Insights into Painting a Flat Figure by Award Winning Rick Taylor

Insights into Painting a Flat Figure – PRELUDE 

This is my first article for figurementors. I was approached by Jay Martin regarding doing this article on painting flats. We decided to paint a flat related more to Fantasy than one of the Historical or trivia genres. As with most artists we want to strive to improve our painting skills and techniques and our overall understanding of Art. I believe that learning to paint flats will give you a better understanding on how to use colour values with respect to light and shadow. This allows a painter to transform a flat into a 2d/3d work of Art.

I started Painting flats in the early 90’s. I had seen a flat painted by Greg Difranco of the United States in the late 80’s. I had to learn how he achieved the incredible values and tones on a relief/engraving. I have been very fortunate to learn from Greg over many years and hope to pass some of his skills that I have learned as an artist on in this article.


I believe that learning to paint a flat will improve your skills in using less paint and create a better understanding of how to use light and shadow to achieve a 2D/3D effect. As the hobby is evolving every year so do many painting styles of many a great artist, just look at the recent Monte San Savino Show; the quality of work was incredible!

There are many books available to give you a better understanding of theory behind painting, colour, composition and so much more. I will not bore you and confuse you on my understanding of Art Theory!


I had picked this Flat as a good beginners’ piece and thus make it clearer in my discussion with you the reader. It is very well engraved and does not have much of a face to paint. I find that the angle that he is engraved at is great. I will show how I achieve the finish on this Flat, and hopefully give you a better understanding of the elements in painting a Flat.

My first step in painting such a project is to properly clean the surface of the Flat, to which I use a brass brush, the type used for polishing hard metal surfaces. I then clean the piece with an Automotive Degreaser and prime with Games Workshop Corax White. To me this is a good primer and available in most cities throughout the world.

The grisaille technique

My next step is to photograph under a lamp: the flat light sources at various angles. The light source I refer to as the Sun. The light will affect the engraving and show me which angle I want the light source to come from, left or right. I then photograph the various angles. I photograph the light source at 45-60 degree’s. (90 degrees is perpendicular). I photograph all pictures on my cellphone. This will help me when I am painting my flat. I can refer to these pictures when painting my grey scale or tonal undercoat on the flat.


My second step on how I approach painting a flat is to paint the flat in most areas in a tonal undercoat or grey scale. This can also be called ‘Grisaille’. I sometimes do not spend much time on this step based on the colours the flat will be painted (see image of axe above right).

However, because I will be using transparent colours on this flat I will do a Tonal undercoat. I paint in Acrylic Guoache, Enamel and Oil Paint. For this flat I will paint it in Oil Paint. This medium dries much slower and I find I get my best finish on flats with it. I also find that if I paint areas on the flat I am not happy with I can remove the mistake with Mineral Spirits/odour less thinner.

I usually use 2 -3 colours to achieve my grey tone. I use good quality oil paint such as Sennilier Peach Black and a off white. You can use a warm form of a Grey tone using Burnt Umber and off white. I prefer a greyish tone. If the flat has an area where metal and whitish areas are to be painted, you have to watch how you mix your grey tones. This flat has an axe: which is probably the hardest area to paint. I will add a blue tone to my metal colour. I do not want the grey/white tones and metal colour looking the same.

the axe head is ready for the freehand pattern

I allow my white and Black oil paint to dry on an index card for a few days first. This removes all the unwanted linseed oil that is made with the tube oil paint; the linseed oil allows the oil paint to dry very slow. I prefer to add a medium to my oil paint paste. Once the oil is at a state that I can control it, I will add a product from Winsor & Newton called Liquin. You can check the composition of this product if it is for you, as with most art products there are issues that could cause allergies. Check the Material Safety Data Sheet online before using any product.

I mix about 50/50 my medium Liquin to the off white oil colour, the paste should be a little stiffer than toothpaste. I mix my Peach Black again a 50/50 mixture Liquin to oil colour into the white. Once the proper colour is achieved I paint directly over the GW undercoat. I find my best blend is with Winsor & Newton Series 7 brushes.

I use the Liquin medium to blend between the dark and light areas. Do not use too much medium. I always attempt to keep my brush clean when blending. I keep a moist brush using a little Liquin. It will move and blend the pigments from the 2 edges if properly done (you can see in the above gallery the stages of painting and blending of the axe).

My light source is coming from your left when looking at the flat. So you must apply very small amounts of blue (less than 5%) into the grey tone to achieve a metal colour. I use Caribbean Blue by Old Holland.

