Diorama Painting Techniques: Stone Walls & Bridges Using Artist Tube Acrylics

30 January, 2012 1 comments Leave a comment

  This article is to help people paint my 1/72 scale military diorama kits, or for anyone who is interested in painting dioramas in general, and offers a very simple technique that I developed. This isn't the only way to paint dioramas, but it works for me and hopefully for you too. You don't need a degree in Fine Arts to achieve excellent results with this method, and the materials needed won't break your bank account. For reference and as a painting guide, feel free to print any photos of my dioramas from the website. However, they can only be used for your own use and are not to be sold or published without permission from Full Circle Hobbies.

  The paints that I use are acrylic artist paints that come in a tube. All of the painting effects for the dioramas are done with brushes, except for one. I'll get back to that later. When using acrylics, it's important to paint several thin coats rather than applying one thick coat. This way, fine details on the piece won't be filled in.The question you might be asking yourself is, why use acrylics and not oil paints? What are the differences and which is better?

  Basically, acrylics dry fast, oil paints dry slowly. The advantage of acrylics is that they have a fast drying time. You can do a lot of painting in one day between coats. Oils are great for blending colors and give you more time to work the colors before they dry. The drying time, however, could take days or even weeks. You can slow the drying time of acrylics by adding a matte medium. You can speed up the drying time of oils by leaching out the oil in the paint by letting it sit for a while on a piece of cardboard, or by mixing some drying accelerators into the paint. Cost wise, acrylics are a bit cheaper. They also don't have a toxic smell like oil paints or the solvents that are associated with them. Clean-up is easier with acrylics, just use tap water. So for me, the the benefits of acrylics over oils is that they don't smell up the whole house, and brushes, etc. are easier to clean. By adding a matte medium to retard the drying time, acrylics will behave the same as oils or even enamel paints for that matter, if not better.

  The only paint that I use on my dioramas, figures and military vehicles that isn't brushed on, is a matte black primer or paint from a spray can. This acts as a primer as well as a pre-shading.

  To get started, you'll need some of the supplies listed below for painting grey stone. Please note that some of the colors listed here will be used for painting other diorama features such as clay tile, slate, and wood shake roofs, cobble stone streets, bricks and stucco. If you don't want to buy all of the colors in one shot, buy only the ones that you'll be needing for this article. The cost of supplies will vary depending on where you live, but figure on spending about $150.00usd for all of the items listed. This might sound expensive, but brushes last a long time if cared for properly and a tube of paint goes a long way. The supplies that you'll be buying can also be used on figures and military vehicles and will be a better investment in the long run than other model paints. How many times have you bought that special shade of ack-nod blue in a small tin or jar only to throw it out after a few uses because it dried out? Purchase all of your paints, etc. at an art supply store and buy the brands that suit your budget. You'll also find that the staff can be a real help if you have any questions. Don't buy $ store acrylic paints, they're not worth spending your money on. However, these stores are a great place to purchase the other supplies that you'll be needing, such as paper napkins, containers for water, sponges, popsicle sticks and a plastic palette for mixing paints.

To get started, you will need:

  • One can of Acrylic Flat Black Spray Paint or Primer - Use this as a primer and as a pre-shade to give your colors more depth. If you miss a spot while painting the other colors, it won't stick out like a sore thumb.
  • Ivory Black - It has a brown base and doesn't give a blue tint to mixing greys.
  • Mars Black - It has a blue base and will give a blue tint to mixing greys.
  • Mixing White - Formulated to blend well with other colors and is good for making colors lighter and transparent.
  • Titanium White - Good by itself, or for making colors lighter and opaque.
  • Cadmium Red Medium - This is a yellowish, warm red.
  • Red Ochre - A redish brown.
  • Phthalo Blue - An intense, extremely versatile blue. It goes very dark when combined with Burnt Umber and, because of its high tinting strength, only a little is needed mixed with white to create light blues.
  • Primary Cyan - A mild blue shade.
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium - Create a lighter yellow by adding white to it. If you want to darken yellow, add purple rather than black. The black will produce an olive green rather than a deeper yellow.
  • Yellow Ochre - A beige shade of yellow.
  • Burnt Umber - A warm chocolate brown that's great for darkening the tone of other colors. Raw Umber is very similar, but slightly lighter and cooler.
  • Raw Umber - Similar to Burnt Umber but slightly lighter and cooler.
  • Raw Sienna - This is a light, muddy brown.
  • Phthalo Green - A bright bluish green. Mix it with Cadmium Yellow Medium to get a variety of shades of greens.
  • Very Dark Purple - It's worth buying a very dark purple as you can waste a lot of paint trying to mix one.
  • Acrylic Satin Glazing Liquid - This is used for mixing glazes and for thinning the paint for a smoother surface. In the modelling world, artist glazes are referred to as filters. It also makes the paint stick better to the surface you're painting and slows the drying time a bit. Mix in a little at a time until a desired consistency is achieved.
  • High Gloss Acrylic Varnish - Not really a varnish but an acrylic. Good for windows, streams or rivers where you need a gloss finish. Use a soft brush to apply it.
  • Satin Acrylic Varnish - Not really a varnish but an acrylic. Good for sealing the finished work and creating an even finish. Use a soft brush to apply it.
  • Rubbing Alcohol - Mix some into your paint when doing a wash on stone walls or cobblestone streets, etc. By adding alcohol instead of water, the paint won't "bead" but instead will flow into cracks and depressions.
  • Small Containers - You'll need one for cleaning your brushes and another for adding small amounts of water to your brushes to keep them moist while painting. Use ordinary tap water for this.
  • Popsicle Sticks - Use them for mixing paint.
  • Plastic Mixing Palette - Used for mixing paints.
  • Paper Napkins or paper towels - Used for cleaning brushes, spills, etc. and are easier to use than paper towels.
  • Fine pore sponges or Scotch Brite pads - Ripped into small pieces, they work well for doing painting effects on stone walls, bricks, rocks and cobblestones as well as painting moss.
  • Paint brushes - Get an assortment of brushes for acrylic paints that you think you'll need, starting with a #4 down to a #0000.

