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Painting Plastic Toy Soldiers - Quick Tips


Painting Plastic Toy Soldiers - Quick Tips    
This is a guide to painting 1/72 & 1/32 scale plastic toy soldiers offering some quick tips gained from over twenty-five years of painting figures myself. Some of this information may also be of use for those painting figures in other materials and other scales.
I am not an artist or the world's best painter by any means but I can turn out figures to a reasonable standard and I thought my experience may be of interest to fellow hobbyists, particularly those just starting out.
This guide works both read all the way through or in sections picking out just the heading you are interested in. I first published this guide on ebay back around 2007 and have revised & refreshed it here on my own website. All the examples of painted figures shown were done by me at one time or another.
Painted Airfix 1/32 scale cowboys
Airfix 1/32 scale Cowboys painted for a skirmish.

* Location. Choose somewhere to paint, ideally a desk or table at a good height by a window to get as much natural light as possible to show the true colours of the paints you are using. I use an old table with a self assembled MDF paint rack myself. This is lit by a specialist hobby lamp. Blue daylight bulbs are available if you find them helpful. A comfortable chair is important as painting is a time intensive activity. Also remember that accidents will happen - you will get paint on things you did not intend (including yourself) no matter how careful you are, so bear that in mind too when you are thinking about where to site yourself. Old T-Shirts or Kitchen aprons make good painting tops.

My paint station location is pictured below - note A4 white paper sheet that I actually paint on. I use scrap paper, junk mailings etc so that I don't get too much paint actually on the self-healing cutting mat work surface - rather it's on the disposable paper that also provides a good bright background to paint against. On the right hand side of the desk is a small hand held vacuum cleaner. This was an excellent investment as the debris making and flocking soldiers and scenery creates is not inconsiderable and it is your enemy when you come to painting.

* Pre-planning. Carefully think about the unit or group of figures you are painting. Ask yourself how many boxes of figures will I need to get the right poses in the right quantities? Don't be limited by the poses/numbers on offer in any single box as the figures are relatively cheap and you can always resell your excess figures on eBay. Which manufacturers produce the figures you want? Zvezda, Strelets, Waterloo1815, Dark Alliance, RedBox, Caesar, HaT, Italeri, Revell, Imex, A Call to Arms, Emhar, Pegasus and Airfix are generally all pretty good 1/72 scale makes. ( is the site to visit for information on this scale). For 1/32 scale the likes of Mars, Chintoys and Weston Toy Co can be thrown into the mix too. I stock most of these brands in my webstore.

Below is an example of some box art work from one of the best makes on the market today - Zvezda. Helpfully they show you painted examples on the back of the box. I can only dream of meeting that standard.

Zvezda 8046 Vikings available at drum and flag

* Uniform Research. You can't really beat Osprey books or their mini counterparts the Del Prado/Osprey partwork guides. Histoire & Collections are also very good but publish a much smaller range. Sterling, Funcken and Concord are also good imprints but for the first two at least most titles are out of print so it's time to search eBay or visit your local second hand bookshop. Google is also well worth a trawl as so much information is freely available if you can just find it. For flags try

* Washing. This is simple but important and lies at the core of where some folk go wrong with plastic figures. You should wash your figures in a detergent (ie washing up liquid) and water solution to remove the agent used by the manufacturers to release the figures from their injection mouldings. If you don't do this you increase the chances that your paint may not adhere. Make sure you rinse the solution off thoroughly and allow to dry. I've also heard that the ubiquitous miracle liquid that is white vinegar does the trick but have not tried this myself.

If you are tackling figures that have already been painted and want to ensure you still get a decent paint job a bit more than just washing will be required. (Note that it may be cheaper and quicker just to start with fresh figures and not go down this road at all.) However if an overpaint is planned you will need to ensure two things - that the old paint does not flake off taking your new paint with it and that your new paint will stick. There are several ways you can attempt to do this that may help: 1.) pick off any loose paint with a pointed tool such as a carpenters awl being careful to remove paint but not rough up the underlying surface too much 2.) probably in addition to the first tip varnish (or use dilluted pva glue maybe) your figure so you are sealing in the old paint and then undercoat it over the dry varnish taking care along the way not to mask the detail on your figure with so many preparatory coats 3.) soak your figures in something like model strip# having taken all appropriate precautions and having had a trial run first.

