Painting Human Figures

The Easy Way

Basic methods for model railroaders and toy soldier collectors

You have probably seen some of the highly-detailed figures displayed by military modelers and model railroaders. Unlike the pre-painted sets sold in hobby shops, they have explicit painted detail from the eyes to the folds in their clothing. It looks like a task left to only a rare few who have the talent and the time to perfect their skill.

Looks can be deceiving!

Maybe you can paint as well - maybe you can't. With a few tricks of the trade, some patience and practice, you can paint beautiful figures in any scale, from N 1/160 to G 1/24.

Gentlemen, let us define our terms....

We need to understand a few peculiarities of miniatures figures. Like any specialty, they have a few twists of their own. The key is in both the molding process and the materials used to make a miniature. An understanding of scale also helps.

Miniature human and animal figures in the smaller scales (1/25 to 1/220) are produced by forcing the basic material into a mold. The mold comes in two or more pieces. Most molds are made of two halves. The hollow inside is carved in the shape of the figures. The halves are linked and the material is poured or injected into the hollow. Usually, the material is in a molten or liquid form. Once the material hardens, it retains the shape of the mold's hollow. (A less common process is to fill the mold with a powder - normally metal - and then heat it. The metal powder melts into a single mass, in the shape of the mold.) Common materials for figures include plastic, resin, pewter and tin/lead alloys.

Of course, there has to be a hold in the mold through which material can be passed. In single-figure molds, a plug forms as the mold is filled. It must be cut from the figure. Multi-figure molds have a network resembling plumbing, which connects each hollow. As each hollow is filled, the network is also filled. What emerges is a rack of figures, connected by a "sprue." The figure needs to be cut from the sprue.

Where the mold's halves meet is the seam. The seam is often visible on a figure. Should excess plastic seep through the seam, the result in called "flash."

Molding has limitations which adversely affect figures. These include the seam, flash, burrs, spurs, and the place where the plug or sprue was attached to the figure.

After or during molding, some figures are in contact with various chemicals. These may be sprays or fluids to enable easier removal of pieces from the mold, or cleaning or cooling agents used after molding. Though not always visible to the naked eye or touch, one must deal with them. The best way is to wash new figures in warm water, to which a drop or two of detergent has been added. Let them soak a short while, then rinse in clean water and allow the figure to dry thoroughly.

Preparing a figure

Most figures come out of the package on sprues. Rather than twisting figures and parts free, clip then with a small scissor or hobby pliers. A clean cut prevents damage and it cuts down on further work. Take a small file, like a nail file, and scrape away any mold marks, spurs, or flashing. (Flashing is the excess plastic which occasionally forms on seams.) Do this carefully. You want to remove excess, not destroy detail!

Painting - the Primer

A figures is painted pretty much in the same order as if he were being dressed. We begin with the face and flesh parts, then to the clothing, and then to overcoats, belts, ties, shoes, equipment, etc. The ONE cardinal rule to remember is that we ALWAYS begin with FLAT paints. Any satin, semi-gloss or gloss parts will be handled later.

The most popular paints for figures these days are acrylics. They were first made popular in the 1970s by the Polly S company. Previously, all that were available were flat enamels, such as Pactra and Testors. Though the hobby enamels were easy to use, the acrylics allow much more ease. Also, they don't have that toxic quality, the long drying time, nor the stench of enamels.

Acrylics bond better to a non-glossy surface. Therefore, the second detail when painting plastic or metal figures is priming. We use a base paint which provides a matte surface. In plastics, a good trick is to spray paint a thin layer of a base color. For metals such as lead, pewter, zinc and tin alloys, a metal primer is necessary. Many recommend that the base coat be white. I find that a light gray or tan is better. I have used Pactra Light Earth for plastic figures. Unfortunately, most metal primer is white - when I find it in light gray, though - it's heaven! The base coat must be thin. Avoid droplets and thick patches. They not only diminish detail, but when you consider that other coats of paint will be applied over the primer....put simply, your figures can become a lump!

When using a spray, a light coat works. Move the spray back and forth gently over the figure - mist it! It is okay if a few tiny spots don't get coated. The paint will cover them later. All we're doing here is providing a base on which our paints can adhere. And ALWAYS use a flat or matte paint as your base! NEVER use gloss, semi-gloss or satin-finish.

We begin!

