Old West

Painting American Indians – Part 2


This week we paint skin on the 30 figure strong Comanche war band. But before we do, a few words about last week’s part one. After talking about mounting the figure on a bottle cap to keep from handling the figure, some of you caught me holding the tail of a horse while applying the primer coat. The only thing I can say is that the tail galloping horse is too tempting of a handle & I’m guilty.

The other thing is about working with gesso. It helps to have a damp, but not wet brush when applying gesso. You really have to work gesso into the figure often going over it a few times. On of the properties of gesso is that it shrinks as it dries so you have to make sure every bit is covered. And even then, sometimes you have to go back & touch up spots where bare metal shows through. I’m leaning toward using only brush on primer once I use up this bottle of gesso. Not because I don’t like gesso, but because I’m starting a 10mm project & want to keep only a single type of primer to keep things simple. Now on to the skin!

We Americans aren’t as dark as we used to be. We mostly work indoors & most field work is done from the cab of a tractor or pickup truck. Pictures from the 19th century are all black & white. So what color was the skin of an American Plains Indian in the 1870s?

Descriptions in literature, including Custer, indicate that the skin tone of American Indians ranged from caucasian to a bronzed red so dark as to be nearly black. What does that mean for us? It means that we have a wide variety of colors available to us to paint the flesh of American Indians.


If you are painting smaller sized figures (20mm or smaller), or perhaps just “rank & file” type troops in the larger sizes (25mm or larger), you may want to use a single color for flesh. Here are my suggestions:

  • Native American Flesh from Howard Hues
  • Khardic Flesh from Privateer Press
  • Redstone Highlight from Reaper
  • Tanned Shadow from Reaper

The above colors except for Tanned Shadow have a red tint.

Figure painted with just Khardic Flesh from Privateer Press


Before we get to the triads, allow me to introduce the wet palette to those who are unfamiliar with it. The wet palette is basically a sponge saturated with water covered with a sheet of parchment that has also been soaked in water. The wet palette is really handy when painting a multi-figure project where several colors will be used.

The sponge of a wet palette


The paper palette part of a wet palette on top of the sponge

Wet palettes come in different sizes. The one I use is 8 1/2″x7″x1″. You can find them at art stores & hobby stores such as Hobby Lobby & Michaels. A wet palette is not expensive & well worth the investment if you mix colors or have projects requiring several painting sessions.

Triads. The basic theory behind triad painting techniques is that you use a darker shade for surfaces that are in shadow & receiving less light; a color for bulk of surfaces; and a lighter, highlight shade for surfaces that reflect a lot of light.

How do you determine which surface is in shadow & which surface needs highlighting? You hold the figure up under a lamp & look at it. For those of us who game, it is a quick thing. If you are painting for a competition, then you are going to spend a lot more time looking at how light plays off of a figure.

As a general rule of thumb for skin, you paint the shadow shade in the eye sockets, under the chin & neck, underarms, behind knees, between fingers, under breasts, under shoulder blades, & the underside of where skin meets clothing & hair.

Highlights are applied generally to foreheads, noses, pronounced cheekbones, tip of jutting chins, the top of shoulders, the top of breasts, & topmost parts of extended arm & leg muscles.

Today, I’m going to demonstrate 3 triads that I feel give a plausible American Indian skin tone. They are all from Reaper. The first is the Redstone triad, the second is the Tanned Skin triad, & a Tanned Skin triad with Redstone Highlight added. I added one drop of Redstone Highlight to each of the Tanned Skin shades. Here is how they look on the palette:

The triads from left to right: Redstone, Tanned Skin, & Tanned Skin with Redstone Highlight.

First up is the Redstone triad. I was told that it was developed to capture the red clays prominent in Oklahoma & West Texas. In West Texas where I grew up, the soil is a sandy light brown color with a red tint. But at various places in the soil, there is a lot of red clay. When plowing, you could always tell when you hit a patch where clay was under the sand by the way the plowshares would pop out of the ground.

The shadow color is very dark, reminds me very much of the Dark Skin triad. So I used the shadow very sparingly. Looking at the paint on the palette, I thought it might be too dark for skin, but once applied, it reminds me of some of the Hispanic landscapers I’ve seen. Here is the model done with the Redstone triad:

The Redstone triad

On the Tanned Skin example, I wanted the skin tone to be dark. I painted all of the skin with the Tanned Shadow & used the regular Tanned Skin & Tanned Highlight for various highlights. Here are the results:

The Tanned Skin triad with liberal use of Tanned Shadow

The last example is the Tanned Skin triad with Redstone Highlight. The mixture was 1 drop of Redstone Highlight to 4 drops of each of the Tanned Skin shades. You can increase the redness by adding more of the Redstone Highlight or even using Redstone in place of the Redstone Highlight. Here is the result of this example:

Tanned Skin with Redstone Highlight mixed into the paint

Here is a side by side comparison of all 4 figures:

Left to Right: Khardic Flesh, Redstone, Tanned Skin, Tanned Skin w/Redstone Highlight

In a nutshell, this is how I paint American Indian skin tones. If you have other colors that have worked for you, let me know & I’ll post them. Next, we’ll paint hair! From hair on the head to the color of horses.

A final photo of an essential book on the Plains Indian. I highly recommend this book for your library:

A big book, bigger than most dictionaries!

4 thoughts on “Painting American Indians – Part 2”

  1. Very cool. I just finished reading Thomas Mails other book, “Dog Soldier Societies of the Plains.” It was great. I’ll have to check this one out.

  2. Very informative post. I’m not quite there yet but a wet palette is the next logical step. I feel like I’ve been wasting a lot of paint lately as it dries out.

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