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.
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.
These 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.
A 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 Fluid 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 Soft Body in consistency. (Elizabeth Beckley has a great review here, which includes a visual comparison between several different lines of paint consistency.)
Golden’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, it 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.
Call 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.
I 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, and is in other ways unsuited for general miniature painting. There are ways to use them as components of painting, but on the whole these are not tools for the majority of figure painters. Products called ‘acryla gouache’ or similar are also not known to be suitable for miniature painters.
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.
The 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:
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.