So Many Paints…

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If you follow conversations on miniature painting forums and groups, likely you’ve seen a lot more talk about different paint options of late. Everything from the debates of which commonly available miniature paint brand is ‘best’, to announcements of this or that completely new option for miniature painters, to counter-arguments about how you should just be mixing all your own colours from a handful of art store paints. Some art store brands are further complicating the discussion by coopting the names of other kinds of paints/products in an effort to convey the characteristics of their formulations to consumers.

Paints and tools

How paint is formulated and the characteristics of various paints is a complex topic. Probably too long and involved to do justice to in a single blog post. Instead I’m going to aim for an overview of information helpful to making good choices in a sea of options. I may write some posts diving deeper into certain topics in the future. 

Important note: I am not a paint chemist nor any other sort of official expert. I have a certain enthusiasm for paint, and I’ve spent a little time studying up on it to guide my own purchases both for miniature painting use, and traditional canvas and paper painting. Any errors in this article are my own.

What is Paint?

Paint is a pigment suspended in a binder. Paint may also contain additives designed to alter the properties of either the pigment or the binder. Explanations of each of those elements will help you understand what makes a given paint different from or similar to another.

What is Binder?

The binder determines the overall ‘family’ to which the paint belongs, and determines several basic properties of how the paint behaves. Different brands of paints within a family can generally be mixed and used together without difficulty. So any paint with oil as a binder is an oil paint, and whether it is made with linseed oil or walnut oil, it has more in common with any other oil paint than another type of paint. 

The acrylic in acrylic paints is a type of plastic derived from petrochemicals, which makes it one of the newest families of paint. Most of the properties of acrylic paints make them very well suited to miniature painting:

– Acrylic paints dry to the touch in minutes, and are fully cured within a couple of days.
– The cured paint film is sturdy and flexible.
– You need only water as a solvent – as long as the paint is wet, you can clean brushes or spills with only water.
– You can also use water as a dilutant, though there is some controversy about how much to thin with water alone.
– Once cured, the paint is no longer soluble to water, so what you put there, stays there.

The plastic binders developed to make acrylic paints can be very… plastic in their properties. There is a wide consistency of paints, from those which are thicker than toothpaste to those fluid enough to use as inks. Despite this superficial difference, virtually all of them should be able to intermix and be used with one another.

What is Pigment?

The pigment provides the colour of the paint. The same pigments are used with the different binders to produce the different families of paint. Some are natural materials such as minerals or biological materials from plants and animals. Others are synthetic products that are chemically produced. There are hundreds of pigments, and the history and development of pigments is full of fascinating tales.  

To help people judge apples against oranges in a sea of confusing consumer options, each pigment has been assigned a pigment number. For example, PR102 stands for Pigment Red #102, PB29 is Pigment Blue #29. The majority of fine art brand paints list the pigment number(s) used in the paint on the paint container. This allows the user to research the general properties of the ingredients in their paint, and to find their favourite pigments easily among different brands. Note that the colour expressed by the same pigment number can vary depending on how it is prepared and mixed. Some pigments tend to look pretty similar between brands, while others can vary so widely in appearance that one brand might have multiple paints made from that pigment that appear fairly different in colour. 

Paints mixed with PBr7 from Daniel SmithThese paints are all mixed from PBr7. These are watercolours from Daniel Smith (which I love), and this picture is taken from the Daniel Smith website. 

I think one thing that is not commonly understood is the degree to which the pigment affects the behaviour of a given paint. The properties of pigments vary widely and have a significant impact on the properties of paints which are made from them. A lot of elements that you might like or dislike about a given paint colour or paint line are created by the nature of the pigments used to mix it. Some of the properties heavily affected by pigment:

– Finish: pigments vary in finish from very shiny to very matte.
– Transparency: some pigments are by nature transparent. Surprisingly, these are often very intense colours, like reds, yellows, and bright blues. Others are very opaque, such as black, white, and earth colours.
– Lightfastness: some pigment colours fade very quickly with exposure to light, others are much more durable.
– Tinting strength: the weakness or strength of a colour when mixed with other colours. You generally need a lot of yellow and just a little bit of blue to mix a green, because most yellows have low tinting strength and many blues have high tinting strength.
– Staining: some pigments also act as stains or dyes. If you’ve ever noticed that a white nylon brush looks blue or green after you’ve painted with it, it’s not that the brush is poor quality or you didn’t rinse out all the paint, it’s because you used a paint colour mixed from high staining pigments.
– Toxicity: some pigments are toxic to produce, and some even have risk of toxicity to painters. 
– Cost: pigments vary wildly in cost. If you look at art store paint brands, you’ll notice that not every bottle/tube of a given paint line is the same price. Rather, the paints are divided up into series. A series 1 paint might cost $10 per tube, and a series 5 could cost $22 per tube. The expense relates to the availability of the pigment and the cost to produce it. Note that it’s not necessarily the case that the most expensive pigments are going to be the ‘best’ colours. Some of the most popular and useful colours are lower cost pigments, and some of the most expensive pigments are non-optimal one one way or another.

So if you think about those properties, you can see a few things that are likely true of the formulations of miniature hobby paints. The paints have a uniform price per bottle, so they are likely mixed from the less expensive pigment options. Dealing with toxicity in production would increase costs, and toxicity that could affect the end user is undesirable in a hobby product, so that limits use of other pigments. Pigment properties also explain why you might need seven coats of that yellow to get coverage, but only two coats of this brown.

What is a Dye (or a Liquid Pigment)?

