How to Paint 3D Printed Sci-fi Terrain

How to paint 3D printed scifi terrain

Creating immersive and visually striking wargaming terrain doesn’t need to take forever and isn’t locked in to a single technique. The process of painting incredible looking 3D printed terrain can be done with both regular brushes or an airbrush. In this article, we’ll explore tips and techniques to master the art of painting 3D printed sci-fi terrain for wargaming.

The goal: Create great looking terrain in a short time and minimal cost

1 – Preparation is Key

Before you start painting, ensure that your 3D printed terrain is properly prepared – If printing in PLA on an FDM printer, aim to use support-free designs such as those from Saucermen Studios, this will mean even less cleanup.

Clean off any stray bits of filament, sand any rough surfaces, and fill in any gaps or imperfections with putty. A smooth and clean surface will result in a more professional-looking paint job.

It’s a very good idea to prep your work area for a big and potentially messy job. Also consider that if using rattle cans or airbrushes, you will need suitable ventilation.

2 – Color Scheme Planning

Consider the theme and atmosphere you want to achieve for your sci-fi terrain. Are you aiming for a sleek futuristic cityscape or a weathered and battle-worn outpost? Plan your color scheme accordingly. Research sci-fi artwork or movie scenes for inspiration and use a color palette that complements the overall aesthetic. As an example, we have some great inspiration posts for futuristic cities here.

3 – Priming

Once the model’s surface is ready, prime the terrain with a primer of your choice. A rrattle can of auto primer/filler is cost effective and helps reduce print lines, but regular miniature primer such as Vallejo’s surface primer is also good but more expensive.

Priming the terrain creates a suitable surface for paint adherence. Use a light-colored primer to enhance the vibrancy of your paint colors. This step also helps to prevent issues like paint peeling or chipping and ensures that subsequent layers of paint adhere evenly.

4 – Base Coating

For the base coat, we recommend using cheap craft acrylics rather than more expensive miniature paints – This is purely based reducing the cost of materials whilst still achieving excellent results. Acrylic paints are used for this step due to their versatility and quick drying time.

Begin by applying a base coat of paint to cover the entire surface of your terrain. Use a brush or an airbrush for larger pieces. This layer sets the foundation for the subsequent details and effects.

Base Coating Tips & Considerations

  • Masking – Use masking tape to isolate or hide certain areas. This will give yo cleaner lines
  • Dark to light – Build up from dark colours

At this point it’s also when you need to decide if you will be airbrushing or drybrushing your terrain. there are pros and cons to each which we’ve pointed out below:

Airbrushing vs Drybrushing Terrain

Airbrushing Terrain:

Pros:

  • Gets paint onto the model fast
  • Smooth and even coverage
  • Easy to create gradient effects
  • Very efficient way of painting
  • Control of fine details

Cons:

  • Airbrush costs
  • Mixing paints to the right consistency
  • Learning curve
  • More equipment (the compressor) to store
  • Requires ventilation

Drybrushing Terrain:

Pros:

  • Very cost effective
  • Beginner friendly technique
  • Emphasizes texture and detail
  • No specialized equipment or material

Cons:

  • Limited coverage
  • Time consuming
  • Less control over transitions
  • Big projects can trash brushes

5 – Layering Colours

Expanding the process from the base coating phase, you should now build up you highlights to bring out the details of your 3D printed terrain by layering on additional colors. This is where your chosen color scheme really comes into play. Use smaller brushes for fine details and gradually build up the layers. Consider dry brushing to highlight raised surfaces and edges, giving your terrain a more realistic and textured appearance.

6 – Fine Brush Details

Now you have all the base coat and layers down, it’s time to take a smaller brush, similar to those you’d use for painting miniatures, and brush on the small details. This often includes piping, wires/cables, terminals, lights, buttons, signs, etc. You can also switch over to your regular miniature paints for this step as the pigments are better suited for finer detail.

