Guide to understanding miniature paints

A Guide to Understanding Any Miniature Paint

With traditional artists’ acrylics, it’s easy to understand a lot about a paint by looking at the tube or jar – they’re all rated by ASTM International and adhere to strict grading which ensures accurate information about things like lightfastness, opacity, and quality. Thanks to those standards, artists can make informed choices about how to best use each paint.

However, most miniature paints don’t include that important info (perhaps the labels are too small?). As a result, for many mini painters choosing the best paint for a specific miniature project can be a bit of a guessing game. 

Miniature paints, though, can be accurately assessed on some of the same factors used to grade artists’ acrylics. And by testing your paints, experimenting, and paying close attention to six main factors, you’ll become much better acquainted with your materials and gain a deeper understanding of how your paint actually works.

That’s the true key to choosing the right miniature paint for the job, every time. 

Different types of miniature paints

Why acrylics?

In the past, oil paints and enamels were used to great effect in model painting. But they’re harder to control and thin, take longer to dry, and can give off dangerous fumes. Most mini painters nowadays primarily utilize water-based acrylics.

Acrylics are popular in modern mini painting because:

  • They have short drying times
  • You can alter the viscosity and opacity while maintaining color saturation
  • They’re easy to clean up
  • They stick to almost any surface
  • Acrylic paints are non-toxic
  • They’re inexpensive

All water-based acrylic paint is 1) color pigments combined with 2) acrylic polymer(s)  blended with 3) water. There are dozens of manufacturers making hundreds of ranges, but they all share this common basic formulation. 

But not all acrylic paint is created equal. There are six basic things you should understand about any miniature paint in order to achieve maximum results while you’re painting:

  1. Quality
  2. Opacity
  3. Lightfastness
  4. Viscosity
  5. Container
  6. Brand

1. Quality

Remember, acrylic paint is made up of three things:

  1. Pigment – Granular solids that give paint its color.
  2. Binder – The stuff that keeps pigments in place when the paint cures.
  3. Vehicle – A liquid that carries the binder and pigment; nearly all typical miniature paints are water-based.

The best quality miniature paints all have one thing in common: a high concentration of finely ground pigments. 

Pigments are much more expensive relative to the other stuff that goes into a typical acrylic paint emulsion. In cheaper low-quality paints, the ratio of fillers to pigment is much higher than in high quality options. That can make those paints harder to mix, thin, and blend, which usually leads to less-than-quality results on your miniatures.

You can easily notice the difference in depth, luminosity, and color richness between a high quality paint and a low quality version, so swatch your paints before using them, and trust your eyes. Low quality paints have a tendency to darken or brown when dry, quickly lose pigmentation when thinned, may leave a tacky surface, and will often need numerous coats to achieve a “true” color, regardless of the viscosity of the paint itself.

2. Opacity

This is a measure of how much light passes through a given acrylic paint. Paints with saturated colors often have more pigment and binder, with less water, resulting in more opaque mixture (another sign to look for when judging a paint’s quality).

Since opaque paints typically provide ample coverage, they’re sometimes referred to as “base” colors and are useful for large areas, base coating, and underpainting. You can change the opacity of a paint by thinning it, though, so results can (and should) vary!

Less opaque, more transparent colors are typically a little thinner in consistency and are perfect for glazing and layer work.

Understanding the true opacity of the paints in your collection can help you make better decisions while you plan your painting schemes.

How to check the opacity of any acrylic miniature paint

The process is easy. For each color, paint two boxes on a page in your swatch book: one black, one white.

Then, thoroughly mix or shake your paints and apply one even, unthinned coat of paint over each area. Allow the paint to dry completely. 

Miniature paint swatch book showing how to check paint opacity levels

Opaque colors will completely obscure the black and white boxes beneath the paint. Less opaque colors will allow some of the undercoat to show through, which in turn affects the finished shade of the paint.

Neither of these qualities are “good” or “bad” in and of themselves, but knowing what you’re working with, and how a paint changes over dark and light surfaces, will take a lot of guesswork out of your creative process. 

3. Lightfastness

Lightfastness refers to the ability of a pigment in paint to resist fading over time when exposed to light. Especially for models you plan to display or that live outside a game box, lightfastness is important to consider because you don’t want your work to fade and discolor.

