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Guide to Painting Black – How to Paint Black Cloth and Armor

I’ve received the question on how to paint black a number of times so a few weeks back I put the question to the greater community and have compiled this guide to painting black armor and clothing.

How to Paint Black Armor and Clothing

I broke this guide down into a few different sections: background/color theory of black, general tips on painting black, three different methods to paint black, and further reading with tutorials by other bloggers.

Want this as a PDF? I took the extra time on this post to create an eBook for you to download and take with you. Check out the form at the bottom of the post to grab it.

So let’s jump in!

What is Black and Why is it Hard?

What makes black such a hard color to paint? Painters suffer from the opposite problem as painting white: it is hard to shade black. Reds, blues, yellows, they can all be shaded and highlighted. You can change the tone or saturation by mixing in other colors.

Black, well is black.

So while you can’t shade black, you can highlight it lighter greys. Just take a look at this black fabric:

Black Fabric with Wrinkles

You can look at it and see it is clearly black, but the only place that it is fully black is the recesses. Notice the highlights go from near-black to light grey.

Collection of black objects

Look at the different black objects above and notice the colors within the black. From the blue tones in the car to the grey-greens in the rock. Texture also plays a part in the highlights as shown by the plastic case having very little variation in color while the car and cloth go from black to near-white.

General Tips on Painting Black

Ok so ready for some tips to paint black? I have more in-depth tutorials below, but here are a number quick tips:

  • Leave pure black only in the recesses
  • Paint main areas very dark grey
  • Add a little turquoise to add some color to the black
  • Try other colors to contrast your other colors
  • Keep highlights on upper edges, don’t be tempted to highlight all edges
  • Think about the texture, metallics should have more extreme highlights
  • Don’t just highlight over the black primer, it won’t match the black bottle and touch-ups may stick out. Repaint the whole model with the bottled black.

Methods to Paint Black

I painted up three different Space Marines, well torsos really, to showcase different methods to paint black. The first two, washes and dry brush, are meant for quick and dirty black effects, while the last shows how layering and edge highlighting provide good looking results.

Using a Wash to Paint Black

The first method is by far the messiest but takes very little time of actual painting. Here we will use washes to deepen the recesses with multiple layers.

How to paint black with washes

As shown in the picture above, I started with a white primer. White seems like an odd start for black and perhaps a mid-tone grey would be a good alternative for fewer layers.

The basic steps are to apply multiple a thin layer of black wash, let it dry, and repeat until you are happy with the depth. I also added a layer of turquoise glaze halfway through to provide a bit of color to the black.

Painting Black with Dry Brushing

The second method for painting black is to use dry brushing. It’s not in vogue, I know, but it is quick and easy while providing good tabletop quality results.

How to paint black with dry brushing

The biggest trick with dry brushing black is to do multiple layers of progressively lighter greys, with each layer using less and less paint. I do a final wash a black to tone back the highlights, deepen the recesses, and smooth the brush strokes.

Highlighting Black with Layers

The final method I will highlight is painting black with layers and edge highlighting. It is more time consuming and requires fine brush control. On the other hand, it provides the best results when done well.

How to paint black with edge highlighting

I started off by painting a mix of 3:2 Black to Cold Grey over the black primer, leaving the pure black in the recesses. Then add more Cold Grey to get a 1:1 ration and hit all the edges. This does contradict my “don’t highlight the edges” rule, but it helps provide contrast for all the details.

Next, add even more Cold Grey and hit all the upper edges. For smooth areas like the helmet and shoulder pad, add a thicker layer on the top areas and blend back down with more black. Switching to Wolf Grey, highlight only the top most edges.

And finally, to tone down some of the highlights and deepen the recesses, use a detail brush and black wash. But rather than an all over wash, use the brush to add paint only to the recesses.

Further Reading

What is Black? The guys at Massive Voodoo explore different brands’ black paint to determine what black actually is. They rate each on glossiness, darkness, and blackness with interesting results.

Painting Black Armor. Ghool from Hand Cannon shows how he paints the black armor on a Warjack. His basic rule for black: “If you want a surface to appear black, then 50% or more of that surface must remain pure, untouched black.”

Learning how to Paint Black Armor. Ron at From the Warp has a classic on how he did some experimentation on painting black armor. He settled on a combination of zenithal primer, black wash, and an edge highlight.

Black Color Painting Tutorial. Flameon put together a tutorial for very shiny black armor, an almost non-metallic metal look for black. It’s a nice alternative look than the traditional edge highlighting.

