Saturated Wash Colour Experiments

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Recently I have been experimenting with washes. With my skeleton bone wash experiment, I learned that different colours of washes could be used to quickly add a little individuality to batch painted figures without too much extra time or effort. The experiments also suggested that variations in shade colour choices could help tie colour/light schemes together, or be a useful tool to convey different effects or moods, if some of the other colours were adjusted a little.  

Btk1 figsThe skeleton bone has different wash colours, but the same basecoat and drybrush colours. The bases were painted Naga Green in preparation for today’s experiment.

In the case of the skeletons, I applied washes of somewhat saturated colour over an fairly neutral ivory basecoat colour. I didn’t have time in the initial wash testing stream, but I also wanted to study the effect of applying saturated colours on top of a saturated colour. In a follow-up stream, I used the bases of the skeletons for this experiment. Each was painted with the steps outlined in the Core Skills Learn to Paint Kit, other than changing up the wash colours. The starting basecoat for the bases was Naga Green.

You can also watch the video version of this if you prefer.

I picked out a selection of colours to use for the washes. Since the Naga Green was a darker starting point than the Desert Sand of the skeleton bone, I chose darker value colours for the washes than I had on the skeletons. Regardless of colour, the washes still need to function as shades that shadow the recesses.

Base wash paintsThe paint colours used for the washes.

As with the skeletons, I had some ideas of how these paints might or might not work. Some of my ideas are based on years of study and practice with colour. I know colour is a confusing and scary prospect for a lot of people, but I think that some elements of colour use are areas of art well suited to more left brain thinking painters. There is colour theory you can study, and practical experiments like this that you can perform. You don’t have to have an innate sense of colour to be able to paint with it successfully! You just have to accept that you might not be successful with colour every time. (And I don’t think those with a more innate sense of colour use get it right every time, either!)

Pine Green: This seemed like a pretty safe wash choice. Similar green to the basecoat, just darker. Not too exciting, but very unlikely to ‘fail’.

Rotting Wood: I thought this less saturated green would dull down the base a little, and fit the atmosphere of a skeletal figure better.

Ritterlich Blue: Blue can be a very effective shade colour for more saturated greens, so I expected this to work as a shade, but I wasn’t sure if it would look like convincing grass.

Coal Black: With its touches of teal, I thought this would strike a nice balance between creating good contrast and adding a little colour variation.

Gothic Crimson: Green and red are contrasting colours. (Magenta/pink is considered red in colour theory.) Mixed together they create brown. I expected this to dull down the green to the point where it might not even look grasslike anymore.

Styx Purple:  Purples work well to shade a surprising number of colours, including green, so I thought this could be interesting.

Mahogany Brown: Mahogany is a red-brown. Since it’s less saturated than the Gothic Crimson, I thought it would work better as a wash colour for green, dulling it down a little but not turning everything brown.

Basic Dirt: This is more of a true brown. I expected it to dull the bright green to more of a muddy grass type of look.

Base wash paletteThe washes (and drybrushing colours) on my palette at the end of the stream.

I had three additional skeletons at hand, but these were posed on rock bases. They are sculpts that used to be used as a substitute for the other skeleton figure in the Learn to Paint kits when it ran out of stock. Now the kit skeletons are manufactured at the Reaper facility using the Bones USA material and should always be in stock for kits, but those of you who bought kits in the past may have received this different Skeleton Warrior Archer instead. I painted the rocks as described in the Core Skills kit, starting with a basecoat of Mountain Stone. Then I used these washes:

Goggler Green + touch of Pure Black (Rock): I thought this might create a moss or algae covered rock look.

Coal Black (Rock): I thought this would make a nice shade colour for cool grey rock.

Ritterlich Blue (Rock): While touches of blue might simulate some kinds of coloured rock, I thought a blue this saturated would look ridiculous.

