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Basecoats: brush, airbrush or spray can?

I’m about to embark upon a detachment of Ultrasmurfs, or at least Ultrasmurf successors, and the first logistical question was this: should I do the Macragge Blue basecoat with a brush, an airbrush, or a spray can? There are arguments for all three options, and as with all hobby quandaries, everyone must answer the question for themselves. Here’s my breakdown of the options, but let me know in the comments if you think I’m talking right out of my proverbial:

With a brush
A very large brush loaded with watered down paint will cover a model inside of about 30 seconds, but will need three or more coats for an even finish, depending on the colour. Your palette technique and brush loading also has to be on point (since it would be easy to overload the mini with paint) so this technique isn’t great for beginners.

Faffyness: 4/5
Quality: 4/5

With an airbrush
In my ignorance I thought this might save me time over a brush, but after talking to several airbrushing friends and after actually airbrushing a test mini, it turns out that actually what you’re getting is maximal quality but also maximal faff. Someone very practised in the use of their airbrush would undoubtedly reduce this faff time significantly, since they’ll be quick and efficient at getting the right paint consistency and so on, but this technique took longer than the other options by a wide margin. Two coats of Macragge Blue were still significantly darker over a black primer than the spray can, to the extent that it looked like Kantor Blue. That said, the texture was silky smooth, and after some more coats this would clearly produce the best finish.

Faffyness: 5/5
Quality: 5/5

With a spray can
So here you’re getting a strong colour over a black primer in almost no time whatsoever. The downside? You’ll get way more texture on the model, resulting in a vibrant but sub-optimal finish. I am an extremely lazy man, however, and am willing to skip my least favourite stage (basecoating) if it means a mildly less pleasing result. Your mileage on the texture thing may vary; see below for the results on a finished miniature.

Faffyness: 1/5
Quality: 3/5

Other considerations
There are other metrics to consider. First is expense. Spray cans are definitely the most expensive option unless you don’t already own an airbrush, in which case it’ll take a long time for that investment to pay itself back vs. individual spray cans. Secondly is the environmental impact, in which case spray cans are unarguably the worst, and the least efficient. At least where I live we can recycle aerosol cans? Still, not ideal.

Spray can test model: the results
As usual, laziness won out in the end. I decided to just use the damn spray can for my new primaris astartes detachment. They’re going to be Ultramarines successors (so that I can write my own background and characters) but for the test model I decided to paint an actual Ultramarines sergeant who’s been assigned to the successor chapter as an advisor, since they’re all new and innocent about the ways of the 41st Millennium. Here he is:

That blue is the blue spray can over a chaos black primer, followed by a single thin coat of Macragge Blue to help get a satin finish in line with the other surfaces on the mini. The highlights and shading were applied with the standard Ultramarines colours (basecoat Macragge Blue, line-in shade of Nuln Oil, highlight Calgar Blue, edge highlight with Fenrisian Grey).

It’s not my best paint job ever, but it’s certainly not my worst either. For comedy value, I feel it’s important to compare this guy to one of the first space marines I ever painted.

It seems fair to suggest that my painting ability and Games Workshop’s miniatures have both improved somewhat since the 90s.


  1. GW spray paints are about £10 or thereabouts. They like all cans run out at the wrong moment, they are difficult to control and you will miss bits that you will need to touch up with a brush.
    On Ebay you can pick up a compressor, moisture trap and two airbrushes new for £77 with free postage. My friend is a modeller whose kits have featured in Airfix Magazine and he started out with a cheap set up like this and his results were amazing.
    You can with practice and confidence speed up with an airbrush and for army priming and base coating things like space marines with one primary colour they are excellent.

    1. Valid points, well made! That said I suspect my marines project will only need two cans, and none of the other projects I have on the horizon are particularly suited to airbrushes. Airbrushes are definitely the way to get the best results, but cans are unarguably faster... and I really can't emphasise enough how lazy I am when it comes to basecoating :P

  2. The setup and cleanup time with an airbrush have always deterred me. Too much fiddling around for my taste.

    I don't know what you set your Minis on when spraying them, but I've found that blu-tacing them to some sort of sticks not only makes it easier to get full coverage, but also leads to smoother coats, since I don't need to tip the can, and can always use it at full vertical.

    1. It's a solid technique, although I'm always terrified with sticky tape or blu-tac that they'll fall off!

    2. I haven't had many issues with that, and when I did, they were while using low quality sticky putty for a second or third time. But I just recently found this stuff called "ArtSkills Poster Tack" that's the best version of it I've ever used. Since I switched to that, I haven't had any problems, even with a few metal Models (tho I did use more on them than on the plastic ones, and they were smaller dudes, 25mm base types). Somehow, this stuff manages to both hold more strongly and release more cleanly than any other variety I've seen.

    3. That's good knowledge! At the very least I can look into using that on my 'paint handles' (read: Tamiya paint pots with blobs of tac on top for holding minis).

    4. You've seen my "patented" spraying stick. It was about an hour before that one dryad fell off the other weekend and that was the third time I'd used that same bit of tape. Especially with plastic mini's, I just don't think you need to worry about them falling off.

    5. God, I've just re-read that first line - NSFW 8(

    6. NSFW yet hilarious, Andy... XD

    7. A spraying stick is how i undercoat all my models nowadays. Mine's called Glamdring.

  3. To be fair given the quality of the plastic sculpts in 1997 thats a pretty decent paint job ;0)

    1. I should pick up a fresh 1997 mini and paint it to the best of my ability FOR SCIENCE.

  4. Contrast paints might introduce a fourth option here, as it would be possibly faster than a bunch of brush coats, and may reduce the follow on steps. (although some have said that smooth surfaces are not where it shines)

    And yes, paint a 1997 figure again sometime and see how that goes!

    1. Yeah I too have heard that about the smooth surfaces, and want to make my marines detachment look nice, so traditional highlighting it is! That said I'm super excited to try Contrast on my Steel Legion, who can afford to look a little more scruffy :)


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