Black is one of the colours that many people find difficult to paint with. If you’re not careful highlighting it, the colour can quickly turn from a black into a grey, and as it’s already so dark, how does one shade it? While I hope to write a more thorough article on different ways to deal with black, for the moment I’m going to focus on a specific variety: painting a shiny black. Think of glossy black hair or shiny black leather. Sure, you could use a gloss finish over black, but that never seems to look quite right at the small scale. Instead we want to use matte paints to create very bright highlights while retaining the impression that the underlying colour is black. Not an easy task, but one I hope you will find more approachable after reading this tutorial. In addition, you can find a different approach to painting black in this tutorial on painting black power armour.
For this tutorial I will be working with acrylics and using Reaper Master Series paints. Of course the same effects can be achieved with paints from any brand, but the colour names will be in reference to the Reaper line. I paint primarily through layering, slowly varying the colour on my palette and applying many layers to create the blends. Each layer is thinned somewhat, but not to the level of a true glaze.
Let’s begin by talking about colour choice. While it may seem obvious to go with black, a neutral grey, and then white, choosing other intermediate colours can create more visually pleasing effects. What if you swapped out the neutral grey for a cool grey or a warm grey? What if you added some blue to the intermediate mix? Or what if you put in a bit of brown? These colours could imply something about the light hitting the piece or the underlying material. There are many possibilities and I encourage you to experiment. For the colours in the following example I’ve chosen Pure Black, Dark Elf Shadow, Dark Elf Skin, Dark Elf Highlight, Vampiric Shadow, and Pure White. The dark elf colours are a set of dark greys, but are visually a bit more interesting than neutral greys.
When it comes to highlighting and shading, there are a couple good rules of thumb for painting black. The first is to start with a near black, but not actually black. Black, like white, is a relative colour. I think it’s easier to explain using white as an example. Consider that old t-shirt or pair of sneakers. They may look white, but hold them up next to a sheet of white paper and you’ll see they’re really off white. The same can go for black. A near-black can still look like black, as long as it’s the darkest part of the mini. The bulk of the black area on the figure will be near-black. This gives you some room to shade down (to pure black) while still retaining the look of black. This works best when you don’t also have large portions of the mini actually painted with pure black.
For highlighting, my advice is you can go very bright as long as you keep the area of application very limited. High contrast is possible, but if you apply it over large areas then the black section starts to look more like grey. Bare in mind that in the case where we want a shiny black, the small areas of bright highlights are critical.
Finally, for a shiny black, we will not be strictly following zenithal lighting rules. We still imagine a light source directly above the figure however, we are painting a reflection of that light source. So imagine a ray of light coming from the source, bouncing off of the figure, and then travelling to the eye of the viewer. In this instance, we have to both assume the source of light is directly above the figure and that the viewer is looking at the figure from the side.
The path that the ray of light takes once it hits the surface is based on physics. The angle of incidence (angle of the initial ray with respect to the surface) equals the angle of reflection (angle of reflected ray with respect to the surface). So the steeper or sharper the angle of the initial ray, the sharper the angle will be for the reflected ray. If the incident ray comes in at a very shallow angle, than the reflected ray will also be at a shallow angle. Hopefully the picture below will make this clear. If not, just google ‘angle of incidence’ and ‘angle of reflection’ to see more examples.
Okay, how does all of that work in practice? Below is a figure I recently finished. Look at how her hair is painted. The base colour is near black, but you can see it still gets darker between the strands of hair. The highlights on the hair are bright, but limited to very small spots so the whole thing still looks black. The placement of the highlights are about a third of the way down her head, not at the exact top. This fits with the above discussion on angle of incidence and angle of reflection. That is the overall look/effect we are trying to achieve. Now that you know what I’m trying to do and why, let’s take a closer look at how I actually paint it…
STEP 1: SKETCHING IN THE LIGHTS
To demonstrate my approach, I’m going to walk you through how I painted one of the boots on this 54mm Dragoon from Pegaso Models. I began by base coating them both in Pure Black. Following that, I like to sketch in the reflections. I start with some Dark Elf Highlight. It’s a medium grey and, while I keep the area of application limited, I can be a bit more generous in how much I put on. Over that, I then paint in the brighter points using Vampiric Shadow (an off white). Using both colours creates a rough blend, one that I will come back to and smooth out.
Sketching in the lights is not mandatory, but I find it helps. The process of blending from black to white or near white is time consuming and not easy. By sketching in the lights, I can step back and see how the piece looks. Are the lights in the right spots? If not, I can paint over them with black and quickly make adjustments. Those same adjustments would be much more painful once everything has been carefully blended. The sketching step lets me quickly evaluate how it will look in the end and make any changes now, while they will be easy.
STEP 2: BLENDING HIGHLIGHTS BACK TO BLACK
Okay, now begins the time consuming portion, blending the highlights down to black. Normally, I blend from the shadows up to the highlights. But, when it comes to very dark colours, I find the wet paint looks a bit darker and then dries slightly lighter. This means, if I’m trying to blend from dark to light, the layer I’m applying may look like a decent blend but, when it dries, may leave a harsher transition than I thought. By blending down from light to dark, if the blend looks decent while the paint is wet, it will look even better when it dries! The opposite seems to be true for light colours (the wet paint looks lighter than it really is), so I still blend from dark to light for most parts of the figure. Only on blacks or other very dark colours do I reverse my approach.
Beginning with Vampiric Shadow, I add in Dark Elf Highlight and create a gradient on my palette. I’m not wet blending (though that is a valid approach which may work for some of you), but I do want to be able to quickly jump from one shade to the next to make small corrections as I go. Working from the lights, I apply the gradually dark and darker shades near the light and then pull them away, towards the darker areas of the boots. As my paints get darker and darker, I move farther and farther away from the light spots.
Yet I still work to keep the light areas as limited and tight as I can. Once I’m at pure Dark Elf Highlight, I add in Dark Elf Skin and create an additional gradient between those two colours. If I accidentally go too far with a darker shade and knock out a highlight, or just get a transition that is too extreme, I’ll jump back to the brighter colours in my gradient and rework that section. The first set of images below shows the initial sketch and then the partially blended version of Vampiric Shadow, Dark Elf Highlight, and Dark Elf Skin.
At this point the blends look pretty good, but you can still see a noticeable jump to black in the middle and top of the boot. In addition, the bottom looks more grey than black as the highlights have taken over a bit too much. So I now create one more gradient from Dark Elf Skin to Dark Elf Shadow. Using this, I smooth out the remaining transitions and take down some of the lights on top of the foot. The series of images below shows the changes from the partially blended to the fully blended boot. I could take some Pure Black to pick out some shadows, but I didn’t feel that was necessary in this case. The Dark Elf Shadow looked dark enough.
Before I go on, I just wanted to say a few more things about blending. Going from white to black is tough, so use every trick in the book to make it work. I’m not much of a wet blender or very good with the loaded brush, but if you are by all means use those techniques! For me, I layer and feather. I’ll thin down paints further when necessary. I also find stippling can be helpful to break up those transition lines and hide the blends. The slight randomness of the stippling can actually look good for materials like this. Whilst I did not rely on glazing here to smooth out the blends, that’s another technique that can work. Just be wary that you don’t knock down the highlights too much with the glaze. If necessary, go back in and re-highlight.
STEP 3: ADDING FINAL REFLECTION POINTS
Okay, we’re very close now. The end result of the last step could be a decent place to step. But I want to create the look of shiny black boots. So I go back in with some Vampiric Highlight and then just a few touches of Pure White to bring out a few of the reflection points. I keep this very limited, just a few small spots on the top of the boot, tip of the shoe, and a few places in-between.
The image set below shows the difference between the final blending (on the left) and the addition of the white for reflection points (on the right). You may notice that I made some further tweeks to the top of the foot, adjusting the blends and slimming down the area for the highlights. It’s always helpful to step back and evaluate your work. If something doesn’t feel right, go back and try to correct it.
My biggest suggestion is just to not be afraid. Going from black to white or near white is intimidating but the only way you can learn and improve is by giving it a try. Don’t worry if your transitions aren’t smooth enough or the highlights don’t look right. Keep trying and in time you will get better and better; if you can get these blends down, you’ll be able to blend just about anything!
I’ll leave you with a couple images of the nearly finished Dragoon. We’ve been dealing with the ultra-closeup images of the boots. Here’s how they look when you view the figure as a whole. I still need to finish his left boot, but I think this gives you the main idea. Also, notice that I used the same approach on the black horse hair crest for his helmet. There are many other places where this look would be appropriate as well, especially in fantasy (scales/armour) or sci-fi genres (power armour/alien skin).
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope you found it helpful. Best of luck on your painting adventures!
David Powell is an award-winning painter. He's taught painting workshops and written numerous tutorials for publication in magazines and online. While he's best known for his work on historical miniatures, he's got a soft spot for fantasy and sci-fi subjects as well.