Miniatures painting with heavy duty acrylics

Can you paint miniatures with tube container paste acrylic paints? You absolutely can, and in this blog post I’ll explain how it works for me.

As to the why, the reasons are different for everyone. It can be the cost, the experiment, the skill set or something else entirely. This blog post isn’t meant to bash at commercial hobby paints. These are excellent tools for the job, and they have some advantages which I’ll explain at the end.

For me the initial reason for using heavy duty acrylics was commitment and budgeting. When I decided to delve again into miniatures painting a couple years ago, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it, or put out any interesting results. So it was mostly a test for me, like questioning myself “should I paint miniatures?”. Since I was ambivalent, I went with the cheapest option available – dollar store acrylics – so if I failed, the cost would be the lowest possible.

Later on, as my painting skills with arts acrylics got better and better, and I enjoyed the end results, I found no reason to switch to hobby paints. Though I might do so in the future, for the reasons I’ll explain in the end.


In sort the pros of heavy duty acrylics are:

  • Low cost
  • Low consumption
  • Long shelf life
  • Pigments are mostly non-brand exclusive

The cons are:

  • Need more thinning
  • Lower variety of colours
  • Some colours have lower coverage

Now bear in mind that the cheapest options available (dollar store acrylics) may be lower quality as well, so I’d not use them as the pigment count may be lower and the lightfastness may be worse. I’d turn to an arts and crafts acrylics named brand from the local store instead.


Lightfasntness? Pigment count? What are these? I’ll add Colourfastness and Opacity to the terminology.

Lightfastness: is the ability of a pigment to withstand changes in colour when exposed to light. Since more than one pigment or combination of pigments can provide the same colour, sometimes a pigment may be less lightfast than another, and withstand time. It’s not necessarily a cheaper pigment, but the named arts brands usually have a Lightfastness rating on the package, so you know what you’re buying. Always aim for the best paints in terms of Lightfastness. You don’t want your miniatures to change colour.

Colourfastness: how much the pigment changes colour when dry as opposed to when still damp. Acrylic paints thinned with water tend to darken a lot, compared to acrylics thinned in a medium and even more compared to oil paints. That’s not a problem, just something to consider when painting, that your end result will be a little less vibrant than what you see during painting.

Pigment count: the amount of pigment particles per volume unit of the paint. Higher pigment count means higher quality paints and better coverage. That’s not something that’s listed in any package, just something to expect with better quality products. Acrylic inks have a lot higher pigment count than paints.

Opacity: How opaque & semi-opaque vs transparent & semi-transparent, a paint is. Arts and crafts paints of names brands also have this listed on their products. An opaque paint will cover the underlying colour more, whereas a transparent paint will show through the undercoat. This isn’t good or bad, but it’s useful information, to choose the right tool for the job. A transparent paint is good for glazing, while an opaque paint is good to give a nice undercoat. Also knowing the opacity beforehand helps you decide on how much thinning you might need when painting over zenithal or when glazing.

Tips and Techniques

Many of the tips and techniques below also apply to hobby paints, but DIY experimenting is even more prominent when using arts acrylics.

Thin your paints! Yeah that rule which applies to miniatures painting, stands even more true for heavy duty acrylics. Unless you thin them, their paste nature will quickly cover any details your model has. I put a small glob of paint on my dry palette and drop a couple of drops of water. I don’t mix it. I just use a damp brush, and take paint from where the paint/water layers meet. I haven’t used a wet palette, or another acrylic medium than water, so I can’t give any tips to this.

Thin coats win against thick coat: Don’t try to skip steps by giving one thick coat against many thin coats, and don’t get frustrated when one thin coat of paint doesn’t work. Follow up with another thin coat and if necessary, another.

Mix your own paints: the beauty of arts acrylics is how you can mix them to create new colours. You can try several different combinations. I advise writing them down in case you want to follow up in the future. In general it’s easier to write down anything in parts.

Mixing acrylic inks: Acrylic inks have excellent coverage properties. I use them as is, or mix them with acrylic paints to get specific colours. Acrylic inks tend to have very high flow medium, so that will change how your final mixed paint behaves, depending on your mix ratios.

