No Perfect Paints

Since my return to modeling this summer, I’ve been experimenting with paints. A lot.

I used Testors Model Master enamels almost exclusively when I was growing up, but between the internet and, you know, being grown up, I have a lot more resources at my disposal to track down brands that aren’t available at the hobby superstores of the world.

These past few months, I’ve been looking for a paint that does all of the following well:

  1. Airbrushing – A paint that can’t airbrush well is a non-starter for me. Save on small parts, my brush painting skills are seriously lacking, so the ability to shoot the stuff through an airbrush is critical.
  2. Brushing – Touch-ups happen. Sometimes you just need to paint a small area, like a wheel or headrest.
  3. Drybrushing – Critical for weathering.
  4. Color Accuracy – Not as critically important, but paints that come within spitting distance of the real world colors are nice. Going hand in hand with this is color selection.
  5. Reduction – For post-shading or blending, it’s important that the paint be able to thin down very well.

So far, none of the paints I’ve tried really nail it for me. Since paint and paint selection seems a constant subject across modeling forums and sites, I figured I’d use this post to throw in my two cents.

First, though, a quick disclaimer. Paint choice ultimately comes down to preference. Experience with different paints seems to vary modeler to modeler, climate to climate, airbrush to airbrush, etc. What works for me may not necessarily work for you.

Testors Model Master Enamels

As I said above, I grew up using Model Master enamels. In my opinion, they’re kind of like those all-in-one printer/scanner/copiers. They perform reasonably well with all five of my criteria, but they aren’t necessarily great at any one of them. These days I mostly use them for small cockpit details, drybrushing, and Chrome Silver for painting the oleos on gear struts. That said, I’m thinking of using them more, particularly Interior Green, due to their ability to spray as well as brush.

Color accuracy and selection are also quite good.

I would also add that I’ve tried Model Master Acryl acrylics, hated them, and never touched them again.

Tamiya Acrylics

Tamiya’s acrylics are phenomenal – if fickle – airbrush paints. You have to be very careful with air pressure, spray distance, and thinning ratios, but once you get them dialed in, I don’t think there’s a paint out there that airbrushes better than Tamiya. I personally find that starting with a ratio of 2:1 thinner-to-paint works as a good starting point, and I’ve found I get better results using Tamiya’s lacquer thinner, but others have found success with various alcohols. It’s generally better to err on the thin side, since too thick a mix, too much air pressure, or too great a spray distance can lead the paint to dry before it hits the model, resulting in a rough, dusty surface.

Tamiya paints also reduce extremely well in thinner, which makes them perfect for blending coats, post-shading, and other duties where you don’t want to bury the detail beneath.

On the other hand, Tamiya paints don’t brush well. At all. They also have a limited color selection that’s missing several key shades for most modelers (such as Interior Green and/of Green Zinc Chromate).

Floquil Railroad Enamels

I love Floquil’s enamels. So far, I’ve only used them for brush painting, but their coverage is excellent. I haven’t tried them through the airbrush yet, but I think I will here in the near future.

The only problem – these are railroad colors, so there’s no effort given to matching even the most popular military colors. There are, however, lots of universally useful colors to be hand – Weathered Black, Dust, etc – which can be all sorts of useful in weathering and detail painting.

Lifecolor Acrylics

Lifecolor sounds amazing on paper. Fully acrylic paint that cleans up with water. Large selection of FS number matches. It even brushes pretty well.

But it airbrushes like crap.

The problem, I think, is that Lifecolor is already a fairly thin paint in the bottle. Not thin enough that you can just dump it in the airbrush and go, however. But when you thin it, it gets all watery. It takes 5-6 coats to build up even decent coverage, and that’s over a uniform color like primer grey. I even tried thinning it with “thick” thinners such as Future or airbrush medium, to absolutely no effect.

As much as I wanted to like Lifecolor’s stuff, I just don’t.

