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8 Tips for Painting Miniature Faces, Heads and Eyes

Some people just want to get their whole army painted as quickly as possible. This will most likely mean skipping some details.

One of the hardest detail skills to learn ca be painting miniatures faces.

When you need to paint a whole army or paint quickly that is cool, but at times I like to take my time on each miniature to make sure its features are nicely done.

This includes an aspect that seems hard to do for quite a lot people. Namely painting everything above the neck: heads, hair, the face – and especially the eyes.

Because of this, I decided to give you some tips that are very valuable for me when it comes to painting faces.

And my first tip is the most important one:

Don’t give up too easily! Take small steps, because practice makes perfect. Painting a perfect mini face is not something you will achieve the first many tries, so get grinding!

So here are 8 tips for painting faces!

In the bottom, I have also a basic step-by-step on painting a face and on painting eyes.

1. Get the basics right

When painting faces you have to get your painting fundamentals in order.

This means:

  • Thinning your paint to the right consistency for the part of the face you are working on.
  • Paint from the inside to the outside (this includes for example painting the skin of the face first and then the lips or scars later on).
  • Use a quality brush (I would rather get some olds school medieval torture than painting eyes with a splitting brush).

2. Pick the right size of brush (not too big but also not too small)

Selecting the right brush for painting a miniature’s face can be quite difficult.

Some people recommend a very small brush to get the details just right. Other people prefer bigger brushes. Both bring different good and bad part.

A tiny brush will give you better control of detail. On the other hand, the paint can dry a bit before you it reaches the mini (this happens too many times when I learned to paint eyes). So with a small brush, you have to work faster.

In my mind, you should try out brushes of different sizes. This way, you can get a feeling for each one and decide which you like best. I personally prefer sizes 1 and 2 for painting eyes on a miniature.

Other facial details might need a size 0 or a size 3, depending on how easily you can access them (and whether you are painting small humans or big monstrous creatures).

You can find my recommendation for brushes and sizes here.

3. Try things out to create uniqueness

When first starting out painting faces, it seems most people do it the same way. Pick a skin colour, pick a hair colour and mess up the eyes with big blobs of paint.

If you take a look at faces of people you will quickly notice that most people do not have a single colour skin, but that it varies from area to area (and shadows plays a HUGE role when it comes to giving a face life).

In the beginning, a simple trick to give your faces more life is this:

It can help if you just take a miniature and think of aspects making this character unique:

  • Does she have a tan or even sunburn?
  • Did he get all dirty and dusty from hard labor?
  • Maybe you want to spice things up and give your miniature some freckles? 

4. Picking good colors for your face

Colours are important.

This might seem like a very basic statement at first. It is true nonetheless.

Colors can change a lot of aspects about your miniature.

Through colors you can manipulate details like the depth of the face or its basic expression. The next couple of tips reveal some information on certain color schemes and their uses.

Pick a basic color palette for your mini

We already learned that each miniature should have some unique features.

This does not only include actual details like a certain scar. It also refers to the color scheme you pick when painting the face. An elf can look noble when painted in lighter and pastel shades.

Keeping the face white as a sheet with just some grey highlights might make the same elf look rather mysterious or even evil.

Starting small (or pale)

I like to use a certain trick: I leave my face rather pale. Then I slowly add highlights onto it. Those highlights include layers of differently shaded skin-tones.

This way, I can make sure that the face actually has some more realistic colors.

Most faces have different colors on different parts of the face:

The basic face is often a bit paler while especially the cheeks and sometimes the nose-tip stand out in pink or red colors. This can be done through colors, as well as shading and highlighting.

Experiment adding various (small amounts) of shade to the face

Looking to get some paint? Check my take on the best acrylic paint for miniatures

Flesh color is not always the right thing

Many different companies offer some kind of “Flesh tone” in their variety.

This might be a good choice, especially for beginners. But when it comes to traits that make a miniature unique, it might be a good idea to switch things up.

Flesh colors tend to be a bit too pink or too bright for certain situations. It can help to mix it up with grey-ish colors to make look a bit more like real skin tones.

