What Are The Best Paints For Miniatures?
There are a lot of miniature paints on the market, at a lot of different price points and with a lot of different features. But which paint is the best? In this article we are going to look at miniature paints according to price per milliliter, price per star rating (to determine value), variety and accessibility of the paints, and reviews of the various paint brands.
For the purposes of this article we're going to look at the most commonly used paints in the United States: Citadel, Vallejo, Army Painter, Pro Acryl, Scale 75, P3 (Privateer Press), Coat D'Arms and TurboDork.
What Miniature Paints Are Cheapest? What Miniature Paints Are Most Expensive?
For the purposes of this comparison, I took the prices of every paint, as they were accessible through the manufacturer's website--the non-discounted, full retail price. We'll talk about discounted price a little later on.
Now, there are exceptions to this. For example, Vallejo doesn't sell their paints from their own webstore, so in that case I used the price of the most prominent online store that sells them.
Note: I am not using Amazon prices for any of these retail prices. Amazon doesn't tend to sell individual paints by the bottle or pot, and when they do the prices are substantially different from what you would pay at your Friendly Local Game Store. (For example: I am getting the prices for Vallejo paints from MegaHobby.com and a single bottle of Game Color is $3.30. That same paint on Amazon sells for $5.99. I will note below where Amazon is cheaper than your FLGS, however.)
The prices break down this way, in
Army Painter: 18ml, $3.25
Army Painter Washes: 18ml, $3.50
Army Painter Metallics: 18ml, $3.50
Citadel: 12ml, $6.10
Citadel Air: 24ml, $7.80
Citadel Contrast: 18ml, $7.80
Citadel Washes: 24ml, $7.80
Coat D'Arms: 18ml, $3.78
P3 (Privateer Press): 20ml, $4.50
Pro Acryl: 22ml, $4.00
Scale75 Artist Tube: 20ml, $6.29
Scale75 Metal N' Alchemy: 17ml, $4.99
Scale75: 17ml, $4.49
TurboDork Metallics: 20ml, $6.00
TurboDork TurboShifts: 20ml, $6.00
Vallejo Hobby Colors: 17ml, $3.30
Vallejo Mecha Colors: 17ml, $3.69
Vallejo Model Air: 17ml, $3.30
Vallejo Panzer Aces: 17ml, $3.69
Vallejo Surface Primer: 17ml, $4.50
Now, that chart shows a lot of variability and isn't really as useful as I'd like it to be, so I divided price by milliliters to get a $/ml rating, and that is reflected in the list below, from highest $/ml to lowest.
Price per ml
Army Painter: $0.18/ml
Pro Acryl: $0.18/ml
Vallejo Hobby Colors: $0.19/ml
Vallejo Model Air: $0.19/ml
Army Painter Metallics: $0.19/ml
Army Painter Washes: $0.19/ml
Coat D'Arms: $0.21/ml
Vallejo Mecha Colors: $0.22/ml
Vallejo Panzer Aces: $0.22/ml
P3 (Privateer Press): $0.23/ml
Vallejo Surface Primer: $0.26/ml
Scale75 Metal N' Alchemy: $0.29/ml
TurboDork Metallics: $0.30/ml
TurboDork TurboShifts: $0.30/ml
Scale75 Artist Tube: $0.31/ml
Citadel Air: $0.33/ml
Citadel Washes: $0.33/mll
Citadel Contrast: $0.43/ml
There are a couple of things that stand out in this list. The first, most obvious one is that Citadel is not only the most expensive, but it is by far the most expensive. It is nearly two and a half times the cost of the cheapest (Army Painter). In fact, alll the four Citadel paints are the four most expensive paints on this list. Why is Citadel so popular when it's so expensive? We'll get to that in a moment.
The other thing to note from this list is that most of the paints all fall into the same basic window: between $0.18 and $0.30. In fact, if we take specialty paints (and Citadel paints) out of the mix (which means we're excluding both from TurboDork, Scale75's Metal N' Alchemy and their Artist Tube) then everything else is in an 8 cent window, from $0.18 to $0.26. Meaning: there really isn't that much variation.
But wait a minute, you may be thinking "I never pay $6.10 for a pot of Citadel paint." And that's a very good point. Citadel offers deep discounts to retailers and you very, very rarely pay Games Workshop's website price for a Games Workshop product. I called my FLGS, Game Grid, and asked them what they're currently charging retail for Citadel paint: $4.50 per 12ml pot. Now, that's substantially lower than the $6.10 listed above, so it should make it more on par with the other paints, right? Well, not so much: it comes out to $0.38/ml. So, cheaper, but still more than twice the price of the cheapest miniature paint.
What Miniature Paints Are the Best Value?
I wanted to find a way to determine value: quality for the price. Because it's fine to say that Army Painter is the cheapest and Citadel is the highest, but are they really that good? Now, a lot of quality assumptions are subjective, and you can't quantify subjectivity--unless you have a lot of data. So I turned to Amazon reviews.
