Miniature Paint Care and Maintenance

If you like the work I do on this blog, please consider supporting it via my Patreon or a Ko-fi tip.

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. 

Can I See the Light (to Paint)

If you like the work I do on this blog, please consider supporting it via my Patreon or a Ko-fi tip.

I’d like to share some general thoughts on how to tackle projects that are ambitious or intimidate you, as well as a few tips on painting object source lighting (OSL). These are based on my recent experience in painting the Ghost of Christmas Past. 

Ghost of Christmas Past with OSL effectThe Ghost of Christmas Past sculpted by Bob Ridolfi.

Study and Research

When trying something outside of your comfort zone, it can be very helpful to study some video and/or text tutorials by more experienced painters. Oftentimes there are some guidelines or approaches that you just might not have thought of.

Since I teach a class on it, I had already done a fair amount of study into elements that can contribute to more successfully creating the illusion of reflected light on a miniature. And that study is why I had trepidation about painting this figure. The character in the book A Christmas Carol is described as wearing a white robe. I advise people not to use white on the clothing/hair/etc. of a figure painted with OSL. We can’t paint a glow or nimbus of light around a light source the way someone could on a two dimensional painting. So it is advisable to reserve bright white for use only on the light source, and maybe just a touch for highlights on areas of reflected light right next to the light source. 

OSL Mages ComparisonThe mage on the left was my first attempt at OSL. I studied what worked and what didn’t (almost everything) and tried to do a more effective version with the figure on the right. If I painted this figure again today there are yet more changes I would make.

Another recommendation I make for painting effective OSL is to reserve highly saturated colours for use only on the light source and the reflected light, and to use less saturated colours for the clothing and equipment of the figure. As with using white on the light source, this technique helps further the illusion that the light source is brighter and lighter than the rest of the scene. The Christmas Past miniature sculpt also includes holly leaves and berries, which are typically fairly saturated green and red in colour, so that would be a second guideline I’d be breaking to paint it.

So why did I decide to paint this figure with an OSL effect? Since I regularly teach painting classes on the subject of OSL, I was intrigued by the challenge of whether I could pull it off! If you are newer to painting OSL, I recommend that you follow the guidelines I’ve suggested for the use of white and saturated colours, at least on your first few experiments.

Plan and Experiment

Study is helpful, but a lot of us have the tendency to put off the intimidating project by burying ourselves in videos and tutorials. It is far more helpful to dive in and get some practical experience.

One way to more actively study is to look at specific figures. Pick out some that you feel do a good job of the effect or technique you’re trying, and also some that are less successful. Including your past attempts, if any. Study both groups with an analytical eye. Dissect the colour choices in detail. Evaluate where areas are lighter and darker. Try to come to some conclusions about concrete things you can do to improve your chance of success when you try.

Test colour scheme ideas on paper or on a test figure. Look up reference photos for materials and textures. Not just how other people have painted them, but looking at the materials themselves. Think about how you’d replicate that in miniature and test some of your ideas.

One of the things I do to prepare to paint a single point light source figure is to make my own reference photos for where areas will appear darker and lighter. I use a mini Maglite bulb to simulate the light source. I primed Christmas Past with Reaper’s white, black, and grey brush-on primers. This allowed me to prime areas of the miniature at roughly the same value as the colours I intended to paint them – white robe, light grey skin, black hair, and dark grey on the red and green areas. (Both colours tend to be darker than you’d think.) You could also do basecoats of your midtones and then take a reference picture to really get a good idea of how the light affects the various colours and values.

Christmas Past light referenceYou can make your own reference photos for less extreme lighting, too.

Just Do It!

The most important element is to get your butt into the chair and do it. Don’t procrastinate too long or psych yourself out of even trying. This is not life and death stuff. It’s not the end of the world if you mess up. You never have to show anyone if you don’t like how it came out. It’s just paint, and you can always paint over it and try again. Whether it’s a rousing success or not at all what you hoped for, you can study your end result to learn more to apply to your next attempt.

Problem Solving

I am trying to learn to do a better job of finding and solving problems during the painting process, and as I have with a few other figures, I will share my experience with that on the Ghost of Christmas Past.

In this first WIP picture, I’ve completed painting the skin, the hair, the base, and the accessories. (Or so I thought.) The robe and candle are still only primer.

