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Occasionally I am asked what is the best way to organize paints, and I’ve seen it as a topic of online discussion fairly frequently, as well. In this article I’m going to go over some suggestions for organizing your miniature paints, and then in a followup article I’ll share some racks/shelves/bins you can use to store your well-organized paints. (If you know of a storage system that you’d recommend, please let me know in the comments so I can include it in the next article!)
I don’t think there is one best way to organize paint colours. I recently revamped my organization system because what I had wasn’t working for me. Each of us categorizes and uses colours slightly differently, so the right answer is whatever works for you, and even your best guess at that may not be ideal in every circumstance. However, there are some factors you can consider in deciding what is right for you.
I can, however, confirm that this is a terribly unhelpful organization system.
Your organization system may need to fulfill different functions, and there isn’t a single system that is going to excel at all of them. The organizational needs I think you need to consider include:
* The nature of your storage units/containers and the amount of storage space you have.
* Ease of finding a specific paint colour.
* Ease of putting away your paints after use.
* Ability to look at your colours to make choices or get inspired.
Since there are alternative ways to review your colours for inspiration, I would concentrate on developing a system that handles finding and putting away paints easily within the constraints of your available space/storage container.
Another challenge in organizing colours is that every colour has multiple characteristics, and how you think of these characteristics will affect what makes it easier for you to find and put away paint colours. I think colour family, saturation level, value, and finish are the big ones to consider in your organization system.
Finish is probably the easiest and most obvious characteristic for organization. We all know how annoying it is to end up with a silver when you wanted a grey! It makes sense to split your metallic/interference colours apart from your standard paints. It’s possible to refine this category even more if you have some shiny finish paints and some matte finish paints, but you can also consider your non-metallic colours one big group and add matting agent to the shiny paints or use gloss varnish over the matte paints when you want to change the finish of a paint.
Organizing based on colour families also seems pretty obvious – reds together, blues together, etc. You will run into a lot of edge cases, though, and you’ll need to think about which categorization best fits how you think about your colours.
For example, do you decide whether each of the colours in the centre is more green or more blue, or do you make a separate teal category?
For a long time I grouped my ‘near white’ colours together with my grey paints. Sometimes I might want to use a very light green to highlight a skin tone or a light pink to highlight blue. When reorganizing my paints recently I realized that I rarely looked at the shelf of near whites. Either I already knew what I wanted and just grabbed that one, or I didn’t even think about them. So when I reorganized I shifted all my near whites into their appropriate colour family.
You’ll likely run into challenging decisions related to saturation when you’re trying to organize paints by colour family. Saturation measures how intense a colour is – a cherry red is clearly a red, but is a brick red part of the red family, or is it more of a brown?
For example, in the centre group are some yellow ochre and rust orange/red paints that I have. Do I group them with the pure saturated yellows, oranges, and reds? Or do they fit better into the brown category? For me the answer is that I have an ‘earth tones’ category that encompasses the less saturated yellow ochres and orange/red browns. I pretty much always know whether I want a bright sunny yellow or more of a muted ochre yellow. I generally prefer to shade an ochre yellow or rust orange with some kind of darker brown. So it makes sense in my brain to lump those colours in with brown. But you might look at your colours differently and have a different answer to that question!
While choosing paints for the photo I ended up second guessing the categories for a few of my orange paints. There’s no perfect system!
The paints in the centre below are some colours that look pretty pink or orange when organized with skin colours (and most of those are named as such), but very desaturated and dull if placed next to true pinks and oranges. For a long time I sorted the orangey paints named as skin tones with other skin tones, and the pinks with the more saturated pinks. Now I’ve shifted everything that might be used for a skin tone together. But really when you think about it, a lot of skin tones are just versions of browns and earth tones, so it would make just as much sense to lump all of those together. (Also you should never feel like you need to let the name of the paint colour dictate how you perceive and use that colour!)
Even grey can be challenging! How much blue or green does a colour need to have in it before you consider it more of a blue or a green or a brown or a purple than a grey? Different people will have different answers to that question. I used the criteria of whether I’d be more likely to use a paint as a desaturated version of its colour family or for what I think of as ‘grey purposes’ (stone, non-metallic steel/silver, fur). To the left are three true neutral greys, and on the right is a selection of greys with some colour in them.
I ended up filing two of the greys on the right under ‘grey’, one under ‘blue’, and one under ‘green’, but other choices might make more sense to you.
