Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Pewter, Plastic & Pigment: Pick Your Poison

Remember back in the early days of the hobby when we were forced to use enamel Testor's paint?  There wasn't a whole lot of choice in paints back then, but I was an avid model-builder so I had a fairly large assortment of Testors paints kicking around, left over from all those model cars, airplanes, and spaceships.  Consequently my early miniatures were thickly layered in glossy enamel.

There were a lot of drawbacks to painting with enamel.  Since they weren't water soluble you had to clean your brushes in turpentine, and certain techniques, like washing were a lot harder to do (and completely unknown to me at the time).

Fortunately times have changed for the better and we are now blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to acrylic paint purpose-made for miniatures.  There are lots of different paints available and it can be tough to decide what brand to buy.  Many painters use paints from a variety of companies, but most have their favourites.  Here is a quick comparison of four of the most popular miniature paint brands: Citadel Paint (Games Workshop), Reaper Master Series Paints, Vallejo, and P3 (Privateer Press).

Now all of these paints are good quality and each has a loyal following.  Any of them will produce good results, but how do they compare?  There are lots of factors to consider, but let's start off with price, volume, colour range, and type of bottle.

Citadel Paints
By virtue of the marketing giant that is Games Workshop, Citadel paints are some of the most readily available paints on the market, and most game stores sell them.

Volume:  0.4 oz (11.83 ml)
Price: $4.45 USD.
Price per ounce: $11.83 USD
Colour range: 73 paints in the series, including the Citadel Paints, the Foundation Paints, and Washes.

Pros: The Citadel metallic paints are the best I've seen.  They have excellent opacity and pigment density and you can cover a black undercoat with a single layer.  The Foundation Paints line (18 colours) have a very high pigment density and cover black undercoats very well.  Citadel Washes come in 8 colours and are outstanding for shading miniatures and leave no 'watermark' when they dry.

Cons: The nature of the flip-top pot means that Citadel paints dry out very quickly because of the large air-to-surface ratio.  There is also considerable wastage as large paint rings form around the mouth of the bottle.

The ubiquitous scum ring

Because the lids of these pots don't seal well, you have to peel a large scum ring off the rim every time you open the pot.  GW has recently switched to a new style of pot with a tighter-closing lid, but you still get paint drying in the neck and, even worse, falling into the paint to create a thick goop, which greatly decreases the paint's lifespan.

Paint bottle with clogged arteries

Reaper Master Series Paints
Reaper paints are also very commonly stocked and widely available in most stores.

Volume: 0.5 oz (14.8 ml)
Price: $2.99 USD
Price per ounce: $5.98 USD
Colour Range: 216 paints in the series

Pros: Reaper Master Series paints come in dropper bottles which creates a very small air-to-surface ratio and therefore have extremely long life spans.  The bottles have little pewter skulls within that act as agitators that thoroughly mix the paint by shaking for just a few seconds.  Master Series paints also have flow improver added to them, which make them excellent for fine detail work, blending, and layering.  Master Paints come in 'triads' composed of a mid-tone, dark-tone and light-tone of each colour.  This makes base-coating, shading and highlighting a breeze and eliminates the need to mix to create darker and lighter shades of  your mid-tone colour.

Cons: The tip of the bottle sometimes becomes clogged with dried paint.  I keep a pin handy for clearing the clogs.  The thinner consistency of the paint (due to added flow improver) makes it somewhat less suitable for drybrushing than 'goopier' paints.

Vallejo Game Colour Paints
This is another popular brand that many painters swear by.

Volume: 0.57 oz (17 ml)
Price: $2.75 USD
Price per ounce: $4.78 USD
Colour Range: 72 paints in the series

Pros: Vallejo paints also come in dropper bottles, like Reaper Master Series paints, and enjoy the same benefits.

Cons:  There is no agitator in Vallejo paint bottles and since they cannot be mixed with a stick, this means shaking the bottle for a long time (approximately 3 minutes according to users).

P3 Formula Paints
Produced by Privateer Press, this is another common brand often carried by retailers.

Volume: 0.6 oz (18 ml)
Price: $3.50 USD
Price per ounce: $5.75
Colour range: 72 paints in the line

P3 Formula paints come in bottles with flip-top lids, like Citadel paints but, apparently, the lids seal more tightly than Citadel paints.  Nonetheless there will be considerable air-to-surface ratio and they will likely dry out quickly.

Opinionated Discussion:
You may have noticed that my information on Vallejo and P3 paints is scanty.  This is because they are not widely available in my area, so I've had little opportunity to use them.  So my discussion will mostly compare Reaper Master Series paints to Citadel paints, both of which I have a great deal of experience with.  In general, however, I would tend to favour Vallejo paints as my second paint of choice simply because they come in a dropper bottle.

