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Posted by misterfinn

It’s been a few months now since my painting white article. I’m sure my readers have had ample time to practice and perfect the painting of nature’s lightest color. With Hallowe’en and the election close behind us, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss white’s opposite number: black.

Looking at life

As with white, we can learn a lot about black by looking at common objects.

Since these objects are black, their “midtone” and “shadow” colors are identical. All the grey and white areas we’re seeing in these pictures are highlights. Here, then, is our fundamental principle in painting black. Just as white objects are defined by shadow, black objects are defined primarily by their reflectivity.

I’ve arranged my pictures intentionally, from flattest finish (the t-shirt) to glossiest finish (the car). Note how the reflected light changes from one object to the next. On our matte-finish t-shirt, highlights are dull and diffuse. Depending on your Web browser and monitor, you may not be able to see the wrinkles in the t-shirt at all. The satin-finish leather purse reflects more light, though it’s still primarily diffuse. The brightest lines occur around the edges, where the reflections are most concentrated. By the time we get to the car, our highlights have become very sharp and directional. Look at the hood, for instance—even the diffusion filter over the photography lights can’t completely obscure the circular reflection of the light itself.

Once we understand how we perceive black objects, painting them becomes much simpler. As with white, we’ll be amplifying the visual effect of natural light. The hardest thing about it is telling what’s paint and what’s natural reflected light while working on the model!


I’m using Goreshade as a demo model. He’s for my friend Chris’ army, which uses rusty metal, brass, and black with bright glowy green accents. I’ve painted everything but the black, just to get it out of the way.

Click the picture to bring up the larger-sized image and take a good look at the black-primered bits. Black primer is on the satin side of matte. Since my painting light is overhead in this photo, I’ve effectively got a “highlighting map”. I want the cloth areas to stay diffuse (like the tshirt) and the armor areas to be more glossy. To that end, I’ll use darker colors and smoother blending on the cloth than on the armor, and I’ll make the armor highlights brighter and sharper than what’s shown in this picture.

Painting the cloth

There are plenty of wrinkles in the cloth around Goreshade’s waist, so it’s pretty easy to block in the highlight areas.

The grey I’m using is custom mixed, a 50/50 split of black and Adikolor Plague (a light olive green). Greys in real life are almost never truly neutral, because most blacks aren’t completely black. Some are very dark brown. Some are very dark green. Some are very dark blue. Because of this phenomenon, I mix most of my own greys for compositional or textural effect. On worn black leather, for instance, I might use a beige color to lighten my black. In Goreshade’s case, I use Plague because I want it to tie in with his other olive green clothing (also painted with Plague). The effect is subtle but important.

My next step is to smooth out the edges of the grey paint, making a seamless transition between black and dark grey.

The difference between this picture and the previous one is a little hard to see without being able to hold the model and rotate it. The blending is most noticeable on the area just to the left of his kneeplate, right below his fingers.

The highlighting is still a little too subtle for tabletop model. Though it might be “realistic”, I need to amplify it a little more if I want it to look good at arm’s length. I also want to call out the textural difference between the main area of the cloth and the fringe beneath. I’ll do this by taking the fringe highlights up a couple of steps, as though it were shinier than the other cloth.

Painting the armor

I’m happy with the way the cloth looks, so I’ll turn my attention to Goreshade’s armor. The hardest part is going to be the large, smooth curve over his shoulders. Since I want the armor to look shinier than the black primer and I don’t have any sharp edges to call out the highlights, I have to figure out where the apices of the curves will grab and hold light.

My overhead lamps give me enough of a clue so that I can block in roughly where I think reflections will fall.

From there, it’s simply a matter of blending up to a very light grey—almost white—while maintaining the thin reflective line I’ve already defined. I’m not mixing my own greys for this part. The armor is supposed to be highly reflective, so I’m using Adikolor Spectral Grey, a light cold grey similar to GW Fortress Grey. The photo above is a 50/50 mix of Spectral Grey and black. I’ll highlight up to pure Spectral Grey for the shiniest points.

This picture is a little overexposed, but you can still make out the rapid blends from white to black across the back and shoulders. You can also see the sharp line highlighting on the edges of his fingers, the toes of his boots, the top of his leg behind the kneepad, and the top edges of his backpack. Note how the “halo” of reflected light around the crown of his head—as yet unpainted—matches the painted-in highlights on his back, but is slightly darker. I’m going to paint that halo in as the final step.

Here’s some pictures of the final model from various angles, after Dullcoting and with a diffusion box in place. The Dullcote works together with the diffused light to remove unwanted light source reflections and show the painted-in highlights to better advantage.