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How one man is turning action figures into art

Matthew Rex is a designer working at Disney Interactive, which is a job that would keep most of us busy. He has an interesting hobby, however: turning run-of-the-mill retail action figures into works of art.

Rex caught my attention when he posted some pictures of his custom Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles work on Twitter, and I had to know how he did it. He was kind enough to sit down with me and share more images, as well as his process. The nicest thing I can say is that this is a man who can take inexpensive versions of Michael Bay's awful character designs and make them look completely badass.

The process

For reference, this is how the retail Donatello toy looks out of the box. It's not a terrible sculpt; it's just based on an already controversial design, and there's only so much you can do with a toy you can buy for under $10.

Before Don

It's time to get to work!


"The supplies definitely cost more than all the figures combined," Rex told me. This was the list he sent over:

  • Games Workshop / Citadel Paints (bases, details, washes, dry, matte/satin/gloss varnishes)
  • a multitude of different-sized brushes (standard brushes, wash brushes, dry brushes, detail brushes)
  • X-Acto knife
  • super glue
  • 600 grain sandpaper (for sanding down the weapons)
  • plastic primer (the plastic that the weapons are made from resists paint/glue)
  • craft ribbon (for replacing all 'fabric' wrappings on the figures/weapons)
  • craft chain (for Mike's chains, weapon chains)
  • craft aluminum wire (for Don's cables)
  • tweezers (for handling smaller pieces)
  • metallic Sharpies (for weapon detailing)
  • Dremel tool (drilling holes for chains in weapons, trimming plastics)
  • washcloth (for wiping down washes, brushes, etc.)

The first step is to strip the characters of all accessories; everything is painted individually. Rex applies a base coat of paint, and ribbon is glued where it would exist on the real character. Reference materials were hard to come by, but a few publicity stills and the movie trailers helped. After that, he applies several washes.

I had to admit I was unfamiliar with a few of these terms.

"Doing a 'wash' is a technique to bring out details in the sculpt. Typically a wash can be done using watered-down paint or special paints made just for doing washes," he explained.

You brush a "liberal" amount of paint over the figure, and it fills all the sculpt's fine details. "From there, depending on your intended result, you wipe the paint from the surface area of the figure, leaving it to stay only in the crevices. Depending on how much you want to 'stain' the surface, to give it some of the color from the wash, you can make the wash thicker so some of it stays on the surface when you wipe it off. Doing this essentially gives the piece depth by adding the illusion of depth and shadows where there was none before."

Another technique is dry-brushing, which is sort of the opposite technique, but often done in tandem. A small amount of paint is placed on a brush, and then you dab it onto different areas, or use very quick strokes to apply paint to the surface.

One of the best places to see the results of all these techniques are the Turtles' finished shells. "Their shells started as a solid piece of brown plastic with no paint involved," Rex explained.

"First you add a wash, letting all the dark paint seep into the cracks and detail of the sculpt. Applying thicker washes helps stain the surface and give the shell a range of color. Lastly, dry-brushing in lighter shades of brown helps bring color back to what became a pretty dark shell after the washes," he continued. "You can actually see the different layers of process here. A new base coat, a wash to fill in the cracks and then the lighter color to help add highlights back to the shell."

Shell paint

"Knowing when I'm done is largely a personal decision," he said. "The figures aren't 100 percent accurate to the movie, and chances are, they never will be. I am in the process of trying to figure out a solution for Don and Raph's glasses. I may end up needing to sculpt them from scratch, or just not worry about it."

This is the finished group of Turtles.

Group light

So how much time does this take?

"I would say I did one figure per session, and a session usually lasted around four hours. Donatello took the longest at a little over five hours, because of all the gear he has," Rex said. "The weapons were all done separately in their own four-hour-ish session. I've added little things to each figure here and there since they were 'done,' so it's probably fair to say 5-6 total hours each."

To give you a sense of detail, this is a close-up of Raphael.


Notice the detail on the weapon, from the metallic paint to the actual cloth wrapped around the weapon. This is what the weapon looked like out of the box.


And here's the full version of Raphael.


Scroll back up to the top of the story and check out what Donatello looked like out of the box. Compare that to Rex's finished, hand-painted work.

Don finished

The finished products look like works of art, and indeed Rex used to sell his finished characters in college to support his toy habit. The finished figures went for $120 to $300 each.

"I would say it took a good month or so of practice before finally starting to get it. What's nice about doing this style of customizing is mistakes are kind of hard to make," he told me.

"A lot of times, if you're doing a project that involves 'weathering' something — making it look worn, battle-damaged or beat up — you are using a lot of techniques that support the existing paint. In a lot of cases you won't be re-painting completely, you're just adding in a lot of detail. The best thing you can practice on are things you want to look beat up, because you can take a lot of liberties and make a lot of mistakes without it ever looking like it."

There is no plan to sell these figures, and Rex said he regrets selling many of the figures he painted in the past. "When the TMNT movie figures were first announced, my head immediately went to 'making those look cool would be a really fun project!' so I did it. The only goal I had was to make something I was happy with and proud to display," he said.

Mission accomplished.

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