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How to use Zenithal Highlight Techniques for Miniatures

So Zenithal highlighting? What is it? How does one use Zenithal Highlight Techniques for Miniatures? What can it be used for and how can it best be used?

Hi my name is Niall and I am a miniature painter. In this article I am going to cover all aspects of Zenithal Highlighting in our little hobby from the beginning right to the end. The intention of this article is to be useful for all levels of painters from the new budding hobbyist to the more seasoned painters alike.

So without any further ado let’s jump right into the article.

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Zenithal Highlight Techniques for Miniatures example
Konrad Curze, Primarch of the 8th Legion Night Lords. 30k conversion I put together that will make strong use of an unusual angle for a zenithal highlight.

Zenithal Highlight Techniques for Miniatures Explained

A zenithal highlight is a highlight that is applied directly above or from the “Zenith” hence the name.

Fancy name aside it is an exceptionally useful technique that can sound intimidating to new painters. I feel this is a really useful technique when it comes to new painters just getting into the hobby or painters who might struggle with hand-eye coordination or steady hands. While seen as somewhat of a “high end” miniature painting technique I can say from personal experience that it is a key part of speed painting if you just want to get your army tabletop ready as soon as possible.

So whether you need to get your huge army painted up for that big tournament coming up or you are more interested in upping your miniature painting game from a pure painting quality perspective Zenithal highlighting has something for either case and is definitely a technique I feel any well-rounded painter should pick up for their tool kit.

The application of a highlight from directly above does a huge amount to define the shapes and forms of our miniature

While they are very different techniques and I won’t get into this one in this particular article in a manner it could be argued that it has a similar effect on the eye observing the model to an edge highlight. As while they both are very different methods of achieving this they both separate out the different bits and bobs be they armor weapons, facial features, wings, etc.

Zenithal highlighting in practice

Generally speaking, the easiest way to perform a zenithal highlight is with an airbrush.

Using an airbrush for this technique makes it far far quicker than any alternative and it also cuts out a large amount of room for error. That being said there are options for using a brush to zenithal highlight. They can be less precise in my experience and definitely leave larger room for error but it is possible to do so using two methods one with a larger brush and one with a fine tipped brush.

I will cover all of these methods in this article one by one but the first step to perform any version of a zenithal highlight requires either an airbrush, a large dry brushing brush or a small fine tipped brush.

After this depending on the kind of zenithal you have previously performed you may need a more mid sized brush (measured against the size of the model you are painting).

On top of this you of course will also need paint.

Citadel Chaos Black Primer
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One thing all methods require is a good black primer. I always recommend games workshops chaos black spray primer as for my money it gives the best finish with the least amount of hassle or potential for headaches.

Though speaking of headaches as always do be sure that if you are spray priming models make sure to do so in a well-ventilated area, protected from direct contact with the elements such as an open shed or other sheltered outdoor area. Also even if you are spraying outside in a well-ventilated area I would still recommend the use of a mask.

When it comes to the paint required for a zenithal highlight the most important one is white.

What kind of white you use depends entirely on the method that you are using. If you are using an airbrush to apply your zenithal for instance I would highly recommend Liquitex’s white ink. There is a huge amount of pigment in this white which allows for great coverage and the fact that it is an ink and therefore has a much more water like consistency makes it very easy to run through an airbrush as it requires no thinning at all.

That being said, while that is my recommendation any other white airbrush paint will definitely do the job. So don’t feel like you have to rush out and buy that paint in order to perform this technique.

Side note: If you don’t have a huge amount of experience dealing with airbrush paints I would caution always to add thinner before adding your paint to your airbrush. As though paints are often sold as “air” paints or “Airbursh” paints do not assume that they do not need to be thinned. I have learned this lesson the hard way.

If you are instead using a brush to perform a zenithal highlight my paint of choice would be army painters “matt white”.

I find this to be a fantastic white, with great coverage and consistency for brush painting. It also comes in a dropper bottle which is always fantastic. Once again however that’s just my paint of choice any other white paint will work for you, though I wouldn’t recommend using an airbrush paint or ink to try and perform brush painting or vise versa.

So with our tools of choice and paints in hand let’s start getting into the technique of how to perform a zenithal highlight. I will first cover the application of the white highlights using an airbrush, then a larger brush, then a smaller brush. Then move on to adding color to our highlight after as while color is important the key part of this technique lies in the application of the white.

Zenithal priming

The first method that I will mention here is most likely the simplest. Once you have primed a model black take a rattle can of white miniature paint such as games workshops corax white and spray it from the top down over the miniature.

Ensure that the spray hits the model from directly above in order for it to catch on the right details and to leave shadows in the correct places. As I mentioned this is the quickest and easiest method for any kind of zenithal however it can also sometimes be a little rough. There is nothing wrong with this of course however it depends on the look that you want to get for your army. One word of caution when it comes to rattle cans however is that they can be temperamental when it comes to things like weather, temperature in particular.

Particularly in the cold, if stored somewhere where the temperature gets relatively low if you don’t warm up your paint before hand you can sometimes get a very grainy texture from the rattle can that can really mess up a smooth finish.

