April 19th, 2010
Review: Miniature Paints 101
All paints are not created equal
I'll start off with making it perfectly clear... I'm no Golden Demon winning quality painter, and I have my doubts that I ever will be. I just don't have the time to take weeks, or more on a single 28-30mm piece, nor the patience. On a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the best, I think I'd consider myself a 6.5-7-ish, and there are some things that I just never did learn to do properly.
I have however been pretty darn good at painting for over a decade now. One guy liked my Warmachine figures so much, that back in 2003 he paid me about $600 to paint his Menoth and a small Mercenaries army.
Having said that, I think I know a thing or two about painting miniatures, but I make mistakes, and have done some things I'm just not happy with just the same as anyone else. So I have a lot experience with just about every miniature paint out there, as well as some of the craft paints that most consider taboo.
I figured I'd toss together a little informational piece on what I personally feel are the best paints out there, and why for miniature painting, which includes what I use at present. Fact is, most use nothing but GamesWorkshop paints, or another brand and nothing else, because they're afraid to try another option. This article should help to clearly define the differences in all of the top brands available today. I've also ranked my top 5 favorites, and why.
The majority feel that GamesWorkshop is the #1 option out there. For the most part, they're definitely in the top 5, because overall it's a damn good paint, and it's the one that I think is more readily available in the most places. They're one of the first to market a wargame genre paint designed for miniatures and wargaming, and they have a really nice palette of colors, many of which most of us know by name alone now.
I find that in a pinch, GamesWorkshop is what I end up buying, because the closest shop near me that carries miniature quality paints carries only GW paints. However, it's not my first choice.
GW paint pots have changed a lot over the years, and the latest design by them is somewhat better than the previous screw on lid GW pots, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. When you mix it up, a good amount of the paint ends up stuck in the upper lid, leaking down around the edges of the inner bottom lip when you open it. Wasting paint is no good, and GW I believe does this on purpose, so that you need to buy more. Overall I just think GW paints, while very good and high quality, lack an acceptable delivery and storage method.
They're usually a little on the thicker side, and almost always require thinning for the proper consistency. GamesWorkshop paints are also almost always the most expensive option to boot. You do pay for the name without question.
Despite these facts, they also make some amazing newer foundation paints, and some of the best washes around, and I am never without their Badab Black and Devlan Mud Ink Washes. They really are that essential.
My #1 choice is Vallejo's GameColor line, which is essentially the exact same shades available in GamesWorkshops' color palette, but in dropper bottles. It's a paint of a thinner consistency too, so very little if any thinning is needed depending on the bottle. Every now and again, you might end up with one that's thinner or thicker than the last, but for the most part they're fairly consistent.
The dropper bottles can clog sometimes, but that's the worst experience possible with the Vallejo GameColor bottles, and it's nothing that a paper clip kept handy can't resolve in seconds. I rarely end up wasting Vallejo paint too, because the dropper bottle is the absolute best delivery and storage method on the market, bar none!
Vallejo's original Model Color line offers literally hundreds of colors, in just about every shade under the rainbow too, and as I recall, they were first to use the dropper bottles. I find that if I need some odd shade, chances are they have it in the Model Color line if I can't find what's needed in GameColor. Most places that carry GameColor usually carry Model Color too.
Vallejo also in recent years developed a Panzer Ace Color series of paints, which are designed specifically for Flames of War, and a Vallejo Airbrush Colors line as well. They're by far the most versatile company of them all, and if you can't find a shade that you're looking for from Vallejo, chances are that it just doesn't exist.
Reaper Master Series Paints
These guys have been at it for years, and I think they have one of the most underrated paint lines on the market today. A few years ago they also decided to dump the traditional screw on lid bottles they used forever, and adopted the dropper bottle delivery and storage system as well. This move I feel is what put them ahead of most of the competition now.
Essentially these are the same exact bottles Vallejo uses. There's also the fact that Reaper offers quite a few really unique shades and colors that you just can't get any where else. Off the top of my head, some of my favorites and must haves from them are Blue Steel and Corn Flower. Quality-wise, these paints are right up there with GW and Vallejo. Some even feel that they're better, and use nothing but Reaper Master Series.
As recently as last week I decided to try their brush-on black Primer. I'm sold on it now. While I do still tend to spray prime the majority of my models, I've been using the black brush-on primer with excellent results on a variety of models.
They used to make some of the best ink washes around, until GW released their new washes, but even then, the Flesh Wash and their other inks are still a very good alternative when in a pinch, and cost less. I also like the fact that these are one of the only companies to put a ball bearing in the bottle to help mix the paints up properly.
