Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Making Your Own Washes

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. 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 & modeling 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.

"Darklining" Wash

Many painters have a standard "go-to" wash that they treat all their minis 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 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 costs one measly dollar at the grocery store, 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.

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 from Reaper (available on their website - $3 for a three-pack):

To use this wash, just brush it liberally on a white-primed model. Here's a shot of a Space Marine Librarian with only a primer coat:

...and here's the same model after the wash:

...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-basecoated model.

Be sure to label all your bottles so you know what's in them. I would usually use a labelmaker for this but I ran out of label tape - a Sharpie will do in a pinch.

"Magic" Washes

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 Golden Demon. While they're not that amazing, they do work well, and are especially a good tool for gamers who just want to get their models to tabletop 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 of 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 modeling community has been singing the praises of Future Floor Polish for years - wargamers 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 modeling 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 dollars 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

Les Bursley from Awesome Paint Job is an extremely talented painter who puts out fantastic YouTube videos that share his painting methods. A while ago he decided to share his wash recipe, and answered many questions about it in this thread at DakkaDakka.

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, the amount 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 buddies to throw in a few dollars apiece 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 in 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 the forum thread for discussion about this). I recommend looking for the key words "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 favorite 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 the 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 your 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 more black wash than any other color, so I made a large batch. I added my stock to a 2oz. plastic jar:

...then I 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 color 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.

Speed Test!

So, a big part of the appeal of washes is the ability to bring a model to "tabletop standard" quickly. Using many of the washes listed above, I decided to try a "speed painting" test to see how long it would take me to complete a model, and what the results would be.

I grabbed a spare Ork Boyz model that was sitting on my desk:

...I basecoated it very quickly with paint slopped directly out of the pot, using one of my cheap nylon "junk" brushes that I keep around for mixing paint, drybrushing, etc. First the flesh was brushed with Citadel Gnarloc Green:

Then a coat of Scorched Brown on the clothes, and Chaos Black on the boots & glove:

Boltgun Metal on the gun, sword, helmet & chest plate:

My total time investment at this point is about 5 minutes. Next I applied some washes:

-Green "Magic Wash" on the face, to even out the color:

-Brown "Magic Wash" on the face, arms & bandage:

Les' Heavy Black wash on the face, metal surfaces, & a few spots on the arms:

I also applied some of Les' Heavy Black wash to some spots on the clothes, to pick out some details:

(Whoops, looks like I slopped some brown spots on his arms, and completely missed that there's an another armor plate on his back - well, I was trying to paint it as fast as I could!)

When the washes were dry, I drybrushed the teeth with Bleached Bone and dotted the eyes with Blood Red, and did the top of the base with a quick mix of the Blood Red & Scorched Brown, and the lip of the base in Snakebite Leather:

...and there's the results, with a total of about 10 minutes worth of work. If I had been "assembly line" painting a whole batch of models at once it would have been even faster, since I wouldn't have had to stop and rinse my brush, etc., between colors. You can see how the wash really picks out details like between the fingers/fingernails, shading on the metal surfaces, and seams on the clothing. It's not going to win any contests, but it's quick, easy, and infinitely better than fielding an unpainted army on your next game night.

Make sure to keep a small notebook on your desk to write down your wash recipes & paint mixes:

This makes it much more likely that you're going to be able to replicate that color you mixed a few weeks ago, when you notice a spot you missed on the underside of a model later...


  1. Wow, that has to be the most in depth post I've ever read on washes.

    The obvious question now is: which of them do you prefer?


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  2. Personally, I use the "Les' Wash Recipe' the most, but it all depends on your painting style. I tend to do fairly detailed paint jobs, and use washes to add depth, but if you're a "I want to paint as little as possible" type, the Magic Washes are indispensable...

  3. This is SO awesome; thank you, sir.I'm sure I'll reference this post for YEARS to come; don't let it go away, please!

  4. Great write up. I realize this is a couple years old, however, has anybody found a good recipe for Ogryn Flesh wash? My closest FLGS is about 2 hours away, and I'd rather not drive there just to pick up a bottle. Besides, it's funner to make your own!

  5. Thanks for the comparison. Rather than mixing, I just put a drop of matte medium, a drop of water/flow aid, and a drop of paint on a wet palette. This is flexible enough to use as a wash, glaze, shading, or basecoat as I need. Very useful for analog color schemes!

  6. Question: What are the downsides of not using Distilled water, and sticking with safe to drink tap water, as it is quite awkward to purchase in the UK ??

    1. I realize you probably left this post behind long ago but in case someone else wants to know; Water varies in quality a lot, even out of the same minicipal pipes, and not just in toxicity but in consistency. You have a LOT of trace materials and minerals in tap water that will break the surface tension of your wash or even your paint. Since paint is so think when applied I don't really worry about ionized water but when I'm trying to get a perfect thin ink wash it's an ionized filtered water makes a visible difference in the lay of my washes.

  7. mooci - sorry, just saw your comment four months later. You CAN use regular tap water, but if you have a well or live in an area with lots of minerals in the water ("hard" water) there could be a chalky residue when the wash dries, or it could alter the color. If distilled water is unavailable, I'd recommend at least using water than has been run through a charcoal filter (like in a Brita pitcher).

  8. Modified any of these recipes for Bones? Straight Pledge and paint seems to work, but is quite glossy.

  9. Years later, still helping people.

  10. I have a 10:1 Water:Flow-aid mix. Can I use that with Vallejo model paints to make washes?

    1. I'm not sure if Valejo was making their airbrush paints in 2015 but I'd highly recommend that stuff for home washes. It has a strong very fine pigment you can wash down to almost nothing without striation in the coloring. If you're wanting to do a heavier wash or glaze then Vallejo paints will work but maybe up the ratio of water in your mix to dilute them.

  11. HI, great artical. I have been using my own recipie for washes which is quite similar.
    However I have great difficulty getting artist inks that are not more expensive than GW inks. Also brown inks are a bit of history now... only auditors used to use brown ink and it has dissapeared from shops in my country.
    But I have used artist dye powders instead... it seems to work ok. As long as I mix it very well and give the wash a good swirl in the bottle before using. Have you tried any dye powders?

  12. Thanks for posting this tutorial. It helped me a lot working on a mini for a friend--really helped bring out the details of the work.

  13. 6 years later and still helping hobbyists. Thanks for the tips and recipes!

  14. Michaels has $6 matte medium now. :)

  15. Once dry (which can take frickin hours, unless you have a hair dryer handy!) you can use a cotton-bud/make-up applicator and alcohol to clean up the model. Because of this, you can be a bit sloppy when applying the wash. Another benefit is that when you do remove excesses, the alcohol left behind diffuses the oil paint a bit, so on larger areas you get some free shading!
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  17. Such a great article. One question tho if u are still around on the net. For the magic polish, am i right to say it should act like those citadel shades one can find nowadays?

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