Paints for Action Figures 101: What kind, how to, and more!

Ok, first things first! There's two different kinds of paints out there, and they're called "Acrylic" and "Enamel". AVOID ENAMAEL PAINTS LIKE THE PLAGUE if you are going to paint an action figure. Enamel paints are good for one thing, and one thing only: styrene plastics. What's styrene? The plastic your model car kits are made of, not action figures! Use enamel on a figure, and 99% of the time you'll have a sticky-never-drying mess.
With that out of the way, on to Acrylic paints!

)))But what are Acrylic paints?

Water-based paints, easy clean up, and they don't wear off or wash off, and are waterproof when they dry. The paint jar label will always tell you what kind of paint it is. Avoid poster paints, those are low-quality chalky ones.

)))What kind of Acrylic paints should I use? Brands?

Well, I strongly recommend you go out to a local hobby-shop and demand the best: Citadel Paints from Games Workshop. I to this very day have paint from them that's TWELVE YEARS OLD, and I'm using it to this day. Keep the caps on tight, keep them out of the sun and light, and they'll be there for you FOREVER. Keep in mind Citadel makes only flat paints, no shiny ones.

Citadel makes almost every color under the sun, but you'll still need gloss red, gloss black, and other Buy Testors Model Master Acrylic Enamel. Yes yes, I know I said to stay away from enamel paints, but if you read the lable it says "Acrylic-Enamel, water wash-up". That's what we need. Testors paints are also extremely high quality, and are widely available at hobby shops around the world. Both Citadel and Testors paints can be mixed together, and I reccomend buying an assortment of both.
There's more companies out there like Polly paint, so experiment if you want to try a variety.

))) Ok, I have the paint, I have the toy, brushes?

Ahhh, brushes! I don't really know how to direct you to brushes, except you'll need something around 00 to 000, or even 0000. Those are the REALLY tiny brushes, good for detailing lines, eyes, fingers, etc. I have about 15 different brushes at the moment, ranging from coarse to fine, depending on what kind of paint scheme I'm trying to achieve. However, you'll want a small brush for fine detail work, a medium brush for large coverage work, and another medium brush for washes (with fine camel hair I suggest) and a couple medium to large disposable (read as not expensive) brushes for the "dry-brush" technique. Make sure you inspect all your brush tips at the store for any flaws, splits, or defects. When you lick the tip between your lips (and you will, many times, hehe) the ends should taper together perfectly, and not split apart.


Yes, now the fun part, time to paint! First off, if the main color of your figure needs to be a different color than it started out with, you must apply a 'base coat' to it. Some people use airbrushes to accomplish a perfectly flat coat, but I'm insane, and have been painting long enough with brushes that I can achieve the airbrushed look with a brush. Make sure your paint is thin enough so that it settles on the surface without leaving brushstrokes. You may need 1-2 coats, depending on the paint. maybe two at the most.
A hair-dryer speeds up the drying process, and I've had one plugged in next to my desk for the past 15 years, same one too. Make sure you wait till the figure completely cools before you start painting again, or the paint will dry too fast, leaving brushmarks.

Now, base coat is done, do we want to do a wash? Wash's are done by really thinning out the darker version of the base coat (or black in many cases) and spreading it over the figure so that it fills the cracks and crevices to achieve a "shadow". Say you got Captain America here, and need to make all those little scales on his chest stand out. You're not going to paint in each one by hand are you? Heaven's no! Your paints are water-based, so get a spare (and clean) soda-cap or something, and put a few drops of paint and a few drops of water in. You'll want to mix the paint to the consistancy of milk. Also remember, it needs to be a darker color than the base coat to give the shadow effect.

You use a medium fine, to large fine brush and apply the thinned paint wash on with even strokes. The paint will seep into any crevices, cracks, and folds, giving the appearance of a shadow in the deeper areas. Great for folds on clothing, cloaks, and face-detail around teeth. You can use really thinned down black paint, which I do most of the time. If too much of the wash is apparent on the surface, wipe some off, or thin the paint down some more.

Highlights! So cap's scales are all dark, and his boots have nice dark-red folds in them. But he's needing a little "shine" to his chest, he's an American Icon afterall, not the dark and gritty Punisher! So apply a highlight. This is usally done with the technique we like to call, 'dry-brushing'. First, find a lighter color than the base-coat (or white if you like that effect) and dab the whole tip of your cheap brush in! Now, wipe as much paint as you can off on the inside of your paint jar, and the rest on a napkin or paper-towel. No, you didn't wipe all the paint off, it may look sparse, but that's what we're after.

Take your wiped-off-brush and gently stroke it back and forth across the areas you want highlighted. The small amount of paint left on the brush isn't quite dry yet, and will slowly adhere to the surface of the painted figure with each passing stroke. The more strokes, the brighter the highlights. Experiment a little, and you'll find the right amount of wiping-off you need to do to the brush.
This is also a great way to do realistic "metal" looks. Paint the base of the object flat black, and dry-brush silver paint on. Turns out awesome!


Now comes the painstaking work. Grab that fine 0000 brush you have and start making the figure look like you want him to! Eyes, Symbols, teeth, bands, stripes, all that has to be done carefully. This of course takes time and practice. You'll figure out YOUR favorite way of detailing over the days and months you practice, so keep at it, and try new things. I always like to put a black wash around teeth, and then re-paint the teeth to make them stand out. You may like dry-brushed-on teeth better, so try both ways. I also dry-brush and wash very small areas, like belt-buckles and around muscles, that again is up to you.

)))Can I play with these things now???

Yes and no. Any paint you put on can be rubbed off with time (even factory paint can, as we all know) so I don't really 'play' with my figures. They can be posed many many many times over of course, and will stay clean and vibrant so long as you handle the figures with CLEAN HANDS. Hand oil has a horrendous effect upon paint, and can turn the paint gummy over a short time. Nobody picks up my figures unless they've washed their hands, grrr. If you really want to protect your figures, there are different brands of clear-acrylic-sealer you can buy. Matte, (flat), satin, or gloss is up to you. Test-seal a painted area first, because some of that "acrylic" sealer likes to strip off paint... I found that out the hard way a few times.

You REALLY want to protect a part of your figure? Say the leg is rubbing some paint off of the hip, or those teeth on Venom that stick out keep getting the white chipped off? I got one word for you: SuperGlue. Yup, and please please be careful! You can glue your fingers together, and worse if you get careless with this stuff, so only attempt what I'm about to describe with UTMOST care.

Drip some super-glue out onto a disposable surface, and grab a toothpick, the other end of your brush, or if you're a pro like me, your fingertip! Don't glop a drop of glue onto the painted surface, but a thin layer. Spread it on quickly, then do not touch it until it dries! You now have a clear, almost bullet-proof surface that won't rub off easily at ALL. Again, please be careful when trying this, and only do this if your figure really needs the protection in that spot.

))))We done yet?

So what all do you need? Paint brushes of different size, cup of water, paper towels, something to paint on (use cardboard, not newspaper, as the ink rubs off on things) some rubbing alcohol if you decide to remove some paint here and there, some toothpicks, and superglue (god-forbid, heh) I like to buy the expensive paint brushes that cost like $5.00 for a tiny one. You get what you pay for in this case, and they can be pricy! Take care of your brushes, and they'll take care of you for YEARS. Always wash them through and through, and store them upright or on their side.

Well, that's all I can think of. If you have any painting questions, Ask away. I'm always available at: