Indispensable. Expensive. No Longer.
Washes are an invaluable model painting aid that when applied to selective parts of a model with a small brush and allowed to flow along recessed lines and around detail area. The create a look of depth and shadow where the depression and detail (hinges, rivets, mortar joints etc) are too small to create their own natural shadows.
The problem, however, is that washes tend to be expensive. Around £5 for a bottle. Not individually expensive but the cost mounts up and given the amount of actual paint in them is tiny this is surely something that can be done cheaper.
I’ve long admired the work of miniature painters and am very pleased that artist Paul Roethele (the man behind the lead head blog) has kindly given permission to run his guide on making your own washes here Model Railway Engineer. Paul uses them extensively on his gorgeous miniature figures but the techniques works just as well for locomotives, rolling stock and buildings of model railway.
Over to Paul…
Washes are an indispensable tool for most painters. While some people claim that washes are a “beginner’s crutch”, in my opinion, washes can often accomplish shading with as good as, or even better results (in some cases), than tediously painting many layers.
Most washes have three basic components in common:
- The wash medium, that makes up the bulk of the wash (usually water);
- the pigment (paint, ink, etc.);
- and a surfactant (something that reduces the surface tension of water). This is what allows the wash to settle down into the crevices of the model, rather than “pooling” on the surface.
For years, painters used a basic wash of water + paint + dish soap to achieve this. Many still use just that, and it can work well.
A few years ago Games Workshop introduced the Citadel Washes, which work brilliantly (but, like all GW products, are a bit expensive). There are also dozens, if not hundreds, of “homebrew” wash formulas all over the wargaming & modelling forums.
Here I’m going to talk about some of the more popular homebrew washes, how to make them, and what they can do for you.
Many painters have a standard “go-to” wash that they treat models with before painting, in order to make the details “pop” a bit, which makes picking them out easier during painting.
One that I’ve tried and had good luck with is that from this article by Ron Vutpakdi.
To make this wash, you’ll need:
- Matte medium;
- Distilled water;
- and your choice of pigment.
A few notes:
- Use distilled water when mixing your washes. You could have all kinds of funky chemicals and/or mineral deposits in your tap water. A gallon of distilled water meanwhile costs a few pounds at the grocery store, will give far better results and will last you forever.
- You want the standard liquid matte medium — not the “gel” version. This should be available at art supply houses or craft stores. I bought mine at Michael’s. It’s kind of pricey ($20 for a sixteen-ounce bottle), but if you sign up for Michael’s email newsletter, they’ll email you a 40% off coupon.You can also buy an eight-ounce bottle for half the price if you’re so inclined. [MRE note: In the UK, the equivalent can be found at ww.hobbycraft.co.uk]
To make this wash, the recipe is:
- 1 part paint (I used Citadel Chaos Black);
- 3-4 parts matte medium;
- and 3-4 parts water.
I used disposable pipettes with graduated marking on the side to measure the ingredients. (I get mine from eBay). For this recipe, I used an empty 1oz bottle also available from eBay.
To use this wash, just brush it liberally on a white-primed model. Here’s a shot of a miniature wargame Space Marine Librarian with just a primer coat (on the left) and after the wash (on the right).
You can see how it makes the details much more apparent, and it also gives you the advantage of “pre-shading” the crevices — this prevents the “dirty” look that can happen if you get too enthusiastic while washing an already base-coated model.
Be sure to label all your bottles so you know what’s in them. I would usually use a label maker for this but I ran out of label tape — a Sharpie will do in a pinch.
There are a lot of people who claim to have discovered the perfect “magic wash” — they make it sound like all you have to do is basecoat your model, slop on their “magic wash”, and collect your Gold star.
While they’re not that amazing, they do work well and are especially a good tool for painters who just want to get their models to a good standard as quickly as possible.
One thing they all seem to have in common is using acrylic floor wax as an ingredient. This version comes from the recipe from an article on Dr Faust’s Painting Clinic.
To make these washes you’ll need:
- Distilled water;
- Future acrylic floor polish;
- and your choice of pigment. (I used Formula P3 & Vallejo Game Color inks).
I would recommend inks over paint for these washes, as they seem to give better results.
The scale modelling community has been singing the praises of Future Floor Polish for years — those in the wargaming community seem to love it or hate it. (An employee at one of the larger paint manufacturers told me that the person in charge of formulating their paints absolutely hated it, and their exact quote was “I will not make my paint play nice with your floor wax”).
