‘Model-making Basics’ – painting

This is the final of five outline accounts dealing with what I consider to be the five defining areas of model-making work; main construction, fine construction, modelling/shaping, creating surfaces and painting. I’ve written these overviews in preparation for teaching sessions at RADA ( Royal Academy of Dramatic Art ) in London. So they’re tuned towards the specialities of theatre design model work, but most of the points will be relevant in general terms to model work in other disciplines. I’ve started with the general ‘themes’ or requirements of the subject, followed by more specific and practical guidance on the materials and methods which can be used.

I always start by thinking, at least for a brief moment, that there’s not much that I can say about painting! I think this is because I feel that painting is a highly personal thing .. everyone will have their own ways of going about it, and whatever one says about it each person will learn best from their own experiences. I think another reason is that although I’ve done a lot of painting, of various kinds over many years, I still feel like an outsider. Painting is still very much a ‘trial and error’ experience for me. Maybe that’s exactly what it should be .. in order to keep the experience alive and to stay alert!

painting materials for model-making

In fact there’s an awful lot that can be said about painting in this context, if only when one considers the variety of materials one can use as paints .. a wide range of acrylics (‘heavy body’, ‘light body’, liquid or ink-like), gouache, watercolour, tempera or ‘poster’ paint, inks and stains, polishes, enamel paints, artists’ oil paints, spraypaints (DIY, graphic art or graffiti sprays), coloured pencils and pastels, wax-based rubbing paints .. and so on!

I like the term ‘model friendly’! I picked it up from somewhere along the way and it’s usually the first thing that comes to mind when I have to focus on the subject of painting models. So what is ‘model friendly’ painting? An ideal paint for model-making needs to be opaque enough to cover properly without streaking, but at the same time thin enough to do it without clogging fine detail; it needs to mix well, be easily thinned and easily removable from brushes; it should be inexpensive and readily available in a good range of colours; it needs to dry quickly and it helps if it’s self-sealing (so that it can be quickly worked over once touch-dry without dissolving); it also needs to be adhesive enough to stay on a variety of materials, including if possible plastic and metal, and strong enough once dry for light handling. My preference is also for a paint which is matt by default (if a glossy surface is needed this can be better achieved by varnishing a matt surface rather than having to use a separate gloss paint. This gives more control over the results). It also helps a lot if additives are available to extend its properties further i.e. to dilute it heavily without affecting its adhesion so that it can be used as a transparent glaze, or to slow the drying time so that it can be pushed around or wiped off, as oil paint can.

If such a single paint existed it would inspire feelings of much more than ‘friendship’ towards it .. unfortunately it doesn’t exist! But one can get all these things from using a combination of just a few. Acrylic paint comes close, but there are shortcomings and it depends a lot on the type, as I will explain later. The same applies to oil-based enamel paint (more properly called ‘cold enamel’, familiar as the small tinlets from Humbrol or Revell) .. this is an extremely ‘model friendly’ paint in many respects, but lacks versatility. What is not so often considered though is combining the two .. I don’t mean literally mixing, because they won’t, but using them over each other. Coloured pencil, pastel crayon, shoe polish, metallic waxes etc. can also be applied over either of these paints to modify the effect. Many of these combinations would not be open to a serious artist concerned with permanence, but are nevertheless sufficiently durable and lightfast in the shorter term.


Observation and visual research

I won’t repeat what I’ve already said about the importance of starting with the right visual information and the need for interrogating the true ‘look’ of something before representing it .. just see the previous post on this subject.

One shouldn’t have to argue that it’s the duty of all who are involved in the creation of images of the world to have a good understanding of its true colours, regardless of how these might then be manipulated to support an idea. One should be fully aware for example that light skin is not simply ‘pink’; that concrete is not really ‘grey’, and that tree trunks are very rarely ‘brown’! Our sensitivity to these things is really not helped by our common language! Quite apart from such brutal distortions as describing people in terms of ‘white’ or ‘black’, we don’t have much of a vocabulary when it comes to the rest of the colour spectrum .. red, yellow, blue, green, orange, pink, brown and grey, that’s often about it for most people! I think this may be one of the reasons why children invariably start by painting tree-trunks brown and often continue to do so in later life .. when the child asks what colour they are, ‘brown’ is just the closest from a limited range of words to describe it.

Most often reaching an understanding of true colour is not simply a case of identifying just one but discovering the interplay of many. A brick wall for example, even the blandest of modern ones, is a subtle pattern of many related colours .. and the trick is to reflect this in a balanced and economical way. In the previous post on Creating surfaces I talk about identifying the essentials of a look or a natural pattern .. seeing the visual recipe .. and conveying that in the model. At such a small scale it’s usually not possible to include everything that the real-life surface contains and it shouldn’t anyway because it is after all an artifice! The small scale forces the designer to concentrate on the few most relevant essentials and the model is the best vehicle for testing what will work.

Planning for painting

Don’t leave painting to the last! This may seem like a funny thing to say, because one would assume that the other processes involved in the making of something all have to come first! Of course they do, when we’re talking about individual elements, but a theatre design model may be composed of hundreds of different elements nearing completion at different times. It may seem logical, even sensible, to complete all the preceding steps on all of these until there’s nothing left but to concentrate on the painting .. but I think this could be a big mistake! There’s an advantage to finishing some of these elements ahead of time just to give yourself an idea of the final look .. whether that turns out how you thought, or whether it prompts a rethink. Also, unless final painting is mundanely straightforward, it is difficult to predict how long it will take to get the desired effect so the sooner one can start investigating the better. A set design is a composition which is no less visually involved or precisely balanced than a painting! I don’t know of any painter who would construct all the elements of a painting in precise detail as a complete drawing and then leave all the colouring-in to last! One needs to preview a great deal as one goes along, for example how colours and surface qualities change forms and react with each other. Often starting the painting process sooner alleviates stress .. for example when discovering that the material chosen for surfacing actually needs very little painting or that the surface texture created does most of the painting work on its own when it’s dry-brushed.

keeping separate for painting

While elements of the model are being made it’s necessary to keep a constant question going in one’s mind as to how they’re going to be surfaced .. whether they’ll be given just a flat colour which can be easily applied once assembled, or whether the different treatment of parts means that it’s better to keep them separate till the last, as above.

However, even if you try hard to paint as you go, it’s often a ‘sod’s law’ inevitability that much of the final painting is done in a rush, because most of the preceding stages take longer than planned, and this is often made worse by not even ‘kitting out’ for painting properly beforehand. By this I mean a number of common sense things .. making sure that reference images are organized and visible; making sure that you have all the paints, additives, brushes and other tools you are likely to need including any specials such as stains or metallics; having scraps of the materials you have used to make tests on; uncluttering the workspace, making sure that it is clean and comfortable; making sure that there is a continuity of reliable, neutral light well into the night!

The composition of paint

It’s very worthwhile knowing at least a little about what goes into a paint! This not only helps with how to use them but also how to change or extend them. Basically paint is composed of .. a mineral or chemical pigment which provides the colour and is usually very finely ground; a solvent such as water, acetone or turpentine which carries the pigment particles and which, upon evaporating, causes the paint to dry; and a binder, in other words a glue, which makes the paint stick to a surface and then hardens to make it durable.

