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What is the best way to get a smooth coat, no matter how hard I try it's lumpy or I can see paint streaks.. : /
Also, does anyone have any general tips on highlighting? Is there any way to highlight white? And on a light color, like tangerine, how can I make highlights stand out more than usual?
It really doesn't get any simpler than: Thin your paints. Basically add water or whatever your favorite retarder mix is. You basically want it the consistency of cream. You can go really thin - but remember the thinner your paint is the more transparent it will become. This will require more layers. It takes a ton of time but the results will be worth it.
As for highlighting - You take the previous layers color and add a lighter shade to it and successively paint up the raised areas of your figures (or where light would strike on flat surfaces). You leave a little of the previous layer showing and gradually build up the color.
White can be highlighted by starting with a darker color and ending with a pure white. For a dirty white I suggest a leather or bone color as a base. For a cleaner white a pale blue or grey.
The principle for highlighting any color is basically to add a lighter shade to your mix. Even a brighter color can be made brighter - as long as it isn't pure white. The more extreme the highlight color is to the base color - the more it will stand out. The best way to go about it though is to start with a darker base color and build up to the bright highlight gradually by mixing in the shades from the base to the light. It will end up looking more natural but at the same time really stand out.
As Slorak said, thin it - but do so very carefully. Also, flow enchancers/flow retarders will greatly improve the smoothness of the coats. Finally, a lot depends on the priming method - if the primer gave the miniatures a texture, then too bad for you, you can forget really smooth coats. Therefore I advise to use hand-applied paint as your primer.
It is easy enough to get a smooth base from spray primer. You have to apply enough of it that it fully coats the mini in one go. If you coat it fully without it running, it will form a smooth coat when it dries and won't be so thick that it obscures detail.
Unless the hand applied paint is formulated to adhere well as a basecoat, you may as well not even bother. It won't stick any better than just putting your paintjob on the bare mini.
Artificial Intelligence is no match for Natural Stupidity.
I agree with helotaxi - Spray primer if used correctly works just fine. It is also much quicker. Now if you spray too far away or put too much on or don't meet the humidity/temperature requirements then you will have problems.
There usually isn't anything wrong with brush on primers and for single figures go for it. But you will find that if you are doing a lot of figures it really becomes a bore hand painting the primer!