The first step is painting the eyes - not all that difficult! First, paint a white dot on each eye on the figure. Allow it to dry. Using the eye color (brown, hazel, blue, etc.) paint a line down the middle of the eye. If you want, you can then paint a thin black line through the center of the eye color. (Don't attempt this on figures smaller than 1/48 until you develop skill!)

Let it all dry. Next, paint a brown line around the eye, covering eyelids, etc. This will help give the eye definition later.

While the paint is drying, let's work on flesh. Human flash ranges from a pale tan / pink to black. If you look at people under natural light, you see that skin tone isn't consistent. Some parts are shaded, others highlighted, and others have shades of a different hue. Because miniatures don't show their shadows under full-size light, we have to help this shading process along.

Choose a basic skin tone for your figure. You can paint around the eyes with it, filling the eye socket.

While you are at it, paint the nose, cheeks, jaw, ears, neck and lower forehead. Let them dry.

Use a brown shade to darken the base color. (The darker the base color, the darker the brown you use for shading.) It ought to be dark enough to be perceptible, but not so dark as to be another color entirely. Use this darkened paint to shade the figure. Apply under the eyebrow, around the back and bottom of the ears and down to the jawline. Apply under the jaw, inside the ear, and under the nose and lower lip.

Use white to lighten the base color slightly. This will be used to highlight. Highlight the upper forehead, top of the ears, top of the cheekbones, space between the nose and upper lip, chin and forward part of the jawline.

For hands and feet, first paint the base color. Shade between fingers (or toes) and under the hand with the darker shade. Highlight raised parts of the hand - tops of finger, knuckles, etc. Hands var because of position. Highlight those parts facing up.

Determine the hair color. Black, red, brown, white or darker gray can be used as-is. (Very light brown, blonde and light gray need a little darkening to be visible. A touch of brown will darken blonde and light brown - a touch of darker grey will darken light gray.) Paint on any facial hair: eyebrows, moustache, beard. You can use a slightly darker shade under the moustache or beard for shading. Keep in mind that modern women use eyebrow pencils as part of their makeup. Any woman wearing makeup would have darker eyebrows - just look around you for examples.

The lips present a problem. Women wearing makeup would have their lips artificially colored, from red to light browns to shaded fleshtones. Lips vary from person to person. Some individuals' lips are the same shade as their skin. Those whose are a notably different shade usually have slightly darker lips. A few - very few - have lighter lips. Lip shade is, at vest, very slightly darker than base flesh. Use a brown to darken the base color slightly. Some modelers use pink, but they end up with people who look like they're wearing lipstick.

When painting White people, you can add a little pink when shading the cheeks. Of course, this down not apply to Mediterranean types. This pinkness is more common among Irish, English, Scottish, French, German, Nordic and Slavic types.

A common mistake, when painting dark-skinned people, is to make the lips too obvious. Again, look around you - the lip color of Blacks, Arabs and dark-skinned Hispanics rarely differs much from the overall skin tone.

Hair is easy. Choose a base color for hair. Brown, blonde, red and gray are easy. For white hair, use a very light gray. For black hair, use indigo or scale black. (Scale black is not actually black, but a dark charcoal gray.) Allow it to dry.

We now must choose a shading color. For blonde and light brown, we use a medium brown. For darker brown, we use chocolate brown or, if it is THAT dark, black. For medium to light gray, we use dark gray. For dark gray, use black. For red, use terra-cotta, maroon or red-brown. For auburn hair, use dark brown. For black hair, use true black. Make a wash by thinning paint to watery consistently. Paint the wash so that the color seeps into crevasses and details of the hair. Then wipe the raised parts of the hair area with a finger. Wipe gently - barely touch the figure. Do not disturb any indents, crevasses or details. The end result should be more realistic hair. You can go further, if the figure warrants it, by using a slightly lightened version of the base color to highlight the hair. (Say, a woman with a hairdo, the top of the head, etc.) Dry-brush only a few highlighted spots gently - do not get paint into the cracks and crevasses. The result will be more realistic hair. This same kind of three-tome shading can be used on fur, such as for sheep (white sheep require light gray, eggshell white, and bright white to highlight), or the fur clothes on...well, a Viking, perhaps.

Dressed for Success

Now we paint the figure's attire. Some pro modelers light to paint a fine black or dark brown line where clothing meets flesh. This is not necessary. Paint the clothes their proper base color. Fancy collars, epaulettes and trim will come later.