Like a pigment, a dye is also a colorant. The difference is that dyes are chemicals that completely dissolve in water/binder, whereas pigments remain discrete particles suspended in water/binder. So there is no such thing as a ‘liquid pigment’. The idea that dyes dissolve may make them seem like the superior colorant, but there is a lot more to it than that. Dyes work by chemically binding to porous substrates like paper or cloth. Paint sits on top of the substrate. Miniatures are made of non-porous materials like metal and resin, so they cannot easily be dyed. Another issue with dyes is that the majority of them fade with exposure to light, and fade fairly quickly (weeks to months for some). Pigments range in their lightfastness, but there are many pigments that are much more resistant to light and should keep their true colour appearance for decades, if not centuries. Lastly, dyes are almost universally transparent, and so are ill-suited to applications where opaque coverage is desired. 

If you’re interested in more information in dyes versus pigments, check this article: https://thebluebottletree.com/pigments-vs-dyes-difference/
This article from Winsor & Newton is also very informative on the differences: http://www.winsornewton.com/na/discover/articles-and-inspiration/spotlight-on-colourants-dyes-pigments

What are Additives?

An additive is anything other than pigment and binder that is added to a paint. Additives are often used to alter the properties of a paint or binder. You can purchase some types of additives separately to add to your own paint mixes. Some examples of additives:

– Slow dry agent (also called retarder): increases the amount of time the paint takes to dry to the touch. (There are additives to speed drying, too, particularly for oil paints.)
– Flow aid/improver/surfactant: decreases the surface tension of the paint to increase the way it flows off the brush and reduce the appearance of rings in drying.
– Matting agent: reduces the shine of a glossy pigment and/or binder.
– Opacifier: Makes a pigment less transparent. Largely these are actually other pigments or substances like chalk or marble dust, so the intensity of the original colour is usually affected by the use of opacifiers..
– Filler: These may just be opacifiers, or other elements which are used with the aim of using less of the expensive pigment to make up a given volume of paint. Very common in inexpensive paints like craft or student brands (Ceramcoat, Apple Barrel, etc.).

Miniature painters have historically had a strong preference for paints that are as uniformly opaque as possible, and matte to very matte in finish. So paint producers for miniature paints try to mix opaque colours with transparent ones to improve opacity, and/or add opacifiers, as well as adding matting agents to shiny colours.

If you think of pigments and binders as the basic ingredients of a dish, additives are the spice and flavouring options that really make one line stand out as behaving differently than another. A given paint line might add a little slow drying agent to increase workability for wet on wet techniques, where another paint brand might add flow aid to improve how well the paint behaves when thinned down for glazes and washes. Both brands are likely pretty equivalent in overall quality, but just as some people prefer Coke to Pepsi or one fast food burger to another, some people are going to prefer the properties of one line to those of another. This is why you’ll see such varied reviews of the same brands of paints. A lot of a given person’s preference comes down to personal taste and familiarity as much or more as the objective ‘quality’ of the product.

Paint additivesA selection of paint additives/mediums that I have used at various times over the years. Mostly I use the Reaper products. I do like to add some airbrush medium when airbrushing. This brand has slow drying agent in it, which helps keep the airbrush flowing well.

What are Mediums?

Mediums are products that the user can choose to add to paint to change its properties or consistency. Many are essentially either binders or additives, or a mix of the two. So you can buy a heavy gel to add to a soft body paint to make it thicker, or a more fluid glaze medium to add to a heavy body paint to make it more liquid. Or you can add your own flow aid, matting agent, or gloss, etc. The majority of these products are clear. Adding them will increase the transparency of a paint (since you’ve changed the binder/additive to pigment ratio), but should not affect the colour.

Another type of medium is a texture medium. These might be made with pumice, lava, fibres, or other materials suspended in an acrylic medium. Often these are white based rather than clear, so they will lighten a paint if it is added to them. These products offer fun possibilities for basing construction materials, but few if any are suitable as additives for actual painting on miniatures. (When used for basing, you’ll likely use less paint if you paint over them once dried rather than trying to colour them by mixing paint into the medium before applying it.)

Choosing a Paint Consistency

The advice I’ve consistently heard from paint experts is to choose a paint with a starting consistency that is as close as possible to what you want to use. Figure painters, particularly those working at smaller scales, tend to prefer paint of a fairly fluid consistency. Thicker paint is much more likely to fill in fine details of a miniature sculpt. It is possible to thin thick tube paints with water to a consistency you can use on miniature figures. In doing so you may weaken the paint film, and you will lose opacity and may reduce other characteristics of the paint. To my mind it makes more sense (and saves a lot of time) to buy a paint that is formulated with a more fluid binder, whether this be a miniature brand paint like Reaper Master Series or Vallejo Model Color, or an art store line like Golden SoFlat Matte or Liquitex Acrylic Gouache, or maybe Liquitex Soft Body if you want slightly thicker paint on occasion and are okay with doing some thinning on other occasions. I suspect the new Scale75 tube paints are close to Liquitex Soft Body in consistency. (Elizabeth Beckley has a great review here, which includes a visual comparison between several different lines of paint consistency.)

Golden High Flow paintsGolden’s High Flow paint line is very fluid, more similar to an ink. It works well to mix in to increase colour intensity, but is probably too thin and transparent to work as a stand alone paint. (The swatches on the black diagonal lines on each bottle are actual samples of the paint painted over a part of the label to indicate opacity.)

For some time I have heard that it is actually dangerous to mix a ratio of more than 25-30% of water to acrylic paint. The thinking is that when you mix too much water into the paint, the acrylic polymers that make up the binder become too far and few between to create a solid paint film. I’ve heard stories of thin glazes being wiped off canvases during dusting and cleaning. That argument makes sense, but so does the counterargument that many miniature painters have used water thinned glazes for years without detecting any issue. Golden recently released the results of some tests they performed with heavily thinned paints. While this is one brand of paint on a particular surface, paint heavily thinned with water fared much better than might have been expected.

