HOW TO: Colorful Skulls

There’s nothing wrong with bone colored bones but you’ve got to admit that it’s a bit the over-obvious choice. This weekend I decided to spice up my collection of skulls with a bit of color. These same techniques, I suppose, could be used to spruce up the crummy dime-store paint job found on Halloween decorations and make them more realistic. Personally, I get enough realism in my everyday life.

A fortunate find prompted this project. Last Friday I found skulls on sale on the Halloween Store — human, adult-sized hard plastic skulls for $3.50 a piece. I suspect they were mismarked because when I went back today to buy ALL of the remaining stock, they were priced at $7.00. Lucky for me I bought two at the cheaper price.

When I brought them home and put them with the skull I had lying around, I was struck with a need to see vibrant, Dr. Phibes, acid-trip color on them. I choose red, green and yellow in honor of a stop-light. I used an Xacto knife to clear away the seams then I gave the skulls a good rinse to remove any grease or mold release compound.

PRIMER: The first thing I noticed is that my skulls weren’t identical. The new skulls were hard plastic but the one from last year was cast in expandable foam. Foam is a wonderful lightweight material but I’ve had bad luck using spray paint on it. The solvent eats away at the foam… which creates a lovely Lucio Fulgi-type zombie look but I wanted to preserve the actual form of the skulls. I opted to put a base coat on the foam skull using a house painting brush. The choice of brush was appropriate because I used leftover latex house paint for the base coat. It was a nice off white and would have been perfect if I’d been going for a bone-colored effect. It also was perfect for the yellow.

The hard plastic skulls I knew would stand up to spray paint. I own an actual art-quality airbrush but I don’t crank it out very often because I also have a remarkable collection of spray paint cans that were confiscated from a high school grafitti artist some years back. I selected a nice green and red enamel from my hoard and hit the hard plastic skulls with a good coat. Remember not to smoke around spray paint and if you enjoy breathing without a mechanical device shoved down your throat, try to spray in a well-ventilated area. I used my front porch which allowed for this neat exchange with my neighbor:

Q: “Whatcha painting there?”

A: “Human skulls.”

The enamel turned out to be glossy which might have been a problem. I’ve found it a bit difficult to get paint to stick on top of enamel unless the surface has been dulled down or unless the paint has a similar kind of solvent. I decided not to fret about it but I did let the base coat dry overnight.

I could have left the skulls with a simple base coat but I really wanted to take advantage of all that texture and modeling so I prepared to start dry-brushing. The idea of dry brushing is to build up light colors on the raised areas by scrubbing a brush with very little paint on it, literally a “dry brush.” It’s best to use a low-quality or otherwise sacrificial brush for this technique. Thought it’s hard on the brush, the effect is rather subtle. It’s great to do in layers, moving from a tone near to the base coat gradually lightening it.

YELLOW SKULL: The yellow skull obviously needed a base coat of color before I could dry brush it. I chose a orange-yellow for the base coat since I figured the yellow highlights would show up better in contrast. I did some brushing, added a bit more yellow, did a bit more, added more yellow. The final brushing was a dusting of pure yellow but the overall effect is similar to cheese popcorn. I rather like it.

RED SKULL: Normally, you’d lighten the tone of a paint by adding white. But with red that kind of breaks down. Adding white to red results in pink and the effect is more that the red is washed out or faded. If that’s the desired effect, great. I wanted a vivid, glowing color however. So I “lightened” the red by adding drops of yellow. The resulting color is closer to scarlet. I stopped before the dry-brush color was actually orange. The result is a color that has intensity while not feeling tired.

GREEN SKULL: I liked the lurid glow I got using yellow to lighten the red, so I tried the same effect with the green. I had created by own green by mixing blue and yellow anyway. The resulting light green was SPECTACULAR. I mixed up an extra large batch to use elsewhere since it was particularly vile and nauseating.

I broke ALL the rules as I mixed these colors by the way. I added dry tempera pigment to liquid acrylic and vice versa, all layered over that shiny gloss base coat. I knew I was going to need some big guns to keep everything from flaking off. I hit it with a bit of clear lacquer. I finished up two cans – one was Floquil “Figure Flat” and the other was Krylon “Satin” lacquer. No, I didn’t mix them on the same skull. I really like the subtle sheen of the satin finish for the bone, though I am usually a fan of dead flat. Once the first coat of sealer dried, I re-examined the paint, added a final daub or two and once it was dry, hit the skulls again with a good coat of sealer.

I kind of wish I had a whole shelf of skulls now, each painted a different color of the rainbow. But at least I have a good green and red skull which will be perfect for Christmas.

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