Head Re-Painting Tutorial

It’s been requested of me many times to put together a tutorial detailing how I paint or rather re-paint my head sculpts, and finally after much procrastinating here it is!  Many of the methods I use in this tutorial originated from postings on the OSW forum, techniques that I’ve modified slightly and found work well for me.  I encourage you to do the same when you’re painting too, to take the basis of this tutorial as a building block to finding new ways to achieve ‘that look’ – but remember to share with the community your new found skills so that others may learn also!

We begin by looking as some of the equipment that I use, most of which is fairly inexpensive and I use all the time, not just for painting heads.  It’s well worth investing in some of these items, but should money be a factor you should know that you can follow and apply some of these techniques without the need for the most expensive parts – the Airbrush and Compressor, but I’ll cover that later.


I use a very simple, inexpensive, single action airbrush as pictured below. This was very cheap (about £10) and I have three in total. I use one for dark colours when I want to spray uniforms black, or dioramas etc…  Then I keep another one for just skin-tones and light colour work to avoid any cross contamination.  Once you get a few specs of black paint landing on your head sculpt it’s a real pain to remove and reverse!  You really do not need to spend a fortune on an expensive airbrush, the techniques you will see are based on blending multiple colours and using pastel shading, so you don’t need a superfine detailing airbrush – just something cheap that will spray a nice ‘mist’ of paint.


I cannot express enough what a worthwhile investment one of these is. I would strongly recommend against using ‘canned air’.  You will find that the air flow is inconsistent, as the release of the gas starts to cool down the can resulting in a reduction in air pressure…  not to mention it will cost you a fortune over time too!  This model of compressor below cost me around £49 at the time and has been going strong for well over a year.  At £9.99 for a can of air, can you imagine how much that would have cost me by now!  As I said, it is an investment and it’s half the price of your average boxed figure these days.


With the paint, again you don't need to spend a fortune here either.  I use just standard artists acrylic paints which I water down in drinking bottles to create a liquid that can be sprayed.  Just under half of one of the small bottles of paint into a 500ml drinking bottle, filled near to the top and then shaken briskly. At only £1.19 for each paint bottle, that gives you 1 litre of paint to spray with - works out cheap and goes a long way!

Caution: Do NOT use tap water. Use distilled, de-ionised or bottled water - you don't want any limescale or other contaminants getting into your paint mix.


The pastels are used for the shading after laying down the base skin tone colourings.  You can kind of tell which colours I use the most by looking at them. Make sure they are labelled as 'soft' or 'chalk' based pastels NOT the oil based variety.  The handy little storage container pictured was purchased from Hobbycraft (here in the UK) and was originally intended for jewellery making and holds the little blighters nicely, no mess! I use a stiff brush on the pastel chalks to create powder dust in the container which I pick up on a softer brush and apply direct to the head sculpt.


You should make sure you have a good selection of these in varying sizes.  Again Hobbycraft sell selection packs of these and I recommend using nylon ones (white bristles) meant for acrylic paints, they’re soft enough that they won’t scratch the paint work but also they won’t shed bristles like the natural hair ones.  I use the 'flat' type as it gives you more freedom around the hairline etc depending on the angle you hold the brush and you can achieve some sharp lines too.  Make sure you invest in a good quality small brush like a 00000 grade with an almost needle like point as you will need this for eyes, lips, eyebrows etc... All of the fine detailing!

Sealers and Varnishes

I've recently started using this brand of spray varnish, 'The Army Painter' anti-shine matt varnish.  Previously to this I used Humbrol No 49 Matt Varnish spray.  I find the ‘Army Painter’ brand better value at 400ml for £7.99 as opposed to Humbrol at 150ml for £4.99.  We use this to fix pastels and provide a protective seal after applying paint.  I also use Americana brand paint on varnishes for creating skin pore texture (matt) and gloss for the eyes and lips.

Hair Dryer

I find this an essential piece of kit unless you have lots of time on your hands! In between each coat of paint from the airbrush, use this to quickly dry the head off... also useful for drying off varnish coats etc. I use it all the time - cost less than £5 from Tesco!


I would highly recommended use one of these if you cannot spray in a very well ventilated area. Although we're spraying water based acrylics, it's not good for you to breathe in that fine mist and especially not good to breathe in the fumes from the varnish spray either! This one was very cheap, about £4 and will last you 28 days non-stop action. It has a replaceable filter, although it's cheap enough to throw away when it's clogged.