The safest method I have found is if you can simply store your cans somewhere inside that is room temperature you shouldn’t have many problems. So if you are just looking to get battle ready models on the table top with a bit of a dramatic highlight then this method could very well be for you however if you’re looking for something that little bit more subtle then you might want to read on.

Zenithal with an airbrush

Beginning with a model that has been primed black place a few drops of your chosen white paint into your airbrush cup. I recommend doing a few test sprays for a few seconds each on a sheet of cardboard or similar scrap / trash just to make sure that your paint is flowing correctly without any spatter. Once this has been confirmed then we can begin to apply the paint to the model. The most important part of a zenithal highlight is making sure that you are spraying from a top down angle.

This is to simulate light hitting the model from directly above. I would suggest that you start gently and work your way up to brighter tones and harsher contrast rather than spray too much on too fast. Particularly if you are using an ink if you spray too much the ink can pool on the miniature and end up running. So my advice is to take it slow and make sure that you build up to those harsh highlights.

After your first pass is completed you should be able to see how spraying from this angle has caught a lot of the detail in your model and given it a real sense of shape. With this completed I would then suggest gently working more of the spray over onto the areas that you feel would catch the light the most. For a space marine for example this would usually be the very top of the shoulder pads, the top of the helmet and the uppermost part of the backpack.

Once that has been completed you should really start to see some definition with the subtle highlights of the first pass contrasting with the harsher ones of the second. Depending on the model you are painting and how these highlights have turned out you may want to add another subtle highlight to some of the darkened areas.

Sometimes when we perform an airbrush zenithal highlight the shadows we leave can seem too dark and lacking in detail and definition. So what we can do to combat this is to add a very gentle highlight to these darker areas.

Be warned however that this should be handled with some care as if you are too harsh with these secondary highlights you can eat the shadows entirely, removing the effect of the zenithal and forcing us to re prime the model and start again to achieve the desired effect. So a few quick gentle sprays directed from a slightly off center angle should be enough to just catch a few of those details and make things a little more uniform while not eating too much into the shadows.

You can also use a zenithal to capture the lighting of an entire scene such as this little diorama I put together.

Zenithal with brushes

So with the airbrush method covered the next piece is to go over zenithal highlighting with brushes. As previously mentioned brushes are not the ideal tool to perform a zenithal with as there is more room for error and overall I find it to be a much more difficult process. However if you find yourself lacking an airbrush, a brush zenithal is still very possible and through learning it you may learn far more about painting as a whole then if you had gone the simpler airbrush method. The first method of performing a brush zenithal is using a dry brush.

This is a less advanced and more beginner friendly method of performing the technique as there is less room for error, it doesn’t take too long and even if you struggle with keeping a steady hand or with hand eye coordination its still quite possible to get a good solid result. I have discussed the standard dry brushing technique in greater detail in other articles however I will give a brief over view here just in case any readers are unfamiliar.

“Drybrushing” is a method of highlighting miniatures by using a large brush that has little to no paint on it. How its performed is to take whatever paint you would like to use, get some on a large brush and then using a piece of tissue paper, kitchen roll etc. dab your brush on the tissue paper and remove almost all of the paint that you have just applied leaving behind only a very small amount.

You can run the brush gently over your hand to try and get a feel for how much paint is or isnt left on the brush. This can require some practice and trial and error in order to get the amounts just right but if you are in doubt I would advise that you err on the side of using too little paint rather than using too much. With that done you then apply the paint to the model in broad strokes, its motion that always reminds me of dusting, but the idea is to run the brush over the model and allow the paint to catch on the raised areas, allowing them to stand out from the darker paint previously applied. Now with that covered we can look at the application of this technique for a zenithal.

When doing any kind of zenithal highlighting the most important part is always the angle, where is the light going to hit if it is coming at it from straight down? What parts will be reflective and what parts will be left dark? A handy step for this to give you an idea if you are unsure how this would work is to take a light or even the torch of your phone and hold it directly over the model. This will give you first had, exact reference for the kind of effect you are trying to achieve.

Depending on the light you have and if you can at all I would also advise if you are unsure to take a number of photos of the model with the light shining on it in this way so that you have it to look back at rather that just the memory alone.

When it comes to applying paint for the technique I would advise painting the model from the top down.

So hold the model in a position that you are looking straight down on the top of its head for example, if you’re model doesn’t have a head what we are going for here is just a top down view. Begin by using quite a light dry brush (this refers to the amount of paint on the brush, less is definitely more when it comes to this technique.) and run it over the model from this angle. be careful not to apply your brushstrokes in an upward motion as this could catch areas of the model that we do not wish to be highlighted. Instead apply the paint using a left to right or alternating left to right stroke with a slightly downward angle.

Relatively quickly you should begin to start seeing the effect emerge however it is always a good idea to turn the model back to the position it would normally stand in to check and make sure that things are going well and the effect is working as it should.

