More on Paint

Paint is one of those things that can make or break a model. As noted on another page, paint won’t hide problems on a model.  Likewise, there are a number of basic painting techniques, and you could make a lifetime out of talking about painting models. Some people do, and they’re often well worth listening to.

Brush Painting

One evening at a local hobby shop, I got to talking with an individual that is an excellent modeler who also teaches at a local art school.  He had just made the cover of a plastic modeler’s magazine with a gorgeous Japanese Zero model in 1:48 scale. Said same Zero was sitting on the shop counter and it was better looking than it was on the magazine cover.  Inevitably, the question came up about paint brand, and he told me.  I then asked him what air brush he used (which is akin to asking a talented author which typewriter they use) and he replied, to my great surprise, that this perfect model was brush painted.

He is also the kind of guy who doesn’t mind sharing techniques and his words are thoughtful ones.

  • Become familiar with at least one brand of paint.  By frequently using one brand of paint, you learn about how the paint behaves, how it flows, how it dries.  With experience, you get to know which strokes to use in a particular situation.
  • Use a brush big enough for the job. If you’re painting a large surface such as an airplane wing, a little detail brush will not work very well. Using the right sized brush, you load up the paint, wipe off the excess on the bottle lid, then use smooth even strokes to apply the paint.  Slow and steady is the word.
  • Wait for a second coat.  In many cases, the first coat of paint will not completely cover the area being painted. His advice was to wait a few minutes and then apply a second coat in the same manner rather than piling up a large load of paint in one coat. That large load of paint will likely hide details.
  • Don’t fiddle with it.   Once the paint has been applied, resist the urge to touch up or level out problems.  Rather, let them dry thoroughly, then come back and lightly sand off the problem and reapply paint as needed.

There are clearly times when only an airbrush will do, but there is something gratifying about brush painting a model.

Stick to One Brand of Paint

Well, actually, I just said that for my own amusement instead of giving you a solid recommendation.  There’s a lot to be said for just keeping one brand of paint around the shop, but it’s not very realistic.  By my count, I must have at least 8 different brands of model paint on hand. Whenever I shuffle off this mortal coil, my heirs & assigns are going to have to file an environmental impact statement before they dispose of my model paints. And, no, you do not want to inherit model paints from another builder. It’s fraught with negative consequences.

The reality of it is, however, that the different model paints have characteristics that are unique to that brand. In other cases, only one manufacturer produces an accurate rendition of the diesel locomotive color of your favorite railroad.  So, it is inevitable that you will end up with multiple brands of paint unless you are really disciplined. I’m not.

Things Change

Which is to say that the brand of paint that your father used back in the 1950’s is not necessarily the same paint that you are buying today.  I am personally aware of three different model paints that have been substantially reformulated in the forty or so years I have been painting models. There are a variety of motivations for such changes, but they usually center on the paint characteristics or how the paint is manufactured.

At the time of any paint product change, there’s likely to be confusion, but once it’s over and the old paint has sold off the hobby shop shelves, then everything is well with the world. In this case, your hobby dealer should be sporting enough to let you know that your favorite brand isn’t what it used to be, but it’s such an odd event in the first place that you’re not likely to run into it.

In any case, the model paint manufacturers often have a very good reason for such a change. Which brings us to:

Sometimes, It’s Not Your Fault

As stated previously, sometimes there’s a very good reason to change a paint formulation. There is no reason to name names, and it’s been at least twenty years ago, if not more, but a major manufacturer of hobby products introduced a line of acrylic paints.  Because this manufacturer was held in very high esteem by the model community (and still is), a lot of us rushed out to buy their new paint. For me, the motivation was that they produced a specific green color that matched the station trim color used by my favorite railroad.

This line of paints enjoyed wide acceptance, especially amongst those who build contest-quality aircraft models. A few years down the road, it slowly became apparent that the paint used on many of these contest-quality models was cracking.  At some point, the acrylic polymer was letting go; the metallic pigments had the worst problem.

I ran into the problem myself. I had started a 1:24 automobile model that had white and black interior seats and trim. The white color easily covered the required surfaces, but when I applied the black contrasting color, the cracking problem quickly reared its head. Fortunately, I was able to strip off the offending paint with a plastic-specific paint remover.

The point of this being that sometimes things happen which are beyond your control. Don’t beat yourself up about it.

Use Compatible Paints

I use the term “compatible” in two different senses. First, use paints which are compatible with the materials you are painting.  Second, use paints that are compatible with each other. 

  • There are some paints which will attack plastics.  When I say attack, I mean that the volatile solvents in the paint will cause the plastic of the model kit you have built to crinkle and shrivel; it’s called “crazing”.  Unfortunately, this sort of damage is often hard to correct. I’m not saying that you can’t use lacquer based paint on plastic, but you have to be pretty good to do so. In the long run, it’s easier to just buy a plastic compatible paint and get on with it.
  • The same issue also applies to multiple color applications.  You may find to your dismay that “plastic compatible” paints aren’t necessarily compatible with other “plastic compatible” brands of paint.  In most cases, this problem can be avoided by allowing the first coat of paint to thoroughly dry before applying a coat of another paint brand.

Stormy Weather

Or, put another way, Rain, rain go away, spray again another day.  While this may not be a problem in your neighborhood, it certainly can be a problem here in humid Atlanta.  And, in particular, it applies to spraying clear coats over finished models, either from a squirt can or from an airbrush.

What happens is that the spray captures the moisture in the air and deposits it onto the model.  The net result is called “blush”, which turns what should be a clear coat into a milky white looking coat.  If you’re lucky, blush will go away by itself, but if the clear coat dries too quickly, the moisture is retained under the coat, forever visible. If you are airbrushing, the problem can be partially addressed by adding “retarder” to the clear spray mix.  Retarder does just that, slows down the drying time to allow the moisture to escape before the coat dries. Be judicious with retarder, since adding too much means that the paint may never dry. Or at least take months to dry.

And, in a related problem, if you’re planning on using an airbrush, go ahead and buy a moisture trap. In this situation, what happens is that the airbrush compressor sucks in the ambient humid air of your shop and the moisture begins to accumulate.  As it accumulates, drops of water begin wending their way up the air hose. Usually, at the most inopportune moment, this water then spits out of the airbrush, mixing with the paint you are spraying, right onto the model.

I say this from experience.

Real Paint Won’t Do

I’m sure that you know this already, but using paint that is used on the full sized article will not look the same on a model. It has to do with reflectivity; the idea of model paint is create a model which looks like the real thing. To do so requires paint with the pigments “scaled down” to model size.

And, fortunately, many of the paint manufacturers have gone to great lengths to produce model paints that are accurately colored. This was done with no small help from historical societies, but periodically you will see online controversies about the color which a manufacturer has used to produce a scale model for a specific prototype.

I Saw the Light

One source of controversy can be put to the nature of the light under which the model is viewed. Fluorescent light generally has a green cast to it, so if you’re trying to match colors, do it outside in sunlight or under color-correct light bulbs.

The same rule applies to trying to match colors on a computer monitor. Monitors are notoriously inaccurate for color rendition; they can be out of adjustment to the point where the colors are too light, or too yellow, or too.....

In the end, though, it’s pretty much a case of “looking right”, which can sometimes be subject to the tastes and whims of the viewer.  Personally, I’m happy with “close enough”.