Mixing dilute PVA: PVA can act as a retarder medium, and will also increase the transparency of your paint, as when the water will dry out, there’s going to be a paint/PVA mix layer bound, and PVA is transparent. I use it for glazing and washes. A 50/50 PVA/water ratio is a good starting point but YMMV as the consistency of PVA glues is all over the place between brands.

Mixing dilute dish soap: about 1 drop of dish soap in a glass of water is more than enough to create a a high flowing medium that will go in crevices. Beware though, don’t agitate the mix or you’re gonna get much unwanted bubbles.

Mixing your own washes: a very small glob of paint, 20 drops of water, and a big glob of PVA. You want the mix to be transparent, but not runny.

Painting Steps

As to the painting itself there are lots of different styles and techniques, and experimenting is good, but once you find a style that you like, I suggest sticking with it for a while, until you’re good at it, before jumping to the next wagon. The main reason, is that getting good, is a two-fold advantage, first, you output nicer results, but also you paint faster, and can bring more minis to the table. By painting faster this isn’t only the actual hands on work, but the planning. Knowing beforehand what steps you’re going to follow to get the end result, really speeds up the process. Also spend sometime to decide on the colour you will use.

The steps that comprise the style of my choice (kind reminder that I paint in 15mm-18mm scale mostly) are as follows:

  1. Thin coat of white primer, applied with brush. Taking care not to cover up any details. Maybe a spray-on primer or airbrush would work better, but since I have neither, I work with a plain brush. Use a cheap/old brush because primer will eat it through, but not so cheap that it will leave it’s bristles on your mini (I’ve had that happen). I try to follow up on my application by gently blowing on the mini where the primer might cover details or it might create a film over gaps, while still drying.
  2. Thin coat of black primer, applied with brush. This is even thinner, almost like a wash. The purpose is two-fold. To cover any missed unprimed spots, and to give a soft shadowing of crevasses. This essentially prepares the mini for the next step.
  3. Zenithal, applied with brush. Drybrushing the entire mini with white, on a top-down motion. This creates a sharp zenithal highlighting of the mini. The mini at this stage should look like a black and white sketch. Any details of the miniature should be evident, and sometimes I can see things I had missed on the unprimed or flat white/black model. Also this helps me avoid doing any highlighting work later on.
  4. Two thin coats of paint with damp brush, with chosen colours. Proceeding with the decided colour scheme, paint the miniature, from the inside out. Flesh, clothes, accessories, armour and weapons. Depending on the opacity, coverage and the thickness of the paint, sometimes one coat is enough, but I usually don’t go with more than two, or the zenithal will be lost. When painting in 15mm bright colours generally look better. Lately I’ve started to thin paints and inks with a bit of PVA, to do a lighter coat of paint that shows the zenithal even more pronounced, and it’s starting to come out well.
  5. Wash. Wash the entire miniature in a brown-black wash (usually burnt umber/lamp black). If the prominent colour of the miniature is blue, go with a blue/black wash instead. If it’s non-organic, go with a black wash. Green-black washes or Red-black washes are also possible depending on the prominent colour, but in general brown-black covers most cases. Sometimes, I spend the extra time and use different washes on different parts of the miniature depending on the underlying colour.
    The wash will cover up any mistakes where colours meet, but also will give a dirty look to your miniature. This is especially evident when washing over bright colours such as white or yellow. In this case, try to have a softer wash tone, and maybe weaker coverage (less paint).

Common colour choices

One issue I first encountered when painting with arts acrylics was that there are no dedicated specific colour paints, such as goblin green or feldgrau or bone white. Instead you have titanium white, cadmium yellow or lamp black. That makes it a necessity to mix your own paints, and also to understand that when doing so, along with the colour changes in hue, there are changes in saturation, opacity and coverage. Therefore it’s not always a 50/50 mix, but some experimenting is required.

Nevertheless, here’s how I do some common colour mixtures. I suffer from partial colour blindness, so take these recipes with a grain of salt.

Flesh: Mixing burnt sienna with white, can give you a nice flesh colour ranging from pale white to tan depending on the ratios. I should expand my range to include more flesh colours, and I’m thinking that burnt umber may be a good basis for the mixture to be used for darker skin tones.