However, I do think it is helpful to use a mix of medium and water for heavily thinned applications like glazes or washes. Glazes apply a little more smoothly, and washes are less likely to dry with rings. I like to use Reaper’s Wash Medium. Vallejo Glaze Medium and any art store product that’s fluid in consistency and has medium in the name is likely to be a similar thing. (I also like Golden Air Brush Medium, but it must have a lot of slow dry additive in it, because it takes a really long time to dry.) Use of this kind of medium is especially helpful to dilute metallic paints because it keeps the metallic flakes in suspension much more than water does.

Miniature paintsCall me crazy, but I like to paint miniatures with paint designed for painting miniatures.

Painters of busts and large scale figures like Banshee (Alfonso Giraldes) and others are embracing texture and brush strokes in their painting. Texture and opacity are additional elements of contrast we can play with. Because thicker texture and more opaque paint can work particularly well in highlights, a painter wanting to experiment with this style can begin with a single tube of heavy body acrylic white paint and mix other colours in to create highlights. You need not have a full spectrum of colours in tube paint consistency to try out this style of painting!

Single Pigment versus Convenience Mixes

I am increasingly seeing arguments in favour of people mixing their own colours from a limited palette of paints. This is most easily and predictably done with single pigment paints, but you can get a lot of mileage out of mixing with any paints. 

A single pigment paint is one formulated with only one pigment. For example, a paint mixed with only the pigment PB29 is a classic ultramarine blue paint. Though it is important to note that while the use of pigment numbers is regulated, the use of names is not. A company is free to call a given colour ultramarine blue or alizarin crimson or whatever else it wants whether or not the paint so named contains the traditional ingredient(s) associated with that colour. This is why people who seek to buy single pigment paints look for the pigment numbers on the paint containers, particularly if they’re looking to try the same colour from a different brand than they usually use. (Although as mentioned above, the end colour appearance of some pigments can vary widely depending on preparation and formulation.)

Convenience mixes are colours you can buy that the paint company has premixed from multiple pigments. There are relatively few green single pigment colours, but a lot of things in the world that people want to paint are coloured green, so you’ll find a lot of different green paints available for purchase that are mixes of multiple pigments. Miniature paints don’t list the pigments they use on the bottles, but it is likely that the vast majority of the colours are convenience mixes. 

Note that not every ‘art store’ paint is a single pigment! A good brand of art store paints should have a solid selection of single pigment paint colours, but it will likely have plenty of convenience mixes, too. Canvas artists like ease and convenience and pretty colours as much as miniature painters do. You can also buy cheap student brand paints that are single pigment, but are full of fillers and not as rich and highly pigmented to use. Single pigment is not a code word for higher quality.

The advantage of a single pigment colour is that it is as intense as that colour can get, and that it will mix in a more predictable way. For example, let’s say you want to mix a yellow and a blue to create a green. A single pigment yellow and a single pigment blue will mix a brighter green. They will also always behave in the same way mixed together. You might find a convenience mix blue and convenience mix yellow that look like pretty much the same colours as the single pigment to your eye. But when you mix them together, you find you get more of a khaki green. This happens because you didn’t realize the blue was formulated with a little bit of black, and the yellow was formulated with a little bit of white, so when you mix them together you’re really getting blue + yellow + grey, not just blue + yellow.

Currently there are two miniature paint lines that list pigment information on the bottle provided to consumers – Kimera, and the Scale75 tube paints. All of the Kimera paints appear to be single pigment, though I think it is possible to use opacifiers and still consider a paint single pigment. A handful of the Scale75 tube paints are single pigment, the majority are mixes of two or more pigments. (Updated: 4/20/2020. Originally written based on the Scale75 packaging shown in their Kickstarter.)

Other Acrylic Products

If you’ve ever poked around a good art store, you may have noticed products like ‘acrylic gouache’, or ‘acrylic ink’. Or you may have seen some of the artists you admire recommending that you add Liquitex or FW inks to your repertoire. Some brands are Liquitex Acrylic Gouache, Liquitex Acrylic Ink, and Daler-Rowney FW Acrylic Ink, but there are several others. In general, if it includes the word acrylic on it, it is essentially an acrylic paint. It should mix with your other acrylic paints. Based on the consistency, it may or may not work as a paint in itself – the inks are very fluid and tend to be transparent, for instance. They’ll work well to tint paints or as washes and glazes, but you likely can’t paint opaque base coats with them.

The use of the other terms is meant to convey the properties of those media. Traditional gouache paint is matte and opaque. When Liquitex created a new line of paints that are matte and opaque, they called it ‘acrylic gouache’ to convey those properties. (It is also a more fluid consistency than tube gouache, so very similar to miniature paints.) The term ‘ink’ suggests a media that is fluid and intense in colour/pigment, so several companies use the term ‘acrylic ink’ for their acrylic products that are watery and intensely pigmented. 

Liquitex Acrylic GouacheI have some of the new Liquitex Acrylic Gouache which I think should work pretty well to paint miniatures, but I haven’t as yet had a chance to try it! The same life issues that are keeping me from writing blog posts as regularly as I’d like are interfering with my painting fun.

Traditional inks have also been used in miniature painting, typically for washes and glazes. Occasionally I have heard of some people having issues with these reactivating under additional layers of paint, though plenty of people have used them with no issues. They do tend to be quite shiny. Acrylic inks will work more reliably with other acrylic products, but may not have all of the same properties as traditional inks. Traditional inks may be formulated with dyes or pigments. I believe acrylic inks are formulated only with pigments.

Traditional gouache is essentially opaque watercolour, and is permanently water-soluble. (You can lift up a previous layer with a damp brush no matter how long it’s been dry.) It also tends to crack when applied thickly or if the surface it is on flexes significantly. I feel it is unsuited for miniature painting for these reasons. There are ways to use gouache and watercolour as components of painting, particularly in the large-scale figure and kit side of the hobby, but I think these are best avoided unless you have had some guidance on how to use them or you’re willing to do some experimenting. Manufacturers of products called ‘acryla gouache’ tend to describe their paints as more like gouache in nature, so I would recommend doing some research on a line of paint before assuming that it is a standard acrylic like the Liquitex version.

