How Paint PLA 3d prints with Acrylic paint

Leoric's Throne 3D printed Diorama - Painted by Grumpy Dude

So you just 3D printed this awesome 3d model on your brand spanking new 3D printer but you want to give it some colour? Well, you could have gone with MultiMaterial but what's the fun in that? My goal is to give you some tips so you can get started, I don't want to try and teach you how to paint as "Leonardo Da Vinci" as I'm no expert, but I have been painting 3D printed models for several years.
Leoric's Throne 3D printed Diorama - Painted by Grumpy Dude

What Filament to use?

The first question that many ask is what filament to use? I can't talk about all the filaments available but in my experience, PLA works like a charm and I've tried also some PETG with no issues. Considering that PLA is simple to use and easy to print I would say stick with PLA unless you want to do parts that are more resistant then use PETG.
When considering painting my 3d printed models the biggest concern is actually the colour of the filament. I want to have a filament that isn't too dark or too vivid. The explanation is simple, imagine you have to paint a model with a light colour lets says skin tone, would you want to paint it with on top of an orange filament? I would prefer to paint it on a light grey filament. I wouldn't recommend white filament as its really hard to see imperfections on the print. Some PLA are easier to paint than others and my advise is get some samples of filaments and try printing some small models to test it with some paint. Some materials produce smooth surface prints while others will produce less smooth surfaces. With so many filaments available my best advise is to test. You can get PLA samples from most of the reputable brands either free or at low prices

Preparing your model for painting

FDM 3D printers aren't going to give you the perfect surface finish that resin cast parts have, but you can get really good results with a well-tuned printer, some good slicer settings and good filament. None the less you will always going to have some imperfections. Some support structures that didn't break perfectly, some overhangs that didn't print perfectly or some visible layer lines. There are off course ways to improve the look of your 3d print but the most important part is a properly setup printer, good slicer settings and lower layer height. If you want to have a good model, don't print it at 0.30LH. It will take longer to 3D printing but you can get great prints with almost no layers noticeable when printing at 0.10LH or at 0.15LH
Honestly, not all models need a lot of work to get them to prepared, smaller models with very small smooth surfaces are less problematic but this will be dependent on the model. I always do some cleanup but many times they are good to go. I don't print at more than 0.15LH and some times go as low as 0.07LH
The first way to clean up your prints is sanding. Lots of sanding, using some nail sanding sticks, they work really well arent to the stiff meaning they will bend a bit and you can get them in different grits. I also use some sanding blocks for nail polishing as they are softer than the sanding sticks.
For curved areas I have a small USB Cordless Rotary Tool, they come with several accessories and are awesome to clean up prints with several levels of power and you can always buy additional bits and sanding tools with different grits.
Besides sanding down some areas, you will some times find you need to fill in some holes especially when your 3d Model is composed of several parts. Try and find what kind of putty is available in your Hobbystore or Amazon. I use Vallejo Plastic putty but there's a lot of other brands. I even tried wall fillers and wood fillers with some success and also used Milliput or any other Epoxy Putty. once you filled in the holes you will need to sand the surfaces so they are smooth.
Using some coarser sanding paper or sticks and working your way up to higher grits for a smoother finish. Depending on your model and the end result you desire, you can go crazy and go all the way to 1000 or 2000 grit and wet sand your model. Especially with Helmets for cosplay you want those surfaces to be perfect.
One other helpful product to get your 3D printed model parts smooth is to use some filler primer (automotive filler primers are my preference) these are great for larger models but they will fill in some of those smaller holes and then be easily sanded down to a very smooth finish. You may still need to use some filler for but these two products in combination work as a charm.
For more information on sanding and preparing your parts, I would suggest watching some videos from The awesome Bill Doran from Punished Props he's the king of sanding for a reason!

Priming your Model

I wanted to talk about this subject further ahead but sometimes as I mentioned before not al filament is the same and if you haven't tested filaments to see what works best for painting your 3d prints, you might find that paint doesn't stick well to the printed model. Sometimes as crazy as it might seem it's just the colour itself. Not all colours are the same even in the same brand. I have been using the same PLA for several years but some colours won't stick to it.
Using some primer might help, but when starting in this hobby, using airbrushes and airbrush primer might not be the cheaper way to go so just try and find some spray painting primer for models, like for example Vallejo Spray paint primer or Tamiya, just be careful to be gentle with the spray and give a light coat of paint to keep the detail.
One of the additional value of primers is to give you a start with the base coat for your models but I will get to the topic of base coat next.