Below you can see pictures of what the bases look like after completing the drybrushing steps. The drybrushing steps started with the original Naga Green, and then a couple of steps of lighter greens achieved by mixing in Candlelight Yellow, as outlined in the Core Skills learn to paint kit. Below each figure is a swatch of the wash colour I painted on its base during the stream. The figure on the far left of each picture is painted according to the kit directions, using thinned Pure Black for a wash, and is there for comparison purposes. The stone bases were highlighted with mixes of Mountain Stone and Dragon White.

Base washes1 cr

Base washes2 cr

Drybrushing with the original green (or grey for the stone) altered the appearance of the washes. Brushing on additional highlights of the green mixed with yellow further altered the appearance by introducing touches of a third colour, yellow. The difference in impression between the green with just a wash and the green with both wash and drybrush steps complete was significant, as you’ll see in an example photo below. These are my impressions of each base to compare with my guesses for what might happen with the colours.

Pine Green: The general effect is harmonious, though possibly a bit bland. The green I chose wasn’t quite dark enough and/or I added too much water. The crevices need a bit more shading.

Rotting Wood: The effect is more natural than the black wash, and the slightly duller green fits the skeleton figure better.

Ritterlich Blue: This is a gorgeous shade on a saturated green highlighted with a yellow-green. This colour mix might not be well-suited for simulating grass, but I definitely want to keep it in mind for other types of materials like cloth.

Coal Black: I mixed too much water into this wash, so it didn’t effectively shade the recesses and provide enough contrast. I think the colour works well, I just would have applied a second coat if I’d been painting in my own time.

Gothic Crimson: At the wash stage this looked very jarring, but once the drybrushing was added what remained was a brown created by the visual mixing of the green and magenta. I think it actually ended up working a little more harmoniously than the red-brown Mahogany Brown version.

Styx Purple:  I chose a somewhat blue-violet purple. It was interesting to see how much more apparent the pink/red component of the purple became when the wash was applied over the green. The purple gives a really nice sense of depth to the crevices, but I think it needs to be just a little darker to bring out the sculpted details well.

Mahogany Brown: The contrast between the complementary colours was very jarring after just the wash phase. In the end it is less contrasted than it initially looked, but the red and green do fight a little. 

Basic Dirt: This gave a look of ground made up of mixed dirt patches and grass patches that fit well with the skeleton figure. The effect is less jarring than with the Mahogany Brown. 

The wash on the rock bases wasn’t dry enough to paint over by the end of the stream, but I finished them up later.

Goggler Green + touch of Pure Black (Rock): The colour works well as a shade, but if I really want to convey the idea of algae or moss, I would need to apply some additional drybrushing or glazing in green colours.

Coal Black (Rock): I used a less transparent mix of this for the wash on the stone, and it works well for shading the recesses and creating a cooler grey look.

Ritterlich Blue (Rock): This has great contrast and ended up being my favourite of the stone versions! I might use a slightly duller and darker blue for stone going forward though.

Since I performed this experiment on a live stream, I don’t have any WIP pictures. I did add a wash to a single base so you could compare the difference between the wash stage and the final result stage though. In the picture below the base on the left and the one in the centre were both painted with the Mahogany Brown wash. The base on the right was painted with the Gothic Crimson wash. The centre and left figures demonstrate the differences between wash stage and final stage on the skeleton bone. Both were painted with a wash of Naga Green.

Base wash demo cr

I think these experiments make a good argument for breaking away from using just black or a darker version of a colour to do a wash. You can get additional depth and richness or add little touches of variation by using more coloured washes.

I was somewhat surprised that the majority of these experiments worked pretty well. I had previously had an experience of combining a more saturated wash with less saturated base and drybrush colours where I did not like the end result at all. Perhaps that might partly be related to the texture and the type of figure? If nothing else, that experience demonstrates that even people who well practiced at doing something can have instances where things don’t turn out as expected. Results we don’t love happen regardless of our skills. They aren’t a reason to beat ourselves up or get down on our hobby pastimes, and often we can learn from them. 

