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PostPosted: Mon Dec 23, 2013 3:55 am 
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Any artistic painter will tell you that details don't necessarily make a painting look 'real'. Very often you see these wildlife paintings where every hair is rendered on the animal, yet the whole image feels rubbery, fake, and cold. Sometimes this seems to happen in models as well. Of course detail in a model is what's it's all about to a large part and it's the detail that really commands the 'wow' factor, but the feeling of reality in a model comes not just from the density of detail, which is just structural information, but from the overall use of colour. Whether you are trying to create a diorama where the sea and ship feel set back in space and slightly murky due to the mile of air between the viewer and the ship or trying to create a true-colour 'builder's' type model on a pedestal, colour can be used to tie all the elements together so that it feels more like a harmonious artwork. That's really what this article is about. I personally love the illusion that results from what is called 'scale colour'. For me, the ship is a fantasy place that isn't in this world, but that occupies its own air and light in a self-contained universe. When I look at my model, I want to get transported into a scene and escape the miniature fact of the matter. I see it as a kind of magic trick. Even if this isn't your objective, it can be very beneficial to start thinking about your various colours not as separate entities, but as inter-relating elements in a singular, harmonious form.


As a painter, I am keenly interested in creating some illusive ‘overall’ quality of realism in my models and an illusion of massive scale and atmosphere in a small thing.

I came to realize that some of the things I do as a painter is what people in the model world call “scale color.” It was actually David Griffiths great book "Ship Models from Kits that drew my attention to the term 'scale color' in his well-explained section on the same subject. In art, this is simply how we depict things so they appear unified within a single atmospheric effect.

I acknowledge that there is a school of modeling that calls for the accurate duplication of the paint-chip color that corresponds to the real thing without any spurious colour changes. In my mind, the logic here is that this kind of model is an attempt to create something that looks like you’ve taken a big ship and have shrunken it down. It’s a mini battleship sitting on the table. "Builder" type models and fine display models on pedestals often are of this ilk. They function somewhat as diagrams that describe the real ship in it's 'true' colouring without the interference of atmospheric effect and weathering. It's a matter of choice. This approach values 1:1 colour accuracy and I applaud the research and pain that goes into careful colour selecting.

Others seem to approach it differently. They try to create an illusion that you’re looking at something big from afar. They’ve not only tried to shrink the ship down in its architecture, they’ve also shrunken down the air around it as well; colors are dulled and modified to feel set in space and the whole thing feels strangely unified. The look of these models is, for lack of a better word, dusty and soft. This kind of modeler sees “yellow’ in the instructions, but automatically thinks “that will be too bright, I want to kill It a bit with white or grey so it ‘fits’”. The real life object may be bright yellow, but there’s an intuition that there needs to be some spatial effect as well.
I am definitely one of these types of modelers. I respect both equally. This latter approach is more akin to traditional artistic painting, while the former relates more to so-called ship-builders reference models. Of course ALL modellers make changes to their colours to improve the look of the ship. It isn't black and white. It pays to adjust your contrasts and intensities no matter what you're doing.
Ship modelling is unique because the objects being modelled are so large in real life. Unlike cars or planes, ship models are scaled in such a way that the viewer is positioned at what would be as much as a mile from the real thing! The issue of scale colour and whether or not to use it is particularly relevant to ship modelling. Scale colour is what this article is about.

Colour is relative to some degree:
I argue (and you can totally defend the opposite) that there is no such thing as an absolute color for any given ship or element when that ship is in an environment. Every time you observe a ship at sea, the paint chip color or absolute color of the ship (what we term ‘local color’) is affected by the light and atmosphere. HMS Hood could look quite sandy and warm in appearance on a sunny day, whereas it might look darker and more like a brownish gray in a storm. Even if you ordered a paint chip from the navy, it’s appearance is subject to the light in which you observe it. Color is always relative to its surroundings, so it renders the idea of ‘true’ color moot. Now don't get me wrong, I own every color reference chart from Snyder and Short and take great pains to duplicate the correct hue of my colors. Once the color is nailed down however, I may alter it slightly for scale effect and weathering. In a model I tend to think of the object’s color as ballpark rather than it being specific to the microgram of white vs. blue vs. gray or what have you. The paint chip colours might look correct on the real ship, but can look too strong and intense on a model. That said, I do believe it's important to get the colour as accurate as possible. Changing the local colour (paint chip colour) of the ship can only work if EVERY other color is altered to the same degree.

