Next to a good game store, I love visiting a great art supplies store. Now, I'm not just talking about a craft store like Michael's, I'm talking about those hardcore art stores where you find all sorts of strange supplies that don't immediately seem applicable to our particular art form. Most of the items stocked on the shelves (or even better yet, behind locked glass cabinet doors) are developed by canvas artists, mixed media artists, sculptors, and other "conventional" art types, but they're slowly making their way into our hobby. However, since the average art store stockboy and clerk is completely clueless about miniature painting, here are a few suggestions from someone who has spent more than a few bucks experimenting with just about anything I could afford.
First of all, if any of you are local to my area (Vancouver, Canada), then I suggest you pop into your nearest Opus or DeSerres stores. Of the two, I favour Opus by a small margin... the one on Granville Island right next to the Emily Carr Art School has been around forever, and is fantastic. The students at Emily Carr are pretty cutting edge when it comes to art, and the Opus location there does it's best to cater to that. DeSerres isn't bad either... they've got almost everything Opus does, and a few things they don't (most importantly, the location on Grandview Highway stocked Raphael 8404 Kolinsky sable brushes, as well as Winsor and Newton series 7s).
That being said, if your favourite game store stocks any of the stuff covered below, try and buy it from them instead. I'm all for supporting your local brick and mortar store when possible... they're the guys doing their damnest to support and grow the hobby, and I feel it's our duty to return the favour whenever possible. My buddy Darren at Strategies started stocking W&N series 7 brushes some time ago, and brings in just about everything else upon request. He hosts a mean painting competition every October that brings in all the best painters in the area, and he does his best to learn what stuff we like to use.
If that's not an option, there are some great online stores that cater to us miniature artists, such as Secret Weapon Miniatures and Coolminiornot. Lots of neat stuff on offer, but I digress. The whole point of this blog is supposed to be about browsing your local art supplies store, so here goes... my favourite (and not-so-favourite) items found in an art store:
As many of you know, liquids have varying degrees of surface tension. Even in something as runny as the inks we use for washes, it's there, and it can lead to tide-stains when the ink dries, your shading washes not settling into the recesses of your model properly, and difficulty in getting your paints to thin to just the right consistency for more delicate uses like freehand work. Any time you are not getting the results you want when you thin your paints and inks with plain water, try adding a mix of flow release and water instead. Flow release reduces the amount of surface tension in a liquid, making it flow smoother. A long time ago, we used to use a mix of water and liquid dish soap (the stuff you use when you're washing dishes by hand). Well, that did the trick for breaking up the surface tension, but it had some nasty side effects of weakening the strength of the paint when it finally dried, leading to some of the paint just flaking off my models while I was gaming with them.
After hunting around for awhile for something better, I came across Flow Release, and it's 100% better. Buy a small bottle of the stuff (I bought the smallest bottle over 10 years ago, and I haven't finished it off yet), and then buy a tiny dropper bottle (you can find bottles similar to the Vallejo paint bottles at most art stores for about a buck and a half each). Fill one tenth of the bottle with Flow Release, and the other 90% with plain water (I guess distilled water would be better, but probably not necessary). Give it a shake whenever you're about to use it, and that's it. Refill as necessary.
Just be warned that if your mix is any more than 1 part flow release to 9 or 10 parts water, it may prevent your paint from drying fully... ever. I've done it, and believe me, no one likes tacky models that leave sticky coloured residues on your hands.
I've covered this stuff in my "Stupidly Simple Tip #2: Taking Care of Your Brushes" blog entry. Check it out if you haven't already. Your choices are "The Masters" Brush Cleaner and Preserver shown above, and "Pink Soap". "The Masters" is a hard cake of soap in a plastic container... you simply wet your brush and swirl it on the cake until the brush lathers up. Rinse the lather off, and you're good to go (although it also helps to apply a bit of hair conditioner to the brush once in awhile too). "Pink Soap" is a liquid soap... you put a drop of pink soap on your wet brush, and work it into a lather with your fingertips. Rinse, and it's done. Both do just as good as job. It's just a matter of personal preference. I can't recommend this stuff enough.
Brush Cleaner & Restorer:
This stuff is a gentle solvent that weakens dried paint enough for it to lose it's grip on your brush hairs. If I have some brushes that are pretty much used to heck, I'll use this stuff as a last ditch effort to rescue them. Soak just the bristles (and maybe part of the metal ferrule) in the cleaner. Do not soak the brush handle, as it will strip the paint off of it. Leave it overnight, and then rinse under cold water. Clean the brush with some brush soap for good measure (and work the soap with your fingertips so that the loose chunks of paint come off), and then see if your brush is good shape. It probably won't be as good as new, but there's a decent chance that it's still pretty useable after that.