I use non-latex disposable gloves, just the one on the left hand, to keep all that paint over-spray from giving my hand a nice re-paint job too!  Acrylic paint washes off fairly easily but it really adheres to finger nails well.  One box of gloves lasts a long time when you’re only using one at a time!

And now lets have a sneaky peek at the head sculpt we’ll be painting today, which I believe was made by Toys Soldier.


Before we start the painting process we're going to need something to hold the head nicely in the hand.  I find this method works well; take a wooden clothes peg and pull it apart, then turn the two wooden halves around that it makes a wedge shape, put some tape around to hold it together and hey presto, a nice tapered handle!

Now, I should tell you that I am terrible at painting eyes, they really are my nemesis, and so if I can avoid doing so I won’t paint them!  You'll notice that the eyes were pretty good on this one so we want to preserve these. To do this we use some Blu-Tak (stuff for holding posters up on the wall). Take a tiny little ball of it and place it in the centre of the eye, then use something like a cocktail stick or tooth-pick to push it into the corners of the eyes and all around on the inside of the lids. You don't want any straying over the eye lids. Like this:

The next step, as the paint was damaged on this particular head, we’ll need to lay down a basecoat of a fairly even colour. If we don't put this basecoat down, the paint will be thinner on the damaged areas and there will be a noticeable colour difference.  You can of course skip this step if the head you're repainting is free from scratches and damage. We're going to use the colour 'buff titanium' and pretty much 'dry' brush it on, that is, with very little paint on the brush. You're looking for an all over coat like this:

Having laid down a basecoat, we're now going to start airbrushing some colour on - this is the fun bit! We're going to begin by using the 'Tan' colour in the 'Decoart Craft Acrylics' range (pictured in one of the little bottles, although the one in the picture was 'Suede' or something similar). You should have by now mixed your paint up in the plastic drinking bottle as recommended earlier.  If it's been sat there for a while, give it a good shake up first and fill your airbrush pot about 90% leaving some space at the top.

Make sure the nozzle on your airbrush is set to give a good flow, but not too heavy. Test it on a piece of paper first to ensure you're happy with the amount of paint that is coming out, you really don't want floods of it otherwise it will pool into spots on the head.

From a distance of between 30cm and 45cm depending on the flow setting, start to cover the head with a fine layer of paint.  You want to move the airbrush in a side to side motion, whilst simultaneously keeping the head moving around, turning it in your fingers to ensure nice even coverage all over.  You want it so it's just about glistening wet, not soaked... a bit like this:

Pop your airbrush down, pick up the hairdryer and dry that coat off until it looks matt in appearance.... then keep going with that colour until your paint pot is almost used up.

The difference in colour is subtle, but certainly not as 'white' as it was.

Next, we're going to switch to a much darker colour. This particular one is a mix of burnt sienna with some of the tan to make this red-ish orange colour.

Start by putting some of this colour down... oh no, wait, look what has happened - some of the burnt sienna didn't mix properly and now I have a few little red dots on the head. DON'T WORRY if this happens to you, this will actually look quite cool later on.  Skin is not perfect and has minor blemishes, these will not look this at all later on, trust me!

As before, keep drying off each layer with the hair dryer in between, and keep adding this colour again until you're pot is almost empty. These little pots hold 15ml, so your 500ml bottles will go a long way!

You'll notice in the picture above a few lighter blemishes. This was because I had some really bad red specs that were just too large, so I dabbed some neat tan colour onto them, don't worry, that'll all soon disappear!

We're going to switch colours again now because we're getting a little bit too red. This time we're using another ‘Decoart’ colour 'Flesh Chair' they call it, it's quite pink.

As you can see below, that has toned down the skin colour somewhat and those tan blemishes are starting to disappear nicely too...

Keep going with that colour until almost gone... then take the remains of both pots, and mix them up - now you've created yet another colour to throw onto the canvas!

The base skin tone is really starting to come out now...

Now, at this point, just to make sure I've got some even colour distribution, I'm going to give it a light dusting all over with the red-ish brown pastel which is in the bottom left of my pastel box picture.... You dust it all over with a large soft brush just like a girl would apply blusher make-up… Once done, give it a very light mist of the varnish spray to fix it... it'll look like this...

I'm going to tone back some of that red colour now with some of the 'tan and flesh' mix...