Back to You

I hope this guide to painting black was helpful and gives you a couple of ideas to try on your miniatures. Don’t forget you can get a PDF eBook you can take with you for later reference, just fill in the form below to get it.

If you put any of the steps to use, I would love to see the results in the comments below, either upload an image or add a link!

Have other tips to paint black? Leave those in the comments below as well so we can all learn a bit from you as well.

Download the Guide to Painting Black

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  • A very nice guide Joe, lots of useful info there. I’ve been painting Black for a while with my Ravenwing and more recent Deathwatch, it can be very tricky.
    If I can add my own advice. Once you have undercoated your model with GW black primer, give it a thin base coat of Abaddon black before highlighting. While this may seem odd, the Primer and Abaddon Black are slightly different colours. Trying to tidy up mistakes means you have two different shades of black on the model and it can look really patchy, especially on larger models like Drop Pods and Rhinos.

    • Thanks Mike! I’ve been watching your Deathwatch grow, they are looking nice 🙂
      Great point on the painted on black. Even paints by the same company (GW spray and GW acrylic) can’t perfectly match the same hue and glossiness. So it makes a ton of sense to go back over with the hand paint that you would use.

    • Added your tip on repainting the black to the post, thanks!

  • Mordian7th

    Great article, Joe! Black and White are both surprisingly challenging to paint, and I appreciate the insight into a couple different ways to achieve good-looking results!

    I’ll echo Corrm’s comment that giving the model a further basecoat of painted-on black following the undercoat/primer stage is a huge help when it comes time to do cleanup – that ensures that the clean-up black you use matches!

    • Cheers Joel!
      It was fun to experiment with the different styles. I’m not really happy with the results of the washed model, but then again I was rushing to get it done 🙂
      Agreed on the paint-on black!

  • Nice tutorial.

    The big thing, and this is the case with ANYTHING you paint, is to determine the material, and the finish of said material. Take the car example you gave. That’s metal with a very high gloss finish. So, it’s very reflective, in turn it picks up the blue from the sky and has strong highlights from the finish. By contrast, that black case is a matte finish, which gives it a more uniform color with more subtle highlights.

    Once you know the material and finish, then you can figure out the rest.

    • Thanks Thor!
      Great point and that could be a nice article for the future. The shiney metal has a ton of similarities with NMM, just black (or colors) instead of trying to be gold. And the rough plastic or cloth would act differently.

  • Joe as ever a handy article and thanks for sharing it. It is always nice to come here and find more than one way of doing things.

    With a bonus that the comments are very helpful as well.

    • Cheers Rory!
      A bunch of advice in the comments, so thanks to everyone who has chipped in!

  • D Power

    Nice, and well laid out too! It could be daunting at first, but once one settles down into a system one can really surprise one’s self.

    The first one of washing down a white undercoat is similar to something I’ve done, of drybrushing the desired highlight colours onto white before going over with a watered-down black, leaving instant edge highlights; it’s a bit hit-and-miss though.

    • Thanks D! Part of why I wanted to try the different methods was to push me out of the normal layers that I typically do.
      Yeah the wash can be quick and easy, but also temperamental if you miss a spot it pooled. I think it worked well for the drybrush method because it wasn’t as extreme.

  • Spoticus

    Great tutorial, thank you. I will certainly be trying the multiple washes over grey or white. Very interesting.

    • Thanks, glad it was helpful! For the wash, if was to do it again, I would start with grey primer. The white took too many layers until it was dark enough.

  • AX_472

    i still like the contrast created by highlighted black. It all depends on the look you’re going for. These methods are aiming to create something akin to photo real results, which is fine it its what you’re going for but personally GW models don’t really seem photo-real enough to be painted photo-real. The Raven guard I’ve been painting lately use full black with highlights and full white (I’ve been painting vanguard) and it creates a great contrast. I’m never gonna win a painting contest with them but they look pretty pimp on the tabletop. They’d probably look best chopping up some cartoony orks. lol.

    • good point on GW models and photo realism, though I have seen painters do amazing things with them. But you are right that painting them with high contrast and even strong black-lining creates a great look too for the tabletop by giving them a comic book look.

  • nice tutes dude. I do prefer the last one but the others would work fine for a quick and easy paint job. I still struggle with black more than any colour, as it is so difficult to shade. i am going to try adding blue to my highlights, as that can give some nice tones to the black, like you show in the car pic.

    • Thanks Naf, it was fun to try out the different methods and I agree that the layering method would look the best when done well but the others are great to get models done.
      I just Dave Taylor shared his black armored blood bowl team and he uses Black Coal as his base that has blue-green hue to it that looks lovely.