Black paint is an essential material for all miniature painters. There’s no getting around it: we need it for bases, undercoating, glazing, and washing, and black is a color that gets mixed with a lot of other paints. We go through it faster than any other color.
But there’s a problem.
The cycle of buying black miniature paints
Black mini paints are not interchangeable, but they are named that way. That causes a lot of unnecessary confusion. Just like every other color in your paint collection, they come in countless different shades, formulations, and finishes and offer different levels of utility. And you’d never know it based on labels alone. In many cases brands offer very little info online to help inform us.
The most we get is just a black paint’s name and a peek at the color through the bottle. And unlike other colors, it’s rare to find shade names that at least try to accurately describe the color of a black paint, like you would find with colors like Prussian Blue or Deep Yellow. And forget info about a paint’s actual pigments like you get with traditional artist acrylics like Titanium White.
So we wind up spending lots of money trying different black paints from different brands in search of the one that provides the results we prefer. Too often, the results aren’t what we expect; in the worst cases, they’re completely opposite of what a label or a name suggests.
Then we retire the old ones to the pile of unloved paints and buy more black mini paint.
Choosing a black miniature paint is a guessing game, and it’s time to change that
Control over the painting process is critical to executing your vision. At least, it is to me, and black paints deserve the same level of scrutiny I give all the other colors on my desk.
I decided to learn exactly how 14 black paints from 11 brands perform in real life, side-by-side under controlled conditions to find some answers I could finally rely on.
Read on to learn more about the process, or use this handy list to find the info you need most:
- The Paints
- The Results
- The Tests
- Best Black Miniature Paint
- Most Matte Black Miniature Paint
- Blackest Black Miniature Paint
- Highest Quality Black Miniature Paint
- Best Value Black Miniature Paint
- Is there a true black miniature paint?
I bought 14 new black miniature* paints from 11 different brands.
- Abaddon Black (Citadel Colours)
- Corvus Black (Citadel Colours)
- Black (Vallejo Model Color)
- Glossy Black (Vallejo Model Color)
- Decay Black (Scale75)
- Black (Vallejo Game Color)
- Pure Black (Reaper)
- Nightmare Black (Reaper)
- Matt Black (Army Painter)
- Coal Black (Formula P3)
- Black 3.0 (Culture Hustle)
- Wraith Black (GaleForce 9)
- Flat Black XF-1 (Tamiya)
- Carbon Black (Golden Acrylics)
(This is where I disclaim that neither myself nor Master The Dungeon are affiliated with any of the brands that appear in this article, and have not been solicited or compensated for these reviews.)
Here is each black paint side by side on a professional painter’s palette under controlled lighting conditions. Each stripe shows two unthinned coats.
I left each paint to cure for 12 hours, then shot footage of how light interacts with each one’s finish. Here’s how each the paints compare:
For each black miniature paint I performed a few simple tests:
- Side-by-side color swatch comparisons to compare final shades
- A reflectivity test shot on video to gauge each paint’s cured finish
- A tinting test and a thinning test, both to determine pigment density (these tests produced more photos than I could comfortably handle, so you’ll have to trust my findings or, even better, try the tests yourself)
I applied paints straight from their containers using a new, dry paint brush for each paint in each test.
The five factors
There were five factors for which I rated each black miniature paint:
I tested each black paint on a professional painter’s palette and rated them on a scale from 1-5 to describe their finish when fully cured (12 hours of air drying): 1 for glossy, 5 for matte.
The genesis of this article was personal. I was frustrated by a lack of good information about which black miniature paint, out of all the brands available, had the most (IRL) matte finish.
And I mean truly matte. A lot of miniature paint brands promise that their paints are matte when they’re anything but. Conversely, some glossy black paints aren’t all that glossy. Most black paints don’t even mention their finish.
Shiny black paint is something most painters want to have control over on miniatures, myself included, so finish is an important factor. More broadly, other paints applied over a satin or glossy finish behave differently than on a matte one, and not knowing how a black paint will finish creates a lack of control over the painting process. It may seem like a small detail, but finish can make a huge difference.
I swatched each black miniature paint and took high resolution photos using a lightbox, 5500K “daylight” photo lights, and Adobe Lightroom to correct white balance. This was in order to obtain as-true-as-possible color samples. I then used a color picker on those images to find the hex code that most closely matches each paint’s final cured shade.
Black paints aren’t always black. They’re sometimes gray. Or brown. Or even purple. They often confusingly share the same name across brands (like, well, Black), are named inaccurately (Like Coal Black), or have thematic names that don’t accurately describe a color (like Wraith Black or Corvus Black).
