(This article is credited to Jason Weiser. Jason is a long-time wargamer with published works in the Journal of the Society of Twentieth Century Wargamers; Miniature Wargames Magazine; and Wargames, Strategy, and Soldier.)
Having been a wargamer for 37 years and a miniatures (tabletop) gamer for 34 of those, I tend to get one question from a lot of novices – “What’s a good paint brand to use?” The truth is, everyone has their favorite brand, and everyone has their likes and dislikes. Some paints are, confessedly, better than others. At least, in my humble opinion, they are. But you are reading this because you did just want my opinion, right?
I am going to stick to paint brands I am familiar with. And the first thing I am going to tell you is the first rule of paint selection I learned and never forgot in 34 years as a miniature wargamer.
USE ACRYLIC PAINT!
Acrylic paints are just better all around. They mix easier, are cheaper overall, and clean up a lot easier than oil-based paint. Your cleaning solvent for acrylic paint is as close as your sink tap! However, don’t get any on the carpet. No paint is coming out of that easily! Also, another tip: Use flat paints. Gloss does not look good on historical figures, or any sort of wargaming figures for that matter.
So, with that, let’s get started.
Vallejo is, to me, the best general-purpose hobby paint line out there. Most of the line comes in 17ml eyedropper bottles and are clearly labeled as to the contents. (Pro tip: Put the Vallejo stock number on the cap, as it’s a good way to know what’s in the paint bottle). The paints themselves are of a good quality, but you have to be careful how much you load your brush as they aren’t pre-thinned. You’ll need a palate to use the paints, but that’s a plus as a bottle can go a long way. Many of their Model Colors and Panzer Aces lines correspond to historical colors, which is also a plus, and many tutorials have the Vallejo Model Colors or Panzer Ace stock numbers as default color listings, so matching colors to the cool tutorial for “How to paint your Bolt Action 28mm Hungarians,” for example, is a snap.
Vallejo is my go-to brand, and I really recommend it for the novice painter. They also come in sets with everything you need for a given subject (in fact, Vallejo even markets specific sets for Flames of War and Team Yankee. A big plus for you guys!). However, be careful of the Model Air and Game Air sets, as they’re meant for airbrushes and do not take well to brush painting. That said, if you have an airbrush, they’re a good solid set of colors to start with.
One of the other things I like about Vallejo is it’s a full-service line. They sell primers, spray paints that match their Model Colors and Game Colors (Fantasy) lines, and just everything you might need. As your painting and techniques improve, they have the product for you. You just cannot go wrong with Vallejo.
Army Painter is another fine beginner-friendly line. I use a lot of their specialty products (their ready mixed tones and washes and their tools), but their paints are awesome.) They offer a good pigment and also come in the eyedropper bottle, like Vallejo. I am a little bummed they don’t have direct matches (or attempts at matches) to historical colors, but I really like their reds. It’s a really vibrant color that stands out on a figure (Pro Tip: Use grey primer instead of black.
It’s a lot easier to paint red, yellow, or even white against, useful for those yellow Spanish or White Austrian Napoleonic uniforms). You also get a little more for your money at 18ml of paint in a bottle. The paint lines also come in beginner-friendly sets and tend to be a bit cheaper than Vallejo. Get the Warpaints Starter Paint Set pictured below:
It comes with your ten basic colors, a brush, some shading which will do wonders for the looks of your models, and a very handy instruction manual. If you’re a novice painter who’s never picked up a brush, this is the set to get.
Reaper is also another line of paints where you “can’t go wrong.” I find their flesh tones very high quality and would recommend them over any paint line outside of Foundry (more on that later). Reaper also has paint sets, and it will take a lot of work to match them to historical colors, but it can be done.
Their eyedropper bottles come in a little smaller than either Army Painter or Vallejo, but the paint is also a bit cheaper in the States as Reaper is an American company (Vallejo’s based in Spain and Army Painter is mostly based in the UK). Reaper has its own beginner sets, and while they’re fantasy-oriented, the paints work as well for virtually anything. It also has its own carrying case.
They’re slightly more expensive than the Starter set Army Painter puts out though, but you do get a lot more for your money with a carrying case, 11 bottles of paint, two brushes, and an instruction guide. You also get an empty paint bottle if you want to preserve mixtures, and a few free fantasy minis (gotta practice your historical schemes somewhere, right?). It also has a very useful instruction manual that will give you some useful tips on how to paint.
While both lines are great and have a lot of specialty options, these really aren’t paints for the beginner model painter. Heck, it took yours truly a while to crack the code on both colors. Are they good colors? Yes. They both have the nice eyedropper bottle setup and are just wonderfully pre-thinned paints that brush on or work well in an airbrush. And they both have a ton of specialty colors that match the historical wargamer’s needs (especially 20th-century conflicts). However, they’re not for beginners. But once your skills increase, give them a try. Trust me, you will love the results (Pro Tip: They look especially good with an Army Painter wash).
I rather like Foundry, especially their non-Caucasian flesh tones. Often, their other colors are a bit off. The paint is a bit thicker than Vallejo, but if you thin it out just right, you get some really vibrant results. Moreover, I love their “Triad” system, where they sell the same color in three different shades including a base, a shade, and a highlight. While this means they don’t sell singles, or at least I haven’t seen it, it does mean you get a system that works well for a lot of subjects. They even wrote a book about it by Kevin Dallimore (who’s probably one of the best painters out there).
