A Beginners Guide to Using Washes on Tabletop Miniatures

This tutorial series is for the beginner tabletop miniature painter. It is divided into the six steps I use to get the models to the table quickly with minimal effort with a good tabletop quality paint job. For an explanation of what is meant by tabletop quality read this article.

Note: Even though this tutorial uses a unit of Rebel Troopers as an example the skills demonstrated will apply to any other unit of models that you want to get done in a short amount of time.

The steps I use to paint gaming miniatures to tabletop quality are as follows:

What you need for washes

First of all, you will need a wash. My favorite pre-made washes can be found here. Or you can make your own. We will discuss both options later in this article.

Second, you will need a brush. The type of brush you use will depend greatly on the result you are looking for. When I am applying a wash to a large area and am trying for heavy shading I use the brush that I refer to as my mop. It is an old brush that has a lot of loose bristles that soak up wash like a sponge. This then allows me to quickly apply a sloppy wash that will drastically change the look and feel of the model.

Sometimes that is the right approach, but sometimes you need fine control. You can use any type of regular paintbrush to apply wash with control and finesse. The control that you have over the wash is limited only to your patience and practice.

Create shadows with the wash

Getting the most out of your paint job is all about creating contrast, the dynamic range between the brightest and darkest parts of your model. These are referred to as highlights and shadows respectively. Washes are the simplest way to achieve shadows on your tabletop models.

The process of applying a wash to your model involves using a very thin paint that flows into the recesses and fine detail areas of your models and then pooling the pigment in those locations. These washes will cause the entire model to darken a bit, so it is best if you took our advice and painted the base color a little brighter than the color you want to end up with.

Use colors to make the model pop

One of the things that I had to learn was that you can really enhance various areas of your model with different colors of wash. I began with applying a wash over the entire model that was just a uniform color such as brown. This gave the model a dirty feel that was nice for trenchers and other models that represent troops that are in the dirt and mud a lot. But for some other models this is not as nice.

In the above photos of three models, they were all base coated the same, different washes were applied to them to see how they affected them when compared with the one on the right that has not yet been washed.

The model on the left had a green wash applied to the blue skin of his head, a black wash applied to his weapon, a green wash applied to the green jacket and a reddish brown wash applied to the backpack, pants, and leather parts.

The model in the center had the same Muddy brown color applied sloppily to the entire mini.

Both wash styles added shadows that brought out fine details that were not as present with only the base coat. The finished result is a matter of preference.

Both methods make the models look much more defined. The process took less than a minute for the center model, and a bit longer for the results on the left. The single color method is great for painting large a number of models for new units that you are adding to your army.

Note: I did not wash the blue head on the center model. I like the way that the green wash changed the hue of his skin so much that I wanted to copy that onto all three models.

Washing flat surfaces is not recommended

Washes work the best on surfaces with natural recesses for the liquid to pool into, like cloth and fur. One of the problems with applying a wash to large flat surfaces is that they try to pool in odd places. If there are no natural low places it will just cling together in the middle of an area. This will create uneven shading and looks terrible like the top barricade in the picture below.

The simplest way to avoid models with large flat surfaces looking terrible after applying a wash to them is not to wash models that have large flat surfaces. Or if you really feel like there are places on the model that need shading, apply small amounts only onto those specific places.

Another method is to thin your wash to make it spread out much more and it will affect the color of the model in a more gradual way. This is what I did with the barricade on the bottom of the photograph. Thinning is described in greater detail below.

Make your own washes

Washes are simply very thinned down paint. There are a lot of pre-made options available for you to choose from. Much of the time you will be able to find one that suits your need quite easily. However there are times that you want to try a certain effect using a color that just isn’t available from a pre-made wash. This is when you make your own.

Start with choosing the color that you want your wash to be. Then on a pallet put the paint into one of the wells. Then you will need to thin it. Using an additive such as flow improver or mixing medium instead of water has its advantages and disadvantages. These additives have been created to be color neutral and will not affect the hue or tone of your new wash. They tend to be thinner than normal paint and will allow it to flow better. The disadvantage is that these are often still too thick for it to flow like water.

Using clean freshwater allows your newly created wash to flow into recesses very easily. Tap water is usually just fine, depending on where you live. If you you are concerned with your tap water affecting the color of your wash, then use distilled water to totally avoid any impurities in the water you use during painting.

Tip: When making your own washes avoid using flat surfaced pallets because they are much thinner than regular paint and will run off the edge easily.

How to intensify your washes

You can control the intensity of the wash simply by controlling the dilution of the paint. If you feel like the wash is affecting the colors of your model too much you can dilute it to make it less intense. When making your own wash, just add some more clean water to the mixture to thin it out some more. 

When using a pre-made wash there are two primary methods to adjust the intensity of the wash.

First, and my preferred method for small batches, add water to your model. Get a clean cup of water and a clean brush. dip the brush into the water and then transfer the water to the model. Once the area that you will be washing is wet set aside your clean brush and pick up the brush that you will use to wash the model. get a small amount of wash on your brush and then apply it as usual. The water on the model will mix with the wash and it will flow into the recesses more freely. This will leave less on the raised surfaces of your model creating deeper shadows and affecting the higher areas much less.

You could also use a spray bottle full of water set to a fine mist that would cover the entire model at once if you are washing the entire model the same color. This will greatly increase the speed and evenness of the water application. It is a bit too much water if you are applying wash to small controlled areas though. Experiment and have fun.

The second method is to transfer some wash to a small pallet and dilute it with clean water or another dilution agent like flow improver before applying it to the model. This method is good if you are applying wash to a lot of models in one sitting. But it usually takes a bit of wash from your bottle so if you are only doing one or two models I recommend the previous method.

Bonus Tip: Additives

There are some times that you want your wash to behave in a way that is different than normal. Sometimes you are trying to achieve an overall shading of your model but not achieve shadows. In this case, you can add a small amount of white PVA glue to your wash. PVA glue dries clear in small amounts so it does not affect the coloration of your wash very much. It also makes your wash more tactile so that it runs less. As it dries it will stay on the raised surfaces almost as much as your recesses, giving you an overall shading rather than shadows.

Dish soap will thin your wash and have almost the opposite effect of glue. A very small amount of dish soap goes a long way, do not use concentrated dish soap for this. Washes that have a small amount of dish soap will run into the recesses of your model leaving the raised areas almost unaffected by the colors. This effect can be very useful when using bright colors as your base coat.

Recommended items for washes

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