I swear this post isn’t as racist as it sounds… today I’m giving you a comparison of black paints and primers on EVA foam under different conditions. I’ve done the tests so you don’t have to!
Let’s dive right into the final result. It’ll make it easier to explain what’s going on if you know what we’re talking about:
Okay, so what is it you’re looking at? It’s a square (ish…) sheet of low-density EVA foam (45 kg/m³) that has been heat-sealed and treated with a single layer of Poly-Props’ SEAL Prime in black, which I’ve sort-of reviewed before. Note that a single layer isn’t normally recommended, but I felt it would be enough for this test.
This square is divided into four parts of roughly equal size, numbered 1 through 4. Each of these four squares has a different primer or paint on it.
You may notice that each large square is also subdivided into four smaller squares, indicated with the letters A, B, C, and D. This is because the horizontal middle of the large square was sanded a little to create a different structure (which was then heat-sealed prior to application of the primer), and because the vertical middle of the large square had a high-gloss clear coat applied after the primer and paints had been left to dry for at least 2 days:
A: black only
B: black on sanded surface
C: black with a high-gloss clear coat
D: black on sanded surface with a high-gloss clear coat
Finally, after all was applied and left to dry, the entire square had been folded back and forth fully, several times, both horizontally and vertically, to test how well each result would hold up to abuse.
With that out of the way, let’s review the results of our little endeavor.
Square 1 – Poly-Props SEAL Prime, black primer
Of all the squares, the primer by itself delivers the most matte result by far, which I thought was pretty interesting. Not even the matte black spray paint was as matte. Looking at square B, it is so matte that the lack of strong light reflections helps to hide the imperfections caused by the sanding, which could be useful on certain projects.
The primer also responded very well to the high gloss clear coat, where the matte turned glossy without any difficulty, and without any strange effects. Even in square D, which was sanded, primed, and had the high gloss clear coat applied directly to the primer, all sans paint, looks surprisingly good.
But it’s not all good news for the primer. Looking back at square A, the white speckles clearly show that a single layer of the primer really isn’t enough for coverage, which is unfortunate on what is already an expensive product.
Additionally, the large patch of missing primer is a result of it attaching to the masking tape that was used to apply the glossy coat in the vertical center of the entire square. Primer is, of course, designed to hold on to what is both above and below it, so the fragility of the primer layer when applying anything to it that you later want to remove isn’t necessarily surprising — but it’s definitely something to be aware of, as it can cause issues if this catches you unaware.
The fragility of the primer in that specific instance is offset by how incredibly flexible it is, however. Given the number of times the entire piece of foam has been folded in all directions, the consistently smooth surface structure of the primer layer, visible all squares A through D, is nothing short of astonishing. None of the paints come close to replicating this flexibility.
Overall I’m incredibly impressed by how well using a flexible primer without additional paints can work, if you have the right kind of primer and understand its functions and limitations.
Square 2 – Action Spectrum matte black spray paint
Starting from the most generic square, A, which is just primer and paint, there doesn’t really seem much to talk about. The paint, largely, does its job, although it’s interesting that it’s actually slightly less matte than the primer by itself. Because it’s slightly more reflective, it seems slightly less black as well, but the difference is practically negligible. For the price (€2 for a 400ml spray can) the results are pretty good.
What’s interesting is that, even though this paint is another layer on top of the primer underneath, it causes the imperfections and stripes from sanding in square B to be more visible than they were with just the primer. I suspect this is, again, because slightly more light is reflected with this paint than just the primer alone, and this highlights additional ridge detail. However, the difference is again negligible, and the results are about on par with what you’d expect.
One noticeable difference between this primer and paint square, and square 1 (just primer) is that while the primer was incredibly flexible, this paint is not nearly as flexible, and the repeated folding caused visible stress marks in square 2. These aren’t very noticeable in squares A and B if you’re not paying close attention, but become incredibly obvious when the a high gloss coat is applied (squares C and D), especially if the light hits it just right.
In most situations, these folds or wrinkles are undesirable, although it’s worth remembering this if you’re specifically looking to recreate a skin-like effect. Prime, paint, then fold a lot in different directions. Instant skin texture!
Overall the matte black spray paint does its job. It has some minor problems, but a smart person can turn those into clever solutions instead, in some cases.
Square 3 – Action Spectrum high gloss metallic black spray paint
After how well the regular matte black spray paint did, I had high hopes for the high-gloss metallic black spray paint, but I found myself disappointed instead.
Let’s address the elephant in the room — in both of the squares that were not sanded (that is A and C) the result was incredibly blotchy and inconsistent. This wasn’t an application issue — all cans were kept at room temperature, warmed up in warm water for several minutes before spraying, and shaken at least two minutes. There’s just some very strange reaction going on there.
Maybe that blotchy effect is usable in a future project, somehow… but more probably than not, it won’t be. Very disappointing, and obviously not remotely the “metallic black” that was promised by the can.
Having said that however, where this same paint was applied to sanded foam (B and D), it created a very pretty sparkly, glittery effect. That wasn’t what I was after, at all… but the effect was so good that I had to make a mental note to remember this. As you can see by comparing the two sanded squares side without and with the glossy clear coat (B and D, respectively) this effect is incredibly consistent.
Overall, this paint was both the biggest disappointment, and the biggest surprise. It’s essentially useless on regular foam, and it’s never going to give you a metallic black look. But sand it down a bit and the same paint goes from blotchy to bling, creating a really cool effect that I’m all but certain I’ll end up using at some point in the future.
Square 4 – Amsterdam Standard, lamp black, hand-painted
I suppose there’s something to be said for using quality paints. The Amsterdam Standard is Royal Talens’ line of study-quality paints. The pigments in these are a step up in quality from what is inside Action’s cans, with higher pigment density and higher-quality pigments, and I think it shows.
Of the four products used, this is easily the “most black”, especially after a high-gloss coat is applied (see squares C and D). Using this paint on a smooth surface with a glossy coat on top creates a particularly intense and consistent black that is unmatched by any of the other results we’ve seen.
The quality of this acrylic paint also shows in the almost complete lack of reptile-skin-like wrinkling on the surface, regardless of whether or not the surface was sanded or a glossy coat was applied. In terms of durability, this is an easy winner.
However, the inevitable problem with everything that is hand-painted it can be incredibly difficult to get rid of stripes, and indeed, despite my best efforts to avoid them, including some very mild sanding between layers and alternating strokes in different orientations on a layer per layer basis, the stripes are still noticeable on the smooth foam (squares A and C). It is worth pointing out that the sanded foam (squares B and D) hides these imperfections better.
Overall, I’m very happy with what spending a bit more for quality paint can do for your project, although as always, hand painting with brushes comes with its own inescapable issues.
So, now that we’ve compared essentially 16 different blacks, what’s the take-away? Well… there isn’t one, really. Unsurprisingly, different procedures and different products on differently prepared surfaces create different results. What may be entirely undesirable on one project may be perfect for another.
This article never existed to make a point, rather it now exists as a reference, both for myself and others, so they’ll know what to look for, or not, when applying their own primers and paints in a variety of ways – and I hope that it’s useful for others.
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