Painting Vasili Zaitsev

I have been getting many requests for my method of painting headsculpts and thought it would be nice to tie in this article with my Russian sniper ace Vasili Zaitsev project.

There are of course many techniques for painting headsculpts, but this is the way I currently paint them.

I always begin by carefully studying the headsculpt, visualising how I intend it to be painted; then scraping/sanding off any mould lines with the edge of an Xacto blade.

The headsculpt is then rinsed in washing-up liquid so as to degrease the surface and left to dry. It’s important to ensure the surface is thoroughly dry, water is sometimes captured in the recesses of the eyes and ears and will create havoc when coming into contact with the tip of a loaded paintbrush.

I paint in washes of acrylic and the colours I use are Taupe, Red Oxide, Burnt Sienna, Medium Blue, Raw Umber and Black. Medium is used to thicken the wash while leaving a waxy effect.

Here is the process demonstrated on a delightful Tony Barton ‘Vasili Zaitsev’ headsculpt:

Left: Original headsculpt. Center: I mix a tiny amount of medium blue with taupe, this is then applied over the eyeballs and various parts of the face. Right: Taupe is then used to paint in the other exposed areas including the hair.

Left: The pupils of the eyes are painted in with black paint with a 000 point brush. Center: I mixed a very tiny amount of Red Oxide with Taupe to get a flesh tone; being mindful of not using too much Red Oxide which tends to leave a ruddy skin colour. Right: The lower eyelids and lips are painted in with a darker flesh colour, again derived from percentage variations of the two paint combination mentioned earlier.

Left: Detail work begins on the areas around the eyes. Center: Another layer of flesh colour (Taupe + Red Oxide) is applied with matt Medium, the upper and lower eyelids are also carefully painted. While almost dry, a short-tip brush is used to stipple and texturise the skin surface. Hair details are worked in with washes of Raw Umber as are the eyebrows. Right: Another wash of Burnt Sienna/Raw Umber/Black is applied to the hair. The lips are given a slightly darker tint of flash mix. The extremeties of the eyes are carefully detailed with a fine-tip brush, and the pupils are lightly retouched with a white colour pencil. When dried, the eyes are given a spot of gloss varnish. In all the photos, the headsculpt appears to have a sheen, this is because of the semi-dry state of the paint on the headsculpt when photographed.

Completed headsculpt. This headsculpt by Tony Barton was a delight to paint. I'll leave this to set for the day and return to it the following day for little retouches. I would sometimes speckle the skin surface with spots of darker flesh colour but I'm leaving out that technique this time.

Is there a recipe for skin colour? I really thought so when I was a little boy wishing to paint my plastic Airfix toy soldiers. In those days you could get skin colour in little metal containers marketed by the model companies as… wait for it… “Flesh”. This was convenient and all embracing but terrible at the same time as I grew up believing all caucasians having that similar generic “Flesh” colour!

Now that I am a wee bit wiser, I know that skintones are just that – tones, and if you study the faces you see around you (this is a really good pastime, especially if you live in a cosmopolitan area and get to observe people of all races) you will notice that skintones of males have areas of warm and cool tones. Yes, you can go to the art or craftshop and purchase ‘portrait pink’ in a tube, but, and it has been said before by many portrait artists, it doesn’t look a bit like skin colour.

Then again, with the wide range of paint available nowadays, wouldn’t it help to get as many as possible? My principle is: Keep it simple.

It is much easier to work with a severely restricted palette, this sounds insane but many artists find that it is usually the best too. It is not the vast amount of paint that you use but the choice of colours and the mix percentages. Its been said that the ancient Greek painters used only four colours (three colours and white), The old masters Rembrandt and Titian used very few. So keep it simple.

There are areas on the face which are cooler in colour than others. These are the areas around the eyes, the jowls, the area under the nose and above the lips, the chin and certain parts of the ears. Just remember that bone areas or where the skin is stretched out and there is a lack of fleshy tissue, are cool and that thick fleshy areas are warm in colour. Cheek and chin areas can be brought forward with hints of warm colour.

Look closely at portraits from the 18th century “Late Baroque” or French Rococo, and you can see areas of the faces that have hints of bluish-grey. This is because warm skin areas always have a little cool colour and the same holds true for cool skin areas. It can be very alarming to see a very sanguine face at a scale of 1/6, unless that person is very intoxicated or spent some time at a sun-tan salon!

I suggest working out a palette of different tints mixed with the few colours you chose to use and used as a point of basis for headsculpt painting. Painting skintones on headsculpts to me is about the manipulation of warm to cool colour relationships. Be a keen observer and paint what you see in preference to any formula. And keep it simple! Good luck!