I'm a big fan of dropper bottles, and if you've ever caught the edge of an open paint bottle with your sleeve and spilled half a bottle of paint all over your work surface, you'll know why.  You can squeeze out exactly as much paint as you need onto your palette and don't ever have to worry about spillage.  The lifespan of paint in a dropper bottle is far greater than in a flip-top bottle.  Most of my Citadel paints dry out in about a year to eighteen months, whereas the first Reaper paints I bought five years ago are still as good as the day I bought them.

Detractors of dropper bottles cite not being able to paint 'out of the bottle' and the tendency of the tips to clog.  You shouldn't ever paint out of the bottle; this decreases the lifespan of the paint and increases the risk of knocking the open bottle over.  Always transfer paint to a palette.  As for clogs; they do happen but are easily cleared by poking a pin in them (I keep one on hand with my tools for just this purpose).

In terms of price per ounce, Vallejo paints are the cheapest, while Reaper and P3 are close to the same price and just about a dollar per ounce more than Vallejo.  Unsurprisingly, Citadel paints are a very distant last place, costing about twice as much per ounce as the others.  When you factor in the limited life span and huge amount of wastage from dried paint rings, the price per usable unit volume of Citadel paints is exorbitant.

That said, I do use them.  I like the high pigment-density Foundation paints and often use them for base coating, although Reaper will soon be releasing high pigment-density paints for their Master Series line.  As I mentioned previously, Citadel metallic paints are excellent and I prefer them over all others I've tried, and I also very much like their new line of washes.  I do try to avoid the Citadel paints as much as I can and go with Reaper whenever possible.

It is probably apparent my now that Reaper Master Series are my favourite paints.  Their paint best suits my style of painting, since I do a lot of layering, blending, and fine detail work.  Their huge colour range of 216 paints and the 'triad' groups is hard to beat. I also like the pewter skull in each bottle.  Besides being a very useful agitator, when your bottle is empty you can retrieve the skull and use it for basing decoration.  This is a cool little bonus

Some might notice that I left the Reaper Pro Paint line out of the discussion.  I did so because I've never seen a retailer carry them.  I've ordered a few of these paints directly from Reaper to try them out, but they aren't a favourite of mine because they come in screw top jars, which can only cause trouble.  It probably is worth discussing them briefly as an addendum, however.

The Reaper Pro Paints come in 0.75 ounce screw top bottles for $2.99 USD, which means they cost a mere $3.99 per ounce (nearly one-third the price of Citadel).  Whereas almost all paints (including Citadel Foundation paints) are intended to be thinned before use, Pro Paints can be used 'as is' without thinning and are intended for quick base-coating.  There are 106 paints in the Pro Paint line, and the colours differ from the Master Series, which means that Reaper has a whopping 322 paints in it's lineup.

So, there we have it.  In my opinion, although Vallejo paints are the most economical Reaper Master Paints are my poison of choice with Citadel coming in dead last.  Nonetheless any of the paint brands will do the trick, and there are none that I would outright refuse to use.


Arkhein said...

Oh yes I remember the enamel. My mother refused to let me use them since they were 'poisonous.' So the very few minis I had were naked and shiny.

Oh, and Reaper Pro Paints have been discontinued. Reaper, or rather, Hobby-Q now, has moved on to something called "Master Series Paints HD High-Density." Appears to be completely different that the Pro Paints.


- Ark

Kiltedyaksman said...

I'd love to use the Reaper paints, but literally no store carries them locally. So I use citadel exclusively, but only because I have no other option.

Sean Robson said...

@Arkhein: Thanks for the heads-up regarding the discontinuation of Pro Paint - not a big loss in my opinion. I did know about the upcoming high-density Master Series paints and look forward to trying them out.

@Kiltedyaksman: I'm in kind of the same boat and order most of my paint from Reaper. Their mail-order service is excellent and they have free shipping to anywhere in the U.S. or Canada with orders of $25 or more. They also often throw freebies into mail-order packages. I've always gotten a free random bottle of paint with every order.

Porky said...

Wow! If you're going to do a job, do it well, and this certainly was done well. Another excellent reference piece.

Sean Robson said...

Thanks, Porky!

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

I guess I'll be the first to say that 1 - I use the cheap hobby paints and have had excellent luck with them, especially with using an eyedropper for mixing Magic Wash in with the hobby paint to thin it out and 2 - I am going to be buying empty 15cc (15 ml) empty dropper bottles to put my Citadels in. I just found my Skull White is like a goop now! Almost unusable were it not for Magic Wash.

Arkhein said...


It's funny that you should mention that. I have a pile of containers of Delta Ceramcoat (and some Folkart) here that I thin down with water or Reaper Flow Imporver all the time - especially for odd colors I'm not willing to spend big money on. It's the only way I do metallics, in fact. But I often forget that when discussing mini paints. That's a strange mental block. :)

- Ark

Sean Robson said...

Putting Citadel paints in dropper bottles is a great idea, ChicagoWiz, I think I'll order some empty bottles for my Citadel metallics. Thanks for the suggestion.

Kiltedyaksman said...


You know, I think that I will likely order some paint via the free shipping. That's a great idea. Sometimes you get so busy with work/kids you forget the obvious.