Acrylic paint is the favored medium for painting miniatures and models. But, did you know you can paint your models with oil paints, too? Oil wash filters and weathering with oil paints create amazing effects that can add realism to your miniatures. If you’re painting wargaming models, e.g., Warhammer 40k or Age of Sigmar, then oil paints may be a great way for you to explore new techniques and looks for your miniature collection.
In this article written by Frank Shic, you’ll learn how you can use oil paints for more than simple washes. In this how-to guide, you’ll see how you can prepare and incorporate oil paints into your miniature painting workflow.
Here are a few high-quality oil paints we recommend for miniature painting:
Read on for the oil paint tutorial for painting miniatures!
Oil paints for painting miniatures?
I have used acrylic paints like Reaper Master Series or Games Workshop Citadel paints for years in painting miniatures, but was always intrigued when I heard oil mentioned by various miniature painting forum members.
Oil paints are are well-known for their extended working time (e.g., they dry or cure very slow!) as well as superior blending qualities compared to acrylic paints. This especially appealed to me since I had adopted wet blending as my favored painting technique due to both its speed and simplicity.
But I found wet-blending definitely wasn’t perfect because I had to move quickly before the acrylic paint started drying.
I tried Ammo Mig Oil brushes, but was not content with the color range which was more suitable for military models.
So, I abandoned oil paints for a while, but after watching a recent James Wappel Patreon video entitled “Creating your own oil brushes”, I was inspired to replicate the process with uncle’s 30+ year old Artist’s Oil Color paints that were sitting in a garage drawer my in order to give oil paints another try in my never ending quest for the Holy Grail of miniature paints!
If you haven’t seen James Wappel’s work, he uses a process of diluting and transferring oil paints into the more familiar plastic dropper bottles that companies like Reaper and Army Painter use and explained how mixing the oil paint with mineral spirits dramatically speeds up the drying time.
So, do you want to give this miniature oil painting method a shot?
How to transfer oil paints into plastic dropper bottles
How do you use oil paints for painting miniatures? Well, let’s make it easier first.
I recommend transferring your oil paints into dropper bottles for easier dispensing when painting. Transferring oil paints into dropper bottles makes painting miniatures with oils much easier!
Here are the quick 8 steps for oil paint transfer into dropper bottles:
- Wear disposable gloves
- Insert a 8mm agitator hematite bead into your 20ml dropper bottle
- Fill 1/3 of the dropper bottle with clear, odorless mineral spirits using a pipette or syringe
- Place oil paint into the dropper bottle
- Cover the top of the dropper bottle with your gloved thumb and shake HARD (e.g., you can also use a powered model paint shaker)
- If the paint has mixed with the mineral spirits, repeat from step #4 until the dropper bottle is full
- Check to make sure the oil paint has thinned by listening for the agitator bead; it should be audible
- Label your dropper bottle
I found the easiest way to accomplish the task of transferring and preparing oil paint for miniature and model painting is to start with donning a pair of nitrile or latex gloves. This will prevent staining of your fingers.
Add agitator bead and mineral spirit into dropper bottle
Insert a 8mm hematite round bead or cut up metal pewter sprue to serve as a paint agitator in a 20 ml dropper bottle and fill it approximately 1/3 of the way with artist-grade (NOT hardware-grade) odorless mineral spirits using a plastic syringe or pipette.
Dispense oil paint into bottle
Position the mouth of your oil paint tube inside the mouth of the dropper bottle and squeeze the tube until the paint begins to clog up the neck of the bottle. It will greatly help to compress the bottle slightly before hand and release the pressure gradually as the paint enters the bottle to take advantage of the suction.
Shake to mix oil/mineral spirit
Cover the mouth with your gloved thumb and shake HARD as the paint is extremely viscous initially. You can use a powered small model paint mixer or shaker to help you in this step.
If you listen carefully, you should eventually hear the thinned paint sloshing around inside like a liquid.
At this point, you can squeeze some more paint into the bottle and repeat the shaking process again until you hear the hematite bead moving again and a duller sound of the thickened paint mixture.
Keep adding oil paint, if needed
If you cannot hear the bead, your mixture is likely too thick and will require additional thinning.
Frequently, the paint will clog up the neck of the bottle but can be coaxed back into the main body by gently tapping the bottom of the bottle on a hard surface although I advise covering the mouth with either your finger or a napkin to prevent the paint from splattering.
Pro tip: Wipe your fingers off with a paper towel or napkin if they’ve been stained by the paint to avoid getting the paint on the bottle or your clothes.
Your goal is to create a oil paint/mineral spirit mixture that has a gel-like consistency. Essentially, you want your oil paint to have the same viscosity as normal model acrylic paint.
Label the bottle
Complete the transfer of oil paint by printing out some Avery labels (e.g., sticker labels) to help you identify the colors, especially on the darker oil paints like Prussian blue, Van Dyke Brown, Payne’s Gray and Ivory or Lamp Black.
You can download the labels for printing in the shop.
Consider dipping the tip of the dropper bottle cap in the paint to make color identification easier.
When viewed from above, you’ll be able to see the color inside the bottle easier this way. Be aware that it may take several days to fully dry so watch out for staining especially on your nice shirt sleeves!
For a more thorough tutorial on how to paint miniatures and models entirely with oil paints using the preparation you have made, check out this video:
Is oil paint easier than acrylic?
