In the beginning there was Testors, and quite frankly, not a whole lot else. If you play historical miniatures wargaming, and unless you have a basket of shekels for professional artists via firms like Fernando Enterprises in Sri-Lanka, you do a lot of painting in your hobby. Grognards know what I’m talking about here, the lack of just about any paint palettes directly related to toy soldiers.
Testors was one firm that did produce matte military colors, but only in World War II hues. Humbrol from the UK was a little better in that there were a (very) few colors like Prussian Dragoon Blue geared towards combat prior to 1939. Unfortunately they were all oil based enamel paints and these had an odor, especially the thinner that needed to be used on occasion. Given my spouse’s cheerful habit of incarcerating… I mean, inviting… me to my man cave for painting sessions, scuba tanks remained a consideration. These were the Dark Ages.
Fortunately things have changed. Oil based products have given way to water based acrylics with two exceptions, and that’s the undercoat and final protective spray coating applied when your miniature X Legion is all finished, ready for battle. Enamels are simply more durable than water, with gloss stronger still when compared to matte or semi-gloss. Otherwise you now have regular paint, metallics, primers and inks (or stains, thinner colors that settle in crevices for a shaded appearance), all water based. This means an easier, less odorous cleanup and the happiest news there are now companies that produce these paints in hundreds of different shades specifically for tabletop wargaming, and a few primarily for the historical side of the house.
So this is my list of the best out there and my reasoning why. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference, but hopefully reading further will expand your pigment horizons and make your decisions easier on your way to becoming a battlefield da Vinci.
This article was originally published in June 2017. Prices were correct at time of original publication.
OK, there is one exception, so let’s get this out of the way first. I normally avoid direct criticism in my articles because so much comes down to personal preference and not a single whit more. But with Games Workshop’s (that’s spelled Warhammer, folks) line of Citadel paints, the issue goes beyond that. The paints are good, high quality paints, so that’s not a problem, and neither is the fact that the line is relatively small and geared towards fantasy and science fiction gaming. This means you won’t find Polish lancer crimson in the catalog, but if you need Nurgles Rot Green or any of 13 flesh tones, this is your lucky day.
The road block is that a 10.3 oz can of Death Guard Green spray undercoat costs $19.50 US. Krylon, a generic paint brand used quite often for undercoating and protective finishes, will set you back $4.56 for a 12 oz spray can. Similarly a 12 ml “pot” of Citadel Blood for the Blood God costs $4.55 while… well, just keep reading and you will understand. Now, the quality of these paints is absolutely top notch, but $19.50 top notch? Not so much.
Hall of Fame
- Gold Medal Howard’s Hues. Clever name, right? Karl Kruger and the gang at Last Square Hobbies now own and produce this fine line of wargaming paints which are unique in so many ways. First is cost. A 29.57 ml (that’s an ounce here in the Colonies) costs $3.99, so look at the paragraph above and you can see my point. The colors themselves are almost all dedicated to historical military subjects, to include Ancients, World War II, American Civil War, Napoleonics and without question the most complete and accurate set of horse colors anywhere (I have a niece that owns two of the animals). The colors are deadly accurate as well. The original owners actually modeled their colors on how a uniform would look at a distance in actual battle, also considering that colors like red and blue were actually much darker back then vice today. Thus French Blue or Russian Green actually looks black with a mild blue or green sheen. Austrian Artillery Ochre (really, they make this color) is not simply yellow, but yellow with an almost Afrika Korps muddy texture. I’ve seen some of these guns in Vienna, and they nailed it. Ground covering colors were actually modeled to duplicate the old GeoHex terrain system with that unique Ground Work Green or Tan with Woodland Scenics flock the company used. The paints are a skosh thinner and the large mouth will cause them to dry quickly, so be careful. Sadly, I’ve never seen them listed outside the US for sale. The line contains 119 water reducible colors.
- Silver Medal Wargames Foundry. Produced in England, this line of 255 water based paints is a little pricey at $ 4.38 US, but you do get 20 ml of paint vs Citadel’s 12 ml in each pot. Three of the same shade is $10.00 US, so that’s a very good discount, but why three of the same shade might you ask? Like Howard’s, the line has paints specifically made for horses, the American Civil War, Napoleonics and are deadly accurate, the Bavarian Cornflower Blue the closest I have ever seen to what they display in German museums. What really makes this line special, however, is that it offers “three shades of each colour: building up in layers from dark to light to easily achieve a realistic three dimensional shaded effect without the need for blending.” Thus paint 71B French Chasseur a Cheval Green also comes in one shade darker (71A) and one shade lighter (71C). This is truly one of the more ‘out of the box’ painting processes and very highly recommended.
- Bronze Medal Vallejo Paints. This is an uber extensive line of acrylic paints from Spain (yes, they do wargame over there) and includes not only regular paints, but washes, inks, gels for rivers and an awful lot more. There is even a specific range called Panzer Aces produced in conjunction with a magazine of the same name. What made this line so popular when it first hit the US is that the paints come in 17 ml dropper bottles ($3.29 each, or $2.99 on sale at the War Store Inc) which makes it easy to mix shades when you need to. Personally, I prefer regular bottles as I simply shake then up and use the face down cap to access the paint, but a LOT of folks really like the dropper method. While most of the 233 paints in their Model Color line are not history keyed, several are (Dark Prussian Blue) and the firm has conveniently produced sets of 8 ($29.09 or $21.09 sale) or 16 bottles ($52.09 or $42.99 sale) specifically for some conflicts and eras to get you started. There are Imperial Roman, Napoleonic, equine, American Colonial sets and so on. Every person I’ve know who uses these paints have raved, and you can even get them thru Amazon Prime.
Honorable Mention (in no particular order)
- Battlefront Paints. Think Flames of War, this line of 42 individual paints, 7 spray paints and 7 paint sets is obviously geared to the FOW gaming system with colors like Sherman Tank Drab or Comrade Khaki. Individual dropper bottles are $2.75 for 12 ml and $4.50 for 20 ml. Sets include German Panzer or Soviet Paint sets with five colors ($15.00) each or a Quartermaster’s set with 10 bottles ($30.00). You really need the latter set as a starting point from which you can add other colors.
- Stone Mountain Colors Paint. This is a 92 color paint line that I only recently discovered, but reviews on TMP (the Miniatures Page) are excellent. The line is nearly all historical except for several Victorian Science Fiction colors. This means equine, English Civil War and so on. A 29.57 ml (one ounce) bottle is only $2.25 and you can mix and match three bottles for $6.50 and six for $12.50.
- Reaper Master Paints. This is a line of 216 core colors plus 54 HD colors sold in 14.28 ml (1/2 ounce) dropper bottles for $3.29 each. There are no historical wargaming specific hues, but the line is large and offers some shades not seen elsewhere.
- Army Painter Paints. With 96 primary colors as well as separate listing for washes, effects, licensed paints, boxed sets, the paint line of this company is in many respects the American version of Vallejo. However, nearly all the paints are generic or keyed to the fantasy realm with names like Abomination Gore. Pricing is good, however, with an 18 ml dropper bottle going for $2.99.
What are your favourite paint lines or suppliers? Let us know in the comments!