Altering Magic: The Gathering Cards: A brief guide to the materials and the methods used
The following is a guide to the range of materials you will encounter as a MTG card alterer and what each material is suitable for. Please bear in mind that this guide is based on the materials that MrShy has trialed over the years and found to be good. There are usually alternatives available and a little experimentation is always recommended. This guide is also based entirely on MrShy’s personal experiences.
As an aspiring MTG card alterer, like many of you out there, I have a lot of questions about this dark art that needed answering. I really needed to know the basic beginner things like what materials and methods I should use, what gives good value for money, what should be avoided, and do I need anything other than paints or brushes? So I decided to sit down and have a chat with our very own alterist and fellow writer MrShy.
Chris: Let’s start with the most important tool. What sort of brush should I get?
MrShy: I would always recommend using Sable (horse hair) brushes, however there are some very good quality Nylon brushes that are soft enough to use for altering. I have tried a few and found that the tips deteriorated more quickly than Sable, but the bristle strength was very good for applying straight lines and thick colour blocks.
You will most likely want the following sizes, for the corresponding applications:
Size 3 or 4: Undercoating (also known as priming) and mixing colours.
Size 1 and 2: Block colour, in large areas, free-blending
Size 0 and 00 (2/0): Fine lining, detailed infill and small areas of block colour
Size 000 (3/0) and 0000 (4/0): Super fine lining, finest detail points and text.
Of course your brush control will affect how fine you can paint with any brush. I know top-tier Alterists who use a 0 for everything, including super-fine detail, but my brush control is not good enough to do that, so I use a 3/0 or 4/0.
Great, my brush control is pretty poor too so I’ll have to pick up a couple. What sort of paints should I be using? Will just regular paint from a child’s paint set do?
Definitely not! You will want to make sure you get a good quality paint. An alterer is only as good as his tools. There are three main groups of paints that are suitable for altering, miniature paints, acrylics and fluid acrylics.
As far as miniature paints go, the most popular brand is Citadel, made by Games Workshop, a UK based war-games company that produces the popular Warhammer games. These paints have a very high pigment yield and their composition is such that they have an intense opacity. They are awful for wet blending because of this opacity, but dither blending (where you paint progressively lighter shades close together) works well, with the application of a careful eye.
The Citadel paints come in two types, base and layer. The layer paints have a lower opacity, but are still not great for blending. I generally recommend people use mostly the base paints and then enrich the colours with the layer paints (the base ones have a tendency to look chalky when they dry, so adding the brighter layer paints into them alleviates this).
Miniature paints are often extremely fast drying. Citadel in particular are guilty of this – I have witnessed their paints go from pot-fresh to dry in as little as 3 or 4 minutes, in a warm environment.
Citadel Ceramite White is the best paint I have ever found for undercoating. I mix it with a spot of black fluid acrylic to undercoat all of my cards. It covers very flatly and totally opaque within 3 coats.
A basic starting set for altering with Citadel Colours would look like this:
Flash Gitz Yellow
Wild Rider Red
Altdorf Guard Blue
You should be able to accurately achieve most values using this set of paints.
I think I still have some of those in my wardrobe from back in the day when I collected Warhammer. I’ll go and dust them off and get started.
That’s not a great idea. Those paints will likely have dried out long ago. It will be better for you in the long run just to get new ones.
What about the acrylics and fluid acrylics? Which brands of these should I be using?
Both artists acrylics and fluid acrylics are suitable for altering. I have found Liquitex and Golden Heavy Body acrylics to be reasonable however my personal preference is heavily skewed toward fluid acrylics. The best fluid acrylics for altering by far are Golden Fluid Acrylics. These are the paints used by some of the best Alterists in the world, including Eric Klug, Brandon Brown and Fabian Sierra) and used by myself. The colour charts for artists acrylics usually use the same names because these names are derived from the pigment names used to make the paints. The basic difference between the two is just consistency. Fluid acrylics hold the same pigment density as heavy body, but are of a thinner base consistency. Since all paint for altering should be thinned, starting with the same pigment at a thinner consistency leads to a better prepared paint.
