4 Easy Steps to Painting 3D Prints Like a Pro!

Guest written by Morena Protti; Photos by Kym Watts

Nowadays, we have the opportunity to 3D print amazing looking figurines at home. We have the freedom to print anything we want, but it’ll most likely be limited to one filament color . With this tutorial, we’ll learn how to bring these designs to life by painting 3D prints!

For this tutorial, I mainly used Teeko for my demonstration— a sculpture I made in the fall of 2014 for Ally Rom Colthoff’s Kickstarter campaign to print the 1st volume of her webcomic Chirault.

There are four steps to post processing with paints. If you wanted to directly navigate to a certain process, click these links: 

Step 1: Cleaning up your print
Step 2: Priming
Step 3: Painting
Step 4: Finishing

 

You will need the the following: 

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 1.43.01 PM

  • 3D print of Teeko (or a figurine of your choice)
  • Cleaning up tools: Tweezers; Pliers (long nose, diagonal style, or wire plier); Craft Knife (or X-acto Knife); Sand Paper (150 to 600 grits) and/or Sand Paper Sponges (fine to medium).
    You can find most of these tools in a hardware store.
  • Table protection: clear plastic tablecloth, garbage bag or newspapers to make a mess on
  • Apron or old clothes: There will be a lot of gesso/acrylic spilling and sanding dust!
  • Sta-wet palette or used plastic containers & cellophane: to mix paint, yogurt or any plastic lids are perfect. To preserve paint leftovers, cover with cellophane.
  • Primer: Liquid gesso (from arts and crafts stores).
  • Brushes: Craft brushes in various sizes and shapes (art/craft stores), plus a sponge brush.
  • Acrylic Paint: you’ll need at least the primary colors: magenta, yellow, cyan, plus black and white (art/craft stores), in order to create all the other colours. If you want to learn to post process with spray paint instead, check out this tutorial.
  • Color Wheel (Optional): If you don’t know colour mixing theory, this will come in handy (art store)
  • Varnish Finish: I used a matte finish, but you may choose gloss if you prefer.

 Be in a well lit environment. Otherwise, you won’t be able to see mistakes and imperfections.

 

Step 1: Cleaning up your print. 

Painting 3D prints,  teeko

Download Teeko design by MorenaP

The print will most likely need supports for the overhangs, and may have some plastic bleed or even tiny bumps from filament oozing. You can snap the support with long nose pliers, and go on removing the rest of the supports with tweezers and X-Acto Knife (I lightly stabbed my fingers a couple of times with it, as removing plastic may lead to very sudden movements. If you have never used one, or if you’re underage, let a more experienced adult do this for you). You may also have to carve out excess bumps of plastic with the knife.

Finally, if some areas still looks “wavy” you can use some sandpaper to smooth it out.

painting 3D prints,  clean up print

Don’t worry too much about getting it perfect. The primer will fill the tiny gaps. Try to get all the protrusions on the print off in this phase, rather than later.

 

Step 2: Priming

In order to fill up the pores and tiny holes on the print and smooth out the appearance of layers, we’ll need to prime it.

Priming is also useful on low resolution models with rough surfaces, and can be used to cover up other issues.

painting 3D prints, priming

Download this Baby Deer: the head support may cause irregularities on the chin and belly. This can be filled in with gesso (applied on the left one).

painting 3D prints priming

Download this Raccoon: this test print is from an older, low resolution 3D model, with a very rough surface, but a similar effect can happen on prints with thick layers or if you have printer calibration problems. Gesso can fill in the gaps and, through sanding, generate a smoother surface.

 

A way to prime your print involves using a high build primer spray. I find a non-toxic liquid gesso to be easier to manage in the house.

There are a few brands out there. The main differences are in price, drying time and elasticity.

For this tutorial I’m using Liquitex Gesso, which is pretty fluid, but needs 24 hours to dry. It’s important to let the gesso dry for as long as specified on the label or brand website, or it may peel off while sanding. 

painting 3D prints Liquitex Gesso

  • When painting the gesso over the print, try to get the whole surface and tiny holes. You’ll get the best results with a small, flat tip brush. Paint in one direction first and then another layer on top in the opposite direction in order to fill in all the gaps.
  • Rinse your brush while it’s still wet. Allow for the suggested amount of time for drying.
  • Sand the print, removing layer appearances and imperfections (I prefer a fine grit sanding sponge for this step) and remove dust particles with a brush.
  • Apply Gesso again. Let dry. Sand. 

Repeat these steps until you’re satisfied with the look of the overall surface. Depending on the quality of your print this may take as much as 5-6 layers, or as little as just 1 or 2 if your print is already pretty smooth.

Optional: If you plan to paint the bottom of your print, prime this as well or it will get messy along the way.

 

Step 3: Painting!

