Painting Miniatures: Working with paints

You’ve got your brushes and are eager to get a coat of paint on those primed miniatures. This week I’ll be covering some tips on working with paints. So first off, what paints should you buy and use?

Older hobby modellers were pretty much stuck with enamel paints. They provide a good coat of paint, especially bright colors. More importantly for some model kits (RC cars and the like), they can handle wear and tear well. However I would not buy enamel paints. Mixing colors can be a challenge. Cleaning brushes requires paint thinner solvent. In general they are a pain in the ass to work with.

Fortunately you have an alternative, water based acrylics. Over the years the formulation of these paints have improved and honestly I don’t see any reason not to use them for miniature painting. Simple to mix colors, dilute, and clean up, they are so much easier to use compared to enamel paints. You can look through other resources to choose manufacturers or brands. In general though, I would avoid using big bottle craft acrylics for miniatures. They can work for applying a single color base coat, but commonly I’ve found they don’t hold a uniform pigment, don’t dilute well, and blending or mixing colors and can be problematic. While they are great for other modelling projects like terrain, I’d steer away from brands like Apple Barrel craft paints for miniature painting.

How many colors are enough? That is difficult to address easily. At the very least I would go for the 6 primary and secondary colors in a color wheel (blue, green, yellow, orange, red, violet) and add white and black to your list. Then I would have at least 2 shades or tints of each color. So at the least have a dark green and a light green for your ‘green’ paints.

If you can go all out with paints, I would have 3 of each color. One would be your base color, while the darker hue is used for washes/shading and the lighter color for highlights. Even with at least 2 tints of each color, you can use one for either shading and/or highlights. I would certainly purchase some gray colors too. In addition to this consider buying some dedicated paint colors depending on the miniatures you are painting. If doing a lot of fantasy models, you will have lots of leather and wooden hafts, so additional browns of various hues would be good. I would also buy some metallic colors for armor, metal helmets, shields, and the like. This will allow you to have some ‘go to’ colors if painting lots of particular model features like swords or leather boots.

Even if sticking with paint colors directly from the jar, you will want a working paint palette. This does not have to be fancy. It can be an old ceramic plate or piece of plastic. I’ve even used a plastic lid from a spreadable butter or cream cheese container before. In general you want a surface that is white and not porous. It should clean up easily with water and a paper towel, and be white so it’ll not throw off the shade of your color mixes.

Give your paints a good shake before opening them. I cut old plastic sprues into small chunks and add them directly to the paint jar for water based acrylics. Even dropper tips can have the top gently pulled off so you can add it into a bottle. The piece of plastic works similar to a spray can paint ball, increasing the efficiency of mixing as you shake it. Some brands like Reaper paints already have mixing beads in their pots.

A few paint manufacturers have dropper tips for their bottles. Using a palette, you want to mix some water with the drops of paint, working it into a milk-like consistency. You can always add either a drop of paint or clean water to get the desired mix. It’s better for the paint to be somewhat thin than too thick.

If you are working with paints in a jar, avoid sticking your brush into the pot directly. Get paint on your brush using the lid of the container instead. This way you avoid dipping your brush too far into the paint jar and possibly getting paint in the ferrule (metal part that holds the bristles). Even if using a palette, you want to be sure you are just placing the tip of the brush in the paint. Slathering on too much paint by sweeping the entire brush onto the palette can also work paint into the ferrule. This needs to be avoided as it can be hard to clean and when the paint dries it will force the bristles apart, deforming the shape of your brush.

If you paint in spurts (I’m a huge fan of the 15 minute paint day) or mix colors a lot, you may seriously want to consider investing in a wet palette. It’s actually a pretty easy thing to make yourself with parchment paper. The advantage of wet palettes is those mixed colors can be used for longer periods of time, getting more consistency over several models. This is especially useful if you are working in short bursts of painting activity. By not having to constantly clean your work palette, you can easily get back into continuing a project.

One last tip, also have some index cards handy and keep track of the paints used for figures. If you do a lot of rank and file miniatures this is especially helpful. Eventually you may add another unit to your force and trying to remember that exact mix of paint for a base coat, or what wash you used can be hard to recall after painting other figures (or in my case trying to remember a year plus later).