Improve Your Painting by Brush Priming

Back in my hobby youth I used to live in a small apartment with my wife. Priming miniatures in that tiny 3rd floor walkup was a pain between the fumes, overspray and not pissing off my wife. I had looked at Gesso as a primer for 1/72 soft plastic miniatures. It’s basically designed for painting on fabric. After painting nearly a platoon of WWII Canadians I was too chicken to test it and switched to 28mm metal. However, it was less of a pain for me than spraying so I kept using it on everything.

1/72 Soft Plastic WWII Canadians

Brush primed with Gesso. In a War(game) the paint on his ankle will be the first to go.

I’ve been in a proper house with basement and garage for the past six years and still prime by brush. I’ve gotten used to it and was surprised to discover that it had other benefits beyond avoiding the fumes of spraying.

Vallejo Acrylic Primer

My favorite primer. Image © Acrylicos Vallejo

The Brush Needs Primer

As much as I’m desperately desperate for more comments on my blog I’m going to A a Q before it gets A’d. I use Vallejo Primer. I have Black, White and Grey. I use Black for army-style painting and Grey for everything else. Which means I probably didn’t need to buy the Grey. Protip: Black and White makes Grey in all 50 shades. Mind blown.

Why not White, I’m going to pretend you asked? White gives a “brighter” result because colours don’t cover it very well, in the same way that Black makes everything darker. Which actually means that it takes more base coats to get even coverage over Grey. If I’m not planning on leaving Black in crevices for shading I prime in Grey.

The Brush Requires Practice

Brush priming is slower but don’t worry, you’ll get faster the more you practice. And I’m not just referring to brush priming either. You will become faster at painting because you will be more practiced at painting with a brush.

At first you will be tempted to scrub the miniature like the miniature was your teeth and your brush was your toothbrush, the primer is toothpaste and the mold release is plaque. With the same results – it’ll scrub the mold release away and activate your primer’s foaming action. Except in this case foaming isn’t a placebo effect to show you that your toothpaste is working, it’s how you ruin the finish of your miniature. Although, a little scrubbing when you do realize you’ve forgotten to wash the miniature does work.

No, you have to carefully follow the detail just like you would if you were painting, which you are. You want to be quick and you want to be accurate so you get an even coverage and not find missed bits when you want to start painting tomorrow and realize you’ll need another coat of primer. You also don’t want to over-brush the same spots so that the primer can settle and give you are good surface to paint.

All this practice really does make a difference. I came up with the idea for this essay when someone shared their basically painted WIP on Google+ and mentioned how long they’d been working.

The Brush Wants to Get Acquainted

Some people love picking colour schemes. I am not one of them. I have no compunction of copying studio schemes for my miniatures. I even started the road to historicals because I was frustrated that the Codex Astartes which dictated the colours and marking of Space Marine Chapters didn’t actually exist for me to reference.

palette and brush

I use a high quality artists brush for all my painting

If you were reading a blog of someone qualified to instruct you on picking colour schemes they’d probably tell you to take some time with the unpainted miniature visualizing where each colour is going to go.

How boring, who has time to go over every little nook and cranny of their miniature before they paint it? Well, it turns out I do, actually, when I prime the miniature. During the process I’m literally going over every scrap of the model and find myself making mental notes about the order of painting to avoid making a mess of finished parts of the model

Do I remember these when it comes time to paint? No, but that’s a whole other kettle of trout.

The Brush Cares About Your Health

I’m not going to belabour the point, but brush priming is much healthier than spraying. Well, there is a lot you can do to eliminate or mitigate the risks for using a spray can. Let’s say this point is that you can avoid wearing a respirator and going outdoors or making sure your room is ventilated when you use a brush. Quote Vader some other time.

The Brush is Consistent

If you spend enough time in hobby forums you’ll come across the occasional horror story of spray cans ruining miniatures or otherwise misbehaving. Most of the time this can be attributed to environmental factors. When you spray you mix your paint with the air in your environment and thus have to consider these factors when spraying. With brush priming this isn’t a concern.

