ThINKing outside the box — acrylic artist inks

Sometimes, when it comes to finding hobby supplies, it’s best to go outside the hobby store or the FLGS and look outside the box a little. Art stores in particular can have a wealth of useful products because, if ancient cave paintings in France and Indonesia are any indication, artists have been at this for a while, much longer than us hobbyists.

IMG_2275One of the more recent additions to my hobby arsenal has been the acrylic artist inks made by companies like Holbien or Daler- Rowney, which would likely be available at just about any store which caters to the artsy types.

Both the Holbien and Daler-Rowney FW inks come in glass bottles, approximately 30mL, and are about $10 or so at the art store I frequent. The bottles are very short and squat, so there is little to no danger of spilling them, and the cap has a built-in eyedropper to transfer the inks onto your palette. While the glass in the bottles seems pretty thick and resilient, I would recommend a tight grip when you are shaking them for obvious reasons. The downside is that they are much heavier and bulkier than your average Vallejo-style dropper bottle, so they can be a little annoying to store and transport, especially if you’re someone like me who gets very particular about keeping his hobby supplies organized in an efficient manner. Overall, though, as someone who very strongly prefers the dropper bottles to paint pots, I really like the little eyedropper in the cap and have no major complaints about the packaging.

Inside the bottle, these inks are fairly similar in composition to acrylic paints, except they have a very thin, almost water-like consistency, and a very high pigment density. Daler-Rowney has about 40 different colours in their line, and Holbien has a few dozen more, though with the Holbiens, you will want to be careful that you’re getting the pigment-based ink and not the dye-based stuff. As you can see just by looking at the bottles, some of these colours are extremely bright and vibrant. The intended use for these products is seems to be calligraphy and other forms of 2D art, as the labels on the Daler-Rowney FW inks indicate that they can be used with a variety of different types of pens in addition to a brush or airbrush, however they will work well on miniatures and play nice with your standard hobby acrylic paints.

Anyways, there are a couple of uses that I’ve found for them so far. In addition to using them for glazing and inking your miniatures, they can also be used to help you paint difficult colours like yellow, orange and white.

Thin your paints!

Our average hobby acrylic paint such as Vallejo or P3 consists of a bunch of pigments floating around in some sort of acrylic medium. It’s why you need to shake your paints before you use them, to mix up and emulsify any pigments which have settled out. These paints tend to be not completely opaque, which is actually a good quality if you’re using techniques like glazes and preshading. However, because of the nature of the pigments, some colours tend to have more or less coverage than others. Black can cover pretty much everything up with just one thin coat, whereas yellow and white, with naturally weaker pigments, just don’t have the same opacity.

As a result, trying to create a smooth, opaque base coat with a brush in a colour like yellow can be difficult. The paint just doesn’t cover well, especially if you have a dark colour paint or primer underneath. One way that newer painters sometimes respond to this frustration is to try to glob on a thick coat, but that brings in its own issues. Thick coats obscure detail and show brush strokes, and the uneven coverage from a thick coat just doesn’t give good results. It’s no surprise, then, that “thin your paints” is a meme-worthy piece of common advice given to new painters.

The proper way to do it is in multiple thin coats, however the challenge is that by adding water or some other medium to thin your paints, you end up reducing the pigment density. For a lot of colours, this isn’t really a problem as even thinned out, you can still get the coverage you need with one or two coats. But if you’re starting with a colour whose coverage is kind of iffy at the best of times like yellow and then reducing the pigment density even more, it is going to be hard to accomplish your goal of getting a smooth, clean coat.

This is where our artist inks come in. Because of their very thin consistency, they can be used instead of water as a thinning medium. And because they themselves are jam-packed with pigments and come in some very vibrant colours, you can get the paint consistency you want to lay down a smooth coat while maintaining the pigment density you need to get decent coverage. You will still probably need multiple thin coats, and I would still recommend an undercoat as an intermediate step in extreme situations like trying to paint yellow over black, but this is going to save you a lot of time and trouble and give you a much better result than either globbing on a thick coat or struggling against paint that just doesn’t cover what’s underneath.

