Zenithal Priming in Miniature Painting: What It Is & How to Do It

  • By: Richard
  • Date: February 24, 2023
  • Time to read: 12 min.

Hey there fellow mini painters! Today we’re going to dive into the world of zenithal priming and find out just what the heck it is and how to do it. But first, let me tell you a little story about my first time using this technique.

I was a young and eager painter, full of hope and dreams of creating the most beautiful and lifelike miniatures the world had ever seen. And then I tried zenithal priming for the first time. I was like “What the?! This is way harder than I thought it would be.” But, after a bit of practice and a lot of patience, I finally got the hang of it and let me tell you, it was so worth it!

So, what exactly is zenithal priming? It’s a technique that was popularized by the likes of Van Dyck, Rembrandt and other famous painters, which creates the illusion of depth in your miniature paintings. It’s all about the way the light hits your miniatures and how the primer is applied.

What is Zenithal Priming?

Zenithal priming in miniature painting is a technique where you paint shadows and highlights without using washes or filters.

What does this mean?

It means that your paints go from dark to light, with the lights hitting parts of your model directly facing upwards, while the darks are painted underneath these areas – so on those surfaces facing downwards towards you. This creates depth by adding shading and highlighting within one coat of paint instead of multiple layers (which can be time-consuming).

The idea is not new but has been adapted into many different techniques over the years depending on what people have wanted out of their model and how fast they want it done; I’ve found my own method, which works for me best when speed painting armies quickly.

How does Zenithal Priming Works?

Zenithal priming in miniature painting is a technique where you paint shadows and highlights without using washes or filters. This gives the miniature more depth, definition, and realism by creating contrast between lighted areas of the mini and shadowed areas, which are darker than just flat black primer.

This is done with thin layers of paint that gradually build up from dark to light tones as they approach what would be considered midtone if painted normally. The thinness allows for subtle variations in tone on raised surfaces while keeping them smooth enough not to look bumpy or wrinkly when painted over with washes or dry brushing later on. It takes time, but your minis will have better-looking skin coloration (i.e., rosy cheeks), clothing gradients, and more realistic metallic surfaces with a little practice.

The basic idea is to thin layers of paint from dark colors (i.e., black) to midtones (like green or yellow) until they reach the lightest tones like white which should be thin enough that it’s almost clear but glistens as if wet when seen indirect lighting conditions on the miniature surface itself. This technique works best for metallics, reds/pinks, purples, browns/greens/yellows…basically, any color except blues since thinned blue mixes tend to get too chalky looking after several thin coats are applied evenly over a large area without some shadowing provided by the darker thinned coats over the raised areas.

The procedure is made up of only three simple actions:

  • Dab a small amount of paint on the entire model black (or any other color you wish to use as a foundation).
  • Spray a 90-degree cone from the top, using grey (or any other color, but not as light as before). Try to apply thin layers rather than spraying too much.
  • Starting from the top, spritz in a 45-degree cone with white paint (or a more brilliant color than used in step 1). Remember to apply several layers.

Why Should I Use Zenithal Priming?

Zenithal priming can greatly improve the look of your miniature painting by:

  1. Reducing the number of layers you need to paint. For example, if you’re going for a black and white theme with no highlights or shadows.
  2. Saving time. Why paint highlight colors after shading when you can do both at once? This is particularly useful when working on large armies and don’t have much free time in general!
  3. Providing more contrast between paints, so they pop out better against each other. You will get less “muddy” looking results this way versus layering up washes over dry brushing (though it’s good practice to layer some washes too occasionally!).

The Process Of Zenithal Priming

Zenithal Priming

Step One: Prime it black

In my last tutorial, I used black spray paint to prime the mini. You can use whatever brand you like if it is high quality and not a $2 one from Home Depot! We are going for an all-black base coat, so make sure you get your model on every angle.

A good trick to help to prime miniatures is by sticking the minis onto a thin board with mounting tape. Then, you can move them around during this process and if there’s enough length of it, you could even do multiple at once, which will save time for sure!

Step Two: Spray it grey.

Instead of moving the miniatures around, put them down and stand above them. Then take your grey spray primer and paint the minis in a 90-degree cone using about 1 layer. You want to cover their tops and sides with grey but not reach into recessed shadow areas or touch undersides (think under an arm).

