Wash, Ink and Shade: What’s the Difference?

What is the difference between inks, washes, and shades for miniatures? How do you use them when you paint models? There are many types of inks and washes for miniature hobby painting. They all have different effects and behaviors when you apply them with a brush or airbrush. Most inks and washes for hobby painting are water-soluble, which means you can thin them with water for specific effects. In general, inks and washes (and shades) act like transparent paint that filter the hue of underlying paint color. Because inks, washes, and shades have different applications, as well as overlapping uses for painting miniatures, it can be confusing for when you should buy and use each type.

In this article, I review the differences (and similarities) between washes, inks, and shades. I also highlight their most common uses for painting miniatures. If you’re confused about what these hobby mediums are best used for, this post is for you!

Wash, Ink and Shade: What's the Difference? - all the paints on my paint rack
So many hobby paints and mediums to choose from? What’s the difference? How do you use them? Read on to learn more about acrylic inks, shades, and washes for miniature painting!

What’s the Difference Between Inks and Washes?

Inks and washes both have different uses, but overlap in some areas as well.

Here is a detailed description of inks vs washes:

Inks are an art medium, while a wash is an art technique or a medium. This means that you can buy an ink. It is sold in bottles. But, with washes, you have the option of buying them premade from popular hobby companies or you can make a wash yourself. A wash is simply a diluted paint (or ink) that makes the pigments act more transparent when applied to a surface. In fact, labeling a bottle of paint medium a “wash” is mostly a marketing technique from hobby paint companies.

  • Inks are generally opaque paints that you can use for quick coverage of large areas such as skin of lizard men, the carapace of an insect, etc. Inks need to be diluted with water or other acrylic solvent (i.e., a thinner of some sort) for more transparency, or to create a DIY wash. I rarely use inks straight from a bottle. Note that there are transparent acrylic inks you can buy, but they are less common.
  • Washes are transparent paints that you use for shading or color modulation of large areas such as the skin of an orc’s face, the scales of a snake, etc. Depending on the brand formula, e.g., Citadel, Vallejo, The Army Painter, washes may need to be diluted with water or other solvent (i.e., a thinner of some sort) for more transparency or for airbrushing. The variety of “washes” you can buy may be overwhelming to understand at first glance. But, all washes work through their color transparency, and help to increase the contrast of a miniature painting by darkening recesses and texture.
Wash, Ink and Shade: What's the Difference? Realistic metallic effects with miniatures and 3D prints
You can use washes, shades, and inks to create all kinds of great effects on miniatures. For example, combining Citadel shades with Vallejo washes, along with a dose of ink, helped me paint this metallic effect on this 3D printed surface. You can find more of my miniature painting work in the gallery.

What are the Pros and Cons of Inks and Washes?

Ink Benefits:

  • Inks are opaque and can quickly cover large areas on a miniature. The exception are transparent inks, which are naturally going to allow underlying color to show through.
  • An ink generally has higher pigment or colored resin concentration than compared with regular hobby paint. Or, in other words, inks have better coverage over a surface even though they are thinner (e.g., lower viscosity).
  • You don’t need much ink to shift the color of paint or water. A small bit of Ink mixed with a lot of water will still have strong color saturation. This makes them great for making your own washes.
  • Inks are versatile in that they work well with almost any acrylic medium, e.g., paints, thinners, and provide a means for intense color through their high pigment density.
  • The most popular use for artist inks for painting miniatures is to mix with acrylic paints (e.g., DIY paint washes) or use thinned down into an ink wash. For best results, use water-soluble artist inks, and avoid coarse ground permanent black ink, such as India inks.

Ink Drawbacks:

  • Opaque inks easily overwhelm other hobby paints. Even transparent inks have strong liquid pigments and you should be careful to avoid over using them, as they can overtake an entire color palette.
  • Almost all inks have a glossy finish. Use a matte medium or matte varnish to reduce to remove the glossy effect.
  • Inexperienced miniature painters will overuse black inks and dark color inks. I generally recommend mixing and thinning artist inks to create a wash for most applications (more about this below).
  • Most inks don’t work well on a wet palette like other paints.
  • Basic techniques to finish painting a model won’t work with pure inks.

