Wargaming Tradecraft: Back to Basics - Black Primer, Dark Colours


Back to Basics - Black Primer, Dark Colours

Here's the continuation of Ron and my Back to Basics series.

This week we focus on using black primer. The colours on your minis won't be as bright as if you used white primer, but that's just fine for painting with dark colours. As a reminder, we're using simple techniques that are easy to follow. These are tutorials designed to show easy ways to create table-top quality miniatures.

Ron painted an Ork this week, pictured to the right. Take a look at his post on using black primer and dark colours.
  • We use black primer when we want to paint models with bolder shadows. Often, but not always, this will be paired with darker colours to compliment the shadows. Instead, you can use lighter colours for a stronger contrast.
  • If you miss painting spots such as crevices, it's not the end of the world - and sometimes that's exactly how you'll be painting. By not painting areas where shadow would naturally exist, you end up with deeper shadows.
  • A down side is that when painting, the black primer and shadows blend together, making it harder for you to see details. For this reason, I suggest new painters start with white primer.
  • Also, lighter colours (such as yellow, green, orange and red) won't be as strong. You may even have to apply a layer of their corresponding foundation colour (covered later in this article) or white.

When you're painting over a dark primer, you have to switch up the order you would normally layer your colours. As you paint more, you'll learn how well colours paint on top of each other. Foundation colours and some of the normal ones will always paint just fine over darks at their full intensity. Light colours (as mentioned above) will require a white base, a layer or two of a shade between black and the lighter one or just painting multiple layers of the light colour. (being careful to not layer things too thick and ending up with a clumpy or streaky surface)

With a light primer, I paint from the brighter colours down to the darker ones. With a dark primer, this is reversed.

As with my Striking Scorpion in my white primer tutorial, I start by painting the largest area of the model to get an overall sense of what the mini will look like. First, I've painted some of his armour plates a lighter Camo Green (which is still thick enough to cover black) then the rest of his armour with Catachan Green.

As I mention above, when painting over a black primer I leave plenty of areas untouched. Try to just paint the raised areas and not cracks, crevices, beneath armour plates, and so on. I've even left under the rim of his helmet alone.

Next up I paint the material between his armour plates with Calthan Brown foundation. Not many areas for this, but take a look at the fingers on his left hand - I haven't painted the entire fingers, I've just painted the tops, leaving the area between his fingers and at his knuckles black.

What I want to point out at this stage is how while orange is a brighter colour, it covers the black primer just fine. This is Macharius Solar Orange, from GW's foundation series of paints. These paints are designed to be layered on any colour, no matter how dark it is. Foundations are also thicker and must be watered down before use. Either a couple drops of water to the pot (and shake) or dipping your brush in water before the paint should do the trick.

Pay no attention to the purple on his gun - I certainly didn't forget to take a picture immediately after painting orange on the model... and these are not the droids you're looking for.

Below is the final step, which certainly wasn't displayed partially completed in the photo above at all. I've used Hormagaunt Purple, another foundation paint, and you can really see how I've just painted the raised areas.

Step 1 - Basic Colours

So here is the first step complete - just like my striking scorpion, it looks ghastly at this stage. All raised areas on the model are painted, while crevices are for the most part, left alone. I say "most part" because I've painted some bits more solid. (as you can see best with the orange areas) By doing this, particularly in areas that might be lit stronger, you get a mix of both deep dark black shadows and lighter ones that will be created during the washing steps next.

Now it's time for the washes. I talked in my "white primer, light colours" tutorial about using complimentary washes. Instead, to make things darker and blend in to the already deep shadows, I'll be used darker washes. This also makes the model look dirtier and gritty.

On this step, I've started with Devlan Mud to add strong shadows to the orange and brown areas. I paint the wash on not just the orange, but also into the black recesses around it. The effect ends up being subtle, but it tints the black with the colour of your wash. This softens the black slightly, but helps make the deep shadow seem believable. Also notice how the crevices within the orange areas are darker, but not quite so deep dark as the black shadows around them.

Next I've used Gryphonne Sepia wash to shade both shades of green. Again, apply it everywhere. I probably could have even applied a second coat of this to strengthen the shading.

This step is a nice example of washing with a shade that doesn't jive with the colour being washed. In the previous step, I used Devlan Mud, which is close to Black. A deep brown works to add natural shadows. Sepia though, is a brighter brown with a tint of yellow. As you can see, washes aren't just for adding shadow - this has also made the greens look dirtier.