Oil painting is fairly intuitive after you get accustomed to thinning down the paint with mineral spirits. The best oil paints are have very fine ground pigments and allows you to make extremely smooth blends that easily rival that of an airbrush without all the hassles of cleaning and maintenance.
With oil paints, you can take short cuts that you have to do with many advanced acrylic painting techniques.
For example, you can skip the applications of multiple coats of acrylic paint you need for proper glazing or layering, or having to move quickly when you’re wet blending with acrylic paints.
There are some unique challenges with oil paints.
You will have to understand how the concept of oil painting “thick over thin”. The thick over thin principle is that layers of oil paint with similar consistency will not adhere to one another. However, the solution is to either use a thicker consistency of oil paint over a thinned layer, or vice versa.
Clean up with oil paints is a bit trickier (but not hard at all), as you can’t use your water alone (e.g., oil and water don’t mix).
To clean your brushes, palettes, and other art materials, you’ll need to use soap and/or mineral spirits. I don’t recommend the use of turpentine; it is unnecessary and has a strong harmful vapor.
In retrospect, I wish I had started using oil paints much earlier although I appreciate them so much more after having used acrylic paints for so long!
Why do so few miniature painters use oil paints?
More miniature painters do not use oil paints for the following reasons:
- Perceived difficulty in adopting a new paint medium that requires using mineral spirits for dilution and cleaning instead of water, which is much more accessible.
- Oil paints can take a week or even a month to dry if applied in the traditional manner without diluting it with mineral spirits.
- Most of the popular miniature painting channels on Youtube as epitomized by Games Workshop‘s former lead painting instructor, Duncan Rhodes, use acrylic paints. There is one notable exception namely James Wappel who inspired me through his Patreon videos to give oil paints a try. If you are curious to see what results you can achieve with oil paints, I highly encourage you to watch this master painter at work.
- The cost of a tube of 37 ml oil paint can be a potential financial obstacle since they vary widely depending on which brand and what colors you choose – starting at roughly $4 a tube in a $39.99 Winton 10 paint starter set to $61.79 for a 37 ml tube of Windsor & Newton Artist Oil Cobalt Purple if purchased at Michael’s hobby store. The upside is that you can make several dropper bottles with one tube of oil paint.
If you think about it, however, none of these reasons are a major hurdle if you’re patient, prone to experimentation, and willing to take some risks with your hobby.
How do you paint miniatures with oil paints?
Painting miniatures with oil paints is similar to using acrylics although you will need to use mineral spirits to clean your brush and to dilute the paint.
Instead of applying the paint in layers like you do with acrylic paints you can apply two colors next to each other and then blend them together by lightly stroking the area where they meet with the brush – this technique would be referred to as “wet blending” when using acrylic paint.
With the extended working time of oil paints, you can apply your shadow or highlight color followed by the other color and still have more than enough time to blend them at a leisurely pace as opposed to wet blending with acrylic paints which requires more of a rush to blend before the paint starts to dry.
Another bonus to using oil paints is that you can easily clean up any messy areas on your model afterwards with mineral spirits directly applied to the surface.
If you’re afraid to try it on a new model, find a scrappy bit or something from your bitz box. Power swords or armor pieces are great places to practice using oil paints and oil blending techniques.
What about oil washes?
Although there are several vendors of ready-to-use oil washes, like AMMO and AK Interactive, making your own oil wash is extremely easy especially if you already have the oil paint and the mineral spirits.
Compared with GW Citadel Washes, oil washes are easier to use when you understand how easy it is to move it around.
For vehicles or large models, I prefer using oil washes versus gw washes because they are most cost effective, faster to use, and provide similar or better results.
The great advantage of using oil washes is that you can wipe away the excess with a cleaned brush so that the original underlying paint does not get overly darkened as it would if you had applied an acrylic wash like Agrax.
In fact, by using different oil paint colors you can use oil washes as color “filters” that subtly change the overall feel of your model. This adds interest without detracting from the overall look of your models.
Remember to varnish your oil painted miniatures
If you want to use your models for gaming or tabletop play, remember that you’ll want to varnish your oil painted miniatures to protect them. I suggest you use a durable enamel based lacquer, like Testors Dullcote.
Oil paint cures slowly, but you can speed up this process by applying some heat with a hair dryer. Just make sure you don’t heat up oil too quickly, or it will cure unevenly and you’ll risk cracking thicker aspects of it.
Painting miniatures is a hobby with no boundaries. Although most painters use acrylic model paint, the rare few use oil paints exclusively.
If you’ve been painting miniatures for a while, then you already know how to use oil washes and filters. But, it continues to be true that oil paints are only mostly used for weathering wargaming miniatures or scale models.
Painting entire figures with oils alone is still something the broader miniature painting community has yet to embrace.
However, there are many miniature oil painting tutorials out there, including those that show you how to use oil washes. Of course, why follow others’ lead when you can experiment for yourself with oil paints.
I hope this article inspires you to try using oil paints, and has been helpful for how to use oils paints for painting your miniatures and models. The great thing about oil paints is that it takes a long time to dry, so if you’re not happy, you can always move colors around to take them off altogether with a bit of mineral spirits.
Frank is a Dad, miniature painter, tabletop gamer, and medical physician. He lives happily in California with his family.