The magic sauce
When you see a stunning diorama, it can be hard to imagine that it may not have been quite so good looking before. Like many of us, miniatures often go through something of an awkward coming-of-age stage. Seeing it in its ugly duckling state, you – and sometimes the anxious miniature builder – might be left wondering how it could ever look realistic… or… good. But, as most miniature builders will tell you, you have to trust the process. The magic sauce is yet to come. The paint, that is. With acrylic paint, miniatures get to reveal the potential that they had in them all along. Ooh and aah worthy, if done well. In this post we will get into the nitty-gritty of painting miniatures with acrylic paint. Its versatility, its practicality, and tips on how to use it.
Why is acrylic paint good for miniatures?
Acrylics are a type of paint that is made from pigments suspended in a synthetic resin. And it’s the go-to paint for most miniature builds. Why? Well, acrylic paint has quite a bit going for it:
- It’s water based, which means you can simply use water to dilute it. Moreover, water will also be helpful in cleaning when you’ve made a mess of things.
- It’s fast-drying, allowing you to layer and mix without keeping you waiting too long.
- It’s widely available, so it won’t be much trouble to find what you need.
- It’s inexpensive, so you can build a nice stash for your projects at a relatively low price, and not feel as hesitant to apply a more generous coat.
- It’s diverse, with a wide variety of colors and finishes. So surely there’ll always be one acrylic or another to match your creative vision.
From the warm, aged tones of the walls to the dusty highlights on the cobblestones, from the matte sheen on the wood details to the metallic finish on the lantern — there’s an acrylic paint that helps you achieve it.
Choosing your acrylics: What paint is best for miniatures?
As we mentioned, acrylic paint comes in a range of options. Great! But… decision paralysis looms. Which of the many options should you pick for your miniature creations? This depends on the nature of your miniature and how you plan to use it.
How often and how roughly will you handle your miniatures? If you plan to use them for gaming or display them in a busy environment, you will need a paint that can withstand wear and tear. It should adhere well to the surface of your miniatures and resist chipping or peeling. Some acrylic paints are more durable and flexible than others. Look for ones that are specially designed for miniatures or models. For example, Vallejo acrylics are a great pick if you’re looking for a durable, waterproof finish.
Cute but deadly… This little wizard will need a durable coat of paint if it’s going to join you on many quests.
Exposure to the elements
Perhaps your miniatures will be more of the hands-off kind, only to be admired by the eye. Still, they might be susceptible to other types of exposure. A hot or humid climate for example. Or UV exposure, in case they’re sitting in a sunny spot. Keep these factors in mind when choosing which acrylics to paint your miniatures with. For instance, choosing a lightfast acrylic such as those by MyArtscape will make sure that the vibrancy of your paintwork does not fade in the sun.
We like our fairy garden shrooms vibrant.
How long do you want to wait between coats or layers of paint? If you are impatient or short on time, you will want a paint that can dry in minutes or seconds. If that sounds like you, you’re in luck. Acrylics are generally known for their fast drying times, so they shouldn’t keep you waiting all that long.
However, sometimes a fast drying process will get in the way of your plans. You may need a paint that you can reactivate with water or medium if you want to blend or correct your colors. Alternatively, you could opt for acrylics that are more slow-drying and workable. For example, the Scale 75 acrylics have a unique gel-like consistency that allows for easy blending and glazing. Or you could add an acrylic medium to your craft paints to delay the drying process.
When your project involves painting models with countless tiny individual elements, you’ll probably appreciate a short drying time.
Miniature painting tools
You can use either brushes or airbrushes to apply acrylic paint to your miniatures. Sometimes you’ll use both brushes and airbrushes for different stages and effects of your painting process. Depending on your tool of choice, you’ll need a different type of acrylics. Popular brands like Vallejo feature lines of acrylics specifically for paintbrushes and Air variants for airbrushing.
Dramatic impression of acrylic painting gone wrong.
How much do you care about the appearance and performance of your paint? If you are meticulous or professional, you will need a paint that can deliver consistent and smooth results. You will also need a paint that can provide high pigmentation, coverage, and opacity. Some acrylic paints are more premium and reliable than others. So look for those that have good reviews and ratings — such as the acrylics that we’ve mentioned above. Or better yet, have a gander at our article about the best miniature paint, where we’ve got them all neatly listed out for you.