The affect of the blue in the metal colour will give you an ambient light effect. Ambient light comes from the sky and illuminates the upper part of a flat that happens to be in shadow. The axe will have shadow by the metal connection to the wooden handle.

freehand process

I cover the entire area with my metal colour and shade only with straight black. Highlighting a metal colour is hard because various ambient light comes from the sky. This can confuse a painter. Better left to the end stages of painting.

up close and personal

I added a design to the flat to give it a different feel. Once you have painted the metal colour and allow it to dry. I will seal this painted area of the flat with Testor’s Dullcoat. A Good quality 000 brush is used to achieve the fine line design. I use Winsor & Newtons’ Miniatures. I find to achieve a fine line I apply to my brush a very thin coat of Walnut oil to the hairs. This I find prevents the oil from sticking to the hairs and will allow the oil mixture (50/50 black oil to liquin) to flow off of the paintbrush (the above gallery shows the shaded blade and the freehand process).

If a mistake is made you can remove the oil detail with white spirits or mineral spirits. Again some people have allergies to Walnuts make sure this product is used safely and properly.

the finished blade


The next difficult area on the flat is the head and the executioners hat. I wanted to achieve a 3D effect. I decided to paint checkers on the hat. I divided up the hat into equal lines.

Being right handed I will rotate the flat to paint so I can divide the area of the hat up. Again I use the 50/50 oil mixture to Liquin. You want to follow the lines painted from the centre line and mirror them. They should get smaller as the curve changes on the hat. I rotate the flat again starting from the edge of the material of the hat near the face and mirror the line above.

sketching in the chequer pattern

Each square is painted as a chequerboard. I find the paint should be a little thicker, when painting a square shape so as the straight edges are kept sharp. I mix less medium ( Liquin ) to the paint. I added various threads to the patches for detail. 40 percent of the hat is done in black and white chequers. The finished checkers on the hat are sealed after the oil paint had dried.

colouring and detailing the cheques

The pants were given an off white colour, a mixture of Burnt Umber added to the white. The beard is a silver colour. I will apply first the white oil colour ( 50/50 mixture to Liquin) then apply over the undercoat. I then add a thicker mixture of black/Burnt umber (60% paint to 40 % liquin). I blend the white into the darker tones. I use a clean brush with a small amount of Liquin in the bristles. Working only along the edges of the different colours so as to gently blend.

The upper area of the nose and rest of the beard were given a grey tone undercoat and once the undertone had properly dried  I added a Flesh tone over the grey-tone. I mix three colours to make a flesh colour. I use Titanium white + Brilliant Yellow + Burnt Sienna.

With all my oil paints I make sure that all the Linseed has been removed from the tubed paint. I leave the paint on a index card, and allow the paint to become a paste. I then add Winsor & Newtons’ Liquin to form a new paste 50/50 mixture paint to Liquin. I apply the flesh colour over the grey-tone, then carefully tone down the highlighted areas of the nose, I want the off white of the grey-tone to be seen throughout the flesh colour. I remove the flesh colour with small amounts of white spirits on the brush bristles.

facial details and skintone

(NB I have separate brushes for enamel and Acrylic and Oil Paints.)

The same colour is added to the lip area. This is a test to see if the flesh colour is too bright beside the beard and hat. A small amount of off white is applied around the eye area. I blend a mixture of Burnt Umber -30% and black 70% to this area. When facing the flat, the eye on your right: it should be in more shadow than the opposite eye. Based on the angle of Light ( 45-60 degrees ) coming from the left or right of the flat.

I added highlights to the right eye (that which is facing you). This paint is a very tacky mixture of off white 70% + 30% Liquin. I only blend the edges between the dark tone and off white. Pupils were added to each eye. I use a very thick paint to achieve a small dot. The Black oil colour is mix 50/50 mixture with Liquin. This mixture is allowed to dry for 4-5 hours and I then apply Walnut oil to my smallest 000 brush and remove excess mix from the brush. This should leave a very thin layer on the hairs of the brush. When I pick up the small amount of black oil colour the paint should not stick to the hairs of the brush. This will allow a easier way to laying down the small dot to each eye. I clean all my Oil brushes with Jack Linseed oil brush cleaner.

A basic flesh colour of a mixture of Brillant Yellow and Scarlet Red oil (50/50 oil to Liquin) is applied over the white primer GW (on his left arm and chest area). I mix the Scarlet Red oil colour into the Brilliant Yellow oil colour. This allows me to get the right flesh colour. The shadows are Scarlet red 30%- 70% Black. (50/50 Mixture +liquin). I use a fairly small filbert brush to blend these areas.

His jacket is painted an off white mixture of 50/50 oil colour to Liquin. I apply the mixture directly over the GW Corax white Primer. My blending is done with a mix of Black oil 95% + Caribbean Blue 5%. Do not apply much of this colour, less is better. I blend with a small filbert brush.

adding colour tints

I had planned on do all of his clothing in Checkers and my best word of advice when painting fine lines is learn to control how the paint comes off your brush. I always coat my Oil brushes with Walnut oil to prevent the oil mixture from sticking. Again a mixture of 50/50 Oil colour black to Liquin is mix. I allow this to dry for a few hours.