The pigment is not ‘dissolved’ in the solvent but suspended in the form of fine particles and these will differ in shape according to the different minerals or chemicals used. The opacity of a paint, i.e. how well it will cover without lighter streaks showing through, is as much dependent on the shape of those pigment particles as anything else. For example jagged particles are likely to clump together whereas smoother particles will stay apart. For this reason certain colours will usually cover more evenly than others, regardless of the type of paint. Earth colours for example always cover well, whereas some reds or blues are invariably streaky. To compensate for this and to even out the differences a fourth ingredient is commonly present in paints .. a filler. This is also a finely ground powder, but one which is itself colourless and chemically inert. Chalk is commonly used as a filler in gouache, alumina hydrate is another often added to acrylics, and others include marble dust, kaolin, silica and talc. Some more modern, synthesized pigments such as pthalocyanine are so intense that fillers are essential to tone them down and make them ‘palatable’. Gouache is a form of watercolour with a high proportion of filler added to make it especially opaque. But on the other hand fillers are most often added just to extend the paint volume and make it cheaper to produce. It stands to reason that cheaper paints will have an excess of cheap filler, resulting in colours that are rather dulled. This may not be so obvious at first judging by the colour squeezed out from the tube, but it may not keep that colour on drying and the lack of pigment intensity can become very apparent when mixing two of these colours together!

In many paints the solvent which carries the pigment is the same as the solvent in the binder .. for example in most regular, brush-on acrylics it is water. The paint dries and hardens as both evaporate. So why does the pigment need to be ‘wetted’ with the solvent separately? .. can’t it just be added to the binder in one go? If you’ve ever tried to mix your own paint, for example by adding Pva glue to powder pigment, you’ll know that it’s much easier to integrate the dry pigment with the glue if the pigment is made into a wet paste first. The water serves as a bridge between the two and helps prevent pigment particles from clumping together.

The binder, which is essential to provide both adhesion, sealing and eventual hardening, is what principally differentiates paints from each other. The binder in most regular acrylic paints is an acrylic polymer (it doesn’t mater so much here what is meant by that, but if you want to know find the entry in my Lexicon above). In artist’s oil paints the binder is commonly linseed oil; in gouache and some watercolours it is traditionally a very small amount of gum arabic, and traditional tempera paints were commonly made using egg yolk, sometimes animal glue or honey. It is mainly the binder .. or rather the extent to which the binder is modified .. which determines whether a paint will dry matt, silky or ‘eggshell’, or glossy. But it can also depend on the granular size of the solid ingredients, since even minutely rougher surfaces will appear more matt because the light reflected from them is broken up in various directions. Less finely ground pigments may make the paint more matt or a higher proportion of filler in a paint will ‘absorb’ much of the shine in this way (though at the same time diminishing the colour intensity). Sometimes a small proportion of wax is added to paints as a matting agent.

Knowing these things means that you might, to a certain extent, be able to change the paints you have .. perhaps by adding more glue to make the paint stick better or dry harder, or adding more filler i.e. chalk dust or talc, to make it more opaque or matt. Some additions may react with certain ingredients of the paint and make it unusable i.e. making it too thick or preventing it from hardening .. but it’s worth a try and you might even improve it!


Whatever paints you use, it’s important to be able to get any colour you might want .. its vibrancy, hue, lightness or shade .. as easily as possible. Control over colour begins with having at least a good basic collection of essential colours plus white .. and let’s also include black for the moment for convenience .. and I deal with choosing colours later in this section. But it also depends on being familiar with other individual properties of the paints you have. For example there will be quite a variation in the properties of different colours within the same range from the same manufacturer .. some will be more opaque than others; some will thin more evenly; the pigment in some will be more concentrated and dominant than others; some (especially in the case of acrylic) will dry glossier than others! So getting the green you want is not necessarily just a case of mixing the right yellow with the right blue for example. I only started doing the following once I’d amassed too many paints to choose from at a glance, but I wish I’d started much earlier .. making paint swatches!  I originally started making them purely because one only gets a generalised idea of the colour from its packaging, but then found that this could tell me a lot more besides about the behaviour of each paint compared to another.

paint swatches

I’ve made this kind of test, shown above, with every paint and every colour I have .. brushing each in its strongest undiluted form for about a third of the way down but then thinning it carefully to get a fade to almost nothing. It’s important not to labour getting an even fade but to go with what the paint does naturally so that if the paint is, for example, difficult to graduate the swatch will reflect this. I’ve used pieces of oil-painting paper to paint on, because this type of primed surface is a good ‘average’ .. neither too absorbent, nor too resistant .. and it’s very pleasant to paint on, whether in oil-based, spirit-based or water-based paints. These give me an instant visual record of how well the paint covers, how the consistency changes when diluted and how matt it will dry. Some colours will even change in hue when thinned and this is important to know before using them. For example there are rich reds which appear fairly neutral when seen at their full strength but which reveal a strong bluish bias when thinned or mixed with white (more on colour undertones later). Or there are even colours composed of more than one pigment where these start to separate when thinned such as the chocolate brown below. This contained some strong pthalo green which is appearing towards the bottom of the sample.

pigment separation

Nothing replaces having to experiment with colour mixes on-the-spot i.e. when you need them, but looking through these swatches has always helped me to define the colour I want and make better choices as to how to achieve it. But it’s also a fact that having to mix colours from scratch each time one comes to painting is tedious! .. and we all have favourites that we use time after time. I mix up large amounts of favourite colours when I’m in that kind of mood and (since I prefer using acrylics which are more liquid) fill flip-top dropper bottles of the type shown below. This is the most convenient and economical way to dose out paint, in very small amounts if need be. Often I’ll re-use the old bottles from bought paint but £shops also sell ‘travelling bags’ containing bottles of shampoo, shower gel etc .. the cheapest paint bottles around at 4-5 for £1!

best dispensers for paint

We’re probably all familiar with the basic theory .. that one should be able to get any colour hue one wants using just the three primaries, red, yellow and blue, with the addition of white to lighten the tint (hue by the way means colour, tint means the colour mixed with white and shade is the colour mixed with black). You may also have picked up the advice that one shouldn’t need a black .. that a sufficiently ‘black looking’ colour can be made from a combination of the three primaries. Anyone who’s tried to find those three magically pure, neutral and equally strong primaries amongst the range of existent paints will know .. it just doesn’t work like that in practice! There are vibrant reds that feel closer to orange, while others will feel closer to purple. The same is true of blues .. either they’re too dark to judge in the shop, or they feel closer to either purple on the one side or green on the other. I think a lot of people think that they’re at least on safe and neutral ground in choosing a strong yellow .. but even here there’s likely to be a subtle bias towards either orange or green.

