Remembering the Trail Blazers of Figure Painting No 1- Marion Ball


I think it is really important to remember and respect those master painters who were the trailblazers for our world of figure painting. It is something that has resonated with me even more since I dictated the interview with Alfonso Giraldes (to be published soon), where he spoke of the importance to know our history and that one of the reasons why figure painting is not considered an Art at present is because it has no history, no text on what came before now, no one remembers who started which trend or created the techniques we now take so much for granted.

It was with this in mind that I want to create a new series of articles highlighting the works of the painters that led the way before we all had social media and the internet as it is today. I want us to ensure we do not forget those that developed our figure painting world, those who experimented and perfected the techniques we now use, those who first wanted to take the hobby from painting flat tin soldiers and in to the world of Figure Art.

If you have not heard the name Marion Ball before then you are in for a treat and if you have then here is the chance to hear from her personally how she approaches her figures.


In this article I will try and show how I paint using different acrylics and oils and present it in understandable language, based on examples of different figures that I have painted.

There is now quite a quantity of literature on using acrylics. I remember when I started painting almost 25 years ago there were no teachers, detailed articles or good books which could have helped you to start with the hobby. When I switched over from oil colours to the acrylic ones it seemed almost a big secret how to paint with them and it seemed to me that nobody could tell you how to use them.

After many hard and hopeless tries I almost gave up and wanted to go back to my oils again but then suddenly I figured out how to use the acrylic colours in the right way. The tricky point was how to dilute the colours properly to be able to work out highlights and shadows. Once I got the taste for it I was hooked and changed sides for good. Beside that there was no terrible smell of the thinner anymore and I could work much faster which is really a big advantage.


I am of the opinion that once you know the basics of using these paints, know their properties and are comfortable with them that you should try and develop your own way and style of painting. Naturally of course you cannot do this with your first figure, it takes a little time and practice until you are proficient enough to go your own way.

Patience is the magic word, and taking the time to record what you have done to learn from the mistakes you make along the way, otherwise all that patience will teach you nothing. It is like with school once you learned how to write, read and count you can do everything and develop your own style.

The first important point are brushes, with crappy ones you will never have a chance to create something beautiful. Get the best pointed ones you can get and feel comfortable with.

I tried many brushes out since I started painting in 1988, crappy ones as well, until I found the ones that work best for me, and that I was happy with. Till today I am using Windsor &Newton Series 7 No. 0&1 long bristles , they are the brushes that give me what I am looking for and have been problem free in painting figures from 54 to 90mm. I rarely use any smaller sized brushes.

As with the brushes, I prefer to use specific paints and the ones I am happy with are Scale Colours, Citadel, Andrea and Vallejo Acrylics. The Andrea and Scale colours dry to a real matt, which is sometimes too matt for the effect that I am looking for, flesh tones for example, in that case I use the Vallejo colours, which have a softer feel and tend to look more silky which is ideal for faces. This silkiness can be annoying however, when you are not looking for it, so I find that each set of colours has it’s own advantages and disadvantages so as you can see it pays to know which set of colours you want to use at each point in your painting.


I always mix my colours on plastic pallets, which are practical, and, once they become too clogged with adhesives or paint, can be thrown away (for me this is very practical, because I am too lazy to clean everything completely when I am finished).

Each colour is given a separate section on the pallet and more or less of each colour is added until the desired hue or tone is reached. Here perhaps some people will ask themselves, how many drops have I put out from the different colours and how much water to take to each colour, two or three? That is something I always rely on my feeling for, and do not have a standard pallet each time.

As important a tool is some sort of “Mounting “ that you can fix the figure to when painting, as you don’t want to touch the figure with your hands if you can help it.

The one I have is made from wood, cheaply and simply made this allows me to paint every side of the figure without any problem. Naturally there are other variations but I can only work with my holder…. I am a creature of habit.

All the other things such as drills, sandpaper, eyedropper (or syringe for water) I don’t need to describe in detail, as most people are familiar with them.


The next important point, before starting to paint you must clean the casting. Make sure all cast lines, flash or holes are either cleaned off or filled. You will say now, yes of course I know that of course that is normal but you don’t believe how often I see figures in competions which have cast lines or other nasty things left on the figures. So always double check if the figure is completely clean before painting.

I then drill and pin any joints using either paperclips or small nails (especially at the arms and legs). I also have made it a habit to put a long pin into a foot, which when finished will secure the whole figure to its base, this is attached with epoxy glue this means that I don’t need to touch the figure much at all when the painting is finished. Also if possible I always glue everything together because it gives me great horror when I have to glue a painted piece in the end to the figure. In my case it never fits even when I did several unpainted tries in the beginning.

The next step is the selection of a wooden base and the creation of the groundwork. The groundwork is always made using Putty or some other like material, and the figures position is marked on this while the stuff is still soft so the “ground” is quickly ready to accept the finished figure. Then I will paint the whole with earth like colours and sprinkle soil, leaves rocks etc. upon it. Everything then gets covered with very diluted white glue and set aside to dry. After that it can be painted with several different earth colours using acrylic and oils. I am always using earth, dry flowers, roots, that I collected from the forest. If possible I try to finish the groundwork first before I start on the figure. This way you have already finished the job half way and in my case the worst thing is already done, because creating the groundwork is not my strong side.


When starting to paint a figure normally I begin with the face, and it cannot be stressed enough, that this is the most important part of a figure and therefore one should invest as much time as possible to getting it right. The figure stands or falls on whether the face convinces you that it “lives” or is just a mass of “dead” colour. Sometimes I spend up to a good eight or nine hours on a face for me it can be like a war, but if I am lucky and everything goes smooth and easy, sometimes I can create a face in two or three hours. However, that is rather rarely the case and therefore I am called to be very persistent, sometimes it does start to stress.

Even if one paints over long years , it does not become a monotonous routine, each figure is it’s own painting challenge and sometimes the figure’s face gets the better of me, sometimes not. That is always connected a little bit with my personal temperament and well-being at the time. If you recognise that you are just painting in circles and getting nowhere, then you should stop and put the work down till the next day or so and start again.

When I paint a face with the basic colour, I do next the eyes, it’s much simpler to do this in the beginning and make sure that the pupils are square in the face and corrected before waiting till I have finished the whole face and taking the chance of damaging any of the completed face. It never seems to work at the first attempt, it normally takes a couple of goes before I am satisfied. If you paint a bust you have the advantage that the eyes are quite detailed and positioned correctly, not always the case on a 54mm figure. In order to represent the pupils on a 54mm figure I use the oil colours: black, blue and white, which I apply with the point of a drill or needle. Acrylic colours are not suitable as they dry up too quickly on the brush when used in this small quantity.

With a bust I go over the eyes at the end with a gloss varnish, something I rarely do on a 54mm figure. I can give you a little bit of good advice here, paint the eyes until you are hundred percent sure and happy with them, no matter how long it takes, there is nothing worse than unfinished or crossed eyes, or eyes that are not “square” or with unpainted eyelids and the such. With bigger sizes of figures you also should paint some lights on the pupils and give them a slight reflex at the end. That gives the whole figure a unique character.

Once the eyes are finished, I then go on with the rest of the face. You have the middle tone of the colour already applied.

Some people may ask exactly how much paint of what colours to use for the face, I can tell you don’t start to count the colour drops. You should get a feeling for the colours and train your eyes for them. Always experiment with them and try out new combinations. I only know for myself, I can feel what looks right to them or not. It is a trial and error process to experiment with each time, all of your colour combinations should look in harmony.

It is also very important that you do not cover everything you have just painted each time, but leave some of the last layer still visible otherwise you end up with just the light and dark tones and all the intermediate stages are wasted and you lose the smooth transition of the colours. So in essence each layer should cover a smaller area inside the previous layer of colour.

When you paint the hair and eyebrows don’t forget to also highlight and shadow these too. Every small detail is important to give the figure “life”.

Here are some step by step pictures painting a face. I did four or five layers of highlights.I would also like to show you some of my more useful skintone blends, try them out perhaps you can use some of them.