Finally— the fun part! For the colors, I referred to Ally’s Chirault’s Vol 1 cover.

Some advice for beginners:

  • Acrylic dries out very fast, so you’ll have to keep them air tight in a Sta-Wet palette, or cover them tightly with cellophane. You’ll need leftover paint of each colour to cover up mistakes that most likely will happen along the way, so it’s better to mix a bit more paint than needed rather than trying to match the same tone later.
  • If the paint is too thick you can dilute it with a tiny bit of water.
  • When you smudge an area, you can remove the unwanted paint immediately with a wet brush.
  • If you don’t like the color you’ve come up with, it’s not a big deal. Acrylics allow you to paint over previous coats even with very different tones.

This following colouring technique is based on Ally Rom Colthoff’s art style, but you can apply these instruction on other cartoony characters. I’ll do layered tones, making use acrylics’ ability to allow for layering of colors, although you can simplify this and choose a milder tone for each area to get natural shadows and highlights through the sculpture’s own shape.

1. I started with the hair, as it will be easy to make a mess on the sculpture’s face and eyes during this process.

This character is vaguely mangaesque in style, with typically 4-5 hair colours from the base shadow to the fine highlights.

As the whole palette has purple tones, I made the base shadow color a brown-purple. Reach all the indents (even the sides of the neck) leaving on unpainted areas. Let dry.

 

2. I then painted the ears. While colouring the hair, it will be easy to smudge colour on the hair and vice-versa with the ears. I initially made these too dark, so I went back painting over it with a more gray/ocra tone. 

painting 3D prints

 

3. Adding  highlights to the hair: mix an orange colour and paint it on the center of each hair strand, avoiding the hair indents. Let dry.

painting 3D prints

You can now paint over with the main colour (a mix between the brown and the orange) leaving a thinner strip of orange at the top-center of each strand. You can think of the orange as the areas where the light mainly hits, so that’s why it should be more visible on the top of the head and at the center of the hair strands.

painting 3D prints

 

Again, mix the orange with the last colour you made. You’ll paint around the orange highlights in order to create tonal gradations on the hair. 

painting 3D prints

 

Now, the most effective step. Add some fine strokes of light yellow-orange on the hair strands. This will really make the hair color pop! painting 3D prints

You may go back to the deeper hair indents and mark them with a dark brown if you feel they need some extra depth, or if they got covered up in the painting process.

Now that you’ve learned more about the light and shadow layering technique, you can apply these principles to the rest of the figurine.

 

4. Painting the rest of the figure: 

  • Use dark pink for the ears and the skin, and you’ll overlay this with a clearer pink where the light should naturally hit the skin, or on the outer ears area.
    painting 3D prints
  • You can also paint over the dress with a dark fuchsia. Then, once it’s dried, cover the center with a lighter fuchsia and finish the inner part with a hot pink. painting 3D prints
  • Colour the strap (on neck) with pure black. painting 3D prints
  • Paint the eyebrows with a dark brown and later pass over with a lighter brown.
  • Paint the eyes, starting with the light green around a white circle (which would mimic the light pin) and border the iris later with a dark green. If the eyes look odd or cross-eyed, try to balance the white pin and the green, overlaying between each other. painting 3D prints
  • Once happy with the look of the eyes, you can paint the pupil under the light pin, and the eyelashes black. painting 3D prints shadows
  • Optional step #1: You may create shadows and light on the outer ears using the same technique we used for the hair. I personally ended up changing the ear colour 3 times and settled for a matte greyish-brown.
  • Optional step #2: As I ended up messing up on the base, I fixed it by sanding the colour spills and covering it with a layer of gesso (you can still do it now in case you didn’t do it earlier). It’s up to you whether you want to paint all over it with one colour or highlight the copyright mark with a different colour. In that case, paint inside the letters first, and then paint the rest of the base and around the letters.

painting 3D prints shadows

 

Step 4: Finishing

There is no turning back after this, so make sure you’re happy with the paint job you’ve done!

Use a matte varnish (or gloss if you prefer) to help preserve the acrylic paint from uv damage and to give it a nice finish.

You can varnish the figurine with a sponge brush, and it will help to get into all the indents. Try to brush away any deposits of varnish and avoid bubbles as well.

You’re done!

painting 3D prints shadows

Enjoy your painted Teeko!

These techniques for painting 3d prints can be applied to any of your next projects, and hopefully will bring your 3D-printed figurines to life!

Want to post process with spray paint? Check out this tutorial


 

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  • Alicia Meneses

    can you use acrylic paint as a primer to fill in the small gaps? or would sanding over that remove all the paint? obviously i mean using the acrylic coat as a primer wouldnt be the final color but i was wondering o:

  • Pinshape

    There are special paints called filler primers specifically designed for this purpose! They’re used to fill in gaps and can then be sanded for a smooth surface finish.