The only down side is, they're the one line of paints that you just can't find readily available. Reaper Master Series is almost always an online only purchase for me, because no where in my area does any store carry Reaper Master Series. They all already have GW, or GW and Vallejo both, and can't afford to take on a third, or fourth option. It's sad too, because anymore, I think these guys have what I feel is the 2nd best paint on the market for miniatures overall.
Privateer Press Formula P3
The new comer to the market is Privateer Press with their Formula P3 line of paints and hobby tools. I'm torn on the P3 stuff, because some of it is really amazing, while the metallics, which they discontinued we're horrific, because they couldn't end up with a consistent product with the metallic colors. Some bottles would end up looking like it had a glob of rubber glue in it, while others had no problems and we're without issue. Across the board though, it's clear there was a problem, and while you can still buy some of the remaining metallics stock that's floating around out there, I'd highly advise against it.
The non-metallic colors they offer do work very well, and I'd have to say that they are half way between GamesWorkshop and Vallejo in terms of quality. Thicker than Vallejo, but thinner than GamesWorkshops' paint. It goes on nice, and about a year ago I bought one of the starters for Circle of Orbos, and continue to use the brown and green shades that came with it consistently.
I recently picked up their Flesh Wash and Armor Wash inks, and am very impressed with them. For flesh, I'm hard pressed to find a better solution now, and the Armor Wash is also really nice. The washes really are so nice that I have a hard time now deciding which to use my GW washes, or the P3 stuff, when it comes time to ink something.
The paints come in flip top bottles, which are very reminiscent of the much older GamesWorkshop bottles, which had a rubber flip top. I'm not fond at all of this delivery and storage method. I can say though, that these bottles seam to work better than the current GW bottles, because I don't find that I'm wasting as much paint, but the rubber flip top lids are so tight that they're a pain in the butt to open. I'm almost always getting a speck of paint on my thumb every time that I do open one.
However, the washes come in a dropper bottle, which is rounder than the Vallejo/Reaper bottles, but are almost the same exact amount of fluid per bottle. So the P3 washes/inks are high up on my list of must have products now.
Tamiya makes an acrylic water soluble paint almost like the others we talked about already, but their paints have alcohol in them, and come in much larger bottles. These I bought some years ago, to use on some Flames of War and other military miniature pieces. I didn't end up getting into FOW that much, because it was so new then, and there was very little local interest in it. So I sold off the pieces, and still have a bunch of these paints left over.
They did make some nice transparent colors, which I liked a lot, but Reaper Master Series now years later, also offers transparent colors, and aren't alcohol based. The alcohol is very rough on brushes too, which is why I don't tend to use the Tamiya colors much, and they seam to go on glossy. In a pinch I still use some of the colors, but eventually I'll replace these all with Vallejo or Reaper equivalent shades.
If you can deal with flammable acrylics, these are the best value overall of all the options, because they come in 23ml bottles, which is about 50% more paint per bottle than any of the others offer. Cost was the main reason I bought these to begin with, because even at retail I paid just $2.50 per bottle at a local hobby shop.
At the time I was primarily a Fantasy, and Sci-fi wargamer, and I still am, and didn't have many historically accurate military shades and colors to work with. I didn't want to sink a lot of money into paints, for a game I wasn't sure I'd be playing for the long haul either. So they served their purpose well.
Here's where it gets down to the nitty-gritty. To properly compare...
Vallejo Game Color 17ml, a little over 1/2oz ($2.49 on average online)
Reaper Master Series 18ml, which is a little over 1/2 oz ($2.49 on average online)
GamesWorkshop 12ml way under 1/2 oz ($2.99 on average online)
Formula P3 18ml, which is a little over 1/2oz ($2.79 on average online)
Tamiya Color 23ml about 3/4 oz ($2.20 on average online)
As you can see, GW is not only the most expensive of the bunch price-wise, but they give you the least amount of paint to boot! Vallejo is just a little over 1/2 oz at 17ml, and Reaper and Privateer Press both give over 1/2 Oz at 18ml of fluid per bottle. Tamiya is the most generous of the bunch, with 3/4 of an oz per bottle, but the alcohol base make it the least favorable option.
Price-wise, the Vallejo and Reaper Master Series are the better value overall in cost, and in fluid ounces of paint that you get for your money. While Tamiya looks to be the best overall value at 23ml per bottle and $2.20 each... the alcohol will destroy most expensive Sable and Kolinsky Sable brushes 5x faster than non-alcohol based options. Factoring that in, the clear winner here is Vallejo and Reaper.
