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How to Use Paint Washes to Create Depth

Washes-LAV25 with wash details The wash technique can enhance the surface details in many places as indicated by the red circles.  From left to right: Panel line around hatch; grill; shadow around lift ring; ridges on jerry can and hinges on roof hatch.


This tutorial sets out the theory and practice of using a paint wash to improve the appearance of a scale model.  It includes a step-by-step guide on how to apply a wash.  It also provides a comparision between a traditional ‘mix-it-yourself’ oil paint wash and ready made enamel wash from ‘MIG Productions’.

What Is A Wash?

A wash is a very thin paint mix.  The exact proportions will vary depending on the effect required, but typically a mixture of 5% paint to 95% thinner would be used.  Many types of paint can be used – oil, enamal, acrylic and even soluble water colours.  However, the most popular type is made from artists’ oil paint, sometimes mixed with modeller’s enamel paint.

M113 wheels before wash The wheels of this M113 APC lack definition and it is difficult to see the bolts and hub detail.

M113 wheels after wash After a dark wash the wheels appear to have much more detail.

It is important that the type of paint used does not affect the underlying base paint surface.  Therefore, if the model is painted with acrylics, the wash should be oil or enamel and vice versa.  It is common to put a protective layer of varnish on the base coat of paint before applying a wash.

The purpose of a wash

The aims of putting a wash on a model are to enhance the surface detail increase the appearance of depth.

Tank tracks before and after wash The tracks on the right have received a wash of rust coloured paint.

The small size of models means that surface details may not be very visible.  This is not just because the details are small, but because items like hinges and panel lines on the model will not cast shadows the way the full-size object would.  To an extent, the wash technique is a little like painting shadows and darkness.  It is complimented by dry brushing which aims to highlight raised areas.

The washing and dry brushing techniques when used together help to bring a model to life, add realism and create visual impact.

The difference between washes and filters

There is sometimes confusion between a wash and a filter.

MIG wash MIG productions make a series of ready-to-use washes based on enamel paint.

Like a wash, filters are layers of highly thinned paint.  However, that is the only similarity between them.  A wash is aimed at selective parts of a model to make areas that should be dark look darker.  As such a wash is normally applied to small areas on a model with a small brush and will be allowed to flow along panel lines.

A filter is intended to affect the entire paint surface equally and subtley change the colour and tone.  Thus a filter will normally be applied very sparingly with a large area brush.  The aim of the filter is to apply it evenly over most if not all of the model.  A wash will normally be darker than the base colour, whereas a filter is likely to have the same tonal value i.e not darker or lighter, but will be a different colour.  A filter is sometimes used to blend different camouflage colours together, or tone down the base coat.

Furthermore, a wash needs to be applied to a gloss or semi-gloss surface, whereas a filter is best applied to a matt/flat finish.

Step-By-Step Guide

Originally, modellers had to mix their own washes from normal modeller’s or artist’s paint.  However, there are now ranges of ready made washes available.  In the following step-by-step guide we shall use both a traditional oil paint wash and a ready made enamel wash from MIG Productions.

1. Prepare equipment You will obviously need a model and it should have been given a gloss coat with a medium that will not react with the wash.  For example, if you are using an oil or enamel wash then the previous coats should be either gloss acrylic paint or varnish.You will need your chosen paint medium with plenty of good quality thinner.  If you are using acrylics as a wash and water as a thinner then a drop of liquid dishwashing detergent will help the wash to flow.Paper towel and cotton buds will probably come in useful. Also required are a good quality fine paint brush and possible a larger brush for area work. Equipment needed for washes

In the photo above we have MIG ready prepared enamel wash together with oil paint and white spirit to use as an oil paint wash.  The model is a ‘stunt double’ that I use for practice work.

2. Prepare the wash For the MIG wash all that is needed is to give the bottle a good shake.For the oil paint wash, put a pea sized blob of oil paint on the side of your palette and a few drops of thinner in the pallete.  Make sure you use good quality (artists) oil paint – cheaper oil paint may be too coursely ground and may be lacking in pigment.Mix a little of the oil paint into the thinner until the required level of opacity is acheived.  Normally, when the solution looks like coffee it is fine. Washes-preparing oil wash
3. Apply the wash (method 1) There are two basic methods in common use.  The simplest is to take a very fine paint brush, dip it into the wash and then lightly touch raised areas on the model.  Make sure that the paint brush does not hold too much paint – you do not want to flood the model and you can always add more later.The wash will flow around bolt heads, along ridges and panel lines etc.  Do not be concerned if you get too much in one place because it can be cleaned up at a later stage. Washes-applying MIG wash
4. Apply the wash (method 2) The second method involves first wetting a section of the model by brushing it with thinner and then applying the wash on that section, as with the above step, while the surface is still damp with thinner.  You do not want the surface to be soaking, just damp.  Doing this is said by some to soften the edge of the wash so that it blends into the surface better.In this photo the oil wash is being applied.  The method is exactly the same whether the oil or enamel wash is used, but the oil wash need to be stirred regularly to avoid the pigment in the paint separating out. Washes-applying oil wash
 5. Clean Up Leave the wash until it is touch dry.  This time will vary depending on the wash and conditions, but 15-20 minutes is ususally sufficient.  Using paper towel or cotton buds lightly dampened with thinner to clean up any excess wash.In the photo you can see a wheel before and after clean up. Washes-wheel before and after clean up
6. Inspect and repeat where necessary When the wash is fully dry, take time to inspect it and add further wash where necessary.  The wash will look different when it dries so this is an imporant step.You will find that some details are not sufficiently defined to accept a wash.  In the photo on the right, the bands are too shallow to hold the paint wash, so it has spread out.  Attempting to clean off the excess will remove all the wash. Washes-lack of definition on model

Applying a wash to a stone Applying a wash to a pebble.

Paint washes do not have to be restricted to your model.  A wash is also good for giving depth to scenery, figures and in fact, any surface where there is a distinct texture or raised details.

The photograph on the left shows a wash being applied to a pebble that was found in the garden and is being used as a rock on a display base.


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  1. Great Site Kris! I’m doing some research for scale modelling, so when I get all the materials I need, I won’t be totally lost…thanx!

  2. Hi Kris,
    I’m just starting modelling again having retired from work, and needed a brush up to say the least.
    Your site is exactly what was required and I love every minute of it.
    I can imagine how much work you have to put into a project of this type to make it a success, well it IS!
    Please don’t stop now. There are beginners out here that need you.
    Thanks mate,

GRAB YOUR FREE STEP-BY-STEP VIDEO GUIDE !Here you'll find the BEST on the web video tutorial on how to make 1:48 scale WW2 German jet. In our friendly step-by-step video guide we cover topics like: drybrushing, applying washes, applying decals and many more. Do not miss out - WE GUARANTEE THAT YOU WILL LEARN SOMETHING NEW!!!!New GraphicName: Email: We respect your email privacy