Cold Temperatures versus Miniature Paints

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Miniature paint doesn’t require a lot of special care and maintenance, but it can be damaged if exposed to freezing temperatures for an extended period of time. If you have paints in transit during a cold snap, or you’ve realized you had your paint stored in an unheated area like a garage, how can you tell if your paint is okay?

A little while ago I swatched out some of the colours from the Reaper Virtual Expo swag boxes. People were disappointed I didn’t have all the paints to swatch, so Sadie, the Reaper paints mixologist, packed up the rest to send them to me. She did that just before severe winter weather hit large areas of the United States. My package made it out of Reaper in time, but was trapped in UPS storage facilities and vehicles for days. (Scroll to the bottom of this post for scans of the first set of swatches.)

When my package  finally arrived, I thought I had better check the condition of all the paints. I let them sit and warm up for a few hours, and then tested all of them. I made a video of the testing process, so you can see how I checked and what a cold damaged paint looks like. I’m also including some pictures here in this post.

There were 14 paints total in my package. Two sets of six were packed in Reaper’s FastPalette packaging. This is a thin plastic tray inside of a thin card box. Then there were two sample paints that were loose in the box. (Everything was secured with air bubbles, I mean loose in the sense of not being in a blister or other packaging.)

IMG 0569Example of FastPalette packaging.

Out of those 14 paints, one of the loose sample paints is damaged and unusable, and the other 13 are fine. Pigments vary considerably, and there are some differences in the acrylic formulas used for various colours. So perhaps pigment or base made the difference, or perhaps the packaging of the boxed sets help insulate them. Whatever the cause, some paints are more sensitive than others. Having been exposed to weather cold enough to damage paint doesn’t mean that all exposed paints are automatically ruined.

In the video I open up the bottles of the two loose sample paints and dispense some paint onto an index card to examine. One of the paints acts as I would expect. You can see in the picture below that the other paint has been damaged. The pigment and some of the binder has curdled to a lumpy cottage cheese texture, which has completely separated from a runny fluid component. The problem bottle was shaken on a vortex mixer for some time prior to testing.

Frozen paint1 cr

I have had a previous experience with this. In one of the first learn to paint kits I bought, the tub of yellow paint was grainy and slightly curdled. It was not as extreme as the condition of the paint above, so there is some variation with this. I later learned that other people who bought that same set also had problems with the yellow paint. Likely it had gotten cold while in storage at the distributor warehouse that supplied my local game store. 

Frozen paint2 cr

So if you do have a damaged paint the issue might not be quite as obvious as this, but you should be able to see a notable difference in the texture and consistency of a damaged paint compared to a normal one.

EDIT TO ADD: To my knowledge there is no way to restore a paint damaged by freezing. You can’t add water or medium and stir everything back into suspension the way you usually can with a paint where the liquids and solids have separated after a long period of not being stirred. When paint freezes some of the components coagulate or congeal in a way that is a permanent structural or chemical change. If you experience this with a newly bought product, you can contact the retailer or the manufacturer and request a replacement.

In the video I just did a simple shake test on the other 12 bottles, but later I swatched them out. Six of the paints were metallics, and I was particularly concerned about those. In my years of doing paint maintenance (and not always being perfect about doing paint maintenance), I have found that metallic colours dry out and get ruined a lot more quickly than standard matte colours. So I was concerned they might be more easily damaged by cold, as well. All of the metallics in my shipment were fine.

Rve paints wet crSwatches straight from the bottle, still a little wet. The top six colours (one swatched twice) are the Reaper Virtual Expo Punk colours. The bottom six are the Cyber Metal colours.) These are photographs not the scans I did of swatches in my other post, so may not be as true to colour.

Rve paints dry crSwatches after drying for a few hours. Paint still looks normal and fine.

Frozen paint3 crUnaffected vs cold damaged paint after drying for a few hours. The ring on the paper shows how separated out the liquids were from the solids in the paint mix. 

I hope that helps give you a little more of an idea of what to look for if you’re concerned that you have paints that have been exposed to cold temperatures.

