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Painting Metallics

By Anthony Karl Erdelji

A few months ago while painting the armor of some forgotten miniature it occurred to me that metallic paints are probably the most unappreciated mediums of a painter. Most painters can be broken down into two groups; the beginner who drybrushes all of their metal, or the experienced painter who feels they can get a better metallic look using non-metallic paints and techniques. I believe both of these groups are not using metallic paints to their full potential. Just like a paint brush, metallic paint is a tool, and once it is understood how to use that tool properly, the sky is the limit.

To begin with let us define what is a metallic paint. Metallic paint is simply any paint that contains tiny flakes of aluminum, or another reflective material, that gives the paint a sparkle when applied. These are used for painting any parts of a miniature that the painter want to look like metal, such as ancient armor and/or weapons. 

Nearly all paint brands contain a few metallic paints. They most often come in steel, silver, gold, brass, and bronze. These five primary metallic colors are mandatory for every painter. A few paint lines have an extended range of metallics, including copper, tin, gunmetal or other real-world metals. While not necessary for all painters, these colors are highly suggested for painting a wider variety of metallic effects. There are even a few paint-makers that include more unusual metallic colors, such as metallic greens, reds, blue, and their like. It is up to the individual painter to decide if these are necessary, as most will not find a great need for them, plus they can be created by mixing silver with the appropriate color.

Choosing what brand of metallic paint to use is different than when choosing a non-metallic paint line. That is to say, a company that makes great non-metallic paints may make poor metallics. Short of putting the paint to use, the easiest way to tell a good metallic from a bad one is to look at the bottom of the paint bottle. In general, the finer the metal flakes, the better the metallic paint.

Currently I most often use the Vallejo Game Color line of metallic paints. The Game Color line has nine metallics, ranging from the common gray metals and gold, to tin, bronze, brass, and even red copper. The Game Color line should not be confused with Vallejo's Model Color line of metallics, which seem second-rate compared to the Game Color. If the Game Color line is not available to you, try Games Workshop's line of metallics. They are a small step down in quality from Game Color, more expensive, but are available in nearly the exact same colors.

Another benefit of the Vallejo Game Color (and GW) is that the wide range of metallics available means there is little need to mix them together to create highlights. Steel can be painted with a basecoat of Gunmetal Metal, then a highlight of Chainmail Silver, and another one of Mithril Silver. Gold is just as easy by basecoating with Bright Bronze, and highlighting with Glorious gold, then Polished Gold. These basic color recipes will get you through most painting situations.

The simplest (and highly overused) method used with metallics is drybrushing. Dip the tip of your brush into your metallics paint, wipe it repeatedly on a paper towel or rag, then drag it across the miniature. This is effective, but very limiting. Ideally, drybrushing should only be used for high-texture pieces, like chainmail or tank tracks. It is true you CAN drybrush metallics on other types of surfaces, but the results will not be the best, and you limit yours and the metallic's potential.

For solid metal pieces (like platemail), metallics can be thinned and layered on just like any regular paint. However when thinned the metal flakes in the paint can separate from the pigment in the paint, making it difficult to use. My personal preference is to thin metallics with a 50%/50% mixture of Future Floor Polish and water. The Future is slightly thicker than water, which suspends the metallic flakes in the mixture, rather than allowing them to wash away.


This Dark Elf warrior is a good example of all the steps previous mentioned. Using the color precipices mentioned above, the scalemail was drybrushed and the shield was layered.