If you look at landscape paintings from art history, you’ll notice that rather than being literal in their colors, the colors are all related to each other around a common color theme. For example, look at a painting by Monet. HIs colours aren't literal, but rather organized around a colour concept that comes from the time of day, weather, and mood he's trying to depict. A painting by Monet, or any other artist for that matter might consist of 'unrealistic' colours such as pinkish grays of various shades with small accents of greyish purples. It’s as if the artist discarded the literal colours he knows a thing is and is instead choosing to modify them all in the same way around a color concept; in the above case, the color concept is pinkish grays and greyish purples. Everything in the painting is biased in this way whether it be the sky, a ‘brown’ tree, the rocks, or the ‘green’ grass. It's like he mixed up a limited number of colours that relate to each other atmospherically and painted the whole thing with them. It is this unifying of color that allows an artist such as Monet to paint a pink and yellow landscape yet have it feel real and true to the eye. It works because the eye identifies a common light that infuses all colors and assumes that it must be a unified reality.

So considering the above, It would be possible to paint a ship such as the Nagato pink. As long as the tarps are pink, the sea is pinkish, and ALL colours are biased towards pink, the ship will appear to be a grey ship in a pink light. This would be a pretty sophisticated thing to pull off as each colour would have to appear correctly biased to the right degree within a single harmonizing light.
Now, we’re not all artists and painters, but there are some strategies that can go a long way to achieving the look of scale/atmoshpere in your ship models.

1) REDUCING CONTRAST (for greater scale effect)
Too much contrast will reduce the look of scaled atmosphere and will make the ship feel more like a miniature object on the table rather than a massive thing in space way down below as if seen from an airplane. The reason this is so is that a large object such as a ship is always viewed with a considerable amount of air between the viewer and the ship. In ship modeling, air can be thought of as a greying or dulling force. I’ve seen formulas that attempt to explain precise amounts of white or gray to add to a color to achieve scale for certain distances, but this is unnecessary in my mind and not realistic. For example, pacific air might be more heavy than the air off the coast of Africa. This heavier air would cause more graying of a ship in the distance. The only formula you need to know is this: Once you decide how much you’re going to gray or soften a color, you have to soften and gray all other colors to the same degree. This is sort of what painters do.

A color has two aspects: Its chroma and its value. The chroma is the wavelength of the spectrum that the eye sees. Basically, the chroma is the color in simple terms. But all chroma has a value to it. The value is its darkness or lightness. If you took a black and white photograph of the color blue, it would appear as a dark gray whereas a black and white photo of yellow would appear as a light gray. We would say that yellow is higher in value than blue.

In a model ship, closer values of colors will yield a more in-the-distance appearance. A common example is the deck color vs. the ship color. If your decks are bright and light, but your walls are dark and gray, the ship will look less atmospheric. However, if your decks and walls are very similar in darkness or lightness, despite being different colors, the eye will tend to see a spatial effect. Strong contrasts produce more sharply delineated differences between forms. This sharpness of form is interpreted by the eye as being close and miniature due to the lack of atmospheric effect. Colors that are similar in value produce less contrast, which equals greater atmospheric effect to the eye. Let’s say that there is a light colored tarp on a Japanese lifeboat or launch. Let’s pretend that the historical record suggests that these tarps were quite white. Placed on a darkish gray boat, a white tarp is going to look very contrasty and bright. This will be more ‘on the table’ to the eye. For atmospheric effect, it would be wise to darken the ‘white’ tarp considerably to bring it closer in value to the gray lifeboat. Conversely, the grey of the lifeboat should be lightened to approach the value of the tarp. Colors don’t have to be, and can’t always be exactly the same value, but if they can be significantly closer in value to each other than not, you’ll get this lovely ‘dusty’ look.
In other instances, it’s easier to make two things very close in value such as the decks and walls as I’ve mentioned earlier. Camouflage schemes benefit from the same thinking. While the paint chip colors might be rather shocking next to each other, the model will benefit by your closing the value gap between these colors. Darken the lighter shapes, lighten the darker ones etc. The smaller the scale of the model, the more 'air' there is between the viewer and the ship, hence, less contrast. Smaller models should be very soft and low contrast in appearance to look scaled.