Wash Benefits:

  • Washes add depth and can help you shade large areas over an entire model without overwhelming other colors.
  • You can make your a DIY wash with artists inks or thinned paint, which can often give you more control, better contrast, and more intense color that store-purchased shades or gw washes.
  • Mix paint with other washes or other a thinner to add color into deeper recesses on different areas of your model. For example, you can thin a shadow color with a brown wash or flesh wash to give skin or flesh tones extra depth.
  • Many easy to learn, basic techniques, e.g., GW battle ready standard painting, start with a transparent coat of wash over the entire figure followed by highlighting techniques.

Wash Drawbacks:

  • It is easy to use too much wash over a model. A dark wash application often desaturates and darkens your main colors. After applying a wash, I suggest going back and restoring mid tone colors and highlights.
  • A good wash requires surface tension to work well. This keeps the wash in the recesses. Unlike inks that you use to make a DIY wash, pre-made hobby brand washes, e.g., gw washes or shades, don’t require thinning. In fact, for more control, don’t thin your commercially purchased washes or thinners. Avoid using flow improver.
  • As with inks, using a darker color wash can easily overwhelm an entire area of your model with a single color.

RELATED: BEST 7 WASHES FOR PAINTING MINIATURES (RECOMMENDATION FOR NEW PAINTERS)

Wash, Ink and Shade: What's the Difference? pros and cons of washes and inks
Vallejo washes are highly pigmented paints with transparent properties. I use them a lot for adding realistic weathering effects.

What About Shades?

Labeling a product a “shade” is mostly a marketing technique, similar to the term “wash”. A shade is simply a specific kind of wash or ink that you can buy or make yourself that darkens or “shades” the recessed, deeper parts of your miniature. To clarify, many washes are intended to create shadows, which also means that most washes could be considered “shades”.

I know this is a bit confusing. But, as it turns out, shades sold from popular hobby brands are often just dark colors that you apply over other paint to shade/darken them. The shading or shadows you create help add contrast and improve your miniature’s definition and volume. You can certainly make your own shade with diluted ink.

Wash, Ink and Shade: What's the Difference? what about shades?
Citadel Shades are basically transparent acrylic paint medium with a different name. This isn’t a bad thing. Citadel Shades are wonderful for quickly adding contrast to models. They do exactly what you want a paint wash to do, without the hassle of making the proper mixture yourself.

Shade Benefits:

  • All shades add contrast and depth to a miniature when used correctly.
  • The use of a darker shade is the opposite of highlighting, and both work together to define volumetric form on a model.
  • Shades can also be used as a wash if it is very diluted with water or other acrylic solvent (i.e., a thinner of some sort).
  • Dark brown inks or black inks make great shades when thinned or diluted (try not to overuse flow improver or avoid it altogether; water is the best thinner). Consider mixing your DIY shade with a bit of matt medium to reduce the gloss of the finish. For this reason, I often recommend using a matte varnish to complete a painted miniature.
  • Pre-made shades, such as those from Citadel, are excellent and easy to use for any painter. These work great over a base coat of paint, and help to quickly define texture, definition and detail on a model.
  • A shade applied over a base coat of paint will easily create a more compelling surface. Metallic materials benefit greatly with an application of shade. Boltgun metal or gunmetal paint, for example, appear better with the real metallic shine of steel or iron with a simple coat of Nuln oil.

Shade Drawbacks:

  • Most commercial shades, e.g., Army Painter, are limited to darker pigments and aren’t as widely useful as regular paint, ink, or washes. In other words, sometimes making your own wash is better.
  • Because shades darken the tone of model’s recessed texture, they may fail to work well on miniatures with large open surface areas with less defining texture.
  • You can buy pre-made “Shades”, or make DIY washes. The confusion of when premixed shades are more useful than DIY shades is hard to untangle for new painters. For the most part, premixed shades from Citadel (Games Workshop) are the best choice for those who are unsure.
  • The difference between shades vs washes is mostly from marketing labels and strategies. In general, a shade or wash can be used interchangeably, as both are usually a darker version of paint or inks with enough surface tension to add depth and shadow to a miniature.

How Do You Make an Ink Wash for Miniatures?

There are several ways to make an ink wash for painting miniatures. In general, ink washes are translucent, so you can layer them multiple times to achieve the desired ink effect. To use inks properly, the key is moderation.

Use inks to make unique shading colors, such as for a flesh wash for human skin tones, or a green wash for those orks and goblins. Black ink (excluding India inks where make poor washes) or brown ink are versatile for almost any miniature painting project. A black ink when diluted into a black wash, for example, allows you to quickly define the panel lines on armor plates or mechanical parts.