If you find at any stage that a certain area that shouldn’t be filled in has been or that any other mistake has been made you can always go back in with black and neaten up. Repeat this process of applying from the top down with downward angled brush strokes, taking breaks to turn the model back and checking your reference and you should build up a nice solid version of a zenithal.

As a side note to this you depending on your desired result you may want to add a very subtle dry brush to some of the darker areas of the piece. This isn’t something you have to do you may just find that once the technique has been applied that the contrast between the light areas and the dark areas is a little bit too harsh and adding a much much lighter dry brush over the shadowed areas may give a little bit more balance and realism to the effect.

The next method of zenithal highlighting with a brush is a more advanced method that can be challenging for new and seasoned painters alike, particularly so if you find that you have difficulty with hand eye coordination or steady hands.

Once again I would advise using reference photos taken in the manner I described previously if you feel unsure how the light would play across the surface. For this method we need to use quite a fine tipped brush as precision will be key to achieving or desired effect. Its also important to make sure that your paint is properly thinned for this method of zenithal as the layers need to be smooth in order to sell the effect.

You may also need to do some blending between the black at the white. The idea for this technique is to take an accurate brush and to use it to paint the zenithal highlights by hand. This can be quite challenging to keep the balance of the effect however once completed to a high standard it can offer a fantastic look and some very sharp contrast.

Once more it can be quite useful to to look at the model from a top down angle to help get a feel for how the white should be laid out. This is a technique that you should not try to rush but instead take your time and slowly build up the highlights.

While this model was both airbrushed and brush painted I feel it gives an idea of how one might go about adding white zenithal highlights with a brush.

Under-shading, the evil twin of the Zenithal highlight

While a technique perhaps deserving of its own article I would like to touch on under-shading here in its relevance to Zenithal Highlighting. This supplementary technique that I would like to add here to further help to sell your zenithal is something that I have only ever seen referred to as “under-shading.” Under-shading is almost like the opposite of a zenithal, its a technique where instead of applying a highlight you apply a shadow directly to the underside of a model. This can dramatically enhance the contrast of your previously laid down highlights and it can even help to clean up any small mistakes that might have thus far eluded your notice.

The easiest method by far of applying this technique is with an airbrush on a model that has already has a white zenithal highlight but has yet to be glued onto its base. However if you find that you have already glued your model to the base do not worry you can still perform this technique it just may require a little bit more care. Usually this can be performed with either a thinned black paint or a black ink through your airbrush however I have also had some interesting and useful results when using washes.

A consideration that I would recommend here is what color you will be putting on top of your miniature and how might that color interact with the color of the shadow that you apply here. For instance when I was painting some world eaters miniatures they had a lot of bright red armor with orange highlights giving them quite a warm feel.

I found it quite useful to apply an under-shade of games workshops drakenhoff nightshade to really add depth to the shadows due to the contrast between the warm reds and the cold blue of the shade. Once you have a model ready and the paint loaded into your airbrush this technique is as simple spraying the model from underneath.

As I mentioned before this technique is quite like a direct opposite of the zenithal highlight however I would caution anyone attempting this technique to just be careful about their angles. The angle that you spray from has a huge effect on how this effect will play out and ideally we don’t want these new shadows to eat too much of the highlight we have already applied. However if you do make a mistake you can always go back and neaten up with more white so its not a huge deal.

Remember that while you can apply an “under-shade” to a freshly zenithal highlighted miniature you can also always apply this as a final touch to a fully painted miniature to add strength to the shadows and some additional contrast.

The final aspect of under-shading that I would like to mention here in a similar fashion to the techniques we discussed previously is under-shading with a brush. Once again this is a much more difficult and time consuming method for performing this technique however in terms of developing your painting method it can be much more rewarding.

Pulling this off will really help you to develop your brush work and further help you understand how light hits a model. For under-shading with a brush I would strongly recommend having the model free and not yet glued to a base. As while an under-shade is possible with an airbrush after the model is glued to a base it becomes far more difficult with a brush.

Using shades rather than black inks can make this slightly easier I feel as there is larger room for error however black inks could be quite useful if there are areas that you want to neaten up. My advise if you are dead set on performing a brush under-shade is to take your time and not to rush, consider where the light is hitting the model and where the shadows should be.

So this has been my article on the process of using zenithal highlights and a support technique to add along side it. I hope that you have found it useful. As I often do I would like to mention the importance of experimentation when using any technique.

While guides and tips from others are certainly helpful when learning how to perform zenithal highlights I would strongly suggest experimenting yourself and trying different things to see what kind of results you can get as I feel that there is never any substitute for your own experience. Also as a general rule using too little is always better than using too much as its often easier to simply add more if necessary rather than covering up a mistake.

That being said though if you do find that you have over highlighted or over shaded an area you can always use the opposing technique to neaten up.

When it comes to guides painting techniques are often portrayed as linear step-by-step processes and sometimes in practice they are but often you will find that you may need to go back and forth between steps to ensure that you get it just where you want it.

So be aware of that and don’t feel as if your not doing it “correctly” if you have to make adjustments or go back a few steps.

On that note, I wish you well in your zenithal experiments and ill see you in the next one.

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