Guide to choosing the right paint for tabletop miniatures


One of the first things that I asked when I started painting minis was, “what paint should I use?” My local game store carried several different brands. I just bought a few different kinds randomly. I had no idea what any of the terms on the bottles meant, or why there were so many to choose from.

I wish that someone had taken a little time to outline the pros and cons of different paints, and how to choose the right one for me. I want to share with you, what I have learned over several years of experience.

I review specific paint brands below after I go over the items that you need to keep in mind.

The Best Paint for Beginners

The best paint for beginner miniature painters is acrylic paint with a satin finish such as Citadel or The Army Painter. These brands come in a wide variety of colors and thicknesses and are available in almost every game store and hobby shop.

Availability

One of the first things that I think you should consider is the availability to you. My home town is only big enough to support one regular game store. They used to carry several different brands, but now they only carry two brands, Citadel and The Army Painter.

There are several ways to get other brands, I could go to the “big city”, or order online. But if I am working on a project and want something specific I can just run over and pick it up if it is available locally instead of waiting for it to be shipped.

Intermediate and advanced painters may want paint that they can control a bit better.

Value

Paint for minis is generally measured in ml per bottle. The most common sizes are between 12 ml and 20 ml. For those who aren’t familiar with metric measurements 0.5 fluid oz is just under 15 ml. The way that I use is the price per ml. But since you can find sales or different prices in different stores I use MSRP for this.

Overall Citadel is the most expensive of the paint per ml that I review in this article and The Army Painter is the least expensive per ml.

Paint Base

Acrylic paint

Acrylic paint is very common and nontoxic, it generally has little to no odor and can be used in confined spaces without special equipment. Acrylic paint is water-soluble therefore it can be thinned with a variety of products including plain old tap water.

The major drawback of acrylic paint is that it dries very quickly. There are tools such as wet palettes that help to keep your paint from drying out.

Nearly all of the small bottles of paint that you find in your local game stores will be acrylic paint so it definitely has availability going for it.

Enamel Paint

Enamel paint is common among scale model enthusiasts. It comes in a wide variety of colors and opacities. It is generally harsh and needs to be used in a well-ventilated area. It required strong chemicals to clean up, like paint thinner or mineral spirits.

Oil Paint

Oil paints aren’t just for masterpieces on canvas. They are also very useful for making your own designer washes and weathering effects. Oil paint has the longest drying time of the three types of paint listed here and that can really come in handy during long paint sessions.

Variety of colors

Most of the popular paint lines that are developed for painting minis have a wide variety of different colors to choose from. They will have multiple shades of each of the primary and secondary colors to choose from that will reduce the amount of time that you spend making custom mixes. This is handy when you want to replicate the same look across your army but are painting as you purchase minis or across multiple paint sessions.

I even made a pdf that I print out to keep track of the paint that I use on my paint jobs. This helps me remember what paint I used so that I can paint the next unit to match without a problem. You can download it for free here.

They have regular paint, metallics, pre-made washes, and specialty paints. I recommend looking into the entire line before settling on one to use.

Color Shift

Wet paint is a different color intensity than dry paint. It is usually a little bit darker when dry. One thing that I did when I bought my first paint bottles that I still do today is to put a little dot of paint on the outside of the bottle. That gives me a realistic representation of what the paint will look like on the model.

Paint Thickness/Viscosity

Paint is available in a variety of thicknesses depending on what it is designed to do. For example, paint that is intended to be used with an airbrush is usually thinner than paint that is intended for use with a brush.

Paint companies get really creative in the way that they label these so I will give you a quick idea of the common thicknesses.

Base coating paint

Some paint lines have paint that they have specifically developed to be thicker so that it creates an opaque layer with fewer layers. These are generally bold colors that are intended as a base for the rest of your paint.

This paint can be thinned like any other paint so it can also be used for other painting applications. I have an article all about base coating that is part of my new painter guide, you can find it here.

Regular paint

Some brands call it layer paint, but most of the companies just refer to it as paint. This paint is thinner than base coating paint but most painters still thin it before applying it to their minis.

Washes

These might be called shades, glazes, tones but they are all pretty much the same thing. This is paint that is thinned down to almost the consistency of water. By diluting the paint it spreads out the pigment so that is has a very transparent consistency.

This is a paint that is commonly used to define the shaded areas of your minis simply because it pools in recesses. I have written an article all about using washes that is part of the new mini painter guide. You can find it here.

Inks

When I first started painting I thought that inks were just another kind of wash since they are similar in viscosity. But inks are very different from washes. Inks have a very high amount of pigment or dye.

Inks generally have a lot of coverage but can be tricky to learn how to use because they flow into recesses like washes do. They are wonderful to spray through an airbrush.

