Painting Eyes, Flesh and Lips.

I have been known to comment that some vehicle modellers can perfectly weather a tank but are let down by the figures they place in a diorama with it. Their figures look like lifeless mannequins with thousand yard stares. A few simple techniques such as [url=][b]blackinking[/b][/url] or [url=][b]Three colour undercoating[/b][/url] could have vastly improved these figures with very little extra effort.

Recently on a model soldier FB group there was a request for tips on painting eyes and lips. I am not a world class painter by any means, but I have discovered a few simple techniques that may be of interest to modellers who are not primarily figure painters.

Many years back a friend of mine asked me
“How do you deal with painting eyes?”
“Often I use a brush. If it is difficult I use a pin or a cocktail stick…”
His mouth dropped open and mentally he was kicking himself for not thinking of something so simple. “I hate you!”

The first thing to ask yourself when it comes to painting eyes is “Do I have to?”

Whether to paint a figure’s eyes will depend on scale, sculpt and status. If you are painting a 1/6th figure it is very likely you will need to paint in the eyes. If you are painting 1/72nd scale figures it is highly unlikely that you will need to do so. For scales in between these whether to attempt painting in eye detail will depend a lot on how the figure has been sculpted and their status. If the figure is a “spear carrier” and will be part of a unit of a dozen or more similar figures you may choose to not bother. For a character model, however you may be more inclined to add extra detail. The sculpting of some figures also has an effect. If the eyes are large and visible you may need to paint them. If they are deep set or they are obscured by the brim of a hat then painting eye detail in might make a figure look unnatural.

Here are some 1/32nd scale Cowboys. On the left I painted in the figure’s eyes. On the right I did not bother due to his hat.


Before I give some suggestions on eye painting I would like to detail my general approach to painting flesh on figures.

These days I always use a three colour undercoat for figures. Figures are undercoated in black and then dry brushed with grey and then white. The first coat of colour that goes over this will be relatively thin. For Caucasian flesh this first coat will be a thin coat of [url=][b]GW Dwarf flesh or the Vallejo Game Colour equivalent[/b][/url] when my old pot runs out. Lighter and darker bits of the undercoat will show through this coat. This is good since it will give you an idea where shade and highlighting needs to be applied.

For the next step use a darker shade. For a Caucasian I use GW Tanned Flesh. Use this to shade in where the figure’s eyes will be, the “wells” under the brows and above the cheekbones. Shade the cheeks with Tanned flesh too. Where else to apply Tanned Flesh will depend on the model. If the figure is showing some cleavage apply some there. Sometimes I paint a little between the fingers or on the underside of the hands or arms, or around the neck.

Next step is to apply some more Dwarf Flesh to cover over some of the undercoat still showing through. Highlight the flesh parts with some GW Elf Flesh. Apply to the nose, the brow, high points of the cheeks, lower lip, point of chin, knuckles, top of ears, fingernails, clavicles etc.

By now your figure should be looking fairly human. Now is the time to apply some Flesh wash. I use Cote de Arms. The wash settles into the deeper parts of the sculpt, making them appear darker. It also gives the skin a subtle mottled look, rather like Caucasian skin really is. I don’t always use Flesh wash. Occasionally I leave it out and sometimes I may apply it at an earlier or later stage.

Once the Flesh wash has dried I will usually apply a bit more dwarf flesh and may highlight further with Elf Flesh. The Dwarf and Elf Flesh that has been covered by wash is obviously a redder shade than that painted over it so this technique gives you multiple shades of flesh colour for just four paints, giving a nice approximation of the complex colour of Caucasian flesh.

Final step is to [url=][b]black ink[/b][/url] the figure. The wash of black ink adds shade and grime so is different in effect to the Flesh Wash I used.

Let us return to the subject of painting eyes. In the above technique we painted the “eye wells” in a darker shade and then washed them with Flesh Wash and Black ink. For many figures this will be adequate to detail the eyes. Generally in real life we cannot discern the white of the eye, iris and pupil at more than a few metres distance. Looking at a 28mm figure at a few feet distance is like looking at a real person more than 35 metres away. Below is a unit of 28mm Soviets that nicely shows how the techniques above work. I made no attempt to paint in their eyes other than shading the area and using Flesh and Black Ink washes.


If I am going to paint the eyes in more detail I will paint them after the flesh wash and before the black inking.

Next method is an “intermediate” technique for detailing eyes. I mentioned above that beyond a certain distance you cannot discern the separate parts of the eye and instead perceive the eye as a single colour or an area of shadow. On the figure below I have tried to reproduce this effect by simply painting the eye with a single colour, in this case Tamiya Dark Grey. For a figure with deep set eyes or one that is particularly evil I might use a colour such as dark brown. Certain shades of green, blue or brown might suit a more glamorous subject.


Suppose you do want to paint the eyes in greater detail. Get the right tools for the job! I have already mentioned the technique of using a cocktail stick or pin to “dot the eye”. Mount them in a pin-vise if you find them hard to handle. Cocktail sticks can be sharpened to a finer point. A fine brush with a very good point is very useful. Have a look at the painting brush sets produced for painting designs on nails. These will cost you just one to three pounds and will have at least one fine brush you will find useful. Generally I do not paint with a magnifying visor but detailing eyes is one job where they can really prove useful.

For painting in the whites of eyes it helps to use a paint that flows nicely so that it is drawn into the sculpt. This is also true if you paint the eye another colour as described above. Painting the iris, on the other hand, is often easier with a thicker paint that forms a nice blob easily. At one time I used to use gloss paints for the iris to give them a bit of a glint. I do this less often these days and it is probably unnecessary for very dark or light iris colours. Make sure the irises of both eyes are looking at the same point in space! If you are painting eyes on a larger scale it is worth considering applying some gloss varnish to the whole of the eye to make it look liquid.

Some people like to paint the eye black first so when they paint in the white it has a darker border. Other colours can be used to create the effect of mascara or other effects. In my general technique the eye is already darker due to the use of Tanned Flesh colour. Some painters paint two dots of white over a black eye socket to create the iris. I cannot paint that fine so add the iris after the white.


I mainly paint 28mm scale figures. If you paint larger scales or are painting a figure with a particularly large eye(s) you may need to go into more detail. Painting the white and the pupil is fairly straight forward. The thing to be aware of is that the iris acts a bit like a conical depression. The bottom part of the iris gets more light than the upper so appears lighter. Have a look at some photos of eyes to see what I mean. Large eyes should have a gloss finish, the simplest way to do this being with a gloss varnish. You may choose to paint a glint of light on the eye with white paint. Think carefully about where the light source is and make it consistent for both (all?) of the eyes.

The last paragraph ties in nicely with my tip on painting lips. The lower lips tends to catch light better than the upper lip so the lower lip needs to be painted lighter than the upper.

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