The first thing I painted was the skin, and it was a frustrating experience. I kept feeling like it looked wrong and kinda rough. And I think that’s something that happens to a lot of people when they’re trying more advanced techniques. A lot of effects and some techniques do not really look good until the final stages. Some don’t even look right until the painting on the figure as a whole is almost finished. Non-metallic metal doesn’t really start to ‘shine’ and look good until you have your darkest and lightest values painted on. Initial passes of a texture can look rough and unconvincing. The first few stages of how I paint transparent cloth look almost silly.

Some types of painting techniques and effects start to look good pretty quickly, and you can assess whether there are issues you need to fix as you go along. Drybrushing or sidebrushing texture is an example. With many other effects, it can be very difficult to tell in the early and middle stages. When you try techniques like this, you need to take a leap of faith and follow through until the end. And then finish the figure. Only then can you take a step back and get an idea of whether or not you’ve been successful. If you try to judge and adjust a lot in the beginning and middle stages, you are making your life more difficult and might even be undoing things that would look better in the end if left as they were. 

My frustration in painting the skin was related to this. The figure I was holding was being lit by my room lights, which cast highlights and shadows on that big expanse of dress that match the zenithal lighting approach we usually use when painting miniatures. I was painting shadows and highlights on small areas of the figure to match the lighting in my reference photo. The location of those lights and shadows contradicted both years of habit for where to visualize and place light and shadow, and what my own eyes were telling me based on the room light. I had to just have faith that it would all come together as more of the miniature got painted and resist the urge to dial back or alter the effect.

Xpast wip1 front 600

In this next WIP picture, I had finally gotten colour on most of the miniature. My concern was getting everything in the right place and working on the right level of contrast within the light area and within the shadow area. If I started with trying to soften the edges I’d probably have had to do it over a few times while fiddling with one of those other aspects.

This is where I left off in painting the night before Thanksgiving. We were hosting people in our home, so I just put her up on a shelf and studied her now and then when passing through the room. I felt like things were coming together and working more than in the beginning stages, but I also felt like something just wasn’t quite right. I had to step away and then study the figure a bit more to figure out what. As eager as I was to finish since I was cutting pretty close to the deadline, the break ended up being helpful for getting a little distance and being able to solve the problem.

Christmas Past WIP 2

Late Thanksgiving night I realized what was bothering me – there wasn’t much value difference between the lit areas and the shadow areas on the far arm and skirt of the dress. If I squinted, the whole right side looked pretty much the same in value. I was trying to create the illusion that the light was much brighter closer to the source and fell off in brightness as it moved away from the source, but had I gone too far?

As you can tell from the photo below, yep, I had gone too far. There is virtually no difference in value between the light and shadow on the right side and bottom of the skirt on the left side. I had a warmer colour and a cooler colour, but they were the same value of grey, so couldn’t really create an impression of light and shadow.

Christmas Past WIP 2 in grayscaleConverting your photo to grayscale by desaturating it is a good way to check whether or not you’re actually painting the appearance of reflected light.

Since the shadow areas were already pretty dark, I felt the best remedy for the issue was to lighten up the areas reflecting the candle light. I did that over all of the sections of the figure – skin, hair, dress, and accessories.

Christmas Past WIP 3 Colour

Christmas Past WIP 3 grayscale

The final steps were to paint the buttons, candle, candle flame and candle holder, and to soften the transition edge between the areas of shadow and areas of light. Oh, and to add in the colour of the light. You might not have noticed it, but I didn’t really paint in the colour of the light as I went along. I used warm colours for the lit areas – more yellow in the greens and reds, and a tan colour for the shading of the white. I mixed a dark purple into the light area colours to create darker, cooler, and more muted colours for the various areas of the shadow side. For the shadow areas of the dress I just used pure neutral greys since I have a spectrum of those pre-mixed for easy blending, and then added the purple via a glaze at the end.

This is what everything looked like prior to painting on the light and shadow colour, painting the flame, and softening the edge transitions.

Christmas Past WIP 4

I thinned some red and yellow paint way, way, way down and painted glazes of the colours over the areas of light. I thinned down the dark purple I used in the shadow areas in the same way and painted it over the neutral grey parts of the dress to integrate them in with the rest of the shadows. I used the brightest white paint I have to paint the base of the candle flame. Here’s what the finished figure looks like on the same flat gray background I used for my WIP pictures.