It is interesting to note that Games Workshop (GW) had a line of useful, old GW inks. However, GW stopped making them because they were redundant with other products. A thin application of ink wash created by diluting artist ink or paint worked well for miniature painting.

Ink washes are diluted forms of inks that are used for shading and coloring large areas on a model’s skin or armor. One way to create an ink wash is by adding ink to a wet paint mixture. A paint and ink mixture allow the color to flow more easily through your brush or onto your miniature piece without requiring too much effort from the artist.

You may also create ink washes by adding ink directly into water. Adding ink to water will allow you to mix ink drops into various ratios of ink and water before applying the mixture to your model’s textures. When creating ink washes for game pieces, it is important to remember that ink washes will put down a darker tone than traditional paint, so you’ll need to apply ink in multiple thin coats rather than one heavy coat.

It’s fairly simple to dilute any acrylic ink with water:

Step 1: Use ink and water to create ink washes. Use an eye dropper or estimate droplets from a brush to determine the ratio of ink to water you will need for your wash. For example, you can use 10 ink drops and 5 drops of water to create an ink wash that is darker than traditional paint.

Step 2: Apply ink washes with a brush or airbrush. Use ink washes sparingly and in thin coats. Applying ink washes in multiple thin coats will allow you to build up the ink wash on your model so it looks more natural.

With these tips, you can use ink washes for miniature painting to achieve a variety of different effects.

SEE MORE DETAILS: FULL INK GUIDE AND RECOMMENDATION FOR MINIATURE PAINTING


When “Straight Ink” is Better Than an “Ink Wash”?

The difference between an ink (straight from the bottle) and ink wash is simply how thin the ink is when you apply it to your model. An undiluted ink is opaque and creates a tone that is very contrasting. It can be overwhelming to use ink straight from the pot. Ink washes are often ink mixed with water (or other type of thinner), which makes the ink more transparent, giving you more control over the ink’s opacity and tone on your model.

If you are using ink straight from the bottle, it can be useful for creating deep lines of contrasting color without taking too much time.

Wash, Ink and Shade: What's the Difference? A bottle of black acrylic ink from liquitex
Artist inks are wonderful mediums for painting miniatures. I love using this black ink for various projects, including making my own washes and shades. Black acrylic ink also works well for finishing the base of models.

Inks and ink washes are both good for adding shading and contrast to your miniature paint projects. In general, ink washes are easier to work with because you can create an ink wash that is lighter or darker depending on the ink-to-water ratio. For this reason, ink washes often give you more control over how ink is applied to your miniature project.

When ink and wash are used together for miniature painting, ink washes will generally provide a better result than undiluted ink as it is easier to manipulate the tone of an ink wash with thinner or paint.


Tips on How to Use Ink Wash

A wash is an application or technique where a transparent medium, such as diluted ink or paint, is applied over a model’s surface to darken recesses and define surface texture on a mini painting. To best use an ink wash, remember to apply it in your painting in areas where you want to define shadows and depth.

Use a brush loaded with the ink wash and apply it to your model. Work in sections, as you would with normal paint, so you don’t have too much spread where you don’t want the ink wash to go. How you apply your ink wash will depend on the miniature. With practice you should be able to control where the ink wash will go.

Some miniature painters will start with a gloss coat to help the ink washes’ surface tension “pull” the pigments into the right places. But, I generally don’t recommend doing this as it can also make it more difficult to control where your inks go over the model. Inks tend to to run easily, especially thinned out inks.

For more tips on how to use ink washes, check out how I used inks in this short ink basing tutorial and how I use washes in this article painting an RPG tabletop miniature and board game miniature.


Conclusion

Inks, washes, and shades are amazing tools for painting miniatures. There is so much to learn and try in this hobby. I hope you found this article helpful and informative. There is a lot of confusion surrounding these mediums and I wanted to clarify some of the discussion. It doesn’t help that company marketing has blurred the lines between what shades, washes, and inks are used for.

In general, inks are art medium products; whereas shades and washes are often associated with techniques. Sure, nowadays you can “buy” shades or washes, and then use them with methods according to their namesake. But, ultimately, the end result is the same: use these mediums to add contrast and volume to your miniature paintings.

If you have any questions or feedback about this post or want to learn more, please leave me a comment. I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time, happy miniature painting!

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