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Primer is generally the first type of paint that we apply to our minis. They are there to prepare the surface so that other types of paint will stick better. Many primers have polyurethane in them that helps them to adhere to the surface of your models and have a more durable finish. This doesn’t mean that you can disregard proper surface prep, it just means that many primers are extra sticky.
This article is all about different kinds of primers and choosing the right one for you. If you are looking for an article about how to apply the primer check out this article for using rattle can primers.
Types of Primers
Rattle can Primers
By general primer, I mean brands such as Krylon or Rustoleum, brands that are not marketed directly to model and mini painters. These brands of rattle can primers work just fine for priming minis as long as you take your time and apply the paint in a controlled manner and at the right temperatures.
When you are picking out your rattle can primers at the hardware store go for a finish of either flat or satin, avoid gloss. Gloss primers can be used in some specific instances for specialty paint jobs, but for the most part, your paint will stick better to surfaces that are a bit less smooth.
The other thing to avoid with hardware store primers is anything that is marketed as extra thick, or super coating. These are for large surface areas where filling cracks and other imperfections is a desired result. We don’t want that from a rattle can primer on miniatures as it will destroy fine details on the models.
Miniature brand primer
Primer cans that are sold by miniature companies like Citadel and Army Painter are pretty much the same paint as those by the general paint companies, except since they are marketed to mini painters they cost a lot more. I have purchased my fair share of these primers, dozens of cans, and see no discernable difference from the less expensive brands as long as I follow my own advice from above.
There are seemingly countless brands of airbrush paint that come in a variety of paint types and finishes. For this article, I am sticking to non-toxic water-based acrylic airbrush primers, since that is generally what is currently used in the mini painting hobby.
Even narrowing down the field to this narrow bunch of primers there are still numerous brands and I have yet to try them all, but I have tried many different brands. Below are the top brands that I have tried. There are a couple that I plan to try in the near future, and if they are equal to these I will add them to the list.
AK-Interactive 3rd Gen Primer I really like the flat finish of this brand primer. It doesn’t require much thinning and covers well.
Stynlrez by Badger has been around for a long time and is considered by many to be the standard by which all other primer is measured. It flows and covers well through my airbrush.
Vallejo acrylic airbrush primer is another tried and true primer that has been around for a long time. It is the one that I have used the longest and always keep on hand.
Brush on Primer
Some people only use brush on primers so I think that it should not be totally discounted, but I feel that the other two delivery methods are superior in coverage and time required.
The only primer that is marketed specifically as brush on primer that I have tried is Reaper brand brush on primer. It took a long time to prime minis with a brush and it was difficult to not obscure the details of the model. Granted, it might have been the brand that I used, or it might have been that I tried this when I was still new to painting minis and might not have thinned it correctly.
Can you use Airbrush Primer as Brush on Primer?
The short answer is yes, that is totally something that you can do. You don’t have to use paint only in the way that it is marketed. Some people prime their models with a brush if they don’t own an airbrush, especially during cold or otherwise bad weather. If you are looking into the brush on primers because you want to prime your minis in the winter check out this article that I wrote about how to prime minis in the winter with a rattle can.
Rattle can vs Airbrush Primer
Advantages to priming with a Rattle Can
Rattle cans are great for large models, terrain, or when you are priming a lot of minis at a time. Their nozzles are designed to spray paint in a manner that covers a large area. If any of these is the situation where you find yourself, then rattle can primer is hands down the way to go for this project.
Rattle cans are less expensive in the short term. You can avoid the start up cost of an airbrush by buying a can of primer. This is especially good for you if you are just getting your feet wet in the hobby and are unsure if it will be a long term activity.
Disadvantages to priming with a Rattle Can
It is much more difficult to control the spray with a rattle can it is basically on or off. The spray nozzle will distribute the paint in a pattern that is best for large objects not for small minis and models. You need to start spraying with the nozzle pointed away from the minis so that you can minimize the chance that you get paint splatter from paint built up on the nozzle. You will also waste a bit of paint each session as you tip it upside down to clear the paint feeding tube and nozzle for future use.
The propellant that is used to power rattle cans is super smelly and you will need to let it breathe and degas for at least an hour for the smell to clear and the paint to cure. The propellant is also sensitive to the ambient temperature when it drops below about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (about 10 degrees Celsius) the performance suffers.
Advantages to priming with an Airbrush
Airbrushes offer finer control with the ability to feather the amount of paint that is released at any given time. The layers of paint are applied thinner and the drying time is much shorter than for the other methods. You can start painting your mini just minutes after you are finished priming, basically as soon as you have cleaned the paint from your airbrush.
A bottle of airbrush primer will last you a long time and prime a lot more minis than a rattle can of primer. The longer you stay in the hobby the more cost-effective airbrush primer becomes, even with the added cost of the airbrush.
There is so much more that you can do with an airbrush than just priming. Owning an airbrush will open doors to techniques that you just can’t easily replicate with a regular paintbrush. Don’t think that you will only ever use it for priming.
If you are interested in learning how to prime minis with an airbrush, I have written an article about it that you can read here.
Disadvantages to priming with an Airbrush
The upfront cost is probably the single biggest deterrent for priming with an airbrush. Let’s face it, they are an investment in the hobby.
The airbrushes that we use in this hobby are designed for painting small models, as such, they aren’t very fast for priming large terrain pieces or even large models.
What color primer should you use for minis
I used to promote using dark primers because they can hide some of your paint job’s faults. While that is still true, I have learned over the years that painting over these dark primer colors uses a lot more paint to achieve coverage, especially when it comes to bright colors like yellow, orange, and red. Now I usually start with a light grey primer or colored primer if I am painting up more space marines.
Primers come in a variety of colors regardless of the delivery system. The advantage of using a colored primer is that you can get your base coat going at the primer level when your model is primarily one color, such as space marines, stormtroopers, etc.
Neutral color primers
These are colors like white, grey, black, ivory, etc. These colors are best when you are going to paint a lot of colors on your minis. Use a color that is warm like ivory if you are going to be painting many warm colors or use contrast paint. If you are going for cool colors predominantly then white or grey will be great.
This method of priming helps you achieve value contrast by pre-shading your models to establish where shadows are on the model. This is done by using a dark and a light color in opposition when priming your models. If you are interested in this method of priming your minis, I have an article dedicated entirely to this process that you can read here.