Products Mentioned in this Post

Core Skills Learn to Paint Kit
Skeleton Archer in plastic or in metal
Skeleton Warrior Archer in plastic
Mountain Stone
Pure Black
Naga Green
Pine Green
Rotting Wood
Ritterlich Blue
Styx Purple
Mahogany Brown
Basic Dirt
Gothic Crimson was a special release colour at a convention.
Coal Black has been seasonally available in the Holiday paint set, which is currently on sale for people who don’t like to order paint in the colder weather. This set is being retired after this run sells out. Below is a swatch of all the Holiday paints.

Swatch rm holiday2020The Holiday paint set is on sale right now. Sparkling Snow is a metallic colour.

Wash Colour Experiments

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One of my goals as a teacher of miniature painting is to encourage people to do more experimentation and testing. Willingness to experiment means willingness to spend time that might not result in a finished miniature. It also means potential failure in the sense of ending up with results you aren’t happy with. In the short term, both of those are somewhat painful experiences, so I think a lot of us just end up sticking with what we know works. In the long term we are missing out expanding our repertoire of tools and techniques that we could use on other miniatures.

I want to note that I am also one of the people I need to encourage with this message of openness to experimentation! So for my first show of Beyond the Kit I thought I would try something I’ve never done before. I chose to explore the effect of different wash colours on a figure. For the benefit of those who prefer a quick read, I’m going to share some pictures and thoughts about the experiment here. This technique may also be of interest to people who paint figures in number, as this ended up being an easy and relatively quick way to add some differentiation to individuals in a group of figures without adding a lot of extra steps and work.

IMG 0929My test subjects bravely lined up to get their experimental washes.

First something of a confession – I never really did a lot of washing and drybrushing in my early years of painting. I gave it a try on my first few figures, but I got frustrated because washes didn’t seem to work the way it sounded like they should. I didn’t understand at that time that although the wash would concentrate in the depressions, it would also tint the entire surface. I had been reading up on the layering technique, so I tried that instead. I understood it better, so I ended up focusing on that and not bothering much with washes and drybrushing for years outside of base textures. I circled back around to it, and I’ve since seen people do some amazing things with washes, but I didn’t have that foundational experience with them that most painters have. (At the time that I started painting there were no easily available videos to watch to see how something like washes works!)

Not long ago I had had a painting experience where the choice of wash colours ended up having a significant effect on the end appearance of the figure, and I thought that might be something fun to do experiments with. I concocted an experiment where the wash colour would be the only variable between the figures. For the non-variable elements I chose to use a figure and colours from the Core Skills learn to paint kit, since those are familiar to a lot of people. The figure was the Skeleton Archer. The paints were Desert Sand for the base coat, and then Pure White for additional highlighting. (The kit uses Solid White, but I couldn’t find mine during the stream and the true white paints are pretty similar.) 

IMG 0930If you want to try an experiment like this, any skeleton figure will do. If you don’t have Desert Sand any light grey, cream, or tan paint colour should work pretty similarly. Here are some examples of substitute colours.

Since I was painting basecoats on seven skeletons, I used my Vex airbrush to apply the paint, but two coats by brush should give a pretty similar result. I also brush painted a base coat of Naga Green onto all of their bases. I want to perform a similar experiment with the more saturated green, since I suspect the effects will be different over neutral versus more saturated colours. There wasn’t time in that episode, but I hope to return to that experiment another time.

Next I picked out some paints to test as wash colours. The Core Skills kit uses a dark grey colour. I chose the colours below to test as alternates. The swatches you see beneath each colour are painted from the washes I mixed during the stream, so you can also get an idea of the wash consistencies I used or compare to similar colours you might have in your collection if you want to try this experiment yourself. I have demonstrated how to mix and test wash consistencies elsewhere.

Btk1 washes paintThe paint colours I used for the washes, with swatches of each of the wash mixes.