Does miniature paint fade? 

Yep. It’s all about photons, really. A paint’s color is dependent on the range of wavelengths of light it absorbs – the light that is not absorbed makes up the color we perceive.

Absorption of light (ie. the energy of its photons) slowly breaks down the chemicals that make up pigments, and that leads to fading/discoloration/all kinds of disappointments. 

Visible Light Spectrum Diagram

Simply put: the higher the wavelength of the absorbed light, the more likely it is to fade due to breakdown of the pigment(s). 

Fugitive colors

Pigments in paint that are known to fade over time are called “fugitive colors”. This means that the pigment, when exposed to environmental conditions like sunlight or humidity, is less- or non-permanent. Over time, fugitive colors will fade, darken, or even sometimes totally disappear. 

Photons which make up blue, indigo and violet light carry a lot more energy than photons which make up the other end of the visible light spectrum, so you guessed it: reds, oranges, and yellows are notoriously fugitive.

By using a matte UV varnish on a finished model, you can help guard your colors. There’s more information about protecting your work in Miniature Painting Techniques: Applying Finishing Touches. Even with that important step, though, prolonged exposure to light over a long period of time can still cause fading, so it’s best to keep painted miniatures out of the sun.

You can get ahead of fading a bit by testing the lightfastness of your paints, but be warned: in the case of known fugitive colors like red and yellow, at least some fading is to be expected. If you’re concerned about the lightfastness of a finished miniature, try finding a color that stays most true after the test below.

How to test the lightfastness of any acrylic miniature paint

You’ll test similar paint colors to judge which one is the most lightfast. Paint stripes of the paint, unthinned, along the width of two pages, like below:

testing light fastness in a miniature painting swatchbook

Find a very bright spot like a windowsill, and place your swatch book open to the pages you striped. Cover one page with a heavy cloth, book, or anything that blocks the light, and position the other directly in the sun. Leave it.

After a week has passed, check for fading by comparing the stripes of paint exposed to the sun with those on the opposing page. 

4. Viscosity

Viscosity refers to the consistency of an acrylic paint. The viscosity of a paint will affect how it’s thinned and applied. For example: 

  • Low viscosity: thin and “watery”; excellent for airbrushes, layering, or glazing
  • Medium viscosity: fluid but dense; the typical viscosity of a miniature paint
  • High viscosity: thick and buttery; useful for textured bases and other technical effects

Changing a paint’s viscosity is as easy as thinning it with water, or adding acrylic mediums to thicken it up. In mini painting, there are two types of acrylic paints you’ll encounter:

Heavy-body acrylics

Heavy body acrylics are thick and non-fluid. They’re most common in traditional painting, but can absolutely be used in miniature painting – many technical paints like Citadel Edge Paint or Vallejo Brown Earth are heavy-body acrylic paints. 

Rule of thumb: if you can’t pour it, it’s a heavy body acrylic.

Fluid acrylics

When you think of miniature paints, fluid acrylics are the types of paints you’re likely picturing. You’ll find them in dropper bottles, pots/jars, and tools like paint pens.

Fluid acrylics are, well, fluids. They’re much thinner than heavy-body acrylics, of course, but usually contain the same pigment concentration. Their liquidity makes them extremely suitable for detailed work and they require less thinning.

5. Container

Miniature paints typically come in two different container types:

  1. Pots 
  2. Dropper bottles
Miniature paints in pots
miniature paints in dropper bottles

Much of the choice between the two really just boils down to how you prefer to store your paints.

However, if you’ve ever chatted with fellow miniature painters online or IRL, you’ve likely heard exasperated sighs about the plastic pots a certain brand uses to package their paint range. Common complaints are:

  • The lids don’t seal well, and are difficult to keep open
  • Paint dries around the lid, eventually leading to inability to close the pot
  • Because of the above, paints dry out faster
  • The pots are easy to spill
  • Paint splatters from the lid when shaken

I’ll admit: I’m not a fan of paint in pots, either. It’s hard to accurately dole out the amount of paint I need, and with all the other factors, the waste adds up quickly. I’ve slowly been phasing them out of my paint collection in favor of dropper bottle options.