Once clothes dry, take a darker shade and make a wash. Paint this dark wash onto the clothes, letting the darker color fill cracks, folds, etc. Before it dried, gently touch the top of folds and details. This removes wash from them and highlights them a bit. Or, when the wash is fully dry, take a slightly lightened version of the clothes color and touch highlights such as details, pocket tops, tops of folds, trouser creases, etc. Highlight raised spots such as the tops of shoulders, cuffs, creases, epaulettes and collars and edges. The end result is that your figure looks like it has form and shadow. This is a simple trick. (Hardcore modelers would rather paint in shading directly rather than use a wash. Maybe you will get that involved some day, maybe not. A wash works well enough!)

Note: for blue jeans, you can get the faded, worn look by highlighting knees, butt and pocket tops with a VERY lightened base blue. Keep in mind that only new blue jeans are dark blue. Most are medium to sky blue.

The wash should have crept into the spaces where belts and other outerwear contact clothes. You can paint the belts on with one color. If you want to be more intense about detail, paint the edges of the belt with a darkened shade, then paint the outer-facing part of the belt its normal hue. The darkened shade is used wherever a belt or other piece of attire touches the clothes. Normally, however, the basic wash makes enough detail.

(For our purposes, "top" means that part which is facing up toward the light)

Equipment, backpacks, etc. are shaded like anything else. Paint a base color. Paint the underside a darkened shade. Let it dry, then wash the entire piece of equipment with the thinned dark hue. With a lightened hue, highlight the top and any raised details facing the light.

For hats, the underside and under the brim is always a darkened shade. Paint the hat itself the normal shade and give it a wash. Highlight the top of the hat and the brim. Some hats are very simple. The kept used by train conductors, firemen and French soldiers is painted a base color. The entire top is highlighted, and the top of the brim is highlighted. The underside is shaded.


Choose a base color. For black shoes, choose scale black. When dry, use a darkened shade as a wash. Follow by highlighting the instep, toe, and back of the heel. For leather shoes, a coat of clear satin finish is enough for most. Highly-polished shows can be had by using semi-gloss or gloss. The sole of shoes is always flat.

Finish the figure by painting buttons, buckles, insignia, tools, weapons, etc.

Uniforms: Civilian - tidbits about civilian attire

Civilian uniforms are standardized version of normal civilian attire. There are several standard uniform colors and accouterments found in everyday life.

Dress uniforms

Dress uniforms are normally worn by railroad officials, firemen, city police, etc. The standard dress uniform color in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and France is a dark blue. Dress uniform buttons are usually metal - either silver or brass. American firemen wear silver. Railroads tend toward brass, as do the British, Canadians and French. Leather: belts, brims, and shoes, are polished black. Headgear is either the coffee-can shaped kepi or the American police-type hat, depending on the specific agency. American firemen may wear either type hat.

A dark forest green is used by forestry personnel and some state and county police. Their leather belts and shoes can be polished brown or black, depending on the agency. Buttons and buckles are brass. Headgear can be the "smoky bear," Stetson or police-type hat. In recent years, the standard peaked baseball cap emblazoned with the department's shoulder patch or badge has become popular. Bear in mind that a few departments blend brown and green.

Police departments vary by region and locale. Khaki is common with Western and Southwestern US police departments. Blue is common to city police. Most cities wear a dark blue uniform. Some wear dark blue or black trousers with light blue shirts. In those departments, a dark blue coat is worn in winter. There are anomalies. NY State police prefer gray, while NJ state police wear powder blue tunics.

It is common for fire and police officers over the rank of captain to wear white shirts or tunics. A deputy or full fire chief generally wears a white cap. (This tradition started as a way to instantly recognize a chief while fighting a fire) Chiefs, whether fire or police, tend to wear brass rather than silver.

Railroad porters traditionally wore a kepi, dark trousers and a white jacket. "Redcaps" are porters who wear a red cap to make them more visible on train platforms. The redcap's sole job is to help passengers with luggage.

Work Uniforms

The working uniforms is normally less ornate, being made for utility rather than appearance. After 1935, everyday uniforms for police and firemen dispensed with shiny buttons. Plain buttons, normally the color of the uniform material, are common.

Workers' uniforms vary as to "official" and "unofficial" uniforms. Official uniforms are normally issued to workers by the employer. Unofficial uniforms are a conventional set of clothes preferred by a certain trade. For instance, the doormen at Rockefeller Center are issued brown uniforms, which are "official." Railroad engineers used to wear bib overalls, denim shirts and a certain type of cap as a tradition within the trade. This is an unofficial uniform.

