Painting Tips Part 5

V. A primer on staining.

Gee, thanks guys, for all the encouragement to keep writing about painting. And to explain my ideas about washes and stains. So here goes:

Equipment: Get yourself a mixing tray from an art supply store - the one I usehas six seperate compartments and cost about .99$. Plus a couple beer or pop bottle lids for metallic washes - you have to keep metallic paints seperate from your regular paints so the metal flecks don't get where you don't want them. Finally, a small jar you keep clean water in and a eyedropper for transfering water to the mixing tray.

Terms: A wash is a thin mix of mostly water with a small quantity of typically dark paint mixed in. If you were to brush a wash up onto the side of a concaved mixing tray, the water/paint mixture will run back into the bowl leaving very little or no pigment on the side.

A stain is a water-paint mix that contains much more paint than a wash. It can be quite thick and almost frothy (ie, keeps bubbles when agitated). If brushed onto the side of the mixing bowl, will recede and leave a very visable pigment stain.

Blocking is the process of completly covering a part of the figure (ie, pants, tunic, hat, etc) with a single basic color. This is your basic painting technique and is only given a special term to distinquish it from washing and staining.


Since I wrote this article, I've started using a flow enhancer, especially on my 25mm figures. I use 'Color Float" by Ceramcoat, although I've seen similar products from other manufacturers. But rather than follow their directions, I simply dab the brush into bottle to gather up some of the liquid, then add it directly into the mixing bowl containing the paint-water blend. It really helps when trying to make a darker color settle into the folds of a figure's face or hands by decreasing the paint's unfortunate tendency to 'flow-back' out of the crevice as the water dries.

Introduction: When using a staining technique on a figure, what you have to keep in mind is that the portion of a figure which will be stained, must be first blocked in with a paler color than you would normally use. This can be hard to do initally, because the figures just won't look "right" until the painting process is almost finished.

For example, if I was going to paint a union infantryman in a dark blue tunic or coat, I would first block the coat with a medium blue shade. The color would be a Kellogg's Frosted Flake blue, not a royal french dark blue. But the stain used to darken and shade the tunic would be heavy mix of dark french blue.

Technique: This can be tough to master. Gravity will make the paint run down the figure, and if you carry too much in your brush, it will put watery paint in all the places you do not want it. What I can advise is to use a slightly smaller brush when staining than you normally use when blocking the figure. Plus you should stain your figure from the top-down so you can re-paint any messes on areas where the stain inadvertenly ran.

Two Units of Federal infantry (click thumbnails for full-size images).

Federal infantry
Federal infantry
Federal infantry
Federal infantry

The Expanded Method:

I'll use my previous example and try to completly describe my "method".

> I think of my way of painting figures as "bottom -up, inside -out".
>Taking a Union infantry man in a fatigue coat and kepi as my example, I will detail each step I follow. Keep in mind that I will be painting between 24and 48 figures at a time, so I assume adequate drying time between each step. I also assume the figure has been primed with a white or grey primer, as I do NOT use a black primer when painting figures.
>a) Paint the base green.
>b) Paint the shoes black, taking care to avoid getting paint on the green
base but not caring if black paint gets on the pants.
>c) Block the pants light blue. Once more I am careful to not get blue paint
on the already painted shoes while I cover-up any black paint that I slapped-up
onto the pant legs.
>d) Block the fatigue jacket MEDIUM BLUE. Be careful not to get blue paint on
the pants, but be sure to get the figure's collar, cuffs and underneath the
arms and behind the pack / knapsack.

Allow the blocked colors to dry throughly. Now mix your first stain. Put a couple drops of clean water in a mixing bowl and pick-up royal french blue paint in your blocking paint brush. Add dark blue paint to the water until you get a heavy mixture. Before you start staining, always clean your brush throughly so you don't carry too much pure pigment.

Pick-up a little stain in a slightly smaller brush and carefully apply the stain mixture to the figures coat. You can work quite quickly with small quanties of watery paint, but try to avoid putting too much in any one place where it will run down onto the pants. But since you have not painted the face or hands yet, you don't have to worry about putting stain on them as they will be covered later on anyway. The end result should be the figures coat going from a medium blue shade to a darker blue with rich dark blue shadows and folds and natural blue highlights with no dry brushing necessary.

Once the coat has dried, you can stain the light blue pants. By the time I have finished staining the jackets on 48 figures, the first figures stained should be dry enough to continue. You can either make a stain of the original medium blue OR you can add more water to your remaining french dark blue stain and add some light blue to make it a paler color. Stain the pants, trying to avoid letting the thinned down paint run down onto the base or shoes.

>e) If the fatigue jacket has light blue piping around the collar or cuffs, I
paint it on now. A red sable spotter works well for this task.
>f) Paint all the webbing (straps), knapsack and cartridge case black. Other
equipment like blanket rolls, linen pouches, canteens, etc can be added as
well, using colors other than black.
>g) Paint the gun - stock wood brown, barrel pewter, fittings brass.

At this point I will typically start washing the equipment. Grey blanket rolls will get a wash or stain of darker grey, the gun will get an overall wash of black. Use a small brush to apply the darker wash only to where you want it on the figure.

>h) Paint the flesh tones, being careful to not slap paint onto the figures
collar, cuffs or onto the gun where it does not belong. Then add the hair,
beard, etc.

Actually this isn't exactly true - I use five seperate hair colors: straw yellow, dark brown, charcoal, dull red and medium brown. Only the straw yellow blonde hair gets painted at this point.

Faces, hands and blond hair gets stained with a mix of water and the same color I painted the wooden gun stock with. After the flesh tones have dried I then paint the remaining four hair colors.

>i) Paint the black band and bill of the kepi. Be careful not to get paint
onto the figure's face or hair.
>j) Paint the cloth part of the kepi dark blue OR medium blue and stain it
dark blue..
>k) Using a red sable spotter and silver and / or brass paint fill in the
buttons and buckles.
>l) Finally, paint the bayonet silver.

Next time: An easy method for painting irregular units (ie butternut rebs) without having to think too much about it. And maybe how I paint horses and do metallic washes.

  • Gettin' Good: An introduction, explanation and disclaimer.
  • Part 1: How to get good at painting? A professional's opinion.
  • Part 2: How to get good at painting? Dissenting opinions are heard.
  • Part 3: The selection, care and feeding of brushes.
  • Part 4: Questions and answers from the gentle readers.
  • Part 5: A primer on using stains and washes.
  • Part 6: Ragged Rebs (or painting irregular units in a regular way).
  • Part 7: Painting Ponies I. Just what sort of beast is that, anyway?
  • Part 8: Painting Ponies II. Your basic black, brown and chestnut horses.
  • Part 9: Painting Ponies III. Fancies - whites, greys, duns and finishing touches.
  • Part 10: A primer on stripes, checks and tartan plaids.