So that's the role of value in scale effect, but to solidify the effect of atmosphere between the viewer and the model even more, we have to take into account the harmonizing of color that occurs under a common light source in space.
In paintings, artist's will relate their colors to each other by making them more similar than not. Sometimes, paintings are monochromatic, meaning that every color is based on a single dominant tone. So imagine a landscape that is painted ONLY in shades of purple. In other paintings, colors may be different from each other in a polychromatic scheme but are related to each other by how the colors are mixed. Aspects of other colors are included in new mixes so there is a kind of cross-pollinating of colors throughout the mixes. In a landscape for example, the artist might add a bit of the grass color to the shadow portion of a cloud. This ties the cloud to the land and vice versa and creates overall harmony.

In a model, it is fairly easy to achieve color harmony. It can be accomplished in a couple of ways:

1. Every time you mix or go to use a color, add a certain amount of the other colors to this color. So your deck color could contain a fair amount of your ship's grey color. A white tarp could contain a smidge of ship grey and deck tan. It's really just moving your colors around inconspicuously through all mixes.
2. Another strategy that can work is to add a 'mother colour' to all colours. So every time you go to mix or use a colour, add a single color it. This color is added to all colors. For the purpose of ship modelling, gray works extremely well. I add gray to everything. Not only will gray soften a color, but will give the illusion of air between the viewer and the ship. Any color could work though. You could add a couple of drops of orange to every single color. The viewer wouldn't notice this, but it would have a harmonizing effect throughout the model.

3. Another strategy for harmonizing your colors is to work out from a base color. This process is similar to the concept of pre-shading. Imagine painting an entire ship red first, then, ignoring this color, proceed to paint the model as per usual. Depending on how lightly you spray the model, this base color will subtly show through subsequent layers and effect all the colors in a harmonizing way. This process gets tricky as any later hand brushing must be done with carefully mixed colors that perfectly match the new color that has resulted from layering. The only time I use an approach like this is for my decks. I prime my decks with krylon matte finish, then use a pencil to differentiate the board, krylon matte again, then lightly spray my deck tan on top of this until my penciling is barely visible. In essence, my decks are a visual combination of the pencil, the grey plastic, and a thin layer of tan. For me this works really well and feels like natural wood.

4. Another thing I do is to dry brush areas with artist's oils to knock them back in space. I don't use any thinner, but rather a soft, scrubby brush that has had most of its paint removed. If you mix up a gray color with black and white that is similar in VALUE to the thing you want to kill a bit, it is very easy to just buff this color on and soften the object or area. Q-tips are handy to wipe and grind the paint into the area.


The importance of color/value harmonizing the ship to the sea-base cannot be over-stated. It is crucial to creating a convincing illusion of light-harmony and distance in the model.
Like the local value of an object I mentioned earlier, the ocean surface, and any diorama elements such as docks and land-forms must also be modified by the same greying that the ship has been subjected to.

As an aside, the rigging conforms to these principles as well. Often rigging is criticized for being out of scale. More often than not, this over-scaled look is due to the darkness of the sprue/thread/wire/ used than to its thickness. We often run a black sharpie marker over our sprue to tint it; which might violate our goal of scale color. Instead of a sharpie or black material, consider using a rigging line that's similar to your ship colour. It sounds nit-picky, but the brain is so sensitive to this harmonizing effect, that it can immediately identify when something isn’t conforming to the same degrees in which all other things have been softened. By simply lightening your rigging a tad, it will shrink into the model another 25% or so and feel more part of the ship and finer due to lower contrast .

