The Scale Effect of Color and other considerations

Demo presented at the 19 April 2017 IPMS Prison City Modeler’s meeting

by Mark Gerges

Have you ever painted two models of different scale, and notice that one just looks too dark, and that the details just don’t pop? Or maybe, you’ve been at a show, and a certain model just looks right, and gets you to stop and linger a bit over the model, admiring the realism that the modeler developed?

One aspect that makes the model pop is obviously the paint, but do you just take the paint directly from the bottle, thin it, and then paint it?  Over the years, I have collected some paint chips from various armored vehicles to compare my own paint mixes against.  If you take a little of the paint from the bottle, it might be almost a perfect match. Paint it on a 1:35th scale model, and it looks fine.  Paint it on a 1:72nd or smaller model, and suddenly the paint looks too dark, hiding the details and making the model look like a dark blob on the table.

Years ago, I built a M26 Pershing in 1:35 scale, painted it with a US olive green straight from the bottle, and then lightly weathered it. The result? A dark green blob, which never really popped at any show and a disappointing model on my shelf.

So what’s going on?

First, we need to think about our models in a slightly different way. We tend to look down on our models, and think about how small it is, when really, we should think about how far away is it.  We don’t look at the world from a bird’s eye view. We see it on the same plain as us, extending out in front and around us.  Think about a model not as how small, but how far away from you.

Let’s look at 1:36 since the math is easier to do. 1:35 figure is approximately 2” tall, so a 1:35 scale figure held 5” from your eyes looks like a real person at 12’. For 1:72 scale, that is a person at 40’. This works for vehicles too.

The scale effect theory states that viewing a 1/48 scale aircraft from 12 inches away is the same as looking at the full-scale aircraft from 48 feet away.

Remember, in model building we are really trying to fool the eye into seeing our scale representation of a vehicle as the full size item, just farther away.  If you paint figures, you are familiar with the problem—light will not play on a scale figure that same way it does on a full size person, so you must take into account shadows and where the light source is and paint them into the figure.

Medieval painting.

Notice how scale and color are the same whether the figures are supposed to be near the viewer or far away. Only in the 15th century and with artists such as Leonardo da Vinci did they understand the relationships between scale perspective, and color.

Figure 1: simplified drawing showing perspective in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper

The other aspect that we need to consider is color saturation and variations that our mind might not consciously notice, but our eye picks up.

Look at the photo of concrete below. Notice the variations, the greens, browns, tans, and lighter colors all on a seemingly single color wall.

You notice the same effect when you are looking at a vehicle. It becomes most pronounced on a large flat surfaces, like the skirts of a M1 tank, or turret of a Panzer Maus, but it is on every surface, including aircraft.

Notice the variations in the aluminum and particular the tans and reddish tinge present in this B-17 nose—painted just aluminum without any sort of weathering would make it appears too bright and toy-like.

One technique to address this is various washes and the dot-filter technique.

The thin washes, placed so thinly over the service subtly alters the colors, giving the variations we see in person. If you have never tried the dot filter technique (or as some call it, oil dot rendering) see the links for some videos showing the application.

So how can we use this information in modeling?

First, a technical definition, according to Wikipedia:

“Aerial perspective – Due to light scattering by the atmosphere, objects that are a great distance away have lower luminance contrast and lower color saturation. Due to this, images seem blurry the farther they are away from a person’s point of view. In computer graphics, this is often called “distance fog.” The foreground has high contrast; the background has low contrast. Objects differing only in their contrast with a background appear to be at different depths. The color of distant objects are also shifted toward the blue end of the spectrum (e.g., distant mountains). Some painters, notably Cézanne, employ “warm” pigments (red, yellow and orange) to bring features forward towards the viewer, and “cool” ones (blue, violet, and blue-green) to indicate the part of a form that curves away from the picture plane.”

This model railroad blends the model terrain and a painted backdrop, using color to fool the eye to make the background appear distant. Even thought the intermediate level is darker in color, the green is less saturated and more washed out, fooling the eye.

Steve Zaloga’s M50 Ontos from Notice the effect of distance on the colors of the trees in the background compared to vehicle in the foreground, and how they are slightly blurred. Also notice the weathering on the vehicle, but beyond that, how he has used slightly different variations of the base vehicle color on the hull and weapons to not only show weathering, but more importantly, how the light reacts with the curved and smaller surfaces of the recoilless rockets compared to the flat surfaces of the hull.

To the left is Cezanne’s “The Bay” and is an excellent example of how warmer colors (reds, yellows, oranges) are used to add depth when contrasted with cool colors (blues, greens, violets). The image works very well, and that’s partially because of the colors chosen. You can almost draw a diagonal line between the warm and cool portions of the painting.

So how does this affect painting scale models?

Scale effect of light:

To make your models more convincing, think about the distance (not the scale), and adjust your colors. For example, if you paint two models the exact same color, even if the same scale, but they are vastly different in size, and the smaller one will appear more toy-like and not as realistic to our eyes. You brain looks at all the clues, and comes to a conclusion, and if that differs from what your eyes sees, you will notice something off.

To adjust the color: From the 1988 The IPMS Color Cross-Reference Guide, the following metric to add lighteners to the paint were:

  • 1/32 – add 7% white to your color
  • 1/48 – add 10% white
  • 1/72 – add 15% white
  • 1/144 – add 23% white

One caveat: Adding white as a lightening color might not be the best. For figure painting, often buff is used, but it differs depending on what the base color is. For example, if you have a red base coat, and add white to lighten it, you really would have pink highlights. However, if you look closely, yellow or buff may actually be a better work-around to lighten the color. Best advice—practice off the model or on a scrap test piece with the various effects.

Examples of the scale effect in action:

Microscale (1:285) German Wespe                         1:35 German Wespe

Both vehicles represent basically the same camouflaged pattern, but notice how the smaller Wespe is less saturated in color (more washed out, less vibrant) than the 1:35 scale vehicle, so that you eye just sees it as being farther away. It just looks correct and the details pop compared to painting this with an unaltered color.

BF-109 (1:32)                                           BF-109 (1:144)

Here are the same effects with a 1:32 scale BF-109 and a 1:144 scale BF-109. Notice how much deeper the color saturation is on the left, yet if this had been done with the smaller scale model appears correct to our eyes, even though the colors are less vibrant and more muted.

Color Modulation:

Color modulation is a technique that we discussed a couple of years ago during a chapter demo. Described as the modern dry-brushing, color modulation uses lighter and darker paints to show the effect of light on a surface. Think of it as the vehicle modeler’s version of painting shadows like figure painters. The photo is from Missing, which has detailed examples of how to do the technique.

Figure 2: Color modulation example from Missing

A couple of last thoughts.

  • As member Rick Brownlee has often said, practice on something other than the model you are building for Nationals! Get some artist paper, or have an old scrap model that you do not mind if it becomes ruined.
  • Washes may darken your paint, so take that into account. You  may have to go much lighter in the initial phases of the painting, knowing that your washes will darken it to the correct final finish.
  • Oil paints are essential, particularly for the dot technique, and if you do not have a basic set from Hobby Lobby or similar store,  I recommend investing in one.  The oil pigments are much thinner ground, and the paint will thin so it is almost imperceptible, something you just cannot get with acrylics.

Links to try yourself:

How to oil dot technique:

Oil paint rendering, a.k.a. Dot oil technique:

More detailed article on Color scale effects

Color Modulation:

Shadow and perspective examples:




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