What is Zenithal Priming?
When the sun is at its highest point in the sky it is called its zenith. Zenithal priming uses a gradient of grays to mimic the sun at mid-day. Generally, you will use just three colors, black, gray, and white. The process is simple and pretty straight forward.
The products that I use, as well as a video tutorial that I created is at the bottom of this post so take a look at that before you leave.
The first thing to know is that this technique requires a spray primer. You can use an aerosol primer from a can, but I get more consistent results from an airbrush. My preference is to use an airbrush because I can control the amount of paint coming out of it. You will be applying three layers of primer for this technique so it is important to use very light layers to avoid covering up fine details of your model.
The first step is to prime the entire model in black or dark gray. Make sure to get coverage into all of the recesses and underneath areas of the model. This will establish the deeply shadowed areas of the model.
The next step is to use a mid-tone gray primer. This needs to be sprayed from a consistent high angle. I like to spray from about a 45-degree angle and maintain enough distance for the paint to spread out before hitting the model. For my Paasche Talon airbrush, I usually spray from a few inches away.
The third step is to spray white primer from the angle of your light source. Generally, this is going to be from the sun and it will be directly over the model. I will generally move my paint a little bit but no more than a couple of degrees in any direction.
Why Should I Try Zenithal Priming?
There are two primary reasons that someone will use zenithal priming when painting miniatures.
First, when you begin painting miniatures it is sometimes difficult to determine exactly where on your model highlights and shadows should go. When you prime zenithaly the lighter colored paint will naturally fall on the places where the highlights should be and the dark paint will naturally be in the shadowed areas of the model.
You can follow the places that the paint falls onto the model to place your highlights. and you will find that your colors will be much more natural and believable.
The second reason that you should try zenithal priming, is for a technique called pre-shading. If you apply thin layers over the primer layer the paint that you put over the black primer will appear darker than the paint that you put over the white primer. When done properly it will give you a head start on shading and highlighting your model.
For this technique to work it is important to apply a very thin and smooth layer of paint. It is not necessary to use an airbrush for this step, but it makes it easier to achieve a thin consistent layer of paint. When it is done correctly, this method of shading will not be obvious. The transitions are generally very gradual and will be in natural areas on your model.
What Zenithal Priming is Not.
Zenithal priming is not a silver bullet that will make your model look amazing in one step. When it is used as pre-shading, it will get you a few steps ahead, and your transitions can be great. You will still want to use a shading step and a highlighting step.
Zenithal priming for pre-shading is not a technique that will help you if you like to have very opaque base coat layers. There is nothing wrong with opaque base coat layers. It is just a choice that you will need to be informed to make. Pre-shading works with light thin layers but you will have wasted time and effort if you zenithal prime expecting to start your shadows, and then apply an opaque base coat over the top of it.
Since the transitions from zenithal priming are difficult to point out when photographing them, I have prepared this plastic spoon to show the effects of the priming layers on thin base coat layers.
I taped off three areas and primed them black, gray, and white, just like you would do for zenithal priming. The difference here is that I have made a hard transition between the tones rather than the smooth transitions that you get from this technique.
I have applied much more paint to the end of the spoon next to the handle to show how an opaque layer is less transparent and benefits less from this technique than a proper thin layer.
What models work the best with Zenithal Priming?
The best models for zenithal priming are the type that has natural curves to them. People and monsters work great with this technique. Anything that is organic in nature will generally be a good candidate for the technique.
You should avoid painting models that have large flat surfaces with this method. Tanks come to mind as particularly unsuited for this method of pre-shading. If you want to pre-shade areas of a tank you will need to do selective shading with your airbrush before applying the regular paint.
These are the things I use and recommend for zenithal priming.
- A good airbrush like the Paasche Talon or the Badger Sotar 20/20
- Primer: I really like the premixed airbrush primer from Vallejo you can find prices for Black, White, and Grey over at Amazon. Or compare prices over at Noble Knight Games. Black primer, White primer, Grey Primer.
- For the readers in England and Western Europe check out Element Games Black Primer, White Primer, Grey Primer