Once you are done, they should be black from below like before but will now have only gray coverage on top surfaces since there was no need for multiple layers at once!

Step Three: Spray it white.

From directly above the minis, you are going to spray down white. If you’re using an airbrush, hold them sideways and only hit their head and shoulders with minimal paint on the sides once they’ve been covered in a layer of white; seal your models if you want before playing!

If some of your factions or monsters need another color like Cthulhu Wars, then I have one more step for those that will be grey; otherwise, you can skip this part altogether!

Step Four: Color Wash

Grab your quick shades and give each of the minis a wash. If you don’t have the shades, use some thinned paint in their corresponding color instead! Red for red minis, blue for blue…

I recommend using an airbrush if possible since it can blow around liquidy paints better than brushes, but I think washes are more effective at shading because they flow into nooks and crannies.

Prime Your Miniature in Black or Dark Grey

Prime Your Miniature in Black or Dark Grey

You may achieve some interesting results by mixing paints that aren’t black and white.

You can use a dark blue for an alien feel or even green to make it look like they’re in the jungle. The only thing that matters is making sure you don’t get colors into their recessed areas. Those will be harder to paint with lighter shades and easily give off a bad effect if done wrong, so do a test on practice miniatures first; use them on something valuable!

Using the Zenithal priming technique as a realistic guideline for highlight and shadow placement is feasible.

Zenithal priming is a good way to get some basic shading down for your miniatures from a board game and can be used as guidelines when highlighting later on! I recommend you do this technique if you’re still learning or have problems chipping away paint from washes. It’s also useful in certain circumstances like dry brushing where the layers of color are so thin that they will wash out easily but not enough for it to build up, give an effect without taking forever.

The advantage of zenithal priming is that it works well with other methods

It is highly recommended to try zenithal priming because it leverages a pre-shading technique. By applying thin, semi-transparent layers of paint, the colors are influenced by the underlayer, creating a more natural and dynamic effect.

For example, paint applied over black primer will appear darker than paint applied over white primer. When done correctly, zenithal priming can result in beautiful and effective shading and highlighting on your model. The transitions are generally gradual, so they won’t appear obvious and will blend seamlessly into the final result.

Airbrush vs. Spray Can

Spray cans are not a great solution to making painting miniatures your regular hobby. They work well for those who have leftovers from spray paint and do not want an airbrush, but they will be much more difficult to use on smaller areas of models like faces or hands if it is the other way around. I started with them because I could never thin paints enough for my airbrushes, so instead used what was already available in our household (I’m sure most households probably own at least one).

Once I got some Vallejo Airbrush paints, though, that’s when everything changed as now there were no longer any issues using either type of paint (spray can vs. traditional)


A popular type of paint for airbrushes is brush-on primer. It only requires a little bit to get up and running since you pour it from the bottle into a cup before using it.

  • It can be used as an all-purpose primer for models of different materials and scales.
  • You may use an airbrush indoors
  • Sprays on the paint more evenly and smoothly
  • Smaller risk of paint pooling up in the crevices on the miniature
  • Easy to clean up if you make a mistake
  • Cleans up with water
  • Consistent paint coverage
  • Quick and easy to use
  • It isn’t as messy when you are handling the liquid primer.
  • It takes a long time to dry.
  • Requires proper ventilation when you are using it indoors
  • It can be difficult to get the paint off your skin and clothes
  • It might require a respirator if you are using it indoors
  • It can be difficult to get the paint out of your airbrush.


Airbrushes are a versatile tool that can be used for many projects outside of zenithal priming miniatures, so you’re more than likely going to get good use out of it.

Here are my top airbrush kits.

Spray Cans

Spray cans are an alternative to airbrushes when painting. They can be used for the same purposes and may produce similar results.

  • It can be used on all materials and scales
  • Spray cans are inexpensive and convenient
  • They’re simple to use
  • They’re great for beginners
  • Cans are easy to store and transport.
  • Harder to control
  • It can be messy if they accidentally spray onto the miniature or person’s hands
  • wide spray range means you don’t have to be quite as precise
  • It can take longer than using an airbrush for the same project.