 

Snowflake photo by Egor Kamelev from Pexels

Miniature Paint Care and Maintenance

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It’s paint maintenance time for me, and that is a good opportunity for me to share some pictures and tips to help you maintain your own stash of miniature paints.

The most important tip is: Never let your paint freeze! Miniature paint will ‘curdle’ if it freezes. There is no way to restore paint that has been frozen to a correct and useable consistency.

Helpful tip: If you have hard water or any other water issues, use distilled water rather than tap water to add to paint bottles.

Helpful tip: This is the messiest job in miniature painting! Wear old clothes and protect surfaces with table cloths and drop cloths. Trust me on this! You will need much more paper towel or cloth than usual to clean brushes and wipe up spills.

Paint maintenance day setup

Two common issues that paint experiences over time are thickening up as water evaporates from inside the bottle, and paint separating into thick gloppy pigment at the bottom of the bottle, with watery components of the mix floating on top. Both of these issues can be remedied if caught quickly enough. Note that metallic, satin, and other texture effect paints are more likely to experience these issues, and to experience them after shorter periods of disuse.

To best preserve the quality of your miniature paints, do a maintenance check every 1-2 years. Shake the paint as you would for normal use. Dispense a drop of the paint and check its consistency. I use index cards for my paint drop tests. After dispensing the drop, I run an old paint brush through the drop to check consistency. Remove dropper bottle nipples to observe the paint within the container if you have any doubts. Add distilled water to paint that is thickening and shake. You will have to STIR, and then shake paint that is separating or is very thick in consistency. I’ll go over the method and possible issues in more detail below.

Examples of separated paint

Paint stored in containers that are not moved or shaken for long periods of time can start to separate. The heavier pigments and binder elements sink to the bottom and lighter elements of the binder float to the top. You can see an extreme example of the issue very clearly above in a screw top paint bottle that doesn’t have a label on the side. It can be much harder to spot in containers made of more opaque plastic or which have large obscuring labels.

Example of binder separated from paint

One reason I suggest dispensing a sample drop of paint for dropper bottle maintenance is to detect paint separation issues. You will see something like the above – a very watery mix of paint. Usually the colour looks quite pale or faint as well. If I see this, I pop off the nipple of the dropper bottle. I try to pick up this watery mix with a brush and add it back to the bottle, but it’s not a big issue if you lose a drop or two. 

Clumpy paint

If paint has separated to this degree, you will need to STIR it to repair the issue. You cannot guarantee redistributing the watery binder elements and chunkier pigment bits with any amount of shaking alone. Not even with a vortex mixer, not even with agitators in the bottle. I took the picture above AFTER agitating the paint pot (which contains a pewter agitator) on a vortex mixer. The paint looked mixed, but when I checked it with a toothpick, there was sludge stuck to the bottom and sides of the container. Also note the number of bubbles, which is another sign that the fluid portion is still more binder than pigment.

Click to see the vortex mixer in action on a couple of paints. Note that paint in the second half of the video is the same one in the previous picture. I had to stir well and then mix to return it to useable condition.

You will need to use a tool long enough to reach the bottom and sides of the container to get the sludge moving. With squat jars a toothpick works. You’ll need a plastic swizzle stick or old paint brush for taller dropper bottles. Once you’ve got the sludge moving, shaking should work to finish mixing everything back together. Then check the consistency again and add some additional water if needed. Eventually you should reach a consistency like the picture below. Note that there are far fewer bubbles now.

Mixed paint

Paint can thicken up over time due to water evaporation, without experiencing separation issues. Few containers are completely air tight. It can take years, but water does evaporate through plastic bottles and jars. Sometimes this happens more quickly than you would expect. You can have a set of paints that you purchased at the same time where some bottles are fine and some have experienced more evaporation, so you need to check each paint individually. Below you can see an example of what paint that has thickened up but not separated looks like. Kind of like frosting. (Don’t eat the paint-frosting!)