Sheen

The sheen of paint is how reflective it is after it dries. the common terms are High Gloss, Gloss, Satin, Matte, and Flat. These are in order from most reflective to least reflective.

When you use glossy paint you can get some artificial highlights. An artificial highlight is when the light in the room is reflecting on the miniature instead of the highlights that you have spent time placing on your model. This can be an advantage for some who don’t really want to spend time painting highlights but can be annoying for some other painters.

Some more advanced painters who are painting for competitions or display swear by matte paint so that they can control the highlights that others see on their models.

Opacity

Opacity is how much the color that is below the new paint layer shows through. A paint that blocks all of the colors below it is totally opaque while a paint that shows a lot of the color below it is very transparent. This is also affected a lot by how thick or thin you apply your paint.

Containers

Pots vs droppers

The brands of paint that come in Pots are P3 by Privateer press and Citadel by Games Workshop. Most other paint brands come in dropper bottles.

Dropper bottles allow you to squeeze out precise amounts of paint, this is really useful for replicating custom mixed colors. They also keep the paint from drying out longer.

Pots allow access to the paint more quickly, but they are easy to knock over and spill the contents.

I prefer droppers over pots but the difference is really a personal preference. The most important thing to consider is the quality of the paint.

Delivery System

Liquid Paint

The most common way to get paint is as a liquid. it can be squeezed or poured onto a pallet. It can be applied with a brush or with an airbrush.

Spray Paint

Most of the primers that you find in your local hobby store come in rattle spray cans. There are also several other kinds of paint that come in spray cans.

Paint Markers

Paint markers are just what they sound like. They are pen-like containers that are full of acrylic paint. You draw on the model and it applies the paint. Some modelers use them for panel lines or spot painting, these are popular among Gundam modelers.

Personal Preferences

The final thing that I want to point out is that the paint that you use will be your personal preference. Unfortunately, there isn’t one best paint brand.

Some people will swear by one brand and you will think they are crazy because it doesn’t do it for you. I think that you should try a few different brands before settling on just one. All of the major paint companies have enough people using their paint to stay in business so they meet the expectations of many painters even if it isn’t you.

Some brands have great regular colors but their metallic paint isn’t very good. Some have awesome specialty paint but sub-par regular paint. But ultimately it is up to you and your preferences.

Popular Paint Brands for Miniatures

The Army Painter

This is a paint line that has developed a painting system to help you get consistent results. The primers come in colors that match the paint in the line to save you time painting.

They have a wide variety of shades and specialty paints to choose from. It has been growing in popularity and has become available at more and more stores worldwide.

As a bonus single bottles cost roughly $0.17 per ml, this is one of the least expensive paint lines out there.

There is a wonderful starter set that you can check out here.

Citadel

This is Games Workshop’s paint line. It has a really wide variety of colors and paint types. It is available pretty much everywhere. Their line of washes is used by painters all over. Some people call the wash, nuln oil, talent in a bottle.

They have a unique line called contrast paint. This is a much thinner paint that has a lot of coverage but flows and acts a lot like a wash. It has been very popular because of the way that it enables people to get good results even with little experience.

The cost of a bottle is roughly $0.38 per ml, it comes in as the most expensive line in this review. The cost of the contrast paint is roughly $0.43 per ml.

Check out this set of washes by citadel. or check the price on amazon

Reaper

One of my favorite things about reaper paint is that they have created what they call triads. These are groups of three paints so that you can base coat with the mid tone and then use the recommended shadow and highlight colors to accompany it. Reaper paint is a good choice for those who want some help coordinating paint colors. Check out a triad here.

The cost of a bottle is roughly $0.25 per ml, right in the middle of the pack for this sample.

This is a good starter set from Reaper Check the price on Amazon

Or if you have the budget you can pick the entire line of Reaper Paint

Vallejo

Vallejo has been making paint for scale models for a long time. They are known for creating consistent paint colors across batches. They are available in a lot of hobby stores more likely to be available where you can buy scale models.

The msrp of a bottle is roughly $0.20 per ml

Check out the starter set from Vallejo here

P3

P3 is Privateer Press’ paint line. It is one of the lines that come in pots rather than droppers. They have good quality across batches and the finish is really nice.

The msrp for each pot is approximately $0.20 per ml

P3 paint sets are established for each faction rather than a general set. You can check out the price for the mercenary paint set here. Or the Trollblood set here.

Scale 75

Scale 75 paint is a relatively new line. It has a very Matt finish almost completely flat. It is receiving great reviews. Many painters have switched over completely to this line of paints. Keep in mind that some are saying that this paint line behaves differently than other lines so it has a little different coverage.

The MSRP is roughly $0.27 per ml when purchased by the bottle.

Check out one of the Scale 75 paint starter sets

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