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!


We are going to now do some overall "mottling." This is breaking up the piece and giving it that real flesh look by using a lot of very small blots or noodles of color in layers. When done properly, this is what makes the finished piece appear to have dimension. The mutant baby in the photo example is a very flat resin casting of the sculpture. Its entire "dimension" was added in paint. If you decided not to do a wash technique, then just go right on to this next step after your base coat is dry.

Start by mixing up a very thinned-out warm color, let's say red for a flesh-looking paint job, and load your airbrush. Put on a good jazz CD or whatever relaxes you. Get in very close and using a very small amount of air pressure, lightly begin to make ribbon-like patterns (like ribbon candy from a top view if that helps) and figure eights in a tight pattern. Cover the entire surface of the piece like this, leaving some spaces almost empty and other spaces riddled with patterns. The color should be a rather weak, watered down version of red. We are not going for stark contrast here. Once in a while, pull back from the piece and make broader patterns too. This may look odd at first, but just stick with it. When you are happy with the amount of red on the piece, flush your airbrush with Naphtha and load your next color.


It is extremely helpful to step back from your work often to get an idea of how everything is reading. You may want to concentrate the patterns in shaded areas, like the temple for instance, and leave more space on areas like the top of the head. Step back and assess the overall look often.


Now repeat this whole procedure with your next color, let's say a really thinned-out blue. When using a blue on a paint job like this example, I go very light and not nearly as much as the red. Just some spots to cool it down and give it more life-like colors. If it starts to look like an American flag, you are using too much blue and the paint is probably way too concentrated, so thin it down. I always start each new layer on the BACK of the piece to see if the paint is thin enough. It is much easier to hide a bad pattern in the back as a bruise or something if you need to rethink your color.


Over this layer, let's reload and go in heavier using the same technique but with a red-brown. Then after that go in lightly with a brown. As you add each layer you should see this mottled pattern emerging, providing a sense of depth. Don't forget to leave some areas with very little paint as well as tiny areas between the mottling. This provides the illusion of another layer on top of a very light color that really pops.


If you get to a point were you are really unhappy and the colors are too muddy, do not push it. This is a very tricky technique to learn and you very well might not nail it the first couple of times. Just base the whole piece out again and start over. It may take a few layers of base coat to clean the slate; that is fine--just don't be too heavy-handed or you will fill in the details with paint. Start again and concentrate on using thinner paint and much smaller lines. I often use a MICRON for the mottling and noodling. It works great and makes it easier to control those nice small, tight lines.


Now step back and look at the whole piece. Is it too warm or too cool? Did you want it to lean a little more towards a certain overall color? This is where I often mist the whole piece with very thinned color to tie it all together and cool down hot colors or warm up cool colors.


Lastly, I go in with a darker and more concentrated brown and add age spots all over of different shapes and sizes. It is harder than it sounds, and the trick here is to avoid patterns of dots. They have to appear natural and very random. Note: It is a big pain to fix spots that are in the wrong place or too big due to the dark concentrated color, so take your time! You can also add some spots of a lighter color or even add tiny spots of lighter tones to larger, darker spots.


The third variation I promised you is very similar to the techniques described above. The only difference is in the beginning stages. Instead of applying a base coat first, we start with a wash. After it is dry, take a chip brush and, using the dry brushing technique, color the rest of the piece, leaving a nicely contrasted paint scheme. You can then proceed with the mottling process. This alternate step creates a big difference in the look of the finished paint job.


The pictures shown here are of several heads and make-ups that I painted for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel." All of the various techniques described here were used to paint these pieces. Add your own variations. I often make my patterns bigger and wider and then go in and just blot the piece with my next color by airbrushing spots of color all over it to break it up and then continue mottling from there. You must also play with colors a lot. I am still constantly finding new tricks of combining colors for new results. Example: Instead of painting an area just black, paint it deep purple first and then add concentrated black mottling to it. From a distance it reads as black, but up close you can see the intricacies of the paint job and the dimension.


Most importantly, remember to have fun! You can always start over. The more you paint, the easier it becomes. Most problems that I see are due to the rushing of a stage of a particular paint job, not stepping away and looking at the overall piece or an airbrush being less than perfectly clean and thus causing splatter and/or uncontrolled pressure variations.


Many thanks to John Vulich, Rich Mayberry, Gary Yee and Brian Blair as well as all of my associates at Optic Nerve Studios - Greg Solomon, Johnny Flanagan, Lancel Reyes, Jeff Deist, Steve Fink, Kari Murillo, John Wheaton, Reyna Rhone, and Almost Human FX - for all of their sage advice. Also, a HUGE thanks to Iwata-Medea, Inc., for their sponsorship. See you next time and good luck!

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