Value is a measure of how dark or light a colour is. It’s fairly easy to judge the value of more desaturated colours like greys or skin tones, but it can be trickier to determine the value of more intense colours. Most of us perceive bright reds and greens as lighter in value than they are.
Awareness of the value of our paints is pretty crucial. We use contrast in value to create compositions over the surface of our figures. It’s a valuable tool to use to create areas of focus. And it’s crucial to creating contrast between shadows and highlights on a surface. You can have successful outcomes when you mix up the colours but maintain the values, because value is that important to how the viewer perceives your figure. (Mixing saturation levels within those values is admittedly a little trickier.)
These highlight-midtone-shadow choices might not be typical or exactly the colour you’re looking for, but they would work fine to create volume and depth on a figure.
I definitely recommend factoring value into your organization system! When I reorganized my paints recently I started with colour family groups, and then sorted the paints from lightest to darkest within those groups.
You may have products that you use for particular functions that you might want to organize in a different way than the rest of your paints. For example, most people use inks and pre-mixed washes for specific functions, so it makes more sense to store them together in groups than to mix them into their colour families. I ran out of space when I did my recent paint reorganization, since I wanted to add my P3 and N-Paints to the shelves. They are both standard acrylic colours that I would use in a typical way. I decided to instead separate my pre-mixed washes to a separate container. Since they’re used in a particular way, they don’t need to be on the shelves for me to find and use them when I do want to. (And I have ended up not using them much, so they make the most sense to separate out from that criteria as well.)
I keep all my brush-on primers, sealers, paint additives, and special effects paints on a shelf together so I can find them easily and I don’t mix up a white paint and white primer.
My shelf of stuff that goes under, in, or on top of paint.
The formula or intended use of the product is less important than how you personally use it. Reaper’s clear paints are the same formula as their regular paints. They’re similar to pure pigment paints in being intense colours that don’t have white/grey/black or similar mixed in to make them more opaque. (Anne Foerster decided to call them Clear so people would understand that they’re more transparent than the typical paint.) I keep these and similar paints from other companies on my desk so they’re easy to hand for glazes or fine-tuning colours, but another painter might prefer to organize them in in with their colour families.
This is the paint area of my current paint desk. It includes a few inks, and pure pigment paints. I also keep brush-on primers and my preferred medium mixes here, as well as black, white, and my other favourite paints to mix darkest shadows and lightest highlights or that I use in common tasks like painting base rims.
You may also have a product or line that you use in multiple ways. You’ll have to decide which way to organize it makes most sense to you. The Reaper Liner paints are formulated to work well for lining, and I do use them for that purpose. I often also use them to mix shadows. I decided it would be easier to find them if I kept them grouped together rather than separating them out into their colour families.
My liner paints. Apart from Blue Liner which lives in my use it all the time desk collection. Sadly a number of these are discontinued.
Product Name, Number, or Similar
Some people might find they’d prefer to organize based on what’s on the bottle rather than what’s in the bottle. If you have swatched out your colours in a notebook or something similar, it is easy to select and return paints based on alphabetical order or product SKU number.
Example of three triad sets from Reaper Miniatures. Note that not all of their paints are organized into shadow-midtone-highlight triads.
If you have a smaller number of paints from a single company, it is likely that the colour of the paints is organized in some fashion by product number, so you might find it easy to just go with that. The Pathfinder paint set from Reaper is an example. The product numbering starts with pinks and reds, then yellows, then greens, then blues, and so on, ending with the metallic colours. However, if a company later releases additional colours for the line, or if it makes another line that you wish to add to your collection, the colour and numbering sequences may no longer match. For example, if you have both the Scalecolor and the Fantasy & Games paint sets from Scale75, the reds and blues and so on are split between two different product numbering systems.
My Paint Organization Experiences
I’m going to share some of my personal experiences in case they are helpful to anyone. Also I know we all love seeing pictures of people’s workspaces!
My enthusiasm for collecting paints as well as miniatures manifested pretty quickly after I took up the hobby. My initial work area was an old metal desk. The desktop was pretty large, so I chose desk rack options. (I’ll have links to these in the next article.) I started with three Paintier spinning racks. I organized the paints roughly by colour family, but also grouped Reaper triads together. I put colours I used less often (blue and metallics) on the spinner that was hardest to see and reach. There was a system, but it was definitely arbitrary – browns and many skin tones are pretty much interchangeable, but I stored them as two separate categories on two separate spinners.