Colour Mixing Conundrums

In the land of colour theory, you need a single perfect red, yellow, and blue in addition to white and black to be able to mix any colour you can imagine. One reason we all it colour theory is that in the real world, there aren’t really perfect pigments. (There’s even some debate about whether primary red is red or magenta.) So what most artists actually use is a split primary system. In a split primary you have a highly saturated warm and cool version of each colour.  So a magenta and a warm, slightly orange red; a cool blue and one that is slightly purple; and a yellow that’s a little more green and one that’s a little more orange. Those combined with white and black should allow you to mix almost everything. You can find lots of books and online resources that will help you learn mixes in addition to what you can discover by just playing around by yourself. In the ideal you would want to do this with single pigment colours, but you can also just grab versions of paints that you have and start playing around to see how this works.

Many traditional artists tend to add a few other paints to their palettes on top of those eight. An earth colour or three, or a single pigment purple and green – just a few other colours that they like a lot or  which make achieving certain mixes easier. It’s also the case that not every paint on their palette shows up in every painting. You might use only one each of the reds, yellows, and blues and a couple of other colours for a given painting, which is an excellent way to create a lot of colour harmony in your work.

Kimera paintsThe new Kimera paint line is a palette similar to the split primary plus a few extras system that I described above. It has a total of 11 paints, plus a bottle of medium.

This is a great way to paint! As I’ve been learning watercolour and oil painting, this is how I’ve been doing it. I’m not sure I’m excited about seeing this pushed as The One True Way for miniature painting. It’s certainly A way, and if someone is budget conscious or wants to improve their use of colour, I think this is a great tool to look at. But I also think it’s fine if people want to go on using convenience mixes in miniature painting. Some people want to approach miniature painting from more of a fine art angle or enjoy the puzzle of creating their own colours. But some people want to save time, or find mixing tedious, or just want to get some gaming pieces on the table. If convenience mixes make that more fun for them, have at it is what I say! Honestly, I’m in more of that camp myself when it comes to miniature painting. I’m always looking to improve speed, and make it easier to quickly start and stop painting, and convenience mixtures help me with both of those things. Not all fine artists mix everything, either. Those who use coloured pencils, pastels, or alcohol ink markers work the same way most miniature painters do, with 50-100+ colours at hand, if not more. And there are plenty of skilled professional traditional media painters who don’t care a fig if they’re using single pigment colours or convenience mixes.

Some additional considerations for choices when buying paints: 

Tools Matter

I am a firm believer that quality tools matter. You don’t necessarily need the absolute best of everything, but good quality makes a difference. I’ve seen people do decent work with craft brand paints (Apple Barrel, Folk Art, Ceramcoat, and similar.) And I am just left to wonder how much more they could do with paint actually designed to use on miniatures! In the past 15 years I’ve seen dozens of threads from people who previously painted with craft paint, tried purpose made paint, and found it was significantly easier and more efficient to use – it takes fewer coats, it’s easier to replicate the techniques and effects they’ve seen others do, etc. If you’re using these paints due to severe budgetary constraints, I’d recommend that you reduce your miniature buying budget for a little while and divert some funds to paint. Start with colours that frustrate you in the craft paints – reds and yellows are likely candidates, but perhaps purples and greens. In my own experience with traditional painting, I have certainly noticed a difference between cheap or ‘student’ level art materials and ‘artist’ level materials, and I have a strong preference for having a few good quality materials over having a plethora of poor quality ones 

But Tools Aren’t EVERYTHING ( there is no magic paint/brush/etc.)

It’s pretty easy to equate the results someone gets with the tools they use. If you have chunky basecoats or streaky blends, it’s easy to look at the more polished work of a painter you admire and assume that if you just get the same paints and brushes they do, your work will look much closer to theirs. Sure fancy freehand designs or perfect eyes might be a matter purely of skill, but basic painting techniques have a lot to do with tools, right? I don’t think I’m alone in having tried multiple brands of paint, types of palettes, kinds of brushes, and several other things in the quest for that thing that just clicks in and you get it and then you stop sucking. ;->

I’ve even fallen into this trap with multiple hobbies! Even after having done it with miniature painting, I did it again with other art materials when I started to study traditional art a few years ago. I’d see a YouTube video or read an article and think maybe THAT pen/pencil/paint/brush is the one that would ‘work’. There are better and worse tools for different functions, but I have a lot of art materials that sit dormant. And if I’m honest with myself, I’ve done the most learning by spending a lot of time practicing with a few simple tools. If you’d like to see a whole lot of proof of that, type ‘cheap art supplies challenge’ into YouTube and get ready to watch some videos of people who are able to get a whole lot of value out of limited quality materials because of the years of skill and knowledge they’ve developed as artists. 

I do think there are tools that will work better for certain people or techniques, and that there can be a certain amount of searching and experimenting you might have to do to find that. But you might also have just as much success sitting your butt in your chair and spending some focused time getting to know the tools you have better and working in a targeted way to improve your use of techniques that work with those tools you already have. 

Companies selling a product are always going to try to convince you it’s a great product! Limited purchase window Kickstarrters add an additional element of pressure. Pre-order hype of testimonials from professionals you admire will get you fired up about something. If you have a generous hobby budget and you enjoy trying new things, go nuts and experiment away! If your budget is limited and you’re still struggling with the tools you have, it’s okay to walk away and not feel bad about it. If the products are good, they’ll be there later when you and your budget are ready for them. 

18 thoughts on “So Many Paints…”

  1. Great post this week! Can you tell me what the difference is between Reaper’s Flow Improver and their Wash Medium? I suspect that I am perhaps using the flow improver for my glazes when maybe I should be using wash medium.

