What brings a model railway or diorama alive apart from model trains, buildings, vehicles and so on?  The answer is simple: people. They are your cast to tell the story of your railway. 

The hobby has changed so much these days that you can buy almost any sort of model figure for your railway and there are many different companies that supply them, both unpainted and painted. Some are quite reasonably priced, too. This article will give you some helpful advice and tips on how to paint model figures. Everyone will have their own preferred method but the following works well for me.

Step-by-step painting guide for a novice painter.

  1. After purchase, always wash the figures in warm soapy water and let them dry over-night. This will get rid of any grease that might have collected during manufacture and so provide better surface for next stage, priming the model. 
  2. When priming, it is best to spray your models in a well-ventilated area and maybe also use a box as your spray booth. Spray gently and evenly, stopping every so often to check the finish. Very small figures can to superglued [by the soles of their feet] to plastic rod to hold them during this process. I find that a good primer for this task is Halfords’ grey aerosol primer.
  3. Let your models dry completely for 12 hours or so to be ready for the next stage of painting. Prime again during this time if you need to. 
  4. It is now time to paint your model with the first colour coat.  Depending on what scale I am painting, I always make sure to use the right brush for the job. I also pick out an item of clothing to do first instead of the flesh, as that better left until last.
  5. Having painted the clothing, detailing comes next. This involves painting the flesh, hair and eyes, etc.. It can be the hardest part but it is worth it in the long run. Use pictures to help you when adding detail.
  6. Adding a thin paint wash can be done before or after detailing your model depending on the look you wish to achieve. I find that it is worth adding a wash as it highlights the detail in the model, making it more alive.
  7. Finally, I find it is worth finally varnishing the figure as, in the long run, it will save all that hard work. Use the spraying tips in step two when varnishing your models.

Now leave the painted model to dry for 24 hours before handling or placing on your layout.

More handy tips !

  • Let your brush soak in tepid water for a bit if it is new as new brushes seem to have a wax on them that makes them very stiff.  
  • If using acrylics or watercolours, use only cold water to wash your brushes as this will help protect them. Hot water may damage the bristles. 
  • Use different brushes for different types of paint – and label them appropriately. This will help avoid spoiling your paints and your work.
  • Know your limits !  Call time when you start to feel tired.
  • Have a clean work area, one which is not full of clutter.
  • Wear goggles and a spray mask when spraying to protect yourself. 
  • Use a day-light bulb or natural day-light to get the best results when painting.
  • Use magnifiers for detail work on smaller models, it will save your eyes !
  • Consider making notes on what you are doing, it may help in future work.
  • Research your time period before you start to paint to ensure the use of most appropriate colours.
  • Visit museums or re-enactments, etc. and take plenty of photos for reference material.
  • Store your painting materials somewhere dark and cool.
  • Don’t spray models in damp or humid weather. If you do, you risk covering them in a milky bloom.
  • Visit car-boot sales to pick up cheap books on uniforms, etc., for reference. 
  • Take your time to build up your paint collection: you don’t want to buy a job lot of to find you only use half of it.
  • Finally, never be afraid to ask for help or advice !

Tips to avoid common problems that can occur when spraying a model

If spraying out of doors, the weather is potentially a model painter’s worst enemy. When you decide to spray paint your figures, check first what the weather is like. Make sure that it will not be windy and this risks dust and specks of dirt attaching to your model. It will also affect the even-ness of the spray itself, potentially blowing the paint away from the model and drying the aerosol too early. Extremes of temperature can also adversely affect the paint, spoiling your model. Dampness and humidity are real issues and spraying in those conditions will almost certainly result in a milky bloom ruining the paintwork. This can be extremely difficult to remedy.

Ideal conditions for spray painting are still, dry and temperate days. It also helps to warm [not heat] the spray can first by immersing it in a bowl of warm water. Make sure that you shake the can thoroughly also, and for longer than it says on the tin.

Spray your model with light sweeps and no closer than the distance recommended on the tin. This will help to avoid flooding the model with paint and provides a finer finish which does not obscure the detail.


I hope you have found this guide useful. I was no expert when I began and it has taken time and practice to improve my skills and knowledge:  I am still doing that now. However, I think that I have reached the stage where I can help to others to learn how to paint, and I am also working on the figures for a large O Gauge exhibition layout in the club, South Dock.

South Dock covers a wide time period: the early 1900’s, through to 1940 and on to 1960, when the docks shut. Fortunately, for the various periods chosen, most of the figures did not have to change much as the clothing style of dock workers and engine crews stayed pretty much the same. There are over 100 figures on South Dock and painting them took the best part of 3 months to complete. Hard work, but thoroughly enjoyable!

So, when you embark on your next project, and you want to set a model in a particular time period, do your research. Use the internet and old films by all means but visit museums and exhibitions too. Take a note book with you, and a camera, but talk to people too, especially if they are in costume. Most will be happy for you to photograph them if asked politely. 

Enjoy your modelling !