Blue collar government employees and municipal workers are generally issued uniforms. Most common are blue and dark green. These are usually coveralls, but some issue separate trousers, shirts and jackets. Corporate janitorial crews and grounds keepers wear similar uniforms issued by the company. Blue is most common, followed by green. Brown is seen occasionally. Small service and utility companies sometimes have a uniform which has the company logo emblazoned on back. Here is a partial list of uniformed workers:


Sanitation workers

Grounds keepers

Maintenance personnel



Window washers

House painters

Landscaping crews

Delivery services

Utility meter readers

Utility workers

House painters have an "unofficial" uniform consisting of paint-splattered white coveralls and a white cap.

Medical workers generally favor white attire. Nurses traditionally wear a white dress, white stockings, shows and cap. Doctors and other medical personnel working in hospitals favor a white jacket of lab coat. Emergency Medical Technicians wear uniforms similar to police, though some favor a white shirt or pale blue shirt. Personnel working in operating rooms wear pale green turbans, smocks and pants.

White is also favored by food handlers. Meat packers wear hard hats and white lab coats. Ice cream vendors wear white pants, shorts and caps with a black bow tie. Cooks and kitchen personnel wear white outfits and caps. It is the cut of clothing and style of headgear that differentiates these professions.

Standard attire for waiters is black trousers, white shirt, and red or black jacker / vest. Waitresses tend toward black dresses. Some wear a white blouse. Aprons for waitresses are usually black. Waiters tend toward black or white aprons. Bartenders in fancier establishments generally prefer black pants, white shirt, black tie and white apron. Porters tend to wear cook whites.

Summer attire for construction trades is blue jeans or bib overalls, brown work boots, and white, green or dark blue T shirts. Headgear is either a baseball cap or hardhat. (Prior to WW2, any hat was likely) Autumn attire is a flannel shirt, normally plaid. Late autumn and winter generally means a short jacket or work coat. Construction workers usually wear a tool belt - brown to green in color - and carry or wear work gloves.

The work uniform of male office and clerical personnel is dark trousers, a white shirt and a dark tie. Women tend toward knee length or longer skirts or dresses. Blouses vary. Colors are usually pastel or dark tones. Bright tones are uncommon.

Executives - male and female - tend to wear dark colored suits with pastel or white shirts/blouses and dark ties. Lighter colored suits have become more common since the 1970s. In earlier times, tan or khaki suits were worn in summer and darker outfits in winter. White summer suits were common in the American South and West., and among European executives working in the Mediterranean or tropical regions.

Women in white-collar trades wear makeup to work.

Prior to 1970, it was common for women to dress more formally when shopping and traveling locally. "Dressing down" was unheard of outside of blue collar jobs and around the home.

Military - a smattering of notes on modern military forces

Since the War of 1812, the military attire worldwide has become conventional. Up until 1914, the dress uniform was also the combat uniform. Soldiers wore metal buttons and adornments with leather belts and field gear. Since 1914, the dress uniforms has been differentiated from the combat uniform.

Swords and pistols are the province of officers and cavalrymen. Soldiers traditionally carry the bayonet and rifle.

Here are some of the popular armies and a few generalizations about their uniforms:

Union troops in the American Civil War favored dark blue tunics and pale blue trousers, with brass buttons. The kepi was common. Slouch hats were worn by a few infantry units, but were more common among cavalrymen and officers. Confederate troops favored gray or a light brown known as butternut. Zoaves - colorful light infantry units wearing a Middle Eastern type of clothing - dispensed with their fancy uniforms soon after the war began. Union leather gear was usually black. Southerners used either black or brown. Stripes and markings for troops were standardized: blue for infantry, gold for cavalry and red for artillery. Some infantry work gold colored stripes.

WW1 US troops wore a brownish-green wool uniform and green or khaki field gear and leggings. Helmets were a dark green. British uniforms were browner, and their ammo belts were a pale green. The French started the war in red trousers, dark blue coats and red caps. They soon changed to a light blue known as "horizon blue."

