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Creating washes for miniature painting

So we recently had a question in our group(The NJSOBs) about how to paint bone on Warmachine/Hordes models.  My answer to this was, as it always is, use a wash.

When I was working at a Games Workshop retail store, we were in a mall and therefore required to open at 9AM, but very few gamers came in before 4:30 after school let out and later when people got out of work.  I regularly worked the morning shift and with all this free time, I got to batch paint a lot of models for the store, other stores and GamesDay.  As you may have figured out, my go to technique was creating custom washes(this was before GW’s glorious pre-mixed washes).

I ended up showing some of the guys the varying effects of creating washes on some spare bits I had, and I thought that I’d share them with the internets.

I’ll start by laying out some ground rules for how I mixed these washes.

I attempted to make the measurements for the various substances as accurate as possible

  • Paint:  Each part paint is 1 drop from a Vallejo Scorched Brown bottle
  • Water:  Each part water is 1 drop from an eye dropper
  • Mixing Medium:  Each part is 1 drop from P3 Mixing Medium
  • PVA Glue/Dish Detergent:  Each part is 1 “small brushfull”.  This is where it got iffy.  I tried to approximate a drop of the other ingredients.

I painted on spare old GW skeleton weapon arms.  The bone was basecoated with Vallejo Bonewhite over white P3 primer.

SCIENCE!!!!!

The big principle behind washes is surface tension.  Read more if you’re interested here.  Basically, it’s the idea that water molecules clump together.  This is why when you drop a drop of water on the counter, it forms a bead of water instead of flowing all over the place.  It is also the reason that your watery paints accumulate in the recesses of your model whether you want them to or not.  Since water inherently has this surface tension, you will get some of the effects of washes with simply watering down your paints.  There are ways to control this a little better though.

Straight Water

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These are photos of 1/2 and 1/4 paint/water mixtures.

This mixture will provide more of a tint to the flat area and still pool in the recesses.  This can tend to leave a residual ‘ring’ near the recessed areas as you can see clearly in the 1/2 picture.  Also notice the haft of the weapon below the hand.  The surface tension of the water alone isn’t enough to keep the wash pooled and it has run down the haft.  This can be bad on an important part of the model.

Your friend PVA glue

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These mixtures are 1/4/2 and 1/4/4 of Paint/Water/PVA Glue.  Adding PVA(white Elmer’s type) glue to your mix should, I believe, increase the surface tension of the wash.  This causes the wash to ‘pool’ more but also keeps it controlled.  Notice how there is not as much of the brown creating ‘rings’ near the recesses in  the 1/4/2 mix and even less in the 1/4/4 mix.  Also notice on the 1/4/2 that while the paint has slopped a little on the axe haft, it has generally stayed glued(pun intended) to the recess, thereby giving you more control.

This is the type of wash I use all over my painting.  I use GW washes when they’re the appropriate color because they’re just easier, but when I want something custom, I break out the PVA.

These examples show a very dark wash over a very light color.  When the wash is closer to the base color, the shading will be much more subtle.  Here is an example of the 1/4/2 wash over a khaki instead of a bone.  The shading is much more subtle and khaki is still a pretty light color.

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Examples

  • On my battle mages I wash the white armor with a couple of layers of light grey for the armor(guide to come).  I use a wash with a lot of PVA to get the purple in the glowy cracks without tinting the white too much.  I use Devlan Mud and Thraka Green for the cloth.  I use Devlan Mud and Ogryn Flesh for the skin.  All kinds of washes.
  • On my Cryx jacks I wash the black drybrushed grey armor with Badab Black and Devlan Mud.  I wash the white glowy cores with a custom Dark Angles Green wash with a lot of PVA to keep the white showing a bit.  I wash the bone with Badab Black and Devlan Mud as well.
  • On my Banes I detail a lot of different washes for the armor and the green glow.
  • Even on my carefully painted Vyros I use custom washes for shading all the armor, tinting the metal and shading the skin.

GW Washes

For comparison, here is a Devlan Mud wash from GW.
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Mixing Medium

I have been told that Mixing Medium has a similar effect to PVA glue.  It may just be my habits but I can’t quite seem to get the same effect with it.  Here’s an example.
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It works well on the detailed crevices, but you can notice the same ‘leaking’ effect on the haft that the pure water wash has, making it harder to control.  Perhaps in more experienced hands, you can get the same effect.

Decreasing the Surface Tension

While PVA glue increases the surface tension and makes the wash pool more, adding dish soap(the kind you wash dishes by hand with) decreases it, allowing the wash to flow more freely.  You can see here that this wash done with soap more evenly coats the flat areas.  Since it still has a lot of water in it, it will still pool in the recesses.
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Surface Tension Comparison

To illustrate the differences between the different mixtures, I mixed each up and simply spread them across a wax lined paper bowl.
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From top to bottom on the right:

  • 1/4/2 Paint/Water/Dish Soap
  • 1/4 Paint/Water
  • 1/4/2 Paint/Water/PVA
  • 1/4/4 Paint/Water/PVA
  • GW Devlan Mud

On the left

  • 1/4/2 Paint/Water/Mixing Medium

These are in various stages of being wet as I mixed them in a row but you can see how they pooled.

You can see the lack of surface tension with the soap.  This is good if you want a ‘glaze’ to just tint your model, but not pool as much.

You can see the increase in pooling from no PVA through more PVA.

I think that the Devlan Mud most closely matches the 1/4/2 PVA mix, which is why these washes fit my style so closely.

As I do this experiment I see that the Mixing Medium mix most closely matches the 1/4/4 PVA mix, making me think that I’m just using too much, or that the difference in consistency is throwing me off.  We learn something every day.

Conclusion

Washes are awesome.  I kid but they can be awful if you don’t know how to use them, ruining your careful paint job.  Knowing how they function and the effect they have on a basecoat can give you the confidence to use them all the time, like me.  Washing a basecoat can give you some great subtle shades when you can mix your own washes to the consistency you like.

As my example of this, for my Battle Mages, I basecoated the armor white.  I then shade with a roughly 50/50 mix of white and fortress grey(still pretty light) with something like the 1/4/2 PVA mix of the wash.  This doesn’t tint the armor much but gives me a subtle shade.  After this drys, I give it another wash with a pure fortress grey wash following more closely to the 1/4/4 mix of the wash.  This tints even less and gives me a second shade, only in the recesses.  I then quickly highlight with some white to make it crisp.  On my Vyros I did something similar but with Underbelly blue and Trollblood base to get the blue shading effect.

Please let me know if you have any questions or there are any specific examples you would like to see.  I hope this can help people with their painting, especially if they’re just getting started.

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  1. interesting, the use of PVA glue in the washes 😀

      • mbh2911
      • September 5th, 2011

      That’s awesome, thank you for posting…. now gonna go try some home made washes and save some £’s.
      Cheers!!!

    • Ron
    • October 23rd, 2012

    Good tips, but Isn’t PVA glue hard on brushes after continued use?
    Or are the amounts used too small to affect the bristles?

      • EclecticGamer
      • October 23rd, 2012

      When I’m mixing the wash I use the other end of the brush to mix it up so you don’t get chunks of glue in the brush. After it’s mixed it actually dissolves pretty well. Also you are correct, PVA glue is never used in such a large amount that it’s most of the mixture.

  1. March 20th, 2011
  2. April 19th, 2011

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