I haven't been painting miniatures for long. In the past, I've purchased pre-painted miniatures because I didn't have the time, money, or bravery required to paint miniatures myself. Recently, I've felt comfortable enough with my personal budget to spend a little money on a paint kit, and I buy a miniature every now and again.
I've got my favourite paint brand, and I chose it based on exactly these meaningless qualifications:
Yes, I haven't shopped around, I haven't tested different brands, or even researched what's available. I walked into a store, grabbed a paint starter set off the shelf, and bought it. I did it this way because it was easy, and filled with minor conveniences that let me get started painting quickly and without a substantial barrier to entry.
When I started painting, I heard from people that actually paint is paint, and there's no need to invest in special paint just for plastic miniatures. They told me I could go to any art supply store and buy any brand of acrylic paint, and use that instead. I did try that, and I had some success. However, I'm not actually sold on the idea, technicalities aside. Sure, maybe acrylic paint is acrylic paint. Maybe I'm overpaying for special "miniature" paint.
Or maybe I'm not. Maybe paint made for miniatures actually do have some special features and conveniences that are worth paying for. Here are six reasons, from a novice painter, that miniature-specific paints exist, and in my opinion are worth the money.
I don't have an eye for fashion. When I'm staring at a dull gray miniature, trying to decide what colours to put onto it, I'm almost always at a loss. And even when I settle on one end of the colour spectrum (a "cool" colour or a "warm" colour), I still don't really know what other colours to pair it with.
I could do some planning with applications like Kontrast, or I could refer to existing art. I know the resources available to me. But then you have to translate that research into paint, which you have to purchase if you don't have it yet.
Most of the people making and selling popular brands of paints for miniatures are really clever. They know what kind of models are out there, they understand the tropes. And they package their paints accordingly. I purchased a single starter kit when I started painting, and it came with colours I'd never have expected. I would have never assembled this kit myself. But to this day, my models get painted primarily in colours from that starter kit, because those paints go together really well.
Honestly, I consider the starter kit itself a work of art. I can't explain what it is about Averland Sunset (yellow) that makes it go so well with Macragge Blue AND Bugman's Glow (brown) AND Mephiston Red. But somehow, it looks great along with all of them.
Thanks to one kit assembled by some expert in the UK, I don't have to think about what colour combinations are right for this model or that model. I have a limited selection to choose from, and they all look great together.
With paints for miniatures, there's no special knowledge of mixing and thinning paint required. The paints you get from big brands are ready to use. I use the paints with the cool names, and they always live up to their promise. They go onto my models smoothly, I don't feel like they're caking or diminishing the detail of the sculpt. It just looks exactly like it's supposed to look. Using miniature paints is one of the few times I'm able to see something in my head and get pretty close to it in real life. I can't do that when I draw, and admittedly my painting skills aren't exactly what they could be, but at least the colour is spot on.
Jargon exists for a reason. In the setting of miniature painting, jargon can include common paint names. Among the right crowd, this gives you the ability to quickly use specific names of well-known paints to communicate exactly the look you're aiming for.
I have a complex relationship with jargon. In the tech industry, jargon is everywhere. It expedites communication among those who know the jargon. Frustratingly, though, it obfuscates communication when someone doesn't know the jargon, or when a meaningless "buzzword" becomes accepted jargon.
I recognise that the same danger is present in painting.
There's not much of a difference between saying "Macragge Blue" and saying "Desaturated blue", or "Tesseract Glow" and "Neon green wash".
Nevertheless, paints get named, in part, because the name comes to represent a very specific look and feel.
There are, technically, better ways to express what you have in mind.
#DD4081 (or whatever the analogue paint terminology might be) is descriptive and reproducible.
"Macragge Blue" is neither, and only barely has meaning if you know the history of the Ultramar.
But that's exactly the useful side of the jargon coin.
Among those who do know a group of paint names, talking in paint names is the quickest way to establish a common point of reference.
I just know this is probably a really simple problem to solve, but the generic acrylic paints I've tried have just been too thick. You can thin them, but getting it right and getting it consistent between paint sessions takes a lot of effort. I could probably do it in bulk, and then repackage the thinned paint in something convenient. But already this is 3 steps (research, thinning, storing) too many for my level of time investment.
When I buy paint for miniatures, it's basically the right consistency for my models. The instructions tell you to thin them a little, but it's really just a matter of basically wetting your brush and combining that moisture with what's on your palette. Basically, I open the lid, put a dab of paint on my palette, wet my brush, and then start painting. It's sweet, relaxing, comforting familiarity.
Paint your army or skirmish team in the same brand of paint, and all your toy soldiers look, appropriately enough, uniform. And the creatures that aren't meant to look uniform at least look like they are in the same world.
Since trying Citadel's Contrast paints, I can hardly bring myself to paint with anything else. The look of a model that's been painted with Contrast is nuanced well beyond what I'm able to achieve with normal miniature paints, and I really don't know that anything else quite like it exists outside of miniature painting.
I bought the Warhammer 40,000 paint and tool kit, and later the Contrast Paint starter kit, but there are lots of others out there. I'm not necessarily recommending any specific kit, I'm just recommending a kit. It can be from Citadel, or The Army Painter, or Vallejo, or some other manufacturer. My point is that it's easier to have a subset of options handed to you than to stand in front of the whole spectrum of the rainbow and assemble something yourself.
I've bought single paint pots since purchasing the starter kit. It didn't have literally everything I ever needed or wanted. It didn't even have a skin tone, forcing me to bravely mix White Scar and Bugman's Glow myself. But as an initial investment, and as a simplified and safe view into the endless possibility of painting, it was exactly what I needed.
When I look at a miniature I've painted, I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride, and that allows me to overlook the mistakes I'd probably find glaringly obvious if I saw them in a photo of somebody else's work. I'm an amateur miniature painter. And the more I relax into painting, the more I find that this is a surprisingly comfortable place to be.
T'au soldiers photo by Seth Kenlon. Creative Commons cc0.