I've written before about how much I love Citadel's Contrast paints. I recently decided to try out a similar line of paints from Vallejo, not because I'm looking to replace Citadel Contrast but because I want more. I love painting with auto-shading pigments, so I wanted to see what colours Vallejo had to offer.
At the time of writing, the Xpress Color line consists of 23 colours. I didn't buy all of them, because many of the colors I felt were either similar enough to what I had in Citadel Contrast for me not to miss (how many reds or blues do I really need?) or I already felt I had as Contrast paint (I'm happy with Guilliman Flesh, so I didn't buy Vallejo's Dwarf Skin). I was buying online from Australia (as of this writing, there's now one store in New Zealand that carries Xpress Color), so selecting which colour I wanted to invest in was subject to a lot of guesswork. I looked at colour swatches and photographs, but results were always variable due to lighting, undercoat, and paint style. I did my best, however, to select colours I felt were unique to Vallejo.
Here are the colours I bought:
I find it odd when something is only discussed in comparison to the other thing. It's probably safe to assume that someone looking into buying Vallejo Xpress Color has likely painted with Citadel Contrast paints, because Citadel is ubiquitous. However, I don't want to assume familiarity with Contrast paint. For most of this post, I'm pretending like Contrast paints don't exist. I'm talking about Vallejo Xpress Color based on its own merits.
The Vallejo bottles are dropper buttles. I'm not a fan of this design. Being dropper bottles mean you have to predict how much paint you think you're going to need. I find myself either under-estimating and just putting one drop onto my palette, or over-estimating and pouring out a big puddle of paint that I inevitably don't use.
Verdict: I'm not a fan of the dropper bottle design. I'd rather have something I could open and dip my brush into.
The bottles are clear plastic, so you can see the paint contained in it. You might be surprised, though, at how similar Omega Blue, Black Lotus, Deep Purple, Copper Brown, and a few other dark paints look when they're just sitting in a bottle.
The bottle labels have no indication of what colour is inside (aside from some text way down at the bottom), and each bottle inexplicably has an orange ring around the black bottle cap. I really wish either the ring or the label reflected what colour paint was in the bottle. Obviously I wouldn't expect the colour of the label or the ring to actually match the expected shade of the paint, but a hint about what end of the spectrum the paint is on would be helpful.
Verdict: It would be helpful to have an indicator of the colour on the bottle somewhere, if not as a colour ring then at least a graphic on the label.
The paint itself is about as viscous as normal paint for miniatures after you've thinned it a little with water. It's "standard" practise to thin your miniature paint before applying it to the model (at least, it's standard practise once you learn to do it), so to be honest it's a little unclear to me whether you're meant to thin this paint or not. It feels thin already, so on one hand I feel like you're meant to just drop some paint on your palette, load your brush, and paint. I can't find guidance on this, but so far I feel like it's fine to use the paint plus whatever moisture is on your brush just from the normal painting process. But I could be wrong. I'm happy with my results so far, and I'm not deliberately thinning the paint, so I guess that's what matters.
Either way, this paint feels like it flows pretty freely from your brush. You may even find it a little hard to control if you're used to a thicker (non-Xpress) paint. With just a little practise, though, you get the feel of the paint, and I quickly learned to love how it moved over the models. You apply it to your model, you spread it over the surface you're painting, and you're done.
I mean, you're really done. Why? Because this is Xpress Color, and it auto-shades (more on that in a moment).
Verdict: Aside from my own confusion about how much I'm supposed to thin the paint before applying, I like the way this paint flows. For lack of a better analogy, it feels just a little "syrupy". It's thinner than paste, but thicker than water. It goes on smooth and it's easy to work with.
The really big deal about Xpress Color is that it's got dark pigments that gather in recesses but thins out over spikey bits and around the edges. This has the effect of automatic shading, with deep ridges and recesses seemingly in shadow and raised elements appearing to be highlighted. For this to work, you have to have an undercoat of white, or at least grey, because the paint is effectively transparent (or at least, less opaque) in the highlight regions.
The contrast between the highlights and the shadows varies depending on the paint colour.