I find that it can be useful, and is worth keeping a bottle around. (The standard “gunk” mixture that I keep on my desk and use to thin all my paints is a 50/50 mix of Future & water).
Future has recently been rebranded as “Pledge with FUTURE Shine Floor Finish” (which led to a rash of panic attacks on the scale modelling forums — don’t worry, it’s the same stuff as before). It’ll be in the supermarket in the same aisle as the cleaning supplies. If I remember correctly, it was six or seven pounds for a bottle, but again, one bottle should be enough to last you for years.
To make these washes, the recipe is:
- 1 part Future;
- 4 parts water;
- and the desired amount of pigment.
I went ahead and made up several batches of this wash:
Here is the wash after being applied directly to a white-primed model to give you an idea of the effect:
You can see how the wash settles into the crevices but has little effect on high surfaces.
(Don’t forget about gravity, either — I should have laid this model down when I washed it, which would have prevented so much of the wash from running down & off the model. Oops.)
Les’ Wash Recipe
Be advised that this wash is a bit of work to make and requires some expensive components, but just about everyone who has tried it has raved about it.
(If you look at Les’ models, it’s awfully hard to argue with the results).
And again, a number of materials you’ll be buying are enough to make a ridiculous amount of washes — if cost is a big concern, get a couple of friends to contribute and none of you will have to buy washes for years.
To make these washes, you’ll need:
- The matte medium we talked about earlier;
- Distilled water;
- Flow Aid
This should also be available where you bought the matte medium. Again, it’s kind of pricey (£8 a bottle), but you’ll use very little of it at a time.
- Acrylic waterproof drawing ink
These are not the inks sold by model paint manufacturers — they are inks specifically for drawing/calligraphy.They’ll be at the craft store near the sketchbooks, pens, etc. Les states his preferred brand is Daler Rowney Acrylic Artist’s Inks.My local store didn’t have those in stock — you may have to order them online if you want that specific brand.Some people seem to feel that using the Daler Rowney inks is essential, others report good results with other brands (see this forum thread for discussion on this). I recommend looking for the keywords “artist’s ink“, “acrylic“, and “waterproof” on the bottle — if it has all three of these covered, you’re probably good to go.I chose Higgins Black Magic (I actually used to use this in art classes back in my college days) and Speedball Super Pigmented Acrylic calligrapher’s ink.
Warning** This stuff is several orders of magnitude more permanent than anything you’ve painted with before. If you spill this all over the carpet, or on your favourite shirt, or the cat, IT IS NEVER COMING OUT. You have been warned.
I also bought an assortment of empty plastic bottles & jars for this wash — since it’s more of a pain to make, I make up a batch of the “stock” to keep around so I don’t have to do it very often.
To make Les’ wash
First, make up a 10:1 mix of distilled water & flow aid.
To do this, I took a 2-ounce bottle and a ruler and marked off measurements:
I filled the bottle 9/10ths of the way full with distilled water, then added 1/10th flow aid.
I did this twice and poured the mix into a larger 8-ounce bottle I had bought. I then filled the rest of the 8-ounce bottle with matte medium, for a 50/50 ratio of matte medium and water/flow-aid mixture.
This is your “wash stock”
To make your desired wash, just fill a container with the wash stock and add the ink in the following ratios:
- “Heavy” black wash: 60 drops black ink per ounce of stock
- “Soft” black wash: 20 drops black ink per ounce of stock
- Colors: 40 drops ink per ounce of stock
I currently use a black wash than any other colour, so I made a large batch. I added my stock to a 2oz. plastic jar and then added the ink.
(In hindsight, I do not recommend using this type of jar for the washes — when you shake the jar to mix the wash before using, the wash gets into the threads of the jar, then the matte medium dries and gums up the threads. Lesson learned).
For the green, I just used an empty Citadel pot that I had on hand.
Obviously “drops of ink” is not going to be a consistent measurement when you’re dealing with different manufacturer’s inks, bottle droppers, etc., so you’ll want to play around with these to get the colour you want.
You can also add more matte medium if you want the consistency of the wash to be thicker, or more water if you want it to be thinner.
I also keep a small notebook in which I write down wash recipes & paint mixes. This makes it much more likely that you’re going to be able to replicate that colour you mixed a few weeks ago when you notice a spot you missed on the underside of a model …
> The original version of this can be found on Paul’s site theleadheadblog.blogspot.co.uk. Take a look now if you haven’t already.
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"Awesome stuff. I will be using your site a lot, for tips and ideas." @MuddingtonIII