7 – Weathering and Aging Effects

For a battle-hardened or lived-in look, add weathering effects such as rust, dirt, or scorch marks. Dry-brushing with metallic paints can simulate a worn metal appearance, while washes and pigments can create a dirty or weathered effect. Experiment with different techniques to achieve the desired level of realism.

8 – Final Details

At this stage, your terrain is looking pretty good, but a few final touches could push it that extra mile. Consider adding the following to give it some extra realism and theme.

  • Posters – Grab some free printable posters and glue them onto the terrain. Get free posters here!
  • Stencils – Use stencils to add some quick and easy decals to surfaces. Get stencils here.
  • Moss & Mud – Similar to basing a miniature, you could glue strategically placed grass, moss, mud or other effects.
  • LEDs – No-wire LEDs can easily be placed inside buildings for extra immersion during games. See how to add LEDS here.
  • Wet Areas – Using gloss paints, water effects, resin, or even glues, you can create sludge or pooled water.
  • Snow – There are many snow effects available from mini paint suppliers.

What supplies for Painting Wargaming Terrain?

Painting wargaming terrain

There are certain items that every terrain painter needs to have in their arsenal to help paint terrain quicker and with a wider range of details and effects. Below are our top tools for painting tabletop terrain.

Brushes for tabletop terrain

You’ll need a range of brushes for painting tabletop terrain. As scenery is a lot bigger than miniatures, you’ll need some larger brushes in additional to fine detail brushes. You can also get away with a lot cheaper brushes for painting scenery.

We recommend:

  • Fine detail miniature brushes
  • Cheap Makeup brushes for drybrushing
  • Cheap(ish) brushes for painting terrain features – Check out something like the ‘Golden Maple’ brush set
  • Old brushed for oil paint washes and streaks

Acrylic Paints for scenery

Small bottles and pots of miniature paints such as Citadel, Vallejo or Army Painter won’t go far on terrain projects, so it’s worth grabbing a selection of cheap craft paints in squeezy tubes. These can be diluted for extra coverage and even mixed into large dropper bottles to suit your needs. Some p;eopel also recommend using sample pots of indoor, waterbased house paint for painting terrain.

Airbrush for tabletop gaming

An airbrush is a great tool for painting terrain quickly and efficiently. Airbrushing allows you to create smooth gradients and textures on large surfaces, making it ideal for painting large terrain pieces – You can even use airbrush stencils to add details. It is also useful for creating weathering effects and adding subtle details to your terrain. While an airbrush can be expensive, it is a worthwhile investment if you plan to create a lot of terrain.

Spray Bottle

A small spray bottle can be used for several handy things such as flushing out an airbrush in-between colour changes, filling with paint / PVA water mixes to prime basic terrain projects, and of course, cleaning up!

Sponges for weathering

The foam that often comes in blister packs or model kits… keep that! It’s great for ripping up and using to stipple grime, rust or paint flakes onto the edges of terrain.

Washes for adding grime

You can use pre-mixed pots of inks or washes such as Agrax Earthsade or Vallejo Model wash, but mixing oil paints and a solvent thinner such as artist turps is a great way to weather your terrain, add dirt to the recesses and add nasty streaks.

Recommended colours:

  • Black
  • Brown / Umber
  • Rust
  • Green

3D Printer for accessories and extra terrain

3D printers are an incredibly useful tool to have around for terrain projects.

How can 3D printers help your terrain painting projects?

  • 3D print accessories for your paint set-up or studio
  • 3D print greebles or terrain parts
improve mdf terrain with 3d printed greebles

Pigments for rust and grime

Artist pastels, pigments and comemrcial rust mixtures are usually set with solvent such as isoproply alchohol and are great for adding grime, rust or other weathering. It can be applied as-is, or set and painted over for added texture.

Spray Paint for base coating

Rattle cans are quick and easy ways to lay down paint if you don’t have access to an airbrush. You can apply base coats or spray from above or 45 degrees to apply zenithal highlights and surface colours.

