Ever heard of the "Three Color Minimum" requirements for painting when looking into tournaments? I've seen some armies where that was taken quite literally. Heck, I've seen that recited as a mantra in the past. Luckily for the sake of our eyes, the prevalence of these paint jobs are not the average, and in fact have been in decline for quite a few years now.
So what is the average? That's where a much more common mantra enters into play... Tabletop Quality.
Let me first say that there is nothing wrong with a Tabletop Quality army. The vast majority of them look excellent on the tabletop... Hence the term itself. I'm not trying to preach some elitist opinion that everyone needs to spend 10 hours per fig, I'm just trying to avoid a reinvention of the "Three Color Minimum".
It doesn't take much, so let's dive in.
If we are to go beyond the average, we first need to determine just what "Tabletop Quality" is. I would define it in two parts, the assembly as well as the painting. Assembly-wise, this is a miniature put together straight out of the box, without even so much as a head-swap conversion to it, no mold lines cleaned, no barrels drilled out and in a pose seen on the box it comes in. Painted, while it would have more than three colors on it, there wouldn't be a large effort to pull out a lot of details, usually with an excessive use of washes to get a model done quickly.
We'll tackle the assembly first.
See, I think that the assembly of the miniature also plays into the overall quality, not just the painting. A few very easy steps in this stage and you've already gone a long way to push your army over the average.
Clip sprue carefully.
Use side clippers and even leave a little bit of the sprue attached to the bit to be trimmed off carefully with your hobby knife rather than gouge a chunk out of the bit during clipping.
Trim/Scrape/File all mold lines.
It doesn't take too long folks, and mold lines really show up when paint hits the mini.
Plan a few easy conversions (head swaps, simple kit bash and the like).
Buy a basic marine box and a Blood Angel box, do a few Bitz swaps. That's all I'm talking here. Marines are just an example, plan out the look you want and buy accordingly. Yes, it increases the cost of your army a little, but they will look so much better.
No oozing glue, melting details or dislocated joints!!!
Drill your Bolters!
A common axiom among Marine players, but it's meaning applies across the board. Take the time to do that one little detail, drilling the barrels of your bolters for example, and the overall look of the figure will be much more finished.
Painting comes next.
This is where the hard work you put into assembling your army could all go to pot if you aren't careful...
Planning an effective paint scheme.
Yes, this plays a part. If you just start slapping colors around with only a vague idea of where they will go, your army will tend to have a ramshackle look to it... Yes, I'm looking at you too, Orks.
Proper application of Primer.
Brand and color choices aside, please do not over-spray your figure with your primer. Careful, clean application, starting each spray off of the figure and ending off of the figure will give an even coat. Remember, you aren't painting the figure at this stage, you are priming it.
Yes, this means take your time, use a good brush and quality paints. Speed will come with time and practice.
Tasteful use of washes.
Ahhh, here's the key. See, I love the GW washes for detailing and even tinting at times. But we aren't dipping figs here folks... We're applying a wash to bring out a key detail like cloth or facial features, or to tint a blade, or the like. Be decisive about each application of wash. See this article that Ron wrote at From the Warp. It's a good guide for using washes to bring out details on a fig.
That's it folks. It's not rocket science, and there really aren't that many things to consider even. Take your time, let speed come with practice and you'll be pleased with the outcome.
Whew. That was a lot of text, with very little eye candy. I'll remedy that in the future after toss my soap box back in the garage now.