Tuesday, 22 September 2009

A lesson in paint dilution, or why white is a b*tch to paint

As you know, I'm currently painting Napoleonic Bavarians. When your average wargamer thinks of Bavarians, he thinks of cornflower blue coats and lozenged flags. But there's also a lot of white (a colour normally firmly planted in the Austrian camp) in a Napoleonic Bavarian uniform: the trousers are white, as is all of the leather webbing used to hang various pieces of kit on the Bavarian soldier.

If you would ask me which colour I dislike most when painting, the answer would be white.

To tell you why, I need to take a little detour and talk about paint dilution. Some of the comments I get from people who see my paint jobs is that the paint looks very smooth on the figure -- that's because of paint dilution. I never (well, almost never) use paint straight from the pot. Whichever paint I have used (these days, I only use Vallejo and Foundry paints) over the years I've been painting miniatures, I have always diluted it with water before using it. The reason is that I like my paint to have a certain consistency when applying it, and with me a number of other painters out on the web (and even the vaunted Kevin Dallimore as stated in his book). The consistency I'm after is the famous 'milky' or 'single cream' consistency everyone talks about when you do some research on the web.

Paint with the right consistency should flow easily off the brush onto the figure. Paint that is too thick does not flow easily and leaves 'ridges' when applied, paint that is too thin does not cover well and has a tendency to 'escape' and run off into depressions on the figure (areas that really should be shaded). With most paints, I can now pretty easily achieve this consistency and keep it while painting under hot lights (one needs good lighting while painting) by periodically adding more water. But white is a different story.

This has something to do with the pigment used in white paint (as an aside, maybe I should use my years of studying chemistry to figure this out :) ). The 'right' consistency for white paint lies on a razor sharp edge between too thick and chalky and too thin and useless. It is very difficult to get the paint to the right consistency and even more to keep it there. I have learnt to put only extremely small amounts of paint on my palette (well, ice cream container lid) so that when I muck it up, I can just wipe it off and try again without too much loss.

And even then, the right consistency is soo elusive that I usually consciously overthin the paint as that's easier to handle -- you have to be careful not to let the paint run off and need two layers to cover, but it works that way, and the alternative (using it when too thick) would not result in a nice smooth covering.

But still, it means that any figure with an appreciable amount of white (and believe it or not, the major colour on the Bavarian figures is white, not blue) takes longer to paint than the same figure in other colours.

I think my next battalion of Bavarians will be in campaign dress with lots of non regulation trousers :)


  1. Bart,
    Do you have a standard/preferred ratio of paint to water, or is it an art rather than a science?

  2. Hi Bruce,
    I'm afraid it comes down to the usual answer of 'it depends'. The dilution ratio depends on the paint in question (or, more precise, the pigment in question). Some colors can stand more dilution than others. In general, though, I aim for a consistency to the paint that is somewhere in between that of milk and cream, if that's any help. Ratio wise, I'd say about a 1:5 to 1:4 water:paint.
    That ratio is hardly scientific, however. I usually put some paint on my palette and then add water until it feels and looks right. That, BTW, is also a reason why white is so difficult: under bright lights, it's very difficult to see how diluted the paint is.
    Hope that helps a bit.