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Painting Tartans

Quang Le-van show us how to paint tartans (plaids) in his excellent SBS

Hoy figureteers,

IT'S TARTAN TIME! Here's how I did it for the PiLiPiLi Highlander.

It was the first time I painted a tartan and it was NOT as daunting or difficult as it may appear.

Just sit back and read on. Comments and questions are welcome, of course.;)


Tartans are basically a checkered cloth: coloured stripes of varying widths crossing one another at a 90° angle. The design can be symmetrical (bands of equal width) or asymmetrical/offset (bands of different widths).

When two perpendicular stripes cross one another, the resulting colour is an equal mix of the two original colours. For example, where a red stripe crosses a blue one, the intersection will be red + blue = violet.

Clan tartans are a relatively recent innovation, due to renewed interest in Scottish heritage in the early 1800s. Before that date, people most likely wore a pattern of tartan common to the district they lived in (weavers had their favorite patterns in different areas). So any design/pattern should be applicable (within reason, of course).

This is all we need to know to start.


Vallejo acrylics and FLAT brushes of varying widths are used throughout. There will be a fair amount of retouching to do so whenever possible, use colours straight from the bottle or at least keep the mixes simple.

To begin with, I made up a simple, symmetrical, 3-colour design. The colours are: 920 German Green, 940 Hull Red, 914 Green Ochre.

Whichever the colours you choose, keep them dark and muted. The overall effect should be rather dull as to impart a camouflage effect.

Next : STEP 1 :)


Thanks, guys, for your interest.

Actually, as you will see, the whole process is not difficult.

Like with everything complex, the trick is to break them down to simpler 'problems' and deal with each one, one after the other. Also each step needs to be completed to perfection BEFORE proceeding to the next one. It's the going back to correct certain details which leads to frustration. So take your time. ;)


Paint the whole area with one of the basic colours (here green 920)


Lay on the horizontal stripes (red 940).

(Sorry about the out-of-focus shots but that's all I've got :( )

Start with the one next to the 'hem' of the plaid. The stripe should be parallel with the lower edge of the cloth. DON'T try to get it right the first time. Instead use a smaller brush and build it up to the correct width. Trust your eyes.

When the first stripe is OK, lay on the second one. Again check out the parallelism and the width.
And onto the third, etc...

Check out where the stripes turn and change direction inside the folds. Use your 'gut feeling' and trust your eyes. IF IT LOOKS RIGHT, IT'S RIGHT.

If it doesn't look right, wait a few minutes for the paint to settle and correct with the base colour (green 920).

Don't forget, everything has to look right before proceeding to STEP 3.

Q. :)


Laying on the vertical stripes.

These will be in a new colour. I used a 50-50 mix of green 920 and violet 960 which IMO, offers a nice contrast with the green 920 base (not too much, not to little).

These vertical stripes should be perpendicular to the first ones (makes sense ;)). So it's just a matter of 'sheepishly' tracing the new stripes at 90° to the previous ones (including where they change direction inside the folds). We can understand now why it was so important to get the horizontal stripes right in the first place.

As before, check the width and the space between the lines. And as the design is symmetrical, what we should have now are near-perfect SQUARES defined by the criss-crossing lines.

Correct and retouch as needed and as always, IF IT LOOKS RIGHT, IT'S RIGHT.



Make a new colour mix, this time a 50-50 mix of hull red 940 and violet 960.

Please take note that up till now, we have used only 3 different colours (green 920, red 940 and violet 960). That would give a consistency to the palette and add to the dull effect of the result.

Fill up each intersection of the horizontal (red) and the vertical (dark green) lines with this new colour. If we've done things right in the previous steps, the intersection would have the shape of a square.

What we should have now is the effect of semi-transparent stripes crossing one another over a green base.

Correct and adjust as needed. Then sit back and enjoy before getting to STEP 5.


Originally posted by PHIL WALDEN@May 7 2005, 10:08 PM
I like to use a long haired brush only using the tip

That does make sense since the long hair holds more paint and thus allows to draw longer lines in one go.

But the longer, supple hair also means that you have less control on your line (which will have a tendency to become wavy). This is why I prefer the flat brush which holds as much paint and whose shorter hair gives me more control.

BTW, here is my method of drawing consistent lines (a method shared by many 'old-school' graphic artists).

As you can see, this method involves a great deal of retouching. What we're trying to achieve here is crispness and consistency. This is why the fast-drying, flat acrylics are the ideal medium for this kind of job.

Marc: I know you paint with oils but nothing prevents you to use a different medium like acrylics or pastel for certain parts of the figure if it's easier, faster and more effective. ;)


Q. :)

Sorry, folks, for the long interlude.

Let's proceed to STEP 5 & 6

Draw a fine border to both sides of each stripe with 822 dark brown. First the vertical lines (STEP 5) then the horizontal (STEP 6).

Dark brown is used instead of black because I don't want the fine lines to stand out. With dark brown, the contrast is just right, the fine lines perceptible yet blended in the background.

Again, check that every line is OK (not like the ones on my demo pics ;) ) before proceeding to the next step.


Now we'll try to break the monotony and the symmetry of the design by adding another fine line on both sides of each vertical line.

STEPS 8 & 9

In these final steps, we'll define the size of the sett (repetitive pattern) with fine lines in 914 green ochre. This new colour will 'spice up' the dull overtones and IMO will make our tartan look like a tartan.

Here's how the figure looks like in the final stages.

If needed, shadows can be added with glazes in Payne's Gray (oils). Keep 'em subtle and avoid at all cost overpowering the tartan design with the shading.

Our tartan here is a simple one but more complex ones can be painted by following the same process. They're NOT more complicated, just longer to achieve (more steps). The key words are: discipline, right contrast and crispness. And of course, if it looks right, it's right. ;)

I hope I didn't bore you to death.

Quang Le-van :)

Paul, that's a nice compliment, indeed.

Thank you all, for your kind words. I'm glad you find the article helpful.

Now, how about an article on how to paint paisley patterns?

Just kidding! ;)


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