You might ask .. do these subtle biases matter that much? If we’re going to mix colours together, can’t we eliminate the biases anyway? The fact is .. no we can’t, if we’ve just got those three paint colours to work with. Imagine for example that you’ve chosen a red which was the most vibrant you could find, but it’s just a tiny bit on the purple side .. in other words towards blue. You want more of a pillar-box red but just as vibrant, so you add some yellow to it. The resulting colour is duller than you expected it to be. At that point you might remember another piece of the theory .. that complementary colours (those opposite each other on the virtual colour wheel, see below) actually cancel each other out, producing a form of grey. This is what has happened between your yellow and the trace of blue in your red .. and there’s nothing you can do about it! Actually the opposite of blue is, strictly speaking, orange but a warm yellow can be close enough to it. It doesn’t even help if the yellow you’ve got is one that tends towards green instead .. in this case the green and the red being opposites will also dull each other! It’s not usually possible to make colours brighter (i.e. not just lighter but stronger in chroma, to use another accepted term) by mixing them and most often it’s the opposite. If for example you want to make the brightest possible green from blue and yellow you have to combine a blue which already has a green bias with a yellow which also has a green bias. If you then want to lighten it without losing colour brightness or ‘chroma’ you add more yellow, or if you want to lighten it and tone down the brightness you add white.

colour wheel

Then there’s the theory that a good black can be obtained from a combination of primaries. If you choose those three primaries according to their visible brightness then this probably isn’t going to happen .. you may get a form of dark grey at the most! To obtain a convincing black you need quite darkly biased versions of those primaries .. a rich Prussian blue and a dark magenta for example.

The simple answer seems to be .. if you’re not so concerned about vibrancy of colour, and 100% control in achieving every nuance of colour possible, then you could well be satisfied with the three closest possible primaries, plus white .. and yes, why not, including a black just to make life easier! Many paint manufacturer’s websites contain advice on the best three colours to choose if you have to, such as the following from Winsor & Newton:


Here the company recommends for example using it’s ‘lemon yellow’, ‘Winsor blue’ and ‘Permanent rose’ when working with its Galeria acrylic range because these it says are closest to the printing process colours .. yellow, cyan and magenta.

If on the other hand you’d like more control over colour, you will need at least two versions of each primary, plus a few others besides according to personal preferences. My own personal preferences are as follows:

Red cadmium red medium (yellow bias) and quinacridone red or permanent alizarin crimson (blue bias)

Blue pthalo blue (green bias) and ultramarine (red bias)

Yellow cadmium yellow medium (red bias) and Hansa yellow or lemon yellow (green bias)

I also rely fairly heavily on having others which may not be strictly necessary but which I’ve got used to using anyway .. pthalo green (a very strong, vibrant green with a blue tinge), yellow ochre (an essential basis for naturalism), raw umber (a rich dirt colour), red oxide (or a rich terracotta i.e. a convincing brick-red), Prussian blue (mainly for making black or for darkening greens).

Here I’ve tried to use just universal or accepted colour names in this list .. rather than others like the ‘Winsor blue’ for example because the chances are that they will be fairly similar amongst different manufacturers. But unfortunately there’s no 100% guarantee, even when the standardised pigment identification CII (Colour Index International) number is the same! What all this boils down to really is how I began this section .. for the most reliable control over colour you need to make swatches of the colours you have, identify which are strong pigments and which are weak, practise mixing and build on your own personal experience.

Using ‘natural’ accident

It’s very difficult to create a natural, convincingly random effect by deliberate means! Strictly speaking it’s impossible! .. and in any case one could argue that when the eye of the designer is involved it’s not going to be truly random anyway because there will be a fairly strong element of selection and personal preference, and the urge towards aesthetic balance that true nature doesn’t always care about. However, it’s often necessary to create the semblance of randomness, and for this it’s usually better to discard the brush, using other things such as crumpled tissues or natural sponges to dab paint on .. anything in fact which defies complete control. Making textures do the painting .. i.e. stippling polyfilla to make a rough surface and either dry-brushing or thin-washing over it to bring that texture out .. is good in this respect because there are always some surprises, elements that weren’t planned. I like creating paint effects by spraying though something else such as scattered granules or torn netting (see Creative spraying further on) because it increases the element of chance.

Waiting for paint to dry

I’ve included this as a ‘general’ point because I think there’s a lot of confusion about how long different paints need to dry and harden thoroughly. Many paints become touch-dry very quickly but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ready for anything! For example a very thin coat of acrylic paint may be dry enough to over-paint safely in under a minute but the complete hardening of the paint to attain its full strength and adhesion to the surface will take days! In fact, acrylic paint can be particularly misleading because thicker coats will quickly develop a skin (especially annoying when they are still on the mixing palette) while underneath the paint can remain soft and damageable for weeks! The same goes for the matt enamel paints featured later .. they can also be dry to the touch in a matter of minutes but will remain very susceptible to handling until they’ve had a full 24 hours to dry completely. These enamels dry differently from acrylics .. they dry from within and do not form a skin, hence the fact that although initial touch-drying can take longer, complete drying is generally quicker.


Priming surfaces

We’ve looked at the importance of this as a safeguard against warping in the previous post on Creating surfaces. But that’s not the only reason why priming (i.e. painting or spraying an undercoat) is important. Acrylic paint is often favoured because it will take to a variety of surfaces and dry properly on them without those surfaces needing any special preparation. This is generally true .. but there are times when even acrylic needs some assistance with covering evenly. Some acrylics (if they have a strong binder) don’t necessarily need an absorbent surface and will even stay on plastic, but most often the smoother and less absorbent the surface the ‘streakier’ the brushstrokes will be. The paint covers but it’s almost impossible to get it to cover evenly. This is partly down to the individual properties of the paint .. there are pigments which are more opaque than others and there are paints which are designed to be more opaque, as I’ve said. But even coverage is also dependant on the structure of the surface being painted. A good example is provided by canvas which, even today, is still largely unquestioned as the best possible painting surface. It’s texture traps paint and the regular weave tends to portion it evenly. In painterly terms this is often referred to as the tooth of the surface, and the oil-painting paper I use for colour swatches has a regularised tooth. Gesso which is for priming canvas or underpainting in white has a slightly rough tooth, though much less visible, which helps to anchor the paint more evenly.

Although paint will take better to absorbent surfaces it also sometimes makes sense to make those surfaces somewhat less absorbent, another reason for priming. This means that paint can be more easily moved around or sometimes even fully removed rather than immediately soaking into the surface (see later Staining, tinting and varnishing and the use of semi-absorbent oil paper). Some oil-based paints fail to dry properly if the ground is too absorbent because it soaks up the oil too quickly, leaving the pigment as a powder on the surface.

Working with acrylic paints

Acrylic paints seem to be the ‘default’ choice of theatre designers for their models .. tube acrylic paints, that is .. particularly amongst students or beginners. When I go to teach 1st-year theatre design students I see boxes of them everywhere and, understandably, these are often the ‘discount’ or cheaper kind. I’m afraid to say that I personally don’t get on very well with tube acrylic paints and from the look of many of the results .. neither do they! I find it much too thick, and difficult to thin down evenly; I’m happy for it to dry fairly quickly on the piece I’m painting but annoyed that it does the same on the mixing palette .. but more annoying is the silkiness or even glossiness that remains after drying which is usually inappropriate to what I’m painting!

Some types of acrylic paint are much more ‘model friendly’ than others. For example I like painting with the bottle acrylics found in many craft/hobby shops because these are generally thinner, more opaque, more matt, longer lasting and much easier to dose out. The ‘Americana’ or the ‘Crafters’ range from DecoArt, below, are the best I’ve found in these respects. They must have a good binder, because generally I’ve found they will fix well onto most things, even foamed Pvc if it’s lightly sanded, and when dry they are sufficiently hard-wearing.