White Ensign Colourcoat Enamels

White Ensign comes out of the UK, and offers an extensive line of meticulously color-matched paints. They have, for example, a full line of German Luftwaffe colors, Soviet VVS colors, RAF colors, and so on. Everything I read said these paints were phenomenal, so I decided to try them on out on my La-5 and Yak-3 builds.

My first experience, with AMT-7 blue, was outstanding. The paint behaved very much like Tamiya in the airbrush, save without the drying issues.

Unfortunately, it went downhill from there. I soon discovered the other paints didn’t behave anywhere near as nicely. The AMT black, in particular, either went down translucent or gritty, depending on the thinning ratio. Curing times stretch into days. And, to my surprise, the paints don’t brush well at all.

The last straw, for me, was reduction. Or the total lack thereof. While you can thin Tamiya and even Model Master down to ridiculous levels and end up with something that looks like dirty water, try it with White Ensign and it looks more like a spoonful of sand in a glass of water. It separates and drops out of suspension way too fast. Given my love of light blending coats, this is a huge pain and pretty much ruins any chance of moving over to White Ensign entirely.

Vallejo Model Color Acrylics

Vallejo acrylics, like Lifecolor, are pure acrylics. They can be thinned and cleaned up with water, though this isn’t always the best choice.

After some experimentation, I found that Vallejo airbrushes very well when thinned with Future. This also has the benefit of laying down a tough, glass-smooth, semi-gloss finish. Win.

Vallejo paints also brush extremely well, though you have to work pretty fast, since they will dry out quickly and clog up the brush if you’re not careful. Because of this, they aren’t particularly good for drybrushing.

Vallejo paints also don’t reduce very well, and tend to separate, but I’m thinking there might be a few ways around that, maybe using a different medium or a drop of dishwashing soap to break up surface tension.

Lastly, color selection and accuracy. While Vallejo has a massive color selection, I’ve found their accuracy to be somewhat lacking. Fortunately the color selection is such that you can mix your own shades pretty easily. But still…

What I Use

So what am I using as my go-to these days?

Honestly, a mix of paints.

For major exterior surfaces, I’m tending toward either Vallejo or Tamiya. Interiors depend on the aircraft, but major colors are airbrushed in Vallejo or Model Master, drybrushed with Model Master or Floquil, and detailed with Model Master. As much as I like the idea of White Ensign and Lifecolor, I just haven’t been won over by them.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Boris says:

    Hi Doogs,

    Thank you for the paint review – it was very interesting to read it.

    Could you please specify why you did not like Testors Model Master Acryl?

    1. Doogs says:

      Sure thing, Boris!

      Basically, three reasons. First, I’ve never been able to get them to airbrush in a way that I like, despite trying several different thinning mediums. Second, I don’t like the way they brush. Feels somewhere between MM enamels (decent) and Tamiya (awful). Third, they aren’t very tough paints and tend to lift easily under even light masking.

      I should also add that I may have to revise my opinion of Lifecolor. Gave it another shot recently through my Harder & Steenbeck and it went on rather well. None of the sloppy, watery mess I’d had to contend with through my Iwata. Just need to find time to write up the correction/update.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Boris says:

    Hi Doogs,

    Thanks, that only confirms postings about their fragility, i.e. TMM Acryl and Masking Tape don’t go together just like Drinking & Driving ))) Maybe priming should help?

    Please look at the following posting in regard to TMM Acryl…

    Read the posting below taken from armourama in regard to thinning TMM Acryl, PollyScale and Tamiya acrylics with… regular windshield washer…

    I hope it will helps

  3. Boris says:

    And here the guy tells about his experience using Lifecolor:

  4. Tim says:

    I started using a flow improver and a retarder with the Tamiya paints. This make it brush paint very well and reduces the quick drying and gritty texture when airbrushing.

  5. Hey Doogs have you tried using Citadel paints from my experiences they are great for painting with a brush but i haven’t used them in an airbrush but they come in a huge colour variety and they aren’t watery.

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