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How-To: Scary Skulls


Scary Skulls

by Mike Bromelow


Hi folks, Snax here with a how-to on how to create and use your own custom skull stencil! Firstly, here is what I used to do this project… -Reference skull photo for customizing (Or sketch your own from scratch) -Printer and paper -Mylar or similar thin stencil material -Substrate on which to paint. I used paper for this demo but suggest a blank sign panel -Airbrushes (I used an Iwata Hi-Line HP-CH and Micron CM-C Plus) -Auto Air Colors -Copious amounts of imagination and an eye for the creepy!

Getting started

Allllrighty then! Now we have our materials gathered, it’s time to get to work. What I did was search the web for a few good reference photos of skulls. I like starting out this way so I make sure that the finished rendering is still anatomically correct although tweaked to look more sinister! Here’s the stock skull photo I chose… Now there are a few ways to go about modifying a stock skull but I use a computer program called photoimpact 12 to morph my reference. You can do the same by printing a few copies and then drawing changes onto tracing paper that you place over top. Here’s how my computer edited skull looks…

See how I changed the mouth into a snarl, modified the eye sockets and jaw line and added some horns. I later added some cracks after this photo was taken for good measure. Remember kids….evil is good when it comes to custom painting!

Next we need to transfer this modified printout onto our mylar stencil material. This is simple enough to do with a plain old pencil. To cut out the parts we need to use a sharp exacto blade or a stencil burner should you have one. Be careful not to cut yourself or burn your fingers. I used a both tools to cut out the eyes, nasal cavity, dark parts of the jaw and the outline of the teeth.

Don’t remove all the mylar around the teeth though. Leave a little piece attached at each end of both rows of teeth to hold them in place. Otherwise they will fall off and make it trickier to line up.


If you are doing this piece on paper you are now ready to begin spraying. If you are using a blank sign then you will first need to scuff it with a scotch brite pad to create a mechanical tooth for the paint and clean it with a prep cleaner (I use Duplicolor grease and wax remover.) Then you would spray two or three light coats of Sealer White until you no longer see the aluminum surface. Heat cure the sealer white coats with a heat gun or blow drier before continuing on.

Since I’m working on paper I used a little trick to help keep the stencil in place. I slid a thin metal tray under the page so I could then use several small magnets to hold it down. This trick also works on any metal substrate that the magnets will stick to. Here’s how it looks before we begin spraying…


Use Auto Air Semi Opaque Flame Red reduced about 15% with 4011 reducer to lightly mist around the outside of the entire skull. This gives us the outline once we remove the stencil later. Next use Transparent Black to spray in a drop shadow to give some depth. Then fill in the cut out portions of the stencil being careful not to get under spray as I did in a few spots. You can use different colors of course but these are what I used for this demo. Remove the stencil and heat set your paint. Here’s the results of this first couple of steps before and after the stencil is removed…


As you can see it still has a stenciled look at this stage but now comes the fun part! Once we have established where our light source is coming from (Above and slightly in front in this piece) we can get to work giving some depth to it. With the same Transparent Black as the last step we start to spray some shading onto the skull to begin defining the basic forms. In this next photo you see that I have begun to shade the horns and added shadows under the cheekbones. When you first start shading, try to leave the parts that will be highlighted later alone. That way you will be creating a nice fade into those areas. It really helps to have a 3D skull in front of you for reference. I have a cheap but semi realistic plastic one I bought from a store for Halloween. I was surprised at how little I knew about what parts actually stick out and which parts are sunken in.


Continue to render the areas that would be shaded on the skull if you were to be looking at a real three dimensional object in front of you. Keep in mind areas like the jaw bones where they attach to the skull. The cheeks would be blocking a lot of light so shade heavier there.

Check out more of David Gunnarsson’s art at Daveart.com.



So, just how do we go about rendering all the tiny little cracks and details you ask! Let me show you! This is where the Micro Air Control or MAC valve comes in very handy. This Iwata innovation allows you incredible control of your air pressure right at the brush.

Before dialing in just the right air pressure with my Iwata Micron CM-C Plus, I reduce my Auto Air Transparent Black with their new 4011 reducer. This product has a tiny amount of glycerin which helps with tip dry and the formula makes your paints flow at super low air pressures. I usually add a few drops right into my airbrush cup and then gently shake the brush with my finger covering the air hole on the lid.


The exact amount of 4011 reducer I use varies but I always test spray onto a piece of scrap paper before detailing the actual piece. To achieve the finest details I work with the airbrushes crown cap removed. This also gives me easy access to the needle tip if I need to remove any build up. To test my paint I start spraying lines onto my scrap while simultaneously turning down the air pressure with the MAC valve. You will see that you can dial the pressure down to just the exact point where the paint barely flows but it gives you super fine lines. If you turn it down too far just turn the MAC dial the other direction while spraying a line until it flows just right.


It’s also great for dialing the pressure down even further to the point where the paint comes out in tiny droplets known as stipple. This can be great when rendering facial stubble or skin texture on portraits. Now we have the airbrush spraying perfectly we can get in close and start rendering all the tiny cracks on the teeth and horns. Don’t forget to outline the teeth and eliminate the stencil sections that held it together. Should the tip start clogging with the low pressure involved, just crank the MAC valve wide open and blast a shot into a rag (Usually my pant leg!) or your Iwata Table-Top Cleaning Station. Then repeat the process of spraying test lines while dialing the pressure down. It only takes a few seconds but without this ability to reduce air pressure right on the brush you’d have to stop spraying every time you needed to adjust the regulator pressure.


So now we have a pretty good start to our skull but it’s still monochrome. Let’s warm it up a little. For this step we use our HP-CH airbrush again and fill the cup with Auto Air Transparent Yellow Ochre reduced about 15% with 4011 reducer. Spray this lightly and mostly on the areas that we hit during the shading steps. If necessary use the negative shape from your stencil to mask off the overspray from mixing with the red background. Now we’ll switch to spraying Transparent Rootbeer once again reduced with the 40011 reducer about 15%. I work in very light coats and build up the transitions into the deeper shadows with this darker tone. Let your overspray carry over lightly into some of the highlight areas to blend them in. Always keep in mind where your light source and therefore your shadows and highlights will be.


During this last crucial step we will use Transparent White to render the areas that catch the most light and really punch out the forward most structures. Places to highlight include the brow ridges, tops of teeth, point of the chin, edges of the horns, bottom edges of cracks etc. This is done with the Micron and once again we dial down the air pressure using the MAC Valve until we can get super fine details without spidering. I’ll play with the amount of 4011 reducer and test spray before committing anything to the skull. Periodically you will need to increase the air pressure and blast out build up in the nozzle. Low working pressures do clog the tip more often. You’ll learn to hear when the airbrush is about to spit and a little whistling sound usually precedes a splat! Now you can see how much sense of depth the skull has with these White highlights rendered.

Thanks for following along with my tutorial. I hope you will gain some useful information that will have your skulls popping off the page! Till next time! (About the author: Mike Bromelow AKA “Snax” is the owner and artist of the custom fishing lure company Musky Snax and Snax Kustom Airbrushing in Muskoka Canada. His incredibly lifelike lures have been featured in several major fishing publications and are sold world wide through his website at www.muskysnax.com. He has also penned several other how to articles here on the Iwata site showing just how he creates the spectacular paint finishes on his lures.)


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