While early figure carvers may have used whatever paint they had lying around, such as oil-based paints or milk paint, a traditional look can be achieved by using inexpensive and easy-to-clean up modern paints. Acrylic paint is the suitable preference for the modern flat-plane carver. However, after painting a carving with acrylic paints, you may notice that it looks great when wet but quite dull when it dries. This can be remedied by an already-important next step: preserving. Preservatives such as linseed oil, beeswax, or a paste finishing wax can protect carvings from degradation over time, and they give the coloration a much more rich appearance. Linseed oil especially brings out the grain and gives the paint an almost translucent look, thus adding to a figure’s naturalistic appeal.
I have become acquainted with two main methods for painting figure carvings. What seems to be the more common technique these days is to create washes of each paint color that will be used, and then to apply each color one at a time. Eyes and some other details in this method are still painted with full-strength paints, however. This can be a meticulous process that leaves some carvers completing carvings faster than they paint them. If you overlap wet paint, one color will bleed into the next, but if you leave any space between two colors, the resulting seam will be very noticeable, especially after preserving the piece. In effect, it takes a fairly long amount of time to paint well in this style. The other method of painting, depending on what comes more naturally to you, can be done more quickly and with greater ease. In my opinion, the result, though different, can be more appealing.
In the second method of painting, a wash of dark brown is used to cover the figure, and then full-strength paints are blended over it. This allows you to not need to deliberately make every section of color meet at a perfect seam. Instead, you can leave space between colors, leaving the dark wash show through in between. The result is a darker, more antique appearance.