Airbrush Stencils for tabletop gaming

Airbrush stencils are an easy way to add decals, lettering and other marking to your projects.

Think about using stencils to add:

  • Hazard marking
  • Chevrons
  • Icons or logos
  • Words
  • Lines and shapes
  • Arrows
  • Thematic symbols
how to use airbrush stencils

Masking Tape

For protecting certain areas from paint or colour, you can use masking tape. It also allows you to mask simple straight lines for crisp edges and stripes.

Hobby Knife

A good sharp knife is always good to have around for cutting off unwanted parts of your terrain project or even adding damage such as cuts, missing chunks or scratches.

Paint Pallete & Mixing Pots

We’ve mentioned various paints, glues, pigments and oils above, so so’ll want to make sure you’ve got a selection of (ideally reusable) mixing surfaces and containers.

Glue for tabletop gaming

PVA glue and superglue are another essential item to have close at hand. Use the right glue on the right material to repair, add stuff or apply texturing.

Flock, Sand & Static Grass

Organic textures can be added to your terrain sets with any number of grass flocks, sand, modelling flock or even sawdust! It’s worth trying different mixtures of these and getting an understanding of what can be painted over. EG, sand and PVA, when set looks great when drybrushed

Turntable (Lazy Suzan)

A spinning platform or turntable means you can have your terrain piece in front of you, at the right height and be able to spin it around without having to touch it! It’s a simple thought but an absolute game-changer!

Painting 3D printed Terrain: Spaceship Graveyard

Painting a 3d printed spaceship graveyard

This terrain painting tutorial explains our process for painting 3D printed spaceships and starship wreckage terrain. We will use the Lost Colony: Spaceship Graveyard Set to demonstrate.

We used an airbrush and airbrush stencils but similar effects could be achieved with brushes or rattlecans.

Which paint to use?

Painting 3D printed terrain? Which paint should you use? After going through buckets of Citadel Paints, Vallejo and Army Painter on previous terrain projects, we came to the conclusion that cheap craft paints are defiantly the way to go! Just follow these steps to mix your own airbrush paint:

  1. Grab a few empty paint bottles – Remember that terrain uses a LOT of paint
  2. Squeeze some craft paint into the bottle
  3. Add some de-ionised / distilled water – This helps it going stinky in a few weeks
  4. Add some airbrush thinner (aim for the consistency of melted ice-cream)
  5. Throw in a glass bead and shake (don’t use metal… it may rust)
Which paint for terrain

1 – Good quality 3D prints

Terrain is best printed on FDM printers such as the Ender 3 or Prusa i3 due to the size and amount of materials used – Resin prints would look great but it’d use a lot of resin and require larger resin printers. If using Cura, we recommend printing on standard settings with 5% infill. None of the Saucermen Studios terrain in this set requires supports.

3D printed spaceship

2 – Priming

We’ve tried a few primers for 3D printed terrain and found that Primer / Filler for cars works great for filling in any print lines. it’s important to take your time, spray multiple thin coats and keep a good distance between the spray and model – This will avoid pooling or thick areas of paint. Drying time is under 10 minutes too!

Primer filler for 3D models
Primng 3D printed models

3 – Panel Lines & Dark Areas

Using A dark grey / black paint, spray across the panel lines and dark areas of the terrain such as metal areas or deep recesses.

4 panel lines

4 – Add Highlights to Panels

Using a white or light colour to paint highlights onto the main areas of the panels, this cleans up any messy panel lines and adds contrast to the model.

5 lighter

5 – Stipple Rust & Dirt

Using an old, thick bristled brush with brown / umber paint to jab or stipple grunge onto dark areas of the terrain. Don’t worry about being too messy here as it will be dry brushed later.

6 stipple brown

6 – Drybrush Metal & Silver Areas

Using a large dry and silver paint, drybrush areas of metal. On these example, we used two different brushes for smaller and larger areas. A cheap house painting brush works great!