German troops varied from province to province. At the outset, a few units wore dark blue uniforms. Many wore a powder blue known as "parade blue." It was soon replaced by "field gray," a medium gray with a hint of green. The pickelhaube - spiked helmet - was normally worn with a cover the color of the uniform. It was replaced by the stalhelm, which was normally painted gray. Some stalhelms were camouflaged. Check historical sources for the German camouflage pattern. German troops' buttons were a flat silver color.

By WW2, the field gray was much greener. Gray was reserved for officer's dress uniforms. At the war's outset, a field gray tunic was worn over blue trousers. These gave way to field gray trousers, Helmets for combat troops were colored wither dark gray or a medium green. German field gear was black leather. Muted silver buttons were worn. Ranks from corporal and below were worn on the sleeve. Higher rank were on the epaulettes. Normally, an NCO would not remove his old corporal's patch.

Piping around the collar and epaulette's identified a soldier's branch of service. White was infantry, yellow was cavalry, pink was tanks (armor), pale green was assault gun artillery, apple green was panzer grenadiers (mechanized infantry). Regular troops epaulettes were dark green. Collar insignia was a muted silver, and a muted silver eagle was worn over the right pocket. In some cases, the entire collar was green. Some officers and SS troops wore black epaulettes, collar insignia and in some uniform variants, a black collar. SS troops did not wear the eagle on their chest. The SS wore it on the left sleeve between the elbow and shoulder. SS troops also wore a thin black cuff band with silver piping and the name of their unit. The black SS uniform was not worn in combat. It was for parades or formal duties.

US troops varied by World War 2. Marine troops tended toward pale green fatigues bearing a stenciled USMC logo on the left chest pocket. Marines were issued brown boots, canvas leggings, and the standard green ammo belt. Marines wore a camouflage helmet cover. This was the standard tropical combat uniform by mid-1942. At the war's outset, the uniform was usually khaki with the flat World War I type helmet.

Army troops wore a waist-length greenish-khaki jacket, brownish green wool pants (which usually faded to a medium brown) and khaki leggings and web gear. A dark khaki shirt was worn under the jacket. The standard green helmet was worn "bare" or with a camouflage net. NCO stripes were either khaki or a medium green. Boots were brown. Leggings were fading out by 1944. A new olive drab fatigue uniform with field jacket started being issued in 1944. However, both uniform types were still in use up to the war's end.

British troops in Europe wore a brown-drab uniforms with waist-length jacket and khaki shirt, khaki field gear and green helmet with camouflage netting. Those in Africa wore khaki uniforms. Short pants were issued.

The German tropical uniform was a khaki version of the regular combat uniform. Short boots and high legging boots were among the tropical kit. However, there were mixes of uniform types in Africa, the only one not seen being the winter version!

Japanese uniforms ranged from a medium green to brown to khaki.

Camouflage uniforms were used by some units of the US Marines and by the German Army, German Paratroopers and SS. To shade camouflage, make a dark wash of the darkest base color in the camouflage pattern. Wipe the raised parts of the figure before it dries.

Soviet uniforms in World War II ranged from brown to dark green. They were a brownish green up until the mid-1970s, when camouflage became the norm. Boots could be green or brown.

Green fatigues were popular with most armies from 1955 until 1980. Khaki and tan uniforms are more likely to be seen among some Middle Eastern armies. Israeli troops wear olive green that is slightly more brown that the US uniform. British troops favor olive drab with camouflage smocks, although the entire uniform was camouflage by the 1980s.

Ancients and Wild Men - bits and pieces on painting sword-waving warriors

Shading the body is easy - the chest and center of the stomach is highlighted, as are tops of limbs. Undersides are shaded.

Fur--bearing warriors are painted the same way as hair. Wolfskins are generally gray to white, bearskins are brown to black. Shade accordingly, but be more daring here than with human hair.

Most medieval warriors have brown leather equipment. Clothing for common troops ranged from dark gray to brown to faded green. Some nobles wore brighter colors, but for most it was muted or earth tones. Armor was polished, but would be a steel rather than silver color.

For chainmail, paint the figure a gray steel color. Wash with black, highlight with aluminum or silver. You can use dry brushing for plat and chain mail. For bronze armor, wash with black or dark chocolate brown. Highlight with gold.

Most buttons, chains and clips are muted iron. Only a rare accouterment would be polished silver or gold.

This is but a basic primer for beginners. With practice, you can develop new techniques. Developing skill allows the use of more complex and difficult methods. However, the methods discussed here will easily render attractive, realistic figures.

Copyright 1999 T. Sheil All Rights Reserved

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