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Customizing: Painting Dynamic Lighting for Heads

Factory paint jobs on action figure faces can run the gamut between “terrible” to “serviceable.” With the new paint processes that Figuarts has been initiating on their figures and Hasbro has slowly started adding to their figures, there has been a definite bump in quality. But even then, the paint is, for lack of a better word, “safe.” Which is understandable, but sometimes you want a little bit more.

I’ve painted a lot of heads in the past couple of years. I’m not exaggerating when I say a lot. When you end up with a reliable formula for painting a head, there’s a point where a certain amount of stagnation occurs, so I’ve been wanting to try some different things. With a lot of trial and error and a lot of practice heads, I’m finally at a place where I’m happy enough with what’s coming out of my brush. The best part is that a waning interest has reignited, and I’m having more fun painting than I have in a while.

The flip side to that is that something that took very little time now takes far far longer, but if the fun is there, the minutes melt away.

The main area I’ve always been conservative on is light. I usually try to maintain a neutrality to the amount of light that looks like is hitting my painted heads. I really wanted to alter that, so I ended up using paints that I bought but never really touched due to how light they were. I wanted bold contrast.

The almost completely new paints I use for this process are mostly Vallejo paints, with a handful of others thrown in. For the skin tones, the Vallejo paints are:

Mahogany Brown

Olive Drab

Brown Sand

Beige Red

Basic Skintone

Light flesh

Original head

I used Vallejo Tan and Grey Blue for eyes and accents, Parma Faskolor Black and white for eyebrows and eyes, and Liquitex Black for hair.

For this write-up I’ll be using the screaming version of the Mezco One:12 Punisher. To me, the expression of the figure informs the degree of contrast you’d want on the head itself, so with this manic expression you’ll want bold contrast, where a calmer head would require a bit less of an extreme.

I base coated the head with a mixture of the Mahogany Brown with a touch of Olive Drab. These two will provide a decent amount of shadows underneath the layers to come. This is way way darker than I usually got for a usual base coat, but for the extreme depth I want to come across, these colors emulate the shadows I want.

Once that layer is dried thoroughly, I went over it with a drybrush of Brown Sand. You’ll want to leave the MB/OD layer in the recesses, so make sure your brush is free of almost all but the slightest hint of the Sand.

Wait a minute, and then give it another drybrush of the Brown Sand. Two once-overs of a drybrush is better than ruining the bottom layer with a heavier top coat.

Right now you’ve got a very dark face with the bottom layer affecting the Sand topcoat. The relative opacity of acrylic paints mean that each layer alters the above layer subtly. So you want to build up tones gradually. Achieving a certain paint effect is like waking someone from a nightmare. Be slow.

Once you’ve got two drybrushed coats of the Sand, then you want to drybrush on a coat of Beige Red. Beige Red has a warmth to it that hovers right on the border between several tones.

With all the drybrushed layers, you want to drybrush in a slightly smaller area than your previous drybrushed area. For example, if you gave the head a 100 percent drybrush of the Sand, then you want to drybrush a 75 percent area with the beige red. You’re gradually pulling the light toward the middle of the face, creating a tonal focal point. I seriously hope that makes sense, because it’s the best I can do to describe it.

After you’ve established a rudimentary “light map” with your Beige Red, you’re going to start drybrushing on a couple layers of mixed paint. First, take the Beige Red and add the Basic Skin tone to it, and drybrush that overtop of the area you just drybrushed. Make sure you don’t obscure the bottom layers.

Over that, you’ll want to drybrush a layer of pure Basic Skin tone. Make sure this is just a dusting, because you’re setting up where you want the highlights. At this point you should be doing mainly the middle portion of the head, so nose, cheeks, and lower forehead.

If you need to, mix a bit of Beige Red and Brown Sand together and drybrush that over any hard lines that may have popped up during the previous drybrushing. You want gradients of tone here; drybrushing will soften the harsh shift of colors.

Once all of this is in place, it’s mostly about ratcheting up the dynamics of the light hitting the face, along with touching up any place that you feel needs to be beefed up. The next layer is a mixture of the Light flesh along with Basic Skin tone.