If you have a lot of miniatures lying around, why not use them as decoration? The Rustoleum Painter’s Touch 2X Spray Paint in black is recommended for the project. If you want to paint your minis with white instead, we’d recommend getting that version too – it doesn’t matter if there are two cans or just one. This spray paints a low odor and dries within 20 minutes, so indoors shouldn’t be much trouble!


After extensive analysis and experimentation, it is incontrovertible that zenithal priming is an exceptional and indispensable technique for any miniaturist seeking to master highlight and shadow placement. One might even go so far as to say that it is the quintessential technique for achieving nuanced and dynamic contrast in your miniature painting. Furthermore, it is worthy of mention that the use of alternative colors, beyond the conventional white or black, when executing this technique on a black or dark grey base can yield surprisingly delightful and enthralling results. Thus, it behooves every discerning miniaturist to explore and experiment with the boundless possibilities of zenithal priming, both as a technical foundation and as an expressive medium for your miniature painting.


What models work the best with Zenithal Priming?

When using zenithal priming, the model shouldn’t be too large or small. Make sure it’s a standard size and has details that will show up after you have primed them.

Can you use spray can primer to zenithal prime?

Yes, you can use spray cans to do zenithal priming. Just make sure the paint doesn’t pool up in holes or recesses where it shouldn’t be going.

Is there a difference between airbrush primer and spray can primer?

Both types of prime have advantages over each other depending on what your needs are. Spray cans tend to be more for smaller models that need precise coverage but aren’t used as much when working with large pieces since they take longer to dry; meanwhile, airbrushes cover larger surfaces faster because of their size, so they’re better suited for bigger projects.

Can either one get into small crevices?

Yes! The key is just using the right tools for the job and being thorough if you’re using an airbrush.

How long does zenithal priming take?

The time it takes will vary depending on the model size and how much work you are putting into the process, but usually, it shouldn’t take more than a few hours at most. If you’re taking your time painting each color of primer on different parts of the model, then expect to do some serious waiting around for things to dry. You can speed up this process by giving certain areas multiple coats or spraying them all at once. Either way, make sure that whatever primer you use is compatible with your project before getting started!

How to quickly paint miniatures zenithal priming and army painter shades?

There are a few different techniques when it comes to painting miniatures, which are outlined below:

  • Zenithal Priming (by hand) involves using an airbrush to lightly spray one color over all parts of the model. Then, you take another similar color but darker and repeat the process, this time focusing on areas like shadows or crevices. Finally, you go back with your darkest shade and add even more dark details until everything looks the way you want it to. This process can be sped up by adding multiple coats, depending on the paint combination you’re using. Keep in mind that this method takes longer than others, as there will be many colors involved, as opposed to just black primer followed by white, gray, and black again.
  • Ice Tinting is a technique where you take a very light blue (or any other color, depending on the effects you’re going for) and spray all of the parts that need to be highlighted. Then, like before, you use a darker version of the same color, but only focus on certain spots where shadows will go, using your airbrush or paintbrush as necessary. Finally, you finish things off by adding small amounts of pure white until you reach the desired brightness level. This method works well since there are no harsh lines between colors, so if something happens during painting, you can easily blend them without much effort required.
  • Army Painter shades are specifically designed to provide a quick and easy way to paint miniatures. Unlike regular shades, they are formulated to be highly pigmented, which makes them easier to use and allows you to achieve the desired effect more quickly. Whether you use zenithal priming or ice tinting, incorporating army painter shades into your painting process can help you save time and achieve the desired results more easily.

How to paint miniatures zenithal priming quickly?

The fastest way to get your miniatures ready for painting is by using “Speed Painting.” This method involves priming the model with black paint, going back in and doing small touch-ups with white until you’re satisfied with how it looks. Then finish things off by taking a color like blue or red (depending on what kind of look you want) and dry brushing all over the parts that need highlighting before adding some smaller details here or there, such as eyes or symbols if needed. After everything has been assembled, go through again and add even more highlights where necessary, so they stand out better than before! With this technique, it’s best to start simple since touching up colors can take longer than just starting fresh from scratch, especially when working on larger models.

Hey there! I'm Richard Baker, a miniature painter who's been in the game for a solid decade now. I've been painting miniatures for ten years and I've got a ton of tips and tricks to share with you all. My website is a treasure trove of knowledge that I've gathered from both my own personal experiences and from reading all sorts of books.

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