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I usually use acrylic, or water-based, paint for my modeling and miniatures work. I used to use oil-based paints enamels, but found that I achieve better results with the acrylics. In addition, cleanup is much easier with acrylics--all you need is water and a little soap.
A primer coat must provide a base to which later coats of paint can adhere, without obscuring any details of the piece being painted. This is what "priming" a surface means. Thus, any paint may be used as a primer as long as it meets the following requirements:
Thus, a wide variety of paints may be used as primers; you are not restricted to paints sold specifically as primers.
Keep in mind, however, the type of painting you are doing. Primer designed for painting houses (the real-world article that people live in) is fine-grained compared to many house paints, but would turn miniatures into mud-men. Though this effect might be of some limited use, it's not what is usually needed when painting miniatures.
Paints sold as primers are typically available in white, black, and various gray shades.
With "normal" paints (those not sold as primers) and a brush, it is difficult to achieve the thin, uniform coverage desired in priming a miniature. On the other hand, "normal" paints actually offer some advantages over "primers":
If the primer is also the base coat, apply a second coat so it doesn't rub off due to normal handling.
What Color Primer?
I generally achieve the best results with a white or light gray primer. Another possibility, with "normal" paints, is to use a primer the same color as or a little lighter than your base color. (It may even be your base coat.)
Since paints are not completely opaque, a white primer will make a base coat appear slightly brighter, while a dark primer will make the same base coat appear slightly darker. Some people even combine the two to provide subtle base-coat shading: a dark (usually black) primer with white drybrushed on the highlights before applying the base coat.
I recommend the Krylon spray primer. It works just as well as the popular Partha Paints primer, although it drys a little more slowly, but it costs less than half as much as the Partha primer.
Sold as Primers (in spray can)
Not Sold as Primers (apply with an airbrush)
Covering Large Areas
Coverage of large areas imposes many of the same requirements as priming. Thus, any "normal" paint you could use as a primer will probably be appropriate for covering large areas.
One of the most demanding of such areas on miniatures is the skin area of a scantily-clad female figure. You know the ones I mean: the totally impractical barbarian swordswoman in fur or chainmail bikini. The only way I've found to cover such expanses is to use an airbrush, and use the skin color as the base color for the entire figure. Brushes either leave too many "unnatural" marks on the skin or require too thick a coat of paint (or, usually, both).
For large area covereage, I've achieved the best results with Tamiya acrylics, thinned and applied with an airbrush.
Small Areas and Details
Use any paint you like. It doesn't hurt to experiment on something other than your miniature, though--craft sticks, that old swamp crawler figure, or whatever.
A number of matte and gloss coatings are available, both in bottles and in spray cans. Partha Paints' spray dull coat and gloss coat are both good, but expensive. I use a glossy clear polyurethane spray paint, with two coats applied, for all my miniatures. This provides the maximum protection to the painted miniature. Then, if I want a flat finish, rather than glossy, I brush on a flat clear overcoat. Or perhaps only apply the flat to portions of the miniature, depending on the effect I want.
I always apply a spray clear coat first because brushing on a clear coat always seems to lift and blur or blend the paint I've so carefully applied.
My preferred clear protective coating
Other possible clear protective coatings:
Matte or flat clear coating:
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