Painting Miniatures: Washes and Shading

I’m going to spend the next few posts adding a bit more to the 3 basic techniques I covered last time. I’d like to focus some more on washes and shading. If you want to quickly add something to a basic paint job to make your miniatures stand out, adding a wash will offer more than drybrushing. So if you wanted to add a little bling to your board game bits and didn’t want to throw in a ton of effort, a simple wash or quick shading will do wonders.

A basic means of making a wash is to add water to a paint thinning it down. You are going for a consistency of paint that is very fluid like water. This will add just a tinge of color to upper edges but allow more pigment to pool in the recesses and deeper details. This is a pretty simple means to make your own wash, bypassing the need of purchasing dedicated washes.

I first have to offer an excellent overview of shades, inks, and washes by Dr. Faust’s Painting Clinic. He covers one issue that can creep up sometimes when doing washes, especially if just using thinned down paints. Occasionally you can get an uneven layering of color due to pigment depositing higher up on miniature details as the wash dries. This usually crops up in smoother transitions of detail like tunic smocks and cloaks. It also is more common when covering lighter base colors with dark shades of brown and black.

One way to get around this is creating your own special wash mixture of Wet Water. Use about a drop of soap per 1-4 ounces of water in an empty bottle. This results in a solution with reduced surface tension, allowing for more uniform mixes of wash. Be sure to add soap sparingly. Too much and you’ll get foaming. A tiny amount will provide just the right amount of surfactant needed. Using this to mix on a palette in place of regular water, you end up with a wash that has a more uniform flow of pigment.

If you are using a particular color repeatedly, you may want to consider making your own wash solution diluting with wet water. That way you can simply get your wash directly from the bottle. If you have a lot of figures to go through and want the most consistency, this is a good option. However you may want to consider looking into purchasing washes if you have a pile of figures you want to paint in a similar scheme.

Inks are similar to washes, except the pigment is more intense. They are excellent if wanting to impart more color to your shading, particularly for brighter colors. Like with paint washes, you want to dilute out inks quite a bit as even diluted they can provide a lot of color. Glazes can be used for shading but work more for blending colors. Glazes are a great means to add subtle transitions of color like folds of cloth on a miniature. One thing about inks, you might end up getting a gloss shine to a figure. Don’t panic. If you are following through all the steps of miniature painting, using a matte varnish to seal the figure will cut down any glossiness from ink washes.

A good technique for working with washes is to use different colors for sections of your figure. Using different color washes can bring out a great amount of detail to add some intensity to parts of a model. However single washes with neutral tones can provide a fairly easy means to add shading to a mini.

I highly recommend getting some Sepia Ink for miniature painting. This is a fairly neutral shade that you can use as an entire wash for a miniature. For flesh tones this can add a good amount of color to faces and still work well for clothing. You can see with some 28mm Russians below, just a single wash of sepia ink can bring out details on faces and add some shadow to tunics and clothing. Instead of working with various brown and green washes for these figures, a single wash of this neutral brown works well enough.

Be mindful though this can sometimes mute your colors too much. You can see with the orc below that a sepia ink wash certainly imparts a dingy look to the figure. However it also lessens the transitions of color like from the skin to layers of the figure’s clothing. Sometimes this is an effect you want to go for. But if looking to emphasize portions of a miniature, you have to put extra effort into blending and highlighting those parts when working with a single wash.

[EDIT: So Games Workshop has introduced Contrast Paints which look like an interesting product. They might replace the need for washes entirely. For new painters or people looking to get a slew of minis painted to tabletop standard, these paints might be worth a look.]