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Painting Your Armor

There are as many ways to paint props and armor as there are different types of props and armor. Because of this, a certain amount of research is necessary before embarking on a painting project. What kind of surface are you trying to recreate? A sharp-looking blade edge is going to require a different kind of paint and brushing technique from a dingy-looking piece of antiqued armor. If your armor is one solid color (such as what you might see with futuristic-looking mecha armor) then you'll be limited on the types of paints and techniques that you'll be able to use.

When making fantasy or Samurai armor, you might find it useful to research real life historical examples of armor. You can find such images in books on armor or by Googling the name and style of the armor that you're looking for. You can also research historical images at places like The Milieux Costume Research Site.

Before you begin painting, you may want to spray your prop and armor items with a layer of spray primer. (I prefer Rustoleum Grey Auto Primer.) Primer can help smooth the surface of your work and make it more receptive to paint. You may want to spray a few coats of primer onto an object, then polish it with a fine sanding sponge, especially if the object you're painting is made out of paperclay or some other porous material. (I could write dozens of pages on how to prepare a porous surface for sanding and priming, but I'm only going to deal with the painting of styrene in this tutorial. You can find an excellent tutorial on the use of primer here on Henshin Vault's blog. )

Here's a general outline of the steps I go through to paint a project:

A.) Lay down a coat of enamel spray paint onto the project
B.) When the spray coat dries, a layer of bottled metallic enamel paint is then brushed on
C.) When that dries, surface effects (texture, antiquing) and the fine detailing are done
D.) (Optional) A layer of protective clear-coat is sprayed over the project.

Since most of my armor is made from styrene, I choose to cover it with model enamel paint - which is paint that has been specifically designed to go on styrene. (Styrene being the material that most model vehicle kits are made of.) I use two forms of enamel for most of my projects: the spray form and the bottle form. I sometimes use a spray primer before painting a styrene surface as it helps the paint to adhere a little better.

Now, a lot of people, when painting props and armor, will just opt to coat it with spray paint and nothing else. In most cases, this is a bad idea because spray paint by itself is not very durable, nor is it refined enough to look convincing. Plus, it can give you armor with a flat, blah, cardboard-y surface (and if you've ever seen real examples of medieval armor, you know that, unless it's been mirror-polished, it usually has some dirt, wear, or imperfections on its surface somewhere. Spray paint DOES make a nice base coat for your props and armor, preparing them for the fine surface details that are to be brushed on later. There are many different types of spray paint available. Testor's Spray Enamel is probably one of the better choices, although Krylon ( puts out a lot of different "crafter" type spray paints. Krylon tends to give you more paint for your money, too. Automotive paints (made to go on the dent-resistant fiberglass surfaces of cars) are another good choice for armor and prop painting. You can find most types of spray paint selling for about 4 to 8 dollars per can.
Always remember to follow the application and safety instructions on your spray can label before applying any paint. Most spray paint instructions will tell you to shake the can well before spraying, and to hold the can about 10" to 12" away from your project surface while applying the paint. A series of thin, light coats of paint are preferable to one heavy coat (especially since the paint can pool and leave unsightly drips all over the surface of your armor.) The time it takes for spray paint to dry will vary depending on the brand that you buy. (Dry time may take within 10 minutes, or 10 hours. Again, read the spraying directions on your can before you begin.)
Make sure you lay down plenty of newspaper underneath your project to protect your work surface. Also, when spraying outdoors, place your project so that it gets adequate shelter from the sun and/or rain. (Don't spray on days where the weather is too hot, too cold, or uncomfortably humid. Your project might melt or crack, or your paint might not dry properly.)
Once your spray paint has thoroughly dried, it's time for the next step: detail painting. Detail painting involves brushing the surface of a project with bottled enamel to create a color or some kind of effect. (A spare scrap of styrene makes a great palette for mixing bottled enamel colors if you can't find the color that you want at the craft store.) Testor's is the brand of bottled enamel that I prefer to use. Most of their paints come in .25" oz bottles, costing about $1.39-$2.00 apiece.