I think Omega Blue, for instance, is meant to be a deep dark blue, so there's not much difference between the highlight regions and the shadow regions. Given a small enough area, in fact, there may be almost no difference. I painted a dwarf's cape with Omega Blue and could see the contrast, while the leggings of a kinder looked almost uniform. That's almost uniform. Even in small regions, I was able to detect variation, but you have to consciously look for it. That's not a bad thing. If you look at it compared to normal miniature paint, I think you'd notice the difference really quickly. There's texture in Xpress Color where there's just colour in normal paint.
Other colours, like Copper Brown, Snake Green, and even Deep Purple, have more noticeable contrast. The highlight regions are vibrant, and the shadows are deep.
There's basically no way to predict what level of contrast a paint is going to have. Omega Blue has the lowest contrast ratio, I think. I'd expected Deep Purple to be similar, and was surprised to find that it was a middle to high ratio. You might expect black to be a very low contrast ration, with dark shadows and not much in its highlights, but actually Black Lotus is basically black only in the shadows and gunmetal grey in the highlights. Omega Blue is by far the least contrasty of all the colours I've tried.
Verdict: Auto-shading works well and is likely to eliminate the need to use a wash (like Agrax Earthshade or Nuln Oil from Citadel). The contrast ratio between highlight and shadow is unpredictable from paint to paint, so it would be nice to have some indication of what to expect on the bottle (the words "low contrast" and "high contrast" on the label would suffice).
I've not done a scientific study on the matter, but I feel like Vallejo Xpress Color takes a long time to dry compared to other miniature paints. It's not so long that it's likely to slow you down, except in certain situations. For instance, I was painting three Duergar last night, doing the typical rotation of painting the same element on each dwarf in turn. As expected, by the time I'd finished painting the third Duergar, the first one was dry enough to paint the next element.
In this particular case, I was painting a cape and a shield, which due to the dwarves' pose was right up next to each other. (Technically, the cape may have been overflowing onto the shield, but the sculpt was so bad it's hard to tell for sure.) It made me a little nervous when I started to paint the shield, because the cape still seemed like it might be a little tacky. Would the Black Lotus of the shield disturb the Omega Blue of the cape, should a little paint bleed over?
No, it wasn't a problem. I'm not the neatest or most precise painter, so some Black Lotus did encroach upon the cape, and the paints remained distinct. They didn't mix or bleed into one another.
The Templar White paint, which is by far my least favourite Xpress Color, looked atrociously bad (so bad that I spent the night thinking I'd have to strip it and start over) but in the morning I looked again and it had dried and settled and it looks fine. Not great, but that's just because I'm apparently not a fan of Templar White, not because of the quality of the paint itself.
I was interested in trying Vallejo for two reasons. First, I wanted to see what kind of texture Vallejo paints gave a miniature. Citadel Contrast paints have a certain look to them, and it's a look that I love. I feel like it makes my miniatures look more alive than normal paints, partly because of the automatic shading it does but also because even subtle variation in shade feels true to life. How often do you look at a surface in real life and see a completely flat monochrome? There's variation in everything. Citadel Contrast paints surprised me by being so nuanced that they were able to expand my visual vocabulary. I was not only able to do things I didn't know were possible, I was able to notice things about paint I didn't know to look for. I wanted to see whether Vallejo Xpress Color had the same effect.
And it does. Xpress Color provides automatic shading plus a subtle variation in tone across flat surfaces, exactly as I'd hoped.
Secondly, I thought it might be interesting to have variance in colour choice. I don't intend to paint Blood Angels with Vallejo Plasma Red, or Ultramarines with Omega Blue. I'll paint them in with Citadel paints so my models conform to in-world regulations. But a Rogue Trader's coat or a mercenary's armour don't have regulations. They don't have to be a specific shade of paint. And miniatures for Pathfinder or Space Station Zero or Reign in Hell or Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu don't have in-world regulations. Colours are whatever happen in their fictional worlds, and nobody cares whether they're Citadel or Vallejo.
Xpress Color paints provide that variation. I haven't actually done side-by-side comparisons, and I don't know whether I could pick one paint brand from another, by its tone and shade, in a line-up, at least not yet. Xpress Color's also cheaper per millilitre, too, so if you're looking to get a reasonable spectrum of colour quickly then this is a great option.
I like Vallejo Xpress Color. It's easy to use and provides beautiful results. With limited colour options, it's easy to remain focused on what colours to choose. I think it's reasonable to grab a subset of what's available, just to hit all the essential shades, and you'd have a great starter set of beautiful auto-hading paint.
T'au soldiers photo by Seth Kenlon.