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    1. Hey Andy. The Flow Improver is a flow aid/surfactant, intended to reduce the surface tension of paint. It is fairly runny in consistency, similar to water. I use it on occasion for freehand or painting eyes if the paint feels like it’s not coming off the brush as smoothly as I’d like. It can be helpful to add to washes if you’re worried about getting rings when they dry. I believe Reaper paints are formulated with a small amount of flow improver in the mix.

      The Wash Medium is largely acrylic binder – the clear part of paint that the pigment is added to. It’s a little thicker in consistency than water. Adding this to paint increases the transparency without affecting the strength of the binder or paint film. It also creates a glaze or wash that feels less runny and may be easier to control for that reason. It is definitely superior for diluting metallics as the flakes will stay in suspension more with the Wash Medium. People had been using Brush-On Sealer ‘off-label’ as a medium for a while, so Anne created Wash Medium for the purpose. Often I use Wash Medium half and half with water, though I’d use it full strength for thinning metallics, and I don’t think there’s any harm to using it full strength in general. There may be small amounts of other additives in Wash Medium, I don’t know the exact recipe.

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      1. Thanks. I’ll pick some up and try it. I’ve always just used flow improver for thinning my glazes.

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      2. I think you’ll like it. You get a bit more control than with the runnier mix (and that much flow improver would be runny indeed!), and it’ll make for a sturdier paint film.

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  2. Thanks for a great article. I’ve been trying to find a replacement for my oils, something that would be easy to blend but would be easier to manipulate. Holbein’s Acryla Gouache and Turner’s Acrylic Gouache were two products I was looking at, and this post is pretty much the only one I have found that mentions these types of products and minis. Although too bad they turn out not to be suitable.

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    1. To my knowledge they’re not suitable for general miniature painting, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s someone out there somewhere using them! My concern with an acrylic-gouache product or with true gouache would be to definitely not use them on a flexible plastic miniature. These products are known to crack on flexible substrate. It’s worse when they’re applied thickly, which most likely wouldn’t happen on miniatures, but it’s a known property of gouache so I figured I’d mention.

      I haven’t tried an acrylic gouache product, but both acrylic paint and traditional gouache dry quickly. Traditional gouache can be blended despite that because it can be reactivated with a damp brush (be it damp with more paint or just from rinsing with water). Acrylic gouache is like acrylic once dried. So I don’t think acrylic gouache would do what you’re after in the sense of blending. Traditional gouache might. Though it’s still going to work differently from oils and have a big learning curve if that’s what you’re used to would be my guess. (And that’s apart from the would it be appropriate with miniatures.)

      If I were considering different types of paint I might try acrylic with retarder. Golden makes a line called Open that has retarder mixed into it. You can also buy retarder and use with your choice of acrylic paint. I’d probably recommend Amsterdam’s brand since it’s not very shiny and it extends the dry time of acrylics considerably. The technique I’ve used it in you paint the foundation transitions with standard acrylics, then after that is dry you float a layer over the surface and then apply more paint over that and nudge it with your brush to create smoother transitions as with oils. But it can be used in other methods, too.

      This is a link to a canvas review of the Golden Open to give you an idea how they work:

      If your objection to oils is solvents and vapour that comes along with them, another option is to try water miscible oils. Holbein’s Duo line is a great product. (This is one of the rare art supplies where there does seem to be quite a difference between brands because everyone has a different proprietary way of making water and oil play nice together.)

      The miniature painter James Wappel paints with a lot of different products in a lot of different ways. He’s lately worked out how to pre-thin oils down for use on miniatures. These are his YouTube videos that reference oils. You can also find him on Facebook and he has a Patreon with so many videos!

      https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=james+wappel+oil

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      1. Thank you very much for taking the time to reply.
        I have tried retardants, but they never worked well for me. One, I live in the desert and it still dries very quickly, and two, I’m not great at working fast. That is when I decided to switch to water-miscible oils.
        And you are absolutely right about the Duo Aquas. I bought at least one tube of each of the main water-miscible lines to try out. Some are meant to be used with their own mediums (and then washed with water), some have a lot of oil and dry very glossy, some are very thick… Duo Aquas, when used with just water, dilute easily and dry matte. And quickly too, they are dry to the touch in about a day and a half.
        But for me oil has its own issues. It can be difficult to work on adjacent wet surfaces, it is easy to pull a bit of the wrong color. Sometimes you can pull or blend it out, sometimes you have to wait for the surface to dry and do over. Wet on wet layers can also be an issue: sometimes it works fine, sometimes the colors sink and the vibrancy is lost.
        So I was looking not so much for a replacement, but for a tool that would work along the oils in those places where oils are not at their best. Acrylic gouaches seemed interesting because they are supposed to blend easily, have an advertised drying time of 20 minutes, seal when they dry, and as they are “artist” colors, would be easy to match with the oils, even when I mix. From what I have seen, it seems fairly easy to lay down two colors side by side and softly blend them, but of course, all the examples are on canvas…
        But your point about cracking is well taken, and not something I had considered. I might still pick a couple of tubes to give it a try, but if I do, I’ll test on a pliable surface.
        And thanks for your tip about the Golden Open line. I had lost my interest in them when I saw reviews on how transparent they were (I actually do try to limit my purchases!), but working on top of a standard hobby-line acrylic surface is already something I sometimes do with the oils. I started doing this recently and hadn’t considered it for anything else. That might be a great solution, I will absolutely try it out.
        Anyway, thanks a lot for your time, and for a great blog!

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      2. Oh, something I forgot to mention about the Duo Aqua – you can use acrylic mediums with them. I’m not sure if I immediately see a miniature application for that, but figured I’d pass it along. I guess one thing you could do is dilute with matte medium or something like that instead of water/oil when you want to make a paint more translucent.

        You can also speed oil cure time heating it under an incandescent lamp or other warm dry heat.

        But yeah, the dilemma is acrylics dry fast so you can move on to other areas or working on top of that section immediately, but you have to jump through some hoops to get a blended technique. Or oils that are a dream to blend, but take a long time to cure so you can accidentally wipe out work or have to wait for a while to work near/on top of something.

        Another option is to look at your work flow? You could keep on with the oils but have multiple pieces in progress simultaneously so you switch pieces while waiting for the oils to set. Sculptors who work with putty use this method.

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  3. Hello,

    Did you ever get a chance to try out the acrylic gouache from Liquitex? I love how a lot of the range is single-pigment, but was just interested in the coverage. Thanks!

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    1. Hiya. Sadly I haven’t had enough of a chance to play around to comment on them in terms of a full review. Ditto with the Kimera. And there’s about to be a new kid on the artist version block. Golden is about to release SoFlat Matte. The nice thing about Golden is they swatch their paints on their labels over black bars, so you can get a good look at opacity. (I mean they swatch the actual paint on the label, it’s not a printed approximation.) If you go to the Golden Paints site you can see swatches of the SoFlat Matte, and there’s a few videos on YouTube.

      What I can do is something similar, do some swatches over black pen to look at opacity. I sort of already knew the answer, but I did a quick few of those before replying. And I’m thinking of just writing a whole blog post on this, since I doubt you’re the only person who is interested.

      The long answer is you kind of have to choose between whether you care more about single pigment or high opacity coverage. Binder is transparent. Matting agents added to binder to make matte paints add a tiny amount of opacity. Pigments are the strongest determinants of opacity. Most high chroma yellow, red, and green pigments are transparent, and so are many blues. A lot of other pigments are semi-transparent. The same pigments display the same properties in my watercolour and oil paints. Putting more pigment in doesn’t help if the pigment itself is transparent. ;->

      One way to increase opacity is to mix in less transparent colours like black and white, and if you look at the Liquitex line you’ll see a lot of paints with PW6 added, ie Titanium White. There is also a class of additives called opacifiers. I don’t know all the chemistry on that, but I think it’s often stuff like marble dust. Which sounds a lot like adding white to me, but you don’t have to put it on the bottle since it’s not a pigment. I have questions about the Liquitex Primary Blue and whether it has opacifiers or something. It’s listed as PB15:1, which is Pthalho, but it’s the lightest value Pthalho I think I’ve ever seen. Their PV23 Dioxazine Violet also seemed lighter than other versions of that colour I’ve seen, and I don’t recall that pigment as one that differs much between brands.

      In my quick swatches just now, Kimera paints were more opaque than the Liquitex. I have questions about whether they use opacifiers or how they achieve this opacity, but however they do it, the colours look very high chroma and they’re listed as single pigment paints. (In the core set, I think there are some add on sets that have convenience colours.) In my limited experience they are very potent in mixing and make strong colours. However, I have a few reservations about them. They skin over really quickly even on a wet palette. That’s sort of annoying to work with, and just odd in the sense that I haven’t seen any other fluid consistency paint do something like that. The second issue I noticed just now doing the swatches. My system was just to put a drop on paper and brush it around over a line of black pen. So there are areas where the paint is fairly thick. Every single one of the Kimera swatches has crazed and crackled in the thick paint areas. None of the Liquitex paint did (and the Liquitex paint and my swatches of it are a bit thicker), and I haven’t noticed anything of that nature in the many similar Reaper swatches I’ve done. So looks like Kimera need to be applied in smooth even coats. Which is typically how we paint miniatures, but it seemed worth mentioning.

      For the Liquitex, if nothing else I’d suggest you pick up a bottle of the Ultramarine Blue. PB29 must be a more expensive pigment, it seems rare in miniature branded products. I think there’s a PB29/PB15 mix in the Scale75 tube paints, but that’s about it. I believe Kimera is working on one, but it hasn’t released yet if so. I went through all my Reaper paints a few months back and none of the blues came close to PB29 in appearance.

      The other nice about Golden jumping in the fray is that they will be including true cadmium paints in their line. The Liquitex cadmium hues are not single pigment paints. They’re pretty good approximations of the cadmiums in terms of hue out of the bottle, but I’d be surprised if they mix as cleanly. The Golden cadmium yellow doesn’t look super opaque, but you can see in their swatches that the orange and reds look pretty opaque in comparison to other common red pigments. The brand Atelier Free Flow also has fluid consistency cadmium paints suitable for miniature painters. (Please read up on cadmium pigments and safe painting practice to determine for yourself whether you feel comfortable using them.) I don’t know of a lightfast cool red/magenta pigment that’s fairly opaque.

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  4. Hi all, I know this is an older post but I really am wondering if anyone has any experience comparing acrylics with a retarder and/or open paints vs oil paints? Would one achieve a similar experience?

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    1. Hiya. I don’t have direct experience with both on miniatures, but I will share the experience I do have as I don’t know how many people with experience will see this and comment on it. If you’re on any larger online groups or forums of mini painters on Facebook or Discord or whatever, you might pose the question there to see if you can get more opinions.

      I have used oil paint on canvas, where the oil paint stays workable for hours and you can blend paint with a feather touch of a brush. The paint can then also take one or more days to cure to the point where you can paint over it.

      Many people using oils on miniatures are often using them in a different way, like heavily thinned with solvent to make pin washes and weathering. Some mini painters who use them for more extensive painting let the paints sit out a while on cardboard to drain off some of the oil. I might be concerned that this would alter the durability of the paint film since the oil is the binder and oil paints are already very pigment heavy compared to acrylics since they don’t need as much vehicle/additives in the mix. Mini painters using acrylics OVER oils are also going against best practices since the key ‘rule’ of working with oils is to paint fat over lean. (So oil over acrylics is fine.)

      I have used acrylics with retarder on miniatures. The retarder increases the working time from a minute or so to some more minutes. It gives you more time for wet blending acrylics, but I don’t think it significantly changes the overall feel of working with acrylics.

