HOW-TO: Zombie Sign

A friend of mine is teaching a class on Sociology Through Zombies. Her classroom desperately needed a sign that warns, “Danger, Zombies” so I made her one. I found the perfect raw materials at the local Halloween Store. I find that when I shop I have to look past the paint and notice the form of the objects. The paint on manufactured goods is much better than when I was a kid but I have yet to find something that couldn’t be improved, if not perfected with a bit of hand painting and a touch of tender loving gore. This zombie sign was no exception. I should mention here that I have had NO art training since finger painting in grade school.

What attracted me to it was the fact that the major features were actually embossed into the plastic. That meant that even after I sprayed the thing down with Rustoleum Primer, I would only obliterate the cheezy plastic graphics while retaining the shape of the sign itself. I first gave the sign a good scrub with warm water and a drop of detergent. This wash gets rid of any grime or mold release compound that might inhibit good paint adhesion.

Once it dried overnight, I hit it with a nice even coat of Rustoleum Sandable Primer. It comes in different colors and since I was going to go for a “wood” type grain on the boards, I opted for the Rusty Metal primer which was a russet brown. Again, I let this dry.


Next, I base coated the major features with a bit of acrylic paint. I bought these paints at the dollar store but the ones from a craft store would work just as well, I’m sure. I wanted a white base coat for the zombie flesh to help make it pop out from the darker tones of the sign’s background. The goal with base coating is primarily to set the contrasts, that is, the light or dark tones. If you can also start working in the base color for the different objects, that’s great too.

Color comes next. One of the tricks I’ve picked up over the years is to blend my own colors whenever possible. This allows me to get not just the exact hue I want but also a variety of colors just around that ideal color. Something a bit lighter is great for highlights; something deeper, for the shadows. Here is where I play. The other trick is to stop when you think it still looks “rough.” The few times I have more ruined something it was by over working the surface. As the paint dries, the colors tend to cohere better too — somehow, it’s magic to me — so by letting the piece dry thoroughly overnight you’ll be able to see it with fresh eyes. I also don’t hurry. I try to allow myself a week to complete any of these re-paint jobs so I can just stop and look at it again the next day. This really allows the opportunity to layer on some coolness.

I don’t use a fancy brush either at least not at this point. Most of the initial painting I did using the metal handled “acid brushes” I found at the hardware. If I was really snooty, I’d perhaps use some scissors and trim them but the bristles helped me get a loose, illustrational feel which is what I was going for.

The second trick is to apply a “wash” of darker tones that is loose enough that it will settle in the hollows like real shadows. One technique I’ve learned through trial and error is to darken colors without adding black. Adding black tones down the paint when often, I want the same color intensity. (And I only sound like I know what I’m talking about.) Instead of black, I’ll make a darker tone by adding a bit of the chromatic opposite of the base color. That’s the color on the opposite of the color wheel. So I add a bit of green when I’m darkening up red, for instance. It doesn’t work all the time and if I go too far it turns into brown… but it’s always an interesting kind of brown. Experiment. Once I get the color I like, I thin it with water and wash it over the surface with a wide brush. The one I used for this sign was a three inch, house painting brush.

The wash will increase the contrast but it will also tend to muddy up the highlights. I usually go in with either some dry-brushing or painting with a finer brush to make the detail pop. Dry brushing is one of those tricks that produces near miraculously cool effects. Load your brush normally then remove most of the paint by stroking back and forth on a scrap of cloth. When there is just a very, very little paint left on the brush, “scrub” it back and forth on the piece. The residue of paint will attach to the high points of the surface, in this case the edges. Dry brushing works extremely well on textures surfaces like plastic models or masks. Since the dry brushing is such a thin coat of paint, it dries very quicky. I was able to hand paint a bit of detail at the same sitting. I tried to have a long, controlled stroke for the lettering on the word “Danger” but I used an intentionally jittery collection of dots for the word “Zombies.” I mixed a few dots of zombie flesh green in there too, but I think the effect was too subtle.

I know I should have painted the biohazard symbol but honestly, I didn’t want another bright color taking attention away from my zombie.

Final thing is a couple coats of flat lacquer. Make sure the paint is good and dry before add ing th sealing coat because any moisture caught under the finish will cause a weird dusty color. Use your best spray painting technicque going from side to side in a gentle light coat. Don’t stay in one place long enough for the lacquer to pool up. Better make several light passes than one thick one. In retrospect, I wish I’d used the “satin” finish instead of the dead “flat” one but it’s fine. Let it dry over night.

I was tempted to add a bit of strength to the flimsy plastic by gluing the whole thing to a piece of corrugated cardboard but I didn’t.

The sign looks great in the classroom too and provides a gentle reminder that all that book learning is fine… so long as you also stay prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse.

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