Finally, I dirty up the gun with Badab Black wash. Once again, this adds a dark, dirty shadow, rather than just a darker purple.

Step 2 - Washing

Now that's two steps down, one final to go. He no longer looks intense and bright since he's covered in shadows from the washing. He does, however, look a little too dirty. When working with light colours and shades of for washes, you can get away with stopping at this step. Because of the dirty look created with the washes I've just used, highlighting is more important now.

There seemed to be a bunch of interest last time with lined highlighting. As such, I'll be a little bolder in this tutorial to make the lining stand out more.

To highlight and clean up the orange areas, I've used Blazing Orange. Essentially I've painted edges, corners and so on. This is an example of a brighter colour that wouldn't paint on black too well, but stands out with a few layers of colour in between.

Just a little bit of highlighting here; Some Vermin Brown to add a little light on the darker brown areas.

I highlighted the gun next, showing the use of a highlight colour that's the same as the base colour. (Hormagaunt Purple) This looks a little rough, partially because black is such a dirty wash that highlighting it isn't the easiest of jobs without a little blending and paint mixing.

Here you can start seeing some of the more obvious line highlighting on the darker green with Knarloc Green. If you want to use this method, it really is as simple as drawing lines and painting raised areas in a stronger colour.

As a final step, I line-highlight the lighter green areas with Rotting Flesh. For a subtler look, I could have used a darker shade or the original colour, but I wanted to make this style stand out for you.

Step 3 - Lined Highlighting

And so, he's done! Some drastic techniques like the bolder look of the lining appear better from farther away, so either stand up and walk a few feet away from your monitor or hang on a bit longer for the final image after he's been based.

Once again, 3 simple steps - Base Colours, Wash, Highlight using drawn lines. It's not a masterpiece, but it didn't take too long and would certainly look good on a battlefield.

It's worth mentioning another way he could have been painted - you could flip steps 2 and 3. It does mean you can't highlight with the same colours as in step 1, but there is a benefit. Since I used washes here that dirty up the model, the highlights currently come off very clean and bold. If the wash had been layered above the highlight, then the highlights would also be a little dirtier and a little more subtle.

I decided to base him up too so:
  • Mixed together some black and red sand from a party / wedding supply store.
  • Covered his base in super glue. (my choice for basing)
  • Poured on the sand and let it dry before shaking the extra off.

What you'll notice if we compare this Tau Marine (primed with black) to the Eldar Striking Scorpion (primed with white) is the stronger shading on the Tau and subtler highlighting on the Eldar. The Eldar doesn't have any black shadows, just darker shades of the colours on him. The Tau, however, has shadows that are literally just black, creating a strong contrast between these dark areas and the colour.

By introducing contrasts into your models, you end up with a bolder look to your army. The Scorpion could have been painted with these types of contrasts too, but had I painted those colours over black primer, they wouldn't look nearly as vibrant and I'm not a fan of layering white on black just to get strong colours. (For vibrant colours, I'd rather start with a white primer, rather than fight with layers of white/light colours, introducing streaks and thickness to the surface)

If you're thinking you could just paint some black on the scorpion or blend in some really dark greens to add that contrast, consider you'll be taking more time to complete the model - BUT you are thinking in the right direction if you want to expand your skills and experiment for yourself.

You of course could have also used washes similar in colour to what they're being painted over on the darker model rather than the black, mud and sepia washes. Remember, these tutorials are just demonstrating techniques - the sky is the limit for how you want to put everything together!


  1. Nice post, In all my years painting I have never used a black undercoat, to be honest sometime I don't use one at all :o

    I must admit it would probably save me a bit of time with the awkward corners...

    Im about to start painting a few Rackham dwarfs of Mid Nor, maybe Ill give it a go on them.

  2. It's worth trying - I swore by white primer up until last year, now it's 50/50, depending on the project. My Space Hulk Terminator was the first I tried it on and loved how it turned out.

  3. I'm going to give it a try and post up the results on my blog. I got two primed up in black last night!

  4. I started blogging about it so Ill have to complete them now :)


    Only thing Im finding is the detail is a bit harder to make out with a black undercoat, maybe I need a brighter light...

  5. That was one of the downsides I mentioned - Black primer makes it really hard to see the detail. You could try a better light though.. neons work best, true white.. rather than normal indoor yellowish lighting.


Please keep all comments civil and language appropriate for a child-safe environment.