Let There Be Dirt: Modeling Earth for Your Minis & Terrain

The village of ToadChapel needs some rock, soil, and life upon which to grow. Let’s learn how to make it.

Finished terrain tiles of earth with moss and stones

In this tutorial I’m going to show you how to make a layer of basic forest earth that will work for your mini bases, terrain, gameboards, and dioramas.  The environment of your figures plays an enormous role in setting a realistic and believable scene.  Poor basing can easily spoil a good paintjob.  Superior basing and terrain, though, can help even mediocre figures tell a compelling story on the tabletop.This is a method I use when I want groundwork that looks genuinely good, but doesn’t take an eternity.  Though it’s [ahem] dirt cheap and relatively straightforward, you wouldn’t necessarily want to use this method for, say, a 3′ x 3′ skirmish wargaming board…

A chubby but beautiful grey cat sits on top of a three foot square gaming board.

[Casper provided for scale]


An assortment of shapes and sizes of tiles, all covered in real dirt.

Begin by gluing good old dirt to your base, or to something thin & flat for larger scenic pieces. I don’t actually sift the dirt beyond the biggest and most obvious foreign objects. Instead, I sort of pan it and get the right mix of sizes to suit my needs. Make sure to crush any large clods or they’ll collapse later in the process and screw something up.

The dirt is glued down to secure it to the tiles.

Here you can see wood glue thinned with water applied heavily over the top of the dirt. I use the same wood glue underneath, let it dry overnight, then cement it down the next day.

The terrain tiles are primed black and ready for painting.

Prime in black.

Cheap craft paints used for painting dirt.

These are the paints I’m using for the earth & rocks. I’m using cheap hobby paints because I’m going to need a lot and this is very rough work. Don’t use your model paints! These big bottles cost fifty cents each.

A representation of the various stages of painting and flocking

These are the stages of the painting process, beginning at the top.

12:00 Paint the whole tile brown.

3:00 Drybrush with light brown.

6:00 Pick out the rocks with medium grey. Basically, the more you do the better, and rockier, it’s going to look. I’ve also highlighted the larger rocks with a light grey.

7:30 Apply some washes

Water is applied to the terrain to help flow of inks and washes.

I start with some water just to help things flow more naturally and thin out any real obvious ink stains.

Heavy application of inks and washes on the terrain

Merrily slop some of your favorite washes all around. I like a mix of colors, warm & cold, dark & light. These are Secret Weapon Baby Poop and Flesh Wash, with a few dots of black ink.

Using a Japanese watercolor brush, inks are smoothed into the earth while preserving some cohesion of the color pools.

Quite fun to paint these thin colors across the tiles using a Japanese style watercolor brush.

Washes softly cover surface of the terrain tiles.

To soften and blend all these subtle colors, use your breath to give them their final shape.

9:00 Time for some vegetation!

Ugly portions of the tiles are covered by glue in order to hide them under moss.

Wood glue & water daubed over the ugliest parts of the base. I try to surround some nice rocks with moss, carefully avoiding the rocks themselves. Taking pains to achieve these little details makes a lot of difference, to my eye.

The entire tile is covered in moss flock.

A heavy baking dish makes a great indoor flocking station.

Distinct patches of moss appear on the base where the moss flock has adhered to the glue.

This is the base after two applications of moss. It might take more than one pass to cover up the parts you want and build up a little volume in the deeper patches. Take your time and don’t lay it on too thick just to finish in one go.

The moss is looking good after an application of a lkighter shade of flock, creating a two-tone effect.

A layer of lighter moss flock on top softens the look and creates the appearance of volume with a two-tone effect.

Now it’s time to apply a few painted highlights and finish these pieces off.

The moss will be painted using fluorescent green to create vivid highlights.

My favorite highlight color for moss, for multiple reasons. I think fluorescent green gives the most natural looking moss, at least as I envision it in ToadChapel.

There is a problem, though: the flouro paint fades. As you can see, the huge board above needs to be highlighted again, as the highlights have all but vanished when viewed from from tabletop distance. I ain’t looking forward to it, I can tell you!

An extremely light green is used for a final highlight

To take the highlight one level higher and help hedge my bets against the fading, I’m using a very pale yellowish green.

A finished tile, looking like a mossy scene in a forest

There is it. It looks good from a distance and it holds up under scrutiny. It’s not painted so loudly that it detracts from the figures and scenic elements around it.

Some minis from Red Box Games sit on top of a tile, showing how the technique can be applied to bases and larger surfaces alike.

Trouble headed to ToadChapel by the Woodland Road!


As with the washes, there are all sorts of ways to incorporate hidden connections into the modular pieces. Not only do these little diversions make the creative process more fun, they could also come in handy later when creating a scene.

By overlapping the application of glue onto adjacent tiles, a unified scene is created.

Wood glue. Best stuff ever.  By overlapping your application onto adjacent terrain tiles, the potential for a unified scene can be achieved.

A jigsaw puzzle of terrain pieces with glue showing the overlap technique.

Abstract art.

Several tiles with overlapping moss create a modular diorama surface.

And that’s it! Overlapping your flock like that creates a kind of modular diorama surface. It’s perfect for illustrating your own weird little miniature fantasy!

Hope you found something useful or interesting in this tutorial. I gave you a picture of a cat, so you can’t complain too loudly.

Leave a comment below if you have any tips or questions for me. Happy hobbying.

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