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How to Thin Your Paints for Miniatures (and Why You Should)

If you look back at some of your first painted models, I bet that one of the biggest mistakes you made was thick paint. I know it was definitely mine! “thin your paint” is also one of the most commonly suggested tips when people ask for feedback.

But this answer can leave you with a bunch of questions:

How thin is thin enough? What does it really mean when people say the “paint is too thick?” And why the heck does it pool on the mini now that I have thinned it down!

When I started painting, people often told me things like “thin your paints to the consistency of milk” and variations on that. I quickly understood that it was important to thin my paints before applying them on the miniature, but I was not too sure about all the details.

In the following, I collected all the information I learned about thinning paints – whether it was the hard, self-experienced way or tips from other people. This should give beginners a good basic understanding of the concept and how to do it.

This article has also been made into a video, that you can watch on my youtube channel.

YouTube video


Why should I thin my paints?

There are several reasons why you should thin your paint down before using them. But let us first start with the problems. Thick basecoat can cause the following problems:

  • A thickly applied basecoat can obscure the details. This, in turn, will make the shade/wash less useful (fewer cracks and folds to go into). All in all fewer details and a very “flat” look.
  • Acrylic paint (the most normal type of miniature paint) can lead to a shiny, glossy look when applied undiluted.
  • Thick paint is much harder to get into the brush. This can leave an uneven amount of paints and the mini and you could damage your brush in the process.
  • Thick paint can leave brushstrokes
  • If you use thick paint in the highlighting stage, you will have a much harder time getting the paints to blend together (it looks chalky or you notice big jumps from colour to colour).
  • If you apply a very thick paint, cracks in the paint can also happen

Because of that, you have to thin your paint (most of the time).

Undiluted paint is often too thick. It can not only cover and obscure the details you wanted to keep, but also lead to cracks once it is dried. Depending on your undercoat/primer it might require several coats of paint before the coverage is good enough and the colour has the colour you intended. If you apply one thick coat, it will look ugly and obscure details.

Overall, too thick or just completely undiluted paint can ruin your miniature pretty bad. In the worst case, you have to strip it and do the work all over again.

Below you can see two different versions of purple robes. Both have been painted the exact same way: primed white(ish), basecoat of Naggaroth Night and wash of Druchii Violet. The difference is that the very black and flat version had quite a thick undercoat and the other version had a very light basecoat applied.

A gloomspite Git painted with a purple robe, but the basecoat was too thick when applied
A gloomspite Git painted with a purple robe, and in this case it was done with a thing basecoat

What can thinner paint (and overall the right consistency) do for you

I hope the example above shows how just slightly adjusting your paint thickness in the basecoat stage can work wonders for the overall effect. Learning and using paints of different thickness can help you in various different areas of painting:

  • If you want to paint your models faster, I actually think thin paints are a must. Not only can you achieve great things with just a thin basecoat and a wash (look at the purple above), but painting with a good consistency of paint will also make it go quicker overall. Do you ever find that you sort of of have to forcibly drag the paint around the different areas? Paint might be too thick and it makes covering all the areas a chore. Thinner paint will go on quicker and will look better
  • If you use slightly dry paint, you also have to load up the brush more often. If the paint has a good consistency, you can load more in the brush and avoid having to dip your brush in paint all the time.
  • Thin paints is a must for good highlights. Trust me, it is just that hard to achieve a good effect otherwise.
  • If you want to move into wet blending, getting to learn how the consistency of your paint effects how it behaves is a must.

In general, learning how your paints behave depending on consistency is key to becoming a better painting. This is also one of the reasons why it is so commonly being said to new painters.

What is the right consistency of a nicely thinned down acrylic paint for miniatures?

As mentioned above, many people recommend thinning your paint down to the consistency of skimmed milk. While this measurement might give you the right idea, it might not be a concept that works for every colour.

How much thinning down is needed depends on the color itself, how well it covers on the primer, and how thick it is in general. The same colour from the same range can have different consistency depending on age and how much air has been let in the pot (how dry the paint is). Different ranges also have very different measures of how thick or thin it is straight from the pot.

Most people know that colors like red, orange, yellow and alike are often thinner and do not cover as well as others. But what might surprise you is that white paint actually contains lots of pigments. Thus it is often quite thick and dries quickly (I am looking at you, Ceramite White). Some thinning down of your white paint is definitely needed!

