How to Use Acrylic Paints for Models and Miniatures

Acrylic paints
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Acrylic paints are a favorite amongst modelers due to their easy cleanup, affordability, and availability. They are produced in a wide variety of colors and can be combined to create new ones. If you think you'd like to try using acrylic paint on your next miniature, exploring the medium's characteristics and benefits will be helpful as you make your decision.

Choosing Your Paint

There are two main paint types to consider when starting a model project: acrylic and oil/enamel. When selecting paint for your next miniature, consider these points before you begin your project:

  • Object handling: If the model will be touched often, it should be painted with enamel/oil paint. Acrylic paint will need special sealers to allow for repeated handling.
  • Object airflow: Because acrylic paint expands and contracts, it works best on porous materials where air passes freely through the object. On plastics or metals, acrylic paint will only work if applied in between a sealing base coat and a top coat.
  • Drying time: Oil paints take longer to dry and allow more time to adjust the coat. Acrylic paints are fast-drying, so once you've started, you have about an hour until it's completely dry.

Cleaning Acrylic Paint

Wet acrylic paint can be removed from brushes and other surfaces with soap and water. If you only mix small amounts of paint at a time, you can use a flower palette with a cover so you can save unused paint when you leave your work. Paint stored under a lid will last for up to 24 hours before drying out. Don't fret if you wait too long before using your paint—it's possible to peel off the dried paint from the palette, and you can start the process once again.

Acrylic Paint for Miniatures

Acrylic paints come in a wide variety of forms. You can learn to blend your own colors using artist quality (also called professional quality) tube acrylic paints. Artist quality paints have a more saturated pigment and include much less filler than student or craft quality paints.

Student quality is usually above the standard of craft paints. Craft paints are typically more opaque and include fillers. Unlike artist acrylics, craft paints are not always rated for pigment content or lightfastness (how a color lasts with light exposure).

Acrylic Painted Effects

Learning how to add acrylic mediums, extenders, and thinners will help you create many different paint effects. The various mediums help extend the handling qualities of the paint. Some thin the paint, some add texture (which is useful for making small-scale versions of particular finishes, like plaster and stucco), some change the opacity, and some even allow you to use the paint on fabric. Gloss mediums will give your piece a shiny look, and matte varieties will mute the finish.

Bases for Acrylic Paints

Use acrylic paints on materials that breathe and do not trap moisture like paper, wood, terracotta, bisque. If you use acrylic paints on nonporous materials like metal, plastic, or resin, you'll need to apply proper undercoats and overcoats to prevent it from absorbing moisture. Enamel paints are usually a better option, as nonporous materials do not breathe, so anything painted on them needs to dry perfectly and not swell or contract.

Acrylic Dry Time

Acrylic paints are fast drying and can be thinned with water and acrylic medium to apply very fine layers. Use thin coats to accent surface detail. Thick coats of paint will fill in smaller grooves and lower your opportunities to add highlighting washes. Detail washes can be applied over the base coats without any danger of blending or bleeding.

Acrylic paints never completely dry out. They are hygroscopic and will swell slightly with moisture. They are not for heavy wear items. If you need a hard, lustrous coating for miniatures that will be handled often, use oil/enamel paints.

Acrylic Paint Techniques for Miniatures

Acrylic paints are easy to use with brushes or airbrushes:

  • Airbrushes: Thin the acrylic mixture with acrylic medium and water to achieve the correct consistency for using with your airbrush. After use, run a mixture of soap and water through the airbrush to remove all paint traces.
  • Brushes: Choose the right brush for your painting task and the thickness of the paint. Ask the art store what type of brush you should use. With proper care, a well-made brush will last until the bristles are worn away. Always wash your brush with soap and water or a soap-based brush cleaner after painting and use your fingers to pull the brush back into shape and leave to dry standing upright.

Even if you have completely dried acrylic paint in a brush, you may be able to restore and save the brush using special brush cleaners. Winsor Newton Brush Cleaner is a non-hazardous cleaner that will clean even hardened acrylic and oil paints from brushes.