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Painting Black/African Faces

Mark Bannerman


To continue on my quest for varying types of skin tones, I made my first attempt at painting an African subject using oils paints. I figured I would get around to doing this subject at some point to depict an Ethiopian militia figure on a North Africa vignette with a few Italian soldiers.

I made reference to an article written by Kevin Golden in a back issue of Historical Miniatures and also made some reference to several MM figure articles by Phil Kessling - both Masters in this art form. Having  read these articles, I found them extremely intricate and complex - certainly beyond my abilities - but you simply cannot argue with their results !

The Readers' Digest version of their technique calls for the blending and feathering technique with mixes of Raw Umber, Olive Green, Naples Yellow and Lamp Black and a fifth colour of a dark-purplish colour mixed from blue and black. The idea which they suggest is laying in deep shadows of Lamp or Mars Black, apply a base of Raw Umber mixed with a dash of Olive Green, highlight with a mix of Naples Yellow with Olive Green/Raw Umber and high highlight with Raw Umber and Naples Yellow.
Then details are addressed by applying deep shadows again in pure Mars Black and high-highlights in Naples Yellow mixed with Titanium White.

I am no where near this level of competence and painting skill and quite frankly, I don't really aspire to either. The works of Stephen Muller, Bill Horan, Mike Black and Phil Kessling among others is another art form altogether. The end result which I am - and most armour buffs are - looking for is that the figures complement the piece of armour, does not take too much time to paint, not too many colour mixes and that it looks right when it is all said and done. My philosophy is to keep it real
simple. If I can attain this, then I am perfectly satisfied.

I opted not to try their technique and make a try by finding a far simpler method. I studied my box of oil paints and started to dabble around using various brown tones. I found that Burnt Umber was a pleasing colour which I could alternatively lighten or darken. Therefore, this was the chosen base colour. For shadowing, I decided to use Mars Black because it is a nice soft black with a hint of blue. For highlights, I opted for Gold Ochre as this does contain some green pigmentation. Essentially, I followed Kevin and Phil's colour guide but only on the peripheral. I don't see any justification in buying $7 tubes of colour only to use a dab in a lifetime. So I work with what I have.On a sheet of plastics, I placed three blobs (the size of a crushed pea)
of Burnt Umber. In the first blob, I added some Mars Black (about half the size of the initial blob) for shadows, and I added similar size of Gold Ochre in the third blob for highlights. The middle blob of straight Burnt Umber took a touch of Burnt Sienna to redden it up a bit.

I cleaned up the head - a Hornet 1/35th scale offering - and primed it lightly in Tamiya Metal Primer (grey) and once dry (10 minutes), I applied a slight wash of tainted thinner of Mars Black. Let dry thoroughly (20 minutes). I took the base straight Burnt Umber (with a tad of Burnt Sienna) and applied it to the entire face. I actually stained the head by poking the paint on rather than stroking the paint on. Cover the entire face area accept where the Mars Black wash found itself in the initial wash (eye sockets, around nose, ears etc...). Let sit for an hour.

I then took a 00 brush, brought it to a fine point (I lick it !) and added the first mix of Burnt Umber/ Mars Black to the shadow areas very carefully. Simply accentuate the areas that has the wash. If you overlap, overdo, or place too much don't worry, we'll clear it up after.  The secret here is to take your time, study where the shadows fall on the face and keep at it until your satisfied. Let this sit for an hour.

The next step was applying the first highlight. I applied the Burnt Umber/Gold Ochre ( the third blob) mix and I deposited a touch to those highlight areas - tip of nose, lips, frown, eyebrows , upper cheek area, tops of nose, nostrils, lower lip, and temple. Ensure that highlights does not touch your shadow areas. I then added toothpick dots of pure Gold Ochre on top the high-highlight spots - tip of nose, middle of lower lip and ontop of the eyebrowse.

I went back in with a toothpick and scrapped any excess paint right off the surface while the paint was still relatively wet - particularly the deep shadows oils on the eyelids, around mouth and in the ears . Once this was done, all of the paint was wet or semi wet. I took a wide dry "fan" brush and in three or four smooth and light strokes, I brushed down on the head allowing the brush to pick up excess paint and at the same time, blend in the stark areas into the semi wet base. I pulled my brush back and low and behold, it was looking right on ! The lips went from a gold yellow colour to a light grey-brown - the result of the Gold Ochre mixing with the semi yet straight base Burnt Umber. I thought it looked pretty good so I proceeded to leave it dry overnight under an inverted glass.

The day after I added a small nick of Titanium White mixed with Humbrol Flesh in the right corners of the figures' eye sockets and then added two specs of pure Mars Black for the pupils in the left side of the sockets with my trustee toothpick splinters. Once this was complete, I mixed some Burnt Umber with Payne's Grey (1:3 ratio) and dabbled in the hair line and hair. At this point, I decided that nothing else should be done and left it to dry thoroughly.

I took the attached photos the following day when all had dried and the attached is the end result. The whole thing took perhaps 40-50 cumulative minutes over two nights. In fact, all the steps up to the application of the eyes and hair were done during each commercial break while the History channel aired "The Eagle Has Landed". You don't have to do it all in one marathon sitting - a few minutes every 10 minutes will be far more gratifying. The next step will be to add a little Polly S gloss to the forehead, and lower lip, add a red fez in Milliput or similarly and find him a body from an old Heller figure kit set..

One important point - The best way to study this head on your screen is to take 6 or 7 steps back from the screen. You will see that blemishes you can see at close range of the screen,  particularly on the sides of the face, seem to blend in to each other 7-8 feet away. The "natural" blending transition applies equally when you go from working on your figure through an optivisor or under magnification and then observing your work with the naked eye. Anytime you want to see your progress on a
figure, hold it about one foot from your eyes  - without the use of magnification. It is the only way to fairly and properly assess your progress.

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