DecoArt bottle acrylics

Apart from their good performance, I like their handy, tight-sealing, flip-top style which keeps them remarkably well and allows me to dose single droplets if needed! This is a big plus in terms of comfort! On the downside, the colour range is certainly not as good as most other ‘artist’s’ acrylics and the shops which sell them don’t tend to stock the full range or keep it stocked anyway. I wouldn’t use them if I wanted complete colour freedom or vibrancy .. but I often rely on them for my usual ‘naturalism’ palette. They’re not expensive .. the common price for a while now seems to be £1.99 for 60ml.

There are other acrylic brands in similar bottles, and some of these work just as well but some do not. The ‘Inscribe’ range is good, as is the ‘Folkart’ and ‘Anita’s’ .. I haven’t tried them all! The £shop-like chain ‘The Works’ stocks some useful things from the ‘Royal & Langnickel’ brand including their bottled acrylic paints. Some of these may be usable, but the darker colours I’ve tried were very streaky (i.e. too transparent) and they dried almost gloss!

An excellent form of acrylic paint in just about all the respects I’ve mentioned is the SuperSaturated scenic paint from Rosco. This is concentrated, and pigment strengths are fairly well-balanced. 1 litre bought will make 2 litres of strong, opaque paint and it mixes readily with water. It contains a very strong binder and it’s claimed that this is strong enough to stay put on plastics and metals (though in practice these surfaces need to be roughened at least). Good coverage can be achieved thinly and it dries very nicely matt! Unfortunately it’s anything but cheap! It’s normally only available in the 1 litre pots and these can cost between £12 and £25 each. There’s a tester box available which is very useful, shown below but this costs around £50. However, if you’re on friendly terms with a scenic workshop that uses these paints you won’t regret filling some sample bottles!

Rosco SuperSaturated range

Acrylic owes a lot of its popularity to the fact that it dries so quickly, meaning that relatively little time is wasted between coats. But this also means that acrylic can’t be manipulated, especially blended, with the same ease as oil paint which remains workable for a great deal longer. It also means that it’s difficult to use textured applicators such as sponges to distribute the paint before it dries on them. For these reasons manufacturers of artists’ acrylics sell what they call retarders which can be added to the paint to slow the drying time. The retarder medium also becomes a perfect vehicle for making the paint more transparent, as a form of glaze, if enough of it is used. I use the retarder for acrylics from Winsor & Newton, which seems to work with all types of acrylic I’ve tried. Below I’ve mixed quite a high proportion of retarder to paint  and used natural sponges, crumpled tissue, newspaper or rags to distribute it over paper. It remained workable .. i.e. movable or removable .. for about 15 mins.

using a paint retarder

Working with gouache

I see almost as many boxes labelled ‘gouache’ in theatre design studios. Gouache is basically a modified form of watercolour, with a filler such as chalk or talc added to make it more opaque (hence it covers evenly) and usually a little glycerine to help it brush or ‘flow’ better. Like watercolour it contains only the minimal amount of binder needed to hold it together because after all, it’s meant to be used on a properly absorbent surface such as paper and it’s not meant to be touched afterwards. It can’t be over-painted easily without re-dissolving what’s underneath .. but this does mean that some nice blending is possible. It’s also agreeably matt! Another difference to acrylic is that whereas light gouache dries a little darker, dark will dry a little lighter.

mixing Pva glue with gouache

Because it has very little binder in it, it is neither sticky nor durable. So if for example you paint a modelled figure with it, it may have just enough cohesion to stay on the surface and dry there but it will fairly readily come off. However, gouache can be very easily modified just by adding a little water-based glue. I usually mix in roughly the same amount of Pva wood glue to gouache on the palette. I’ve had good results with this .. even taking on, and staying on, plastic. If you’re careful with the proportion of Pva used it shouldn’t change the matt quality of the paint too much, but it will change the covering properties i.e. it will make it more transparent and therefore a little streaky.

Working with enamel paints

The term ‘enamel’, when applied generally to a paint, is supposed to denote that it will be particularly hard-wearing, but it should not be confused with the ‘enamel’ finish given to metalware which is much harder because it is fused on using heat. ‘Cold enamel’ paints are commonly available in gloss finish but can also be found in ‘satin’ finish or matt. They are also commonly oil or spirit-based rather than water-based. Generally the matt versions are suitable for painting straight onto absorbent surfaces such as regular paper or card and will dry properly there (unlike oil paint). The added advantage is that the paint will not warp even the thinnest paper, unlike any water-based paint.

Humbrol enamel paints

The enamel paints sold in modelshops (mainly for painting plastic kits) are good examples. Both brands, Humbrol and Revell, use otherwise identical tins and a similar range of colours. The Revell enamels tend to be a little thicker .. there are strong devotees of one or the other. The same distinction between ‘tough dry’ and ‘properly dry’ applies to these enamel paints. Matt Humbrol paints will be touch dry almost as quickly as acrylic, sometimes within 15mins, but it will be a further 24hrs at least before the paint is durable. Humbrol enamel paints cover exceptionally well (with much less streaking than acrylic) and dry very thinly so fine detail does not get clogged. The oil in them will rise to the surface in the tin if they are left for a long time and this means that they can have a very long shelf-life if the tin is properly closed. As a disadvantage it means that they need to be thoroughly stirred if left for a long time as the pigment and filler has separated to the bottom. They also have, like regular oil paint, a very pervasive smell, and although there are no serious health risks with good ventilation I have experienced occasional headaches and smarting eyes after working with them for more than a few hours!

The tins may look small but what they contain goes a very long way because often full, opaque coverage can be achieved with a very thin layer and the paint can be eked out with the brush to cover a very large surface without losing opacity. I would guess that a 14ml tinlet has easily the same covering reach as a 60ml bottle of acrylic for example. Both Humbrol and Revell tinlets are widely available in shops (those selling artists’ materials, hobby or craft shops, or those dealing with scale model building) and are relatively inexpensive though prices vary from one shop to another. For example the best deals are online at www.wonderlandmodels.com with tins around £1.36 including VAT whereas in shops they range from £1.50 to £1.80.

Although I’ve always been a devotee of these paints for whatever purpose, mainly because of their extraordinary adhesion and toughness, there are definite drawbacks apart from the smell! They’re designed for simple, flat coverage rather than ‘painterly’ painting i.e. there’s little blending possible and no additives such as retarders or glaze mediums available. On the other hand they adhere strongly even if heavily thinned with white spirit and can make very effective wood stains. There’s quite a good range of colours, though this is far better weighted in favour of earth colours or natural greens than strong primaries.


