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Underpainting is using an initial layer of paint to establish some element(s) of a paint job. Zenithal priming is a great example of this – it establishes the direction of the light falling on the figure. Zenithal priming is just one of many types of underpainting that we can use to improve our painting, however! For the pair of miniatures in this article I used a more traditional greyscale (grisaille) sketch underpainting technique. I think this approach can be much more helpful to creating (and understanding) the necessary contrast on a miniature figure than zenithal priming alone. Another benefit is that it does not require any supplies other than a brush and paint.
Barglemore the zombie butler and Camille the zombie maid are great subjects for the technique. Their clothing is sculpted to resemble the traditional/stereotypical butler and maid uniforms, which are black, white, and shades of grey, and I wanted to paint them that way as well. I wasn’t able to find any freely useable reference images to include in this article, but you will find plenty of examples if you do an image search on ‘butler’ and ‘French maid’. Note that this greyscale sketching technique absolutely works with more colourful figures, I just think the more subdued colour schemes on these zombie servants help demonstrate the principle and application of the technique more clearly.
Value refers to how light or dark a colour is. Value contrast is the most fundamental type of contrast we can use. Miniature painters tend to think of value contrast as referring to the contrast between the darkest shadows and the lightest highlights. Shadow/highlight contrast is crucial to making miniature figures look fully three dimensional, but there is another type of very useful value contrast – contrast between the values of adjacent areas. This is a strong tool we can use to make figures easier to read for the viewer, especially from a distance. It’s also a valuable tool to creating focus, mood, and conveying story/character. Note that every colour has a value scale, such as navy blue to baby blue. A full value range for blue and yellow would include black and white on the extreme ends of the value scales below.
When we are actively painting it is very challenging to juggle all of the elements we need to think about at the same time – choosing colours, selecting the appropriate value for each of those colours, painting sufficient shadow/highlight contrast, depicting the light source correctly – all while trying to create smooth blends or texture strokes with our brushes and paints. To try to do all of that at once is expecting a lot of ourselves, and it’s no wonder we often fail to get all of that right! In my study of traditional art I have found that traditional artists often break these tasks up into separate steps. This allows them to focus on one or two challenges at a time, which makes it more likely to achieve a successful piece. I think adopting a similar approach in miniature painting would be helpful to most of us.
The purpose of starting with an underpainting layer is to separate out a few of our tasks. For example, a zenithal prime underpainting establishes the overall direction of the light and creates areas of light and shadow so we don’t have to constantly stop to visualize where those should be. The greyscale sketch underpainting approach that I use here also establishes the direction of light and the rough range of contrast between shadows and highlights. The difference is that it also establishes the overall value of each area on the figure in comparison to each other area. So on the butler below, each area has some shadows and highlights applied with the direction of the light source in mind, but it also defines the value contrast between areas: the head is very light, the coat is very dark, the pants are somewhere in the middle, and so on. I think of this as mapping out my values over the surface of the figure, so I often refer to it as value mapping. The term value sketch would also apply.
The underpainting stage on Barglemore the zombie butler.
I combined my underpainting step with my priming step by using Reaper’s brush-on primers. They’re available in white, black, and gray. I usually mix one or two more shades of grey so I have a value scale of four or five steps including black to white. These are metal figures, so it is necessary to prime them for the paint to adhere well. I live in a fairly humid climate, so I often use brush-on primer instead of spray cans. But if you’ve already spray-primed your figure or you’re working with a Bones plastic figure that doesn’t need priming, you can do this same step with black, white, and grey paints instead of primer.
The underpainting stage on Camille the zombie maid and her ‘feather’ duster.
The underpainting looks rough, and that’s okay! My goal is to establish the big picture of the figure by answering a few questions. Which areas are darker, lighter, or in between? What is the value range between the highlights and the shadows on each area? Where should the main highlights and shadows be placed to establish the light direction I have chosen for the figure? I completely ignore all detail elements like the eyes, buttons on the butler’s vest, edge highlights like around the rips in the cloth, the crevices in between the tiles on the floor, and so on. I just want to make the overall big picture decisions so I don’t have to think about those when I am concentrating to paint tiny details, refine blending, or add textures. It’s easier to get more elements correct if you are only concentrating on one or two at a time.