When working with enamel paints, it's important to buy enamel brushes AND paint thinner/brush cleaner, since enamel paints usually won't wash out with water.

(Note: Acrylic paints WILL wash out with water, but they usually won't stick to a styrene surface without copious amounts of primer. If you've made armor out of laminated card stock, paper clay or paper mache, then acrylic should work just fine for you, although you should coat your finished project with a clear, glossy acrylic varnish to give it the look of shiny metal.)

Painting Effects

Gradient Painting: It's tough to create gradients using enamel paint since it dries so quickly. You have to start by laying down the differing colors at either end of the gradient section (using different brushes,) then take one of the brushes and mix and blend in intermediate hues so the transition between the colors looks as smooth as possible. Paint thinner will help to blend the paints in, although much patience and practice will be required to make the area look convincing.
Sharpened Blade Effects: When painting a sword blade or other sharp object, you'll want to dip a wide brush in pure metallic silver enamel and brush it across the width of the blade, to give it the appearance of highly polished metal. (Look at a scissors or knife blade sometime to give you an idea of the kind of look that you want.)
In this chakram weapon I made for a Dynasty Warriors cosplay, you can see that I used two different painting techniques to recreate the blade's surface. To make the curved blade at the center of the gold ring, I used my horizontal strokes technique to give it a super-shiny sharp appearance. I also used my horizontal strokes technique to create the finely polished edges around the top pointed blade. For the darker areas in the center of the blade, I mixed silver with black and dabbed it on with a thick brush, to give that part of the blade a rougher "ground metal" appearance.

The gold parts of the chakram I created by mixing darker paint with gold using an antiquing technique to give the prop an old, used look. (The raised parts of the design were painted using pure, bright gold to make them stand out more from the darker colored background.)
You may want, after you've finished painting a design, to seal it with a clear spray sealant. (If you do so, you have to be careful as such sealants might dull a metallic finish or "cloud up" and turn white if the armor is left in a hot place for any length of time (like in the back seat of a car.) My book series has a lot more advice and painting techniques, including information on alternatives to paint (like gold leaf, monokote trim and PVC vinyl.)

For the last part of this section, let's have a look at the Pauldron Project I made in Section IV and decorated in Section VI...

I began the painting process by spray-painting the pauldrons with silver chrome (an automotive spray paint.) Then I took Testor's metallic enamel and applied it to the surface of the pauldrons. (Since the armor was meant to look bright and cartoony, I opted not to antique it, but I still wanted to make the surface look like ground, polished metal, so I used a wide brush to apply the paint with short strokes.)
I used pure Testor's gold metallic enamel to coat the trim. It took about 2 layers of paint to give the pauldron an adequate coating. (Giving the paint a few hours to dry in- between coats is a good idea when painting something like this yourself.)
The paint took about 1 day to dry once all the coats had been applied. The painted item should not be handled extensively until drying has completed. The painted surface may be sticky to the touch even after it dries. (If you're painting a prop item like a sword and the sticky feel of the paint bothers you, you may opt to wrap your sword's handle with leather or cloth instead of painting it.)
Here's another view. You can see that the pauldrons are fairly thick (which is why I applied gold paint around the edges of the pauldron, to cover up the color of the craft foam.)

Note: when it comes to armor, youy might want to paint the underside or interior sides black or metallic colors if they can be seen by outside observers. This is especially true if your craft foam is pink or another odd color. (Hey, sometimes the craft stores don't always stock black and white...)
Well, that about does it for my main armor and propmaking tutorial. I've only just given you a brief rundown of my methods, but it should be enough to get you going. (You can find additional advice and picture tutorials on a variety of subjects in my book series as well.) Feel free to e-mail me if you have any specific questions for me about anything I've talked about (although please read my tutorials in their entirety before sending me a question.)

Click on the link below for some--

Bonus Armoring Advice