The type of ‘tempera’ familiar to most people from school days comes in two forms; large plastic bottles and hard, round ‘cakes’. Both are relatively cheap, and certainly not the best pigment quality, but they can still be very useful! At around £2.00 on average for a 500ml bottle of Reeves Redimix Tempera there are at least some colours within the limited range which could serve as excellent basecoats especially for large areas. This type of tempera is also soft compared to most acrylics so it is ideal for the topcoat paint layer which has to separate easily when using craquelure medium for special paint effects. Whereas the liquid tempera appears to have a reasonable amount of binder the ‘cake’ version doesn’t so it behaves more like a cheap, solid gouache which can be wetted ‘on the cake’ where none is wasted. In UK art shops cake tempera is not a common sight apart from the children’s’ painting kits but in some other countries they have a more prominent place in art shops and there is a much more serious colour range.

The most useful brushes to have

You’ll notice from the photographs in this article that there aren’t any fine and expensive sables here! Painting brushes aren’t designed to be rubbed against scratchy surfaces or poked into tight corners, let alone used like a plunger for stippling! So there’s no point in buying expensive brushes! Synthetic brushes such as the one shown on the far right below (usually white or tan-coloured nylon or ‘Prolene’) are the most hard-wearing for this kind of work and they keep their shape well. They are not usually expensive and it’s worth having a few different types i.e. a couple of extra-fine detail brushes (’00’ or smaller), a couple of larger round ones and a few flat. The flat ones are the best to use for streak-free painting of larger areas but they are also good for dry-brushing.

brushes for model-making

It’s also useful to have some general-purpose hogshair brushes (such as the one on the left above) for thicker, textural painting especially stippling. These brushes are also better for forcing paint into tight detail such as the mortar lines inscribed in Kapa-line foam when making brickwork. A third useful type is the full, soft kind shown in the centre (in this case a calligraphy brush) because these are the best for loading when applying washes of watery paint.

Caring for brushes properly is almost as important as having them in the first place i.e. obviously they should never be left for long after painting before cleaning them. Even then, cleaning is not just a matter of rinsing them out thoroughly in the water used while painting. This will get rid of most of the obvious paint but (especially with acrylics) there will always be some which has crept up to the metal sheath (the ferrule) which is harder to remove. This will continue to collect after each use, the hairs will gradually be pushed apart and the brush will never close neatly when loaded with paint like it used to. The solution is to wash it more thoroughly in warm, soapy water after each use, using a stronger bristle brush or even a wire brush carefully to infiltrate the tight bundle of hairs at its base. It’s also worth periodically reviving brushes by doing the same using a stronger brush cleaner or more forceful soap such as ‘The Master’s’ Artist’s Hand Soap.

After brushes, the next most important piece of equipment for painting is a mixing palette or at least some kind of non-absorbent surface on which paint can be mixed and which is easy to clean afterwards. I mostly use flat, white kitchen tiles because these can be left and the paint scraped away once dry without damaging them. Occasionally a flat surface is not suitable if more than just a little paint needs to be mixed up to cover a larger area, especially if this needs to be kept for a while. Of course things like yoghurt pots will serve but I’ve found there’s more need for smaller vessels. The customised mixing palette below is a sheet of 5mm foamed Pvc plastic, light but stable, and makes use of plastic milk-bottle tops glued to the surface to hold larger amounts of paint. I’ve also included a pad of washable plastazote foam to wipe brushes on.

customised mixing palette

Basecoating and working ‘light to dark’ or ‘dark to light’

If an element of the model has been made from more than one material but will be given the same surface treatment it makes sense to paint on a unifying coat first. Dependent on the effect one wants one can start from a pale or white base and paint conventionally from light to dark, or alternatively the basecoat can be dark with further colours applied, especially if dry-brushing, from dark to lighter.

Paint can be applied to a white, or light foundation in various ways. If the paint has a fairly strong, quick-drying and ‘self-sealing’ binder (meaning that once dry the paint layer will not be dissolved by further paint applied over it) it is usually possible to apply the paint as it comes to achieve a solid and even colour. This is true of most acrylic or wall emulsion paints for example. But these paints can often be thinned down considerably and applied as washes, which should still seal themselves, so that other or darker colour washes can be applied on top with the initial colours still showing through. This is sometimes referred to as a type of glazing. By this means it is usual to build up effects gradually from light to dark. Watercolour paint and gouache are non-sealing because they contain the minimum of binder and are normally only used for painting on a suitably absorbent surface, such as paper, which goes some way in fixing them. They can be used in the same way (as above) for building up rich colours on suitably primed surfaces but preceding colours will always mix through and the contrast may be limited. Watercolour is transparent, because it generally doesn’t contain fillers, whereas gouache is opaque because it does. Acrylic is the best in terms of giving the versatility of working in very thin coats but gradually increasing colour richness, depth and contrast. With acrylic it is difficult to go back to white though i.e. to start again and repaint areas without it being noticeable or mudding the look.  

An alternative is laying down a dark colour first (or starting earlier with a dark priming coat) and applying progressively lighter colours on top of it .. working from dark to light. This doesn’t work very well with transparent paints or glazes; it is most effective using opaque acrylic, gouache or matt enamel. This is especially when there is an under-lying texture which will automatically pick up most of the colour on its raised parts, revealing the structure more (as in brass rubbing). This technique is known as dry brushing. This involves putting only a small amount of paint on the brush (similar to blusher on a makeup brush), so it is not literally ‘dry’ but certainly minimal, and lightly skimming the surface. It can be used to subtly alter or enhance colour on a light ground but it is usually much more effective when applying lighter opaque tones over a dark ground. It’s also easier to paint over mistakes with more of the basecoat colour and start again without betraying the fact. Dry-brushing tends to give an enhanced, more dramatic look because of the increased contrasts .. as if glancing light is casting stronger shadows.

wet skimming with paint

For example, above, I am skimming over the relatively prominent brick structure on this piece of black foamboard using a partially loaded brush and thin but opaque acrylic. The main object is that the mortar lines and other indentations remain darker. For the more subtle floor surface being painted below a ‘drier’ application of paint is needed to give full effect to the minute variations in the texture.

dry brushing

An even more delicate ‘dusting’ of paint was needed to bring out the raised pattern on the piece of kitchen tissue used to simulate this quilt and to suggest wear on the old leather Chesterfield.

dry brushing on model furniture

Naturalistic painting can be likened to a performance by a highly skilled actor. It can be so convincing that it feels somehow effortless and spontaneously generated .. belying the layers of thought and preparation that have gone into it!

painting brickwork_basecoat

For this wall piece using Kapa-line foam (a teaching example, hence left unfinished) I have base-coated in a sandy mortar colour instead of a dark one, so that this will remain visible in the inscribed lines. I used thinned acrylic and worked it into the surface with a hogshair brush. This was followed by randomised touches of two more colours shown below. It already looks fairly convincing as brick, but more like brick which has been sand-blasted .. too clean and evenly coloured.

painting brickwork_overlaying colours

So the final touch was using a wash of thinner, darker colour, concentrating on where the bricks are more deeply worn away, where grime would mostly collect. If this wall were in a proper model setting there would be more of this at the bottom, dirtying the meeting between wall and ground.

painting brickwork_final wash

Staining, tinting and varnishing

I’ve briefly touched upon the use of wood stains in the previous post on creating surfaces. Wood stains of various shades simulating various types of wood can be found in stores such as B&Q, and on the whole the spirit-based type are best because they infiltrate the wood fibres better giving a richer effect. But these can be expensive especially if only a little is needed and good stains or tints can also be made by mixing a little pencil or pastel pigment with white spirit, or thinning down enamel paint as also suggested. Liquid shoe polishes are also cheap and are effective either for staining wood or glazing other surfaces. The pieces of stencil card below were given a grain using sandpaper and then stained variously with transparent acrylic, bought wood stain, pastel/white spirit or liquid shoe polish.