Since I came to brush priming as a way to avoid spray cans I also apply varnish with a brush as well. It feels like that or every orange-peel primer disaster there are 10 fuzzy varnish apocalypses. Having to strip a bunch of miniatures to reprime is an annoying time-waste. Ruining a labouriously applied paintjob with a white fuzz is heartbreaking. Out of respect for those who’ve experienced it let’s have a minute of silence and then move on.

The Brush is Artisanally Crafted in Small Batches

While I’ll address the negatives in a little bit brush priming is going to be a small batch enterprise. Wash and your degrease your miniatures before you prime and then prime what you can paint. No more painting over dusty primer. No more back-breaking assembly marathons because you’ll be doing everything in small batches, artisanally, just like factory food.

The Brush Takes Time

At the end of the day brush priming is not for everyone. Some people just paint in such massive quantities that spray cans are the only feasible method of priming. These are the people that walk outside on a nice, crisp spring Saturday morning and think, “What, what wonderful priming weather. I think I’ll prime my next three armies.” The bastards usually have them fully painted by the next Saturday. These are the people for whom the 3 colour minimum was created, I tell myself to save my ego while ignoring any evidence to the contrary. It takes the same amount of time to brush prime each additional miniature while you can spray prime multiple miniatures at the same time.

Give the Brush a Chance

Everyone must make their decision based on their personality and situation. For me, painting in small batches and taking my team with each miniature means that priming is a relatively small part of my hobby time. Whether I spray or brush I won’t be able to paint that miniature until the paint dries so from my point of view there isn’t much of a time difference.

Hopefully some of the points I raised will encourage some painters to try their hand and brush priming. I really recommend the Vallejo primers. They are very forgiving and can be applied unthinned straight from the bottle. By which I mean, don’t thin them, they don’t like being thinned. It’s a chemical thing based on their formula, not their personal preference.

Here’s a video I managed to find which shows priming in action and touches on some of the points I made in this article. I like the cut of this guy’s jib. I think he used scrapbooking scissors.

Did I sway you? Let me know if you give brush priming a shot and how you find it. You can leave a comment, hit me up on Google+ or tweet me on Twitter.

26 responses

  1. Lasgunpacker says:

    I have been brush priming for most things for a long time now, and like it for the same reasons that you do. Instead of buying grey or black, I just mix the white with some color or another to get something “dull” and go with that… typically this is white plus dark brown or black to get a grey tone.

    I did switch back to the rattlecan for priming a baneblade… the brush simply would not have been smooth enough on those large flat panels.

    And as an aside, there is in fact now a Space Marine painting guide that has all of the various codex markings so you do not have to guess or make it up…

    • I agree with spraying for large models. I couldn’t imagine painting something that big with a brush. Fortunately I have an airbrush and Vallejo’s primers can be sprayed.

      As for going back to Games Workshop: Not happening for two reasons. The first is obviously the price. The second is that the fluff just doesn’t appeal to me anymore. I don’t think it ever did, really. I’m not a fan of grimdark.

  2. Mike says:

    Hi there! Thank for a nice article!
    I have same setup here – small apartment, wife and little kid so spraycan and airbrush is no go.
    I’ve tried to apply black Valejo primer by brush to plastic miniature, but after a while the primer started to fall off, especially when miniature was scrubbed with fingertip or nail. Before priming I washed miniature in soap water and after that was not touching it with my fingers so it should be clean. Maybe you can give some advice on how to avoid such a situation? (P.S. sorry for my English, it is not my native language 🙂

    • Hey Mike. Thanks for the comment. I agree that the Vallejo primer is very fragile, and when it peels it really comes off.

      My advice for this primer is to let your models cure 48 hours. It is still fragile but not as bad.

      • Mike says:

        Hmm,is there a better option then?
        Or is there a way to protect miniature later? Like carefully paint over Valejo primer and then apply varnish?