This is problematic because just like any other color of paint you need to be aware of the true shade of a black paint in order to incorporate it into your painting without unexpected results. When the names tell you nothing, you’re stuck buying paint just to get basic color information.
Black miniature paint is made using red, blue, and yellow pigments. That means that due to their very nature different black paints always contain different colors, in different quantities, each with different binders and other additives, in countless possible combinations. Black paints are all shades of black, either cool or warm, and which shade you’re working with is info you need to know. Black paints vary greatly in their colors, depth, and saturations, making it frustrating to find the shade you actually need on name alone.
An easy test to find a black miniature paint’s undertone
Fill a clear glass or jar with water, and stir a small amount (just a little at the tip of your brush) of black paint into the water.
Then, in a well lit space like a window or under a desk lamp, hold a white sheet of paper behind the glass.
The color of the water will indicate the undertone of the paint’s shade. If it appears to have a reddish or brown tint, the paint is a warm black shade. If the water looks blue, purple, or even green, you’ve got a cool shade of black.
I rated each paint’s viscosity from thin to thick on a scale of 1-5.
Heavy body, medium body, or soft body, the thickness of a black paint can often determine what it’s best used for (and not used for). You wouldn’t use a thick, sticky paint in the same way you would a watery one. Viscosity is sometimes closely related to coverage and pigment density.
Sure, you’ll be thinning paint nearly all of the time, but it’s important to know how a paint acts without additional thinners or media in order to gauge it’s full utility and get a better idea of how it may need to be thinned, or layered, during painting. But you can’t just crack open bottles of paint in your FLGS to check how thick they are. To find out you have to purchase. The cycle continues!
I was curious to see how each black paint would stack up against a familiar artistic standard and rated their quality 1-5.
Quality is a flexible word. It can potentially be used to describe many aspects of an acrylic paint so it’s tough to gauge it accurately. For some, quality means convenience, so paint that covers with one coat is the primary measure. For others, a paint’s finish sets it above the others, or how true its color, or even a lack of visible brush strokes when the paint dries.
So “quality”, like art, is highly subjective. I encourage you to think about what makes a paint “high quality” to you and read the results to find which black paint sounds best for your own work.
For me, though, quality refers to pigment density. The ratio and even dispersion of pigment in a paint is critically important because it’s how a color’s optimum hue and depth is expressed. Highly pigmented hues have long been the mark of great traditional artist grade paints, both acrylics and oils. It’s why art supply stores carry “Student” and “Artist” versions of the same colors.
High pigment paints are easy to spot because they are often thicker, provide more coverage, and have rich and saturated hues. Also, when thinned or subjected to a tinting test (which measures the amount of pigment required to impart a perceptible color in a mixture of white paint), paints with high pigment density distribute their color more richly, evenly, and reliably. Low pigment paints require numerous coats, often discolor when dry, and react strangely with thinners and even other paints.
How to investigate a miniature paint’s pigment density
The undertone test above is also an effective way to compare pigment density between paints of any similar color, black or otherwise. This is not a true tinting test, but can help you understand which paint among a selection will offer the most pigmented color.
You’ll need to eyeball the amount of paint as closely as possible and use the exact same volume of water in two identical glass containers, but will perform the rest of the test the same way with each similar paint: just mix the paint into the water.
A paint with a higher pigment density will, you guessed it, distribute more pigment granules into the volume of water than its counterparts. The water will look comparably more brightly colored and opaque.
5. Mess factor
Taking into account how each black miniature paint performed with regard to cleanliness and lack of waste, I rated them 1-5.
Painting is an inherently messy process. If you’re like me, you think mess is good, but only to a certain point. And one thing is for certain: mess is expensive.
Therefore, it’s good to know if a black mini paint is liable to splatter when squeezed out of a bottle, or if you’ll need to muck up a brush to take it out of a container or mix to its correct consistency after shaking it. And also, dried paint that oozes up inside caps or around the edges of lids equals waste, potential accidents, and wasted cash, so I watched for that.
While working with each of these black paints, I paid close attention to a few things:
- Does a paint exit its container in a clean, controlled way?
- After thorough shaking does a paint separate on the palette or require further mixing before it’s ready to use?
- Is opening/closing a paint’s container easy, with minimal mess or waste?
- Are there clumps after shaking?
- Does a bottle’s tip easily clog?
- How long does each paint take to dry to the touch? (Fast dry times mean reduced odds of smears and fingerprints.)
Is there a true black miniature paint?
Let’s get something straight: there’s no such thing as “true black” paint.
Color is a characteristic of human visual perception made possible by the ways light absorbs and reflects off objects. “True black” is a scientific term that describes a complete absence of light due to absorption of all light. So our eyes cannot perceive true black because no light is reflected. The closest thing we have to illustrate the concept of true black are black holes.
