Painting a Roman Gladiator Figure as a Commission Using Acrylics and Oil Colours
as a gladiator class, begun to appear in Roman arenas around the beginning of
the First Century AD, likely to have been a consequence of capturing large
numbers of Thracians during the Mithridatic wars. Their arm our and weapons,
however, had little in common with the actual equipment and national costumes
of Thracian tribes.
A Thracian gladiator can appear deceptively similar to Holpomachus, due to similarities in equipment, whereas both may have the right hand covered with Manica, padding on the lower legs, high shin guard arm our and a helmet with wide brim and tall crest. The main differences, however, become apparent in the weapons and choice of shield. Hoplomachus would use a round shield and a spear, whilst Thracians would use the small rectangular Parmula shield and curved sword or Sicca.
The Thracian helmet had a customary adornment of a griffin’s head on top, as a representation of a nemesis, goddess of revenge. The crest of the helmet was decorated with a feather plume. Occasional examples also show the addition of singular feathers on the sides of helmet. It seems consistent that horsehair was never used to decorate Thracian helmets. The total weight of a Thracian’s equipment would amount to 17-18kg, which places them in heavy gladiator category. Customarily, a Thracian would be paired against a Murmillo or Hoplomachus.
This beautiful 90mm figure from Pegaso represents a Thracian gladiator, sculpted by Gianni Larocca and cast in white metal. Historically it is well researched and its pose is dynamic and balanced. I must say that the quality of the castings is up to Pegaso’s usual high standard.
The kit consists of 17 parts, excluding base (Pic I). It required only minor effort to remove any casting lines and assemble. I reinforced certain parts with steel wire, as metal figures tend to put strain upon key weight-bearing areas. Steel pins also allow painting of certain parts separately before positioning them with ease. As the posture of the figure is rather complex and the shield and arm with weapon obstructing access to body, it’s easier to paint them before fully assembling the figure.
I prime figures with an aerosol acrylic base and this time I used Champion brand (Pics 2-5), but preference of a brand doesn’t matter that much, as other sprays usually achieve a result that is equally as good.
I deliberately avoided priming the gladiator’s sword and instead polished the metal with a nail buffer to achieve a natural metal shine I decided to discard the original kit base, which was cumbersome and heavy and opted to create custom wooden base for the figure.
I began working on the shield first for it was the customer’s wish to depict a scorpion and I chose a pattern of four symmetrical animals. The base colours chosen were black and white.
Base (acrylics): White + a small amount of Raw Sienna + Black (Pic 6).
The patterns were painted with acrylics: Black + a small amount of White.
Complex geometrical patterns suddenly become less daunting if you break them into basic components and gradually build up the details. You must keep symmetry in check at all times and it helps to have a basic grid lined out to place any main elements where they belong (Pics 7-12). Any mistakes you make can be easily corrected by covering them with the basic shield colour mix.
Shadows on the shield were done in Raw Sienna + Black oils; also, I painted on some cuts and dents (Pics 13-14).
Further painting was done in oil colours. My primary technique when working with oils is blending, /but occasionally I use short stabbing brush strokes to achieve gradients.
A primed figure is painted with an acrylic base flesh colour and I use Maimeri Polycolor paints. My Base Mix is Raw Sienna + Burnt Sienna + White + a small amount of Purple (Pics 15-16).
Acrylic paint works best as a base colour upon which layers of oil paints are built. It also absorbs a portion of the oil paints and subdues the sheen that oils are so notorious for.
The technique can be broken down to application of oil paint spots and smudges on the surface of the figure, followed by blending these with a brush in various directions then with a dry brush without any solvents.
When blending oils, the aim is to transform a smudge of paint into a smooth gradient of colour. As such, the main skill is to maintain light and feathery brushstrokes whilst retaining accuracy. Only minute quantities of oil paints are needed, otherwise it is very easy to end up with a ruined and messy dirty look. You must visualise the degree of contrast and gradients you wish to achieve in the balances of light and dark shades. It is possible to use short stabbing brush strokes to achieve smooth transition of colour and I use flat sable brushes No. 3 and 4 for this purpose.
Shadows (oils): Raw Sienna + Burnt Sienna + Purple + small amount of White (Pic 17).
Having identified key areas, I apply strokes of paint and then blend them into smooth gradients (Pics 18-19).
Deep shadows (oils): Dark Grey on the lower torso and Burnt Sienna on the upper torso (Pic 20).
Highlights (oils): White and small amount of Purple (Pic 21).
decided to intensify the contrast and used the same mixes until I was satisfied
with the results (Pics 22-27).).
Base (acrylics): Raw Sienna + White + Black (Pic 28). Shadows (washes of a mix of oils): Burnt Sienna + Black + white spirit.
Highlights (acrylics): Base Mix + White (Pics 29-30).
I tend to imitate metal with a combination of acrylics and oil paints. Initially I used Champion aerosol to apply an acrylic base coat (Pic 31). Sprayed on paint is useful to achieve a perfect smooth metallic surface. However, this time to my dismay, it turned out that the layer was not resistant to further applications of oils and white spirit.
I decided to tackle the issue in a different way. Gold + Black acrylics served as a base on which I built up oil layers. The final highlights were done with pure Champion acrylics, which I gather in a small glass container. The paint was rather thin and had a minuscule amount of pigment, so I waited for the pigment to settle down on the bottom and then used this to paint (Pic 32). A similar method was used to paint other items of armour (Pics 33-39).
SUBLIGACULUM (Gladiator’s loincloth painted in acrylics) Base (acrylics): Red + Burnt Sienna + a small amount of White (Pic 40).
Shadows: Base + Black.
Deep shadows: Base + more Black.
Highlights: Base + White + Yellow Ochre.
I painted the subligaculum over several sessions, each time highlighting and darkening the base mixes further and further (Pics 41-47). Deep, dark lower areas are painted with almost pure black paint, whilst the uppermost edges are highlighted and thus require more contrast.
The helmet crest was painted with acrylics (Pics 48-49). Base (acrylics): Carmine + small amount of Black. Shadows: Base mix + larger amount of Black added. Highlights: Carmine.
Extreme Highlights: Carmine + large amount of White.
It seemed too boring to allow this figure to stand on a base covered with sand, so I decided to enhance the base by adding old parts of a gladiator figure from Masterclass. Chainmail manica and a shield seemed like an appropriate choice.
I trimmed the shield to fit it into composition and placed the objects randomly on the base with cyanoacrylate glue (Pic 50). Painting was done with acrylics and oils and the base was subsequently covered with natural soil of the appropriate hue glued into place with PVA adhesive (Pic 51).
Finally, it was time to step back and enjoy the result of the effort put into painting by mounting the figure on its base. It is a brilliant example of a gladiator miniature that any enthusiast of the Roman era should consider to adding to their collection.
The sculptor’s talent produced a captivating and believable character with rich details and a balanced, powerful pose that epitomises the haunting glamour of brutal gladiatorial combat.