Further, when you’re painting freehand, symbols and markings, thin paints and a good brush** are key. By thinning your paints with these inks, you can get them to the perfect consistency such that they will flow nicely off the tip of your brush, and still maintain the coverage you need to get the effect you want. Reaper paints thinned with a white ink was how I painted the bear paw on the front of my Grolar, and that seemed to turn out quite well.

Glazing with inks

These inks can also be used as a glaze to tint your miniatures. On my shelf of shame, I have a few thrall warriors that I’m using to try out different colours, because I figure zombies are notoriously not great at coordinating their sartorial choices. So, with them all assembled and primed using the zenithal*** technique, I figured they would make perfect subjects for an experiment on whether these inks might be good for the “sketch style” that has been all the rage for the past year or so.


Sketch style is an increasingly popular way of painting miniatures which has been heavily promoted recently by people like Matt DiPietro. With this technique, you start by zenithal priming, then add some black to the shadows and white to the highlights to create a value sketch on the model. Once you’ve got your values blocked in, you apply coloured glazes and inks using a sort of paint by numbers style technique in order to tint each area the colour you want. The underlying values end up showing through the glazes and inks, creating highlights and shadows without the need for advanced time-consuming techniques like blending and layering.

In the picture, you can see the result on a couple thralls, next to some of their companions who haven’t been inked yet. While I would say that I probably should have highlighted the whites a little more instead of just hitting it with the airbrush from above and calling it good enough, these inks did a marvelous job of colourizing the sketch, and you can see some clearly defined shadows and some bright highlights on the shoulder pads. If you use a lot of inks and glazes and that sort of thing in your painting, or you are interested in moving into sketch style, I would definitely consider picking up a bottle and trying it out.

Other Uses

With the vibrancy of some of these colours and the high pigment density, I would imagine these inks would also be very good for things like fire, lava, and other glow effects. A bright yellow in particular would probably go a long way in conveying the intensity of the heat and light being given off by a campfire, as well as blend the underlying colours of the flames together. For the more fantasy-oriented, between these two companies, there are enough different colours out there that you could do all sorts of cool magical flames.

Also, if the label is any indication, these inks should be able to be shot through an airbrush pretty easily. While I haven’t tried it yet, I would imagine with their very finely ground pigments and very thin consistency, you could probably just drop them in the cup and pull the trigger with no thinning or other additives required. I’m sure you can get some quite nice and interesting effects, especially on a preshaded miniature. Vince Venturella did a product review on the FW inks recently on his youtube channel and he goes into a few other uses as well.

Final thoughts

Acrylic artists inks may not be the sort of thing that you are likely to find at your local hobby or game store, but they are a useful addition to any hobbyist’s arsenal. I’ve been using them for a couple months now and although I have the feeling that I’m just at the tip of the iceberg so far when it comes to their many uses, I’ve found them to be quite the addition to my repertoire. So, for those of you who have used them before, how did you find them, and what sort of tips, tricks and techniques would you recommend?


**What constitutes a good brush and how to take care of one so it remains a good brush could be an entire article of its own, but suffice it to say that what you’re looking for is a big enough belly to hold paint (no, put that 10/0 down and back away slowly), a fine enough tip to get that paint where you want it, and bristles with the right amount of springiness to work with your style.

***Zenithal priming is a technique where you prime the whole model black, then with either an airbrush or a rattle can, hit it with some white or light grey primer from above, or from whatever direction your light source is coming from, giving you a quick preshade. Value sketching is similar, only you take it one step further by painting in deeper shadows and brighter highlights with black and white paint.

One thought on “ThINKing outside the box — acrylic artist inks

  1. Pingback: Paintlog: Dana Murphy and fun with airbrushing inks | Ice Axe Miniatures

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