Friday, March 11, 2011

Some thoughts on primers and brushes

Reader submitted photo

I absolutely love the emails I get from folks asking hobby questions. If you are one of those people, thank you! It's a way for me to share what I've learned and it helps push me along in my work as well.

One the past week or so, I've been involved in a couple discussions. One on brushes and one on primers.

About paint brushes
The discussion about brushes came from a reader email who is trying to figure out why the tips of his brushes keep curling up on him. Here's the question he sent me:
"My question is this ... as I paint in a batch, a squad at a time, my brush seems to get more and more "splayed" at the end. It doesn't seem to hold a nice point. I try to keep my paints thinned, but I don't know if maybe they're not thin enough. Do you have a suggestion for this issue? Oh and I don't use cheap brushes either.

I rinse and clean after every painting session, using a brushing cleaning solution. I store them correctly, handle down. I really try to take care of them... In these situation I've just used my Xacto and trimmed off the stray bristles... In all cases I can start painting and it might be ok for a while, but as I working a squad, the last one of 5 or 6 marines ... it gets harder to get a good coat on there because the brush just seems to be out of control at the tip."
I told him it sounded like his brush problem might be coming from HOW he paints.
If you're thinning your paints and you're using higher end brushes like he does in this case, it might be in how you apply the paint to the model. Do you use careful stokes where you pull the brush along the surface towards you or is it more of a dabbing and poking the model with the brush to get the paint where you need it?

In this case, it sounded like he was using the tip of the brush as more like an applicator and adding paint to the model instead of using smooth brush strokes.
He answered me back with some additional information:
"I think I'm tending to push the paint into the nooks and crannies of the model detail as opposed to always using a stroke motion and pulling the brush along. I'm going to work on that tonight see if I see a difference.
As for brand, I have Da Vinci and Blick Master mostly. I do have one Windsor Newton but use it rarely for only the smallest detail."
I told him that I've found that even with some high end brushes, a simple change in how you apply the paint can make a huge difference. Not many brushes will hold up long to that kind of rough application... even good ones. Once a brush is destroyed (tip bent), there is no real way to get it back.

Given my experience with brushes recently, I've moved up to the high end brushes and have had no problems at all with this kind of thing. I've made it a point to be somewhat careful in HOW I paint the model (using correct strokes instead of stabbing).

These days, I use a Raphael 8404 Kolinsky Sable Brush - Size 0 that I picked up from Secret Weapon Minis. I've tried to kill it too, I'm at the point where I use it for everything from basecoating to super fine detail painting... all on the same model. I clean it once a week with brush soap which equals about once every 3 or 4 painting sessions.

It's made my painting time (which is significant) much more enjoyable. The fact that it's held up like it has makes it all the better.

About primers
I got a question about the primer I use on my models recently. I'm not too particular when it comes to primers and tend to stick with the cheapest stuff I can find. That's usually the 99 cent can of primer or flat black spray paint from a local store.

I'm sure that higher end primers are better in some respects, but I don't have any experience with them to say. I do know that the color primer you use can make a difference in how your colors appear in the end.

I will say that I've even cut out primer before and gone right to the basecoat. And to be honest, I didn't notice much difference. I was using regular colors though... I don't know as though I would try it if I were using metallics. That and it was with a test model so it wasn't anything I was particularly worried about. But... it can be done if you need to.

Here's the question I got:
"I was wondering if you had a specific primer brand that you preferred using. I've been wanting to switch over to a light grey rather than the white and black I've been using over the years, but I haven't really had a lot of luck poking around some of my local hobby shops with finding one that didn't seem overpriced. Silly question, but I've been wanting to start at the basics again."
The answer yes, the cheap stuff. I'm sure that someone is cringing as they read this because there's probably so much more I could do if I used better primer. If anyone does know, please email me.

The primer colors that I use
Black for when I'm painting to a tabletop standard, have a dark color scheme or want to use the black left over in the recessed areas as my "shadows."

White when I am doing white armoured models. I rarely use this color for anything else.

Light grey for the majority of my work. It doesn't affect my base colors like black can do, it doesn't turn them splotchy like white can do to some semi-transparent colors.

Alternate ways of priming
I have ventured out beyond the cheap spray primers and tried gesso before. You can pick it up in a couple different colors or add some pigment to make it whatever color you want.

I used it on the Nurgle model there on the right. While I like the gesso, I've never used since then as I feel like I can get quicker results with the spray paint.