  Some of the above you probably have already, so check your supplies before you go shopping.

  Before you start painting, glue all the main parts of your diorama together. For instance, the parts for the bridge on the "Countryside Stone Bridge" diorama should be glued together before painting but not glued to the base. You have to be able to paint the stream that goes under it. For the "Cafe Noir" diorama, glue the shutters, downspouts and stink pipe on after the cafe is painted. For the "Torched Village" diorama, everything can be glued to the base before painting. If it's easier for you, paint it, then glue it to the base later. Now you can spray paint the Flat Black Primer onto all of the diorama parts including the base. Try to spray an even, thin coat so that you don't fill in any small details in the castings. Let this dry for a minimum of 24 hours. This application of black will act as a primer and pre-shade that will make the colors appear deeper. If you're going to paint light colors on window frames, doors etc., it's better to prime these areas with a light grey using a brush. This will eliminate having to paint many coats on the part, leaving fine details visible such as the grain in wood.

 For painting all the parts of the diorama, stone walls, roads, roofs, etc, the technique is the same. For the best visual effect, the painting process involves applying thin semi-transparent layers of paint over each other that will end up with a lot of detail and depth and won't be a mono-tone color. Keep your different layers of paint as thin as possible so that you don't lose the details on the pieces. Thin all the coats of paint with Satin Glazing Liquid, not water. Add about six drops of Satin Glazing Liquid to about 1/8 teaspoon of paint. This is only an approximation of the ratio and you might have to modify it. We're not baking here, so you have to experiment with the ratio until you think the thickness is right. Use water to only keep the brush moist while painting.

  Once the Flat black Primer/pre-shade is completely dry, it's time for the first layer for the stone walls and bridge. To make a dark color, start with the light color first, then add the darker one to it. This applies to all colors that will be mixed. It takes less paint this way to make the shade you want. For instance, the first layer you will apply to the stone wall or bridge will be a dark grey. Put about a 1/4 teaspoon of Titanium White on your palette tray and then add a small amount of Ivory Black to it. Mix this and see if it's the shade that you want. If not, add a tiny bit more Ivory Black. Or, if it's too dark, mix in a bit more of the white. When you have the shade that you want, add about three drops of the Satin Glazing Liquid and thin the grey so that it flows easily and doesn't have any lumps in it. Add Satin Glazing Liquid to every color of paint that you are going to use for this technique, except for washes. Coat everything with the dark grey. It's important that the grey is thinned enough so that some of the black shows through. You don't want to completely hide the black and create a mono-tone grey, that would defeat the purpose of this technique. Each layer should show the one under it a bit. Artists call this technique applying a glaze, or glazing. It's sort of like painting a model car body by applying a pearl paint job or a Candy Apple Red paint job. The underlying color (Pearl White) shows through and gives the color depth. It's very important to let each layer dry completely, about two hours. If one layer isn't completely dry before you add the next layer, the whole paint job will smear into a muddy mess! Be patient! In the modelling world, artist glazes are referred to as filters.

