What you see first and foremost when you look at a model, whether it’s a locomotive, building, automobile, tank, aircraft, or figure, is the paint job. A terrible model can be made presentable by a good paint job and a bad paint job can ruin the most exquisitely detailed work. Of course it is important to properly assemble any model and to include all the appropriate detail but if the colors and application is bad, that is all anyone will notice.
Paintwork consists of two parts: the basic color scheme and the enhancement painting. A good basic color scheme will allow a model’s other qualities of detail to show through whereas a bad basic color scheme will ruin it so it is important to get the basic colors right. Straight lines should be straight, smooth surfaces should be smoothly painted, and of course the colors should be correct.
The first component to a good paint job is a properly prepared surface. For plastic, resin, or metal, that means it needs to be washed with detergent to get rid of the mold release agent that all molded plastic has and also to get rid of any dirt, grease, or glue residue that might remain from the assembly process. Make sure the cleaner used is just detergent soap with nothing added to prevent streaks, soften hands, kill bacteria, prevent buildup, etc. All those extra things stay on the model and prevent paint from sticking. We prefer to clean the model while the parts are still on the parts tree so they can be scrubbed with a soft toothbrush and then once the model is assembled, a simple dip in warm dishwashing solution and a nice warm rinse will take care of any assembly process buildup. When working with already assembled models, be very careful to avoid damaging parts.
Priming is the process of adding a special kind of binding paint to a model to ensure that the paint has a really good bonding surface. After cleaning, metal, resin, and some plastic parts should be primed. With ordinary styrene models, priming is never a bad thing but it is also not usually necessary if the surface has been cleaned.It does serve the additional purpose of exposing any assembly defects so they can be corrected prior to final painting.
Vallejo Air Color formula paints (Model Air, Game Air, and Mecha lines) may be airbrushed directly onto clean metal without a primer.
Priming should be done with a primer paint meant for model work such as those made by Floquil (discontinued), Humbrol (new Acrylic primer is great and comes in black, white, and gray), Gunze (sold as Mr Surfacer), Tamiya, or Vallejo. Vallejo makes a line of colored primers that serve as a ‘base’ for advanced painting techniques but they have to be airbrushed. The others are available in a spray can (Floquil has been discontinued).
Once cleaned and possibly primed, a model is ready for painting. Make sure to keep it clean by working in a clean location with minimal dust and don’t handle the surfaces to be painted any more than absolutely necessary.
Small parts are easily painted with an appropriately sized paintbrush. Larger surfaces, especially large flat surfaces are more of a challenge.
The best way to get a good smooth basic paint scheme is with an airbrush. Next best is a spray can or aerosol but these can be a problem with complex surfaces because the paint will build up too much in areas closer to the can. It is also possible to get a good even finish with a brush but it takes practice, a really good brush, and really, really good paint to make it happen. Vallejo Model Air can be brush painted without leaving brush strokes because it is self leveling but this takes a soft brush and good technique. Rail Tales sells airbrushes and gives airbrush classes. Rail Tales will also airbrush your model if you aren’t sure your painting skills are up to the task but we prefer to teach you.
Part of painting is noticing how the real life objects look from a distance. Often clean natural metal finish vehicles (especially aircraft) have slightly different colors to each panel of construction for instance. This subtle effect is time consuming but well worth the effort.
Figure paints in an art in and of itself. Rail Tales no longer offers figure painting services or classes due to time constraints but hopes to do so again in the future.
Enhancement Painting and Detailing (Weathering)
In model building and model railroading both, ‘enhancement painting’ is generally referred to as ‘weathering’ because it designed to mimic the effects of the environment on the subject. This includes dust, grime, soot, rust, corrosion, rot, and sun bleaching but it also includes shadowing and shading caused by light. Weathering makes the subject look ‘real’ and can be anywhere from light shadowing and a little sun glint to serious deterioration and filth. Here are a few useful weathering terms:
Fading- with an airbrush or a light wash, fading tones down colors, especially lettering and symbols to represent age and sun exposure. Vallejo washes are outstanding for this job if you can’t airbrush.
Highlighting- drybrushing white or a very pale light color over the parts of a model that catch sunlight to make them more noticeable. With practice, this can be done with an airbrush but is easier to do with a large, soft brush.
