Painting model figures for train layouts is a task that few toy train hobbyists relish, but we can borrow techniques from other hobbies to solve that problem. The model railroading and toy train hobbies have solved a lot of problems for hobbyists in other fields, and I don’t think we borrow knowledge back from those other hobbies as much as we could.
One problem the miniature wargaming hobby has solved is painting large quantities of figures rapidly while getting acceptable results.
Materials you’ll need
Spray primer – hardware and discount stores
Flat enamel spray paint in assorted colors (green, blue, white) – hardware and discount stores
Craft acrylic paint in assorted colors (flesh tones for faces and hands, brown and black for hair and belts and shoes, white and other assorted colors for details) – craft and discount stores
Inexpensive artist brushes – craft stores
Wood stain – hardware and discount stores (optional)
Wire twist ties or other bits of scrap wire
Figures – experiment on cheap Ebay figures to gain confidence before trying more expensive figures
Basing the figure for painting
If you can’t pick up the figure easily by its base, the first thing you’ll want to do is super-glue them to something large enough that you can pick it up to hold it. This makes painting model figures much easier. I’ve used jar lids, pill bottles, and stuff like that in the past. Or if you want a larger base, use large metal washers. You can easily remove it when you’re done by sticking it in the freezer for a few hours. The figure will easily twist off.
Priming the figures
The first step is priming the figures–a step many people skip, and thus make their lives much harder. Get a can from the local hardware or discount store–the cheap store brands are just fine. Primer tends to come in white, gray, oxide red, black, and sometimes rust brown. The color really only matters if you’re not going to put a top coat on it. Use a spray can if it’s warm enough to paint outdoors–more than 50 degrees–or get a can and a brush and prime the figure by hand if you have to paint indoors. For painting indoors, I recommend using gesso to avoid paint fumes. You can tint the gesso by adding acrylic paint of your desired color to it.
Painting the figures
After the primer dries, paint the entire figure one base color if it’s going to be different from the color of the primer you used–for example, if the figure is a woman in a red dress, paint the whole figure red. If the figure is a police officer, paint the whole figure blue. For a man in a suit, leave the black or gray primer alone. If you’re going to use spray paint, be sure to use flat paint rather than matte or gloss. The craft acrylic paints you’ll use in the next steps adhere much better to flat finishes.
After that dries, paint the hands and face with an acrylic craft paint, such as Apple Barrel. These come in 1-oz bottles at craft and discount stores and cost around a dollar.
Next, paint in other details like shoes, hair, belts, aprons, purses, ties, or whatever else the figure has. Getting a few little details is really key to painting model figures that look good.
You’ll find you can paint the majority of figures using a total of about three colors. The key to speed is choosing three colors for each figure that can give you acceptable results.
Giving the figure depth
This step is optional, but can help to bring out the details and shadows in a figure. After all of the paint has thoroughly dried, wrap a twist tie around the base of the figure. Open up the can of wood stain, then dip the figure in the stain, rotate it to work the stain into all of the crevices, shake off the excess, remove any remaining pools on the surface with the corner of a tissue, and set it aside to dry for 24 hours. The stain in the crevices brings out the subtle detail in the figure without you having to resort to microsurgical techniques.
The type of stain you use makes a difference. For figures wearing brightly-colored clothes, a lighter shade like oak or pecan will bring out the detail without making them too drab. For figures wearing dark suits, you’ll need a darker shade like ebony to bring out the detail. You may want to buy small 8-oz cans of more than one shade to experiment with the effect.
If the resulting figure is too dark after it dries, very lightly brush a thin coat of a lighter color over the darkened areas, more like you’re staining it than painting it. The detail will still show while brightening up the figure.
A more advanced technique is to apply the stain with a cheap brush. This lets you use different shades where appropriate to get better results all around. Use very cheap brushes because the wood stain will ruin them.
Applying a clearcoat
After everything is thoroughly dry and you’re satisfied with it, you can spray the figure with a topcoat like Testors Dullcote if you want a realistic flat finish, or brush on a coat of Pledge Floor Care Multisurface Finish (which used to be known as Future Floor Finish)–yes, really, it’s just a glossy acrylic clearcoat–if you like a glossy, toy-like finish. I don’t recommend hardware store clearcoats because of compatibility issues. Far too many times I’ve finished painting something, then sprayed it with a clearcoat from a hardware store, and the paint bubbled off. Testors clearcoats are a lot more expensive, but I’ve never seen them harm any brand of paint. The same goes for Future.
And that’s really it. Five steps to painting model figures passably. You can paint a few dozen in an afternoon this way. As you gain confidence, you can spend more time painting with more detail, but even doing the five steps will typically yield results at least as good as commercially painted figures.
Improving commercially painted figures
To improve hastily painted commercial figures, often available on Ebay cheaply as well, skip the first four steps and just dip the painted figures in the wood stain and let it dry. This will bring out the detail in the casting and tone down the colors, making them look much better with almost no effort.
Really poorly painted figures can be stripped back to bare plastic or metal by soaking them overnight in Purple Power or Super Clean, available at auto parts or discount stores. Then you can prime them and repaint them. Wear gloves while working with these high-strength cleaners and rinse the figures thoroughly afterward.
A layout with mediocre figures on it looks far better than a layout with none, so there’s no shame in starting with a batch of cheap Ebay figures, giving them the wood stain treatment, then progressively improving figures at time goes on by removing the 10% of the figures you like the least and stripping and repainting them as your skills improve, and adding better, costlier figures along the way as well. A proven method to get a good train layout is to get something down, then work on the 10% of the layout you like least. This way the layout is in a nearly constant state of improvement.
And here’s another tip: Put your best figures toward the front of the layout where people can see them, and the less-detailed, less-well-painted figures toward the back. On a layout of any significant size, a distance of a few feet can hide a lot.