What Are Paint Washes and Shades? When & How To Use Them

Small paint brush resting on several brightly colored jars of paint.

Finding the most effective ways to paint your miniatures and create an epic world around them can seem tricky at first. Finding the best methods, like shading and using appropriate washes, will help you develop an intricately designed mini-world.

What are paint washes and shades? Washes are an innovative medium that miniature painters should have. The technique of washing and shading allows you to quickly paint over a game piece and have the paint reach all the small crevasses with minimal effort. They cling to your model which accentuates each detailed feature.

The washing technique helps you highlight shadows and make certain aspects of the model pop out. For newcomers looking to find the best tips and tricks, understanding washes will be a huge benefit to you.

What Are Washes and Shades are Used For?

The words, washes and shades, tend to be used interchangeably. Typically, you will hear people refer to the paint itself as a wash that is used for the process of washing or shading.

Everyone’s first thought is usually, “Why use a wash instead of regular paint?”

These washes are a miniature painter’s best friend because of how they fully cling to the model. They can seep into cracks without you having to find the tiniest of brushes to apply paint over every minuscule piece of the model.

You will want to use a wash to create a shadow effect. That shadow effect allows the contrast to come through and aids in adding depth to your miniatures.

One of the coolest aspects of miniatures is that much of their allure lies in the fine details.

The detail, however, may not stand out until you properly apply a wash to help make it a focal point.

Washes also enable you to produce multiple colors simply from your one base coat. In fact, washes can produce three different colors from that coat.

  1. The original base tone.
  2. The base tone that is tinted by the shade.
  3. The area of concentrate where most of the wash stayed.

How to Apply Washes

There are a couple of different ways to effectively apply a wash.

While the wash does a lot of the work for you with its ability to find those small crevasses, you still need to help direct it and make sure you have even coverage over your model.

Method One

You will want to apply the wash liberally throughout your miniature. Also, it will be best if you considered where the shadows would normally land on these figures.

Your goal will be to ensure the shade doesn’t rest anywhere that would look unnatural or be an abnormal place to see a shadow. You can sponge up any wash that lands in a place that a shadow should not exist.

Don’t allow the wash to pool up in certain areas.

Since you are being liberal in the amount, it can be easy for the wash to pool and cause unwanted lumps from too much wash. So, as you apply it, be sure to move it evenly and not allow lumps or inconsistencies. 

  • Pro: Saves time applying the wash.
  • Con: You will most likely need to apply the base coat again to bring back the original vibrancy of the miniature.

Method Two

You can cut right to the chase and only apply the wash to areas that would have a shadow.

With this method, you simply find the areas and details where a shadow would lie, and you only focus on those areas for the distribution of the wash. 

You will want your full focus on the small features of the details. It would be best if you were careful not to clog the detail and overload it with wash. You just need to run your brush over the recesses. 

  • Pro: You may end up with finer details by taking added care when highlighting specific areas.
  • Con: You will spend a bit more time focused on the smaller details and finding the areas that need direct attention.

Either one of these methods will create a great result. Which one you choose will likely come down to your preference.

If this is your first try, use both methods and see which you prefer. You may also find that with certain types of miniatures, you prefer one over the other.

You will always want to use a wash that is slightly darker than your base coat.

Consider the original base coat color and what effect you want for the final product. The mixtures of certain colors can lead to an entirely different color so be aware of your choices.

A Method to Never Use

Never take the model and dunk it into a vat of wash. Not only would that take all the fun out of finding the smaller details of your miniature as you shade, but it also just won’t work. 

Characteristics of Washes and Shades

As we mentioned earlier, using a wash over a standard acrylic or another type of paint will offer the shadows and contrasts you want in the details of your miniature.

One of the main reasons a wash can accomplish those contrasts is that a wash is runny.

A wash is not meant to be a robust coat of paint like an acrylic or oil paint for a canvas.

A wash is meant to spread easily and find the tiniest of cracks and seep into them without requiring a ton of effort from the artist. 

The effort required to get amazing results is extremely minimal compared to a more standard, thicker paint that would require a lot of care and detailed work.

Washes contain a small amount of surfactant which breaks the surface tension of the wash, therefor allowing that “clinging” property.

Older washes are also known for some issues. Just like with any paint, over time the properties may do some weird things that make for a different result.

Keeping your washes away from extreme temperatures and making sure the lids are always fully sealed when not in use will help extend their lives.

A Couple of Potential Problems to be Aware of With Older Washes:

  1. The pigment may separate from the medium. This will leave a gritty, uneven finish. It will almost look like murky water in the container, and it will leave a strange residue on the model.
  2. It may leave a glossy finish that will take away from the highlights of the shading you just did. That glossy finish isn’t what you are looking to accomplish with a wash, so it may alter the final result of your piece.

Most Common Washes and Shades Used or Miniatures

There are a variety of different companies that produce washes. Here are my top picks to get you started in your search:

These are all fantastic options and will give the desired shadow effect you need.

As you test out and experiment with the different methods that you like to use, you’ll also begin to develop a preference for brands, as I did.

I have even written an entire article dedicated to Citadel shades and washes. Be sure to check it out.

The Bottom Line on Washes and Shades

You should have fun with this process. Try out new brands, use both methods to apply the wash, and see what works best for you.

You may find that you like a certain method with a specific brand but prefer another method when using a different brand. 

While they all accomplish similar results, it is fun to experiment and find the combinations that are right for you and your miniature pieces.

Don’t forget you’ll need some high-quality brushes for your project. My article on the best paint brushes for miniatures explains all you need to know and provides professional tips to help you achieve great results.

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I'm a hobby enthusiast with a real love for painting miniatures. I also happen to run this site and write the majority of its content!