Amazon reviews are not the best judges of quality, but they're the best thing that we've got. So first I took every paint that was available on Amazon (which leaves out Pro Acryl, Coat D'Arms, and Scale75 Artist Tube) and compared their star ratings to get an overall ranking. They are, from best paint to worst:
Scale75: 5 stars
Scale75 Metal N' Alchemy: 5 stars
Vallejo Hobby: 4.9 stars
TurboDork Metallic: 4.9 stars
Citadel Washes: 4.9 stars
Citadel: 4.9 stars
Army Painter: 4.8 stars
Vallejo Model Air: 4.8 stars
Army Painter Metallics: 4.8 stars
Army Painter Washes: 4.8 stars
Citadel Air: 4.8 stars
Citadel Contrast: 4.8 stars
Vallejo Mecha: 4.7 stars
Vallejo Panzer Aces: 4.7 stars
Vallejo Surface Primer: 4.7 stars
TurboDork TurboShifts: 4.6 stars
P3 Paint (Privateer Press): 4.5 stars
Now, anyone who knows Amazon reviews knows that they don't always review the quality of the product. Sometimes they judge the packaging. Sometimes they judge the customer service. These reviews might be more about the "paint pot vs. dropper bottle" debate than about the quality of the paint itself. But, it's the best that we've got right now.
The question comes, then: how do we judge value? How do we know which is the best quality for the best price?
I decided to come up with a Miniature Paint Quality Quotient, which is just a fancy way of saying that I'm going to divide Amazon stars by price by milliliters, or Stars/Price/ml. (Note: I'm including in the Citadel $6.10 price here, but also including in the Citadel $4.50 retail price, for comparison.)
Stars per Price per ml
Army Painter: 26.58
Vallejo Hobby: 25.24
Vallejo Model Air: 24.73
Army Painter Metallics: 24.73
Army Painter Washes: 24.69
Vallejo Mecha: 21.65
Vallejo Panzer Aces: 21.65
P3 Paint (Privateer Press): 20.00
Vallejo Surface Primer: 17.76
Scale 75 Metal N' Alchemy: 17.03
TurboDork Metallics: 16.33
TurboDork TurboShifts: 15.33
Citadel Washes: 15.08
Citadel Air: 14.77
Citadel Retail: 13.07
Citadel Contrast: 11.08
So, going by these numbers, Army Painter is the best value of miniature paint, followed by Vallejo Hobby. And Citadel is right back down at the lowest value. Even accommodating for retail price instead of website price, Citadel is still third from the bottom. It seems that there is not a wide enough difference in quality to make up for that price difference.
All of which raises the question:
If Citadel Paints Are So Expensive Why Are They Most Popular?
Yes, Citadel Paints are the most expensive miniature paints and by a large margin. But the reasons are simple: ubiquity, relative price, and ease of use.
Compared to any other paint on this list, Citadel is the easiest to find in any given hobby store in any given state. (Note: I'm talking about the United States here.) Almost every FLGS carries Citadel paint, and the Games Workshop reps are very good about making sure that those paint racks are well stocked and looking good. Setting aside all comments about the inability to handle pre-orders and exclusive items, Games Workshop sales reps have a pretty solid reputation about being able to forecast the demand for Games Workshop products--and that includes paints. It's rare, unless your FLGS is in an obscure place or you have a notoriously bad sales rep, for a Citadel paint rack to be missing more than a handful of colors at any given time.
At the same time, most FLGS's will only carry one other paint line. While almost every store has a Citadel rack, it's hard to know whether they'll carry Army Painter or Vallejo or something else.
Using my own area for anecdotal evidence: my metro area has 1.3 million people and about 12 FLGSs and 2 Warhammer stores. Of those 12 FLGSs, I can only think of one which carried both Army Painter and Vallejo AND which has both of those paint racks fully stocked. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is the only FLGS which caters almost exclusively to historical gaming. On the other hand, the two FLGSs which are closest to my house and which I go to the most, only carry Vallejo and never have more than half their racks fully stocked.
Because of this ubiquity of Citadel paints, people are prone to use Citadel more often--and not because they can't get other paints (like I said, most FLGSs carry one other paint line) but because they can't get the other paints *consistently*. If you have a recipe for painting your soldiers that requires a certain shade of brown, and you could choose either Vallejo's German Camo Black Brown, or you could choose Citadel's Dryad Bark, obviously the Vallejo will be cheaper--but will it always be available? If you're counting on having that paint for an entire army of models, and you don't know if you can source it reliably, do you want to risk your gaming project on it?
Likewise, if you're traveling, or moving from one area to another, you almost have a guarantee that you're going to find Citadel paint wherever you go, but you don't have that guarantee about other brands (especially if those other brands are not in the Big Three of Army Painter, Vallejo and Citadel). If you're an ardent user of P3 or Scale75, you'd better know how to get it without relying on your FLGS.
Another thing to consider when looking into why Citadel paints are so popular despite being the most expensive is that, when compared to the cost of all the models in an entire army, the difference in a couple bucks on a paint pot doesn't seem that bad.
