Guide to Zenithal Priming

When we paint miniatures we emulate all of the environment that it is in, including lighting effects. Because the volume of the miniatures we paint is smaller than you or I in real life shadows don’t fall on the plastic in realistic ways, we need to help these shadows show up by shading and highlighting.

The products that I use, as well as a video tutorial that I created, are at the bottom of this post so take a look at them before you leave.

What is Zenithal Priming?

Zenithal priming is a method of pre-shading our miniatures with two different highly contrasted colors to emulate shadows from a specific direction and in a way that light will naturally fall onto our models. When thin layers of paint are applied over the top of this pre-shading, the work you have done will show through helping your model to look more realistic.

The point where the sun is at its highest point in the sky is called its zenith. Zenithal priming gets its name from this natural occurrence because we generally apply the lighter color directly over the head of the miniature.

The Process Of Zenithal Priming

The process of zenithal priming is simple and straightforward. When I first began this technique I over-complicated it to compensate for my ham-fisted paint application. Because I was using rattle can primers I wasn’t getting a smooth transition, so I used three colors instead of two, to make up the difference and still achieve a gradient of grays to mimic the sun at mid-day.

As I have gotten better at painting miniatures with more control I have switched to a two-color zenithal prime, and my results have improved.

The first thing to know is that this technique requires a spray primer. You can use an aerosol primer from a rattle can, but I get more consistent results now from an airbrush.

Just like any other painting technique, it is important to work in thin layers to avoid losing any detail on your miniatures.

I have written a couple of articles that go well with this one for new airbrush users that you should check out, they are the guide to primers and how to prime minis with an airbrush.

Prime Your Miniature in Black or Dark Grey

The first step is to prime the entire miniature in black or dark gray. This will establish the deeply shadowed areas of the model. Make sure to get coverage into all of the recesses and underneath areas of the model.

Highlight your miniature from above with white

The next step is to apply a contrasting color like white from directly above the miniature. This needs to be sprayed from a consistent high angle in order to achieve the effect. I like to hold the miniature in my off-hand so that the angle of the airbrush is comfortable but still achieves the angle. I usually spray from a few inches away.

It is important to note, you have already primed the miniature black, the other colors can be any kind of paint you choose, not necessarily primer from this point out. I find that Liquitex titanium white ink works great for zenithal highlighting.

Why Should I Try Zenithal Priming?

There are two primary reasons that someone will use zenithal priming when painting miniatures.

Zenithal priming can be used as a realistic guide for highlight and shadow placement

When you begin painting miniatures it is sometimes difficult to determine exactly where on your model highlights and shadows should go. When you use this zenithal technique 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.

If you follow the way that the lighter color falls on your miniature you can achieve better more believable highlight placement on your mini.

Zenithal priming’s strength is when it is used with other techniques

The best reason that you should try zenithal priming, is to take advantage of a technique called pre-shading. When you apply thin semi-transparent layers of paint the colors are influenced by the paint underneath them.

Paint applied over black primer will appear darker than paint applied over the white primer. When done properly it will not only give you a head start on shading and highlighting your model, but can be used to build on and achieve beautiful results.

When it is done correctly, this method of pre-shading will not be obvious. The transitions are generally very gradual and will be in natural areas on your model.

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.

Can you use spray can primer to zenithal prime?

Spray can primers can definitely be used for zenithal priming. I started doing this technique with rattle cans. The primary drawbacks to spray cans are that the paint can’t be diluted before applying it to the miniatures and you have less control over the flow of the paint.

Because you have less control over the application of the paint, I chose to use an intermediate layer of grey paint to help get the smooth transition that comes much easier with an airbrush. Mechanicus standard grey works well for this intermediate step.

Benefits of using an airbrush for Zenithal Priming

Airbrushes are an investment in your hobby like no other tool. Some people only use them for priming, but they are much more versatile and will save you a lot of time and frustration once you get used to using them.

You have much finer control with an airbrush. You can build up layers of highlight slowly or quickly, you decide not the can. As you control the amount of paint that you are laying down on your models the white paint will give your lots of gradients between black and white without needing the intermediary step of grey paint. You will also be able to specifically target the highest highlights on your miniature, something that you really can’t do easily with rattle cans.

You can sling paint at your minis any time, day or night, good weather or bad. You are not limited to the normal parameters of aerosol.

There are a lot of different kinds of primer available for airbrushes, most of them are pre-thinned so you usually don’t have to do much more thinning to get them to spray well. Lately, I have been using AK interactive primers, I like how matt the finish is.

You can get some good effects from using colors other than black and white

Since the point of this is to have the undercoat influence the final colors of your minis, it can help to use contrasting colors that will make the top colors pop. For example, if you are painting your space marines yellow, you could spray purple as your dark color and then pink as your zenithal highlight color. (Thanks for the tips Casey and Brent) Bright pink under a thin coat of yellow will really make the yellow pop while the purple will give your shadows more depth and a cooler feel than black alone.


When this is done correctly the transitions look very natural and 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, this exaggerates the transition effect that you achieve with a proper zenithal prime job. 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 but this will show up quite easily when photographed.

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. Glazing layers of paint over the primer will result in even more dramatic help with your shading. You will need to build up those layers over time though.

These are the things I use and recommend for zenithal priming.

Check out this video that I made about Zenithal Priming

A Word About 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.

These are my recommendations of things that I use all the time when painting miniatures

My 3D Printer

My Paintbrush Set

My Vortex Mixer

My Ultrasonic Cleaner

The Starter Paint Set That I Recommend for small budgets

The Starter Paint Set That I Recommend for large budgets

My Wet Pallete

My favorite Airbrush

I like to listen to books on Audible while I paint

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