I had the problem with the gesso partially obscuring some of the sharper details despite reading that it would not do this. You can load it on and when it dries, it shrinks up and you can make out all the details.

My problem was that I needed to do two coats to get complete coverage and while the details weren't completely obscured, my sharp edges were gone. It ended up being like a thick layer of paint on the model and that was the biggest disappointment for me.

Ultimately, I stripped the gesso off and went with a brush on black paint so that I could keep all the sharp edged details we all know and love with Forge World models.


  1. I was just reading at Mr. Justin's site about using just enough primer to give the model a, "bite" vs. covering the whole model. Interesting thought as I normally cover the whole thing. How do you normally apply it?

  2. I personally use

    Valspar enamel indoor/outdoor grey primer

    It says fast drying but I find that I need to wait a couple days for it to harden or when I go to apply paint it will crack as it dries. (now this may just be because of the humidity in my basement where they sit to dry) Aside from the length of time to dry I find this primer to be really useful. It costs ~$3 at Home Depot. I buy it by the case(6), which works out to 5 cans for the price of 1 can of GW primers.

  3. I've noticed that half-covering with the primer is good enough. Especially on plastic models (metal ones get scraped so easily). If I'm painting yellow I paint the mini white before I paint it yellow (hot tip).

    My biggest issue with primers are that they come out of a spray can. I'd much rather use an airbrush as that doesn't cake the model at once.

  4. For nearly as long as I've been hobbying, I use Krylon White or Black outdoor primer (enamel). It's about $7 a can, lasts a while and most importantly, goes on well, gives a nice texture to paint on, etc.

    As for brushes.. I'm always having the same issue. Yes, I use the tip more than stroke, but I find I get more control that way, especially in smaller areas. I used to use expensive brushes, but switched to $2.50 synthetics because I find they last just as long, if not longer, then you just buy a new brush.

  5. I'm probably asking something real silly, but can anyone please tell me how is a primer different to a layer of paintbrushed acrilic paint?

  6. Sorry, I meant an "airbrushed" layer, not "paintbrushed".

  7. Anon: I would say that my primer coat is slightly more than just a dusting. I don't kill myself trying to get the whole thing covered though.

    If some spots end up with next to nothing, that's perfectly fine. The idea for me is to get a layer of primer on the model without obscuring any detail.

    Tordeck: I'll usually let my primed models sit overnight as well to really dry out.

    Flekkzo: I think if I had an airbrush and the facility to use one in, I'd be inclined to try that over a spray can.

    And when I paint yellow, it starts as white primer, light tan basecoat and then yellow wash.

    Dave: Your thoughts on brushes sound exactly like mine about 6 months ago. I swore by the cheap ones and thought of them as disposable to say the least.

    I suspect each painter (with their own style) would have a preference for a particular brand/shape of brush. I'd say to anyone looking to get the most from their painting to try out as many different kinds you can until you find the one you really enjoy using.

    Even if it's a cheap one or an off brand, as long as you like using it and it does what you want it to... you're all set.

    I thought I had it with the cheap disposable ones until I tried my current brush. I honestly don't think I could go back to the synthetic disposable cheap ones today.

    It would affect my painting I'm almost certain.

  8. Anon: I had to look through Wiki to see what I could find, but I think it comes down to "primers" actually being formulated to have certain properties that regular paints don't have.

    Applying an actual "primer" allows your regular paints to perform better. I'm not sure it matters how you apply the primer either... by airbrush, paintbrush or spray can.

    With what we are doing, unless you are trying for Golden Demon level stuff, you can probably get away with using regular paints in place of actual primers on your models and get the same results for the most part. Again, not worrying about how you apply it either.

  9. The primers generally have an etching agent in them, thats what causes the paint to stick to the metal.

    If you use a paint that doesnt have an etching quality in it on bare metal as either a primer, or going straight into painting, the paint wont stick and will chip off very easily.

    When it comes to the plastic miniatures, the etching quality comes into play in the solvent/propelant of the aerosol itself. This causes the paint to eat in slightly to the plastic, so that when it dries it has bonded into the plastic so the paint will stick.

    Its the same in my industry when spray painting car parts, using etch primer on metal, and a plastic equivalent.

    The thing to remember is, from what ive found, games workshop primers dont have that etch to them anymore and the solvent is no longer as strong, so the paint will still easily chip off both metals and plastics.