Christmas Past on Grey Background

Below is a picture of the palette I used to paint the dress and glaze in the colours on the light side. The lit areas of the dress were painted with the top row of colours. The shadow areas were painted using the darker greys mostly on the bottom row of the palette. The red and yellow pools were my glaze colours. The colours in the centre of the second row were the mixes I used to soften the edges between the lit areas and the shadowed sections. (Which literally were mixes of the neutral and warm greys in various values.)

Christmas Past Palette

I used a wet palette for the majority of the painting, but I wanted to be able to preserve my paint mixes for the dress to be able to do touchups and alterations. I preserved the paint by placing almost dripping wet sponges on top of the ceramic palette when it was not in use. I’ll post more about that trick another time.

And here are a few more pictures of the completed figure, along with her compatriots from A Christmas Carol.

Christmas Past Back

Christmas Past Left

Christmas Past Right

Christmas Ghosts Front

Figures Featured in this Post

The three Christmas Ghosts are special edition holiday miniatures. They sometimes made available are to purchase or as a gift with purchase in late November and/or early December from the Reaper website

The mage casting magical lightning is based on a classic piece of Larry Elmore art, and is available from Dark Sword Miniatures. I’ve used this figure in the past for my OSL classes, but I think in the future I’m going to mix it up and use another fun Dark Sword figure for OSL classes. They have a lot of miniatures that would make for great OSL practice.

Pathfinder Paint Set Preview

The Pathfinder role-playing game and Reaper Miniatures have teamed up to bring out a new set of paint colours based on Golarion, the Pathfinder game setting world. Reaper was kind enough to send me the set, and I wanted to share some information about it to help others decide whether they’d like to add this to their arsenal of paints.

I will be posting some swatches I made of the paint colours in a few days, which will hopefully help you judge the colours a little better than online digital swatches do. (We need to finish up a few home renovations before I have access to my scanner and photo station to be able to scan the swatches.) But in the meantime, here’s a preview of the cases, the colour selection, and what the paints look like in the bottles.

Pathfinder Paint boxes exteriorThere are 56 new colours in total, divided into two boxed sets of 28 colours each.

This is also one of the first products to be sold in Reaper’s new box set packaging. The new boxes have more of a squared off design than the previous Reaper cases. They appear to be completely plastic, including the hinges, but everything feels thick and sturdy. All of my old style cases are currently packed away because of the home renovations, so unfortunately I don’t have any comparison pictures between the old and new cases.

Reaper case detailCheck out that cool logo relief on the bottom front of the cases. 

I know you’re probably eager to see more about the paints, but there are a couple of other new elements that affect all Reaper products sold in box set cases that are worth pointing out.

Case fastenerNote the zip tie fastener sealing the handle closed.

When you buy a new-from-the-factory Reaper product in a case, whether you buy it directly from Reaper, or from an online retailer, or from a brick and mortar store, the handle will be fastened closed with a zip tie like the one shown in the picture above. If your boxed product is not closed with a zip tie, particularly if it is in the old style case, it may be from older stock that a seller has on hand. I used to work in a game store, and depending on local gamer tastes and initial stocking levels, products can sit on a shelf a lot longer than you might imagine. While I very much advocate supporting one’s local game store, I now prefer to purchase paints directly from the manufacturer when possible to ensure I’m getting as fresh of a product as possible. If you receive a box without a zip tie fastener, particularly if it is this new style box, it could also be a returned/pre-owned product that should have been sold as such. 

Pathfinder paint set openThere is a card inside with helpful instructions on what to do if there is an issue with your product.

When you cut off the zip tie, don’t toss it away immediately. First have a look through your product to ensure that everything that should be included is inside. If it isn’t, Reaper will be happy to make it right! There should be a card inside your box set that will tell help you get your issue sorted out. One piece of information you will need as part of that process is the colour of your box’s zip tie. Reaper is happy to resolve issues with non-box sets, too. If you get a blistered mini with two left arms and no right or any other kind of issue, send an email to help@reapermini.com. Do NOT include pictures of the issue. If they need a picture of anything, they’ll let you know.

