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Posted by misterfinn

One of the most frequent questions at my painting seminars (right after “How do I blend?”) is “How do you do faces?” It isn’t that hard to see why. A model’s face is the first thing people look at. If the face is compelling, it makes a great first impression. If the face is lacking, the model starts off at a disadvantage.

The same theory and color recipes that make good faces also make good skin. There isn’t much skin on WARMACHINE models, but what’s there deserves just as much attention as all that armor.

Looking at life

If you’ve read my other articles on painting techniques, you should be used to this part by now. There’s just no substitute for photographic reference. Here are a few examples from the huge range of skin tones you might see:



If you can manage to procure a catalog of stock photography, you’ll have a ready reference of many, many headshots. If not, then start a collection of magazine clippings. Web photographs aren’t the same. You want a physical picture that you can paint on and leave in your work area.

Note that I chose a couple of pictures with directional lighting. It’s not just because I’ll take any excuse to look at Claire Daines…although that’s certainly true. The other, more relevant reason is that you won’t always be painting “overhead light source” models like the bottom two fellas. Having photo reference for directional (or “in-frame”) lighting will help you achieve a believable effect.

Assuming a model lit by normal sunlight, however, we see some common areas of lightfall. The forehead is quite bright, as is the nose, the top of the cheekbones, the chin, and the upper lip. The cheeks, sides of the nose and mouth, and the sides of the head get less light. The darkest areas are the eye sockets, the line beneath the lower lip, and the natural creases in the face.

Keeping these light and shadow guidelines in mind, let’s get to painting.

The eyes have it

I’ve got two of the third-pose Cygnar long gunners to use as examples today. They’re one of the rare sculpts in the WARMACHINE line with fully exposed faces and visible eyes.

I always paint the eyes first. This allows for slop, and if I really screw ‘em up I can give the model a Simple Green bath without wasting much work.

Eyes on a 30mm model aren’t that tricky. I start with a white stripe across each eyeball.

This stripe is pretty easy to achieve on WARMACHINE models—the eyeballs stick out just far enough to paint without glorping over onto the eyelids. All it takes is thin paint and a steady hand. Use the side of the brush tip rather than the point. It’s easier to control that way.

The next step is to put the iris into each eye. At this scale it’s hard to see iris color, so I usually use black for maximum contrast. You can use dark brown or green or blue or whatever if you like. The key thing is to make sure the iris isn’t too light.

In general I try to have the model looking left or right instead of straight ahead. This makes it easier to align the eyes. A spot of black in the appropriate corners is all it takes.

As in the above picture, make sure to cover 1/2 to 1/3 of the eyeball with the pupil. Any less and you wind up with staring bugeyes.

Of course, if you want the model looking straight ahead you can make the extra work for yourself. Use your iris color to paint a thin stripe down the middle of one eyeball. Again, you’re looking to cover 1/2 to 1/3 of the white area. On models with larger eyes than the Long Gunners, use a dot instead of a stripe. Let the top and bottom edges of the dot spill over the top and bottom eyelids, respectively. This will give you a nice round iris.

Once the first iris is in, turn the model upside down and paint the other iris in, using the same technique. I find that turning the model upside down makes the two eyes easier to align. Your mileage may vary.


A cautionary note

When selecting colors for your skin tone, don’t let the color names fool you. Paint companies will try to tell you that all manner of colors are “Dark Flesh”, “Medium Flesh”, “Sunny Skintone”, or what-have-you. Ignore them. I find that many of my skin colors don’t have “Flesh” in the names at all. Let your photo reference and your eyes be your guide.

The sole exception is Reaper’s new line of Master Series paints. Their skin colors are fairly naturalistic, and made to be used in basecoat/shadow/highlight triads. I don’t much care for the consistency or behavior of the paints, but I can’t argue with their color choices.

Dark skin

I’m painting the first one with fairly dark skin, similar to an Indian or Middle Eastern skin tone. Unlike African-American skin, which tends to be very reddish-brown, Middle Eastern skin is a balancing act between red-brown and yellow-brown. I start with a dark yellow-brown, almost an umber but not quite. For the record, it’s Vallejo Model Color (VMC) 871 Leather Brown. I paint a thin coat of this color all over the face, taking two coats to cover. I leave a thin line of black around the eyes. I want to emphasize this model’s gaunt face and serious expression, so I blend the area just under the cheekbones down almost to black.