The paints and material

At this moment I need to focus a little bit more in specific 3D models, I won't be trying to explain how to paint helmets and large armours but more on figurines and dioramas. There's a lot of great videos and tutorials out there about the subject and most of the information above applies to these.
There are several brands available with the type of paint you want to paint models, Vallejo, Citadel, Tamiya and others water-based acrylic type of paint. Its mainly a personal decision, people stick with brand A or B. In my case I use Vallejo acrylic paints for model paint and I'm not trying to suggest they are better or worst than other brands, find the one that you can get access to, the one that has the best price in your area and the one that has the wider range of colours available
When you start with no colours it becomes overwhelming, so many colours what do I buy? Well you can get a kit with most of the colours you need to get started or you can do what I have done and look at the model you want to paint and buy those. If you aren't painting huge 3D models the paints will last and as you buy more and more colours you will end up having enough to paint almost all the models.
To start off I would say not to go to crazy so would also suggest not to go into primers, but with time they become a useful tool to have at hand when you want to give your prints a base coat of a specific colour.
The next item(s) you will need brushes. I see a lot of people commenting "I need some good brushes" and yes its true good brushes are awesome but they are also very expensive. Probably for the price of one brush you can buy a whole pack of brushes from the 1$ shop. I have hundreds of brushes,cheap ones, small brushes larger ones, round, flat etc, You will figure out what you need as you get going. My suggestion, buy a set of brushes from Ebay, Amazon of the $1 shop. Try finding a set that has small brushes for those smaller details and some larger ones for larger areas that you want to cover with one single colour.
As you get more experience you can then go and buy some better brushes for painting small details on your 3d prints like Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable.
When you get more points and more experience you will also want some brushes for washes and Drybrushing (will explain these further down) but for now you should be fine.
You will need a pallet to set your colours and thin it down or mix it. You can buy any cheap pallet but I would advise to try and get what's called a Wet Pallet. These have some layers of material that will absorb water and when closed will not allow the paints from drying and its really helpful when you mixed some colours and want to reuse them the day after. Since you are into 3D printing here's one that I made and have been using for a long time: XXXX LINK TO WET PALLET
There are some other accessories you might want to get to get started, you will figure out what works best for you but I would suggest some plastic cups to sit your brushes when you have used them and before you clean them. Some earbuds to clean up any small mistakes. Since you have to clean your brushes and you want them to last as much as possible I would suggest getting some Brush cleaning product. I've used The Master's Brush Cleaner & Preserver for several years and even when paint is dry on the brush with a bit of time you will get your brush back to life. The small pot will last enough time so don't worry if it looks tiny:)
For now, I'm not going to approach the topic of Airbrushing but I will try and write an article about airbrush painting 3d printing model

Lets get down to painting

Ok so you have all your paints, brushes and you are ready to start! You PLA 3D print model surface is clean and sanded! Before painting consider what colours you are going to use, some colours will be easier to be applied before others, especially depending on the model and the details on the 3d printed object. Small details should be painted last.
Some colours need to have a "base coat" of a different colour, for example for metal colour its always good to have a black coat before painting the metal. The base coats should be applied with larger brushes as they are intended to cover larger areas.
Before painting you need to thin down your paint, as it comes in the bottles, will be too thick and you will loose a lot of the model details, you want it to be thin enough that it keeps those details and isn't creating thick coat. What you will find is that you will need to apply several coats of each colour so that the colour is properly covering the surface of the model. Don't worry if on the first, second or sometimes third coat it's still not perfect and is a bit transparent, its actually good because this way you can control much better the opacity of your colours, its more important thin coats than one big heavy coat of paint that will remove the details from the surface of your 3d print.
Since its easier painting darkest colours on top of a lighter surface start with light colours and work your way to the darkest ones. If your light colour goes on areas where its not meant to be, that's not an issue since you started with the lighter colours you can cover those mistakes in the next steps.
You can mix colours and apply darker colours on top of the previous ones, so don't forget that you can always darken the work you have done.
One of the techniques I use a lot and you will see it used a lot when painting miniatures and models, Washing, it's great to create contrast in your model and it's done by allowing a thin mixture of a colour that is darker than your coat of colour to flow into the recesses of the print. The mixture will dry leaving on the colour in those crevices making the contrast between the high and lows of the surface more evident. Washes can also be used to make a model look dirty or used. There are several brands like the ones mentioned above that also have ready-made washes but you can also make your own.
The final technique that I want to mention is dry brushing and works really well in combination with washes. It allows you to quickly highlight your 3d print and is done by using a brush with a small amount of paint. and wiping most of it away leaving only a very small amount - almost dry in the brush
There's a lot more to be said and tons of techniques and things to learn, but I don't want this to be an article, not a bible, so please make sure to search only for more information. I usually search for topics related to Miniature painting as its a good place to find great techniques that can also apply to painting printed objects. Youtube is a great place to find awesome tutorials.
Here are some links that will help you learn more:
Please keep in mind that it's all about training and practising, the more you do it the better you paint job will be.

Have fun and please share your makes!
Fr3D @the3Dprinting


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The3Dprinting 3D print Dioramas, Models and Props: How Paint PLA 3d prints with Acrylic paint
How Paint PLA 3d prints with Acrylic paint
How to Paint PLA 3d prints with Acrylic paint - Brief guide to painting your 3d printed models with Acrylic paints
The3Dprinting 3D print Dioramas, Models and Props
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