Paint is a physical, earthbound material, meaning it will always have some measure of light reflection, so it can never be true black. Even black paints engineered to absorb nearly 100% of light cannot be called true black (and I tested one) because, at least via modern science, making a true black paint is impossible**.
So this is important to remember: any brand calling a paint “True Black” is using the term as its proprietary name for a specific shade of black. It doesn’t necessarily indicate the paint’s actual color, or that a black paint is more or less black than others, or tell you anything concrete about the paint itself.
Here are my notes and observations about each black miniature paint, along with their official scores for each of the five factors.
Individual paint reviews
Abaddon Black (Citadel Colours)
Price: $4.55, 12ml
This is a saturated shade of cool dark black with a mostly matte finish. It has wonderful coverage and self levels, which prevents visible brush strokes.
Using the paint can get messy quickly. It’s a Games Workshop paint, so it’s in a short plastic pot with a lip inside the lid. That lip helps to load a brush quickly, but it is also the cause of one of GW’s biggest issues: loads of paint slipping into the hinged area and around the pot’s mouth. It’s wasteful, and closing it up numerous times over the course of testing caused paint to smear onto my fingers and hand and eventually prevent the lid from sealing.
Corvus Black (Citadel Colours)
Price: $4.55, 12ml
A purple-black shade that almost doesn’t even qualify as black. Densely pigmented, a medium matte finish.
Like it’s counterpart above, this paint was messy to work with, and because a brush must be used to extract paint from the pot, I wound up taking out way too much that just went to waste.
Black (Vallejo Model Color)
Price: $7.29, 17ml
Vallejo Model Color paints are medium body acrylics with a high ratio of pigment to binder/vehicle. This black is no exception. It is a deep cool shade with excellent coverage. When cured the finish is mostly matte, enough for most standard mini painting applications.
Glossy Black (Vallejo Model Color)
Price: $8.50, 17ml
While this paint does dry to a glossy finish, the texture of the final coats can easily be seen (this happens with most glossy paints) which is unpredictable and hard to control. I struggle with finding a real use case for this black miniature paint, since adding a clear, unpigmented gloss varnish over any black paint is so easy to do.
Quality is like other VMC paints, a high density of pigment with a medium body.
Decay Black (Scale75)
Price: $3.50, 17ml
This paint finishes to a cool dark gray shade with a medium matte finish. Compared to others in the test, it was easy to dispense paint with no mess and provided a pleasant experience. This paint made me more interested in checking out other colors in Scale75’s line.
Black (Vallejo Game Color)
Price: $7.50, 17ml
Vallejo Game Color paints are distinct from others because the formulation includes ingredients designed to make the dried paint durable so a miniature can be handled without damage. These additives cause the final finish of this black paint to be smack dab in the middle of the glossy-to-matte spectrum.
The paint is thin bodied and is a saturated blue black. A perfect paint for finishing bases.
Pure Black (Reaper)
Price: $3.69, 0.5oz
A very thin gray paint. The finish is even and attractive, somewhere between glossy and satin, but dry time is on the high side. Due to a clogged bottle, I lost a large amount of product in a small paint explosion. The bottle’s tip had to be removed and manually cleaned before I could use it again.
Nightmare Black (Reaper)
Price: $3.79, 0.5oz
This paint is a deep blue shade of black. Like other Reaper paints it seems to come pre-thinned, a soft body acrylic. Between this and questionable pigment density, this can result in a streaky application. The bottle was clogged upon opening, and I had issues keeping the nozzle clear while testing. Lots of wasted paint and a high dry time.
Matt Black (Army Painter)
Price: $3.50, 0.64oz,
Here’s a very pigment-rich paint that does what its label claims. It’s finish is matte (the spelling discrepancy is theirs) and uniform, and using it was easy and clean. While the color isn’t as dark a shade of black as others in this test, this paint would fit the bill for most painters who want a deep cool black shade with a reliable non glossy finish.
(As a bonus, I can confirm that the dried shade of this paint is a match for AP’s Matt Black Spray Primer, since I have a can sitting around and got curious.)
Coal Black (Formula P3)
Price: $3.50, 18ml
This is a (satisfying, rich) gray-blue shade, but it is not black, so much so that the name seems ridiculous. Why not call it Coal Blue? The paint has incredible coverage and self-levels nicely, which equals reduced stress as a painter. The finish is quite nice, even with just-noticeable reflectivity.
Privateer Press iterated on the other paint pots a little, and this paint has no lipped lid. While it was still imprecise and messy to measure out paint using a brush, careful handling allowed me to avoid spills over the rim.
Black 3.0 (Culture Hustle)
Price: $25.99, 150ml
This paint is everything the brand claims: the blackest black and most matte. I have never seen a black paint that is so close to “true black” than this, if such a thing were possible.