That said, it may be that some of you look at those photos and feel that my underpainting is actually pretty detailed. Or you might be wondering if you have to address all of those factors at once with underpainting. It is a flexible technique. Just blocking in your basecoats for each area is a form of underpainting that lets you assess your colour and value choices for the figure as a whole. You could rough in just the direction of light and the main areas for highlights and shadows. You don’t even need to try to paint smoothly at all! In the example below, I used only three colours – black, grey, and white. The grey represented the midtone for each area. I painted black in the location of shadows, and white in the location of highlights. When I applied colour paint over the value map I applied it in a similar way. I applied highlight colours over the areas of white, shadow colours over the areas of black, and midtone colours over the areas of grey. (This is kind of a brush painted version of zenithal priming.)
This underpainting example does not include establishing values between areas or being at all smooth. It was still helpful to achieving the end result. You can see more steps of how I painted this figure and other forms of underpainting.
Since the next step involves applying paint over the value map, I recommend taking some pictures of your figure at this stage so you can refer back to your value map stage if you need to. You don’t need a fancy camera set up like I use for many of my pictures. Most cellphones made in the past few years take good photos. Pose the figure against a plain background if your camera has trouble focusing, and try to take the picture in a well-lit area.
This cellphone picture is blurry and a little overexposed, but since the value map is not about details, it gives me all the information I need.
My next step is to apply coloured paint. Even though these figures are dressed in shades of black, grey, and white, I still painted over the primer with opaque paint colours. Black and white primers are not as dark or light as black and white paints, and they sometimes have a different finish than matte paints. I also wanted greys that were not true neutral greys for the butler’s vest and pants. Both are warmer greys, and the vest has just a hint of purple in the shadows.
For each area I created mixes of paint similar in value to the primer mixes, with a few additional mix steps to allow me to make smoother transitions. When applying the paint, I used the underpainting as a road map for where to apply the various value mixes of the colour. Let’s look at the knee on Barglemore’s left leg as an example. I applied a lighter mix on the top of the knee, and a dark value underneath that, then smoothed the transition line between the two sections as necessary with midtone value mixes.
Once I establish the main highlights and shadows and smooth the blending between them, then at that point I work on the details. For these figures that stage included such tasks as adding highlighting to the edges of the cloth tears and deep shadows within the recesses of the tears, lining around the buttons and other areas, adding detail to the facial features, and painting highlights and shadows into the smaller details of folds and wrinkles on the cloth.
The front side of Camille demonstrates how the value mapping stage can help – if you remember to follow your map! When working with the black, white, and grey paint/primer colours, the only thing I need to think about is where areas of the figure should look darker or lighter based on my imagined light source. For this figure I pictured the light as coming from the upper right corner and slightly in front of the figure. If you look at the value mapping stage, you can see some nice highlights on the stomach area of the bodice that evoke that light. Unfortunately, I did not follow the map that I had laid down when I applied the final paint colours on top of the primer. I did highlight some wrinkles on the cloth in that area, but in a way that was less interesting and less true to the light source I was trying to evoke.
It is also possible to make mistakes during the underpainting stage, or to change your mind about some of the decisions you made. My underpainting of the back side of Barglemore was really quite dull. When I started applying paint over it, I decided I needed to increase the value of the highlights on the folds of cloth to better accentuate the deformity of the shoulder and to just generally add more visual interest. The areas of shadow should probably be a little larger/darker in my final version, but I felt it was better to sacrifice the light direction and dark ambiance a little in this area to better bring out all the lovely sculpted details on the figure.
Think of an underpainting is a useful road map, not a cage locking you in. You can reinterpret and enhance your vision as necessary when painting your colour paint over the underpainting. The rear view of Camille shows a mix of following the value road map from the underpainting and also making some changes. Overall the values are pretty true to my initial value map – look at the location of the highlights and shadow in the hair, and the bright spots on the elbow and side of the hand on the arm to the right, which are present in both the underpainting stage and the final painted version.
I did make two major changes, however. During the painting stage I decided I wanted the skirt to look like more of a gauzy type of fabric, so I painted it as grey instead of black, and applied the highlights with vertical brush strokes to indicate ruffles in order to try to convey that texture. I think the colour switch and additional texture adds a spot of interest that the underpainted sketch lacked. I had painted the stockings more grey than black in the underpainting, and switched to black with hints of transparency during the painting stage. I think this helps keep more focus on the top half of the figure and breaks up the areas in a more visually interesting way.
The Contrast Series links to all of articles about contrast available on this site, some of which use different methods than that demonstrated here to help you achieve more contrast on your figures.
The How to Paint Faster article explores the idea of starting with a rough colour block-in or sketch to get paint on the figure faster.
My testing colour schemes article is an example of a way to separate out the task of choosing and composing colours before you begin painting, which traditional artists would call doing colour studies.
