National Wood Carvers Association

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A wiseman carving using the technique described here. This piece is inspired by medieval Norwegian woven tapestries.

A Fresh Take on Painting Figures

By James Miller

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.



  1. Mix a dark brown wash by adding a few drops of black and brown paint in a small container of water. 
  2. This wash will act as a base coat and will mute the colors that will be added later. Coat the entire figure quickly, preferably so the entire piece is wet for the next step.
  3. Starting with the darkest colors, apply full-strength (not diluted) acrylic paints. Because of the basecoat, it is not necessary to completely cover each area. In other words, it is okay to leave the base coat as a kind of border to each painted section. This will create the antique look.
  4. If desired, you can enhance the flat planes of your carving. With just a small amount of white paint on your brush, wipe it back and forth on a piece of paper until all that remains is a fine dusting. If it is brushed quickly and lightly on the carving, the paint will only catch on the edges of each plane, giving a more pronounced or weathered look.
    • Another way to achieve a similar look is to rub an object with a very slightly coarse surface, like very fine sandpaper or an unfinished dowel, on the edges of your carving’s planes.
  5. Paint the fine details—such as eyes, eyebrows, and clothing decorations—with a fine brush or toothpick.
  6. Finish and preserve the carving. If you choose to use linseed oil, dip the carving halfway into linseed oil, let it drip, then flip it over and dip it again. After the dripping slows, wipe off the carving with lint-free rags and let it dry in an upright position for about a week.
    • Wax, as a substitute for an oil, can be applied with a lint-free rag. Rub the wax all over the carving, let it dry, and then scrape out any dried up wax that is visible in its grooves.

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National Wood Carvers Assoc.
PO Box 43218
Cincinnati, OH 45243
National Wood Carvers Assoc.
PO Box 43218
Cincinnati, OH 45243