# Recommended by a Drum & Flag customer (thanks JW) who reports this comes in a handy good value 115ml plastic tub. It also explains the health and safety usage of the product and apparently does not adversely affect most model plastics.

* Temporary Basing. Depending on how your figures are produced, together with your own personal preference there are several ways to present your figures for painting. Holding unbased figures can be problematic as getting a firm grip may be difficult, you may damage your paint job and the natural oils in human skin can get on your work which is not ideal.

Some folk like to leave their figures on the sprue whilst they paint - if they are produced this way. This enables several figures to be painted at a time but does limit access to some areas and may not be ideal if the figures come in several parts instead of complete (as is often the difference between 28mm hard plastic sprues and 1/72 scale softer plastic figures). Some of the plastic within the sprue frame can usually be clipped out whilst still leaving figures pretty firmly held if you wish to ease things for yourself. You may also need to touch up some areas when the figures are clipped or cut out of the sprue when all is done.

Figures like most older Games Workshop pieces come with single slotta bases which make pretty good things to hold onto whilst working away. You can however also stick based (and unbased) figures onto things like empty paint pots if just holding the base does not appeal. Round things the size of cotton reels or old film tubes (or like the aforementioned paint pots) are ideal as being circular they are easy and sympathetic to hold and they are large enough to enable you to tilt the painted figure at whatever angle you need. A blob of pva glue or Blu-tack / plastercine / Play-Doh etc... usually works ok for a temporary fixing.

Balsa wood strips, plastic card off cuts and lolly sticks (see below) make good painting battens if you like to line up several figure in one go. Again pva glue and Blu-tack make good temporary adhesives.

Painting 1/72 Napoleonics - lolly stick method

Lastly I have also tried painting figures when they have been attached to their permanent gaming bases - ie 3 or 4 figures stuck on a 4cm square plastic base. This makes painting well pretty difficult and I tried it to see how it would go and because I wanted to get an idea what my loose box of figures would look like when based as a unit.

* Removal from the Sprue. Carefully remove the figures from the sprue if not painting them on the sprue and trim off any excess plastic flash or moulding lines. Take particular care to ensure that all the sprue has been removed from the base and that the underside is nice and flat - otherwise you are storing up problems for later when you come to attach your figure to plastic card or just want it to stand upright correctly. I use a (sharp) Stanley knife, self-healing cutting mat and clippers for this. For flash in difficult to reach places I sometimes use a paper clip that has been heated over a candle - take care and don't breath in the fumes!

Picture below illustrates a single sprue frame of 1/72 scale Waterloo1815 French Foot Dragoons where some careful removal work is required to release your figures.

Waterloo1815 Napoleonic French Dismounted Foot Dragoons 1/72 scale

* Conversions. If you are cutting or changing your figure this is the time to do it. For a simple example turning a reloading figure into a flagbearer requires cutting off the musket and inserting a brass rod for the flag pole. (I use normal white paper for the starting point of many of my handpainted flags. Fabric and foil can also be used.) Some parts, such as rifles, may need straightening and this can be done by placing in hot water, straightening and then plunging into cold water. To fill gaps or make additional pieces for your figure use Games Workshops 'Green Stuff' or Milliput. All best done before you go any further. Converting warrants a guide in it's own right - to find out more explore the hobby press and Google to see what you can find out.

* Permanent Basing #1. What size bases you use will be determined by the size of your figure, how many figures you want on each base and if you are using a particular set of wargames rules. Over time I have based my figures in a few different ways and on a few different materials ranging from Javis plastic building card (thickness '80' or '60' for a lower profile) 20mm squares for individual 1:72 scale infantry and 30/40 mm squares for most 1/32 infantry to the lower profile Victrix 40cm plastic square bases for most 1/72 and 28mm grouped figures now. 

Above - Javis plastic card sheets

View these sheets in my webstore: plastic card

Individual bases gives each figure a separate identity, makes the figure easier to hold when painting and allows the figure base to be more extensively textured with flock, static, sand, fine gravel etc... later to enhance your figure - but does make it more difficult to move units around the gaming table unless you use and like movement trays. (If you want to use DIY filler or similar to boldly texture your base then do it at this stage as it can be messy.) I use superglue to stick figures to bases as some other glues warp the base when drying which is a real pain. For bigger pieces, such as 1/32 artillery, I tend to use cut to size MDF (medium density fibreboard), which you can get from DIY shops or old cork backed coasters etc...