stencil card wood-effect samples

Below are texture samples made with Polycell ‘Fine Surface’ Polyfilla which have been rubbed lightly at one end with coloured pencils, then wetted with a little white spirit. The pencil pigment blooms into life and can then be pushed around a little, blended or rubbed off before drying. It is a way of achieving subtle dirtying or colour-tinting and can even be rubbed away with an eraser after drying. Regular paint such as acrylic would be too brutal, difficult to control and would fix itself too quickly even if a very thin wash is used. Most colour pencils, pastel sticks and wax crayons can be dissolved in this way. If the surfaces are going to be handled the effect can be preserved by spraying with either fixative or hairspray.

stains using white spirit and pigment

Below, if the same technique is used on oil-painting paper or board it is possible to work up very even blends or graduations of colour. As I mentioned before re. the colour swatches I make, oil-painting paper works best for this because the surface has just enough absorbency to ‘key’ what’s put on it but much of this will remain sitting on the surface and can be worked around for a while. This will work in a similar way on plastic (i.e. foamed Pvc) which has been sanded, surfaces primed with the fine polyfilla above, and also some fine-surfaced or coated papers. Here I’ve rubbed with the flat of the pencil at one end of the paper to deposit some pigment (this is easier if the surface has some texture), put a little white spirit on a small wad of tissue or cotton-wool, and started rubbing it around to dissolve it and then even it out. The colour will lessen as one moves towards the centre and if one’s careful one can get a very even fade, even blending two different colours in the middle.

pencil wash on oil-painting paper

The test piece in the centre was to see how much of the colour can be removed with a wetted brush or with an eraser once dry. Sometimes one can get back to almost white again! This technique of ‘removal’ is almost a whole method of painting in itself .. I call it ‘painting off’ .. and doesn’t just work with pigment/white spirit. For example, if watercolour is applied as a dark wash and left to dry on a surface which is only partially absorbent (i.e. as I’ve said, absorbent enough to anchor the paint evenly but not letting the paint soak in) the paint can be removed again using water. This can be done in a very general way, using a wetted sponge or rag, but it can also be done in a very specific and controlled way using a fine, wet brush. One of the best surfaces to try this method on is oil-painting paper but suitable surfaces can be created on any base form by priming either with acrylic gesso or the polyfilla as mentioned. Apart from having to have this only partially absorbent ground what is also important here obviously is that the paint used will dry but not seal itself so that it can be re-dissolved. Both watercolour and gouache are just as suitable for this as the pigment/white spirit combination.

Metallic and gloss finishes

One conclusion that I’ve reached over the years is that it’s almost impossible to simulate the look of clean, polished metal using a paint .. as impossible as it would be to paint-on a perfectly reflective mirror surface. In place of a pigment, metal-look paints contain finely ground metallic particles which reflect light back. Often these particles are not even real metal but ground minerals such as mica which are coated and transparent dyes are added to produce a colour range from silver through to copper. The effect when applied to a large smooth surface is usually rather dull and uninteresting! Usually I recommend using a foil-covered paper or card instead. There are some that have an almost mirror-like surface and a little ink or pure pigment can be added to varnish to change silver into gold or copper or darken the surface further to look like steel or lead.

On the other hand it’s relatively easy to suggest tarnished, dulled or dirtied metal surfaces for smaller elements. It’s an interesting example of the assumptions our minds tend to make against the evidence of our eyes, that many real metal surfaces are not in fact shiny, reflective or even lustrous when viewed objectively. I’m often asked what special materials or paints should be used to simulate manhole covers, when in fact no more than normal paint is needed because on the whole there’s very little that remains truly reflective on a dirtied manhole cover. However, because we know it’s metal we picture it differently. If objects nevertheless need something special to make them look convincingly ‘metallic’ it usually needs very little! The small architectural elements below, cast in polyurethane resin and meant to look like buffed iron or pewter, were base-coated in matt black enamel. This was given more than a day to harden properly before being dry-brushed or ‘dusted’ with a special wax gilt called ‘Treasure Silver’. This is like a polish filled with fine metallic particles and is most effective if used very sparingly so that much of the dark under-painting is still visible as contrast. ‘Treasure Gold’ is commonly used and often applied to larger forms such as picture frames with the finger, although for smaller forms one can achieve more subtlety with a brush. As the polish is worked over the form the metallic particles are made to lie flatter giving a more reflective surface than paint. This can be enhanced if need be afterwards by gentle buffing with a fine polishing cloth. There is a special sealer available to protect the surface from handling.

using wax gilt

Cracked or peeling paint

I’m asked many times how best to achieve the look of cracked or peeling paint in a scale model. The best way is to use a special medium often called either a ‘craquelure’, ‘crackle’ or ‘cracking’ medium .. but the technique is not simple, and it is impossible to totally control the results especially in terms of scale. Usually the first requirement is that the surface to be treated is painted with a dark base, of whatever colour you want the cracks to be. This has to be thoroughly dry, then a coat of the cracking medium is applied over it. This also must be allowed to touch-dry before applying a top-coat of a contrasting colour. It is important that this top-coat is applied quickly, evenly and in as few brush-strokes as possible .. because too much disturbance of the layer of cracking medium can lessen the effect. This means that a soft, wide brush is usually best. Also, the best results are obtained with an opaque, but relatively liquid and weakly-adhesive paint .. in other words wall emulsion or poster-paint as opposed to tube acrylic. The cracking effect starts to appear almost as soon as the paint is applied, in other words while it is still liquid. What is happening is that the cracking medium, a form of glycerine, is stopping the contracting layer of paint from finding anchorage on the surface, so it starts separating.

using cracking medium

The size or scale of the cracking will partly depend on the thickness of top-coat applied. Here above, I managed to get a fairly fine scale of cracking by applying DecoArt liquid acrylics as thinly as possible.

Creative spraying

Being able to spray paint, as opposed to using a brush, has a number of advantages for certain tasks. Its much quicker and easier than brush painting when one has to paint a large area .. when turning a white foamboard model-box black for example. Spraying will also deposit a much thinner and more even coat than is possible with the brush and it will be touch-dry almost immediately. It’s very convenient, but there are drawbacks .. special conditions are needed for spraying because a lot of solvent vapour and paint is released into the air and much of the paint settles as a fine dust; spraypainting is therefore wasteful and some brands can be expensive; surroundings, and areas not meant to be painted, need to be carefully masked. If standard (polystyrene filled) foamboard is being used the solvents in most spraypaints will eat away at any exposed foam surfaces such as the foamboard edges. The best way to combat this is to seal those edges first by painting them with acrylic or Pva glue, then spraying once these are fully dry (i.e. ideally waiting more than a day).