Like any scientist, I had some ideas about how each of the colours would behave, because I’ve been working with colour for a while now. Do not fret if you do not have much colour knowledge at this point! You can study colour information. You can also just do experiments like this and mix random colours together to study what happens in the real world and begin to build up your own personal bank of knowledge.

My predictions:

Solid Black: I expected this to be too harsh and stark.

Russet Brown: I like this colour to shade ivory and parchment, and thought it might give a yellowed ivory appearance.

Rich Leather: I figured this might be kind of similar to the Russet Brown, but a little lighter and more yellow. Maybe too yellow or too light.

Clouded Sea: I suspected this would look weird, but thought it might work for a sort of ghostly glow.

Gutter Grime: I also suspected this would look weird, but wanted to try it for the potential of a moldering old bones look.

Naga Green: I expected this to look ridiculous, but wanted to test with a very saturated colour to compare to the others.

I mixed and applied the washes on stream, so I don’t have in progress pictures of that. Below is a picture of the palette of mixed washes with the wash colour choices shown in the above listed order from the Black to the bright Naga Green. 

Btk1 paletteThe mixed washes are above, in the positions of 11 to 5 on the clock. The basecoat and first drybrush step was Desert Sand, seen at the 10 o’clock position. The final drybrush step of Pure White is shown at 9 o’clock.

I also don’t have pictures of what all the figures look like with just the washes. However, I did want to give you some idea of how dramatically the appearance of the figures changed between just a wash and then after they were drybrushed. I repeated the Naga Green wash on another copy of the figure and took a picture of it next to the figure I painted on stream that had the Naga Green wash followed by drybrushing with first Desert Sand and then Pure White.

Btk1 green pre postJust the basecoat and wash on the left, with two colours of drybrushing on the right.

Once the washes were dry I began the drybrushing steps. I used the same colours and procedure as I did in the Core Skills kit: first Desert Sand, and then white. Below you can see the figures after all steps were completed. On the far left is a figure painted with the Core Skills wash colour of Mountain Stone for comparison purposes.

Btk1 figs

The wash colours absolutely made a difference, but in some ways a less dramatic one than I had expected! Pretty much all of them worked. There’s another picture below where you can see them from a different angle that might show the washes a little more dramatically. I also want to share my conclusions to compare them with the expectations I listed above.

Mountain Stone: This figure painted with the Core Skills instructions is an example of a standard type of grey bone look and serves as a comparison for the others. The control of my experiment if you will.

Solid Black: It’s a little stark for my personal taste, but less so than I expected. It would look great in a tabletop game. I suspect black as the wash for a white robe or dress or some other more flowing type of sculpted material would not look as good as on the nooks and crannies of the bones, however. It is hard to get most surfaces to read as white if you wash them with a very dark colour.

Russet Brown: I don’t dislike this result, but it did not end up with as much of an aged bone/ivory effect as I’d expected or hoped. To achieve that with Russet Brown would probably require changing the basecoat and first drybrush colour to something a little more yellowy. 

Rich Leather: The stronger yellow brown colour of this created more of an aged bone/ivory effect than the Russet Brown. It was a bit too light in value (or I diluted it too much) to bring out all the details, especially for the tabletop. 

Clouded Sea: The surprise hit of the stream! Viewers in the chat really liked this one, and so do I. The end effect is pretty subtle. I think the idea of a ghostly type animated skeleton effect would work. I would probably use a slightly darker colour and maybe include some blue in the basecoat/first drybrush colour to heighten the effect a little.

Gutter Grime: Another unexpected success. It gives a subtle mouldy effect. I think this also needed to be a little darker in value to better pick out all the details, particularly for tabletop viewing. 

Naga Green: A little more dramatic than the Guttergrime, but not as ridiculous as expected. It would work for a look of grown over with moss, animated by necromantic magic or radioactivity or something. If I were painting a figure like this I would not use the same colour on the base, however. 

NOTE: The texture of skeletal bone is unique to a lot of other textures. I suspect this kind of experiment would have a different effect on a finer texture like fur or scales, or a smooth surface like cloth folds. Let me know if you’d like to see me try an experiment like this on other textures!