Now, this is entirely down to an individual's own preferences and buying habits, obviously, but looking at people in the aggregate, market research shows us that people will easily splurge on little things if they've paid much more for something else. So when you're spending $500 on an army, and that army is going to need ten paints, going with Army Painter will cost you $32.50 and going with Citadel (retail) will cost you $45.00. While that's a $12.50 difference, when you compare $532.50 to $545.00 it doesn't seem like a big deal. This is the issue of relative price.
Ease of Use
Now, when we talk about Ease of Use with Citadel paints, we're not talking about the paint pot versus the dropper bottle. We're talking about three main things: easy-to-follow tutorials, easy-to-follow paint system, and easy-to-follow guides.
For virtually every single models that Games Workshop puts out, they make a tutorial video for painting it. And those painting guides, naturally, use Citadel products. This is a not-so-secret way of making sure that gamers, who want their models to look like the box art, will purchase Citadel paints to acheive that look. Games Workshop makes the whole thing very simple.
As a real-world example, I once worked for a wood products company, selling engineered beams. We offered, as a free service, to do all of the engineering work for the construction companies so they would know what size of beam they needed. Obviously, when we would tell them the size of the beam we would specify one of our products. So, even though our beams may have cost a little more than the competition, they were getting the engineering work done for free. This is almost exactly what Games Workshop is doing with their paints.
The easy-to-follow paint system is how Games Workshop has created their paint line so that there are base paints, layer paints, shades, and highlights. This system isn't anything revolutionary, but it is very user friendly and very welcoming to beginners. Games Workshop knows that if they can lower the barriers to entry into the hobby, they will get more people using their paints (and buying their models).
The easy -to-follow guide is the incredibly useful Citadel Colour app. With this app you can look at any one of a hundred models and it will tell you exactly what base, layer, shade, and highlight to use to create it, or you can look up any specific color scheme and get the same information. For example, I can look up "orange" and it will show me seven different orange color schemes, and then I can pick the one I want--say Tzaangor Mane--and it will tell me I need Jokaero Orange, Reikland Fleshshade, Troll Slayer Orange, and Fire Dragon Bright.
These kinds of color guides do not exist for the other paint brands we've talked about, except for, occasionally, a large poster depicting all the colors, or a small theme-specific paint set like Vallejo's Skin and Faces set.
So Citadel is able to remain popular--the most popular miniature paint brand in the United States by a large margin--because they are so easy to find, so easy to use, and because the price difference doesn't really seem that big compared to all the money you're spending on models.
Which Miniature Paint Has The Biggest Selection?
The miniature paint brand with the biggest selection is, hands down, Vallejo. This is because they cater to a much wider base of miniature and model painters than most of the other paints we've discussed.
First, let's look at the numbers. This list includes all of each brand's paint products, including washes, metallics, and airbrush paints:
Coat D'Arms: 152
Army Painter: 124
Pro Acryl: 62
The thing about Vallejo is that they have a whole division of their paints that is dedicated to science-fiction and fantasy gaming, but an entirely separate division devoted to historicals, plus their specialized Panzer Aces line, plus their range of metallics and washes, and individual themed kits. I personally do a lot of historical wargaming and I know that I have at least eighteen different shades of Vallejo green on my paint racks. They simply can't be beat.
Citadel has the second most, but some of this is deceiving. 35 of those paints are Contrast (which are their own kind of thing), 31 are dry paints (which we haven't even discussed from the other companies), and 21 are technical (which include textures and basing).
I admit that I was surprised by the small number from Army Painter. Seeing as they're one of the biggest lines I had expected them to be more broad in their selection.
Which Miniature Paint Brand Is The Best?
We've weighed a lot of factors, and for me and all my painting priorities, it comes down to two winners: Vallejo and Citadel. Citadel is so easy to find wherever you go, and their Citadel Colour app is seriously so useful that they're hard to beat. But Vallejo has some of the very best colors available.
The number one reason why I don't give the trophy entirely to Vallejo is because of their availability. There is only one store in my metro area that reliably has a full rack of Vallejo paint, but there's no guarantee that they have the specific paints that I want: and who can blame them? With 750 paints, they clearly can't keep all of them in stock. Which is why it's so frustrating that Vallejo is hard to purchase online. Yes, they have some of the best themed packages--such as WWII Allied Paint Set, British Napoleonic Paint Set, Malefic Flesh Paint Set, and more--but to buy an individual bottle of paint is, often $5.99 plus $1.49 in shipping. (I've only broken down and paid this price once--for two bottles of German Camo Beige, a color I love. I've found myself splurging for larger paint sets to get the single colors that I want, like the German Camouflage Paint Set, which is 16 paints for $43, making them only $2.68 each.)
(Admittedly, Citadel is just as difficult and expensive to get online as Vallejo is. But it's so easy to get in brick and mortar stores that it makes up for it.)
So ultimately, for me it comes down to convenience over price. I'll buy Vallejo if it's available and if I'm buying bulk sets, but when push comes to shove, I'll run down to my FLGS and buy Citadel.