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Posted by misterfinn

A neatly painted model is the first step in putting a killer army on the table. Many beginning painters become frustrated once they’ve mastered brush control and clean painting, because even a razor-sharp model will tend to wash out on the tabletop. If this is happening to you, it’s time to move to the next level: shading and highlighting.


More real than reality

Look around you with an artist’s eye for a moment. Light and shadow act on everything around you, telling your eyes and your brain that the objects you see are three-dimensional. Most of the visual information you gather from the objects you see is based on the interplay of light and shadow: texture, contour, depth.

Models, obviously, are three-dimensional as well. When you look at a model up close, its contours are obvious. Placing a model under a bright light source make the model’s contours even more obvious.

At arm’s length, though, the ins and outs of a 30mm infantry model are far too subtle for ambient room light to pick out. You need to give natural light a little help in order to make the model look like a shrunk-down person. That’s where shading and highlighting come in.



Watch your language

Before we put brush to model, I’d like to clarify some terms. Many beginning painters get confused in shading and highlighting conversations because people are sloppy about their choice of words. Precision is key here, so read and absorb the following before you go any farther.

Shading makes the model darker in certain areas in order to reinforce natural shadow. Models can be actively shaded by washing them with ink or paint, or by blending a darker color with the base color. Models can be passively shaded by building up colors from a very dark basecoat.

Washing is a technique used to shade or give definition to a model. I’ll cover this distinction later, once we get to painting. A wash is a liberally applied, very thin coat of ink or paint. With its low surface tension, the wash naturally flows into recessed areas of the model and dries there. When the wash is dry, the washed areas appear darker than the raised areas around them.

Inking is simply washing with ink, as opposed to washing with paint.

Highlighting makes the model lighter in certain areas in order to reinforce natural light. Models can be actively highlighted by drybrushing them, or by blending a lighter color with the base color. Models can be passively highlighted by starting with a light basecoat and shading it appropriately.

Drybrushing is a technique used to highlight a model. When drybrushing, load a stiff brush with paint and then wipe most of the paint off. Draw the brush across the raised surface to be highlighted. The trace amounts of paint remaining on the brush will adhere to the raised surface without flowing down into the crevices, and with a softer edge than a standard brushstroke. Drybrushing tends to leave a powdery finish on smooth surfaces, so it works best on highly textured surfaces like dirt or fur.

Line highlighting is another technique used to highlight a model. The name says it all. Paint a thin line in a light color along a contour or edge that would naturally catch light and reflect it. This works best for simulating glossy surfaces, highlighting edges and corners, or highlighting fine detail like straps and trim.

Blending is a technique used to blend two colors or tones together. The smoothness of a blend refers to the seamlessness of the transition between one color and the next.

Wet blending and wet-on-wet blending are two terms for the same blending technique. This technique is similar to one used in traditional oil painting. To wet-blend, lay down one color on the model. While this color is wet, take a second color on the brush and lay it next to the first color, working the two together in the middle where they meet. This method is useful on large areas like cloaks and warjack plates, but can easily build up unwanted texture if you’re not careful.

Layering and wet-on-dry blending are two terms for the same blending technique. To layer, thin one color to translucency and paint it on top of the other color. Once the translucent paint is dry, paint another layer on, but leave an edge of the first layer showing. By building up many thin layers in this way, the transition appears smooth to the eye. Layering is a more laborious process than wet-blending but gives potentially smoother results.


It’ll come out in the wash

Remember when I mentioned that washes can shade or give definition to a model? Let’s look at that statement in more detail. Our demo model here is the elf that every warcaster loves to hate: Eiryss. She’s a strapping young lass, and I mean that literally. Much of her outfit consists of little leather straps. With a flat coat of paint, it’s hard to see where one strap ends and the next one begins.


A dark brown wash is a fast and easy way to make the straps pop. The wash sinks down into the contours between the straps and around the rivets. Presto, instant definition.

Note that definition isn’t the same as shading, however. You can clearly see each strap now, but the upward-facing surfaces of the model are exactly the same color as the downward-facing surfaces of the model. Another controlled wash on the downward-facing surfaces is necessary to obtain true shading. Note the difference between the two circled areas. The arm has not been shaded; the leg has.


Painting on the edge

The leather bits look much better now, but a little more contrast will really make them stand out when the model is viewed at arm’s length. When you’re painting a model, it’s easy to underestimate the amount of contrast you need. Make sure to occasionally put the model down on your painting table and step back a few feet. If you can’t see all the details you’ve painted clearly, without squinting, then you need to highlight some more.

Tiny leather straps are a perfect candidate for line highlighting. With a nicely pointed brush, I painted a thin line of beige across the top of each strap. When highlighting edges like this, it works better to use the side of the brush’s tip rather than the point.


Add water and blend until smooth

For a large, smooth surface like Eiryss’ cloak, a wash simply won’t do. It’ll go on streaky, dry spotty, and fail to capture the complex contours of the model. Time to do some blending.

I find that wet-blending a large area like this is quicker than layering it. I start by roughly blocking in the various areas of shadow. This makes it easier to turn the model around without losing track of where the dark and light areas should go. The blocked-out areas look pretty natural even before blending.

You have to turn the model upside down to see how much the paint exaggerates the contour of the model.

Once the rough areas are blocked in, I blend them together. If you’re working with Model Color, I recommend putting a smidge of drying retarder in your paint before you start this process. Other brands of paint dry slowly enough where you should be able to stick with distilled water. The paint should have a thin consistency; not translucent, but not quite as thick as your basecoat.

Working with one edge at a time, I lay down a stripe of the lighter color slightly overlapping the rough edge. Quickly, without rinsing my brush, I pick up a small amount of the darker color and lay it alongside the lighter color. I’ve now got two wet colors side by side and a mix of the two on my brush. I draw the brush along the axis of the blend several times, starting on the dark edge and working over into the light edge.

Make sure to do this with long, deliberate strokes. Don’t stab at the model or go over and over the same area. You’ll dig holes in the paint that are very difficult to fix.

After the first blending pass, I let the paint dry completely and then see how the blend looks. It’s tempting to overwork the blend while the paint is drying. Don’t do it. You’ll just pull paint off the model and have a big mess to fix later. If the blend is rough, I’ll smooth it out by wet-blending the intermediate tones over the rough areas, leaving the good parts of the blend alone. I work my way through the entire cloak like this until I’m satisfied with both the smoothness and placement of all the blends.

Layering is well suited to a smaller, more contoured area like the face. To paint this part of the model, I thin several colors down to translucency. I mix in some Glaze Medium or Thinner when I’m thinning so the paint doesn’t lose too much adhesion. Since I’m starting with a midtone for my skin color, I paint thin layers of dark and medium brown into the hollows and light pinkish brown onto the higher areas. As in wet-blending, it’s important to paint very deliberately. Layering depends on thin, translucent coats of paint to achieve its effect. If you flutter your brush over and over the same area, you’ll build up the color too quickly and wind up with a hard edge. Wait until one translucent layer is dry and then paint the next layer on, paying close attention to where the edges of your layers fall.

Using washes, line highlights, and blends, I’m able to shade and highlight the entire model. I’m not drybrushing anything because most of the contours are smooth. If Eiryss had some fur trim going on, that would be a good candidate for drybrushing. As it is, I’m avoiding the rough, powdery finish that drybrushing leaves in favor of more tidy methods.


Learning to shade and highlight takes time. Don’t be too hard on yourself if your models don’t look right straightaway. It might take you 12 models or it might take you 20. Just keep at it.

Until next time—