Btk1 washes paint figsThe classic Core Skills colours are shown on the figure to the far left. The other figures are lined up next to the colours that were used to paint their washes.

I hope this gives you an idea for some fun experiments you can do with washes in your own painting!

Products Mentioned in this Post

Core Skills learn to paint kit
Skeleton Archer in plastic or in metal
Vex airbrush
Mountain Stone
Solid Black
Russet Brown
Rich Leather
Naga Green
Gutter Grime
Clouded Sea was a limited edition paint that is not currently available, but may return in the future.

How to Mix and Test Washes

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In my last post I discussed the idea of shifting your thinking and asking different questions to find ways to help you improve your own painting experience and results.

The question of how much water to add to your paint is a great example of conducting tests and experiments to be able to answer a painting question. The correct dilution of paint for various tasks like a wash or a glaze is a vexing issue for many painters. What ratio of water to add to a drop of paint to make a wash/glaze/etc. is a very common question that experienced painters are asked. The usual answers are:

It depends.

3 drops water to 1 drop paint for a wash (or similar specifics.)

People expect answers like the second one. They think that there is a formula, and they just need to learn what the formula is to experience better results and less frustration in their painting:

1 drop paint + 4 drops water = wash
1 drop paint + 1 drop water = layer

If you aren’t very familiar with paint that’s a natural expectation, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. There are variations in paint opacity between manufacturers, and much more critically, there are variations in paint opacity between colours. Almost all yellow or magenta paints are very transparent, whereas darker black or brown paints are much more opaque, and paints with a lot of white in them are more opaque. Even within those broad colour categories there will be differences of opacity and transparency, as we’ll explore below with an assortment of black paints.

You may have already noticed some of these tendencies yourself, perhaps becoming frustrated at how many coats it takes to paint an opaque base coat with some of your paints compared to others. That is the start of learning your materials and making observations! Make notes on your observations when you use new colours or ones you don’t use as often so you won’t forget. If you have paint left over after your session, you can use it to test dilution or study how colours mix together and learn a little more from something you were only going to throw out.

Following are some photos of some tests I did with a few colours. I chose one paint from each brand I own. You can see the tested paints below. The Kimera bottle has the paint name on the back instead of the front. It is called Magenta.

Dilution paints colour

I put the paints out on a piece of palette paper. One pool straight from the bottle/pot, and then one drop mixed with one drop of water.

Dilution palette colour

I painted stripes of each paint onto a piece of paper with text printed on it. Using the paint straight from the bottle/pot allowed me to observe the viscosity of the paint, so I could judge whether it was fluid enough to use straight from the container, or might need a little water added to avoid creating texture when applied. It also demonstrated what is called the mass tone of the paint – the paint’s colour at full strength.

Mixing a little water into the paint allowed me to make additional observations. A lot of darker colours can look pretty similar in mass tone. You often need to thin them down with water or add a little white paint to get a more accurate idea of their true colour. Thinning the paints reveals what is called the undertone. The purple and magenta on the far right both look much more vibrant when thinned down with water and painted out than they did as drops on my palette straight from the bottle.

Dilution swatch colour1 crTop row: One drop of paint diluted with one drop of water.
Bottom row: Paint straight from the container.

Adding water increases the transparency of the paint. But you can see that the degree of that effect is not universal. One drop of water had a much stronger effect on the green paint than the others. It’s pretty much wash consistency already.

I have a lot of general knowledge related to colour and pigments, so I wasn’t too surprised at the results, but it’s still helpful to me to do testing with my actual materials and not rely on theory alone. The transparency of the green with water added surprised me a little. I am sure that other greens from that brand, or similar greens from other brands, might not act the same way, since they will have been mixed from different pigments.