And there you go... looking much better and has a more natural base skin tone. There is no right or wrong way to do any of the above, it's all experimentation... Just keep applying different colours and mixing them much like an ink-jet printer would on a piece of paper until you find a base skin-tone that you're happy with.

So we move now onto the pastel shading part.  This is easier than it looks, and really is much like applying make-up!

You're going to need a smaller paintbrush and a larger softer one to dust off the excess, a little like these:

We're going to use the red-ish brown pastel colour again, this one here:

Now, easiest way I can show you where to apply these colours is by making a little map detailing where you're are to apply the pastel dust.  I hope you get the idea?  Where you see the arrow has a point on each end, start in the middle and work outwards.  Please note the lines at the bottom of the neck are underneath following the jaw-line. 

(additional: Also apply a little pastel dust to the ear-lobes, backs of the ears and back of the neck – not pictured on this map)

Take a little pastel dust of the red-ish brown and using a small brush apply in only the areas shown on the diagram.  Keep blowing off the excess that builds up (careful you don't accidentally spit on it, seriously it'll turn into a mess that you won't be able to get off easily!).... Once you've applied in all the areas on the map, use the larger brush to dust off the excess.

Once you're happy with that, give a very light coating of the varnish spray and what you'll notice is that it all turns very dark. That varnish spray will tend to make any pastel colours darker... Don't worry, we wanted this! Because now we have some strong contrast between the shaded areas and the original skin tone... like this:

Now, make sure you've dried that varnish spray off with the hair-dryer, and then give it a few mist coats of the tan colour from your airbrush to soften down those darker colours. Then you should have something that looks a little like this:

And now we're starting to get somewhere!!!

At this point we're nearing the end of the tutorial now so hold on, and get ready for an amazing transformation! You'll have to forgive me as there are a few photos missing that didn't come out very well at all, unfortunately I had no idea until I sat down at my PC so there are a few steps missing in terms of pictures - but I'll describe them to you as best I can.

To paint the hair we're going to use a watered down brown paint mix that I've put in a little jar, along with a small flat paintbrush. The reason we use watered down paint is it makes it nice and easy to blend into the skin without a horrible sharp line, but it does mean it'll take longer as you need to build the layers up.  Ultimately it gives you more control over the final colour so it is well worth taking the time.

Begin by starting at the hair line where it meets the skin, work your way all round slowly making sure you don't get any paint where you don't want it!

Once you've done that, fill in the rest of the hair and you will have an entire coat done, it'll look something like this:

Keep going, keep adding layers, it'll get darker and darker... Dry off each layer with the hairdryer...


Ok, we're pretty much done with hair colour now.... looking ok isn't it?

Time for the eyebrows next and we’ll use that same paint wash but this time use your smallest brush (00000 if you can get one).  Apply the paint to the eyebrows working from the bottom upwards in diagonal strokes, a little like this:

We’re making good progress and it’s time for the lips now. With this one, again use your smallest 00000 brush, but rinse it out thoroughly from its previous use! Now, dip that brush into some clean water and then rub it over your dark red-ish brown pastel, it'll pick up just like watercolour paint. Carefully apply to the lips, you should have this:

Make sure that is completely dry before we move onto the next and final steps.

We're going to now use the ‘Americana’ Matt Varnish which we're going to apply with a stiff brush in a 'stipple' dabbing motion, NOT a brushing motion.  If applied correctly this will, when dry, give us a nice skin-pore like texture.

(Before the next shot was taken I applied a little 5 o'clock shadow using a very fine coating of black pastel, this was one of the missing photos I’m afraid)

Also it is now time for the big reveal before you add the varnish, and that is to expose the eyes!  Do so gently with a pair of tweezers to remove the blu-tak.

Dab the varnish all over and make sure there are no streaks or clumps... once you are satisfied, dry off with the hair-dryer. It will probably look a little on the shiny side, so give it a quick mist with the spray matt varnish and if all is well and good, you should have something that looks like this!

If you wish, you can apply ‘Americana’ gloss varnish to the eyes to give them a more realistic shiny look, the lips also if you feel necessary.

And that is pretty much it, you're done! The varnish really brings out the colours and the contrast and it gives that realistic translucent skin tone effect....

I hope you enjoyed reading through this tutorial.  If you have any questions you can either contact me via OSW or via my website.  Also feel free to comment on this article and provide your feedback!

Thanks for reading, Steve.


Connect with us via Facebook®