I took this picture to enter into a local radio contest for worst chair. I did not win. After taking the picture I took the back off the chair and used it as more of a stool for a few years. I recommend having a good comfortable chair you can lean back in. Don’t be me. ;-> You can see the bottom of the Paintier racks to the right of the desk.
Eventually my paint collection grew to the point where three spinners weren’t enough. I added a tiered shelf, and reorganized my paints. At first I stored a different line of paint on the tiered shelf. Later I mixed brands and lines together, and moved red, yellow, orange, and purple paints to the tiers, grouping them by colour and then value (lightness/darkenss). So none of those colour families were organized by triad anymore. I still organized some of the paints on the spinners by triads, though.
I also had a functional chair by this point, yay! And a lot more non-paint storage area Oh, and obviously this picture was taken right after a massive cleanup occurred.
The most notable thing about these crazy mixed up systems is… they worked. I knew where every paint was supposed to be stored. if I put one back incorrectly it messed me up and there was at least one occasion where I bought a replacement before stumbling across the misfiled miscreant.
As the years go by I acquired more paint than it was possible to store on my desktop. I kept my P3 paint set in a box in a drawer. I shifted metallics and inks and other paints I rarely use to an organizer box stored under the desk drawers. When I got the Pathfinder Paint sets, I just kept them in their cases.
I still knew where paints were, but the collection had clearly outgrown sensible storage options. I needed to either prune down to a number of paints I could store in a reasonable way, or figure out another storage solution. Unless I really pushed myself to pick out other colours, I tended to just use paints I already knew since I couldn’t get a good look at ones I didn’t use as much, which kind of defeated the purpose of having all the colours.
We made some house renovations not long after this time, so I had to pack everything up. I organized the paints by colour families and put them in gallon size plastic bags stored in a big plastic tub. I can confirm that this is a terrible organization system! I would have to dump the bags out onto a table and rifle through them to find colours I might need for a project.
My paints, brushes, and a few other daily use tools were the last things I packed up before the renovations. In this picture all the shelves and drawers and wall decorations have been packed away and just the daily use desk stuff remains. This old metal desk had been a faithful companion for years, but some months prior to this the small drawer on the left broke and fell out when I tried to open it, and both of the big drawers had issues too. This desk got put out to pasture during the renovations.
After the renovations I moved my studio to another area. My new desk was smaller, so storing paint on the desk wasn’t really feasible. I decided to get a bunch of wall racks instead. I carefully organized the paints by what I felt was a logical system. I broke them up into broad colour families. Within those families I had further divisions – overall purples, violet-reds, and violet blues; saturated greens, natural greens, and olive greens.
The wall mounted racks made it easier to see different colours I might want to experiment with, but my system wasn’t quite working. I occasionally had trouble finding a specific colour, and often had trouble figuring out where to put paint colours back. My organization system seemed like it should work, but it didn’t.
Recently I decided to try a different tack, as well as adding in some additional paints that I have acquired. I went with broader colour families, and then sorted the paints by value in those categories. Saturation is pretty easy to see, so I could pick out olive greens from rich greens without too much trouble when I wanted one or the other. I haven’t had this system in use for too long, but I think it’s working better. It’s pretty easy to sort by value, so it should be easy to clean up now and then if necessary. I just take a picture on my phone and turn it into greyscale to check the values.
Below is a picture of the newly organized shelves. And yeah, I’ve run out of space again! I had my P3 and N-Paints stored in separate containers and I wanted to mix them into the colour families. I had to pull some washes I hardly ever use off the shelf and store them separately to make space. But since they are a different type of paint I’d use in a different way, that seemed a more sensible division than by line. I also have some inks and single pigment colours like the Reaper Clears and the Kimera paints in a tiered shelf on my desk. I tend to use those for glazes, or to use just those kinds of paints for a project, so it’s logical (to me) to have them separated out and closer to hand.
One other change I made was based on how easy it is to see the colours across the area of the shelves. The column on the far left is furthest from the light and harder to see. I shifted paints that I don’t need to see as precisely to decide to use to that section – inks, metallics, and neutral greys. Now I can see my yellows, reds, purples, and blues much more clearly
In case anyone is feeling bad about their workspace being messier than mine, here’s a shot of the larger room area in my old studio space. This is from a while ago, my Sta-Wet palette looks so new! My area wasn’t always this messy, but it was rarely neat and tidy!