I was lazy and didn’t clean up my desk immediately after, but that ended up being a happy accident. The next day I saw some interesting results in the dried paints. Some of the paints mixed with water had dried surprisingly shiny, and one had a lot of cracking in the wash. I would have to do additional tests to see whether either thing would have any effect when actually used for miniature applications, but it was a graphic reminder that there are also differences in the base formulations of every acrylic paint, as well as differences between pigments. (My guess on the shiny ones is that they had deeper pools and the matting agent sunk to the bottom. You can read more about the characteristics of paint.)

Dilution palette colour dryThe thinned and undiluted paints from my test after drying on the palette paper.

The fact that you can’t follow a standard formula like add 3 drops of water to make a wash doesn’t mean that there are no guidelines for deciding how much to dilute your washes. What you need to do is shift your thinking. What questions could you ask or what tests could you do to find out what you need to know. To my mind the formula for diluting paint looks more like this:

1 drop paint + X drops water = wash consistency

You are looking for the answer to X, and the people who tell you ‘it depends’ are right. The answer for X isn’t fixed, it depends on the characteristics of the paint you are diluting. The first step to solving for X is to understand your desired solution as well as possible. What is wash consistency? It’s a paint mix that is transparent enough to tint underlying paint, but with enough colour/opacity that the colour builds up where it pools in sculpted recesses on your miniature.

So how could you solve for X? You could brainstorm possible ways to test the consistency of your washes, and then try them out to see which works best for you. And the great thing is, there isn’t necessarily only one right answer! If you’ve painted enough to have an idea of the consistency you like in a wash, I invite you to pause reading for a moment and think about ways you could check your paint mixes to see if they match your desired consistency before scrolling down and reading my suggestions.

One way to check your wash dilution is to study the paint behaves on your palette. I often use a welled palette. I can assess paint dilution and consistency by pulling a stroke of paint up the side of a palette well and then observing it. How much of the underlying white surface can I see? How long does it take the paint from the stroke to fall back down into the main pool?

On a flat palette like a wet palette, painters might move the paint around a bit with the tip of their brush and assess how strongly or weakly the paint covers the palette surface. They may also consider other properties, like consistency. It’s pretty common for painters to compare how paint behaves on the brush to other liquids, like you might want to mix paint equivalent to a cream consistency for a basecoat, and to more of a skim milk consistency for a wash. Judging by consistency can work well if you always use the same paint brand and diluent. However, different paints have different consistencies out of the bottle. Water and mediums are equally transparent but differ in consistency. Water is a very fluid diluent, but matte medium or glaze medium are more viscous.

Over years of teaching people miniature painting and trying to come up with a simple but still accurate answer to that question, I finally figured out a way to visually test the paint. I use a piece of paper printed with text. I paint stripes of a paint mix on the paper to assess whether it seems like it is the correct transparency/opacity for my paint task. I am judging the visual appearance of the paint, so it doesn’t matter if I use a paint or diluent that is more fluid or more viscous. (Ben Komets came up with a very similar answer to the question with his Dilution Helper strips.)

You can see me demonstrate mixing and testing a wash in this video, where I also performed more dilution experiments on a selection of black paints. I gathered up nine black paints to test.

Dilution paints black

I painted swatches of each paint straight from the bottle, and then swatches of one drop of each paint mixed with two drops of water.

Dilution swatches black corrected2 crTop row: One drop of paint diluted with two drops of water.
Bottom row: Paint straight from the container.

As you can see from the diluted paint swatches, the opacity of the paints differs a fair bit. Paints that all looked pretty similar out of the bottle look different in a 2:1 mix of water to paint. Some of those paints are ready to use for washes, others would need to have more water added. The diluted paints also demonstrate slight differences in colour, with one black being a little cooler or warmer than another. Those differences are pretty subtle in black paints, but you would find them much more noticeable with darker colour paints. 

If you find this kind of experimentation interesting, you might want to check out my show on Reaper Miniature’s Twitch channel. It airs live on Mondays at 2-4pm Central time. You can also watch on demand on Twitch, or when it is uploaded to Reaper Miniature’s YouTube channel.

BWAB OpenScreen Cream