A common question I hear from those new to the hobby of miniature painting is, “Can’t I just use the cheap paint from Michaels/Wal-Mart?” and sadly, for the most part, the answer is “No”. The main reason for this comes down to the pigment and binding agents in those paints and it not being as good (or enough of it) as paints specifically formulated for miniatures. Some common brands of these cheap craft paints are: Americana, Folk Art, DecorArt, and Apple Barrel. Because of the cost of miniature paints (which are far, far more expensive than the craft paint brands above) some people new to the hobby want to start with the cheap paints and see if they’ll actually like painting as a hobby before making a larger investment. I don’t recommend this because these cheap paints won’t give you the best experience. Instead, I recommend buying only a few colors of the good stuff (you can paint a whole slew of miniatures with just four colors) in order to get your feet wet.
While you can use cheap craft paint, after all no one is going to stop you, after you use the good stuff you’ll never look back. The difference is like night and day. Cheap craft paint is thick. It is heavy stuff and will need to be watered down a lot. If you don’t water it down it will be so thick that it will cover up the fine details of most miniatures. Instead of painting the gaps and recesses, it fills them. This is something you’ll want to avoid. Aside from that, I find that most craft paint doesn’t stick well to miniatures, even when primed. It doesn’t adhere to the surface of the miniature evenly and because of this your mini will look blotchy and require far more layers than if you used paint specifically made for painting miniatures.
Now, after saying all of that, I’m going to back up a little. When talking about cheap craft paint, you’ll notice that I said “for the most part” they aren’t that good. And this is true, but there are a few colors that work better than others. I have a bottle of Slate Grey from Americana that sticks really well to minis and will cover up any paint it is put on top of. And there is an Antique Gold (non metallic) from the same brand that also has good properties. But, of the 30 or so different bottles of cheap craft paint that I’ve bought, most of them aren’t suitable to be used by themselves. And this is key: by themselves. Because they are so cheap you can really go to town and buy about any color you’d ever want. But, if they don’t stick to your mini or they cover up up details, it isn’t worth it. Fortunately, they mix well with the major brand miniature paints. For me, I love mixing paint and creating unique colors and cheap craft paint allows me to do this to my heart’s content. I take a primary color (I’m using “primary” loosely here, maybe I should say “core” or “base” color?) from Vallejo (my miniature paint brand of choice) and mix in a drop or two of the cheap stuff to create new colors. Because the paint is mixed and I’m using the good stuff as the main ingredient, the paint remains perfect for minis.
Certainly, you can go out and buy every Citadel or Vallejo paint color in existence. But that is going to add up rather quickly. To do this a little more economically, simply buy some colors from the miniature paint manufacturer of your choice, just enough to cover the basics. If you have a lot of zombies to paint, for example, you’ll want a pale white, maybe a festering green, a brown, a red, and maybe one color to make things pop. That’s five bottles of paint tops, which should be less than $15. Then you can go to Michaels and buy five or six more colors and mix these together with the good stuff and now instead of just having five bottles of nice paint you can create dozens upon dozens of different colors.
You’ll still need to water down the paint and follow good painting practices, but mixing high quality paints with the cheap stuff will expand your range of colors and extend each bottle’s life, all without breaking your bank account.