Basic Painting

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Tools Needed

The first step in painting a figure is to set up your work area with the basic tools and paints you will be using. This should consist of at least:

  • Paint - No one brand is superior in all ways, so it is more a matter of availability and personal choice.
  • Brushes - Normally two or three of different sizes.
  • Water - For cleaning the brushes (or a solvent such as turpentine for enamels).
  • Tissues and paper towels - Drying the brushes and blotting excess paint.
  • Pallette - A small tray for mixing paints. Plastic dishes, figure bubbles, ceramic tiles and more can be used.
  • Screwdriver - A small phillips head, for disassembling the figures.
  • Light source - Natural sunlight is best, but office lamps with hinged arms are also very useful.

A more detailed analysis of tools and types of paint can be found in What tools should I have? and What paint do I use? respectively.

Work Area

Any large flat surface will do, though if it is a kitchen table or the like covering it with a layer of old newspaper or a plastic sheet is a good idea in case of any spills. There should be a central 'empty' area where you can paint without clutter. Paints, water and paper should all be nearby at a conveniant position for you, as well as any tools and custom fodder parts you will be working on. Near a window is ideal as natural light gives the best illumination and shows the colours at their truest. If working with glues or enamels it also provides excellent venitlation.

Prepping the Figure

Many older figures are often dusty or dirty, so washing them in warm (not hot), soapy water is a good idea, scrubbing with an old toothbrush to get into the joints and creases of the parts. On newer figures this is also recomended as they are often oily (a side effect of the molding process) wich will affect the paint's adhesion, increasing chipping and flaking.

After washing, go over the figure inspecting for any mold defects such as pockmarks or chips. These can often be filled with modelling putty (such as milliput) or if minor enough will be covered with paint. Some figures also have ridges left by where the two part mold connected. These can be trimmed back with a craft knife or sanded back with fine grit paper or a file.

It is often a good idea to lightly sand the figure anyway as it will take the glossy, smooth finish off of the part which helps the paint to adhere better also.

Brush Selection, Care and Handling

The brush you select is important, as it needs to be large enough to cover the area quickly, but small enough to be controlled and not go into the other colours. A 1, 0 or 000 size brush is best for base coating, depending on the areas size. 0, 000 or smaller are good for detail work.

Each brush should idealy come to a fine point, with no loose bristles and the ferrule (the metal part that holds the bristles) should be as clean as possible. Do not dip the brush directly into a paint pot, as unless it is very full, you will most likely end up with paint all over the brush, and inside the ferrule. If paint gets inside the ferrule it can leak out later and stain the bristles while you are using another colour. Either use a palette for all your paints, or use only the lid of the pot, as it often retains paint after the bottle has been shaken.

From left to right the brushes are: Drybrushing (0), undercoating (0), Base colouring (1), Base colouring (0), detail (0 - new), Mixing (4/0), Detail (5/0) and fine drybrushing (5/0).

When cleaning the brush, a container of water (such a tupperware tub) is used. Wipe off any excess paint with a cloth or paper towel, then dip the brush in and stir it around. Try to avoid pressing it hard against the bottom and sides of the container as this will splay the bristles, shortening the life of your brush. After stirring for a while take the brush out and wipe it on a cloth or paper towel. Holding the towel in one hand, grip the tip of the brush while pulling it back and twisting with the other. This motion keeps the bristles round and squeezes the excess water out. You may need to repeat this process to get the brush as clean as possible. Also wetting your lips in place of the towel works for restoring the shape of the brush - though make sure the brush is clean beforehand.

If you are working with metallic paints or a mixture of acryllic and enamel, it is best to use seperate brushes for each type, as meatalic paints often leave shiny flakes that will come out in flat colours, and the harsh solvents used in cleaning enamels can sometimes affect acryllic paints or the plastic they are being applied to.


Once the part has been cleaned, it needs to be given an undercoat. The undercoat gives the part an even base colour, usually white, that provides a base for all other colours to adhere to. The colour of the undercoat will affect the final product in different ways. A white of light grey coat will lend the top coat a brighter, more brilliant hue, whereas a black or dark grey will give a shadowy, moody appearance (and is good for metal effects). The colour of the undercoat needs to be selected whilst thinking about the final product - as a yellow figure would be unsuited to a black base, but a totally camouflaged figure (such as Hit & Run) could start with a green undercoat. Once the undercoat is on it should be allowed to dry fully before any other work is done.

