Tips for Painting 20mm Figures


paint01sOver the years, I’ve painted lots of 20mm plastic figures for various wargames armies, and received compliments about the painting standard.  I have what I consider to be a simple technique for painting 20mm plastic figures, which uses the detail of the moulded figure as much as any painting skills I have.  The following is a short summary of the steps I use can be a little time consuming but the end result is satisfying.


1. Planning.  I usually cut figures from their sprues, and often buy second-hand packets / bags of loose figures.  This makes it a little easier to organise the figures to suit the various bases/stands which make the units which will be gamed with.  For example a WW2 platoon is up to 40 figures on bases/stands of 4 – 5 figures each.


2. Preparation.  Once I’ve organised the unit to be painted, it’s then a matter of preparing the figures for painting.  I usually prepare a whole unit although I’ll only be painting two bases/stands of figures at a time.  A sharp pen knife is used to remove excess plastic, and mould lines are trimmed to be less noticeable.  Conversions are done by swapping heads or bodies/legs or weapons – this adds to the variety of poses and means that some figures which initially appear less useful can become very useful.  Then the figures get washed in warm soapy water with a quick scrub using an old toothbrush.  Once dry I apply a coat of Testors Matt varnish as an undercoat.


paint023. Painting 1.  I paint the skin areas first, then the uniform colour which covers most of the figure or is most in contact with the skin areas.  After that I add colours working from the inside to the outside, and/or centre of figure to the top and bottom, allowing time between colours which abut or overlay.  For example: skin, trousers/shirt, webbing, pouches, water bottle, bayonet scabbard, chin strap, rifle, socks, puttees, boots, and cap/ helmet.  Depending on the amount of detail moulded on the figures, I apply each colour as if ‘painting the dots’.  I try to get a neat edge to edge colour applied, but this first coat is principally to get paint on to the figure.


4. Painting 2.  Apply a second coat using the same sequence as above, only this time focusing on achieving clean, neat edges matching the detail moulded on figures, and covering areas where the first coat is a bit thin.


5. Finishing.  Occasionally figures are washed with a dark brown or black, and/or lightly dry brushed to give a dusty look.  Some will get hair/moustache/beard.   I apply a coat of Humbrol Matt varnish over figures before applying any metallic paints.


6. Basing.  Bases for a unit are cut to size, the surfaces roughened, and painted figures for the unit organised on the bases.  I prefer to have a mix of figure poses on bases, with an appropriate weapons distribution.  Once I’m happy with the position of the figures, they are glued in place using white glue before applying putty to build up the base around the figure bases.  Any guns or heavy weapons or terrain is then glued in place. And finally the base is painted and flocked.



The selection of paint colours to be used is made before painting – this is usually easy given the  number of figure painting guides included in rule sets and reference books.  For the last few years the majority of figures have been painted with Vallejo acrylic paints.  I have a collection of Tamiya, Gunz and Humbrol acrylics as well as Humbrol and Revell enamel paints which I sometimes use – particularly if trying to match a paint repair or painting figures to match others painted a long time ago.  Paint comparison charts are useful to work out if the paints I already have can be used instead of the paints listed in painting references.



There’s websites and books on painting techniques if you want some more ideas, or want to know how well an idea worked for someone before you try it. Here’s some quick tips:

– Blue-tac 2 or 3 figures to a plastic top from milk or fruit juice bottles so you have something to hold rather than holding the figures and have plenty of access to all sides of the figures for painting.

– Whilst painting 40 figures at one time can be daunting or prone to stoppage half way through, smaller groups of figures are easier to paint as they can be done quickly and it doesn’t take long for several groups to be painted and the whole unit is done.

– Specialist bases (command teams / warrior team) have selected figures including some conversions and a bit more effort in painting (detailing / dry brush / wash) so they stand out.

– Careful removal of weapons with a sharp pen-knife allows the weapons to be interchanged between figures, or figures given new weapons.

– Cut staples into small pieces to use as pins when doing conversions.

– Easiest conversions are head swops.  More difficult conversions are those involving swopping of body parts.  Cutting figures at the belt allows top and bottom half figures to be pinned and glued together, and any gaps can be filled with putty or covered with packs, tools, etc.

– Keep a notepad record of the paints used for each unit so if you have a long break between painting similar units, then you aren’t relying entirely on memory about which paints to use

– Use different uniform colours/patterns/finishes to vary the appearance of the figures, and/or use different base terrain so units can be differentiated

– Trial any paint mixing and varnishes before using on figures – some varnishes are not compatible with acrylic paints resulting in your neat painting being ruined when the varnish is applied

– Dry brushing Matt black or Tyre Black over a black base will bring up the details and provide some contrast on black-uniformed figures.

– There’s always another painting tip or idea you can pick up if you keep your eyes open and ask people ‘How did you do that?’


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