Well, you asked for it, and I have delivered. Here’s my guide to how you paint skulls, complete with potato-quality iphone images, garbled nonsense and lots of images of my thumb. I’ve painted a lot of skulls in my time working on the Mortifactors and over that time I’ve got better and better at it. Time I shared some of that with you. But before I get to the step by step guide, let’s talk about prep work.
Prep Work 1 – Look At Skulls
Sounds morbid, doesn’t it? But don’t worry. You’re not weird (well, you might be) – artists have been studying skulls for centuries. They are amazing things to look at on many levels, from the fact that it used to contain a brain, to the fact that it used to wear a face. But our purposes must start with pure aesthetics of the highest set of bones. There are so many intriguing and interesting shapes in there. From the ridges above the eyes to the bridge of the nose to the cheek bones to the upper jaw… there’s lots to take in. That’s why you have to look at them. A lot of them.
I stole this image from the internet ages ago and having sat above my table for years now, it has become part of my flat. If I ever stop painting skulls, I may just have to frame it. Having something like this right in front of your eyes when you work is incredibly useful as it means you always have your reference right there. So step 1 really is to just look at skulls.
Prep Work 2 – Practice Drawing Skulls
As with most things, the more you practice, the better you get at doing something (look at some of my derpy early skulls). I used to sketch and doodle skulls when I was doing loads of Mortifactors stuff all the time. You get your hands used to the shapes and lines involved. However, though all of that is incredibly useful, painting something on a tiny scale (like a Space Marine shoulder pad) means you have to come up with a technique for constructing the skull with acrylics that differs a lot from drawing. When I start putting the shape down, this is what I do:
I hashed this together at the end of last night’s painting session to give you a rough idea of how I do this. For Step 1, you draw a little blob that looks something like a tooth with splayed roots. Step 2 involves you painting a set of shades. Practice getting the lines and angles right here – I think still the eye sockets are the hardest part but you get better at it over time. In Step 3, you need to create one of those Groucho Marx mask faces, and in Step 4, you need to give him a hat and a bit of warpaint at the top of his cheeks. When I get into the actual painting guide, this is the shape I’ll put down first.
Prep Work 3 – The Tools You’ll Need
In terms of a brush, you’ll want something with a very fine point (obvs) but make sure it’s what you’re comfortable with – not everyone likes tiny heads or thread thin grips. Just make sure it’s got a sharp point and you’re happy with how it feels.
You’ll need five paints (shown above) and if you’re going by the Citadel range, that’ll be Reikland Fleshshade, Abaddon Black, Rhinox Hide, Screaming Skull and White Scar. Remember to add a little water to each of them (except the shade) on your palette to ensure they run smooth (see, I could do Duncan and Emma’s job!). How about we jump in to some actual painting now?
Step 1 – Abaddon Black / Rhinox Hide
Where is it!? Oh, there it is. Prime your shoulder pad with Abaddon Black before using Rhinox Hide to paint the outline of your skull. You can use the method described in Prep Work 2 above, or just do it however you like. It’s barely visible against the black, so don’t worry if you make any mistakes – this is just your guide.
Step 2 – Mocha / Cappuccino / Au Lait
No, you don’t need to drink all those coffees (though I won’t stop you if you’re in need of a caffeine fix). These are just the names I’ve ended up calling these blends of Rhinox Hide and Screaming Skull. Mocha (4 parts Rhinox Hide, 1 part Screaming Skull), followed by Cappuccino (50/50 mix of Rhinox Hide and Screaming Skull) and finally Au Lait (1 part Rhinox Hide, 4 parts Screaming Skull). It’s fine to add each one before the previous one has dried completely as this can help the transitions. With each layer, you paint less and less, turning the lighter shades increasingly into highlights. There need to be less light areas on the undersides and more on the crown of the skull and upward facing ridges. Hopefully the images below will make more sense than that description!
Step 3 – Screaming Skull
Lay down a final highlight at this stage with some Screaming Skull. At this point, take a look at your skull. Are you happy with the shape? If not, use the paints on your palette to touch up/change angles of lines.
Step 4 – Reikland Fleshshade
Now you want to cover the whole pad in Reikland Fleshshade. Don’t swamp it, but don’t be stingy either. This helps to bring all of those coffee colours together and give the outer edges a little softening – as if the skull is coming out of the darkness. Spooky. Leave to dry.
Step 5 – Reikland Fleshshade/Screaming Skull Mix
Now we move into the final stages. Add a little Reikland Fleshshade to some Screaming Skull on your palette until you get a nice little mix that looks like it’s half way between the two. Use this to start highlighting again, just to bring up some of those spots around the raised/upward facing parts.
Step 6 – Screaming Skull and White Scar
Do the same again with Screaming Skull, and then, make a 50/50 blend of Screaming Skull and White Scar. In moderation, use this to add a final layer of highlights to the parts that the light is going to hit.
Step 7 – Fill In The Gaps
Inside the nose and eye sockets, use a blend of Rhinox Hide and Abaddon Black to fill these in. Highlight with Rhinox Hide and finally a 3:1 blend of Rhinox Hide and White Scar to give a it some slight details.
And you’re done!
A couple of little things to remember though. If you’re going to use this to paint bigger skulls (like on vehicles for example) you might want to add some more layers/steps to this and spend a little bit more time wet blending on the model as the strokes will be more obvious. If you’re painting shoulder pads like this, do them off the model. I use a bit of sprue and some blue-tack to give me something to hold while painting the shoulder pad – so, so much easier than having to deal with back packs and arms getting in the way. And finally, if you’re doing Teeth as well, use Dawnstone, Ulthuan Grey and highlight with White Scar.
I hope you found that tutorial useful, despite the poor photography. One day I may even get a decent video camera so you can watch me paint it in real time! Who knows. Any questions, just stick them in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer them. I felt very rusty doing this as I’ve not painted anything Mortifactory for a while now – need to address that! Onwards.