It is much more controllable. After each line is painted I clean my brush with the linseed oil to make sure I do not have any issues with the paint blending on the surface to be painted.

time to go back to the chequered pattern – rest of the fabrics


I had taken a break after painting the chequer grid on his pants and vest. I started to colour the checkers on the Hat. I used a Oriental Yellow colour from Pebo, a very bright colour. I formed a 70% Liquin + 30% oil colour and applied it over the entire hat.

I then remove areas on the white chequer with odourless thinner, you want a very weak thinner for this step. As I live in North America I use a Deserres brand of odourless thinner. I find it has enough strength to remove and leave residue of the oil on just the areas I want it to appear. You are basically tinting the areas of the chequers.

detail shot of the face

I applied over the surrounding eye area a strong flesh colour as the previous colour was not bright enough. This new mixture was Brilliant Yellow 80% + Scarlet Red 20% painted directly over the previous dried flesh oil colour. Highlighted with off white. Once the pupil dots had dried I applied a transparent blue tone over them so as to complete the eye.

I mix a 80% Liquin + 20% Blue colour and applied over the area, then removing the highlighted areas with odourless thinner, just like before. I used the Oriental Yellow to glaze 50/50 mixture oil to Liquin, over the handle on his sword. A close-up view shows a better view of the eye. Small amounts of Scarlet were added to his nose and lower eyelid.

I started to fill in the chequers on the Vest and lower pants. The Black oil colour is a Mixture of 50 % Black oil paint to 50 % Liquin. I want a very thick paint to be used when applied to each chequered area that is dark. I find it is easier to control when it does not bleed off of the brush. I applied the Oriental Yellow over the entire vest and pants.

the trusty filbert brush for blending

I removed the highlighted areas as before, this is a regular step in my painting process and keeps everything controlled and tidy. I applied the same transparent oil colour over sword handle and  toned down the highlighted area. More transparent yellow was added to the hat to give more intensity to the colour.

A thicker Scarlet Red was added to areas on the chest, arm, and his right hand. I highlighted his left forearm with a off white colour, I prefer to blend with a filbert brush and to the right eye I added a darker tone to bring forth the left eye.

I blended a softer white into his left fingers. After the area dried I had darkened the areas in shadow by the fingers with a mixture of Scarlet Red 70 % and black 30 %. The shadow area on his forearm was also darkened with the same mixture.

I painted the shaft of the axe with a dark mixture of Burnt Umber 50% + Black 50 %. This was applied over the GW Corax White Primer. I sketched the grains into the primer with a needle. Instead of trying to be a hero and paint the fine lines of white, simply scribe through the oil and save yourself some time.

extra details such as the axe handle


My next step is to start forming shadows on the vest and hat. I use a product (Spectrum Clear) out of Australia from a company called Art Spectrum. When added to oil paint you can form a transparent tone that can be buffed into a dried painted area: to achieve a shadow finish.

I mix about 30-40 % of the clear to the oil colour: which is black. I apply very small amounts and remove the excess with a large filbert brush. It takes time to learn but it has its merits. Very dark shadows are now applied to the chest and areas connecting the vest to hat. Again a add 30% clear to a black oil colour; apply very small amounts and remove with a filbert brush. The same colour is added to the legs and as always carefully “removed” with a No2 filbert brush.

A transparent red/brown oil colour is applied over the dried area of the handle. A dark colour of black and brown oil is applied over his shoes. Highlighted in a flesh oil colour. Areas of the ground are painted with white and black enamel paint. I changed his sword attached to his belt and made a steel colour using black, off white and a small amount of Caribbean Blue.

I study the flat at this stage and took a picture, using a filter I looked at it in black and white. This gives me an idea if there is too much contrast at this stage.

checking for contrast and deepening shadows

I added detail to the nose and eye areas. I made a very thick white oil paint mixture and applied very small dots that will be clear coated with a red oil colour after to achieve the form of warts! Other areas of the hat were also give small amounts of white oil to highlight them. A darker red glaze of Red Scarlet was added to a dried area around his nose and lips. Highlights to the eyes were also added. The jewellery was painted with a colour of black, off white and Caribbean Blue. I highlight the metal colour with a cool white blue tone. The sword handle and belt were shaded with a yellow tint, the excess removed with odourless thinner, to achieve a tinted affect. I also tinted his left arm with a darker flesh colour.

final touches

Further areas are detailed including his right hand, patches on his knees were painted with an off white colour and a wash of burnt sienna was applied for the ground work.

and finished

Detail was added to his shoes and to his axe head. I tried to give a feel of the sky reflecting on the metal axe head by buffing in the transparent Cobalt Blue, ensuring the surface was dry first. Again I used Spectrum Clear to form a transparent blue and glazed the surface and removed that which I did not want with odourless thinner. Once dried I sealed the figure with Testor’s Dullcoat.

I hope you have found this article of some interest and I would like to thank Jay for the opportunity to share some of the insights into painting a flat figure!