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It’s a question that has vexed many painters and (naturally) caused some fierce and long-winded arguments online. Should I use a black undercoat or a white undercoat for the models I am painting?
My answer is: it depends. Though I lean towards a white undercoat as my default, I will occasionally use black for a specific reason.
A white undercoat provides clarity. A nice even white undercoat lets you see the model’s details and contours. Hold a model with a white undercoat under a light source, and you’ll see where the highlights should go – on those raised areas that catch the light.
Details are all brought out under white, and if you want to push yourself to paint and pick out details on your models, then the white undercoat is for you.
Using white also gives you more control over your finish (in my opinion). Painting over black with thin paints means you’ll often need to go back over some areas in white anyway, to get the right base to paint from. Painting dark colours over the white undercoat is no problem.
One of these models was painted over a white undercoat; the other has a black undercoat. Can you tell which? The answer is – the woodsman was painted over black, while the elf was painted over white.
While a white undercoat is my default, I view a black undercoat as a tool for occasional use. My uses include:
I’m scared of the detail: When faced with an overly-detailed model I can turn to the black spray as something of a crutch. When painting over black, if I miss a detail it’s not a worry. Painting over white, you’ve nowhere to hide.
The Imbrian Arts orcs and goblins were painted over a white undercoat. The painting was slow going and I had to go back several times to pick out small details I had missed.
This Malifaux gang was painted over black. That approach gave me the confidence that if I missed a bit of detail, it wasn’t the end of the world. While these models are just as detailed as the Imbrian Arts models, I was a lot more relaxed when painting them.
I’m concerned about the lack of detail: Black is a great way of covering up deficiencies in a model as much as details. If you find yourself with some low-quality models, a black undercoat lets you pick out what is there and invent what isn’t.
Speed is a factor: Painting over black is quite simply faster. If there’s an army to be done and an event looming, black will help you meet that deadline.
This Anglo-Dane army for SAGA was painted over black, mainly because I wanted to play with a fully painted army as quickly as possible.
In summary; white for detail, black for speed. Your choice of undercoat is going to depend which of those two factors are your priority at the time.