Much like their life-sized equivalents, the right coat of paint can make a model truly come into its own.
Additives for craft paint for miniatures
So far we’ve taken a little look into the rabbit hole that is acrylic paints for miniatures. One paint or another might be the perfect match for you, depending on the characteristics we’ve explored above. Let’s say you’ve settled on a particular acrylic paint, and picked your color from their range of options. Or, you’ve mixed two or more colors to get the exact shade you need. Now don’t dip your brush in just yet: there’s still an important decision to be made. What look or feel are you going for? Does your paint need an additive to achieve it?
Let’s discuss acrylic mediums, extenders, and thinners. These are additives that you can mix with your acrylic paint to modify its properties and behaviour. Magic sauce indeed.
Usually, acrylic paint straight out of the bottle will be too thick to be applied to your miniatures. First, you will need to reduce its viscosity. To this end you can use water or a more dedicated thinner medium or airbrush flow improver. By thinning, you affect the coverage, consistency, and transparency of the acrylic paint. The ideal ratio of paint to water or medium depends on your preference and purpose. But as a general rule of thumb, you should aim for a milk-like consistency.
When you paint miniature models, you typically work with small amounts of paint. Using additives can therefore be a matter of a few drops here and there. Using pipette eyedroppers, like in this miniature paining toolkit, helps to work with such tiny quantities and keeps your mixing organized.
How to protect your acrylic paint miniatures
After you’ve put the finishing touches of paint on your miniature, you can sit back and admire your creation. Or can you? In some cases, you might want to add a layer of protection. For example, when the acrylics you used aren’t the most durable and you’d rather not see them wear off soon. Or perhaps your miniature will sit outside, and could use some waterproof coating. For these purposes, there are products such as matte varnish, gloss varnish, clear sealers and outdoor sealers.
Cleaning miniature paint brushes and airbrushes
After using acrylic paint, it’s time to clean your brushes and surfaces. Acrylic paint is water-based, and therefore easily cleanable with water and soap. However, acrylic paint also dries quickly. This means it can harden and clog your brushes and tools if not cleaned promptly.
- To clean your brushes, rinse them with water and gently rub them with soap until no paint remains. Then reshape them with your fingers and let them dry horizontally on a paper towel.
- To clean your airbrush, disassemble it and soak the parts in water or cleaner until no paint remains. Then reassemble them and spray some water or cleaner through the nozzle until it runs clear.
- To clean your surfaces, wipe them with a damp cloth or paper towel until no paint remains.
Storing craft paint for miniatures
You need to store your acrylic paint properly when not using it. Acrylic paint can last for a long time if stored in a cool and dry place away from direct sunlight and heat sources. However, acrylic paint can also spoil or dry out if exposed to air or moisture.
To store your acrylic paint, make sure to tightly close and seal the lids or caps of your containers. You can also use plastic wrap or tape to cover the openings of your containers. Another trick is to transfer your paint from large containers to smaller ones, like dropper bottles, to reduce the amount of air inside.
Grump’s thoughts on acrylic miniatures
If you have read this far, you may be wondering why anyone would want to paint miniatures with acrylic paints. After all, acrylic paints are messy, tricky, and sometimes toxic. They require special additives to make them flow better, dry slower, or stick stronger. They also need careful protection from dust, dirt, and damage. Moreover, they demand constant cleaning of brushes, palettes, and other tools. And they take up a lot of space in your drawers, cabinets, or shelves.
And yet, painters of miniatures know that acrylic paints are also wonderful, versatile, and rewarding. An item that allows you to express your creativity, imagination, and skill. They give you the satisfaction of transforming a plain piece of plastic or metal into a miniature masterpiece.
So if you are a painter of miniatures, or if you want to pick up this hobby, there are challenges of acrylic paints to face. When you do so, be sure to remember the tips in this article. Choose the right paints for your project, use additives to enhance their performance, protect your miniatures from harm, clean your tools regularly, and store your paints properly. These tips will help you avoid some of the pitfalls and perils of acrylic paints, and make your painting experience more enjoyable and successful.
And if you are not a painter of miniatures, or if you have no interest in becoming one, then I congratulate you on your good sense and taste. You have spared yourself from a lot of trouble and misery. But you have also missed out on a lot of fun and beauty. Perhaps you should reconsider your decision, and give acrylic paints a try. You might be surprised by how much you like them.
Or you might not.