The secret of black undercoating


I have used black undercoat on my figures for years. But I often read that people don’t like black undercoats because they make it hard to:

  • see the details you’re painting
  • paint bright colours on top of the black undercoat.

I have neither problem, but that is because of a ‘secret’ step I add to the process, which I’m now about to spill the beans on …

pa battle 2

I’m currently working on some Perry Miniatures British infantry for my 1860s New Zealand Wars project.  My aim is that the finished figures will be coloured as per the above painting from of the The Waikato War Driving Tour website.  But before I get anywhere near that stage, I have to undercoat the figures.


As mentioned in my previous post, I start by spraying the figures with black automotive primer.  This makes the figures a deep coal black, which if I left it at that, would indeed have the two disadvantages I listed at the start.  In fact, the lighting in my photo above has brightened the black, making it is easier to see the detail than in real life.


Now comes the secret step.  Once the black is completely dry, I lightly dry-brush it with a medium grey acrylic paint.  This highlights all the details, making them much easier to pick out.  And because the grey has lightened the black, it also makes it easier to paint bright colours over the top.

In the above picture, the figure on the left has had this treatment, whilst the one on the right hasn’t (and also looks brighter in this photo than it does in real life).


These officers have both had the grey dry-brush treatment.   As you can see, the intricate frogging now really stands out.  In fact as this frogging will be black, if I can carefully paint the dark blue uniform colour between the cords, I won’t have to paint the frogging at all, because the grey has perfectly highlighted the black.  The same applies to boots, cartridge boxes, scabbards or anything else that needs to stay black.

So there it is.  Add a quick grey dry-brush, and you solve any problems that a  jet black undercoat might cause.  And it’s actually a very enjoyable part of the painting process as the figures really ‘pop’ when you apply the grey.

If you’re interested to see how these figures turn our, keep watching this blog …


19 thoughts on “The secret of black undercoating

  1. I have used a similar technique for years (only I use white instead of light grey) only I use more of a “damp-brush” for greater contrast.

    One of the things that people need to keep in mind is that most paints are NOT opaque but translucent instead . . . so a bonus of using black primer with a white or grey dry brush is that when you paint over them there already is some natural shading.

    Indeed I have long used this technique to quickly paint horses. After I have done my white “damp-brush” (and let it dry, of course), I use various “horse colors to damp-brush over the black/white horse. Once this is dry the horse is a mix of black, white and horse colors.

    Then I use a brown stain over it to smooth things out and each horse has a nice mix of shades (and each is different). At this point you can then paint saddle blankets, etc..

    — Jeff

    1. Thanks for those tips, Jeff. I agree the black undercoat gives you a ‘free’ level of shading before you even begin to paint!

      For my horses, I use the rubbed off oil-paint technique. Works a treat, and can look really lifelike.

  2. I have used similar, what I tend to have done recently is more of a black wash than full undercoat but it achieves very much the same effect

    they are rather nice figures.

      1. Yep, Karl and Steve, I’m sure I wasn’t the one who invented this technique! I must’ve picked it up from somewhere to start off with, but can’t recall where …

  3. Roly I too am an advocate of the black undercoat and have been for three decades. Although I shade heavily with washes, the black undercoat is still the best way, for me at least, to get depth.

  4. I was wondering — what is the brand of the primer you use, and where do you get it from?

    Also, have you considered/experimented with lightly spraying from above with light grey/white, rather than drybrushing? I’ve seen some people advocating this approach.

    1. As for brand, I generally just use an inexpensive “house brand” of black primer. I don’t know what Roly uses

      As for using a white/grey spray paint from above, I wouldn’t do it myself. The purpose of the white dry or damp brush is to highlight the raised and/or flat areas while leaving recessed areas in black . . . spray painting would negate this.

      — Jeff

          1. Hence my question about brands and sources. 🙂

            I guess I’ll pop into Repco, and see what they have — luckily, I’m probably old enough that they won’t be worried that I’m buying it for tagging. 😉

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