  Next, cut a small piece of sponge or scrubbing pad, about one inch square. Rip around the edges so that the edges are rounded and are not too pointy. What you want here is a random shape without any sharp edges. Mix a lighter shade of grey and dab the sponge or scrubbing pad into it, then blot it out onto a paper napkin a bit so there isn't too much paint on it. Now randomly apply the lighter grey creating a mottled effect. Mix a medium shade of brown and do the same thing as you did with the grey, only with the brown, don't dab on as much. Just a bit here and there. Now dab on just a hint of white onto the highest edges of the stones. Put this aside and let it dry for 12 hours. In the meantime, you can paint another section of the diorama while this section dries.

  After drying for 4 hours, it's time to start adding more glaze layers. Mix a light grey and thin it with the Satin Glazing Liquid so that it's very transparent. Brush it on thinly over the entire stone surface. Everything that has been painted so far, you want to have showing through each glazing layer. Let this dry for about 4 hours. Next, do the same with a light brown glaze (Raw Sienna is good for this), again brushing on thin coats making sure that the glaze lets the other layers show through. Let this dry for about 4 hours. The brown glaze layer should give you a nice, natural tint to the grey stone, not much, just a little. You want the effects to be very subtle and to appear natural to the eye. You might have to repeat several of the above steps to get the look that you want. Feel free at this point to also add your own touches that appeal to you. Let this stage dry at least 10 hours before doing the next step.

  Everything has to dry completely because you'll be doing a wash using alcohol. Mix a small amount of a medium grey without adding any Satin Glazing Liquid. Add small amounts of rubbing alcohol to the grey and flow it into the mortar lines and any low spots. Wipe off any excess with a paper napkin. Once this is dry you can add moss to the bottom of the walls and stone bridge. Mix 1 part of each of these colors together to get the shade of moss you like. Primary Cyan, Cadmium Yellow and Yellow Ochre. Then mix in a dab of Ivory Black to make a very dark shade of moss green. With a piece of small fine pore sponge or scrubbing pad, blot the dark moss green on the areas that require moss. Let it dry to the touch, then apply a lighter shade, then an even lighter shade. This will give the effect of sunlight hitting the moss. Once you have done all of this, mix a very dark grey, almost black, thin with Satin Glazing Liquid to make a glaze and add streaks going down the stone walls. This simulates staining caused by acid rain. Let it dry for about 2 hours. To finish your work and to protect it, seal it with a couple of coats of Satin Varnish.

  You can also use the same colors and technique above for painting stones and boulders in streams or rivers.

  For painting brown stone walls and bridges, the technique is the same as painting the grey stone, except you'll be using these colors. Raw Sienna, Burnt Umber, and Yellow Ochre. The first layer after spraying on the black primer coat, will be a brown by mixing Raw Sienna and Burnt Umber 50/50 with a few drops of Satin Glazing Liquid then brushing on. Let dry for about 1 hour. For the next layer that is sponged on, mix Yellow Ochre and Burnt Umber 50/50 with a few drops of Satin Glazing Liquid added. Let dry for about 1 hour. Keep making lighter and lighter shades of this brown by adding Mixing White, sponging on each shade until the desired effect is to your liking. Let dry for about 1 hour between each shade. Mix some very transparent glazes of different shades of brown by mixing Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, Mixing White and a few drops of Satin Glazing Liquid. Then brush some stones at random with these shades. Let dry for about 1 hour. If you want, you can add a final thin glaze of the lightest brown that you mixed to the entire stone wall or bridge. Add a wash to the stones as described in this article above. If you want to add moss on the stones, follow the same painting method also described elsewhere in this article.To protect the paint after it has dried for 24 hours, add a Satin Varnish over it. 

 That's it for my Diorama Painting Techniques: stone walls and bridges. Please remember that this article is just one technique out of hundreds that are out there. It's a simple, basic technique to help you get started and to have fun exploring the art of creating dioramas.


 I also used the above sponge technique to paint the fireplace in our living room. The previous owner of the house had painted the original granite stones green, then white before selling the house! 

 When people visit, they're stunned when I tell them that the granite looking stones are actually a simulated stone finish painted on them!

 Ahhh, the joy of being an artist! Happy diorama modeling!

David Gurinskas / Owner of Full Circle Hobbies






  1. Tony August 21, 2020

    Hey David, will you be posting your follow up answers to the previous questions on this site so we can all see them, and I was wondering why your pieces are more accurate than say AFX? I did see your comments on this but am just wondering what about them and the others you mention make them more accurate? The placement, width, length, or actual scale size? And thanks for putting all this out here, it is great info and a cool site, I look forward to getting some of your HO bodies and decals. Videos of your techniques would be cool. Thanks again Tony

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