        • I use Windsor and Newton Water-Soluable Oil matte varnish. So far I haven’t had a problem but then I game less than I like. However, I did have a random spectator play with one of my models like he was a toddler for a good 20 minutes before I told him to stop and it was ok.

          • Mike says:

            Thank a lot for the tips! Seems like I’ve worried too much cause I’ve stripped primer and repainted like 3 or 4 times already cause I was thinking I did something wrong 🙂

  3. Daniel says:

    I will try the brush. I just HATE priming with cans. The smell and wind is killing me. It always ends like this. 1. Spray – too thin. 2. Spray again – too thin. 3. Spray again – Shit Oversprayed.

  4. Rapacious says:

    I’m so glad I found this blog post, I absolutely cannot prime with a can, I’ve got stupid fingers for that. My SO usually does it for me, but this gift is for him, so I was panicking a bit, haha, My only question is, the bulk of my mini is going to be yellow, should I prime with white in this case, or still go with grey?

  5. Thanks for the thorough guide. I’m about to paint my very first miniatures sometime soon, and I was trying to figure out how to spray primer outside when it’s snowing. You’ve explained brushing in a useful and compelling way, I’m going to try it. Of course, I’ll blame you if it all goes terribly wrong…

    • Good luck. Take your time, use a large brush and don’t overwork the surfaces with to many strokes to avoid air bubbles or disturbing partially dried paint.

  6. Charlotte says:

    Thanks for this! I’ve painted a few tabletop minis but my husband always spray primed them for me… I’m about to start my first mini from the beginning and didn’t want to deal with spray paint so I bought some Vallejo primer yesterday. Good tips here for brush priming!

  7. tgigblog says:

    Yep – you convinced me! 🙂 I was hoping to save myself the cost of a can of spray and since I actually have the valejo primer in your picture looks like I am. I’m about to hand base 8 mantic enforcer conversions for a necromunda gang – I’ll let you know how it goes. Extra bonus with basing my hand: if you have already painted parts on the model like my conversions (heads & guns taken from painted mini’s) then you dont have to worry about stripping off the paint or anything as you can bypass them with the brush. Happy days.

    • I never thought about being able to skip already painted conversion work, that’s a good idea. Vallejo primer may look thick but it settles down nicely like gesso so you don’t have to thin it.

  8. Cole Walker says:

    Thanks for the awesome post! I got some Vallejo surface primer today, was worried because most people spray. This is going to be really helpful when I start my Rebel troops in Legion.

  9. Nedy Bonz says:

    Thanks for this. I am about to get back into painting minis and I always hate spraying.

  10. mattl says:

    Found this via reddit and just picked up a big bottle of primer. Spraying sucks and this will let me hobby during lunchtime at work.

  11. kingo dacheez says:

    Even though this is a very dated article; there are some excellent tips and experiences to draw from.
    I’ve had the black and light grey primer for almost a year, and am about to do some test priming on the bottom of a 3D printed Sicaran tank.

  12. Tony says:

    Thanks for the video, I intend to use mainly 1:72 scale, small war band group, so setting up the airbrush (I do need to practice with it) is a nuisance, same with rattle cans, I would use them so infrequently they would dry up (and its too cold to “play outside”
    No, the answer is small batches brush prime

  13. Thomas Frey says:

    I have now been building war game miniatures for a year using only 1/72 scale figures and models. I use rattle can primers and base coats, then finish with brush painting. Then finish models with lacquer spray finish. For miniatures that have “bendy” parts, I coat them in PVA glue first for more protection against chipping. Then apply the spray on finish, after at least 24hrs of drying time. So far none of my soldiers have had weapons treated this way chip off paint. For base coating figures after priming, I use the Vallejo spray paints.

    • I’ve been away from the blog, so I didn’t see this comment initially. However, thanks for leaving it. Good advice on soft plastic – it can be heartbreaking to have the paint flake off.

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