There are many different spraypaints to choose from, and these vary not only in terms of the paint properties but the way they can be sprayed. Some, like the 150ml cans from Humbrol or the 300ml ‘Buntlack’ cans from Marabu, are very opaque, well-covering paints which adhere to a variety of surfaces, including plastic and metal, and which are surprisingly durable when fully dry. These release the paint at a fairly high pressure, so they are ideal for full, fast and even coverage but not suitable if you want to lightly ‘mist’ or tint with them. Humbrol offer a range of specially matt sprays but the Marabu Buntlack collection is satin-matt. The cans of car touch-up sprays found in petrol stations or outlets like Halfords are usually under much lower pressure (presumably because this makes it easier to blend coverage over a repair) so they are better for light misting. They are however more transparent .. and of course they dry glossy, unless used on a very absorbent surface such as paper.

The effects below were obtained using car sprays, depressing the spray-cap only minimally and holding the can at more distance (over 30cm). I first sprinkled granules over the paper to act as a mask .. to the left using sugar, to the right using larger granules of vermiculite. With each of these I did a light spray through them first, brushed the material off, sprinkled again, then re-sprayed with a different colour. A high-pressure spray would simply blast the granules away! Depressing the spray-cap only slightly also means that the paint droplets are a mixture of sizes, some large, which gives a more interesting effect akin to ‘toothbrush splatter’.

spray patterns

Although I’ve tried many different types of spraypaint in the past my preference now is for graffiti sprays such as the Montana Gold or MTN 94 ranges. I’ve found that these combine most of the best qualities of all the other types. They’re commonly very opaque, matt, quick-drying and sufficiently durable .. available in a very good range of strong or muted colours. In particular the MTN 94 range has especially ‘low pressure’ making it suitable not only for controlled blending but focused spraying of small elements. These specialist sprays are also amongst the cheapest .. rather surprisingly! Currently the 400ml cans of Montana Gold cost £3.80 and 400ml MTN 94 £3.60, including VAT at Chrome & Black in London www.chromeandblack.com Buying from a specialist shop such as this also means that they will have a variety of replacement spray-caps to vary how the paint can be sprayed.

I do most of my spraying work outside, but for small work I use an improvised cardboard spray ‘box’ for working inside which doesn’t eliminate the smell but stops the spray-dust from travelling. I’ve cut widows in this to let in light and covered them with clear acetate.

improvised spray-booth

I’ve already recommended the use of Simoniz brand spray primer in the previous post, shown on the left below. This also comes in a neutral grey and a brick-red, both of which make very good basecoat colours in themselves. Simoniz doesn’t make a matt black primer specifically, but their regular matt black spray can be used for this and it is one of the strongest and cheapest matt black sprays I’ve found so far.

paint primers

‘Model-making Basics’ – creating surfaces

Please note before you start reading this older post that I have long since included a version in the Methods section, under Making realistic models, which can be accessed above. That version may have been updated or expanded since.

This is the fourth of five outline accounts dealing with what I consider to be the five defining areas of model-making work; main construction, fine construction, modelling/shaping, creating surfaces and painting. I’ve written these overviews in preparation for teaching sessions at RADA ( Royal Academy of Dramatic Art ) in London. So they’re tuned towards the specialities of theatre design model work, but most of the points will be relevant in general terms to model work in other disciplines. I’ve started with the general ‘themes’ or requirements of the subject, followed by more specific and practical guidance on the materials and methods which can be used.

Surfaces in the model can be created by a much wider variety of means than most people realize. Although theatre design models are expected to survive the distance of their short run through the production process, they are not oppressed by the need to last forever, which opens up a much wider choice of materials than a sculptor would normally trust. There’s a huge choice therefore .. but people generally narrow it down by developing their own preferences. I think the choice is also quite personally directed from the beginning .. are you a ‘breaking down’ or a ‘building up’ kind of person, or do you prefer to let ready-made surfaces do most of the work?

If one can speak of ‘grammatical rules’ in the language of model-making, the subject of surfacing/painting taken as a whole has some of its own ones. For example, whereas structures require quite a strict attention to scale, the rules can be bent when it comes to the representation of surfaces. This is for a number of reasons .. firstly it may not be possible to represent the subtle intricacies of a surface at that scale; secondly, even if one could manage it, those intricacies might not be readable anyway, and the last, probably most important reason, has to do with the artifice of theatre itself and this needs a bit of explanation.

Theatre is artificial, but like most other art-forms one of its aims is to convey what’s ‘real’ to us in a different way to how we usually receive it. Theatre employs its own characteristic means of balancing what we recognise as real with what we are meant to distinguish as artificial. So for example when an actor moves to the front of the stage to deliver a soulful monologue we are not meant to assume that his character has just happened to notice the audience or that everyone else on the stage can hear him. These are his private thoughts but they have to be spoken, otherwise we wouldn’t get them. The monologue is a device, a theatrical convention that we are meant to accept but not take literally.

The representation of a location on stage is equally artificial and equally a balance of real and unreal. We may be presented with a fairly detailed ‘slice of life’ on stage but we accept that we can see the cut edges of this, in the same way we accept that a living-room may be missing a wall just to give us a good view. If we take what we see too literally (and sometimes, if it is depicted too literally) it may not make sense. It may break the suspension of disbelief that it is trying to maintain. A classic example of this is when live animals are used on stage. A live goat is the real thing .. what could be a more convincing goat than that? .. but it’s also curiously out of place there, and we devote too much of our attention to wondering whether it’s going to behave!

The same things apply to the representation of surfaces which are meant to signify sometime real but which we know are fake. The objective for the designer is not to fool anyone into thinking that a real wall has been transplanted onto the stage but to make such a good job of conveying the essentials that the audience can happily forget about the distinction. It may even help if it looks a little stylized, or obviously artificial, so that it sits comfortably with the rest of the artifice and so that we are not as distracted as we were by the live goat. In this context realism is achieved by design rather than exact copying, and relies as much on the power of suggestion as truthful depiction. If an impression of realism is intended the designer needs to understand all the ingredients that go together to make the look .. whether it’s a whole bar-room scene or a single brick wall .. and distill that recipe down to a more concentrated form.

Do you see how the model can help with this? .. having to make a small-scale model is an integral part of this process of concentration. It’s not possible to include every detail .. the model becomes the filter!

keeping separate for painting

I’m starting with, as I said, some general ‘themes’ behind the subject of creating surfaces .. ways of thinking, rather than ways of doing .. but then I have selected specific materials or methods which represent the different ways of approaching surfaces .. breaking down, building up, covering with ‘ready-mades’, sprinkling into glue and digital prints.

Many of the better photos used here are from my book Model-making: Materials and Methods and were taken by Astrid Baerndal.


