Hand Painting With Tamiya Acrylics

Several people have asked me how I achieve the results I do with hand painting, so… With not much else to write about today, I’ve decided to tackle that subject. For your reference (and mine), I’ve also opted to include a handy-dandy picture guide to help keep track of this relatively simple process. I’m not saying my way is the only way or the right way. It’s simply my way. And it works for me, with this particular brand of paint.

What makes me an expert? I’m not–by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve never used an airbrush, and I do have a lot of finished models (and a small collection of trophies) under my belt. So… I’m just passing along my general experience for someone else to learn from–and hopefully even improve upon. I’ve hand painted everything from 1/72 aircraft to 1/35 and 1/144 AFV’s to various science fiction subjects. And I think that my techniques produce good results in all genres. In some areas, they’re not equal to the results you can achieve with an airbrush, but they’re still good. And, in some ways, hand-painting is considerably easier (in terms of set-up, execution, and clean-up) than airbrushing. Masking patterns won’t work nearly as well, but reasonable results can be achieved with effort. In short, if you’re hell-bent on hand painting, you can produce good-looking models. I promise.
First off, why Tamiya Acrylics? I get asked that a lot. I’ve tried other paints–Testors (both acrylic and Enamel), Model Masters (both acrylics and enamels), and even some Polly Scale acrylics. I’ve never tried Vallejo, Mr. Color, or Humbrol, but I don’t have anything against them. I’ve had some success with all of the paints I’ve used–and I use them all from time-to-time (usually for a specific color requirement), but I’ve had the best and most consistent luck with the quality of Tamiya paints.
Second off, the tools you need for the job. This is going to vary by person and personal preference, but here’s what I have sitting around and use consistently.
  • Tamiya Acrylic paints: The mini-bottles are $2 apiece at my local hobby store, and I usually don’t have too much trouble finding the colors I need. There are exceptions, but I’ve usually got enough paint on-hand where I can wait for a restock.
  • Paint Brushes: these are largely a matter of personal preference. As a bare minimum, it’s going to be worth your while to invest in that pack of assorted Testors model paint brushes. You know–the super-cheap four-pack with the white handles and various brush-heads. That one is a must. Beyond that, I would recommend going to the local hobby store and snagging a 1/0, 3/0, 5/0, and even a 10/0 brush. Expect to pay at least $4 a brush, but don’t be afraid to pay a little bit more. Just look them over, and you should be able to tell a decent looking brush from a crap one.
  • Paint Trays: I get mine at Hobby Lobby, and they cost me 99 cents apiece. I try to have two or three spares sitting around at any given time, because they usually reach a point (over a period of months) where it’s just no fun to clean them anymore (say, for example, after you drip some super glue onto them). Take a look at picture #3 to see the type of tray I use. It works well for what I do.
  • Plastic Pipette: That’s the thing in the top-left of picture #3. It’s basically an oversized, disposable eye-dropper. I’ll come back to that when I talk about the painting process. Look for it in a local hobby store or online.
  • Toothpicks: I prefer the rounded kind because they’re a little stronger, but any kind will work. Buy a box of ’em. They’re cheap, and you’ll go through quite a few of them.
  • 91% Isopropyl Alcohol: This is my thinning agent. You’ll find this in the pharmacy section of whatever store you look for it in. It’s important to note that not all stores carry 91%–although most seem to carry 70%. I’ve found that the 70% works good, but the 91% works better. It’s also worth noting that the 91% alcohol works superbly as a thinner with Tamiya acrylics, but the results can be a little less predictable with other brands of paints. The 70% alcohol barely works with Model Master paints, and should probably only be used as a last resort. For folks completely new to hand-painting (like Bandai model "snappers"), I would also caution that you should never mix brands of paint (i.e. mixing Tamiya Acrylic Green with Model Masters Acrylic Rust) as the results resemble chowder more than they do paint. 
  • You’ll also want some paper towels and Q-Tips handy. I use those to clean up paint on things other than the models (i.e. the desk, the outside of the paint bottle, etc.) If you happen to get paint on the threads of the paint bottle, a Q-Tip is the quickest and easiest way to clean that up.
  • Finally, you’ll want some sort of bottle to use as a brush cleaner. I use an old, large plastic bottle of Tamiya Acrylic Thinner. I fill it about 1/3 full with alcohol (70% or 91%) and another third full with water straight from the faucet. Depending on how much painting I do, this bottle will only need to be changed out every two to four weeks. Six weeks, if I’m lazy (and not painting much). In short, if the cleaner liquid is murky and the brush doesn’t seem to get clean after you swish it around in there, then you’re probably due for washing it out in the sink and re-filling it.
These are merely my personal choices in equipment. Take them as you will. I wrote a lot more than I had planned on already, but we’ll just go ahead and keep on with this. After all that, I may not have much to say about the painting process, anyways. So… Looking at the pictures, let’s take them in order:

1. Let’s Get Some Paint! And let’s make it Tamiya Acrylic paint, since that’s what I’m talking about here. I’ve probably got close to fifty different colors sitting around, and I’m always finding some new color for something special. On that subject, I wish they made a flat purple–for WWI aircraft. Whether it’s the mini bottle or the larger one, the paint inside should be the same. Once you’ve got the paint, you need to mix it. Do not just shake the bottle of paint. This can shorten its useable lifespan (yes, really). For best results, take a toothpick and use it as a mini-paint stirrer. Don’t go crazy, just stir it up until it’s well-mixed. You’ll be able to tell. It should take around a minute or so.

2. Remember Your 91% Isopropyl Alcohol. That part is so important that it deserves its own picture before we move on to the third step. Take that plastic pipette and fill it with the alcohol. If you can’t do that, then maybe modeling isn’t a hobby for you.

3. Mixing Paint & Alcohol… This is the absolute most crucial step to hand painting. If you screw this up, the only way to fix it is to do it over. Or live with the shoddy results. You need to get paint and alcohol in the same little sectioned-off part of the paint tray. If you pour the paint directly from the bottle, you’re going to probably end up with too much paint and a very messy bottle. I’d recommend against this approach. The best way is to probably use another pipette, adding several drops to the paint tray at a time. I don’t do it that way. My method is to use the toothpick. I’ll stir the paint, and just let the excess paint drip off the toothpick and onto the paint tray. Probably not the best way to do it, but it works, it’s semi-controlled (you’re not going to get an uncontrollable amount of paint on the toothpick), and toothpicks are cheaper than pipettes. Once you’ve got a few drops of paint on the tray, add alcohol from the pipette. The critical thing here is the ratio of paint to alcohol. What’s worse is that it’s going to vary from paint bottle to paint bottle. Metallic paints often need (or will work with) greater thinning, whereas some paints seem very thin already (I’m looking at you, glossy White).

At the very least, the ratio of alcohol to paint is going to be 1:1. For every drop of paint in the tray, add one drop of alcohol. From there, it gets iffy. For some metallic paints, my ratio is probably around 70/30 (seven drops of alcohol for three drops of paint), and for most paints I probably get closer to 60/40 (six drops alcohol to four drops paint). This will give you a consistency somewhere slightly thicker than milk. The trick is that the paint needs to be kept as close as possible to this ratio and consistency. As a result, you’ll find yourself grabbing your alcohol pipette every two to three minutes to add another drop or two of the alcohol into the paint tray. Why? Because 91% alcohol is going to evaporate out of the paint fairly quickly. What’s nice is that this makes for a quick-drying paint coat on your model. It sounds like a lot of effort, but it really isn’t. As you "reload" your brush, you’ll stir it around in the paint tray and notice the paint seems a little thicker. So, you grab the pipette, add a drop of alcohol, finish reloading the brush, and back to painting. Nothin’ to it.

This is probably one of those points where it might seem easier to use an airbrush, but you work with what you’ve got.

4. Apply Paint To Plastic. Or resin. Whatever. With your well-mixed, perfect-ratio paint, you’re going to put the paintbrush to the model. This is also another place where it’s easy to see if your mix has too much or not enough alcohol. If you didn’t add enough alcohol to your paint, when you try to paint the model, the paint will seem to cling to the brush, revealing bare plastic as you attempt a brush-stroke. Solution: Add more alcohol–but only a drop or two at a time.

If you have too much alcohol in your paint, your paint will be too runny. And that’s exactly what it will do when you try to paint your model–it’ll run from where you’ve made your brush stroke, like water. And, again, revealing bare plastic. The solution is to be patient and wait a minute or three for some of the excess alcohol to evaporate out of your paint tray. Go drink a glass of water, eat some apple slices, whatever. Just give it a few minutes to tone down to where you need it.

The end-result of this effort is going to be a hand-painted model with a smooth finish that’s on-par with results achieved with an airbrush.

I should also note here that if you’re painting a broad area in a single color (like, the lower leg of some large, mechanized beast), then there’s another technique that will come in handy: Take a clean section of the paint tray, and just put a squeeze of pure alcohol into it. Dip a broad brush in there, and wipe the excess alcohol off the brush. From there, gently brush the painted surface in alcohol. This will help with smoothing the surface by re-wetting it and letting the paint "even out" to some degree. This also works as a quick and dirty solution to fix a bad wash on an aircraft wing.

