Stain Painting Miniatures

Stain painted artillery piece of the 30 Years War.

The cannon pictured here is from Revell’s Thirty Years’ War Imperial Artillery. The entire model was undercoated in khaki, and the wood stain painted with an umber wash. The gun barrel still shows the khaki undercoat. The next step will be to undercoat the barrel and all metal fittings on the carriage with black, paint the fittings dark silver and drybrush the barrel in brass.

Tool and Accessories

Stain painting requires much water and very little paint pigment, in order to shade recessed areas and slightly tone down raised surfaces of the figure. The technique is very valuable in the shading of faces, hands, hair, fur, wood and materials of similar texture. Raised areas are only lightly darkened in the staining process, instead the pigment flows into folds and creases, shading them noticeably.

The effect of a stain can be checked while it is still wet, it may even be carefully controlled by adding water or pigment. Stain painting works only on surfaces which absorb water easily. A white acrylic undercoat repels the stain and changes the viscosity of the pigment, which then spreads everywhere and dries in unsightly speckles. However, white mixed with umber acrylic provides an excellent basecoat for an umber stain, which can be used on horses and most wood surfaces.

Undercoats and Stains

Lightly coloured areas are usually stain painted with a significantly darker shade of the same colour, indigo stains on light blue surfaces, dark green stains on green and umber stains on red. Black is rarely used as a stain, because it destroys the luminescence of any surface it is applied to, causing the figure to look dull and sooty. Used sparingly on buildings and vehicles, a thin black wash can achieve realistic weathering results.

Khaki, stained umber
  • Brown and dark blonde hair
  • Medium and dark brown horses, dogs and cattle
  • Leather gloves
  • Brown leather belts
  • Fawn uniforms and trousers
  • Muskets and pole-arms
  • Unpainted wood
Red, stained umber
  • British and Hannoverian uniforms
  • Trousers and blanket-rolls of many Zouave units
  • Shabraques of many cavalry units
Light grey, stained black
  • Grey jackets, trousers and greatcoats
  • Grey saddleblankets, cloak- and blanket-rolls.
  • Grey haversacks and field flask covers
  • Grey horses usually ridden by trompeters

When the stain has dried, raised surfaces should be highlighted by careful drybrushing. This is particularly important after a black wash, so that the stained surface once again receives texture and depth.


Burnt umber is the most useful colour for staining, because it maintains excellent viscosity even when it is strongly diluted with water. Burnt umber lightly stains the raised surfaces, but most of it flows into the recessed areas and strongly shades them.

Put a small amount of acrylic paint into a shallow plastic tray and dilute it with clean water, until it has the consistency of thick ink. Usually, a large droplet will form on the plastic pallet, it does not spread and it can be used to stain many miniatures.

Loading the Brush

A size 1 or 2 paintbrush immediately soaks up enough stain when it is held into the droplet. If small areas are to be stain painted, some liquid should be brushed out against the edge of the tray.

Applying the Stain

The stain flows onto the figure when it is touched with the loaded brush. Interestingly, the stain usually stays on the area of colour that it was applied to, unless the brush was loaded with too much stain, in which case the liquid will run all over the figure. This effect is very useful in controlling the flow of the stain, particularly when shouldered muskets, pole-arms, knapsacks and other small items of equipment are to be stain painted and the surrounding areas of the uniform need to stay clean.

Controlling the Flow of the Stain

With a little practise, the proper mixture of water and pigment can be achieved without fail. In the event that the stain is off balance, the mistake can immediately be corrected by adding water or by drawing excessive liquid off the figure with a clean and moist brush. In an emergency, the whole figure can be held under running water and brushed clean with a soft paintbrush. After the figure has dried, staining can resume.

Controlling the Intensity of the Stain

During the staining process, the result of the stain may be modified by removing or adding pigment. This is particularly important on faces, hands and hair, where the recesses should turn very dark while the raised detail remains strongly highlighted.

Stain painted faces dry in a matter of minutes. During this time, the miniatures should be held upside-down so that the pigment collects in the eye-sockets and under the headdress. You will need to check continuously that droplets do not form on the bridge of the nose, drawing the stain away from the eye-sockets. In the event that this happens, brush the nose and forehead with a clean and moist paintbrush. The droplet will split, releasing the stain into the eye-sockets again.

If the stain was diluted too much, facial features will not be shaded sufficiently, lighter basecolour may even shine through the pigment in the eye-sockets. This problem can be corrected while the stain is still fresh. Add acrylic paint to the stain and carefully apply a little more of it to the face. Another remedy may be to allow the diluted stain to dry completely and then stain the area again. However, this process will result in a significant darkening of the raised areas as well, giving them a bronzed look. This effect may be used to create darker skin, if a small amount of black acrylic paint is added to the umber stain.

Staining and Drybrushing

Staining and drybrushing are two important painting techniques which complement each other very well. Muskets and pole-arms are usually textured enough after the staining, particularly when one considers that the metal fittings will add a significant amount of further detail to these weapons. However, the texture on stained calfskin knapsacks and wood surfaces really comes to life after these items are drybrushed carefully. Test it on a few figures to convince yourself that drybrushing is worth the extra effort.

Painting Miniatures