But back to the elements that surround the ship. Water, like the ship has no fixed color. It is a reflective agent that owes much of its perceived coloring to the sky and lighting conditions. Yes, water is blue in color when we observe it in deep volumes, but the surface is constantly reflecting the light conditions and along with other factors like fog, air, and time of day, it gets altered. I can’t state this emphatically enough: Strive to make your water more similar to the ship than not. Put another way, your water should be based on the colors within your ship. I literally mix a darker version of my ship first, and then I make it slightly blue and a little darker. If the water feels similar in coloration to the model, the eye will perceive a unifying atmospheric effect. In my opinion, the worst thing you can do is place a soft, grayish, atmospheric ship into a vibrant, richly colored sea. The effect is jarring and from a painter’s perspective; totally wrong. The water has to be grayed and modified by value and color to the same degree that the ship has been. An ocean base is not chained to the idea 'water is blue'. You'll find that you can create a wide range of water colors that will work beautifully so long as they feel related and similar in chromatic intensity to the ship. No matter what color you use, I strongly recommend softening the color by graying it down significantly. The water color you mix may look nothing like water in the pot, but once brushed on, you will be able to assess it's effect. I will often mix and re-mix my sea color several times, brushing it briefly around the ship in patches until I am happy with one of them. When placed side by side, my ocean dioramas are distinctly different from each other. No two are the same as they were each carefully mixed to complement and create atmospheric effect with the coloration of the ship.

Here’s an interesting fact we often overlook: We usually view models in fluorescent lighting or muted indoor daylight. These lighting conditions are synonymous with overcast light on a cloudy day. On cloudy days, contrasts are less, shadows aren’t sharp, colors are less vibrant, things appear darker, and water never looks rich and blue. It looks more like a deep bluish gray or outright dark grey. It can even look like a slightly brownish dark blue, but never an emerald or ‘typical’ sky blue. On an overcast day the sky isn’t blue…so neither is the water. So given that the lighting conditions that we usually view models in is an analogue for an overcast day, then the most convincing coloration for an ocean base is that which you see on an overcast day rather than on a blue-sky day where the water looks very blue. Why? The eye registers the overcast quality of the viewing light, but sees vibrant blue water. The brain can’t reconcile this difference and isn’t fooled by the blue paint. Think of every water diorama that’s blown you away. I’ll bet that most of these aren’t blue or very vibrant in their color, but appear more silvery, grey, softer, etc. It’s easy to get sucked into wanting to make brilliant blue water when you look at real ship pictures on the Internet. Notice that the skies in these pictures are brilliant blue as well. That’s reality on a sunny day. Your model is a tiny piece of plastic on a table pretending to be something huge in what amounts to overcast light.

The same thing goes with landscape elements. Green trees, rocks, buildings, and everything that surrounds the ship must be modified by our imagined graying ‘air’ and harmonized to the ship. When I’m painting one thing, I’ll often dust the other elements in the diorama with the color that I’m using. I’ll cross-pollinate my colors from object to object. Green trees in a diorama look garish and raw if done insensitively. On an overcast day, things can appear ever so slightly reddish as cloud layers filter out other parts of the spectrum. In keeping with the idea of overcast light as an affecting condition, dust the green with a light, almost invisible mist of red. Also, red is green's complement and thus has a graying effect. Take some of your ship colors and hit your diorama with them. Take your diorama colors and get them into the ship. This will tie together your elements and unify the whole thing into a solid looking artwork. Isolating colors and thinking of them as separate, individualized elements is to not use color to its full potential.

Another way of moving color around is to repeat colors. Use the same color that you used on a tarp somewhere and make the 'white' stripe on the funnel a lighter version of this tarp. The model and diorama is a totality that vibrates with harmonious color juxtapositions, repetitions, and unifying characteristics.

When it comes to support framing like the molding around a base or similar, I’m of the mind that it too should be in keeping with the model. Of course if you painted your frame a dull gray color, it might not function well as a framing device and could just feel mushy and blah. Traditionally, frames were used in art as devices to create a window effect for the painting. The viewer would see the edge of the artwork and the faux, wooden window, and this would re-enforce the optical illusion of the painting as being distant. This is no different than what happens in a model. The base is a framing device. It can be a bit darker and more contrasting with the water and diorama, but not overly so. If it gets too dark, it will suck the life out of the diorama. If it’s too vibrant in color, it will diminish the effect of all the subtle colors in the model.