I know some folk are fans of using pva glue and cardboard for basing their figures, partly as this makes rebasing figures at a later stage easy. No bad idea as from my own experience I have rebased units several times as my idea of how I want things to look changes overtime and removing superglued figures from plastic-card bases can be tricky even with a carpenters awl or scribe or screwdriver. That being said cardboard does tend to warp badly and is not prone to stand up well to any liquid contact intended or otherwise or severe handling. Laser cut wooden bases and magnetic strips are other areas of basing that you may wish to explore but not something covered further in this guide.

Picture below of some WW2 1/72 scale plastic British Paratroopers mounted on 40mm square Victrix plastic bases.

Mainly Waterloo1815 1/72 scale WW2 British Paratroopers

View bases in my webstore:  Victrix 40mm square plastic bases 

For individual cavalry I use bases that are the same width as the infantry but twice the length. If you find that with a few figures the base it's moulded to is longer than the base size you want to attach it to you can simply trim the moulded base to size with a knife or clippers or remove it altogether - taking care not to remove your figure's feet or your own fingers in the process! If you do remove the moulded base - and this goes for infantry as well as cavalry - you'll get a more solid figure if you use a pin vice, brass rod and superglue to pin your figure to it's new base.

Cavalry riders can be tricky to paint  - in my view it's not so easy to paint them when glued to the horse at an early stage and they don't have their own bases to keep them upright so what to do? technique is to make a hole in their bottoms with a pin vice and insert a slightly blunted cocktail stick secured with a dab of pva glue. Sounds nasty and like something devised by Vlad the Impaler I know but it does the trick! You can stand the other end of the cocktail stick in a piece of polystyrene or florists foam etc... when you are not holding the figure by the temporary handle you have just created. Don't use too much glue or you won't be able to easily remove the cocktail stick at the end of the process and then attaching the rider to his mount will become somewhat more tricky than it needed to be (you'll have to cut the stick off).

* Undercoating. 

Undercoating is not usually essential and like most aspects of the hobby is down to personal choice and experience. It can however speed up the painting process and allow the main colours to adhere better.

If your figure will have a lot of white strapping or belts use a white undercoat. Likewise if black is common use black. That way the undercoat provides you with correctly coloured areas right from the outset as long as you carefully paint around it. This is a good alternative to black lining as the line appears by painting out most of your black undercoat rather than adding in a black line once you've painted the other colours.

Spray paint (in a can or airbrush) does the undercoating job quickly but a coat applied by brush ensures more complete and luxuriant, smooth coverage and is my personal preference but does take more time.  Be aware that some colours look better / worse over some undercoats. Metallic armour looks good over black (dry brushed especially) and red can look pink over white sometimes. Darker colours generally show up better on a black undercoat and lighter colours on a white one, although there are always exceptions.

nb - You can use your regular white or black paint to undercoat. It does not have to be a special undercoat paint although primers are made for this purpose.

* Painting

Paint - I mainly use the excellent Vallejo Game Color paint range manufactured in Spain especailly for metal and plastic figures. I have used my experience of painting with these to help put together numerous paint packs I sell in my eBay store covering a range of historical periods (eg Napoleonics, ACW, Zulu Wars etc) and colour themes (eg. Metallics, Inks, Greens etc...). So if you are buying a box or bag of soldiers and want a ready made paint set I should have it.

Link to my store here: Paints

Vallejo Game Color Paints - available at Drum & Flag

These paints are highly pigmented water based acrylics so don't give off the fumes some enamels do and they dry evenly and quickly. Vallejo are in my opinion the best on the market as you get more paint for your money (lower price and bigger bottle) and they use an eye-dropper design. This means two things - the paint does not dry out in the bottle very quickly and you can easily squeeze out how much you wish to use each time you need the colour. The bottle is also easy to shake and avoids the temptation to stick your brush directly into the pot!

To stir Vallejo paints be aware that the eye dropper nozzle piece will come out (pull or leverage it out with hobby pliers minding not to flick paint all over yourself in the process!) so you can get access to stir the bottle if shaking alone has not done the trick of mixing up the pigment. If the Vallejo eye dropper nozzle gets clogged you can easily clear it with a cocktail stick or unbent paper clip etc...For other paints if you find they are clogging or drying out a tip that may be worth trying is to store them upside down when not in use but be mindful of leakage.