At this point you want your brush to barely have any paint on it. Don’t worry; you’ll still be lightening the skin tone, but it will be very gradual. Just hit the highlights: nose, tops of the cheeks and the very tops of the wrinkles on his forehead.

The final touch is the pure Light Flesh. As this is an almost white color, you want to be as spare as possible. Dust the very top of where you think the extreme lighting should be hitting his face. You can stop once your satisfied, but since acrylic paints tend to dry a little darker, don’t be afraid to make it lighter than you think it should be. The combination of darkening while drying and the lower paints affecting the higher tones will balance everything out.

Now at this point, since this is an exaggerated face, you’ll want to take some Tan, and get a tiny dab that you’ll wipe almost completely away. Then you’re going to drybrush his cheek, the tip of his nose, and the lower part of his forehead. You barely want to see anything happening, but it gives the hint of exertion. It will be almost unnoticeable, but the near-subliminal effect will push his expression further.

For his stubble, mix a little bit of the Olive Drab with the Brown Sand, wipe most of it away, and grind it into his face. Add Brown Sand to lighten if it looks to dark. Afterwards, you can go back over it with a drybrush of Light Flesh and Beige Red.

Once the skin is done, I went into his various wounds and added a watered-down Tan to make them pop out.

After this, look over the head and see if there’s anything that needs to be blended, or if you want it to be lighter. I went back and hit the extreme highlights with a very watery touch of the Light flesh on a few uppermost ridges. I took a mixture of the Olive Drab and Mahogany Brown and went into the crevices on his cheek that had been obscured by drybrushing. Otherwise, his skin was done.

I mixed Tan and Mahogany Brown along with a gloss for the inside of his mouth, let it dry and then did his teeth with Bone. I painted his eyes with Parma Faswhite, Fasblack and Vallejo Grey Blue.

I added a bit of Tan and Brown sand accents under his eyes. His hair was a coat of Liquitex Black.

With that, he was done. The combination of deep shadows and bright highlights gives his face a dynamic edge, and hopefully adds to his extreme expression.

This level of extremism doesn’t suit every head, but the basics can be applied to other heads that are more on the calm side. For less manic heads you can skip the Light flesh and let the Basic Skin tone be the brightest paint you use, but it’s still about letting the dark tones sit in the recesses. It adds a touch of drama and realism to heads.

Thanks for reading!

12 thoughts on “Customizing: Painting Dynamic Lighting for Heads

  1. For males, I use a combination of Vallejo tan and heavy skintone. For females without lipstick, I use straight Vallejo tan, and if I want them to have lipstick I’ll use the tan mixed with varying degrees of red, up to just full red depending on the character.

  2. Fantastic tutorial! Thank you so much for sharing in so much detail.
    One thing that I always struggle with is how to paint lips. I can’t seem to find that info in your tutorial – what color mix do you use for those? Any difference for males/females?

  3. Thank you for the tutorial. I’ve been on the fence about buying some unpainted heads from casting caves but didn’t have the knowledge to do them justice with paints. I think I may give it a shot now. This is great!

  4. Superb.

    And before you added flesh tones, you had a hell of a “zombie” Frank Castle going on there.

  5. That was pretty dam impressive! I would add you could’ve tried using a touch of the blue gray for his stubble area if you wanted-the cooler colors contrast with the warm colors of the rest of the head. also,since he’s screaming,you could’ve added a touch more of red to his cheeks and nose to simulate blood coming to the surface on those areas. Just suggestions,what you have here is superb anyway. Now you have to do a step by step for an entire figure lol.

  6. If you leave it at just the base coat, you get Frank Castle from the three-issue storyline where he became a black guy!

    Real talk though, this is pretty incredible work. I appreciate that Mezco figures tend to go for more translucent flesh-tone plastic, and that looks good in its own way, but this really adds personality to it.

    Postscript: Regarding the above crack about Punisher becoming a black guy- I don’t mean in the “New person replacing Thor and morons who don’t pay attention say Thor became a woman” way, I mean the “Frank Castle got his face messed up and went to an unlicensed doctor strung out on drugs to get his face fixed and she was ‘experimenting with melanin’ and this somehow literally turned his skin black for some insane reason” way.

  7. Very cool! Definitely looks better than the original one, and adds a lot of personality.

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