The temperature of colors

The volume of your miniature’s face can be varied through the color and shading you apply.

Warm colors often heighten the volume. Cold colors on the other hand give a sensation of depth.

A certain color scheme can also be applied through glazing with warm or cold colors. This way, you can still keep on painting your miniature faces similarly but add unique details to each mini.

But keep in mind that using warmer or cooler colors for more or less depth does not always work! It all depends on the miniature itself.

If you really want to dig into colour theory, I have made an article about and specifically how it pertains to miniature painting.

5. Paint the head before you glue it on the miniature

A jig for holding faces and other small parts of a miniature if you paint in sub assemblies

Now, I only do this if I really want to go to town on a face with everything I got. But a lot of people swear by painting the face (and many other parts of the model) in sub-assemblies.

If you paint the head apart from everything else, you can be sure that you can twist and turn it as much as you want and nothing else from the miniature will obscure or maker some parts hard to reach.

Now holding a small head in your hand and painting is a recipe for disaster.

You will eventually get your dirty fingers on your lovely paint job, running everything about painting the mini in “sub-assemblies”.

To avoid this I have found using the nifty tool (called a jig) you can see on the pictures.

Me holding the jig to show how comfortable painting faces can be
Showing the head and how it is attached to a small piece of metal (a paper clip) while painting a miniature face

You simply put the head on a short stick (I use parts from a metal paper clip) via a tiny bit of super glue. The stick is then held shut in the jig via a pressure clamp.

This makes painting the face by itself a lot less fiddly, as the head will stay in place a lot better than the other techniques I have used.

You can also turn it around, rest your painting hand on the jig and it causes a lot less fatigue in my hand when I use it than various other “sub-assembly” methods I have used.

6. Use natural shadows and light to bring a face to life

While some people use their miniatures in epic battles, others build static dioramas.

Especially for the latter, it is very important to keep an eye on the placing of the miniature.

Certain things the character carries might have an influence on a color scheme or shading.

Also keep in mind where the scene is set – outside, inside, summer, winter et cetera.

Take a good look at your miniature’s pose if you want to add some realistic shadows.

You should counter the pose with some lighter or darker spots. Does your miniature hold a gun or a staff? Depending on the angle, it might cast a shadow on your minis face.

Thus, you could try and use a slightly darker shade of color for that part of the face (it can be tricky to get this right).

Be careful with too much or too little lighting

There are some parts of the miniature that are naturally a little bit dark (like the eye sockets) or lighter (like the nose).

You should take a look at some real-life examples to think of different light levels. I recommend making a little numbered scheme to visualize the gradient of the lighting going from bright to darker tones.

Speaking of light, you might not have enough good light on your miniature. If that is the case, it is very hard to paint decent (especially those small eyes!). I suggest trying a bigger and better lamp if you struggle to see the details you are painting.

Use the surrounding of the miniature to set the scene

Keep in mind at which location you imagine this miniature to stand. Is it warm?

Or rather cold, because of an icy winter wonderland? If you want to set your scene in the summer, you should use warmer colors and shades for the face. Yellow and red can be prominent colors.

If a scene is supposed to take place in the winter you can use cooler shades.

Those include blue, a light pink and white. Keep in mind that the cheeks and nose turn red pretty quickly in the cold!

7. Paint details but do not overpaint details

The following might seem like a contradictory, but important statement:

While you should try to highlight as many details as possible (or at least as you like) in the mini, you should try to avoid working too much on the details.

An example: eyebrows.

Sadly, most eyebrows are just a thin line of paint which is very easy to butcher.

Thus, you might want to leave those eyebrows uncolored.

But of course, there is a BUT.

If your miniature has an emphasis on those eyebrows, you might have to paint them. That might be the case when the character is bald (or he will end up looking really weird).

If you do not manage to paint the eyebrows in a convincing way, it can also completely alter the look of the face (if you look at cartoons, the eyebrows tell a large part of the facial expression).