Enough about boxes, let’s explore the awesome new paint colours! These are all new colours created specifically for this set. There are 56 colours total in the Colors of Golarion paint collection. For those who don’t play Pathfinder, Golarion is the world that the game is set in. The names for the colours are based on nations, deities, and iconic monsters and characters from that world. The colours were selected by Pathfinder creators at Paizo, so they truly reflect Paizo’s vision of their world.

Back of Pathfinder paint set box #1The back of the box and paint swatches for the first half of the Pathfinder paint set.

Paint bottles from Pathfinder paint set #1Set #1 includes pinks, reds, oranges, yellows, greens, and blues, and a couple of neutral colours.

Pathfinder creators selected the hue of the colours, but Reaper’s paint maven Anne Foerster, created and mixed the actual paint formulations for each of those colours. She used the same kinds of ingredients and approach as she did when creating the Reaper Bones Ultra colours, which she has said represents the pinnacle (so far!) of her years of paint creation experience. Both the Bones and Pathfinder paints are designed to cover in just one or two coats, dry matte, and be durable for gaming use. The colours intermix well with each other and other Reaper paints, and should work well with most other acrylic paint brands. (There are a couple of paint lines out there in both the art and hobby worlds with additives that don’t play well with other paints, but the vast majority of acrylic paints successfully intermix with other acrylic paints.)

Of particular note is the new metallic paint formulation in the Bones and Pathfinder sets. New materials have become available since the Master Series Paint line metallics were formulated, and Anne has incorporated these into the Bones and Pathfinder sets for shinier metallics. She’s mixed some pretty cool metal colours with them, too, in both the Bones Ultra and Pathfinder paint lines.

Back of Pathfinder paint set #2Paint swatches on the back of the box for the second half of the Pathfinder paint set.

Pathfinder paint bottles from set #2Set #2 includes a few more blues and pinks, several purples, skin tones, neutrals (including grey, black, and white), and a number of metallics.

If you don’t need to see swatches to know you’d like to get your hands on this paint, these box sets will be available starting September 3, 2019, with a MSRP of $99.99 for each set. The paints will also be sold individually, though I don’t know if they will go on sale on the same date. Individual bottles have an MSRP of $3.99. Note that this is higher than Reaper’s Master Series or Bones Ultra paints, due to the cost of licensing with Pathfinder. Single bottles of MSP and Bones Ultra paints are MSRP of $3.69. You should be able to ask your local Reaper stockist to order these in for you, or get them direct from Reaper Miniatures online store.

NOTE: I received these products from the manufacturer at no charge to myself. (Unless you count the cost of the sweat of my brush over all these years. ;->) This isn’t exactly a review, though I do primarily use and love Reaper paints, and I am excited to have these new colours to add to my repertoire. 

Link Ups – April 5

I continue to lurch from one show/convention to the next with barely a moment to spare, so this poor blog has been pretty neglected. I promise I have some meatier content simmering on the back burner that I hope to finish up some time soon to share! In the meantime, here are some links to interesting and insightful info from other miniature painters and artists to help you on your painting journey.

Atlanta Model Figure Show Photos
I did finally manage to post my photos from three events back! There were some fantastic miniatures at the Atlanta Model Figure Show this year that I think you’ll enjoy looking through photos of.

Reaper Skin Tone Paint Information and Demonstration
Anne Foerster shares some insights and does demos with the various skin tone paint options available from Reaper Miniatures in this video. Anne’s segment starts about 11 minutes in.

More Information on Colour Theory
Jerry’s Artarama followed up their Color Theory 101 video that I linked to in a previous Link Ups with a recent Color Theory 201 segment. This one explains hues, values, and how to mix tints, shades, and tones in a clear way with demonstrations.

If you’d like a text document on colour theory to reference, this one or this other one are options. (I keep sharing different information on colour theory and mixing because it’s a subject I found I had to review multiple times with info from different sources before it really started to click for me.)

How We See Values (Contrast) and How that Affects our Art
This video by Cesar Santos has some interesting information about the nature of the human eye that leads to us making mistakes with light/dark value contrast.

Chain photo by Bryson Hammer from Unsplash.

So Many Paints…

If you like the work I do on this blog, please consider supporting it via my Patreon or a Ko-fi tip.

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 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 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, 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.

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, 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.

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.