      I haven’t yet canvas painted with the Open brand paints, but I’ve studied it some. (I also haven’t used them on miniatures yet.) The paints are more transparent than comparable tubes of the same pigments in standard acrylics, probably due to the addition of the retarder. The thinner the paint or paint film, the faster it dries. So a fingertip squirt of paint straight from the tube out on the palette will stay workable an entire session, possibly even until the next day, but paint thinned down on palette or miniature will dry much more quickly. The consistency of paint we use for miniature painting is very fluid compared to tube paints. This is also true for adding retarder to mini paint, really. Retarder does a great job of slowing down the evaporation of pools of paint in a welled palette or even a wet palette, but only slightly extends the dry time of a tiny bit of paint applied in a thin layer on a miniature.

      I think what will work for you best in part depends on what your current materials experience is. Have you been using acrylics on miniatures but you’re frustrated with the blending issues and looking for alternatives? Or are you familiar with oil painting and wondering if there’s a similar way to paint on miniatures? Or is your concern that you like oil paint but you can’t or don’t want to use solvents?

      If you’re mainly familiar with acrylics, it might be worth trying oils to see what you think. Look for some videos from James Wappel and Zumikito Miniatures for some guidance on that. You can get a few tubes of less expensive paint and try a limited palette type of figure to test it out.

      If you’re just trying to figure out ways to make blending acrylics easier, trying some retarder with whatever acrylics you currently use is definitely worth a go. I recommend the Amsterdam brand acrylic retarder. It adds the least gloss, and it extends working time more than the Reaper brand.

      If you have experience with oils but don’t want to deal with solvents, consider trying a water miscible oil paint. You can thin and clean these with water. The Holbein Duo brand can also be mixed with acrylic mediums.

      Another option is to rough in your transitions with your standard acrylics. Then you go over that with similar oil colours and refine blend and textures. There is a similar technique with acrylics and retarder that I learned from Fernando Ruiz (who I think learned it from Calvin Tan). I don’t know of a video online that shows this technique. You make a mix of the retarder 1:1 with water, and paint that over a section that you’re working on. Then you apply a new layer of your acrylic shadow, midtone, and light mixes over that, and gently use the tip of the brush to feather the transitions between them. The lower level sets up the opacity and location of the colours, the top layer helps you blend. You may need to dry the paint and then do the transition blending step more than once depending on the transparency of the colours and whether you managed to get the blends where you want before the mix starts feeling sticky. You can’t work the paint after it feels sticky, but you can’t apply a second layer over until the first is completely dry. Fernando uses a hair dryer to speed that along once he’s ready. Note that there are a couple of not best practices there – the proportion of retarder to paint may be higher than recommended by paint companies (no more than 25-30% in a mix is the recommendation), and heat drying can cause crazing. If the initial coat of normal acrylics is completely dry I doubt it would cause problems though, and that initial coat also is a good solid paint film so I wouldn’t worry as much about the more diluted paint applied over it.

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      1. Wow, thanks for the very extensive and detailed response. In hindsight I realise my comment was a little thin on details.

        I currently paint minis with acrylics in I guess one would call the conventional way, basecoats, layers, glazes. I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated with this way of painted, rather that I’m curious and interested in trying oils as I’ve seen a few comments on how much easier and simpler it is to do blends and transitions. So not washes/weathering, but rather the wet blending/feathering techniques. The best complete example of this technique I have found is a youtube video from Dmitry Fesechko and I was amazed by how easy it looks (and of course I’m fully aware that something looking easy and being easy aren’t the same 🙂 ) I’d post a link but youtube is blocked where I currently am at the moment (work 🙂 ). I’m always keen to experiment and have fun trying a new way of painting.

        As you rightfully surmised my primary concern was using solvents because I have cats, a toddler, and not the most well ventilated painting corner. Also I already have an extensive collection of regular acrylics and scale75 artist acrylics so from financial outlay perspective using those with something like Golden Open Medium or Golden Open Thinner would make the most sense if it did achieve the same or similar effect. Second best I guess would be Golden Open Acrylics themselves because they’re mixable with my other acrylics and are still water based etc. Third best is as you said water mixable acrylics and of course. Fourth is oil paints themselves. (of course this list is based on cost and non-solvent based, not painting results). Oh I also guess the benefit of acrylics is them remaining matt (well, most of mine are matt).

        I did try asking a few places but it seems in most cases those we used oils were using them mostly for washes weathering or used them exclusively so had no comparison of using open acrylics in a way similar to oils. It seems as though regular acrylics with a retarder still dry fast so aren’t comparable although the method of floating the retarder layer is probably closest. From what I have gathered.

        Of course the obvious answer is “try them and see” 🙂 . Can get expensive though trying all the above alternatives but likewise being inexperienced with these I would not be able to distinguish between user error (me) vs properties of the paints.

        As luck would have it though a local art store had a significant discount (less than half price) on Maimeri Classico oil paints (student grade, but I believe of high quality) and on the W&N Artisan (their water mixable oils) beginner set (10x12ml). So I picked up a limited palette of the Classicos and the Artisan Beginner set. I’d love to try Golden Open but even their beginner set isn’t a cheap entry point and picking up a couple of 40ml tubes is quite expensive. If they ever release an entry/beginner set with 12ml or 20ml tubes I’d jump on it to try. Or if I find them discounted.

        But yeah, I picked up 8 Classico (Cad Yellow, Cad Red, Magenta, Yellow Ochre, Cobalt Blue Hue, Phthalo Blue, Phthalo Green, Payne’s Grey). They didn’t have Titanium White but I figured worst case I can mix in the white from the W&N set. Part of me wishes I’d picked up more but I wasn’t sure if I’d even like them, but on the other hand getting a 40ml tube of oil paint with true cadmium pigments for roughly the same price as a bottle of vallejo model color felt like a steal.

