How to Create a Halloween Village: Chapter 5
Painting a Foam Base
Painting foam with a brush can be tedious and time-consuming and may not get all the nooks and crannies. Spray paint is the best alternative but there is huge catch: you cannot use the typical spray paint found in home improvement stores. These have a propellant that will melt foam. You have to find water-based, foam-safe spray paints, which can be pricy. Using an airbrush is best but the start-up costs are fairly substantial.
I use two kinds of paint: water-based spray paint and acrylic paint. I prefer the Liquitex Basics acrylic paint. This is a quality product with minimal color shifting (what it looks like wet versus dry), easy to thin with water, and a little goes a long way. Art stores also carry many types of mediums that can be mixed with the paints to add texture: natural sand for a beach or dirt feel, opaque flakes for a craggy rock feel, modeling paste to make waves or smooth out or distress surfaces, or the gloss gel for a slimy, wet look.
STEP 1: Dark Base Coat
After the initial carving is complete, my first step is to give the foam a base coat with dark color like black, brown or gray. You can use a brush but you may not get into all the nooks and crannies. The dark base coat helps to make layering color on top an easier and quicker process.
Regular spray paint from the hardware store will eat the foam like acid. There are a few water-based art spray paints such as the excellent Liquitex brand or the MTN Colors but they are expensive and not readily available (see the Suggested Tools & Materials page). The Krylon paint pictured was discontinued.
I've found the best option is to invest in an airbrush kit. You can use regular acrylic craft paint, cover a great deal of area quickly, it dries very fast, and you can blend colors very well. The initial investment is significant but will save you money, time and frustration in the long run. I love the Aztek Airbrush System and find it quite easy to use. For more information on choosing an airbrush, the basics, and more visit AirbrushGuru.com.
STEP 2: Main Color Coat
My favorite colors for a foam bases are Burnt Sienna, Red Oxide, and Yellow Oxide. Whatever colors you choose, keep in mind that in nature, nothing is just one color. Trees, dirt, and even rocks have several hues if you examine them closely.
Pick two or three colors for your main coat. Work on small sections at a time using small amounts of paint. With a brush work in mottled, crosshatch patterns. Immediately add the next color and work it in and around the first color. Then add the third color to fill in any gaps or add interest. Use a spray bottle filled with water to thin paint, add opacity, and blending colors. Work quickly while a paint is wet for the best blending. Be careful not to over blend colors and create a muddy mess, always keep the brush in motion, and don't overwork any area.
Also, keep in mind that most craft acrylic paints darken as they dry (called color shifting) so that bright, vibrant color may get dull. If you don't like the result, paint it again! Here's a simple tutorial: How to Paint with Acrylics.
STEP 3: Highlight the Edges
After the main coat dries, the last step is highlighting. All those finely carved details can get lost among the buildings, trees and dim lighting. Highlighting the edges with a very light – not white – color like Titane Ecru helps define those edges, and your base will show up better in photos.
Use a completely dry, flat brush, and load a tiny amount of paint onto the brush then blot. With a very light touch gently sweep over the edges as if brushing crumbs off your shirt. The recessed areas will not get paint while edges will get paint, creating a sort of outline. If you get too much paint on the foam, immediately spray the area with water and blot with a sponge or paper towel. Complete one layer and let it dry and see how much it darkens. If too light, repeat the process. You can always add paint but removing it is more difficult.
The Finished Paint Job
Here is the finished base with the black undercoat (some of which does show through), the various brown-red-yellow hues of the main coat, and the light highlighted edges. It definitely makes the presentation much more dynamic. I've even had friends who are surprised to find out it's foam and not actual rock!
I build my bases, paint them, and the end of season, I pull them apart gently and store them. The following year, I have carved pieces to start with that I can reuse as-is, combine and re-carve, or paint them black and start again with a new palette.
Since foam is white, a dark base coat is recommended. You can use any standard latex (interior household paint) or acrylic (craft) paint and brush it on. But this is time consuming, takes a long time to dry, and its challenging to get into all the nooks and crannies.
Spray paint is the best choice but most common spray paints will melt the foam due to the propellant used in the cans. Krylon sells a Craft Foam Primer that seals the foam and then you can spray it with regular spray paint. But if you miss a spot, you'll destroy that area.
I prefer the professional art spray paints. Liquitex Spray Paint comes in a variety of rich colors but it's expensive and has a very troublesome nozzle that clogs every time. They sell extra nozzles and even sell a cap cleaner now. MTN Colors introduced a new water based spray paint that is about the same price.
Whatever you use, make sure to test a scrap piece of the foam you are using to ensure it doesn't melt.
For the serious crafter, an airbrush can replace all spray paint and brushes. There is a significant up-front investment and a steep learning curve, but once you get the hang of it you'll wonder why you didn't get one sooner. My preferred airbrush is the Aztek A470 by Testors. It has the easiest clean-up (no clogging), easy color switching, good quality for its class, and covers evenly (using inexpensive water-based acrylic from the crafts store).
You'll also need an air compressor. This is where things get tricky. There's many brands (Testors, Master, Badger) plus third party options of varying quality. The hose and connectors are all different and not interchangeable. They sell adapters, but finding the right ones requires skill. To keep things simple, stick to the same brand when buying airbrushes and compressors, or visit a hobby shop for advice.
Don't be discouraged by the convoluted world of airbrushing – just be prepared to learn some new techniques and give yourself plenty of time to practice.
Acrylic Paints & Nylon Brushes
To define and color your base use acrylic paints. For the best results and pigments, I recommend the Liquitex Acrylic Color Basics that come in a variety of rich colors and bodies. And they can be easily mixed together or thinned with water for versatility.
For brushes, go for the Loew Cornell Brown Nylon All-purpose Brush Set that will stand up to the rigid foam texture, and will clean up easily.
A damp natural sea sponge (found in the home improvement store's painting department) is also a good way to quickly add color and texture.
When painting, have a three level approach: base, mid-tones, and highlights. I start with with a mix of gray or black spray paint base coat, then brush on various layers of "Red Oxide", "Raw Sienna" or "Burnt Umber" as my mid-tones. Once that is dry, just a few edges get a light dry-brush dusting of "Titane Ecru" as the highlight. See the Painting a Base How-To.