From here, I start highlighting the areas of natural light as discussed above. I use extremely thin, translucent layers for this because there are such rapid transitions between colors and the raised areas are so well defined. My first highlight is a red-brown, VMC 846 Mahogany Brown. My second highlight is a neutral brown, VMC 843 Cork Brown. Cork Brown is an amazing utility color for skin. I use it in all my skin recipes except the lightest Caucasian ones.


You can really see the highlights and shadows taking shape at this point. If you find that your model is looking uneven or you want to finesse the shape of the face a little bit, now’s the time to do it. I’m happy with the way he’s coming along, so I proceed to the final highlight. The final highlight, though small and subtle, has a disproportionately large effect on how the skin tone is perceived. I use the opportunity to bring some yellow-brown back into the model on top of all the red-brown shadow tones.

I also paint the bottom lip at this point. I tend to use reds or pinks for almost all my bottom lips. The sole exception is dark African skin, where the lips match the overall skin tone. My usual choice for lips is the second all-star utility skin color: VMC 803 Brown Rose. This is a stellar brown-pink that tends to take on the shade of whatever it’s next to. If you use it with Caucasian skin, it’ll look more pink; if you use it with darker skin, it’ll look more brown.

Pale skin

With that face finished, I move on to the other Long Gunner. I imagine this guy’s a new recruit, straight outta Long Gunner school. His face hasn’t tanned or hardened, and I’ll probably make him a redhead. For this model, I’m using very pale pink colors and downplaying the natural contours of the sculpt.

I start with a medium red-brown, heavy on the red: VMC 982 Cavalry Brown.

Whoa! Dude looks like Hellboy! How does that turn into a fresh-faced redhead? Well, you’re not going to see much of the Cavalry Brown by the time I’m through. I’ll just be leaving it in the deepest shadows and hollows. This is the darkest his skin’s going to get.

At this point, I notice a serious problem. The model is an egregious miscast. There’s a seam below the eye that I can’t get to with a file or knife. The lips are wierdly lumpy. There’s no chance I’m going to get a smooth finish out of this model, no matter how thin my paint is. I consider chucking the model and doing another one, but I realize that this kind of thing happens all the time and I might as well show you how to deal with it.

My first highlight coat is good ol’ Brown Rose. As noted above, I use it to cover almost all of the Cavalry Brown.

Whooo boy. With the light color on there, you can really see the blemishes. This guy looks like crap.

The thing about uneven surfaces is that they have their own highlights and shadows. If you paint a uniform area with a bump on it, your eye can pick out the minute changes in color that indicate texture. If you want to try to hide a bump, you have to undo this effect. Essentially, you paint the natural highlight in a slightly darker color and the natural shadow in a slightly lighter color. If you do it right—and it’s not easy—you’ll be able to smooth the bump a bit.

Faces are really small, and this one’s hard to get to because it’s behind the gun. I’m not going to be able to fix it all that much. So it goes…I’ll do what I can.

The next highlight is with VMC 815 Basic Skintone. This is a very light peach color that keeps light red-toned skin from looking unnaturally pink. I’ll put the previous step side-by-side with this step so you can see how the model’s face changes.


 I apply the Basic Skintone liberally to his left cheekbone (the one on the right-hand side of the picture). By working it over the seam with a sharp transition down to the Brown Rose, I manage to make the seam mesh with the natural crease between eye and nose.

The lips are still a problem. By darkening in the bottom of the upper lip with a brown/black mix and letting it creep over onto the front and right side of the lip, I’m able to redefine the curve of the mouth. Judicious application of the lip highlight helps to smooth out the bumps on the upper lip.

My final highlight is Adikolor Flesh, an extremely light pink that’s almost white. You can see how far the model’s come from the Brown Rose step—not totally fixed by any means, but a darn sight better.


 Remember that the model’s actual size is quite a bit smaller than this, so it smooths out a lot at arm’s length. Here’s the jaded veteran and the raw recruit, side by side. I’ve added a little blush to the recruit’s cheeks and lips using an extremely thin glaze of Flesh with a spot of bright red in it. This really helps to even out the bottom lip and make the highlights less chalky.

Painting exposed skin on other parts of the model is a nearly identical process. On large areas of skin like Khador Manhunter arms, I tend to wet-blend instead of layering. I use the same colors, though. Non-facial skin gives you more room to play with contour, light, and shadow. Check out my Satyxis Raider Step-by-Step for an example and explanation.

Until next time—