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.


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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:

How to Wetblend With Your Basecoat - Painting With the Pro
target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">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

    Episode 04: Basecoating

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