DIY: Handmade Reptile Hide and Leopard Gecko

DIY: Handmade Reptile Hide II, Painting

In the last part of this series, DIY Handmade Reptile Hide I covered how to create a simple reptile hide out of green florists foam and plaster of paris. I have painted the hide that I started in that article and would like to share with you some tips and suggestions to finishing off your handmade reptile hide to fit your vivarium’s style. After completing this first hide I now think I can say my ten gallon insert (which may become my twenty gallon insert…it has gotten quite big) will be more awesome. Hopefully the following suggestions will help you finish off your DIY reptile hide too!

The Supplies

To paint your hide you need some supplies that fall into three major categories: Brushes, Paints and a good Finish.

Brushes

Different brushes are actually quite important to achieving desired effects. For my project I used a No. 4 fan blender, a 3/8″ chisel and a 1″ flat. I would guess that for almost all projects a fan blender and a flat brush of some sort would suffice. I didn’t have a flat between the one inch and a size 4, so I opted for a chisel tip. Essentially: You’ll want to use the flat or round for primary coats and the finish, the fan for large washes and blending layers and the chisel, or small flat, for various color detailing. If you are serious about detail, you can also pick up a small round, liner or shader to help you get into nooks and crannies. You may also want to purchase various sizes of the primary brushes depending on your scale. I had a hard time getting my 1″ flat in some inside corners when applying the finish. Finally, a note on quality, I wouldn’t go broke buying brushes, but I wouldn’t buy the absolute cheapest (something that may come in an low dollar education pack). Brushes are made of bristles, and cheap brushes easily lose their bristles, more than likely embedding into the paint. I lucked out and Michael’s was running a 40% off acrylic supplies sale, so I got most of mine for this project for around $3 a piece. Finally, you may want to buy some sponges for texture.

Paints

Obviously the right kind of paint is important. You’ll definitely want an acrylic based paint. I’d recommend staying away from the cheap wood acrylics (they run for a dollar or two, depending if Martha Stewart is sponsoring it or not). Wood paints like this just don’t have enough pigment and will be too transparent and take too many coats. If you stick to something a bit more expensive you’ll have a lot easier time, however, like the brushes, you don’t need to buy level III paints. I bought Liquitex Basics and they worked great for this project.

If you’ve never taken a color theory or painting class some of the finer intricacies (like what is the difference between mars black and ivory black). Essentially, all pigments are either warm (contain reds, yellows or magentas) or cool (blues, greens, and some violets) and even black and white can tend towards warm or cool. The names are actually often indicative of their “temperature”. For instance, mars black is a warm black and ivory black is a cool. But don’t be tricked: titanium white (metals sound cool, right?) is actually neither warm nor cool. Why is this important? It is easiest to mix warm colors together to keep the feel of the original color. Mixing a burnt umber with mars black will yield a warm color. Mixing a burnt umber with an ivory black will yield a bit murkier color (since you are actually mixing in some of the “blue” feel from the ivory black with the reds so you’ll get a more purplish brown). I would stick with all the same temperature of colors to make your life easier. If you are doing a desert scene, warm colors are, obviously, appropriate. Since that is what I was going with. I chose burnt umber, burnt sienna, mars black and unbleached titanium white (tends to be a bit warmer feeling, basically beige).

Finishes

Since you used plaster of paris and acrylic paints with who knows what in them, you’ll want to seal your piece off with a water based finish. I’ve heard of people using mod podge, and that’ll probably do just fine for most instances, but I would really recommend going with Minwax Polycrylic or another higher grade water based finish. You spent a lot of time working on your piece, you wouldn’t want any chemicals to leach off and potentially harm your reptile! You can buy a Minwax in a few different sizes, and it’ll last you a long, long time.

The Application

Now that you have everything you need it is time to get to work. I would take a look on google images and search things like “desert cave entrance”, “desert rock outcropping” and so forth to get an idea of what feel you want to give to your rocks. As previously stated, I went with a red desert feel. Beyond the colors I purchased I also mixed three additional colors: a light red brown using burnt umber, burnt sienna, and the unbleached titanium; a dark red brown using burnt umber, burnt sienna and a very little mars black (a little black goes a long way); a gray red brown using the unbleached titanium white, mars black (mixed together first) and then mixing in the light red brown until the gray takes on the reddish hue.
Just so I don’t have to repeat myself a million times: I significantly diluted all of my paints with water to treat them like a “wash” and allow for easy blending. You may not want this style with your piece (if you are showing layers in sedimentary rock, for example) but it it is a great way to blend and throw down a lot of layers. Also, painting is iterative. You shouldn’t get what you want on your first coat, but should rather build up the colors with multiple coats and multiple blendings.

First, I laid down a unbleached titanium wash on the whole piece. This way, no plaster white will show through. Next, I applied a wash of the light red brown using the fan brush. Followed by a coat of the dark red brown, also using the fan brush, but sticking to the divets and “lower” portions. After that I used burnt umber with the chisel tip and worked it into some nooks and crannies and undersides of jutting rocks to darken things up. At this point I had a pretty good “feel” going and played around with another light coat of light red brown to bring that color back out. Finally, I gave the whole thing a very light wash of the gray red brown. This filled in some spaces and muted the color some so that it had a “dusty” feel to it. After I was done painting, I applied three coats of the minwax (you could probably apply many, many more) to get the final result. It is a bit more glossy than I would have liked, but I’ll discuss some changes I’d make in the final section. However, here are the before and after results!

  • DIY Gecko Reptile Hide before painting
  • DIY Gecko Reptile Hide after painting

Lessons Learned

I’d like to close with a few suggestions I’ve thought up since finishing this project.

First: The polycrylic picks up some of the color when you apply it, therefore I would actually make your piece before finishing to have more contrast and be slightly darker than what you’d like. I’d also recommend you do MORE light coats and throw it down quickly, not revisiting places you’ve already applied the finish to, this will help avoid the pickup.

Second: My finish was pretty glossy despite being a satin. I think I need to either mix it more, or pick up some 600 grit sand paper and tone it down. Also, the finish makes things a bit slippery. While applying texture to the plaster is possible, I am going to try using an acrylic sculpting medium to lay down some grip on my larger insert. It would probably be best to use a sponge to apply as it will keep the texture natural.

Third: I said this in the sculpting article, but it bears repeating — nature isn’t perfect and you don’t have to be either. Have fun with this project and mess around with the colors. Make a few smaller rocks to test things out on, you can always toss them into your tank for some added effect if they turn out nicely!

If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!

See Also

DIY Handmade Reptile Hide

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