Sunday, March 13, 2011

Getting back to the basics: Primer and Varnish

I've tried a lot of new things this year. I now paint with an Optivisor and it has significantly improved my detail painting. I'm also adding Silflor tufts to my bases for my current rebasing project (more on that later).

Two of the new things I tried this year didn't work out as well.

I used to use gray metal primer spray I bought at Home Depot to prime my figures. It was affordable ($6) and the can seemed to last for a while and get pretty good coverage on the figure surfaces. I then would varnish with gloss spray varnish (also $6 from Home Depot) and then finish it off with a spray of Testor's Dullcote to take away the glossy sheen.

While recently at a game store, looking for a new can of my reliable Testor's Dullcote, I was talked into buying a can of Games Workshop black primer. The store manager(?) explained how GW had a carefully designed primer recipe that ensured good coverage without covering up the details of the miniatures. I also bought a spray can of "Purity Seal", the matte varnish spray provided by Games Workshop because the store didn't have any Testors products. I'm an open-minded guy, willing to try new things, but I did sputter a little at the the price tag for the cans ($15 each). Especially for a can named "Purity Seal." Really...

I assumed they would be worth the cost.

The GW black primer seemed to do a good job on my figures, but the can was empty after I primed about 100 figures. And it ran out halfway through a batch of figures!!! I wouldn't mind this if it was my normal Home Depot primer, but for $15, I expected a little more capacity for priming figures.

Unwilling to shell out another $15 for another can of black primer to finish the job, I started to do some research and after visiting Allen Curtis' blog, I read that he had something called "Gesso" that he used for his painting. I vaguely recalled hearing about Gesso, but brush on primer was always something I imagined some 90 year old English gentleman brushed onto his 38mm Seven Years War flats in his library.

I've used spray primer for 20 years and I never tried any other method of priming my figures. I always assumed that spraying the primer was the quickest, most efficient, and best method of applying the primer. I perused the TMP message boards and read quite a few positive reviews of Gesso used as primer.

As I stared at the empty can of GW primer (Why don't they have a name for the primer? Maybe it should be called "100 Figures Made Black"), I began to consider my past experiences with spray primer:
  • Even after spray priming the figures, I often have to go over them again with a brush-coat of thinned black paint to cover the angles and crevices the spray can missed. It seems impossible to angle the spray can to completely cover the figure.
  • I'm always worried about the humidity, or the temperature, or if the primer will come out fuzzy, or too heavy.
  • There's nothing like standing out in freezing weather trying to prime outside with a spray can, using your body to prevent the wind from blowing the primer away from the figures.
  • The smell. I can prime my figures outside, leave them outside for 3 hours, bring them into the garage, and after 15 minutes, the primer smell will drift through the house and earn me the stinkeye from my significant other.
So, I printed out a 40% coupon for Michaels Craft store, drove out to the store, and picked up the last bottle of Liquitex Black Gesso for $8.40. Once I arrived at home, I squirted out a little of the Gesso, brushed it onto the figures, and it worked great. No smell. No mess or mixing. Great coverage. It looks like it is enough Gesso to prime hundreds of figures. And it didn't obscure the detail on my Perry Miniatures' men-at-arms.

Now, about this Purity Seal. It definitely does the job and takes the gloss shine off of my gloss-varnished figures, but like the primer, it seemed to run out of steam after about 100 figures. It didn't perform any better than my old, reliable Testors Dullcote spray and I can buy at least 3.5 cans for the price of 1 can of GW Purity Seal.

Overall, both GW products produced satisfactory results, but the high cost makes them, in my opinion, a poor investment. Although I have to thank Games Workshop's high prices for giving me the motivation to try out Gesso. I think my wife thanks them too.


  1. Thanks for posting this; I have a mess of figures to prime and as you know, Michaels is only a quick ride down the Old Road. ;)

    Also, thanks for the reminder on the Optivisor.

  2. Matt,

    Try to get the Liquitex brand if you can.

  3. I just used the Bob Ross brand grey gesso on some 15mm figures and couldn't tell any difference from the grey spray primer I usually use-- other than I didn't have to get out in the cold rain, like you mentioned! Certainly more cost effective, although perhaps less efficient.

  4. Andy,

    I think the efficiency varies with the type of miniature. The spray primer rarely gets into the awkward areas of the humanoid-shaped miniatures and I found that it doesn't take much time to brush on the Gesso.

  5. Interesting that you've got such poor mileage from your "Purity Seal". I've been using it for a while (I'm not a GW fan in general, but as far as spray varnish is concerned its about the best I've come across). My current can has so far allowed me to cover my entire 15mm Sudan armies (about a thousand figures), dozens of 1/144 aircraft, 30 1/600 ACW ironclads and a dozen sizeable terrain pieces.

  6. Ive got a different brand of Gesso which is in a low wide mouthed bottle and the $%^&*@ lid is glued so hard I'm considering cutting it off and decanting into something else. I've also had success running it through an airbrush.

  7. As far as GW sprays, I have quit them for Armory Primers and spray matt. The GW sprays have given me nothing but trouble.

    Have not tried Liquitex Gesso for priming but do use their Acrylic Effects Texture Gel for covering the bases of my figures, as it it water based and I just add my favorite earth brown to it "away we go!"

  8. I was naughty and ordered the Liquitex gesso in both white and black 8 oz each totaled something like $13 on Amazon - I'm looking forward to trying them out.

  9. Good decision and way to cover your painting options, Matt. I've read that Liquitex is the best brand for immediate application without any need to water it down.

  10. I have been looking for a brush on primer for a long while. I just picked up some Liquitex Gesso from Michaels (40% off) the other day. I look forward to trying it out. Thanks for the tip!