Field Testing – Cityscapes Part 3

I had originally planned on wrapping this all up today, but I thought it would be worthwhile dedicating today’s post to how we can enhance the existing paint and texture work with some oil paints. This is one of those things which people do often ask about, so while this won’t be a definitive tutorial, I hope it does make a few things clearer for those interested in using these valuable tools.

The basic tools we’ll need

Probably the most important step when using oil paints as a wash for miniatures (or terrain) is a simple gloss varnish, this will serve two purposes; protection of the acrylic basecoats underneath and modifying the surface tension of your subject. In simple terms, the gloss forms a hard protective layer which is very smooth – think of it like glass. This smooth surface – when combined with oils – allows the wash to flow more easily into the recessed areas of your subject, which is exactly where you want your shading to occur. It also creates a smoother and more natural transition between our three different tones (shades, midtowns and highlights). While a Matt varnish will work almost as well for protection, the paint won’t flow optimally and results in flatter shading – giving us less definition between the three tones. If we think of the gloss varnish like glass, imagine a matt varnish like sandpaper or a similar rough surface. Similar results occur if you simply don’t varnish at all, with the added danger of ruining the underlying paintwork.

Let’s just cover the basics of how to apply the oil paints first.

Picking a good set of colours is your first step, you’ll want to choose tones which are analogous and suitable for whatever your basecoats are. Oil paints are notorious for their ability to mix well.

Analogous Colours are groups of three colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel, with one being the dominant colour, which tends to be a primary or secondary colour, and a tertiary. Red, orange, and red-orange are examples. – Wikipedia

For most terrain projects, the colours I’ve chosen here will probably work, you’ll be pretty safe using black and brown tones for the majority of projects unless you’re aiming for something more specific. I’ve used Windsor and Newton Oils here but really most oil paints will do this job fine, even the cheap stuff. What makes more miniature focused brands like Abteilung 502 stand out is the colour range and the formula – being more suited to small scale painting as opposed to a canvas.

Oil extraction

Starting with the black first, I grab a cheap little disposable plastic shot glass and squeeze a tiny amount of the paint out, chopping it off at the nozzle with a toothpick. Using a pipette I then drop some white spirits into the cup and stir it through using the same toothpick. The ratio here is a little hard to quantify, there’s not really an exact science to it and not all paints will work the same way. I always start by adding a smaller amount of spirts first and adding more until I achieve the right consistency. The easiest way to test this is dipping your brush in the mixture and then doing a quick dab of it on a piece of paper towel.

Mixing the paint and medium

Personal Note: I’ve used AK Interactive’s brand of white spirits, this isn’t strictly necessary as any White Spirits or Mineral Turpentine will ultimately do the job. The reason I chose it is that AK’s product has been made specifically for this type of work. I’ve found through experience that using cheaper hardware store stuff is less forgiving and more likely to eat trough the varnish if you’re not careful. I still use the cheaper stuff for cleaning up brushes and tools, but find the higher quality stuff better for actually painting. Your mileage may vary.

You’ll know when you’ve achieved the right mixture when the paint spreads out almost instantly and you can see an obvious ring of thin paint around where you touched the brush. The image below illustrates the look you’re going for. It’s very much a trial-and-error process, so I highly recommend doing some simple tests on spare bases or something else disposable before going straight into something you care about.

Checking the consistency

Application is as straight forward as it gets, if you’ve used a gloss varnish then the capillary action should do almost all the work for you. Just paint over the surface really.

Capillary Action: (sometimes capillarity, capillary motion, or wicking) is the ability of a liquid to flow in narrow spaces without the assistance of, or even in opposition to, external forces like gravity. The effect can be seen in the drawing up of liquids between the hairs of a paint-brush, in a thin tube, in porous materials such as paper and plaster, in some non-porous materials such as sand and liquefied carbon fibre, or in a cell. – Wikipedia

Just brush it on!