Acrylic paint gets semi-translucent when it is thinned down nicely (one of the major benefits of acrylic paint). When you apply the first coat of paint to your miniature, you should have rather less paint on your brush to avoid flooding the miniature. The paint should neither pool nor run, because if that is the case, it is too thin. If the paint is diluted too much, it gets a wash-like consistency.

All of this also depends on the primer. If you did not apply the right amount of undercoat, the paint might run even though it is the right consistency.

What you should remember is this:

The paint should be thinned so it behaves as you want it to!

What does this mean in practice? If you want the paint to pool in the corners, then it is good if it pools in the corners. If you are trying to make a good basecoat, then pooling is not to be desired.

This is just to say: there is no magic formula. Forget about the nonsense of “1 drop of water to 2 drops of paint” stuff. The formula depends on too many variables to have a specific formula, but they can work as a nice rule of thumb. Just remember: look at your paint and feel your paint. Is behaving and applying in accordance with the painting method you are currently doing? Then it is probably the right consistency.

How thick and thin paints look

In the short video below you can see the following:

  1. Paint straight from a dropper bottle that is quite thick. Look how the paint stays in a big bubble when I start out.
  2. I put some paint on the brush. You can see how it does not load up the brush but sits on the brush in a big blob.
  3. I move the thick paint around on the palette, but it is hard to see how it behaves in “thick” maner.
  4. After that, I try and apply a bit of it on the model. Notice how I have to “pull” the paint around (it does not flow freely from the brush). Also, you can almost see the brush strokes in the thick paint.
  5. Afterwards i put some thinner (in this case Vallejo medium thinner) into the paint and move it around on the palette. You can see how the paint becomes more and more translucent the thinner it is.
  6. Also notice how the thin paint loads up into the brush in a very different manner than before.
  7. Finally, I apply some thinned down paint to the model.

via Gfycat

Several methods for thinning paint down

There are several things you can modify when you are trying to thin down your paint. One thing is the liquid you use for paint dilution. The other one being the technique you use for thinning your paint.

The most common liquid to thin with is water. Most people use it, since it is easy to get and to handle. But be careful: If your tap water is too hard – meaning it contains a lot of minerals – it might affect your colors and how the paint behaves. In that case, you are better off with just buying non-bubbling water from the supermarket.

Note that some paints are not meant to be thinned down with water (shades, contrast paint and other “technical” paints).

Because water can a be bit of a pain to work with, there are other liquids you can use for thinning that might work even better. Water has the disadvantage that it evaporates quickly. This might lead to a change in the consistency of your paint (this is most important if you are in a long painting session and it is important that the paint has the exact same consistency throughout). The surface tension of the liquid you use in diluting your paint also has a say in how the paint behaves afterwards.

Instead of water, you can use thinners or medium. Medium is often made from the same material that the paint is made from. It keeps the velocity of the paint while thinning it down (so it has the same colour and properties, but only thinner).

Just keep in mind to never ever use alcohol! This does not dilute your acrylic paint but solves it completely. You can use alcohol to clean up your miniature, though.

The most common method of mixing paint and medium is to stick your brush into your water cup or medium pot, and stick your brush into the paint on your palette afterwards. You also can apply the dilution medium onto the paint on the palette directly. This works best when the provided medium comes in a drop bottle, like the ones from Army Painter or Vallejo. Mix thoroughly with your brush.

A medium or thinner can also be a way to “save” a paint pot that is drying on you (looking very sternly at you, Citadel white paints…).

Another way of diluting paint is with a wet palette. In this case, you just apply your paint onto the palette paper. The medium or water that is on your wet palette then already thins the paint, so you do not have to do any more thinning.

You can even use a lid so the colors stay wet for a couple of days. A wet palette can be easily made from household items, as shown in the following videos. If you are looking for something great that is not a do it yourself project, this is by far the best palette on the market. 

(you can read why I think it is the best wet palette here).

And a more thorough explanation from Tabletop Minions (great channel) here:

YouTube video

How to load your brush with paint

Another important part of thinning down paints is the way you load and use your paint brush. Once you thinned down your paint, you want to get the paint onto your brush. Drag and twist a pointed tip brush in the paint on your palette. Keep in mind to not get any paint or water up too high on the bristles or into the ferrule! This might ruin your brush.

When you take it out, the brush should still have a defined tip. It should still look straight and not too bulky. If the brush looks like it is bent to the outside or if the bristles of the brush are not visible any more, your paint is too thick or your brush is loaded with too much paint. If you have barely any color visible on your brush, your paint might be too thin.