        Can’t wait to try them, going to set up a pipe from my spray booth exhaust to the window with an extractor so that should help from a ventilation perspective with solvents (don’t know why i didn’t think of it).

        Oh, and during my rabbit hole tumbling I stumbled across Lukas Medium 7 and Schmincke Medium W, both reportedly can “convert” regular oil paints to become water mixable. Would love to give that a try, would be excellent if it worked. Again I’m mostly talking about cleaning up and or some light thinning (Dmitry paints “neat” or with a slight bit of drying accelerator or slight bit of medium for details), I’m not expecting to make oil washes with water or anything like that.

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      2. I recommend that you also do searches for solvent free oil painting. There are lots of canvas painters who prefer to work that way. Do not believe the claims of alternative solvents (lavender spike oil mainly, but I’ve seen others). My research suggests that they are more like odourless solvents than they’re letting on in terms of vapour and such. Mainly solvent free painting just involves cleaning the brush with oil instead of solvent, and you can’t really make washes. You can also use brush soap or even dish soap to clean brushes. I have a non-drying oil goop I coat my brushes in in between settings but I’m blanking on the name.

        On the subject of brushes – don’t use the same ones for oils and acrylics. Once oil gets in a brush, it’s in it no matter how well you clean. I’d start your experiments with some old brushes you don’t care about.

        You can mix regular oils with water miscible oils no problem. For maintaining the water miscible properties, use no more than 30% standard oil paint in a mix.

        I wouldn’t covet the Golden Open. The recommendation from both Golden and Liquitex is to buy paint closest in consistency to the way you use it. Tube acrylics are far more viscous than we use in miniature painting. The products with the correct consistency for us are Golden SoFlat Matte and Liquitex Acrylic Gouache. (Both basically are art store versions of miniature paint!) The Open paints are already more transparent than the standard Golden tube acrylics. You’ll probably have to add water or thinner to make them the right consistency for application on miniatures, dispersing the pigment further and making the more transparent. It’s also my suspicion that once they’re applied in as thin a layer as we would on miniatures, they’ll dry faster than at tube consistency on a canvas. I don’t think I’ll have time to test any time soon, but will see if I can give it a go some time. I’m not saying they can’t work for miniatures, I just think they may not be as ideal a solution as they might sound on paper.

        I suspect Open Thinner is not much different from other acrylic extender, but if you want to try one of the Golden Open products, that is the one I would pick. Open Medium is going to have both medium (clear acrylic binder) and extender (also clear), decreasing pigment load even more. The Open Thinner is in a bottle, so probably is suitable consistency to use with miniature paints. Mediums for traditional artists are usually ways of extending use of expensive pigments or making a mix that is transparent for glazing. If you’re not looking to make paint more transparent, you probably don’t need medium.

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      3. Thanks again for the extensive reply (I couldn’t reply to that latest post, so am replying to this previous one).

        Indeed having done more reading (and watching) on Golden Open paints as well as oil paints it pretty much lines up with what you say. For mini painting solvent use is minimal (aside from washes but that wasn’t my aim) so I’m okay with having a small little pot to rinse a brush in and I can do proper post painting cleaning in an open space. I now realise one wouldn’t be using it to thin oil paints to anywhere near the extent one uses water to thin acrylics (my mind assumed that oil paints are very thick, ergo needed lots of thining to paint on a mini, but it seems most people when painting minis use them neat and it is the application that thins the paint out, i.e. spreading and feathering it).

        Golden Open seemed attractive given the long working time (so can do blending etc. on the mini) but the transparent nature seems to be a bit counterproductive to that unfortunately. I mean perhaps if one is smoothing out over already painted base layers and rough transitions, but then again I’m doing that anyway with glazes at the moment and for those drying fast is a much more desireable property (so one can get to the next layer) than taking long to dry. I suppose it is a different for large canvas painting.

        Funny you mention the visosity of tube paint though, because I’m currently using scale75 artist acrylics, which are pretty much heavy body acrylics from what I gather.

        I did order a small bottle of Open Thinner to try though, if anything hoping it just helps a little bit in our lovely dry African heat here to give just a little more breathing room. I never realised why people use hair dryers before putting on a second layer until I realised they weren’t painting in my climate 🙂

        Hope I get a chance to try the oils soon, having new stuff is fun 🙂

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      4. I also can no longer reply where replies should go. :-> For a dry climate I would say it is definitely worth experimenting with mixing some drying retarder into your paint! When I want to mix paint very precisely and work with it over a period of time, I use a ceramic welled palette. The small wells reduce evaporation compared to a pool of paint on a flat surface, and it’s easy to add controlled amounts of drying retarder and/or top of water as necessary. I put almost wet sponges over sections I am not using. I live somewhere pretty humid, though it gets drier in the winter especially running the furnace, and I have kept paint mixes workable for a week this way. For a picture and a bit more information check this post:

        Problem Solving: Succubus Skin

        I would say the Scale75 artist tube paints are closer to what art store brands would call soft body. Heavy body is thick enough to hold peaks like cake frosting so painters can get really defined texture on their canvases.

        Some oil paint brands are also very ‘stiff’ out of the tube, some are more buttery. For the stiff ones, people typically add just a little solvent to loosen them up, but I suspect you could use a little oil, instead, if you find that any of your oil paints are thick or feel a bit like paste. An oil paint that is loosened up or comes out of the tube buttery can be spread super thin. The whole butter comparison is pretty accurate, really, you can draw it out like that in a way that doesn’t happen with acrylics.

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      5. Thanks, interesting, I’ll give it a try. I’ve been using a wet pallette so this might be a nice. Using the wet pallette for mixing etc. but keeping the paint blobs in the well pallette.

        The Maimeri were reviews as being soft and buttery (vs W&N Winton which was reportedly stiff) and it was one of the recommended paints for miniatures.

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