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How-To: Where Do I Begin?


Where Do I Begin?
A Quick Guide to Painting Three-Dimensional Subjects in Layers

By Glenn Hetrick

So you have a super cool foam latex prop or mask and it is in dire need of a good paint job. Where do the pros start to get those awesome-looking finished pieces? In what order do they paint to get those effects with their airbrush?

Even a low-quality mask can be made to look fantastic if painted properly. The paint job is the finishing touch that defines the look of prosthetic make-ups, masks, props, aliens and monsters. In the professional FX industry, sculptures are often finished under massive time crunches, background masks have to be made by “kit bashing” other make-ups into a new character, and prosthetic make-up pieces have to be pumped out in impossible quantities on a schedule. But they always (well, almost always) look great on film. So how do they do it? What is the trick?

Painting together with good seaming (the blending of pieces and hiding of seams through the use of burning and patching with various materials–an art form in and of itself and far too involved to discuss here) are the secrets to an amazing finished piece. The most important skill in producing high-quality paint jobs is that of knowing your layer order. Often, model kit painters tend to base out with very dark colors, often black, in order to provide deep, dark low points that can be easily defined with dry brushing. The major shortcoming of doing this is that you have a dark underpaint effect that consequently “muddies” the whole piece and keeps all of the subsequent colors from being “true.”

This fact is exponentially important when painting more porous subjects such as foam latex and Polyform (the materials used to produce most prosthetic make-ups, pro masks and props). These materials act like a sponge and soak in the colors.

Because of that fact, you need to remember that once you lay on dark colors, it is very difficult to lighten the area up again. This can become a veritable nightmare. For simplicity’s sake, I am going to give brief examples of three different paint jobs. By no means do I intend to suggest that this is the “right” way to paint. There are infinite styles and circumstances. These are just some examples to get you started and to help you find your favorite techniques. I strongly suggest that if you want to really learn from this article that you run out and buy yourself a decent Halloween mask. Paint jobs on them are almost always poor because of the assembly line nature of such mass-produced fare. However, many of them have really good sculptural form and decent detail. Look for a mask/character that you really like (so that it will hold your interest and get your creative juices flowing). Also, make sure that it has some good texture and detail–it is much harder to paint a flat, featureless, poorly sculpted piece. Spend the extra couple of bucks to get something you like and you will be happier with the finished result of your paint job.

Now, the Halloween-type mask that you are going to be working on will be made of latex, and therefore not as porous as a foam piece, but it will be fine for practice. There are also foam latex masks out there for sale, and if you want to, feel free to track one of them down. Let’s get started! The first paint job that we will tackle will start with a light base color. So decide what the base flesh color of the subject will be. Cover the entire piece with this color (including all details and undercuts). I most often use rubber cement paint (rubber cement tinted with oil colors and then thinned out with Naphtha) due to its “bite” (the ability of the paint medium to bond and adhere to the surface of the subject). You must thin the base coat down a lot to ensure that it gets a good grip on the latex. Just apply this base coat with a cheap 1-1/2 inch chip brush (from Home Depot). Allow the base to dry, speeding it up with a hair dryer if you are impatient like me.

This next step defines the major difference between two of the three paint jobs. You can now (after making sure the base coat is very dry) apply a “wash” to define all of the deep spots. To do this properly, you will probably have to pick the piece up and “wash” it from different angles to get in all of the detail and undercuts. The “wash” color could be a much darker version of your base color and must be extremely thinned out (almost tea-like) to work. Take up a brush load of the “wash” using a clean chip brush and apply it to the piece allowing it to fill in the cracks and details. While it dries, carefully blot the paint from all the high spots with a tissue, leaving the color only in the deep areas. You may have to let the first coat dry and do two or three “washes” to obtain the desired result. You can also follow this up with a lighter version of the “wash” that allows you to color some of the other areas between high points and low points.

Once you are finished and the wash has dried, we are ready to move on. If you have any areas that are too dark, now is the time to go back in with your base coat and correct them. Remember throughout the paint job that you do not want to paint any of the areas solid, i.e., you should blot or “mottle” the areas with color. If you are going back in with base color to lighten an area, this is the perfect ime to start blotting. When you are happy with the results, grab your Iwata HP-C and get ready for fun!

Click to go to Part 2.


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