There are several methods available for undercoating:

  • Hand painting - Using a larger brush (such as a 1 or 0) the figure is given an even coat all over. One or two thin coats should suffice, though a dark undercoat usually requires less, and making a dark part light may require more.
  • Spray painting - Good for getting a large number of parts done at once, using a can of spray paint is a good choice for vehicles too. It is not as good for jointed parts such as arms and legs, as it won't get into the joints themselves easily. It is best done outside or by a wimdow, using a cardboard box on its side as a work area. Several quick sprays will give a nice even finish, while a single large burst will flood the part and give runs and ruin detail. Touchups with a brush may still be needed to get into intricate areas.
  • Airbrushing - Using an airbrush connected to a compressor combines the speed of the spraycan with the control of the brush. It is however rather time consuming to set up and clean and not really worth it unless you will be doing alot of pieces.

Applying the Base Colours

Now the parts are undercoated and ready for their base colours to be applied. Before you start, you may want to give some thought to the final result you are trying for. GI Joe figures generally have two or three main colours in large, contrasting, blocks. They also aren't weathered or shaded for the most part. So if you are making a figure to blend in with the rest of the line, a simpler choice of colours is a good bet, and the base colour will be the final colour also. On the other hand a more realistically painted figure will need to take into account shading and weathering, and may need to adjust the base colour accordingly.

The base colours should also give a feel for the figures personality or speciality. An overall blue or red figure will give off a distincly Cobra feel, while a figure in tan or green will be more Joe. Too many colours can be overwhelming, and an excessivly detailed colour scheme can be confusing and conceal the detail of the mold if not done with care.

Depending on what the piece is, it may be necessary to mount it in some way whilst painting to avoid rubbing wet paint off with your hands. A cork, 35mm film cannister or the like topped with a piece of blu-tac makes a good mount for a head or arm. Torsos can be sat on a pen (again topped with blu-tac)and heads can be heald in a 'scrap' torso.

The three golden rules of base coating (and painting in general) are:

  • Two thin coats are better than one thick coat.
  • Patience is the key, rushing will only result in mistakes
  • Practice, practice, practice.

Taking the mounted part, start with the lightest colour (white or yellow usually need to be done first) as if you go onto other areas it is easier to cover with the darker colour than the light. Get a small amount of paint onto the tip of the brush, not too much as it can flood the part and you will loose the detail - too little won't cover thickly enough and will take alot longer than is necessary. If you do flood the part quickly grab a tissue to blot up the paint (cotton swabs also work). Tearing the tissue and using the ragged edge to soak up the excess will often work beter than just blotting. Practicing on junk pieces is a good way to get a handle on controlling the brush and amount of paint to use.

Apply a single thin coat to all the areas that are that colour, and once done, clean the brush. Once that coat has dried, apply more thin coats until the area has a smooth, even colouring. The area may only need one coat, or may need up to a dozen (yellow and red are notorious for this).

A trick to painting large areas of light colours (such as yellow) is to spray or airbrush the part yellow after a light undercoating. The spray gives a very nice, even coat, often better than can be done by hand. Once the base colour has dried the coloured areas are then hand undercoat in over the top (so they go back to white), and the other base colours are applied.


Once the largest areas of color have been filled in, the rest of the figure needs to be painted. Areas such as straps, gloves, grenades and other such small areas the like fall into this category. Taking a smaller brush paint along the edge of the area you are painting, then fill the rest of the area in. Certain areas may need a second lighter undercoat applied if the original undercoat was dark or a darker base colour has bled over (the red on the v1 Viper torso for example of where this may occur). It is important to make sure that there are no patches of unpainted figure showing through, as it will be quite noticable.

More information on detailing can be found in the Detailing section, including information on camouflage, drydrushing, wetbrushing, inking and painting fine details such as eyes and tattoos.

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