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What is Zenithal Priming in Miniature Painting? Can I Do It Without an Airbrush?

Miniature painting is a hobby that any skill level of painter can enjoy.

If you’re just starting out, you should know about a technique called zenithal priming because it will make your miniatures seem much more detailed.

What is zenithal priming in miniature painting? Can I do it without an airbrush? Zenithal priming miniatures, also called pre-shading, is a method of adding shadow and highlight to a model before painting it. The basic method starts with priming the model black.

Once dried, a lighter color like gray or white is added from the top, or zenith. This simulates how light would fall on the miniature. What is left is a brighter top where light would be reflecting, and a black underside where shadows would fall. This is most commonly done with an airbrush or spray cans. 

Let’s take a look at how zenithal painting works, why you should use it to make your miniatures really stand out, and which paints are recommended to make your miniatures look great.

How Does Zenithal Priming Work?

Zenithal priming is a pre-shading technique that mimics lighting.

It’s the first layer of paint you should put on the miniature. There will be more on why you should use this technique in just a moment.

The most common way to use this method only uses two paints: black and white. You can choose to use gray in addition to black and white, although this isn’t necessary.

Begin with spraying the model with black. Be sure to get all the nooks and crannies of the miniature, as this will help emphasize where the shadows are.

If you choose to use the three-step method with gray paint, apply it after the black paint at a high angle.

Finally, apply the white paint from directly above the miniature, which is the point called the zenith from which the technique gets its name.

You can hold the paint at a different angle if that’s where you want the light source to come from.

The white paint will show you where the light will hit your miniature from that angle and will make it easier for you to paint.

If you want the light source to come from in front of the miniature, then you would hold it in that position.

Think about how you want the miniature to look before you decide where to put the paint. 

If you only use two colors, you don’t have to use white for the lighter color. Tan and gray are also good options to use.

Why Should I Zenithal Prime My Miniatures?

Zenithal priming adds dimension to your miniature and will allow you to create a more detailed model.

The shadows and light spots will be better highlighted, which will make a more attractive miniature.

A miniature might look plain or amateurish if the shadows aren’t emphasized like this.

This method will also benefit you during the painting process.

If the miniature you’re painting is highly detailed and has a lot of little indentations or lines, zenithal priming will help you see them better so you will be able to paint them with better precision.

It will also make the color of the acrylic appear darker or lighter than it really is. Acrylic paints are translucent, especially with just one coat.

If you apply a layer of blue paint on the black paint, the blue paint will appear darker. If blue is applied on top of the white paint, the blue will appear brighter. 

Zenithal priming is a simple process that a beginner can do.

Taking the time to use this method will make your miniatures look more detailed and complex compared to a miniature that was not primed with the zenithal method.

The smallest detail can make all the difference when it comes to painting miniatures! 

Is An Airbrush Better Than Spray Cans for Zenithal Priming?

Both airbrushes and spray cans can be used to zenithal prime miniatures.

Spray cans are great for beginners or if you don’t want to spend a lot of money.

Airbrushes might be better suited for more experienced miniature painters, but anyone can learn how to use them. 

Let’s take a look at each one individually to understand their pros and cons.


Airbrushes use brush-on primer paint. You pour it from the bottle into a cup and you’re ready to use it.


Because you spray the paint directly onto the miniature, you can use an airbrush indoors.

This is super convenient if you don’t have an outdoor space to use spray cans or if you’d like to paint while it’s raining.

For tips on airbrushing indoors, head over to my article on indoor airbrushing safety.

Many people prefer airbrushing because it sprays on the paint more evenly and smoothly.

There’s a smaller risk of paint pooling up in the crevices on the miniature, which is something you need to avoid doing.

Paint puddles will dry uneven and might not look great. It isn’t an easy thing to fix, so it’s great if you have a tool that will prevent that problem.

Since airbrushes are precise, it’s typically quicker than using spray cans.

You don’t have to worry about several coats to make sure the miniature is completely covered. You can go over it once and then you’re done!


A downside of airbrushes is that they are more expensive than a can of spray paint. So, if you buy an airbrush, it will be a bit of an investment that will require some consideration.


Fortunately, airbrushes are a versatile tool that can be used for many projects outside of zenithal priming miniatures, so you’re more than likely going to get good use out of it.

Here are my top picks for airbrush paint.

Spray Cans

While airbrushes are precise and can quickly get the job done, spray cans can work really well too.


Spray cans are inexpensive and convenient. You can buy them at just about any hardware store and some craft stores might carry them as well. 

If you’re a beginner, spray cans are a great way to learn how to use the zenithal priming method since you have easy access to them.

They’re simple to use, so you only need to learn how to apply the paint and not have to worry about if you’re using the can correctly.


Unfortunately, you’ll have to go outside to paint your miniatures.

You can be in a well-ventilated room like a garage, but being outside is best since spray cans make a mess. They tend to have a pretty wide spray range.

This benefits you because it will be sure to cover the entire miniature, but it might also cover your surroundings.

On that note, you should be sure to lay out a cloth or tarp if you’re in an area that you don’t want to get messy.

Also, make sure you’re wearing clothes that you don’t mind getting paint on. If it’s a little windy outside, this could end up being messier than you intended.


Rustoleum Painter’s Touch 2X Spray Paint in black is recommended, as well as the same brand in white.

The paint is versatile, so if you have any leftover from your miniatures, you can use it on a variety of surfaces including wood, metal, or ceramic.

It’s low odor and dries in 20 minutes, so if you do have to use it in a ventilated area indoors, it shouldn’t cause too much of a headache.

The black paint has a matte finish, so the acrylic paint you put on top of it will be easier to see since the black underneath doesn’t have a shine to it. 

For more primer recommendations, be sure to read my article Best Primers for Miniature Painting.


Zenithal priming is a simple, yet effective way to add dimension and detail to your miniatures. It functions as a base layer and as a guide for how you should paint your models.

It’s a quick process that can be done with an airbrush or a spray can. If you’re new to painting miniatures and want your miniatures to look more advanced, this method is the way to do it!

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