Whatever paints you use be they enamels, acyrlics or others as touched on above already make sure you shake and/or stir them properly before use. Many paints settle or separate somewhat when not in use and the constituent elements require recombining before applying to your figure. Using a paint straight from the tin or bottle without shaking or stirring can be why some folk find paint does not always ahere as they might like to plastic figures. The other main cause is insufficient washing of the figure in warm soapy water as described previously.

I usually start painting with flesh and paint the uniform from the inside-out. Dry brushing, applying washes, highlighting & shading, blending and black lining are all good techniques to enhance the final look of your figure depending on how much time you wish to spend. Do not over cover your brush in paint, too little is always better than too much. Too much paint will result in a sloppy finish, will speed up the demise of your brush and increase the risk of dripping paint where you do not want it.

Italeri French Infantry painted as Napoleonic Swiss. 1/72 scale plastic figures

Above: Wargames unit of Italeri 1/72 scale French painted as Napoleonic Swiss.

- Dry Brushing. This involves simply loading your brush (best to use an old one) with just a trace of paint and applying it over a raised surface you wish to highlight with that colour. I mentioned earlier that armour, especially chainmail,  is a good use for this technique. It works equally well for hair or fur and for wood by brushing lighter shades over (dry) darker ones.

- Washes. These can be bought ready mixed or made yourself from thinned down applications of paint and/or ink. Washes are good for getting into the folds and creases of deeply detailed pieces. Also helps simple paint jobs look more sophisticated and adds a different look to horses, skin tones etc...Don't over do it or use too little water or you will be in danger of ruining the original surface you are washing over. If you find that you have overdone it and too much watery liquid has surged onto your figure you can often remedy the situation by soaking it back up again with a pointed piece of kitchen roll. 

Vallejo and other paint makers produce ready made washes aimed at the wargames market. Some come in 17ml bottles designed for painting on whilst others are available in bigger 200ml pots so you can dip the whole figure in. These ready made washes are handy if you don't want to knock up a batch of your own.

- Highlighting and Shading. A one colour finish is fine but for not much extra work you can dramatically enhance the look of your figure. Simply add a lighter colour to your main colour for highlights and a darker colour to get your shades. A little white and black added seperately to the same red main coat for example. On raised surfaces add your highlights and in the folds and creases add your shading. You can gradually add increasing amounts to your main colour to build up several blended layers of highlight and shade if you so wish. Faces particularly come to life using this technique. If you get it wrong your figure will look like it is covered in tiger stripes so you'll know to add less to your main colour next time!

- Blending. Where two more natural colours meet instead of a distinct demarcation between the two try merging the two to achieve a more gradual transition.

- Layering. As the name suggests this technique involves building up layers of paint one on top of another pyramid style where you paint a gradually smaller area with each layer to produce depth and contrast. Works well on clothing like flowing cloaks for example. To do this use several thin watery layers of paint one atop the other applied in sequence after each has dried.

For more information on higher level techniques such as blending and layering try looking at White Dwarf and/or searching Google & YouTube.

- Black Lining. This technique is particularly good for belts, straps, harnesses etc...Simply add a very thin black line between paint colours and uniform/equipment pieces to enhance the look of your figure. A Pilot pen can do the trick or you can use a fine paint brush. If you go for the Pilot option let it do the work and apply the ink at it's own pace, also be careful not to smudge it as it will take longer to dry than your paint. An alternative, especially if using a black undercoat, is simply to leave a thin black border when applying your main coat.

- Details. A little time spent at the end of your paint job to add in the small finishing details has a wonderful affect to your final figure out of all proportion to the effort required. So don't neglect thing like belt buckles, musket barrels and brass, shako plates/cords/plumes/rosettes, horse hooves/socks/muzzles/hair etc...If you are painting wheeled pieces like cannons, limbers, carts and so on a good way to quickly pick out the detail on them is to use a chisel tip marker pen to create a 'metal' rim and hub cap. When doing this it also helps if you skewer your wheel on a carpenters awl or similar tool - cocktail stick will do.

Picture below illustrates some 70mm plastic Conte Spartans I painted where details have been picked out.

