Painting Faces on Busts

It’s been a while since I’ve added to the hobby tutorials on ToadChapel. Let’s remedy that! As we near Christmas, I’ve painted 18 miniature busts since COVID sent us all inside back in March, so I figure that would be a good subject to explore.

The essence of any bust is the face. Many busts consist of little more than the head. In this tutorial I’m going to focus mostly on painting the face, though I may make incidental reference to how I approach other elements on the model.

I’m going to walk you through my process on Touille. My painting is always equal parts experiment and experience, so I encourage you to adapt your own habits to fit what I suggest.

First, let’s mention the obvious barrier some people feel to painting their first busts. The size. Or, more accurately, the scale. Busts in the miniature range vary widely in scale, but most fall between 1/16 to 1/10, compared to roughly 1/57 (32mm), 1/32 (54mm), and 1/24 (75mm). How big is that?

That big. Using a pre-primaris space marine for comparison, you can see that an Imperial Fists sergeant is about as tall as the head on ‘the Wanderer’, a 1/10 bust. Thus, for someone new to bust painting, the scale is enormous compared to gaming miniatures or even full figure display models. This dramatic difference can be intimidating or challenging, but I’ve found the rewards to be well worth the learning curve.

If you’re considering painting a bust for the first time, and you’re coming from a gaming background or have only painted full figure display pieces, I’d advise you to start small. There are a lot of great 1/12 pieces in the sci fi, fantasy, and historical genres. 1/16 busts are more rare, but there are some excellent offerings if you are willing to look. Three of the four busts above came from the consistently outstanding Spanish company FeR, and I suggest you have a look through their diverse catalogue. Their models are beautiful and they have many smaller sized busts that come at a reasonable price.

Beyond FeR, there are an incredible number of boutique manufacturers turning out magnificent busts today. Too many to be named. I believe there is something for everyone, style and subject wise. Get something you’ll really enjoy painting. Spend a little more for quality of sculpt and casting. You’ll be glad you did.

Ok, so here’s how I painted Touille.

With a bust, it’s very effective to control value and saturation to create focus and establish the light situation. I start most of my busts by priming in black, then creating a grisaille underpainting using grey and white paint. Many people do this entirely or in part using an airbrush, but here I worked only with a brush. I laid down grey layers to create an overall ambience, and confined strong pure whites to the right side of Touille’s face and the areas immediately surrounding. You’ll find it easier to reach your brightest highlights and most powerful colors over a white undercoat, while black will form the basis of your deepest shadows.

This clown face is not actually a joke. Before I started to apply actual skin tones, I blocked in very strong colors that will tint the skin above them in a very natural and lively way. I build up the skintones using many semi-transparent layers, so what lies beneath will be visible when I am finished. I feel that it’s easier to establish the strong colors immediately and temper them afterward, rather than starting with muted canned skintones that will need more saturation through glazing or some other means.

Here I have applied several layers of various skintones. I’m seeking to reinforce the volumes as revealed by the light. The grisaille underpainting makes these volumes jump right out. To keep the skintones lively I’m tinting the mostly grey commercial flesh colors with red, blue, and yellow Scale Color Artist paints. These paints are very vibrant, mix beautifully, and add transparency to the mix.

About 40-60% of the way through the process of painting the face is usually when I place the eyes. Many people paint the eyes at the very beginning, and I understand the reasoning, but I find it easier and more comfortable to paint them after I’ve revealed how the face will look in general, but before I begin the long process of refinement and fine tuning. Painting eyes on larger scale models probably deserves its own tutorial, so I’ll wait till then to address the issue.

Once Touille had some eyes, I needed to lay out my concept for the rest of the model to see if it was going to work. Again, the most important element in a bust is the face. But the face must be understood in the context of the rest of the model. You can see the light situation and the color composition of the hat and shirt pushing the viewer’s gaze toward the face. I put the light on the side of the face that would be more visible when viewing the model with the plinth straight on. Here you can very clearly see the grisaille supporting the application of color.

Now that the general picture was in place, I tackled some important details. I began framing the eyes with the lids, the value on the upper cheeks, and the eyebrows.

As the face is the focus of the bust, so the eyes are the focus of the face. As you can see from the greyscale version of the previous image, I’ve done everything I can to guide the viewer into the expression of Touille’s eyes.

As I work my way around the details of the face, I also painted the mouth, the sideburns, and added a lot of red back into the nose. From here it will be mostly a matter of refinement. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be some dramatic changes, but at this point I can see how the face will look.

Here is Touille more or less finished. At this point I’ve painted all the other elements of the model to the same level as the face. You can see the shirt running into a grassy yellow green as it heads up toward Touille’s right eye, and his orangey warm yellow hat reaching its highest value, coldest yellow tone just above the same focal paint.

On the face itself I’ve lightened the darkness under his brows, yellowed the teeth, reddened the gums, refined the ears, and touched up plenty of blends or tones. If you’d like to see the finished bust, you can check him out on Putty & Paint.

To summarize the process:

• Make things easy on yourself and begin exploring the model by using directional lighting, whether you achieve this with an airbrush or a traditional grisaille.

• Establish saturation and tonal depth with underpainting that reflects the local differences of the color of the human face.

• Gradually layer skintones over the prepainting you’ve done. Go slow, as you don’t want to destroy your work with layers that are too opaque. Use small amounts of highly saturated paints or inks to give life to your skintones.

• Add critical details, above all the eyes, and build everything else toward them. Balance the face and the model to show your chosen focal point to best advantage. Don’t wait till the face is finished to see it in the context of the entire piece. Sketch in the rest, at least, so you can fine tune things like color and value contrast.

• Refine, refine, refine. Rather, let’s say refine the face to the degree you want it. You don’t have to paint your minis to the point of absolute polish, but the face of any model should be the most refined element. Of course there’s an exception to every rule, but you should have a good reason to break that one.

• My number one piece of advice for someone considering painting a bust, especially if it will be your first, is to jump in and feel your way through. There is a lot to learn for someone new to the exercise, so get learning. Go find a bust you really like, don’t worry about mistakes (you’re going to make them), and get the brushes wet. If you want to paint a bust but haven’t done so, do so.


That’s it! I hope you enjoyed this article. I think I could write a few more articles on bust painting if you have interest. I’ve had immense fun and have made great strides as a painter as I’ve focused on bust painting over the past nine months. I encourage you to put your figure painting skills to use creating something different!

Don’t forget, there are many other miniature hobby tutorials on ToadChapel. You can find all of them in the Tutorial Index.

6 thoughts on “Painting Faces on Busts”

  1. Very helpful and detailed info! I have a sculpt that I have been meaning to paint, but as you say, it is intimidating.
    I am going to try the graiselle / underpainting method you describe.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was very interesting and useful for someone like me who I would imagine is your target audience. I’ve never painted a bust and have found them a bit intimidating because they are larger scale than what I’m used to. One of these days I’m sure I’ll finally give one a go and I think your guide makes me feel more confident than I ever have before that I could handle painting one so thank you for that 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: