourself to your favorite libation while toasting the fact that you only have 2565 figures to go. Prosit!

Reader FAQ

We get questions from readers from time to time on the various things we talk about, so as an experiment I'm going to start updating certain guides with the answers, in case anyone else finds it useful:

Question: Do you know of a company that has paints with Japanese/Samurai based colors?

Answer: Bill doesn't know of many specifically themed paint sets for this era and theme, however The Army Painters have a paint-set called 'Rising Sun' designed for this purpose.



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