Of course the cost between the most, and least expensive option is just some spare change, but it all adds up these days. The savings isn't that huge, but it's something. I also feel that while GamesWorkshop makes some of the nicest models, has two of the most popular wargames in existence, and has done more for this hobby than most... but they do stick it to us more than anyone else these days, and at this point, they're out for #1 themselves now, and not the customer. This doesn't become any clearer when you can see that they offer only 12ml of paint, at a greater cost than anyone else, in bottles that overall waste paint every time you open the pot.
To reiterate, my #1 choice is hands-down Vallejo GameColor. The #2 choice is Reaper Master Series. My #3 choice is GamesWorkshop purely for availability, and #4 belongs to the newcomers Privateer Press with their Formula P3 line. Lastly #5 is Tamiya, and I have a hard time even giving them the #5 spot, but they're getting it since I can't think of another miniature paint to recommend, and it sounds stupid to have a top 4! lol
I will say that there are a couple of other possible contenders, but I have no experience with them to comment on the quality of the upcoming Army Painter line, and Wargames Foundry paints. Army Painter's line is scheduled for release this summer, and I do plan to try and cover it in the near future. So my #5 choice may end up changing, and Tamiya will eventually end up off the list.
Iron Wind Metals would have been my #5 choice, but I'm almost certain they don't make it anymore. I couldn't find their paints anywhere online, so my guess it they discontinued the Iron Wind Metals paint line altogether. The IWM line was limited in colors, as I think they had 12-16 colors max, but they had a nice flat black and some nice metallic colors. The availability was pretty much direct from their website, or from them in person at Origins or GenCon. With 3/4 oz jars for $2.50 on average, they were an incredible value too.
Now is where I speak taboo, because it is true that there are a few colors in the $1.29 variety of craft paints that can be useful. For instance, when I decided to go with an Ultra-Marines Space Marine army about a year ago, I knew it would encompass a lot of models. I wasn't about to go through a ton of almost $3 per bottle paints to do it.
So I opted to use Folk Art's #40 True Blue for my base color, because I knew I'd be painting larger vehicles as well as miniatures. For $1.29 that's a 2oz bottle. The consistently took a lot of getting used to, and took some thinning, plus trial and error to get it right, but in the long run it was worth it. I still have some of that bottle left today, and I have painted about 3000+ points worth of Ultra Marines.
I even used the same color for my Space Wolves, since I wanted to integrate them in with my existing army, plus I've always hated the shades of grey that traditional studio Space Wolves were painted with.
There's a few other odds and ends that I keep around from Folk Art too, like #565 Metallic Blue Sapphire, which is a unique metallic blue, and it too cost only $1.29 for 2oz. The brush on sealer/varnish that I've used for years now is also of the craft store variety.
Delta Ceramcoat Matte Interior/Exterior Varnish comes in a 2oz bottle, and costs about $2.50 at Michaels or Jo Ann Fabrics. That one bottle lasted thro 3000+ points of Space Marines/Space Wolves, 50+ points of Khador, 50+ points of Retribution of Scyrah, 50+ points of Cygnar and almost 50 points worth of Circle of Orbos Warmachine/Hordes miniatures, plus an entire 2500+ point space Orks army.
Give or take a miniature or two, and both 40k armies included some vehicles. While it's a matte finish, it leaves a little bit of gloss to the miniatures, making them more like a Satin finish, but I tend to like a little shine, just not too much, making this stuff perfect. It also protects the models far better than most spray varnishes, that cost 5X+ more on average.
So while it's always best to use acrylics designed specifically for miniature painting, there are a few exceptions out there. I suggest to anyone, if a shade catches your eye, to simply try some of the stuff you find locally at the craft stores. Some of it is every much as good if it works, and there's a lot of stuff out there that does work quite well, and the investment to try these options is very minimal.
I think that covers it. That should give you a good idea of what you are getting for your money, and clearly shows which paints are superior, and why. Some will no doubt stick with what they feel works best, and that's ok, we all have our preferences, and that's fine. However, don't be afraid to try something else, you might be pleasantly surprised by the results.
Even though I have a top 5 in order of preference... I find to get the results I am happy with consistently, that I have to have an open mind, and to use a little bit from them all. I could get by with just my #1 choice, if I had to, but I seam to do better by using bits and pieces from the top 4. I'm not 100% loyal to any company, and in doing so, I've been able to learn about them all in detail. You might want to do the same. The results might surprise you.