Tutorial: Painting systems for realistic results


Once again I have been asked to produce a painting tutorial, so I have given in this time. Here it is:

Firstly I must state that this is not the only way, not the best way, not the fastest way, not the cheapest way. But it is my way, and I'll take the Pepsi challenge when it comes to painting because this way has been around for 400 odd years.

Anyone who has read one of my tuts will know that I try to explain what I'm doing as well as demonstrating it. This tut will be no exception, so read it as well as looking at the pictures! Then I encourage you to post, ask questions or even tell me it's crap and that you have a better way, we're always learning after all.

The tut will be done in a series of posts since I can't be arsed to write it all in one go, and I need to find a suitable candidate subject to paint to demonstrate all the methods.

Part one: The overall explanation

In order to understand how to paint stuff to look real we need to understand how the human eye and brain processes images.
When looking at shapes it is the contrast not the colour that is important. You can still recognise a banana is a banana even if the image is in black and white, or even if the banana is painted blue! This is because the eye uses the difference between light and shade to determine shapes. It is part of the reason why people 'see' stuff in cloud formations, or burnt toast or the middle of vegetables. Shadows mean shapes.

Here's a detail from The Night Watch by Rembrandt, it was painted over 400 years ago (1606 to be precise). Rembrandt belonged to a school of painters who tried for realism in the look of their paintings. Look at how he uses light and shade next to each other to give depth and shape to the faces, the hands and the folds of the clothing.

The problem we have with our models and creations is that if we just paint something 'green' it won't have the punch and realism we want because the contrast is too low. This seems silly on a 1:1 replica, but the early film makers realised that to make something look real we need to give it some 'help' to make it look a bit more punchy. Early prop makers went back to the old masters, like Rembrandt, and tried to emulate what they had done on a flat canvas to help 3 dimensional objects look better.

I came into this in the late 1970's. As an art student I was working on a series of models for Bovingdon tank museum. They were all of vehicles that had existed at one time but had either all been destroyed or scrapped. Bridge layers, engineers vehicles, specialist vehicles and the like.
Building them from the original drawings was easy enough, but try as I might I couldn't paint them to look real enough....... Then I met Shep Paine and Francois Verlinden at a convention.
Shep had done a series of models for Monogram, and Francois for Tamiya, both of them were using the system I will show you now, and it seems that the system originated for props during the making of 'Metropolis' by Fritz Lang.

Here's the only vehicle I still have in my collection. It's an M39 utility vehicle and the paint job was all done using three brushes. No airbrushing at all. Notice how all the detail is visible and stands out. This model is about 9 inches long.


It's actually pretty simple to achieve this kind of result once you understand the theory and learn a few simple techniques. What we are going to do is take our basic colour, then darken the shadow areas and lighten the highlight areas. On a three dimensional object this is a piece of cake when compared to what the old masters could do on a flat canvas. Believe me I've tried.

Second post will cover the tools required, a paint discussion and an outline of the techniques.


The tools required:

It has taken me many years to assemble all my equipment, but like everyone else I had to start somewhere.
Here's a very basic kit list.

You need somewhere to work, you will need good lighting, I would suggest a decent chair to sit on, and a bench or table to work on. Some very large items may need special thought, care and attention when being painted.
I don't recommend working out of doors on your paint job, there's too much dust and debris around, but a garage would do very well as long as it doesn't get too hot or too cold.
If you are working indoors consider ventilation, safety first and all that.


I have amassed literally hundreds of these over the years. But to get started you should look for a No#4 round, a No#6 round and a No#10 round. You should also look for a couple of flat brushes, possibly a 1/2" and a 1" flat. Use artists brushes, I find the ones for acrylics are best and are reasonably cheap.
In the UK I use either Major or Royals which are very cheap but high quality brushes.

You will also need a couple of make up 'Blusher' brushes. get the cheap own brand ones. I use a 1/2" and a 1 1/4" blusher.

You will finally need a small soft brush, possibly an old N0#6 round for use with another medium. My system is to keep all the brushes I use for line work (the ones in a row in the image), in perfect condition. They are religiously cleaned after each use and are kept as 'best'. The ones in the pot in this image are for general prop painting.
That is all you need to get started, but I tend to buy odd brushes here and there when I see them. In this way you can build up a collection over time.

Other stuff you need:

You will need some pots to store your brushes (always place them bristles up even when painting, never leave them bristle down in a pot of stinking water!) I use aluminium pen storage pots from the stationers, but anything will do it.
Containers for water, or cleaning spirits, some kitchen paper towels, some old newspaper and I keep an old towel for cleaning the brushes as well.

For more advanced techniques:

Get hold of some very cheap bath sponges, the ones without the big holes in them. Get some scissors and cut the sponges lengthwise then into half again and half again. You will end up with 8 pieces of sponge with straight sides and edges as well as curved faces and whatnot. Very versatile and very cheap.
Try and find some 'stipple' sponge, usually available at art suppliers. These have the consistency of pan scourers but with a bigger hole pattern. Useful for trying out paint techniques.

Some standard white card (the same type you make your PEPs with). We'll use them as quick palettes.

A mixing palette, you can get cheap plastic ones, but I bought a nice ceramic one. Art suppliers or ebay.

The Airbrush:

If you can afford one, and are willing to take the time to learn how to use it, then the airbrush will save you loads of time and effort. Don't bother unless you can get a small compressor set up as well. It's simply too frustrating and expensive to use 'canned air'.
The Iwata Revolution CR is the best general purpose gun on the market, but I also love Spraymaster guns which are much cheaper. Whichever gun you buy make sure it has a gravity feed cup, and it has a nozzle size of at least 0.5mm, any smaller and it will be forever clogging up!


OK, when I started out we were very limited for choice. There were hobby enamels, artists oils and that was about it. Water based acrylics for hobby use were in their infancy and were expensive.
I still use some artists paints now and again, but almost all my work is now done using water based acrylic paints which have come on in leaps and bounds over the last 10 years.

I also use auto spray paints in cans - exclusively for primer / undercoat.

For these techniques to be successful you MUST use MATT paints.

More of this to follow.....
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New Member
this is going to be intense! have to say that it was like i was back in college and various other art classes/schools with the first thread in this tut. your utility vehicle is incredible too! need to watch this thread


Ok so let's just talk paints a little more.

I have been told that I can't mix paint types, I should only use this paint or that paint ..... whatever.
Try experimenting with the paints and you'll soon see that there are no hard and fast rules. If it works for you then great, I can only pass on my own experiences.
You can mix and match paint types on two conditions. Firstly it must be matt finish paint, and secondly you must allow each paint type to dry completely before using a different type over the top.

I don't use gloss finish paints at all. If I need a high gloss finish then I add varnish or lacquer as a final coat.
Matt paint has a microscopically 'rough' surface that means that subsequent coats will bond to it regardless of paint type. This is why automotive primers are all matt finish, stands to reason.

The techniques:

There are many variations of the basic techniques. I now use three basic techniques and they seem to cover most things.

In all three cases the first stage is to begin with a primer undercoat. Primer has three functions, it unifies the base colour so that you have an even colour surface to work on. It 'seals' and protects the underlying surface from possible damage and offers some basic protection from the elements (it's waterproof). Finally it gives a prepared surface ready for further painting operations.

I use car body paint primer, which is generally still an enamel or organic mineral based paint. It comes in matt black, matt white, matt grey and matt red oxide. There are others, but the ones listed are readily available.
I generally go for two or three coats depending on the material being painted. Once primed, leave the paint to dry for at least 24 hours, I leave mine longer if possible to give the primer a chance to really harden off.
Obviously try to choose a primer colour that will help with the other colours.

So you should now have a primed piece ready for painting.

The three techniques are:

#1 Brush only (with pastels)
#2 Brush, sponge and pastels (or airbrush for touch up)
#3 Brush and Airbrush (or more precisely the other way around)

Now before we finally start to paint, there are two parts to each and every paint. The first part is the contrast part. This is not weathering.
I consider the addition of highlights and shadows to be part of the base system - factory finish if you like.
Weathering operations are conducted after we have got the thing looking right in the first place.

In all three techniques you will need to learn the dry-brush technique. The only thing you actually need to master, and the one thing that will make all the difference. If you learn to do it with a delicate touch it can revolutionise the look of your stuff.

Next post - demo of the brush only technique.
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Well-Known Member
Great tutorial and like all the others this one just go's to prove that you are a master at you're craft. Only negative thing I can say is where were you in 1980 when I was trying to fig. all this stuff out on my own. ;)

There should be a sticky file with all you're tutorials made up .


OK here we go.....

in order to try and demonstrate the differences between the various ways we can go about setting up the paint job I have made up three identical panels. They are all about 6" - 150mm square so about right for a panel in your armour.
I have deliberately included card, plastic, metal and foam. The systems can also be made to work well on latex too.