A basic starting set of acrylics or fluid acrylics would look like this:
Pthalo Green (blue or yellow shade are fine to start)
Pthalo Blue (red shade or green shade are fine to start)
Van Dyke Brown
That’s a lot more shades than the list you gave for the Citadel miniature paints. Why is this?
A lot of the artists and fluid acrylic paints have no white in them whatsoever, so their values cannot be achieved by mixing and conversely others require an amount of white pigment. Miniature paints are made up completely differently and are designed to be painted with a system that promotes lots of mixing. If you care to search the internet there is a chart somewhere that shows how to create every single Citadel paint from just three colours, but it’s a wasteful and labour intensive process.
You mentioned thinning paints earlier? What does this involve? Can I not just use my paints straight out of the pot?
Unfortunately, no. For purposes of altering, all paints should be thinned to approximately the consistency of full-fat milk. Water is perfectly fine, however most manufacturers of artist’s acrylics produce a flow improver which can be added to water, to help prevent pigment dispersal under thinning. Personally, I have not needed to or benefited from using this because I use fluid acrylics, which require much less thinning than heavy body acrylics. The upside of this is that it will make your paint go a lot further.
What do you use for thinning and mixing paints on? I assume a pallet of some type, but is there a specific one you use?
There are many schools of thought on pallets. Personally my two favourites are either a stolen Tupperware lid (it must always be stolen) or (and I don’t blame you if you can’t find this one) the egg trays from a box of quails eggs – these are ideal for making separate little pods of mixed paint.
A proper artists pallet is obviously excellent, but they don’t tend to sit on flat surfaces too great, since they’re designed to be held when standing. Watercolour pallets are usually flat but often contain shallower paint reservoirs and there are fewer of them. A lot of Alterists also like to construct a wet pallet – tutorials for how to do this are available online, but essentially it is a pallet that keeps the paint moist from underneath.”
What do you do if you make a mistake? Are there any tools that you can use to help correct it?
Definitely, use a toothpick. Toothpicks are one of the best tools in altering! A damp toothpick can be used to gently scrape away at the paint. This is perfect for cleaning up rough edges, removing excess paint and for correcting errors. I also create a tool from toothpicks, which I call a mop. This is a toothpick, cut flat and then chewed for a second to make the end slightly soft and frayed. It is perfect for scraping off large areas of paint.
Is there anything I can use to prepare cards and take the printed ink off to give me a blank canvas to work with?
Acetone is used to remove ink from cards before painting them. This is specifically useful when altering foils as it generally strips the foil back to its iridescent silver layer. It should be noted that this stuff is not only potentially harmful, but will really mess up your cards if used aggressively. BE CAREFUL!
Do you ever use a pencil on your cards for drawing or sketching? What sort of things should I be looking for in a pencil?
It depends what method you use to construct your alters. I use a 4B graphite artists pencil for producing carbon stencils and a 0.3mm H mechanical pencil for tracing the stencil down onto the prepared card. For drawing directly onto a primed card, I would recommend a 2B 0.3mm mechanical pencil. If you don’t understand the hardness gradings of pencils, essentially harder graphite (H) is no good for shading and blending, but produces very sharp lines, whereas soft graphite (B) is better for dark lines, shading and blending.
How about protecting the cards once they’re finished? Is there anything that can do this?
You can buy a finishing spray, an acrylic, liquid clear coat which is dispensed from a propellant spray can. The fumes it gives off are toxic, so if you do not have a well ventilated spraying area, I would not recommend it. Spraying cards gives them a much flatter, more uniform and professional finish. I would personally recommend Windsor & Newton Professional Matt Acrylic Spray.
If you want to create a matt finish you can also use a matting agent. Matting agent is available from most artists supply stores and can be used to remove a little of the plasticky, gloss finish that some paints have.
Do you use any other specialist equipment when you’re painting?
A good quality daylight lamp with a magnifier is indispensable for achieving high quality work. The light (as implied by its name) imitates daylight and therefore does not corrupt the perceived purity of your colours, like normal incandescent bulb light. The magnifying glass can be used for examining details and making adjustments(although I wouldn’t recommend painting whilst looking through it, as it screws with your depth perception).
Community Question: Do you have any questions regarding the tools or methods used to create MTG alters?
Any questions, please let me know in the comments area below.
Thanks for reading,