You can see from the photo I’ve just brushed the wash on with a large brush in big long streaks. Oil paints take quite a long time to dry and we’re using them quite thin, so you shouldn’t find brush strokes are a big issue here. You can be pretty rough with oils but a lighter touch is often best, the pigment is very strong in oil paints so you don’t need to lather it on. Just a simple touch with the brush should be enough to shade the area nicely.

As you can see it’s the initial result is similar to what you’d expect from an acrylic wash. The key difference is the working time, you’ll be able to modify the results of the washing process even days after you’ve laid down the paint work.

Personal Note: It’s important not to confuse the ‘working time’ with ‘drying time’ as they are quite different. The oil wash should be essentially dry within about 12 hours (allow 24 to be safe) but it won’t cure for an extremely long time. This means that while you should be able to touch the surface without paint coming off, if you load up a brush, paper towel or cue tip with some spirits you can reactivate the wash and either remove it almost entirely, or just take some of the shading away. Again, results are miles better if you’ve used a gloss varnish and you’ll reduce the risk of taking the base acrylics away significantly.

Using the same process, I added some of the other colours into the crater and surrounding rocks. This gives us more variety in colour and highlights the other great thing about oil paints – blending. Where acrylic washes will dry and cure extremely fast, the oils remain wet and workable and we can really play around with them, adding and removing colours until we’re happy. It can be a bit chaotic, and more based on what looks and feels right as opposed to having a specific method.

The best advice I can give is to simply put colours where you feel they’ll accentuate the details best, don’t worry too much about keeping two different colours separate – they should actually blend together very naturally. Assuming you’ve chosen analogous colours of course.

Personal Note: wet oil paints look awful, they’re glossy and quite rough looking, so you need a little bit of faith when working with them.

Once dry, simply use a paper towel, brush, cloth or whatever tool you feel is appropriate, load up a bit of spirits and remove the oils from the areas you feel are necessary. Don’t go too hard, the spirts should do the work for you and the rougher you are the more likely you’ll be to eat into the varnish. In general, you should be aiming to remove paint from the raised and/or flat areas. You should find that, once dry, the results are quite nice – with an even distribution of colour between the three tones. Once you’re satisfied and the subject is touch dry you can finish it off with a matt varnish to remove the glossy shine.

Personal Note: I’ve mentioned a lot about drying times etc. It’s important to note that while Oil paints will not dry in minutes like acrylics, this is part of the process and these tiles only took 2 days to wash including the drying time. That is, about 20 minutes to wash the whole board – 24 hours to dry, another 5 or 10 minutes then 24 hours to dry again. It’s definitely not as fast, but not having to highlight is worth it for me and I find it saves me more time overall.

Here’s a look at the final results.


I’ve done a couple of things here to exaggerate the results. I let quite a few areas just dry normally without cleaning them up, namely the rocky areas in the middle and bits of brown over the concrete. Hopefully you can see the almost watercolour effect that occurs if you don’t clean them up, generally not something you’ll want in most cases but quite nice when you’re going for it.

The areas where I have performed the clean-up are the ones which stand out more, creating those natural highlights we’re after and saving us having to dry brush to help the details pop. Below I’ve got a few more detailed shots of the final results, oil paints are often hard to appreciate from a distance – especially in photos. These detailed shots however should give you a clearer idea of the difference between oils and acrylics when it comes to washes.

Oil washes work at their absolute best when there is a lot of detail. Flat MDF buildings won’t work as well if you use oil paints, they need those details to achieve this level of contrast. This is why the Diorama textures are a great thing, you can use them to add texture to otherwise flat buildings or surfaces very easily. For a bit of context, here is a before and after shot of a Batman model I washed with oils.

That’ll wrap us up for this week. There was a bit to cover and I’m sure I might have missed a point or two, so as always just shoot me a comment below if you’d like something clarified.

Hopefully I’ve at least peaked your interest in trying this method of shading out, it’s a process which takes a bit of patience and experimentation but I believe the results are well worth it.

We’ll definitely wrap up next week with the last touches and move on to those water effects I mentioned!

– Mike


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s