Another of those details are teeth. Usually, they are barely visible on the miniature. And if you can see them, they are often too tiny to paint without coloring the surrounding as well.

Of course, there are also exceptions on this case: Some miniatures like monsters have big, exposed teeth. You can paint them a bone-colored shade or some kind of cream-color.

But at times it can be better to completely avoid painting them like teeth.

Do you have a miniature face you are really proud of?

Then I really want to feature it on this very page!

You can read more about how to make that happen here.

8. Use shades

Shading the face of your miniature is an important aspect of making it look more realistic.

It helps to give a certain sense of depth or some details by color. The basic techniques for shading a miniature work for painting the face itself. But there are also some pitfalls.

There are different techniques and color schemes you can use.

But make sure to apply paint thoughtfully: Using darker tones around the chin or cheeks of your miniature might give you an unwanted effect of a shady beard.

That might not be a problem when painting a male dwarf or alike. But a beard could look extremely weird if trying to paint a feminine and slender elf.

It is important to experiment here. You might think that a purple shade is totally out of place on a face, but once you try it and see the effect you could be surprised.

You can use complementary colors for shading. This might sound a little extra at first. But it actually works!

As long as you don’t put a bright red against a slimy green, that is. But what I refer to is actually more about tinting certain facial features.

An example:

You can use a light blue shade to give a flesh-colored face some shade. Try some things out – shading does not always have to be grays and blacks.

How to paint a face: An easy step-by-step guide

I have talked at length on how to paint a face, but here is an easy way of doing it:

  1. Step: Prime your miniature as usual.
  2. Step: Use a basic skin color for your miniature. The color may have a slightly darker or lighter tone than you actually plan to end up with.
  3. Step: Take a look which spots are usually darker than the rest. This mostly applies to things that are “inside” the miniature’s facial features. Those details might be the eye sockets or the space below the nose.
  4. Step: Shade the eyes. You might want to apply white paint onto the eyeballs.
  5. Step: Do the details on the eyes.
  6. Step: Apply some layers of paint that is slightly darker or lighter than the basic skin color you used in the second step. Use dark or strong colors first and use lighter colors later on. Darker tones can be used for shading; lighter tones can be used for highlighting.
  7. Step: Add details onto the miniature. You can color the lips, possible scars and other details now. Highlight prominent parts with color. If you want to, you can now add some color to the cheeks as well.
  8. Step: Make sure everything is painted. If you want to, you can now apply gloss to the face.

Painting Eyes: a Step-by-step guide

The eyes are often the hardest part to paint. The pupils need to be in the right spots – unless you want to portrait a cross-eyed character.

In the following, I put together some steps on how to paint eyes in detail.

Note: there are A LOT of ways of doing this. This is just a method that works for me.

  1. Step: Black the entire eye socket, including the eyeball. Depending on the kind of character you are painting, you might use shades of black, grey, or a dark brown. A dark black might seem a bit too much for some characters. It quickly makes it seem like the character wears eyeliner.
  2. Step: Now paint the eyeball a shade of white. You might not want to use a clear white, since that is too light for a natural eye color. There should still be some black outline visible around the white. Of course, you can also try out other eye-colors for different species.
  3. Step: Set a black spot into your miniature’s eyeballs. This will be your base-dot for the following steps in which you paint the iris and pupil of this eye. You can set the black dot right in the middle of your eyes. Otherwise, you can also make the character look into a certain direction by placing the dots slightly off. But whatever you decide to do: Make sure that both dots are still matching the same direction.
  4. Step: Put some colored paint onto the black spots you just painted. This is the iris. You should use a bright color here, because it gets painted over again.
  5. Step: Now paint the pupil. This is a dark black spot right on the white eyeball. Make sure that this dot really is placed in the direction you want your character to look. Be careful not to make your miniature cross-eyed!
  6. Step: You should now paint white dot into your pupil. This indicates the light that is naturally reflected by the eye. You can also gloss the eyes, which makes them look a little wet. While this is more true to nature, it might look weird on miniatures with bigger eyes – especially the ones in a chibi-style

Other resources on painting faces
YouTube video

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