Leather: I usually go with burnt sienna for mid-leather and burnt umber for dark-leather. I may go with yellow ochre for a tan/beige leather. Mid-tones between them can be achieved by mixing the respective colours.

Yellows: The all elusive colour. Painting yellow is tough, because the colour has terrible coverage. The best solution I found so far is two-fold. Use of acrylic inks (at least the yellow colour) for higher pigment count, and if you can accept to lose some vibrancy, mix primary yellow with titanium white. To return some vibrancy, a yellow only coat may be followed. Because inks tend to have a high flow, I need to mix them with paints, or the bright, vibrant yellow will be more pronounced in the crevaces and it will give an unrealistic look where the high spots are darker than the low ones (the opposite of a wash).

Reds: An undercoat of pink, (mix of red with white) followed by a coat of red (similar to the yellows above), usually works.

White: I’ve heard people had issues with white coverage using hobby paints. Well, titanium white has great coverage, so this shouldn’t be an issue.

Blues/Greens: I had no issue with them whatsoever, they seem to work fine as is.

Metallics: I tend to do metallics, thinned in the same manner as the rest of the paints, and when applied over the zenithal, they give this faux metal look. Alternatively I may simply drybrush them lightly, taking care not to hit other parts of the miniature. I’ve done some sort of gunmetal, by mixing the tiniest bit of black with silver, and thinning with water/PVA.


Basing the miniatures is a different part altogether, but I find that based miniatures look 50-100% better than unbased ones. In 15mm most miniatures come in integral bases so depending on how much time one wants to spend, there is a variety of techniques. In general I tend not to bother with pitcher’s mound. I like to apply major texturing before priming the miniature, so that I can apply primer to the base as well, and get the paint to stick afterwards.

Desert basing: Speckle painted beige/tan is great for desert bases. Adding small areas with sand and a couple of rocks. I drybrush with yellow ochre and wash the base with burnt sienna.

Swamp basing: Speckled for a uniform look, and painted dark green. Followed up with crackle medium and beige paint.

Generic basing: Apply superglue to the base and sprinkle with baking soda. Adding a few very small sand grains to the mix of the baking soda will give more variety to the mix. I wanted an old-school look so I painted green and drybrushed yellow ochre. I’m not a huge fan of the end result, and recently I started using static grass with great results.

Varnish: I use my miniatures for playing games, so I varnish them. I tend to varnish the metallic parts satin or gloss, and the rest of the miniature matte, so that metallic parts stand out. I apply water based brush-on varnish, which again, needs thin coats. Varnishing removes some detail, so it’s important not to apply a thick coat and ruin all the hard work.

Closing thoughts

It certainly is possible to paint miniatures with arts acrylics, as it is possible to paint them with oil paints (did this as an experiment), enamel paints (used to paint with them in the ’90s) and lacquers (never tried it). Depending on the skill of the painter and their acquaintence with the choice of paints and their techniques the results can be great. The choice of paint type is not a limiting factor to the end result. Learning how to use each paint type is the requirement.

It is easier to buy a particular model which comes with instructions on which hobby paints to use. No need to start worrying if you got the colours right, or the right sequence of steps. You get the instructions, you get the supplies, and you can start painting them right away, and expect a similar result to the manufacturer. Certainly easier for the beginner.
However, the cost of using arts acrylics can be a lot lower, if you can afford to put the extra time needed to learn how the paint behaves. You will not get to copy the same colour mix as a manufactured model (especially if you’re partially colour blind like me), but if that’s not what you’re after, then the cost will be certainly easier for the beginner. Overall the cost to something relates to money and time, so there’s a balance. Personally I find that the time spent painting (including learning to paint) is hobby time that I enjoy.

After two years of painting over 400 miniatures with arts acrylics, I can say that I’m still learning. I really enjoy it and I will keep painting with them. I must admit though, that I’ve been eyeing contrast paints (and the upcoming speed paints). I am thinking of combining them with a starting spray primer and a final quickshade varnish to reduce my painting steps from 5 to 3. I’m really curious for new painting techniques and eager to continue experimenting, as I’m also eyeing acrylic paint media (flow aids, retarders, glazing, thinners). Having a bigger toolset, will lead to a bigger skillset, and hopefully, more interesting paint results.