How to paint (Caucasian, 28ish mm scale) faces

When we are looking at another person, we have been hard-wired through millions of years of evolution to look at their faces in order to recognize and identify that person.  Miniatures are no different, in that faces are one of the first things to catch the eye.  As such, the paint job on the face goes a long way in making or breaking a miniature.

Many companies make skin-coloured paints or crayons or what have you.  The catch with these is that they won’t actually match the colour of your skin because skin is complex.  Your skin is not one solid colour like the paint on the side of a tank; it is a somewhat translucent bag of flesh stretched over some red and blue stuff, which due to its shape is generally having different amounts of light hitting different places.  If you look at someone’s face, you can see that there is a lot going on there underneath the skin.

Additionally, when painting miniatures, you need to use paint to replicate the effects of light and shadow at the smaller scale.  For example, a billowing red cape will need to have shadows and highlights painted on in order to give the impression of a billowing cape in 28mm scale rather than a tiny, vaguely cape-shaped piece of plastic painted red.

All this means that just covering everything with a paint that includes the word “skin” in the colour name won’t work because not only will you miss out on all those details like the variations in skin tone on different areas of the face, you will also miss out on the interaction of light and shadow that enables you create realistic representations of objects at 28mm scale.  So, how do we do it?

What you will need:

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  1. A good brush, in about a 00 or 0 size. The subject of what is a good brush and why you should get one could be an article in and of itself, but for this sort of work, a quality Kolinsky Sable such as a Winsor & Newton Series 7 is the best.  It’s pricy, but if you take care of it properly and don’t use it on techniques which destroy brushes, it will last you a while.  Also, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need a tiny tiny brush like a 10/0 to paint faces.  What you really need is a small, but not too small, high-quality brush with a nice sharp tip.
  2. A wet palette. You can buy one or make one at home for really cheap, and if you’re working with acrylics, you should probably have one anyways.  For this sort of work, it is pretty much mandatory, as you will need to control your paint consistency and be able to mix up colours and keep it from drying.
  3. A few paint colours. White and a dark brown or blue or black for the eyeballs, a couple skin tones (a lighter and a darker tone) and a medium-dark somewhat desaturated blue.  Brand doesn’t matter; just about all the hobby acrylic paints on the market are good and will have multiple skin tones in their line.
  4. Possibly a touch of airbrush flow improver to thin your paints and make them easier to work with.
  5. Your usual painting supplies — jar of water, brush cleaner, paper towel, etc.

Process

Once you have your figure primed (not in black!) and ready to paint, we’re going to start with the eyes and work outwards.  I find this to be easier because at this scale, it is very difficult to paint the shape of an eye.  However, if we start at the eye and work outwards, we can slap on a splotch of white paint in the general area of the eyeball, and then shape the eye by painting the skin around it.  Additionally, since the eye sockets tend to be shadowed, this allows us to do the eye, then start with our darkest shadows and work up to our brightest highlights.

So, that’s our first step — paint a couple big white splotches over the general area of the eyeball.  Don’t bother being careful, just cover the general area of the eye.  Next, we’re going to dot the eyeball.  At this scale, painting an iris is very difficult and probably unnecessary, so we’re just going to use a touch of dark, dark brown to dot the eyeball.  There are two ways you can do this – either by painting a dot where the pupil will go, or a vertical line across the eye, intersecting the location of the pupil.  Either way works; whether to do a dot or a line is just a matter of what works for you on the miniature in question.  It can be tricky to get it right on your first few miniatures, but try to get the pupils in the right place so your mini isn’t all goofy-eyed, and if you screw up, it’s easy  at this stage to go back with the white paint and fix it.

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Next up, were going to mix up a little blue into our dark skin tone colour.  Why blue, you may ask?  Well, there are three good reasons:

  1. If you look carefully at someone’s face, you will see a hint of blue in places such as around the eyes, beside the nose, etc.
  2. It is good to have a darker colour like a dark blue around the eye so that the whites contrast more. If you just went straight from white to a light peach colour, the observer’s eye has a hard time seeing where the eyeball stops and the skin around the eyes begins.
  3. When it comes to shadows, sometimes you can make your highlights pop more and your shadows look deeper by using a cold, complementary colour. I use this a lot on brass, where I shade with a hint of purple, because it is across the colour wheel.  The same principle is at play here, where areas such as the eye sockets are shaded in a cold colour to trick the eye.

Take that colour and paint all the exposed skin on the model.  When you get close to the eyes, you can shape the eye by covering up the big white splotches and vertical lines from previous steps, and painting up to the edge where the skin stops and the eyeball starts.  Again, using your shadowed skin colour to shape the eye which already has the pupils painted in is much easier and less nerve-wracking than trying to paint the perfect eyeball shape in one try at the end, and then trying to perfectly dot the eye.

Now that we’ve got a bluish face, it is simply a matter of highlighting up from your darkest shadows, which you will leave in this bluish colour, to your brightest highlights.  Using the wet palette, it’s easy to mix colours so you can layer and blend all the way from your darker skin colour up to your light skin colour.

To do this, start with your dark skin tone and cover most of the face, leaving some blue showing in certain areas such as around the eyes and beside the nose.  Then maybe mix in some light skin tone and go over it again, this time focusing on areas you will want to highlight like the bridge of the nose, the cheekbones, the forehead, and the chin.  Then go to straight light skin tone and highlight areas like the cheekbones and the forehead again, working your way up from dark to light.

Once we’ve gone to our light skin tone, I like to go even further, mixing a little white into my light skin tone and getting the highest highlight on the tip of the nose and where the sun would be reflecting off the forehead.  The point here is that with every step into a lighter colour, you’re painting less and less of the surface area of the face.

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There should be another step in between the first and second, which I forgot to take a picture of.

And there you have it!  A basic, simple face.  If you feel it is lacking depth, you can add a wash to the shadows, but be careful.  If you just slather it on, it will end up pooling in the eye sockets and ruining those eyeballs you worked so hard on.  From there, you can also add various features such as facial hair, scars, tattoos, etc. if you so desire, but our friend Eilish here tends to be clean-shaven and doesn’t have any facial scars aside from that one pesky mold line on the side of his head, so I’m going to leave it here.

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Okay, it’s not quite perfect, but the face isn’t bad for maybe a half hour of work.  Also, just saying, painting yellow sucks.

And there you have it!  Since faces are one of the first things that someone looks at when they see a figure, by applying these techniques and devoting a little bit of extra time to making your faces look good, you can make a serious improvement in the quality of your figures.

Good luck and happy painting!