    An even near complete semi-wet, not completely wet, coating should be given to both plastics and metals, as anything less will be insufficient in insuring the following layers will stick to the miniature. Too much and you risk the details being filled with paint and being no longer visible on both metals and plastics, or the solvents eating away the detail on plastics.

    Something that will help the paint stick to the plastics is to give them a wash in warm water with some mild wax and grease remover to clean off the mold release agents they use when making the miniatures. With metal miniatures it isnt as much a problem, though it doesnt hurt to clean them off for that extra security.

    Id advise against leaving the primer coat over night. When the primer is left for too long, the next layer of paint wont stick as willingly. Same with enamels as primers if using anything other than enamels or solvent based paints to do your main work, as water based paints wont stick as willingly to them.

    Water based paints work fine over solvent based, and vice versa, but the finish of enamel paints means that the water based paints wont stick as well, and in some cases not at all, they pool up and pull away, similar to putting oil into a puddle of water, or water onto an oiled surface.

    Id leave it no longer than 12hrs maximum before applying the base coats of the colours you intend to paint the miniature. Once that base coat is done, it leaves open another window of about the same time in which the next layer of paint can be applied.

    When it comes to the varnish it doesnt really matter how long you leave it, within limits, as the solvent/aerosol in the can will slightly eat into the paint job. This is why you should only spray light coats to build up the varnish, as too much will cause the paint to shrivel and leave wrinkles in your paintwork.

    They key to using a spray can, since airbrushes wont do the job on metals unless you use an etch primer really thinned down or solvent based paints on plastics, is to spray from 20cm away, starting off the miniature and finishing off the miniature. Each pass should be quick, and should take between 5-10 passes to build up the coat. This is the same method i use when spraying car parts.

    This way you dont get the build up of too much paint on the miniature, and also ensures the coating is complete and even.

    Hope that shines more light on the topic of primer :)

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  11. Wow, Now I know why I like automotive primer so much. I use a brand called Brite Beauty that I find at a local auto parts store.

  12. Excellent stuff Mephistopheles, thanks!

  13. Mist the model with a spray primer. You should still see they metal or plastic color showing through spray primer (usually white). Then two thin coats of latex house paint (usually black). The coats should be thin. The first coat should look dark gray, the second coat black. I usually use about two to three drops of paint to cover a model when priming. I have this old craft brush with stiff, thick plastic bristles that I use to apply my primer, it allows me to get into the tiny cracks an crevices and keep the coats thin. I have pictures of the whole process and will post them to my blog in the near future.

  14. La Long Carabine: Interesting, that doesn't sound like much "primer" at all on your models there.

  15. I find that warming the spray can before spraying is very effective in making finer mist - paint is not so thick and it's easier to cover model without overflowing the details. To warm the can I simply put it in a pot of hot water (not boiling, mind you - simply hot water from the tap).

    I prime my models black, then drybrush them white which gives dark recesses and gradually gray into white raised areas. When painting I use inks a lot - simply painting over areas - the drybrushed shading automatically translates into color shading. Final layer of badab black makes the figure very crisp, yet not very light. Just the way I like and very fast at that.

    The only problem I have is with red as it gets pink on white and yellow - which both needs to be painted. Not mentioning metallic (I wish they made metallic inks :P)

  16. lehcyfer: Interesting... I've primed black and then sprayed light grey from overhead to do something similar... but never thought about the drybrushing approach.

  17. I highly recommend this method. Apart from instant shading the drybrush reveals details I didn't noticed before - it makes considerably easier to plan to paint a model - all details are clearly visible.

  18. I may have to try then on a test model to see how it comes out then.

  19. Can't wait for the results :)

    And try to warm the can before spraying too.

  20. The only problem or issue I have is that with most drybrushing, you end up with more surface texture than desired.

    That's not a problem on things like hair, but when it comes to armour... I find that I have to go back and correct the look of the smooth plates afterwards because of my initial drybrushing.

    Any thoughts on how to prevent that from happening? I hate having to go back and correct the model when I know I could have done it differently from the start.

  21. The buildup depends on the thickness of the white paint used for drybrushing. My drybrushing is on the verge of wetbrushing :)

    Even if after testing you'll decide that the texture of the armour surface is too rough for your standards, then you can use other priming method on space marines for example, which are mostly armor, but still I wouldn't worry at all when it comes to painting orks, skaven, beastmen and many other armies which fluff has it that they are unwashed, unkept and generally of ragtag quality. It's ideal method for those examples as the skin can be just inked as well - you can paint them extremely fast and still good looking. Having painted numerous Orks I can attest to that :)