5. (not pictured) Clean-Up. After the paint is down, there’s still some work to be done to be ready for the next paint job. The brush needs to be cleaned. Just swish it around in the brush cleaner bottle for a few moments. I actually get the excess paint off the brush (and onto a piece of scratch paper) before putting it in the brush cleaner. This speeds things along and prolongs the life of my brush cleaner. After a few moments, I pull the brush out and brush it along the back of my hand. If the brush is clean, I’ll just be brushing some clear alcohol/water mix onto my hand. Probably not great for my skin (dries it out), but oh well. If the brushstroke is not a clear liquid or if the brush bristles don’t appear to be clean, it goes back into the cleaner to repeat the process. Once it’s clean, I’ll usually wipe it down with a paper towel and let it finish drying on the "tool rack".

At this point, you may choose to clean your 99 cent paint tray. Or not. If I’m going to try cleaning a paint tray, I usually run it under the sink first, to get off whatever excess paint I can. From there, I’ll soak the "painted" sections of the tray in alcohol and then scrub them with the end of a Q-Tip. The Q-Tip step will probably need some repetition, in order to get as much paint as you can off the tray. And that’s about it for cleaning the tray. At 99 cents apiece, i don’t usually put a lot of effort into cleaning them, but I have trouble throwing them away, too. After all, I know I’ll probably be using that metallic color on whatever comes next, so I might as well hang on to the tray.

Special Thanks to the Stikfas figure for agreeing to pose with my various model painting bits and pieces.


12 Responses to Hand Painting With Tamiya Acrylics

  1. nandith says:

    My name is Nandith and i have huge problems painting white over large areas with tamiya acrylics.I end up painting thick layers. Please help.

    • zerobxu says:

      I’ve found that the best way to handle white (and red and yellow, for that matter) is to put a layer of light gray on first. Putting that lightly colored gray layer of paint underneath should eliminate most of your troubles.

  2. miyomiyochan says:

    Do you ever use primer? I tried using Primer for a Gundam model and it took forever with like 6-7 coats of paint :\

    • zerobxu says:

      Honestly, I rarely use primer. My workbench isn’t ventilated, and it’s not worth it to set things up to spray outside or in the garage. Sometimes, I’ll use a base color, though. I’ve found that using a Light Gray base works really well if you’re going to be using white, yellow, or red as a color. And I will occasionally use Mr. Surfacer 500 if I’m trying to give something a textured look (but this really is for larger scales, like 1/20 Maschinen Krieger subjects).

  3. Zeroaxe says:

    Dear Zerobxu,

    Do you have any advice on painting flat(or Matt?) colours? I have a Tamiya MotoGP Honda Motorcycle, and the inside of the fairings needs to be painted with flat black. Now wome might not bother with a good finish, as once assembled, it would be hidden. But I am a bit of a pain in the behind…, even THIS needs to be near perfect for me.

    Thank you in advance

    • zerobxu says:

      Honestly, if you’re hand painting it, the same rules would apply. Tamiya flat black tends to hand paint a little thin, so you may want to do two–maybe three–thin coats.

      • zeroaxe says:

        Dear sir

        Thank you for your reply. Yes, it will all be hand painted. And it is indeed flat black. I do not have a compressor for my airbrush yet.

        Thank you kindly

      • zerobxu says:

        I’m in a similar boat. I’ve got an airbrush and compressor, but no place to put it. My goals for 2014 and 2015 are to get a spray booth together and start learning to use oils. Not necessarily in that order.

      • Zeroaxe says:

        Dear Sir,

        I have been in hte process (for about 6 years now!) building a compressor from a fridge compressor. The thing that halted this project for all these years is to solder the brass fittings onto the mini steel tank. I can TIG and MIG weld, but not braze 😦

        Good luck with your project!!

  4. James says:

    I have been trying to get into Gundam models and have been told Tamiya is the product to go to, but for the life of me, no matter where i look, I can not find any place to buy the paint anymore, even on the Tamiya USA website, it says everything is out of stock, and the stuff i do find, its all spray paint, I want to hand paint, but can not find the color Maroon, and others, its frustrating, please help

    • zerobxu says:

      HobbyTown. If you don’t have one near you, it looks like Tamiya acrylics can be ordered via their website (www.hobbytown.com). Just go up to the search bar, search “Paint & Tools” for “tamiya acrylics”, and sort the results by “Price: Low to High”. There’s your bottles of hand paint.

      It also looks like Amazon.com carries them, but it may be a little more difficult to navigate, unless you’re looking for a particular color.

  5. James says:

    Yes I am looking for very specific colors, but mostly what I find are military and landscaping colors

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