This short video from Zumikito Miniatures demonstrates three different methods of value sketching and how to proceed from the initial point to a fully painted figure.
History and Variations of Underpainting in Miniature Painting and Traditional Art
The underpainting technique that I demonstrated here is the process of blocking in the major areas of dark, light, and midtone using greyscale. This is similar to longstanding traditional art concepts. Value studies and thumbnails are common methods traditional artists use to determine the value composition of a piece as a whole, and they are often done in greyscale.
Traditional underpainting can be fairly roughly applied in order to figure out the big picture values, similar to what I have done on my figures in this article. This type of underpainting is not done only in greyscale (grisaille), however! Artists may use brunaille (browns) or verdaccio (greens), or any other colour. An initial rough sketch layer can also be done in the colours intended for the final piece. Miniature painters often refer to this as sketching. Benjamin Kantor has a video demonstrating greyscale sketching and another demonstrating colour sketching on a bust.
This is an example of making the initial sketch of hue and value choices and then refining the blending and textures once the painter is satisfied with the colour composition. This figure was painted by Sergio Calvo Rubio during a painting class.
Traditional underpainting, particular grisaille, can also be applied in a much more detailed and complete fashion. Detailed grisaille painting is sometimes also called the dead layer. Painters then glaze transparent colour on top of that, adding additional opaque highlights and making other tweaks as necessary.
Zenithal priming is a form of underpainting popular amongst miniature painters. It can be done with either an airbrush or spray can primers. You begin by priming/painting the entire figure black. Then you spray white from the direction of your light source. Adding a step between the black and white by spraying grey from a roughly 90 degrees can give a more refined result. Alternatively, you might used white paint to smooth areas and paint on the very brightest highlights. The painter Matt DiPietro popularized using the term sketch style for this slightly refined version of zenithal underpainting, though as I mentioned above, some miniature painters have been using the concept and the term sketching for a while now to refer to underpainting in colour and greyscale.
I mention the terms above so that if you’re interested in more information on the traditional use of underpainting or the way miniature painters are incorporating it into their process, you have some starting points for web search terms.
Barglemore and Camille Paint Colour Guide
Barglemore and Camille are available in metal. All paints are from Reaper Miniatures. Some of the paints listed may be discontinued or special edition colours and not currently available on the Reaper Miniatures site. The dirt and stains were added with weathering powders.
Midtones: Ghoul Skin + Tanned Highlight
Highlights: Bloodless Skin + Tanned Highlight, Bloodless Skin, Pure White
Shadows: Ghoul Skin, Twilight Blue, Midnight Blue
Glazes painted in selective areas of skin shadows: 9602 Bruised Purple, 9667 Rattlesnake Leather, Icy Violet + Nightsky Indigo – experiment with dull purples, greens, and blues on zombie skin!
Barglemore’s Black Coat and Camille’s Black Corset
Midtone: Solid Black
Highlights: Dusky Skin Triad
Shadows: Blue Liner
Midtone: Dusky Skin
Highlights: Dusky Skin Highlight, with a dab of white added to it for brightest highlights
Shadows: Dusky Skin, Dusky Skin Shadow, Solid Black
Midtone: Vampiric Shadow
Highlights: Vampiric Skin, Vampiric Highlight, Pure White
Shadows: Stone Grey, Shadowed Stone, Grey Liner
Midtone: Stone Grey
Highlights: Vampiric Shadow, Vampiric Skin, Vampiric Highlight
Shadows: Shadowed Stone, Grey Liner
Midtone: Shield Brown
Highlights: Driftwood Brown, Terran Khaki
Shadows: Woodstain Brown, then add a touch of Blue Liner for final highlights
White Accessories (Barglemore’s Ascot, Camille’s Apron and Hat)
Midtone: Creamy Ivory
Highlight: Pure White
Shadow: Terran Khaki
Metal Tray and Buttons
Midtone: Honed Steel
Highlight: Polished Silver
Shadows: Midnight Blue, Blue Liner
Midtone: Sunburn Flesh
Highlight: Tanned Highlight, Bloodless Skin Highlight, Pure White
Shadows: Bruised Purple
Midtone: Chestnut Gold
Highlights: Burnt Orange, Creamy Ivory
Shadows: Woodstain Brown, add Blue Liner for darker shadows
Same colours as the floor, with a bit of white mixed into highlight colours.
Streaks of colours used on the figures include Ghoul Skin, Sunburn Flesh, Bruised Purple, Twilight Blue, and Midnight Blue