Paints and Process
So every now and then (seems to come in waves) I get a question asking me what paints/markers/brushes I use, how I get my lines so clean, and/or what is my process for painting my custom toys. I’m always happy to share and help out other folks, but it adds up to a lot of typing the same exact thing. So I’ve decided to post this up on my blog so going forward I can just direct someone here and they’ll get all the info they need. So here it goes.
Paint/Markers/Brushes– I’m currently using three mediums. Liquid acrylic paint, paint markers, and cel vinyl paint. First up is the liquid acrylic. I know some folks are very particular about the brand of paint they use, but I just use what I got started on back in college many years ago- Liquitex. I have some Golden, but the bulk of my supply is Liquitex. It seems to work very well for my needs. I would say 95% of my 2D painting is accomplished with liquid acrylics. I also use Sharpie Poster Paint Markers. These are actually my first choice when painting custom toys because of the consistency and ease of use. The only drawback is that there is a very limited color palette available. When I need something outside the realm of a basic color, I’ll then break out my liquid acrylics. There are other companies that make paint markers/pens (Posca), but I’ve never tried any other brand but Sharpie. Note, Sharpie has two different versions of paint markers- regular and poster. The regular are oil-based, and I’ve heard that sometimes there can be drying issues with these. The poster paint markers are water-based, so they dry extremely fast and fairly sturdy. I’m also starting to dabble with cel vinyl acrylic paint. I’ve heard many great things about it over the years and have been meaning to try it out, but it was just one of those things that wasn’t high on the priority list. So a month or so ago I finally bought a basic set of 13 colors from Cartoon Colour- pretty much the only game in town for cel vinyl paint. I’ve played around with them a bit and I’m pretty happy with the results. I’m definitely going to be using cel vinyl more consistently down the road. As far as brushes, I’m not too particular about what I use. For the most part I’m still using the same brushes that I bought back in college. I think it definitely pays to buy decent quality brushes in the beginning- if you take care of them properly they’ll last a long time. Pretty much all my brushes are Winsor & Newton Sceptre Golds. I like the sable/synthetic blends- they’re keep their shape but are still pretty soft. I’ve had to buy a few new brushes through the years (usually just different sizes/types) and I keep going back to them. UPDATE- After using cel vinyl on a few pieces, I really like it and pretty much use it exclusively for all my custom toys now.
Clean Lines– There’s really no secret here. It takes a lot of patience and practice to paint crisp, clean, consistent lines. I personally don’t think my lines are that good, I think that mentality keeps me striving to get better. I have picked up a few tips that I utilize that may help other folks, or may not. First, I like to build up my lines. I’ll start a full line slightly smaller (thickness) than I want it to be, and then do touch-up on it to build it/clean it up. Also, I like to give the object I’m painting and my entire right arm a “cradle” to support my elbow and the object- I’m not sure if that makes sense. Basically I just use a couple old throw pillows and lay my arm and the object on them and paint away. Obviously because of their continuous paint flow, paint markers are much easier to use when it comes to line work than a brush. If you do use brushes, you can try a good rigger/liner/pinstriper-type brush. The longer length of the bristles will keep your lines from getting the”jitters”- they take some practice to get comfortable with them though. One thing to remember as well, is that I’ve been drawing my whole life, I took art classes in high school and college, and I graduated with an art (design/illustration) degree- so I’ve put in a ton of hours with this stuff. I’m also super-anal, so if my lines don’t look quite right, I’ll completely re-do them.
Process– I have a very structured and meticulous process for painting my custom toys. The best way to share is just to list it out:
1. Buy a toy (easy part)
2. Take toy apart- best way I’ve found is to heat the toy up with a hairdryer until it’s almost too hot to even hold, and the the head/arms/legs/etc all usually come apart super easy with just a little bit of pulling. Sometimes I use a small flat-blade screwdriver to get in there and pop the parts off. Once they cool down all the pieces return to their natural shape.
3. Strip the factory paint off the toy (if it’s not a DIY)-I use Goof-off, but some folks use acetone. I get every last bit of paint off- even inside those 3-inch Dunny hands (use Q-tips).
4. Let the toy sit outside for a few days- while the Goof-off evaporates pretty quick, I like to let the toy breathe for a few days to make sure all the chemicals have had some time to release from the surface of the toy.
5. Wash the toy- I take an old sponge, add some liquid detergent and give each piece of the toy a wash with warm water.
6. Wet sand the toy- right after washing, I’ll take a piece of steel wool and give all the toy parts a good rub with it. You want to make sure the pieces have some “tooth” so the paint has something to stick to.
7. Let the toy dry- I shake the excess water off the toy, then just let the pieces sit outside for a day or to completely dry off.
8. Prime the toy- I use regular old flat white spray primer (no particular brand) and give the piece at least two coats- sometimes three. I’ll usually only do a coat a day so each one has plenty of time to thoroughly dry.
9. Sketch out the design- for a totem design, I’ll draw a centerline down the middle of the toy (I’ll measure it out with a seamstresses measuring tape) and draw my design in pencil on one half. Once I’m happy with what I’ve done, I then mirror the same design on the opposite side. This is the most time-consuming part. I’ll break out my measuring tape and measure out reference points and use tracing paper to transfer the design from one half to the other. There’s usually a lot of erasing and re-drawing of the design at this point.
10. Spray the toy again- After the design is finalized in pencil, I’ll give it a coat of white spray paint. This “locks-in” the pencil work and keeps me from spreading all the lead all over the surface of the toy. I also do this to fade back the pencil lines to the point where just visible enough for me to see them. This keeps me from having to lay down tons of coats of paint to hide the lines.
11. Paint the toy- self explanatory. This part usually involves laying down two (or more) coats of paint. Once I’m done with this step the paint work is usually about 50% complete.
12. Spray the toy (matte clear coat)- Once I’ve laid down a few coats of the paint I spray the pieces with a light coating of matte finish. This locks in what I’ve done, and also helps to bring out the imperfections in the big solid areas of paint.
13. Paint the toy again- With the initial coats locked in, I now go over the entire toy again, evening out the color and doing final clean-up on the line work. Usually the white areas on the toy will need another couple of coats at this point.
14. Spray the toy again (matte clear coat)- One more shot of matte clear to seal it all in. If there’s still some problematic areas after this, I’ll touch up the paint again and repeat. Update: I’m now using an acrylic brush-on satin varnish for the final finish on my toys. For some reason spray-on clear coats can immediately (or over time) become tacky/sticky, so I was testing out brush-on varnish and have been very impressed with the results. So going forward I’ll be using brush-on varnish.
15. Let the toy sit for a day- I’ll let the toy pieces sit for a day outside so they can air out and dry completely.
16. Put the toy back together- I’ll trim down the joints of the toy and pop it all back together. I’ll sometimes heat some of the more difficult joints a little bit to help them go back together easily- but no too much as so I don’t damage the paint. Sometimes I will accidentally “narf” the paint in a spot or two- in that case I will add some touch-up paint to that area and give that spot another little shot of the matte clear.
Now you all know why it takes me forever and a day to finish a custom painted toy.
So I hope all this info was interesting/helpful. Good luck!