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Painting a Face: Oils over Acrylic

Basecoating with acrylics

The purpose of basecoating in acrylics before applying the oil paints is simple: coverage. When working with oils, you will find some have different opacities and, depending on how thin you put them on, it is very possible that you may see what lies beneath. In our case that would be the gray primer. So in order to prevent this we lay down a "safety net" of color.

Do they have to be a perfect match to the final desired color? No. As long as you are in the complimentary range you will be fine. The closer you are the better, but do not drive yourself crazy trying to get there.

Here is another rule to consider: if you are going to take your figure painting seriously, then there are a few things you need to maintain control over.

  1. Your workspace: Giving yourself enough room to work is important. We all know how our working area quickly shrinks as we get more and more involved in a project. Take the extra couple of minutes to clear a nice area for you to lay your paints down, and all your supplies. It makes the process much more enjoyable.
  2. Your supplies:Take proper care of your paints and brushes. A few extra minutes taken to properly clean and maintain your paint jars and brushes will save you money and headaches.
  3. Develop a routine: Once you learn how your paints and materials work, take mental notes and try to replicate good results. For example: how many of us have started a figure with clean brushes, fresh water, and good lighting? Then how many of us have picked up a figure and used older/slightly dirty water with poorly maintained brushes, and maybe not the same light configuration? I am sure several of us can answer yes to that. I know I have. Stick with what works! Repeating good results leads to growth and improvement.
  4. Learn to work within your abilities: Let's face it: there are those that can pick up a brush and without even a second thought will turn out a stunning masterpiece. Then there are those that struggle for hours on end only to end up with something that could barely be considered human. Hopefully you and I fall somewhere in between that. The truth is: we all have different levels of ability. Find out what yours are, and work to perfect them within your current level. The purpose of this is to have fun. Learn to be pleased with your accomplishments no matter how they stack up to the pros. While learning, only compete with yourself. If you stay focused on that aspect, before you know it you'll be up to the next notch.

OK, enough of that. Let's get on with the steps:

Here you see the supplies I used for basecoating this figure: paints (Ed: note that for basecoating the head the author only uses Acrylicos Vallejo Model Color 876 Brown Sand, and the other colors shown above are not required for painting the face. AV 876 Brown Sand is used for the base of darker skintones, whereas AV 955 Flat Flesh may be used for a lighter skintone base); 3 sizes of brushes (#3, #1, #000); a clean 10-well tray; fresh water; and a cotton cloth. I prefer to use a cotton cloth over paper towel as paper towel tends to disintegrate and can lead to fibers and dust ending up on your figure.

Here you see a close up of the brushes I use. I'm not loyal to any particular brand, but will rarely spend under $5.00 for a brush. That's just what works for me. For basecoating, accuracy isn't as much a factor, so I like to do as much work as I can with the larger brushes. They hold more paint, and cover faster.

I started by preparing my fleshtone color using Acrylicos Vallejo Model Color 876 Sand brown. Please note that I am only using two drops of paint for this figures flesh areas. Many people have a habit of squeezing out far more paint then they'll ever need, only to have it dry up on their palette unused. A little goes a long way in this case. I then added two drops of water to make the paint a thin consistency. The key for a basecoat is to get good coverage, but not to obscure any detail with thick paint, or leave any unsightly brushstrokes. I then mix the paint and water with the end of my paintbrush.

When loading your paintbrush, be sure to only dip the bottom half of the bristles into the paint. You want to avoid getting paint under the metal part (ferrule). This will cause your bristles to spread out and loose its nice point. After I load the brush, I lightly touch it to my cloth to absorb some of the water. This will prevent your paint from running down your figure uncontrollably.

Starting with the face, make nice quick strokes, moving around the whole head making sure to get good coverage. Don't worry if it looks like the paint isn't covering well at this point. Make sure not to overwork any areas at this time. As the paint dries if you continue to stab at it, you will start to create streaks and clumps.

A good rule to follow when painting a figure is to paint it in the order you get dressed. What the heck am I talking about? Simply, it means paint the lowest details first and work your way out to the surface. That way you avoid having to get into tight spaces and risk getting unwanted paint on finished parts.

You may notice that pools of paint are collecting in some of the recessed areas such as the eye sockets. Unload your brush onto the cotton cloth and then gently touch it to the eye sockets and allow capillary action to wick away the excess paint. After you've checked the head over for good coverage, you can put your figure in front of a light bulb to speed the drying process. MAKE SURE IF YOU ARE WORKING WITH A PLASTIC FIGURE, THAT YOU DON'T MELT THE PIECE BY PLACING IT TOO CLOSE TO A HOT BULB! Once dry, repeat the process with a second coat. This should result in sufficient coverage.

Don't worry about slopping paint onto surrounding areas of the head: the paint is thin enough that you can easily wipe it away with a clean brush loaded with water.

I know I said not to worry about getting colors on other parts, but if you can avoid it, why not try. Again, notice that the first coat isn't covering 100%. This is fine. After it dries, the second coat should do the job.

Here you see how I dry my paints in between coats. This would be a good time to clean your brushes too. After vigorously agitating them in clean water, you want to gently drag the brush as shown over a clean area of your cloth until no pigment is appearing.

About the Author

About John Pradarelli (john17)

A modeler off and on (as time permits) for over 20 years. By day I work for a Model Railroading company in Milwaukee, WI. By night you'll find me spending time with my wife and two boys...until they go to bed. Then it's off to the basement where I will work on figure painting, armor, planes, diorama...


I came to this article via another post, don't know how I missed it when published. It's very well explained and I'll be trying it out soon. Thanks Rudi for publishing it and of course to John for writing it
MAR 15, 2008 - 07:59 AM
Hello John P. and Rudi John: thank you for writing one of the best face painting tutorials I have seen to date. I think one of the best things about this tutorial is that some of the techniques displayed here lend themselves to various mediums, and not only oil. The diagrams featuring high and low lights are worth their weight in gold. Rudi: nice job at putting the various forum posts together. Thanks for your hospitality during my visit. See you next year. John
MAR 17, 2008 - 06:47 PM
I know this is an old thread but was wondering which Winsor & Newton Oils were used, the Artist's grade or Winton student grade?
DEC 07, 2009 - 01:06 AM
Hello Glueit, To be honest with you, I have an arsenal of both artist grade and student grade Winsor & Newton paints. Not out of intention, but more a case of me just grabbing whatever I happened to pick at Michaels craft store. I'm not married to one grade over another. I haven't done any extensive testing to determine the benefits of artist grade versus student grade in terms of figure painting. Frankly, I think both are acceptable. The artist grade offers more color choices, and uses a higher level of pigmentation. Again, I don't think in what we do this wil be too much of an issue. I hope this helps you in making your buying decisions. John
DEC 07, 2009 - 04:36 AM
Thanks for the reply. I knew that the artist grade offered a higher grade of pigmentation which i guess would not fade as fast as lower concentration of pigment. also the artist grade are a lot more money, but for figure painting it would go a long way as well as the student grade. I have read your articeles pertainting to painting and have found them very useful. If you know of any other articles you can recommend i read let me know! thanks
DEC 07, 2009 - 07:02 AM
Although i have read this article in the past i have just gone through it again and enjoyed it, a very nicely done and informative article. Although i paint pradominately in acrylics i still think oils are best for flesh. nice job John (and you Rudi for putting it together ) Steve
DEC 08, 2009 - 02:34 AM
This was a great tutorial! I was never quite clear on the layering and blending process with oils, but this really cleared things up. The only change I would make is using a better sculpted head for the tutorial. Details are fairly muddy and he sort of has a "dock worker with downs syndrome" expression on his face.
DEC 28, 2009 - 01:40 AM
Taesung Harmms heads and figures are amongst the best in the business. It's also important to view the head/face in context with the rest of the figure.
DEC 28, 2009 - 07:59 AM
Oh yeah, he definitely does good work, it's just this head which I find a little lacking. Did he also sculpt the body, because the body seems to be really well done?
JAN 01, 2010 - 05:07 PM
THANK YOU... just looking at some figures to "play with" so to speak and can get the clothing not too bad (possibly by shadows are too thick and too defined) but I had yet to tackle the heads. as they are just Tamiya kits the heads are already on the torso, but can try to follow this guide (have some oil paints already so hope to be able to get to use them "in anger"....
SEP 25, 2012 - 12:34 AM