Which is Better: Cheap Craft Paints or Expensive Acrylics?

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Which is Better: Cheap Craft Paints or Expensive Acrylics?

Are cheap acrylic paints just as good as the expensive brands?  I think this is the first question most of us ask when we’re getting started painting miniatures and scale models.  

To be honest, I almost always differ to the cheaper option, regardless of what the situation is.  But after dropping $25 on this set of Dungeons and Doggies miniatures, I really didn’t want to muck them up with a bad paint job.

Now, I’m not a total newbie when it comes to painting.  I’ve done plenty of illustrations and art projects with acrylics, but this was the first time I’d attempted to paint something this small.  I decided to do an experiment and see if the scale model paints would really live up to the hype, or if I could get by with my collection of cheap acrylics that I had gathered over the years.  

I painted the Cocker Spaniel Bard and the Corgi Warlock with some higher-end acrylics that were loaned to me by one of the guys at Hard Knox Games (Thanks, Chad!)  The Siberian Husky Paladin was painted with my cheap acrylics.  They may not have the most professional paint job, but they were definitely a fun challenge to start practicing with.  These puppies have a TON of detail!

The main difference between cheap acrylic paint and higher quality acrylics is that the scale model paints are made with finer pigments which gives you a thinner, lighter coat so that you don’t cover up small details with thick layers of paint.  There are also way more options for washes, glazes, and special effects paints from brands like The Army Painter, Citadel, and Vallejo.

I did attempt to mix my own color wash with the cheap acrylic paints and a bottle of fabric medium (a water-based mixture that dries clear and can be mixed with acrylics to add flexibility when you use them on fabric), but the result was...less than ideal.  If you’re bound and determined to use cheap acrylic paints, at least treat yourself to some quality brushes, a reliable primer and setting spray, and a wash for bringing out details.  Citadel & The Army Painter both have a great selection of primers, colored washes, and setting sprays.

Oh, and since I mentioned setting sprays, I wanted to share a tip I learned from Chad (Thanks again, Chad!) during this experiment.  Once you’re finished painting your figurine, spray it with a gloss enamel spray.  The gloss setting spray will give you a tougher, more durable finish, and you can always dull it down with a matte setting spray.  I used The Army Painter Gloss Finish to shine up the armor on my Siberian Husky Paladin, as well as the potion vials on the Corgi Warlock.  

I want to be absolutely honest.  Painting these miniatures was not an easy task, and while I had enough experience with cheap acrylics to get the job done, I would NOT recommend using them on anything this small.  The Apple Barrel acrylics dried so fast that I couldn’t really do any blending, so I ended up with more coats of paint than I would have liked on the Husky Paladin.  The cheap metallic paints needed two or three coats just to cover the primer base coat, which was also frustrating.  

The scale model acrylics from Scale Color and Vallejo were a LOT easier to use.  The coverage was better, and the eyedropper bottle meant I wasn’t wasting tons of paint by pouring out more than I needed on my palette.  On top of that, I have a lot more confidence in how well the nicer paints will hold up if I do decide to play with these in a future campaign.  If I build up my skills enough to paint these for other people, I’d want to use paint that will hold up to being played with. 

That’s not to say that there isn’t a time and place for the cheap acrylic paints.  They’re great for painting terrain and floor tiles, and if you just don’t have the budget for a whole set of scale model acrylics, you can always start with the craft paints and start adding nicer paints to your collection over time.  I would still avoid the cheap metallic paints at all costs, but that’s just my opinion.

 I had a blast doing this experiment.  Painting these dogs took waaaay longer than I would like to admit, but it was such a quiet, meditative task that I found myself feeling a lot calmer and happier at the end of every painting session, regardless of the fact that I’d destroyed my manicure by getting acrylic paint all over my hands and under my nails.  But seriously, who needs clean hands when you have three good boys to adventure with?  

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