D&D Mini Figurine Painting: Enamel vs. Acrylics

I recently co-hosted a D&D mini figurine painting event with an exceptionally talented -- but amateur -- artist. After having already completed the preparations, advertising the event, and steeling myself for the inevitable chaos, I started purchasing supplies. There was only one problem.

"Wait. What kind of paints are you using, there?"

"Enamel. Everything I use is enamel."

"Oh noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo ooooooooooooooooooooooo ooooooooooooo ooooo..."

The Problem of Enamel vs. Acrylic

Enamel is an old school product. Decades ago, it was commonplace to use enamel on wargaming miniatures. Today, nearly everyone has switched to acrylic -- to the point where it never even occurred to me to specify. Acrylic has a few major advantages over enamel painting:

  • Enamel is harder to mix. It separates in the bottle, which means it has to be constantly mixed, and you often need to work with individual pots rather than mixing on a palette.
  • Enamel somehow dries both faster and slower. On a palette, it'll dry quickly and there will be nothing you can do with it. On a mini, it'll dry slowly and you'll need to wait. 
  • Enamel often dries glossy. There are matte enamel paints and finishes, though, which is why it never occurred to me our artist was using enamel.
  • Enamel is toxic. I mean, it's not going to kill you, but it's significantly less safe than acrylics, and certainly not for say, children.
  • Enamel isn't water soluble. You need paint thinner and mineral oils to work with enamel, while acrylic needs water. Just water.

So essentially, it's not that enamel is inferior as a painting product; it's that it's ridiculously difficult to work with as compared to acrylics. With mini painting, you need to do a lot of things such as washes and dry brushing, which become more complicated when you're using an oil-based paint rather than a water-based paint. 

The Benefits of Enamel Painting

It's not all negatives. There are some clear benefits to enamel, if you're willing to work with it. For one, it's hardier. You often don't even need to seal enamel, the way you need to seal acrylic; it's less likely to wear. That cheap, glossy finish isn't a necessity; as mentioned, you can purchase flat enamel, and you can go over it with a matte coat. Perhaps more importantly, enamel paints tend to be thicker and more vibrant. 

When comparing cheap acrylic and cheap enamel, the differences were extraordinary. The enamel undoubtedly went on thicker and cleaner -- especially when it came to bright metallics. The enamel was also better for small levels of detail work, as it went on thicker and didn't dry as quickly. That being said, it was a pain to work with, and multiple brushes became coated with thick layers of dried enamel that were difficult to later remove.

It's really no question: acrylic is almost always better for the purposes of painting. But enamel isn't the end of the world, and there are areas in which it could be quite useful -- such as painting minis that are likely to be repeatedly knocked around, or painting miniatures that need metallic accents.