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Adding the finishing touches

There are three main stages in finishing off a model, after it has been painted, that lift it into a realistic representation of the real thing. Derek Barrett describes these stages in easy to follow steps.


After the model has been painted to your satisfaction it is time to add a wash to bring out the details.

There are two main types of wash that can be used. It is up to you to try them and decide which is best for your type of modelling. All can be used on all types of model (aircraft, armour, figures and dioramas). Which to choose depends on the effect you are after, Very grubby for armour and dioramas or just outlines of panels, etc. for aircraft or cars.

Oil paint

Very popular with many modellers, an oil paint wash is nothing more than a quantity of turps with a little artists oil paint mixed in. It should have the appearance of dirty thinners rather than a true paint. Colours can be black, dark grey through browns, depending on the base colour and what you are trying to replicate. E.g. Black or dark grey for panel lines, brown for dirt or rust. A brown wash is more suitable for desert colour schemes.


Used in the same way as oil washes, inks have the advantage of being quicker drying. Games Workshop do a ready mixed range of inks in the Citadel range of paints. I always dilute the inks with water before use and add a drop of washing up liquid to make it flow better.

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There are several ways of applying a wash depending on the effect.

Overall wash

The simplest of all is to take a large brush and flood the model with the wash. It will flow into all crevasses and, because it mainly thinners or water it will pour off of flat surfaces. It is best to experiment on an old kit to get a feel for the amount of paint (ink) to use. Too much and you are almost re-painting the model. If puddles appear, wipe your brush and use it to lift off the excess. You must wait until it is dry to gauge the effect. If it is not deep enough you can repeat on the areas that need it.

There is debate on whether you should apply the wash to a matt or gloss finish. For armour or figures I usually apply the wash to a matt base as the wash flows over all surfaces and adds to the rather grubby finish all armour gets into after even a small while in the field. Aircraft or cars, on the other hand, are normally much cleaner so applying to a gloss finish the wash accumulates in the panel lines.

If you find that you have irregular hard edges when it has dried, wipe them with a moistened cotton bud.

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Accenting panel lines

On aircraft, cars, etc. apply the wash to the model after coating with gloss varnish (Johnson's Klear is ideal). You can use a small brush and wipe the wash along the panel lines and around details that you want to highlight.

Use a Cocktail stick

One method of highlighting panel lines is to apply the wash with a sharpened cocktail stick.

Mapping pen

A further refinement is to use a mapping pen. These are miniature versions of the old-fashioned school nib pens but the nib is only about 3mm wide. They can be obtained from artist suppliers.

Technical pen

The most refined method is to use a Technical pen (Rotring or similar). They can be obtained with very fine points and will follow the finest of panel lines. Only use this type of pen with diluted ink as they are too fine for oils which will gum them up.

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Dry Brushing

The next stage, for all types of model, is to use dry brushing to add highlights. If you look are any object you will see that there are highlights where the light catches on exposed edges.

With a lightened tint of your model base colour (can be acrylic, enamel or artist oils) take a fairly wide brush and just dip the tip of the brush into the paint. Immediately wipe most of the paint off the brush by wiping it on a piece of cloth, tissue or card. Then gently wipe the tip of the brush on to the areas you want highlighted. It is an art that is best practiced on an old model to get the feel of. You don’t want to paint the model but leave the merest trace of colour behind. The extreme highlights can be given a further dry brush of lighter colour and you can even use silver where edges get worn with people getting in and out of aircraft or vehicles.

Crayons and pencils

An alternative for some places is to use a coloured pencil to carefully run along edges to highlight them. I have a Berol Karismacolour silver pencil, which is ideal for adding touches of wear.

Ordinary graphite pencils can be rubbed along areas you want to appear grubby or to impart a shine to guns, etc. Rub the edge of the pencil across the item, then buff with a cotton bud or your finger. I find this effective to show dirty areas where grubby hands have tried to gain a handhold.

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The final stage is to use pastels to add dirt. All previous work must be finished and if you are going to put your model into a diorama it is best to complete this as well. Pastels are not permanent so will rub off if the model is handled.

The pastels to buy are the chalky type. Oil pastels are no use for modelling. It is often possible to buy a set of about 12 pastels for a couple of pounds from the market. If buying loose sticks, think of the use that they are to be put to and buy appropriate colours. Black, grey, white and brown are normally enough.

They work on a matt surface so if you have gloss painted your model you need to give it a coat of matt varnish before you start.

To use them, take a piece of fine sandpaper and rub the pastel onto it. You will get a small pile of fine dust on the sandpaper (Don't sneeze or you will cover everything with it).

With an old brush, pick up a small amount of the pastel and either dab it on or wipe the brush along the area to be covered. Don't be surprised to find it all falls straight back off. Pick it up with the brush and work it into the model. Start by wiping it back from exhausts, guns, etc. Blow off any excess, or dust with a large brush.

The effect is very subtle and it can appear that nothing is happening. Compare the area you have just worked with an untreated area and you will see the effect. If it all goes horribly wrong you can wash the model under the tap and start again when it has dried.

When you are confident in this area you can apply the pastel in other areas. A light grey pastel can make a convincing coat of dust and brown can look like dirt collecting round steps, etc.

I have always been wary of trying to fix pastels with varnish as it can make the effects disappear, but one of the club members has had success by using a light spray with hair lacquer.

Wet pastels

Another effect that can be achieved with pastels is to mix some brown pastel with water and treat it like a wash. It collects in puddles and looks as if the model has got muddy but some has been washed off by rain. Model railway enthusiasts often use this to build up slightly thicker patches of dirt and can be very effective.


As with all things in modelling, try them out first to see how you get on with them. Not all techniques work for all people and you need to keep on trying to perfect your skills. After all, painters' first attempts are never masterpieces. Above all, have fun and enjoy your hobby.

Last updated 20 January 2008

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July 2009, Milton Keynes Scale Model Club