Drybrush terrain
Drybrushing terrain

7 – Adding More Colours

Repeating the steps above or applying base colours, then highlighting each panel with a lighter colour, you can add variety to the panels. Using masking tape or a carefully held masking board here is essential to isolate individual parts of the model.

Painting 3D printed terrain

8 – Applying Airbrush Stencils

We used adhesive vinyl airbrush stencils here to add decals and detail to the models. Stencils are a great, clean and effective way to easily boost the aesthetic of a model.

Using Airbrush Stencils
8 panels
how to use airbrush stencils

9 – Edge Highlights (with a pencil)

Using a white artist pencil you can quickly and cleanly apply edge highlights to terrain. Just use the side of the pencil and rub it on the edges!

Using Pencils for Edge Highlights

10 – Sponge on Some Damage!

Using a contrasting colour paint, use a torn sponge to add damage, dirt and grime to the edges. Aim for areas that see some usage or would get scratched up easily. Think about doorway edges and corners, etc.

9 stipple

All done – Add Some Brush Detail!

Grab a small, good quality miniature brush and paint on some of the fine detail for panels, wires and lights, etc.

Crashed Spaceship Wreckage 3D printed terrain
Star Wars Legion Zombei Stormtrooper
spaceship wreckage 3D printable terrain stl

Want this Terrain?

Using & Airbrush Stencils

How to use airbrush stencils

What Are Airbrush Stencils?

Airbrush stencils make painting scenery, miniatures, props, robots, vehicles and other painting projects much easier. They are used by hobbyists and studio painters across the world and allow you to achieve limitless customisation by offering complex shapes and thematic patterns, all of which can be quickly and easily applied will very little skill.

How to use Airbrush Stencils

  1. Ensure your hands are clean before use
  2. If using adhesive stencil, delicately remove your stencil from the backing sheet
  3. Position your stencil onto the clean & dry painting surface
  4. Firmly hold or stick the stencil onto the surface to avoid paint leakage
  5. Apply your paint onto the project
  6. Carefully remove the stencil from the painting surface
  7. For re-use, carefully place the stencil onto the backing sheet

Materials: Adhesive Vinyl vs. Durable Flex

Adhesive Vinyl

flex stencil 2 of 3

Summary:

Low tack adhesive vinyl material that allows super-sharp lines but limited re-usability.

Use When:

  • Your painting surface is uneven or varied in shape
  • You need an adhesive material to stick to your surface
  • You need super sharp paint lines
  • Re-usability isn’t too important

Durable Flex

flex stencil scifi camo 2

Summary:

Strong, re-usable and flexible film material that is quick and easy to use.

Use When:

  • You have a flat painting surface
  • You need a durable stencil
  • You want your stencil to last for a long time

Designs

Airbrush stencils come in a variety of designs, with each stencil offering a range if icons, decals and shapes that share a common theme.

Re-usability

Flexibility

Flex stencil rolled up 1

Airbrush stencils are great to use on a variety of surfaces and can flex, wrap and bend around most shapes. Vinyl stencils provide the best versatility as they can be manipulated to fit into the tightest of places and even heated with a hair dryer for extra moldability. Flex stencils are still able to wrap around larger organic shapes.

How Are Stencils Made?

Good quality airbrush stencils are machine cut with precision hardware.

Do I Need An Airbrush?

Air brushes will give the best results for stencils but you can also use rattle-cans, brushes ands even sponges to dab on worn or ‘chipped’ paintwork and distressed surfaces.

Custom Airbrush Stencils

These are the general guidelines we suggest for custom stencils:
– Your design must be provided as a single colour vector (.ai / .eps / .svg)
– Our machines cut around each shape in your artwork, so merging overlapped objects is required
– Consider how stencils work, you need gaps for certain shapes (otherwise they just fall out the stencil)
– Avoid thin connecting lines as these may to break
– You must own rights to use the design. We will not cut images that infringe copyright

Buying Airbrush Stencils