Conte Painted Plastic Spartans

- Eyes. Paint the face flesh. Then paint the eye socket black, then white leaving a trace black outline, then a black dot in the centre. Next carefully reduce the size of the eye by painting flesh tones around it. You do not want to end up with a big staring eye so keep evenly reducing it's size and shape until you are happy. Make sure you let each colour dry before applying the next. This is a technique for 1/32 scale figures - not usually worth it for their smaller 1/72 scale comrades.

* Brushes - Javis sable brushes are excellent. Care for your new brushes by always repointing them after use, not leaving them in water, cleaning them after use and minimising the paint you get in the ferrule (the area where the bristles join the handle). Old brushes never die! - don't throw them out - use them for dry brushing and paint stirring or for scenery. Lastly try using two pots of water (one for metallic paints, one for the rest) as this avoids your brushes transferring metallic paint particles onto your non-metallic painting surfaces. 

Link to my webstore here: Brushes

Javis Golden Nylon Paint Brushes Size 00000 (5/0)

* Basing #2 - Once your figure is painted apply a ground colour to your base. I usually use brown or green. Once dry apply watered down PVA glue and sprinkle flock, sand, static or whatever else you wish to use to finish your base. Muddy or rocky areas should be left free and dry brushed to get the look required. Bristles from old brushes make good reeds and long grass.

Picture below illustrates 1/72 scale Airfix Waterloo Farm Accessory carts on plastic card bases that have been painted and textured with washed sand and static grass.

Airfix 1/72 scale Waterloo farm accessory Wagon & Cart

Recently I have started to just paint my bases around the edges which saves time. I then coat the top in PVA and apply fine sand. When dry I carefully immerse just the sand topped base in an brown or black ink wash solution. Again allow to dry. You can then further dry brush if needed to a tone desired and apply clumps of static or flock or lichen etc... for a pleasing finish.

* Varnishing - Matt sprays such as the one made by Army Painter is my recommendation to finish the job. You can also use paint-on varnish and Vallejo Game Color offer these three - matt for a realistic flat finish, satin for a half-way house between matt & gloss and gloss for a harder finish with a shine. Gloss can also be used before your matt coat if you want to combine an extra hard finish to your figure with more realism.

As with some paints it is important when drying varnished figures to so so at a good average room temperature. I have made mistakes in the past where leaving figures to dry over night in a cold garage has made the varnish dry leaving a white powdery effect which ruins your paint work! As with all things when trying out for the first time it's often better to do a small trial run first to see how things work out.

Vallejo Varnishes

See selection in my webstore: Varnishes

If you varnish your plastic figures and prepare and paint them as outlined above you should not have any problems with flaking. This together with paint not taking in the first place seem to be the two most common problems some encounter when painting plastic figures. Personally I have not had trouble with either in painting thousands of different plastic figures. Paint will of course start to be challenged however on any figure be it plastic, metal or resin if the figure is dropped or roughly handled.

Picture shows some varnished A Call to Arms Iron Brigade infantrymen..

A Call to Arms 1/32 scale Iron Brigade Union Infantry American Civil War

* Conclusion. I hope at least some of this information is useful. If you have not tried painting before why not give it a go. It's a very relaxing, rewarding and multi-faceted creative pastime and hobby - although there is no getting away from it that patience is required! If you ever find a particular painting section a bit repetitive (eg collars, cuffs and facings on Napoleonic infantry) slam on a bit of fast music (Metallica works for me!) and you'll be through it no time with no lapse in quality! For more peaceful aural pleasures in addition to music I like listening to the footy on Radio 5 live or catching up on my "reading" by sticking on an audio book whilst I paint away in a world of my own. Makes a nice change to use you ears as a primary sense in an age dominated by the more visual media of tvs, phones and computers.

Happy to answer any questions and interested in hearing you own way of doing things.

Airfix WW2 1/32 Scale German Paratroopers

Painted WW2 1/32 scale Airfix German Paratroopers


If you wish to see more photos of my painted figures see these links:

Gallery 1/32

Gallery 1/72

Gallery 28mm LotR

And if you wish to see photos of my painted 1/72 scale Napoleonic Buildings converted from the Airfix Waterloo kit click here: Nap Buildings

Lastly if interested in wargaming with plastics try: 

Wargaming with 1/72 scale plastics

Wargaming with 1/32 scale plastics

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