Dusting- with an airbrush or drybrush technique, applying a dust-like coating of light material. Although powdered pigments do this well, an airbrush does it best.
Lining- using a dark color to outline items that in real life are separate parts from the body they adjoin but which on the model are one part. This makes them ‘pop’ and appear separate. Sometimes called ‘blacklining’ because black is often used. Most used where detail is not crisp enough. This is often accomplished by a technique known as a ‘pin wash’ (applying washes or inks only to the area around the detail rather than to the whole model). Pin washing is easily done with Vallejo Inks using an ‘apply-and-wipe’ technique that we show in our painting demonstrations.
Shadowing- application of a dark version of a base color to enhance the appearance of shadows. This is most useful when the detail level is not pronounced enough but in conditions where the light is coming from more than one direction, it is always a good idea to ‘show where the sun is’ by shadowing. Vallejo washes are often used for this as well but we also use weathering powders, inks, airbrush work, and other techniques. Shadowing is one of the more difficult parts of the process.
Aging- applications of colors to simulate the effects of age and exposure. There are a lot of ways of doing this which work. It is most applicable to structures, especially wood, metal roofing, bricks, and concrete. With vehicles, dust mostly covers the effects. Real wood is easy to age with stains or washes but make sure there are no glue marks! Plastic can be made to look like wood with a mix of washes, inks, color variation between individual boards, and drybrushing. The key is to have variations end at the edge of each board.
Rusting- application of colors to simulate metal rusting. This is a very good technique to use as a little goes a long way but a lot can be really dramatic. Washes and drybrushing can be used on large areas of light rusting whereas weathering powders are a good way of doing concentrated rust. Paint can also be used by the more skillful.
Streaking- Dirtying up a model by simulating the accumulation of ordinary filth over time. This usually happens in specific places more than others, hence the streak effect. It is useful to have a reference for this to place the accumulations in the right spots. This is most easily done with a brush using Vallejo washes or inks or ‘weathering effect’ colors or with weathering powders.
Mud and caked on dirt- this is done using thick mediums pre-colored to represent what is caked on. Vallejo makes a new line of weathering mediums for this purpose.
Grease and grime- accumulated petroleum product stains are best painted on.
Chipping- a tricky technique, there are ways of applying paint so that it looks like it has chipped. The easiest is to paint the model with rust or bare metal color, seal with a matt sealer, then paint it with chipping medium and airbrushing the final color over the medium quickly. The overlying paint can be rubbed or chipped off with a toothpick or the like to reveal the metal or rust beneath. Try it!
Standard Wash (usually just ‘Wash’)- applying paint which has been thinned considerably- at least 2-1 and often as much as 10-1 or more. This paint is used over the entire model to cause Fading, Shadowing, Lining, and other effects as well. Multiple colors may be used. traditionally, a dark version of the base coat is used for Lining, a light version of the base coat for Fading, and a black or dark gray is used for shadows.
Pin Wash- applying paint which has been thinned to a Wash but ONLY applying it around raised detail or depressed detail. This is often used for Lining and for adding accumulated dirt.
Rail Tales teaches these techniques as a Weathering Class.
Rail Tales will weather models for a customer to a specified level of exposure and deterioration. Typical HO locomotives or structures cost 40$ – 60$ to weather including materials. N scale items cost half as much while O scale items cost twice as much. Models cost 20-40$ for 1/72 scale and up to 80$ for 1/35, depending on the model.
Note that Rail Tales weathering work for hire is intended to be viewed only from normal distances. We do not do competition quality close-up work for hire. (If I’m going to spend 2 days weathering a model, I’m keeping it.) We can teach the skills to you, however.
Diesels weathered with Vallejo washes applied with a brush and streaked, over-sprayed with dirt, dust, soot, and matte varnish.
Custom lettering with dry transfers plus heavy weathering using Vallejo washes and over-sprayed with dirt, dust, soot, and matte varnish .
Custom decal job (made with dry transfers) on brass model of a ‘baby mallet’. All the paint work was done with a brush using washes, dry brushing, and various other related painting techniques. No airbrush was used. In this case, as opposed to the previous model, I started with a flat off-black base, so the airbrush was not needed. Time- about 2 hours. At the customer’s request, the running gear was left shiny for better visibility of the working parts as the model moves: it’s fun watching all the little parts work.