Two of the panels were then given a primer coat of grey and the other one in black. The reasons will become apparent as we move on.

We will use one grey panel for the brush alone technique, one grey panel for the brush and sponge technique and the black one for the Airbrush and brush technique. But before we move on to the actual painting (I'm waiting for paint to dry see), I want to look quickly at pastels.
Artist pastel chalks (not oil pastels) are very cheap, very easy to use and can give results similar to airbrushing if you don't have an airbrush. Remember that worn No#6 brush I mentioned? Well if you get a cheap set of pastels (make sure that it contains a black and a white chalk) and a fine grit sandpaper (180 grit?) you can grind down small amounts of pastel colour on the sandpaper, tap it off on to a piece of white card, then 'paint' it on to the model using the small brush. The effect is very subtle and looks great for smoke stains, dust, exhausts and even shadows.
Once on the matt paint surface the pastel will 'stick' and can be over-sprayed with el cheapo 'extra super duper extreme hold' hair lacquer to fix it. As we shall see.

Now here's how to make super stencils easily.

Get a piece of your PEP card (110Lb or similar), scour the net for motifs, markings, emblems etc. Or simply download a stencil font and write what you like. Print this out onto your card ( I tend to do a load of them on a sheet).
Get one of those plastic laminator sheets and place the card inside as if you're going to laminate it.

Then using a VERY sharp knife or scalpel cut through the top layer into the card. Takes a bit of practice but you'll get there.

Then cut out your stencil leaving enough room all around for you to be able to use it successfully. Hey presto a long lasting stencil that can be cleaned off and will resist most chemical cleaners such as alcohol and the like.

Right, what we are going to try to do is make a green panel with a 'metallic' grill in the middle and our logo on one of the flat panels. I'm using an odd green that I had in my box, mostly to use it up. it's actually a Vallejo Hobby Acrylic 'German Camouflage Green' - a pretty horrible colour but we will use it on all three techniques so that you can judge the differences. We will also need some black and some white paint along with a bit of gunmetal, or steel, or silver for the little grill panel.

Next post actual painting, give me an hour or so eh?

Dark Star

Jr Member
You have 33 more minutes.

Jk jk, thanks for your time! We really appreciate this :)

(but you know... if you DO post in 32 more minutes, I won't complain...)


Right let's paint.

The Brush Only System

This is how I learned to originally do it 35 years ago. All you need are four brushes and a bit of sponge. The advantages of this system are that it's easy to master, it gives pretty good results, and for small areas it's reasonably quick (if you ignore the drying time).
The downside is that it would take a very long time to paint a full suit this way since you would need to do it in small areas. Also the piece needs to be pretty horizontal for this to work, so again small areas at a time. it also uses a fair amount of paint.

Begin buy giving the panel a coat of the basic green colour. Paint the grill panel that will be metallised in black. You don't need to be super accurate with the edges. I hardly ever have to mask anything with these three techniques.

Now some people would basically leave it at that, but it looks totally 'flat' and unrealistic even though it's a 1:1 panel.
Next we will add shadows. To do this we are going to use a wash. Some people use straight black paint for this, hence 'blackwash' but I want a more subtle shadow effect. Try for a mix of 80% water, 15% base colour (green) and 5% Black. Don't worry too much about the mix amounts (don't start measuring it!), what you want is coloured water that is a dark dirty mix of the original. I use 10 drops of water 3 drops of colour, one drop of black. If it's too light you can always add more.

Give the entire panel a liberal coat of the wash. You don't need to know where the shadows will be, the panel, gravity, surface tension and capillary action will work all of that out for you.
If the flat panel areas have too much wash on them, get some kitchen towel in a little ball and dab, don't brush or scrape, the excess away from only the middle parts of the panel. You want the wash to collect in the recesses and around the edges. Notice how the part in the red circle in the image below has automatically 'clung' to the edges.

Now washes take a long time to dry out. Don't be tempted to use a hair-dryer or hot air gun, the airflow will blow the wash into streaks which we don't want. If you want to speed up the drying time, place the panel under a warm lamp for an hour or two. When dry the effect will be quite subtle.

Once the wash has dried we need to start in on the highlights. Remember we want light against shade to give shape. Start with a mix of 50% base colour (green) and 50% white, then follow the video in the earlier post. You want only a tiny amount of paint on the blusher brush and gently stroke it over the surface so that paint only sticks to the raised details. If you have too much paint or the brush is even slightly wet you will get streaks.
After the first pass add more white to the mix and go over it again. Finally give it a very gentle pass over with pure white.

