Wooden nativity scenes are beautiful displays for front yards. They can be expensive to buy. Tracing the pattern and cutting them out provides a more affordable project. The hard part is painting them. Staring at these large pieces of blank wood can be frightening. Especially, if you are not an artist. It doesn’t have to be. Break the scene into manageable sections. Make the Holy Family the first year. In the consecutive years add 1 or 2 pieces a year. This helps spread out the cost and work. I don’t recommend painting more than 3 pieces at a time.
Have a space dedicated to the work. If possible create an area where you can set up to paint, and leave it up. It can take about 2 – 3 days to complete one piece (about 4 feet tall). If you plan this project for the summer, you can use the patio or garage. Cover the area with a drop cloth. No matter how careful you are, paint drips. Place the nativity piece on an elevated surface. Make sure you can walk all around it. You will also need an area to keep your paints, brushes, and clean up supplies.
Pick out your paint. Choose the type of paint you will be using. Craft paint is easier and comes in many colors. It will need to be coated with polyurethane, to protect it from the weather. You can use outdoor house paint, but that is expensive. I use craft paint from the craft store. It works well, dries quickly, and is easy to clean up. Decide on the color scheme of your finished Nativity scene. Even if you are only doing a few pieces at a time. Buy the colors all at once. Basic colors such as black, blue, red, white, and green should be bought in the larger bottles. It is amazing the amount of paint wood will soak up. You can buy more colors later, if you run out.
Buy your brushes. In my experience small house painting brushes work best for this type of painting. Especially when you are painting large areas, or the bottom coat. Sponge brushes tend to drag and pull on the wood and leave an uneven finish. They can be used for texture. You will also need a set of smaller detail brushes. Invest in a nice set with a variety of sizes. If you take care of them they will last. As you begin to paint you will discover which brushes you prefer.
Backs and backgrounds. When you start to paint, paint all of the backs first. Don’t forget the edges. Even though no one will see the back, they should have at least 2 coats of really good paint. For this I recommend house paint. The color is not important. Any leftover house paint will work. After that has dried, flip the pieces over to the front. Using a black paint pen, draw a fine outline of the piece. Add any large details such as hat, robes, and hair. This will make it easier when you paint. If there is negative space around the actual piece, paint that black. Assume the Nativity was at night. It makes it easier to paint, and it looks good at night. At this point, you have an outlined figure surrounded by a black night.
Paint the ground. This is the easiest thing to paint. I don’t try to get too detailed with my Nativity scene. It is really hard, if you are not an artist. Texture goes a long way. I recommend using 3 colors for the ground, green, brown, and a little yellow. Paint the entire ground area green. With the sponge brush mix brown and a little yellow. Use a dabbing motion, repeatedly going up and down, all over the ground area. This will create a mottled look. Repeat this with more green, until you have the desired look. Don’t let the paint dry until you are totally finished.
Paint the people. Paint a bottom coat of each color you are using. Allow to dry. When you apply the second coat, metallic and glitter paints can be added for extra detail. Don’t paint too many details such as wrinkles and folds. It is really hard. Most of those finer details will not be seen from the street. A thin black outline can be added at the very end, for areas that need extra definition. Remember to add a small white dot in the pupil of the eye. Hair, like grass, can use texture. Add 2 or 3 colors and lines in the hair.
Paint animals. Animals also need texture. Use the same dabbing technique for the fur. Use 2 or 3 colors and add color over and over until you have the desired result. When painting the mane, add long thin strokes of color. If your donkey has all four legs showing, paint the far side legs with less color and texture. They need to stand out just a little.
Painting your own outdoor nativity scene is a fun and rewarding experience. Just remember, choose your colors ahead of time. Don’t paint too much detail, and add texture. A little glitter will add sparkle. When your scene is complete you will be rewarded with a one of a kind creation.
Source: personal experience