Dropper bottle paints give you much more control over how much paint is used. They’re easier to keep clean, and screw tight for a good seal which protects your paint between sessions. On the whole, it’s easier to mix from dropper bottles on your wet palette to make your own colors without wasting a ton of paint.

6. Brand

This is the final factor for a reason: some brands make better paint than others, or package their products in a certain way, or make uber-specific products you can’t find anywhere else, but when it comes to choosing a brand…

…It’s really a matter of personal preference, how you paint, and what’s best for the job at hand. Most brands produce remarkably similar paint and are priced closely to one another.

It’s true that paints within a specific brand’s ranges are sometimes designed to work well with each other. This means that you can have some peace of mind when mixing colors within the range, knowing that the formulation of each paint is similar and won’t result in weird texture or pigment changes. (To be honest, I’ve rarely encountered issues with mixing paints from different brands, but some painters tell different stories.)

And of course, you’ll find certain shades and hues in a given brand that you won’t in another. 

Personally, though, I recommend a brand-agnostic approach to choosing paints. There are truly spectacular colors and products to be found in any range, from any brand, and no single maker-of-paint gets it 100% right. It seems counterintuitive to restrict your artistic choices to a specific company, not to mention limiting, so experiment. Find what speaks to you, what works for you and the way you paint.

You made it all the way here, though, so here are some recommendations for paint brands you can trust.

Trustworthy miniature paint brands

The brands below are well-known for making miniature paints, and are widely considered reliable. If you’re on a search to pick up a whole set of paints, just want paint you know other painters trust, or are looking to experiment, you can’t go wrong with giving these brands a go.

Vallejo

Vallejo makes many, many tools and products for miniature painters, but let’s focus on two of their most popular paint ranges: Model Colors and Game Colors.

Vallejo describes Model Colors as “colors with highest pigment concentration in a water-based formula, especially developed for brush-on application.” These are high quality mini paints, because they’re loaded with pigments, and they dry to a reliable matte finish.

Game Colors are a little different. They’re developed taking into account that miniatures are used in tabletop games. Game Colors contain a resin which offers resistance to the damage caused by frequent handling. This range also offers many bright colors, since it’s designed for fantasy miniature painting. 

My preferred paints are Vallejo Model Colors, specifically because I enjoy painting with opaque, medium-high viscosity paints that have a TON of pigment, since it gives me the most flexibility. 

Army Painter

Army Painter, like many other miniature paint brands, makes more than just one range of paint. They’re particularly worth checking out if you need spray primer.

I’ve been using the Warpaints range, which has lasted years. This is a big box set that contains 96 regular acrylic paints, 9 technical paints, 8 metallic paints, and 11 washes, all packaged in dropper bottles. If you’re looking for an entry-level miniature painting kit, it has everything you need.

Army Painter paints perform reliably well, and are most similar to Games Workshop paints in quality and viscosity. Their metallic paints, to me, are the real stars. 

Games Workshop 

For many, Games Workshop Citadel paints are ubiquitous with the miniature painting hobby. They’re the brand that makes those paint pots mentioned above, and that’s the easiest way to recognize them at your FLGS. 

GW separates their ranges in an easy to understand way: Air, Base, Layer, Dry, etc. They’re the makers of Contrast paints, and also produce easy-to-use Technical paints. 

I find Games Workshop paints to be rich and saturated, true to color, and easy to apply. They’re smooth with a lot of blendability, with the exception of some shades of white. There’s a reason so many painters use them, despite issues with packaging.

To choose the right paint, you’ve got to experiment

Choosing the right paint for a miniature project is all about gaining a true grasp of how the different paints in your collection work, how they’re formulated, and their specific, unique properties. Experimenting helps you understand your paints. Any of them.

Take time to test stuff out. Get a swatch book and learn about your paint’s opacity, viscosity, and lightfastness. Take notes. Examine your mistakes or happy accidents and learn from them!

Armed with the right knowledge and know-how, you’ll be better prepared to use any miniature paint, and tackle any technique. 

Snuuurch

About the Author

Jay Pike is a writer and artist living in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter, IG, and in any MMORPG at @snuuurch.

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