Once you loaded your brush, you want to wipe the excess water off onto a paper towel. This might result in the paint leaving a puddle of paint instead of nice strokes. When your brush strokes on the paper towel show color only and no running, you have the right consistency. A sharp, solid line of color should be visible.

One thick coat is not the way to do it

I recommend that you apply several thin layers of paint onto your miniature instead of just one thick, blotchy layer. While this method might take some more time to let each layer dry before applying a new one, it comes with several advantages.

Keep the details visible: A single big layer just covers all the details in the miniature. Thin layers do not do that, so they help you preserve the details on your miniature. But when you have to paint lots and lots of models for a whole army, you might want to leave some details behind and get done with it quicker. If that is the case, you can use lesser, but thicker layers.

Color transition is possible: With more or less layers of paint, you can make the color a shade lighter or a shade darker. You also have the possibility to apply one layer of a different color of paint as the first or last layers. This gives you the advantage of a bigger color variety, even if you do not own many paints in the first place.

Of course, it might not be a good idea to put 50+ coats of really thin paint on your miniature. It might look awesome, but that is just too much work. Stick to about two to five layers, depending on your paint and the method you are going for. A nicely thinned layer of acrylic paint is semi-transparent, so the color should not be opaque until you applied several layers. Keep in mind that each layers needs to dry before applying the next.

You will only learn to thin your paints by doing it

It is important that you learn to get a feeling for the right dilution. Does the paint feel nice and is easy to apply? That seems like a good consistency! Does it clump or run? When it clumps, the paint is too thick (and you have to stretch and work hard to move it around). When it runs, the paint is too thin or you got too much water / medium on your brush. If you can use easy, smooth brush strokes to paint your miniature, the paint is diluted about right.

If you have some smooth plastic or a spare miniature, just try some things out to get the hang of it. Just paint a line with undiluted paint. Then use some medium or water to thin it down a bit. Now you can thin it down more and more to get to the point where it is too thin. Let your paint dry and look at the results: The color is barely visible – too thin. The first coat already covers completely – too thick.

You should try the above mentioned method with several colors and paints of several brands. The latter one applies of course only when you actually use different brands of paint for coloring. Different kinds of acrylics actually need different thinning. While Citadel paint is often rather thick, while Army Painter or Vallejo colors are already thinner.

Below I is a short video on how a paint colour behaves on a pice of paper, depending on how much I thin it down. Try it out yourself!

(if you are wondering, it is Citadels Lahmian Medium I use in the video. If this thing came in dropper bottle it would probably use it exclusively, now it is just my clear thinner favourite).

Take care of your paint pots

To get good colors, you have to take good care of your paint and paint bottles. Do not leave them standing around with an open lid when you do not need them. Of course it is okay to leave the lid open when you are painting with that color. But the pot being open or not fully-closed when stored might not only lead to spillage, but also makes your colors dry up pretty fast.

When you want to apply paint to a miniature, make sure that the paint is mixed well. Shake it thoroughly, before starting to paint. This way, the pigments of the paint are evenly spread throughout and the paint has the consistency that it was meant to have. If a bottle is not well shaken, you might have parts of the paint too thick and some too thin in the same bottle (especially true with dropper bottles).

What helps me with keeping the paint even are mixing balls. Several companies like Army Painter offers little metal balls that you can put into your paint bottle. Depending on the size of the painting pot or bottle, put some balls in them. I use around two to three mixing balls per Citadel pot or Army Painter bottle.

Various tips for thining your paint

  • Watch out for water in the brush. The paint might have the perfect consistency on your palette, but if your brush is really wet it will dilute the paint you load up into the brush. This is a common mistake beginner make when they thin their paint.
  • After you have thinned your paint down, you might have a bit of water on the handle of your brush that slowly works down into your paint just while you paint the final detail on that face you have been working on for hours. It can run your life (at least it will feel like that when it happens).
  • If you have very hard water in your area, that can have some effect on how the paint behaves.
  • If you use contrast paint, or wash or what have you, be careful of diluting it. You need to know what you are doing.
  • Sometimes thick paint is good. I use it when I blend basecoat.
  • If you really hate doing multiple thin coats, you should really stop priming your miniatures black…
  • Or if you REALLY hate multiple thin coats, maybe give Contrast Paint a shot?

Other resources regarding thining your paint

YouTube video
YouTube video
YouTube video
YouTube video

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