Zenithal priming, airbrush vs. spray can

Zenithal priming miniatures

Zenithal Priming: Elevating Your Miniature Painting Game

Zenithal priming is an accessible technique that can greatly enhance your miniature painting, providing substantial assistance with highlights and shadows, while also streamlining the overall painting process. Essentially, this technique can be accomplished in two ways: through the use of an airbrush or a spray can. In this article, we will delve into how zenithal priming works, offer descriptions of both methods, and compare their pros and cons.

What You’ll Need

Airbrush way Spray can way
  • Air paint, surface primer, or regular paint in black, grey, and white.
  • Airbrush and compressor
  • Spray can primer in black, grey, and white.

Note: Unlike ready-made paints designed for airbrushes, you’ll need to thin regular paint yourself. You can also experiment with different color combinations, as discussed in the next section.

How Zenithal Priming Works

Zenithal priming involves priming your miniature with three colors instead of just one (although it can also be done with two colors, with slightly less impressive results). The goal is to create a smooth gradient, with shadows and highlights that mimic the effects of a light source shining down on the model, akin to the ‘sun in zenith.’

The process consists of three straightforward steps:

  • Begin by priming the entire model with black (or your chosen base color).
  • Next, from directly above, spray a 90-degree cone using grey (or a lighter color than the base you selected in the first step). Apply thin layers and avoid over-spraying.
  • Finally, from the same zenithal angle, spray a 45-degree cone using white (or a brighter shade of the color used in the previous step). Once again, maintain thin layers for optimal results.

With this zenithal priming completed, you can proceed to paint the miniature using thin layers of paint with your brush. You’ll observe how highlights and shadows beautifully accentuate, thanks to the prior zenithal priming.

If you own an airbrush but lack certain paint colors, you can always mix the base color with white to achieve the desired shade.

Zenithal priming is an excellent method for painting entire armies when you’re short on time but want to avoid working with plain grey plastic. After priming, simply apply a wash that matches the priming colors to the entire miniature.

Awaken Realms (creators of Nemesis, Tainted Grail, and many other great games) are selling their games with an optional ‘sun drop effect’ on minis, which is basically the same as zenithal priming.

Airbrush vs. Spray Can

In summary, the spray can is a less ideal choice if you intend to make miniature painting a regular hobby. It’s a reasonable option only if you have leftover cans and are apprehensive about using an airbrush. I initially started with spray cans due to my inability to thin paints properly for airbrushing. However, once I invested in Air paints from Vallejo, I never looked back. Here are the reasons why:

Airbrush way Spray can way
 – You’ll need to purchase an airbrush and compressor, but… + You won’t need to invest in expensive tools, and each can cost around $10, but…
+ …a budget-friendly $30 airbrush and a basic $75 compressor are sufficient for zenithal priming, making it the most cost-effective choice in the medium to long term. – …it’s cheaper than airbrush only in the short term.
– Learning how to use it is necessary, but… + There isn’t much to learn with spray cans, but…
+ … once you’ve acquired the skill, you can effortlessly control the paint stream, yielding exceptional results. – … with spray cans, you can only control the distance, making it easier to apply uneven layers.
+ Achieving thin layers is a breeze. – It’s easier to spoil your work with thick layers or unevenly distributed paint.
+ You have the freedom to use paint in any color, mix them, or lighten them. – Spray cans limit you to a handful of colors.
+ It’s a faster method for priming multiple miniatures simultaneously. – The spray nozzle can become clogged when attempting to prime too many miniatures at once.


In conclusion, zenithal priming is a technique that can elevate your miniature painting to new heights. While both airbrushing and spray cans have their advantages and disadvantages, the choice ultimately depends on your preferences, budget, and commitment to the hobby. Regardless of your choice, mastering zenithal priming will undoubtedly enhance the quality of your painted miniatures.

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