I also use this stuff for stripping paint off of metal models. I've heard of people using things like PineSol or Simple Green, but this stuff seems to work well too. Heck, it may even be gentle enough to use on plastic or resin models, but I haven't been brave enough to try yet. However, I poured some in a jar and soaked some poorly painted metal Chaos Dwarves that I picked up used at a convention, and it really did the trick.
I picked this stuff up on a whim a long time ago. It does work as advertised: you take a clean (but mishapen) brush, soak the bristles in this stuff, shape the brush with your fingers, and let dry overnight at least. While it dries, the bristles regain their "memory" and get back into line. When you decide to use the brush again, simply rinse the dried brush shaper solution off. Afterwards, the brush should look roughly the same shape as when you shaped it. It's kind of like a hair gel for brushes.
Now, that being said, I find nowadays I simply use hair conditioner instead. It does pretty much the same thing, only it also conditions the hairs too, and it's cheap and easy to find. I'm guessing the brush shaper is probably better than conditioner when it comes to large canvas artist sized brushes, but for our miniscule little brushes, hair conditioner does the trick.
No matter what it says on the wheel itself, I'm NOT spelling colour without the "u". I'm Canadian, damnit! In fact, just about every english speaking nation on earth spells it with a "u", just not the States. If Americans want their own language, why don't they just start calling their national language "American", not "English"? Sorry... end of rant.
That aside, this is a really useful tool. Any time you are struggling to decide what colour loincloth would go well with green pants, refer to the colour wheel. These things have a neat reference on the back, where you pick a colour, rotate the inner wheel to correspond with it, and then it'll let you know which other colours will work well as complementary or contrasting colours. You can try out colour triads or colour tetrads. I don't fully understand the principles behind colour selection, but I can't deny that it works.
Oh, and "z" is pronounced, "zed", not "zee". :)
As miniature painters are stretching their boundaries and actively searching out new tools and techniques to incorporate into our hobby, more and more people are experimenting with oil paints. Military modellers have used oil paints for quite some time for weathering. Scale modellers who specialize in larger scale busts have worked with oils in order to achieve phenominal blends and hyper-realistic skin tones. We miniature painters are only now borrowing from both those camps, and incorporating them into our art form.
The reasons for NOT using oils are many. They take a long time to dry. You can't thin them with water, you need smelly solvents. They are really hard on brushes. Etc. etc. etc.
However, if you've mastered acrylics, and are looking for something more challenging to paint with, then oils are worth a try. They seem to have more potential, but the learning curve is daunting. I'm only just dabbling with them now, and I've had countless failed experiments so far. That being said, the few times I've managed to make them work, the results have been stunning. I'll keep you posted on my progress.
Now, your local hobby store is probably a better source for most airbrush supplies. My favourite places to shop are the kind of hobby store that carries entire aisles of R/C cars and historical model tanks. Those kind of hobbyists are passionate about airbrushes, and they usually carry a great lineup of dedicated supplies. That being said, for bang for the buck, I've found that the comparatively giant bottles of airbrush mediums, thinners, and airbrush cleaning solutions offered at art stores are hard to beat. I guess they're intended more for the canvas artist or t-shirt artist than for the kind of person who wants to put winter camo patterns on their King Tigers, and are priced accordingly. Whatever the case may be, the airbrush cleaners still work very well, and so do their mediums. Sure, Windex may be even cheaper, but I prefer to work with stuff purposely formulated for artists and their acrylic paints, not for OCD neat freaks and their Shamwows.
Wet Palatte Sponge:
Speaking of Shamwows, if you've got a Privateer Press wet palatte, be sure to toss the included "sponge" in the trash, and get this instead. This is a real micro-cel sponge, rather than the packing sponge foam that PP is trying to unload on unsuspecting customers. A sheet of "Sta-Wet" wet palatte sponge comes in single refill sheets, so you don't even need to buy their overpriced and oversized (for us) complete wet palatte set. Buy one, cut it to fit your wet palatte, and you're good to go. This stuff really is quite similar to shammies in that it holds and transfers a ton of moisture, and very evenly too. I haven't found anything to beat it, and they last forever. Just rinse any paint out of it while it's still wet, and wring to dry. I'm very happy with mine, and the single refill sheet I bought was 4 times the size of the packing foam included in the PP palatte, so I was able to cut up 3 backups in case something goes horribly wrong. Nice.
Anyway, that's it for now. There's probably a ton of products I've overlooked. When I get a chance, I'll take stock of the various odds and ends inside my painting cabinet and see what I can add to this topic. In the meantime, if there's something you use that I've forgotten (or not yet discovered), please comment and let us know. I'm always interested in hearing about new toys and gadgets, even if they're not new to some other genre of artist.