Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Quick Tip: Using Matt Medium to Get Rid of Shiny Model Syndrome

Just a quick post on a valuable tip for getting rid of those stubborn shiny spots and finishes that even Dullcote matte sealer spray won't get rid of.

This is a fairly common problem for a number of painters.  Many times we'll paint a miniature, and either the washes come out glossy and shiny, or the paint itself inherently dries to a candy-like finish.  The common fix is to hit the model with a coat of matt sealer spray when it's done.  Not only does the sealer spray tone down the shininess, but it also gives the model a transparent protective coat that helps defend it against some minor wear and tear.

While I've used matte sealer from companies like Games Workshop, Privateer Press, Armoury, Ral Partha, Army Painter, and others, I keep coming back to Testor's Dullcote for the flattest finish of all of them.  My experience is that matte sealers from gaming companies are slightly more durable, but aren't quite as matte to the eye as ones from dedicated modelling companies (who aren't as concerned about durability).  Testor's Dullcote (which comes in fairly small cans) has earned quite the reputation from numerous painters as the go-to matte spray sealer when you have a model with a shiny finish that needs killing.

However, spray sealers have their weaknesses.  They often have a hard time reaching the deepest recesses of a model.  They often go glossy when we get heavy-handed with them.  Unless you mask off certain areas, they cover EVERYTHING on the model with the same finish (which stinks if you want your metallics to be shiny, and your gems to be glossy, but everything else to be flat).  They can give a cloudy finish if the can is not shaken well enough, spray from too far away on a hot day (the spray can dry before it even hits the model), or if you are spraying in the cold.  And often times, they just aren't matte enough to do the job, especially when the model is especially shiny.  What's a model painter to do, if this is the case?

Well, that's when matte medium comes to the rescue.  Normally, we use matte medium as a painting medium... which is to say that it's designed to be mixed in with our paints on the painting palette.  It's slightly cloudy when wet, but dries clear, and most importantly of all, it dries incredibly matte.  It's just the trick for thinning out your paints and inks, without getting the runny-ness of thinning with water alone (using water alone also dilutes the binders that make the pigments spread evenly, causing the colours to break up somewhat as you are painting).  Mixing a tiny bit of matte medium with the paint and water on your palette allows you to create weakly pigmented paints that are great for glazing and translucent layering, but still retaining enough body and thickness to retain easy control over where you are laying it down.

Amazing that something so flat, can come out of a bottle so round...

Years and years ago, shortly after I found some acrylic matte medium in the art stores (before they started showing up in gaming shops in the Vallejo miniature painting line), I thought of trying it out straight up, without mixing any paints in with it.  I was using inks quite heavily at the time, which were great for creating washes for shading.  However, inks have a tendency to dry very, very glossy.  This created quite a problem, as the recesses of my models were catching more ambient light than the highlighted raised detail!  The usual fix, spray matte sealer, wasn't doing a great job of countering this, as these were the areas that spray was least likely to reach as well.

I put some on my painting palette, thinned it with a tiny amount of water in order to get it to flow off the brush smoothly (it's a bit too thick straight from the pot), and then proceeded to lay it down like I would with a glaze (only this "glaze" was completely transparent when dry).  To my pleasant surprise, it worked like a charm.

By applying it by brush, I had a level of control I wouldn't have had with a spray can.  This was long before airbrushes really caught on in our hobby, and so I had to use a sable brush at the time.  I could place the matte sealer precisely where I wanted it, avoid areas I didn't want to dull down, and also control the consistency of the matte glaze.  And it dried MUCH flatter than any spray matte sealer out there... even more so than the much celebrated Testors Dullcote.

As with anything, there were some trade-offs.  It was more time-consuming than a rattle can, of course, but this wasn't something I would do on an entire unit or army anyway.  Also, if you brushed it on too quickly, or if it was watered down a bit too much, it would froth up and create bubbles on the miniature (this was fixed by brushing out the bubbles with a moist brush while the matte medium was still wet on the model... an easy but time-consuming fix).  And in many cases, a second coat was needed as any missed spots wouldn't show up until after the first coat dried completely.

One more thing to note is that matte sealer is matte because it has a very fine texture to it that disrupts any light from bouncing off it in a reflective manner.  Gloss sealer is glossy because it dries to a smooth, polished, mirror-like finish. If you are planning on putting any decals on AFTER using matte sealer, it's best to put down a layer of gloss sealer where you want the decal to go beforehand.  If you have a matte medium or matte spray underneath a decal, the decal will trap tiny air bubbles underneath it due to the rough pebbly surface of the matte sealer.  When dry, it will give your decal a "silvered" finish, which makes it extremely obvious that it's a decal, instead of giving the impression of something painted on.  After the decal is set, you can always apply matte sealer over top to kill any residual shine.

By the careful use and placement of brush-on matte medium, satin varnish, and gloss varnish, you can control the types of finish you want on every part of your model.  For example, you may use matte medium over the clothing, skin, etc., while using satin varnish over the metals, and gloss varnish over glass, eyes, and gems.  This allows you add another level of contrast and realism to your models.

This became such a staple and fundamental part of my miniature painting techniques, that I didn't realize that there were a number of painters out there that relied solely on spray matte sealer to kill shiny finishes.  The casual gamers that I hung out with didn't seem to mind this issue much, but more serious painters would.  It wasn't until I started blogging, and following other people's blogs, that I realized that there were any high level painters that didn't figure this out for themselves.

Two painters that I follow quite religiously are Dave Soper and Jarrett Lee.  Both have done what I never have, which is win Golden Demons, and in Mr. Soper's case, multiple Slayer Swords.  Dave struggled with a Dark Eldar diorama that he had applied some of the new GW washes on, and Jarrett had some Zombicide models that came out pretty glossy after washing them with inks.  In the comments section of their blogs, I suggested they try using Vallejo Matt Medium as a paint-on spot solution to their issues:




In both cases, this solution worked like a charm.  I even joked on Dave Soper's blog that I would now be able to take partial credit for any Slayer Swords he won from then on... and then he went on to win multiple Slayer Swords!

This is probably the closest I'll ever get to winning a Sword.  Sad, really.  :(

Anyway, I think is a good example of how even the best painters in the world never stop learning.  And that often the best tips come from newer or less experienced painters, who often come at an issue from a fresh perspective.


  1. I will have to try this out the next time I work with a lot of washes because, as you said, it will be more reflective once sealed than other areas. Thanks for sharing the tip.

    1. No problem. Just make sure the paint is fully dry before going at it with the matte medium, and thin the medium down just enough to get an even layer of it. You may also need to put a second coat of the matte medium down if parts of it are still a tad shiny, or if it dries streaky at all.