It’s a weighty tome, but it’s worth it, and it has a wealth of historical subjects and details on “how to paint them.” My biggest complaint about Foundry? The bottles. I really do wish they’d go over to the eyedropper model. I don’t love paint pots, though you do get a lot of paint per bottle (20ml). The cap can become hard to close the more you use the paint, which then leads to dried out paint.
Solutions to the problem include either:
- Getting a pipette set, empty eyedropper bottles from Reaper or Army Painter, and transferring the paint,
- This idea from Dr. Tabletop.com, where with a bit of work, you remove the cap, snap on the spout and voila! Instant eyedropper bottle.
Many people swear by Citadel as an option for beginning painters (especially with their new Contrast system.) More often than not, though, Citadel is as hit or miss. Sometimes, like with some of the Contrast colors, you can get a really nice shade and wash pattern (the reds in the system, for example, would do well for British uniforms from the 17-19th Century, for example), but less vibrant colors, such as greens or greys, don’t do as well in the system. And, you have to prime white with Contrast colors, or at least a light grey. This means, if you miss a spot, it’s going to be rather obvious.
That said, there have been good results with some figures (especially science fiction projects, but that shouldn’t differ from Historical miniatures). The main issue is this, Citadel has two major problems. One, it’s expensive, especially the Contrast paints at $7 a bottle for 18ml. And second? The bottle design. In two words? “It stinks.” The bottle is topsy-turvy and top-heavy that spilling is almost a guarantee. Considering what you pay for Citadel paints, this wasn’t a particularly good move on Citadel’s part. I’d recommend either, again, transferring the paint, or getting Dr. Tabletop’s toppers. Either way is going to save you a lot of aggravation and money.
Also, keep in mind, Citadel is made for fantasy and gothic sci-fi, so the names of the colors are lurid, to say the least. That said, they do have beginner-friendly sets:
At 45$, it’s pricy, and there are cheaper, better alternatives for someone just getting into the historical side of the miniatures hobby.
Tamiya is one of the old stalwarts of the model building community and was one of the first Japanese model makers to market kits in the US. They have a really good line of paints in rather large bottles. If you’re not going to go eyedropper, then this is the way you package your paints. Everything just fits together in terms of the bottle, including the price of the 23ml of paint you receive. The paints fill historical needs very well (especially for Cold War and Modern subjects, or WWII Japanese), and they are of good viscosity.
Like Vallejo, they also have a complimentary spray paint line, but you don’t get as much for your money, so unless you need a specific color, it’s not worth the cost. Other than that, I don’t have any complaints about them. I tend not to use them as my go-to, save for certain applications like NATO 3 tone woodland camo for 1980s American and West German Tanks. They play well with other colors as well, but they are bit pricy. I wouldn’t recommend them to someone just starting out in the hobby, but as your first paint line to step up from? You could do a lot worse.
Lifecolor is an Italian company, and I only have one set of theirs. Their bottles aren’t the greatest, but I am happy with the quality of the paint. The choices of colors abound, but I would recommend Tamiya slightly over Lifecolor, even though I think the latter may have the edge in choices of colors and the breadth of historical subjects is as wide as you can imagine. If you want it, Lifecolor probably makes a set to cover it.
Surprisingly, you get 22ml of paint from their bottle, but the bottle is all plastic. The paint is pre-thinned, but slightly thicker than Ammo or MiG, but I still think it’s not really something I’d recommend to the beginner. That said, they’re a great set of paints if you’re ready to make the leap to the advanced level.
Privateer Press (aka P3)
P3 paints are a solid, workmanlike choice for the beginner. They are bright, vibrant colors, that, while flat, they go on solid and have no real sins to speak of. They come either in sets of six or individually. I have a bunch of them, but to be honest, I don’t use them as much as some of my other color ranges.
Despite their perks, P3 paints do suffer from the same problem as the Foundry paint line, where they have subpar bottles. They have 18ml of paint, which is about average for the industry, and I do like their Pig Iron color for a lot of gun barrels and other metallic items. It’s a solid set of colors for a beginner, but I really think you could probably do better with Army Painter or even Foundry.
A Word About Craft Store Paints
You can find them at Michaels, or Walmart, or just about any other craft or big box store out there. They’re cheap (ranging between $1-$1,50 a bottle, whereas your average hobby bottle ranges around $3), acrylic, and you get a lot of paint (the average craft store paint bottle is 59ml). And, you get a squeeze top, which is darn nice to put paint into the palate with. But, as they say, you get what you pay for.
I have come home with paint I was looking forward to using from Michaels only to find out the paint was separated (pigment and fluid have come apart) or it’s become rock hard. That said, I have wargame buddies who only use craft store paints, including one guy who painted some very nice 28mm German WWII Fallschirmjagers (Paratroopers), and I have to say, I can’t tell it was all craft paint. Just know what you’re buying and don’t buy some glossy glitter bomb paint by accident.
At SJR Research, we specialize in creating compelling narratives and provide research to give your game the kind of details that engage your players and create a resonant world they want to spend time in. If you are interested in learning more about our gaming research services, you can browse SJR Research’s service on our site at SJR Research.