Black 3.0 comes in a hefty bottle and is very thick and pigment dense, but retains brush strokes with heavy application. Cleaning this paint from a brush takes a little more elbow grease than other paints, so it’s on the messy side. It also doesn’t smell great. The flat, wide lid means I didn’t have much control over how much paint came out when I squeezed the bottle and that means some of the paint went unused.
While the cured paint is not as durable as other black paints, and may cause a little fuss with texture if using it as an undercoat, the striking effect of the depth of darkness is hard to deny. This is a paint perfect for black details, especially pupils, terrain, or even use with magic effects.
Wraith Black (GaleForce 9)
Price: $24.99, (full set)
This paint was part of the Undead Paint set from GaleForce 9 and is not available to purchase on its own. However, I happened to have purchased a set so I put this black paint to the test. It’s a very soft body acrylic, runny and with visible medium in the paint after thorough shaking. The new bottle was clogged when I first opened it, which resulted in lost paint and a lot of mess. It clogged again after each use in tests.
This paint’s pigment density seems low, and the final cured shade is not what I can faithfully call black; it’s a dark blue.
Flat Black XF-1 (Tamiya)
Price: $3.40, 23ml
A saturated cool, deep black paint that brushes on beautifully with no visible strokes and a high level of coverage.
This paint comes in a sturdy glass pot with a fully removable lid, which means it was virtually mess free. However, it’s viscosity is very low, so judging how much paint was loaded into a brush in a normal lighting situation was a challenge. This paint is almost like ink and has a strong smell, and it needs to be washed from the brush quickly after application because it dries relatively fast.
Carbon Black (Golden Acrylics)
Price: $12.99, 5oz
Heavy body acrylics in metal tubes have been a mainstay for artists for decades for a good reason. This is a thick, buttery, and highly pigmented blue-black paint that is easy to dispense (and thin for normal applications) with no mess. And thanks to the container, you’ll never have to deal with dried up wasted paint. The paint dries relatively quickly compared to others in the test, as well.
The unthinned coats in this test dried to more of a glossy finish than I prefer, but a final coat of matte varnish would be enough to dull it.
Best Black Miniature Paint
Vallejo Model Color Black takes the number one spot. Affordable, virtually mess free, and widely available to most mini painters, this black miniature paint provides an undeniably rich pigment density in a satisfying medium body acrylic that is easy to use anywhere black paint is needed. Though it’s not the most matte paint I tested, its finish is deep black, velvety with even coloration, and a quick spray of matte varnish can reduce any unwanted shine.
Most Matte Black Miniature Paint
The most matte black paint I tested was Black 3.0 by Culture Hustle. True to the brand’s claim, this paint swallows up the light and doesn’t visibly reflect. It’s almost eerie.
However, since Black 3.0 isn’t a typical miniature paint and isn’t something you can simply pop in to pick up at your FLGS, Army Painter Matt Black takes the official spot of the Most Matte Black Miniature Paint in this test.
Blackest Black Miniature Paint
It would be dishonest not to award Black 3.0 by Culture Hustle with the distinction of blackest black paint. While not a mini paint in a traditional sense, this paint is unquestionably the closest to “true black” in this test.
Highest Quality Black Miniature Paint
This one is a tie. Both Vallejo Model Color Black and Tamiya Flat Black XF-1 are exceptional standout quality with noticeably dense pigmentation. There are no two paints more different than these, though, so the best choice for each painter will probably come down to the paint container. While VMC Black offers a more typical dropper bottle packaging and experience, Tamiya Flat Black XF-1 comes in a short glass jar and behaves more like a thick, silky ink. My advice? Pick up both.
Best Value Black Miniature Paint
If you’re looking for a durable black paint that covers an incredibly wide range of use in your painting, will stretch a long way and save you money – and you plan to take the shine off your models with matte varnish – pick up a tube of Golden Acrylics Carbon Black.
*Two of the paints, Black 3.0 (Culture Hustle) and Carbon Black (Golden Acrylics) are perfectly appropriate for miniature painting, but are not technically “miniature” paints. “Miniature paint” is itself a bit of a misnomer; it’s paint marketed specifically to miniature artists but is perfectly applicable in any other non-miniature projects. A paint’s use, “miniature” or other, is ultimately determined by the painter, and many artists use these two paints in their mini work.
**VantaBlack exists now, yes, but it is not classified as a paint and requires extremely expensive equipment and mountains of money in order to use. VantaBlack also doesn’t absorb 100% of all light, so it can’t be called true black in a scientific sense. You and I can’t use VantaBlack anyway, even if we had the resources necessary.
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.