The molding and base of a model is a highly personal preference, but in my opinion, it shouldn’t stray too far from the coloring and value ranges of the diorama. Let it have greater color and value potency, but control the intensity so that it isn’t stealing the show from the pretty harmonies you’ve sought to create internally.

All in all, there are no hard and fast rules in going about coloring a ship model and it’s surroundings. As an artist, I can’t help but take this stuff way too seriously. It’s my profession and expertise and I pain over this aspect of the build. I hold the painting of the model in the highest regard and am convinced that it is the single greatest contributing factor to a model’s appearance of miniature reality. It cannot be denied that a model is a 3-dimensional painting that benefits from the exact principles that guide realist painting.

All too often I hear how painting is the weakest part of a person’s build for them. They struggle with color and might feel that something’s wrong with it, but can’t understand why it refuses to look scale in its effect. It’s a tough prospect, but if you’re one of these people, it might be time to question the pre-made colors you’re ‘supposed’ to use and start working towards a more specific objective with your color choices; in this case, creating the illusion of space and a feeling of color harmony. Simply adding black and/or white and/or a 'mother color' to your colors can go along way to creating the kind of look I talked about in this article.

At the very least, I hope this article provides some language and concrete articulation of how one might start thinking about the coloring of a model ship in more artistic terms to hopefully achieve a more focused effect of realism.

Every time the PE sticks to your tweezers, you lose a minute off your life.

Last edited by sargentx on Sun May 31, 2015 10:56 pm, edited 43 times in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 23, 2013 4:44 am 
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Stickied for great details and content!

Yo dawg, I heard you like PE, so I put some PE in your PE so you can use PE on your PE.

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 26, 2013 4:17 am 
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A few questions.

Water vs distance effects. It would seem that in your discussion of tonal "value", the familiar practice of using high gloss materials as an overcoat for water would detract from the overcast / haze distance effect. Does this then call for a matte overcoat to reduce the specular value of the water or does the introduction of gray tints accomplish this alone ?

Scale "gray". When I received instruction in photography, it became my understanding that 18% gray (half-way between black & white or just about haze gray) produces the widest tonal variation.
Keeping in mind that we are discussing human vision as opposed to photographic depiction, is it the aim then to always depart (one way or the other) from that neutral point...based on desired weather ? Could a couple versions of it be used as a standard "distance in a jar" pre-mixed overcoat ?

"Why spoil the beauty of a thing with legalities"
Teddy Roosevelt .."The Wind & The Lion"

Last edited by Pagodaphile on Thu Dec 26, 2013 12:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 26, 2013 8:11 am 
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Very informative article for a misunderstood subject.

The only addition I would add is that there are different ways to depict ship models.

For those that prefer dioramas or realism, the techniques you describe are great! Just look at a ship a mile away and see how faded the colours look!

Many of us like to display our ships in a builder style on pedestals or wood blocks. Even here I find some modification of stock colours helps in picking out details and adding depth to a model.

For instance, I like using non specular sea blue instead of black. I find it looks less stark and you can see details better. I also like to shade larger areas to make them look more visually appealing.

Thanks for taking the time to write this all down!


Darren (Admiral Hawk)
In the not so tropical climate of the Great White North.

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 26, 2013 11:57 am 
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Hey no worries...
I do mention in the beginning of the article that there are 2 schools of thought. One that's akin to ship-building models, the other more related to painting. The article IS about scale colour, so that's really the focus. Definitely no 'right' way to enjoy the hobby... This article is absolutely not trying to argue that scale colour is superior in any way. It's a choice and a preference to be sure. This article was written to shed light on scale colour should one be interested in it, but unsure of how to go about thinking about it. And you are dead right about introducing variety into large, flat areas. I pre-shade vertical variations, then work the variety in those areas with artist's oils in the end. Rich surfaces that suggest many subtle shifts in tone and colour go a long way to creating interest, patina, and atmospheric effect.