Flesh I

Base:           Khaki A2+Red A12+Sunny Skin ToneV845+Pastel Blue V901+Flat Flesh V955 (a drop)

H/light:      Base + V845

2 H/light:   V951 White + V955

Shadow:     Base + Black V950 + Red A12

Flesh II

Base:              A40 Earth + A2Uni. Ingles + A33 Napoleonic red + A9 Light flesh + A6 White

Highlights:  Base + A 9

1.Shadow:    Base + A 33

2. Shadow:   A 2 + A 33

3. Shadow:   A 26 + A 33

Flesh III

Base:                A16 Medium brown + A2 Uni. Ingles + A9 Light flesh + A33 red (a drop)

Highlight:      Base + A9 + A6 (a drop)

Shadow:         Base + A2 + A26 + A33 (a drop)

Also when painting the shadows, it’s important not to forget the softer shadows that way the whole face gets a character, I also try to avoid painting highlights with pure white, most of the time I take a very light flesh tone to which I add a little white. It’s just a gentle accent on the lightest tone. Generally you should keep white very much in the background and use other light colours like Naples Yellow to highlight, if you use white, it should be a small percentage and not the dominant colour. Don’t be frightened if at this stage it looks quite rough and raw, there are still the darker shades to add, (between 3 and 5 washes here are ideal) and these are what gives the face its character.


It is very important to paint all these intermediate shadows. A lot of painters forget this but that is the most important part and without that your face doesn’t get deepness and character. The washes should be quite watery and the amount on the brush should be kept to a minimum otherwise you may ”flood “the face and spoil all you have done. It is important to pay attention and stress the areas between the eyes and the nose and the nostrils and cheeks, for this I use a thin wash of black and red. At the end you can also add some special effects like a three day beard or sweat and dirt.

I have a rule of thumb, which I apply to all basics mixtures, whether it is a face, an article of clothing or anything else I paint. I always begin with the middle tone and work up to the “brighter” or highlight, like the structure of a pyramid. Usually four or five stages are enough for me to get what I want, and get to the brightest highlights. I take a little of the last colour to be used and add that to blend away any obvious lines between the layers of colours…

Later I follow the same procedure in the reverse sequence, and start with the brightest shade, whereby I make certain that the colour is kept extremely aqueous and very thin on the brush. I also make four to five layers, until I arrive at the deepest shade. Afterwards I correct the whole thing again, by lightening again a little the appropriate places since by shading highlights were automatically slightly darkened.


Once I am finished with a face and the head, I work downward and from left to the right from above. This is my habitual way of painting a figure and I would rarely begin with the trousers for instance. In this way I can still touch the figure on unpainted parts, if I must, without worrying about anything happening.

We now come to the rest of the figure, the uniform, accessories, weapons etc. The principal is exactly the same as with the skin tones. You work from the middle tone and from the centre outwards (or up and down the tonal range). I also like to stress all transitions of clothing or body parts, by taking the respective colour and under-painting it with a thin line.

It is a little, like a relief, by after-drawing everything with the brush. The whole figure is outlined. The trick of course is that the brush line must be kept absolutely as thin as possible. Of course you can also imitate textures on pouches, belts, and other items to give the figure even more reality and character. But don’t exaggerate it too much on everything it here should be a balance and sometimes less is more.

In order to explain the way I do gold on Uniforms, so that it does not look too lustrous and sharp, I start off by painting the area with a mixture of red and black (to a shade like chocolate). This I touch up and paint with a full yellow mixed with some metal medium until I get the desired effect after which I give the whole area a very thin wash of gold, just dabbing this on. Then I do several thin washes with sepia, black, and burnt umber. I prefer to paint silver and gold parts with metal colours for me it looks more natural this way. To point out the highlights I always take a little bit of printer’s ink that really gives it the last kick.

When I paint pure metal parts then I just use the different silver and gold tones and use the same technique like I would use on all the other parts on a figure. Sometimes I also ad a bit gloss varnish over the finished metal parts. And never forget to double check if it looks right or not ,otherwise you have to make some corrections.

I do that generally every time after every painting session the next day. Then it will show me if I got the highlights and shadows right or not. If not then you know what to do get your brush and go back to work.

At the conclusion you can always add some “special effects”, like blood or dirt and sweat. I mostly do these with oils, pastels and gloss varnish to do the job. Gloss varnish is great for imitating sweat and pastel colours mixed with oils for dirt. Don’t worry if using oils and varnish don’t work for you the first time, it takes a bit of practice and patience, it also took me some time to learn the “trick” and get the effects I was looking for.

I would like to finish here and hope that my explanations have been a bit understandable and gives you an insight into how I work.

Please enjoy the gallery below of some of my finished projects and thank you for reading, it means a lot to me and I am honoured to have had a chance to collaborate with Jay on this site. Thanks again