Thickened paint example

This can happen with dropper bottles, as well. Dropper bottles also often exhibit a similar but slightly different problem. When you dispense a drop of paint and find that it is very thick, you need to pull out the dropper nipple to check on the paint. You will often find thickening paint clogged up in the nipple tip and/or neck of the bottle, as in the examples below.

Paint thickening in bottle necks

Usually there is a separate pool of paint at the bottom of the bottle that may or may not be experiencing thickening as well. Use a toothpick or paint brush to poke the paint down into the bottle, moving it from the nipple to the main area of the bottle. I recommend stirring this bottle neck paint into the paint in the body of the bottle. Shaking may not be enough to intermix the thicker paint into the rest of the paint. Add a few drops of water, and mix thoroughly. Then check the consistency again. If it is still a bit on the thick side, add more water and shake again.

I have been experimenting with something I think helps reduce the incidence of paint getting trapped in the neck of the bottles. Before I recap a paint, I check to make sure that the dropper hole is clear of paint. Paint bubbling or oozing up through the dropper hole when a bottle is opened or after you poke the dropper hole open is another sign that some paint may be stuck in the nipple or neck of the bottle. I use a pokey tool to open up the dropper hole until it stays clear. Other options to open clogged dropper holes are a T-pin, hat pin, or unfolded paper clip. 

Dropper tip

The paints in the following picture were all discontinued in 2010, so I can verify that they’re old paints. Because I’ve taken the trouble to maintain them every few years, they’re all still in useable condition so I can continue enjoying these no-longer-made colours.

Old paints

Metallic and Silk/Satin Paints

Paints with metallic flake and similar agents seem more prone to experiencing issues with separation and thickening more quickly than standard paints. They also seem to reach the point of no return more quickly. I recommend doing maintenance on those kinds of paints at least yearly. If you do not maintain these well, accept that they will become unusable more quickly than standard paints.

Container Maintenance

Dropper bottles rarely experience issues other than paint drying in the dropper hole. Occasionally you will get some paint gumming up the lid that you might need to wipe or chip out. With pot style containers, you need to check the threads of both the cap and pot. Over time these often fill up with paint. As this paint dries it can break into chunks that fall into the wet paint. It can also make it more difficult to close the container or affect the seal and allow air into the pot. You can see an example of paint dried up on the inside of a cap below. As I did maintenance on these paints, I chipped paint out of the caps with the metal tool.

IMG 1366

Mixing Machines and Agitators

Some paints are harder to mix than others. The more viscous a paint, the more it will need an agitator and heavy shaking or even stirring to mix well. Different binder mixes may also affect how much mixing a brand or colour of paint needs. Some paint brands ship with an agitator in the bottle. All paints produced by Reaper Miniatures do. If you wish to add agitators to your paints, keep in mind that you need to use a non-reactive material. Many materials can rust or oxidize when stored in a liquid paint for long periods of time, even if they would not in other circumstances. Safe materials include pewter and glass beads. Although you will often see them recommended in online chats/forums, I do not recommend adding lead or stainless steel agitators to paint pots.

There are a few paint mixer gadgets on the market, and you may also come across ideas for homemade versions on various social media platforms and forums. I’ve seen electric stirrers, and single bottle shakers. Some people have adapted nail polish shakers to this purpose. Many people purchase second-hand laboratory vortex mixers on eBay and other sites to use for mixing paint. (Do a search for ‘vortex mixer’.) Artis Opus has developed a similar product specifically for miniature painters. (It’s more aesthetically pleasing and new, but I think the concept is pretty much the same.)

If you have a small collection of paint that hand-mixes fairly easily, like Reaper paints, you may not need any such tools. I purchased a used Vortex Genie 2 lab mixer on eBay a few years ago. Although it was a fairly expensive purchase, I have never regretted it, and it gets more use than many of my other bespoke hobby tools do. I have hand and wrist issues, and a pretty sizeable collection of paint. Paint maintenance was very tough on my hands, even spread over several days. Paint maintenance and day-to-day mixing are much less annoying for me with the mixer.