Regarding gloss:
I think we can get all academic about whether or not specular shine /gloss has any place in a scale ship model. I've experimented with matte, semi-gloss, and ultra gloss finishes. You kind of run into a catch 22. A matte sea would complement the model quite nicely, but to my eye, falls short of simulating water because of the lack of expected reflection and some 'sparkle'. A high gloss sea to me feels a lot better and the illusion of wetness brings a lot to the overall realism of the water; however, next to all this shininess, the ship can look quite flat and matte. I've ultimately sided FOR shininess in the sea with a bit of gloss on the hull.
As you know, shine reveals flaws so I keep it off the ship, deck-up. In the past, I've experimented with high gloss decks and wet tops of things, but ultimately find that it looks a bit cheap and I've come to regret the decision

Regarding Pagodaphile's question about grey:
I'm not sure what the 18% grey refers to (it could be a photography thing), but in art, we often refer to neutral or mid-value grey. There is the most room on either side of this grey to darken or lighten. The grey that ships are modelled is nearly perfect as a base colour. I literally mix all my colours so that they are the exact same value of this grey or slightly darker or lighter. Whenever I spray something or paint it, it's never a jarring experience because even though it's a different colour, the value is the same. This makes painting the model very forgiving. Believe it or not, I never ever mask (except for camo and water lines.) I paint my deck free-hand straight down with the airbrush. The airbrushing can't get on anything because I'm spraying past these elements. Where the colour does overspray, it's hardly noticeable because it's the same value. I prefer softness to hard edge anyway. I paint the whole model free hand with an airbrush with no masking. I hold the model so that the ship itself acts like a soft mask. It's all soft edge. I then go in with paint that matches what I've done and I clean up the places where things meet such as walls and bulkheads or the little boxes and hatches everywhere around the decks. You'd be surprised how easy it is to paint the whole thing free hand with an airbrush and simply pull the contrasts out by defining certain edges here and there. When the values are closer, it's much easier.

Every time the PE sticks to your tweezers, you lose a minute off your life.

Last edited by sargentx on Wed Jun 17, 2015 5:40 pm, edited 3 times in total.

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 26, 2013 1:48 pm 
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That was an excellent discussion on color. I'm more engineer than artist as you say, so I really appreciate an artists point of view in building models. Of late I've used filters and pigments to unify colors in my models. But I am going to try some of your suggestions on some of my upcoming subjects to tie the base colors together. I'm going to experiment with the sea colors as well. I'm definitely saving this in my files for future reference.

Thanks for sharing this with us!

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PostPosted: Wed Jun 17, 2015 2:56 pm 
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Thank you for taking the time to write this up ... very good discussion. :thumbs_up_1:



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PostPosted: Fri Aug 07, 2015 7:13 am 

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This is something which the Miniature Modeler community understands as a given.

When we paint a Museum Piece (200mm model of Wellington, Napoleon, George Washington, Patton, Rommel, etc.), or even a gaming piece of these same figures, we look to create an illusion that we are seeing the Live Person, as if on a stage at a distance, rather than as a live-person shrunk down.

The OP's article is an excellent commentary on this issue.

Not only this, but it gives me permission to stop worrying about whether I have an IJN Naval Blue-Grey mixed up exactly right, or whether I have the IJN sea-plane green exactly right (although I think for the purposes it is close enough).

It took me a trip to the Getty Villa and Museum in Los Angeles when I was younger to really get what "scale-color" meant.

When I would look at paintings of Dutch Masters (Vermeer excepted - his style is somewhat difficult to categorize), I would notice things like velvet cloth in a painting which was really a solid color, only the shadows and highlights were applied with a swift stroke of a pallet-knife that added texture to the otherwise flat surface color.

On a ship model, it is the highlights and shadows which tell our eyes what the surface looks like:

• Is it smooth?
• Is it glassy or polished metal smooth?
• Is it sloppily painted?
• Is it smoothly painted?
• Is it rusted, or weathered and worn?

and so on.

Very excellent topic for that time when I am just about to begin painting my first ship models since I was 11. I hope that I can do better than I did then.


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1/700 (All Fall 1942):
HIJMS Nagara
HIJMS Aoba & Kinugasa
USS San Francisco
USS Helena
USS St. Louis
USS Laffey & Farenholt
HIJMS Sub-Chasers No. 4 - 7
HIJMS Sub-Chasers No. 13 - 16

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