Notice how the details are coming out especially where the highlight is next to a shadow? Shadows mean shapes.

Now do the same using a bit of silver only on the grill. It will cover any light green that is there. Also notice how the wash and the drybrush have defined the edges for you? No need to mask, or use tiny brushes to try and get fine line edges. That's a mugs game.

Right, at this stage I consider the panel to be 'factory finished' or as it would have looked when manufactured. At this point we should add any emblems or stencils. Stencilling with a brush is almost impossible. The paint will 'creep' under the edges. Use a bit of old bath sponge and form it into a ball in your fingers. Dip it in the paint and dab almost all the paint off onto some card. Then hold your lovely plastic stencil in place and dab straight down with the sponge. Gentle dabbing will ensure that you get a nice looking stencil and the paint won't creep under the edges.

Finally we need a bit of weathering and strengthening of colours. Here's my cheap artists pastels. You only use a tiny amount and I've had this crappy little set for over 7 years and have hardly used any. Grind a bit onto the card and then pick it up with a soft brush and paint it on.

Blow off the excess and bobs your uncle. You can add as much or as little as you think fit. I've added a bit of smoke stain around the grill, some brown marks on the three little vents and some general shading round the panels.

A quick spray with dirt cheap hair lacquer and here's the finished panel.

That's the brush only technique. Let me know what you think eh?

Next instalment. The Brush and sponge technique. BTW, you can mix and match the various elements of the techniques dependant on what you are trying to paint.


Well-Known Member
Again, fantastic tutorial you have developing. Have you ever considered writing a book? You have a nack for explaining things with the perfect blend of simplicity and detail.

Dark Star

Jr Member
Okay maybe you will post in less than an hour... o_0 I'm kind of left speechless. Nothing to say that hasn't been said, 6 out of 5 stars sirrah.


Well-Known Member
OMG this is amazing as well as informative. I so can't wait to see what you can do with an airbrush. Keep up the outstanding work.


The main drawback of the brush only system is the wash. These are notoriously difficult to control and require a fairly level work-piece. Trying to do a good quality wash on a chest armour would mean a lot of small bits being done so that the wash doesn't simply run to the lowest point then drip all over the floor! Worse still would be to get 'runs' in the wash which won't be too convincing. We need to look for another method.

The brush and sponge method:

This does away with the need for a wash. the advantages are that it all dries much quicker so overall working time is reduced. It requires little extra tools and is very easy to master. It will work even upside down since there's no wash to run off and you can cover bigger areas more quickly.

The downside is that it uses a LOT more paint. The final outcome will be determined by how soft or 'spongy' your sponge is!

Start by mixing your base colour (green) with around 10% black. Paint the panel as before using this mix. Your shadow colour is now covering the panel entirely. Do the little black grill as before.

Next use the base colour (green) straight from the pot, put a few drops on some card as a palette. Get a cut up bath sponge and dab into the paint until the sponge is loaded but not soaked in paint. Go light you can always add more if needed.
Now start to dab the sponge onto the panel, you want a nice even coverage (or as even as you can).
Because the sponge has a resistance to being compressed, the raised parts of the panel will hold the sponge off the surface at the edges. This means that the dark colour underneath will show through on all the recesses and ridges. Exactly what we want so that the dark colour forms the shadows as we did with the wash on the first method.

Work carefully and build it up slowly. Don't be tempted to try and get too much paint on in one go or it will look too blotchy and you run the risk of filling in the edges.
Once you have a nice even(ish) finish we simply go through the same steps as before.
Dry brush with 50% green 50% white, then with more white added and finally with a light dusting of pure white.

Then do the silver as before as well.

Sponge in the stencil as before.

Then do your pastels as before.
Here's the end result with no wash used at all.

That's the brush and sponge technique.
Next instalment will be the Airbrush and brush technique.


Well-Known Member
You have such a great way of describing things. I love you're wash technique. And you're way of describing dry brushing leaves no doubt at what it is you're doing. I love it so much that instead of spending hours trying to put thought into words, I just put up a link section to you're Tutorial. ( ya I suck at creative writing/typing... and my spelling even worse! :p )

So I say onto you the reader... this is what a true master of his trade can do in just a few minutes of his time. If watch his work you too can learn to paint like a pro.

Thanks again for taking you're time Marshon to give this tutorial.