The importance of visual research and observation

This will always be one of the foundation stones of this work, at whichever stage of the process. In one of the previous posts in this series I asked whether anyone of a right or responsible mind would try to make a believable Louis XV chair without looking at visual references. Similarly nobody would try to recreate the walls of Versailles without researching, yet we all feel a bit differently when it comes to creating a simple brick or plastered wall. The fact is that although these may not have as many specifics as the walls of Versailles, they still have some which can’t be just imagined! The way things ‘weather’, decay, or even just get a little used have specific visual characteristics according to location and these must be investigated as far as possible if one wants to keep them convincing. As I’ve already said, this doesn’t mean that ‘the look’ won’t be simplified or condensed in the end .. but only after one has a clearer idea of the true ingredients!

photo of weathered plaster

However, whereas one can usually trust that a photo which is captioned ‘Palace of Versailles’ comes from a very specific location (if not of period), one has to be more critical when looking for information on more general surfaces. Doing a Google search using the terms ‘old plaster wall’ or ‘decayed wall’ etc. will bring up a whole variety of images, some of which might well be very helpful in refining your perception of what looks convincing, but many of which could be misleading! For example the photo above comes from the (by far largest and best) free database of texture and surface photos www.cgtextures.com and can be found under ‘Plaster’ in the sub-section ‘Leaking’. There is no other information provided, such as where the photo was taken, what sort of building it was or whether this is an interior or exterior wall. We have to take it on trust that this is actually ‘plaster’! We can all make certain reasonable guesses that it must be exterior and that it has a lot to do with the action of water, based on clues in the photo combined with what we might have seen before, but without more specifics we’re still guessing, making assumptions .. and the result is a stereotype! Are you happy to work within and reinforce that realm of assumptions and stereotypes, or would you rather get closer to the truth, at least in terms of how things really look?

Apart from specific visual references which may be collected as-and-when needed, a theatre designer also needs to build up a certain amount of general knowledge on the subject of common surfaces. Things like the standard size of bricks and their common patterns or bonds, usual widths for floorboards or how wood panelling is usually arranged. For example mistakes are often made when representing brickwork not only in getting the size wrong but also by not knowing the basics of the different brick patterns and the reasons for them. I explain these and provide template guides for marking out in my article brickwork patterns in the Methods section.

Making tests and keeping samples

It’s not easy to predict what a surface texture will look like until it’s sampled, and it’s harder to predict how paint will behave on it! Even using just one material to create a surface may involve a number of operations or stages, each of which could be done in a number of different ways. So it’s important to experiment .. to rehearse how to achieve the look you want and explore the variables, before you commit to doing something irrevocable to a piece of model you’ve just made. Because painting is even more unpredictable you should also paint at least a part of your surface sample before going further .. it’s best not to cover all of it so that you have the comparison of painted and unpainted for future reference. Although I try to separate ‘creating surfaces’ and painting up time-wise, as subjects for teaching, and because they involve their own materials and methods to an extent, in practice they are inseparable! Some materials chosen as surfaces need no ‘painting’ as such, just a little changing; some textures dictate how they should be painted and do most of the work for the brush i.e. when dry-brushing; sometimes it’s worth mixing colour into a texturing medium to texture and paint at the same time .. all this brings the painting stage forward in time, at least in terms of testing, which I recommend in the next post as a very good move!

Since you are spending some time on these test swatches it would be silly not to capitalise on that by collecting them in a purposed sample book. Personally, even if your memory is better than mine, I would recommend labelling each sample with basic info outlining the process i.e. which type and brand of material used, which tools used etc.

surface samples

Dealing with the problem of warping

You may have noticed from previous posts that I rarely use the word ‘problem’ preferring words like ‘challenge’ instead. This is teacher training! But I draw the line before ever looking at warping in a positive light! It is always annoying, but sometimes it can be rather devastating! So quickly .. the ways of dealing with it!

First one has to understand that all absorbent surfaces (such as paper, cardboard, wood, even foam) will warp when exposed to water, even if it’s in the minimal form of moisture, as they dry out. Surfaces which are largely non-absorbent in comparison (such as plastic or metal) will not. The second thing is that those absorbent surfaces will not warp when exposed in the same ways to a solvent other than water, such as white spirit or acetone. Why this is exactly I really don’t know, but there must be reasons. Armed with this knowledge, there are a number of things you can do. You can make your absorbent surfaces more non-absorbent by sealing them .. by spraying them with a thin coat of spray primer such as Simoniz acrylic primer, for example, or trying anything such as fixative or even hair-spray to seal the surface, as long as it dries properly, accepts texture medium or paint over it and doesn’t contain water as a solvent.

paint primers

I would recommend the Simoniz brand of spray primer above. .. it’s the best I’ve tried. A light spray will be enough to seal the surface and although it touch-dries very quickly it’s best to leave it a few hours before painting. I’ve found that if it is properly dry it will take even thin washes of acrylic without resisting them (unlike the Plasti-kote brand next to it which, true to its name, behaves more like a coating of plastic).

Another way is to spraymount surfaces onto card instead of applying polyfilla or paint to it directly. We’ll be looking at some of the options for ready-made surfaces later, but what I really mean here is that you could paint or apply texture medium on thin paper first, letting it warp freely as it dries out, then spraymount it flat onto your constructed pieces.


Scoring, breaking down or impressing foam sheet

The principle type of ‘impressionable’ foam sheet I use is the foam from the inside of Kapa-line foamboard, but there are other types almost as suitable such as the foam in various types of black foamboard, Depron sheet and Styrofoam. But Kapa-line foam is the best for this in my opinion .. softer, more yielding; takes any form of paint well, and is not affected by the solvents in spraypaints or glues. Most of the points made here and some more can be found in my article Creating surfaces with Kapa-line foamboard in the Materials /- surfacing section.

painted brickwork surface

The foam from Kapa-line foamboard is particularly suitable for brickwork at this scale. A pencil point (mechanical type) stroked along it will give a clean, fine impression .. a light, even stroke for newer, modern brickwork or pressing harder to create a more jagged line suitable for older, damaged brick. This older, more crumbled look can be further emphasized by breaking the foam surface up with a wire brush or pushing whole bricks in with a piece of wood. It’s important to get the scale just right and bricks look smaller at this 1:25 scale than one imagines, so I always use a brickwork template I’ve drawn up to transfer measurements and spacings to the foam surface.

scoring brickwork lines in foam

But foam can be used for so much more than just brickwork. Anything can be used to create an interesting pattern suggesting architectural decoration, including oddly shaped dental tools or items of jewellery as shown below.

embossing architectural decoration

As another example .. I was given a box of hard plastic cake decoration moulds and I think they’re meant to be used for moulding soft icing. I didn’t fancy using them as they were but when sawn up into small parts they make interesting impression tools. I had to hot-glue these portions onto sticks so that they could be used properly for pressing.

customised impression tools

The foam in Kapa-line foamboard (and this goes for any of these ‘soft but rigid’ foams) can only be pressed in so far before it will start to tear. I found that I could get a much better and deeper impression using these wider tools if I pressed into separate strips, allowing the foam more opportunity to move.

heavily decorated wall

This wall becomes more of a three-dimensional structure than just a surface and one could argue that it belongs more to the previous post on Modelling and shaping but I wanted to deal with these methods within the context of ‘elaborating on a plane’ and surfaces which are ‘collaged’ together.

shaping a curved edge

Kapa-line foam is one of the easiest materials to use for creating curved-profile strips, to build up wall cornices or similarly heavy wall mouldings for example. I mean, if those shapes have to be more than a few millimetres in size, because ready-made strips of styrene plastic (half or even quarter-circle in section) can be bought for the finer ones. The best way to make these is to prepare an edge of the foamboard i.e. making sure that it is clean, straight and perpendicular, and carefully cut through the top paper (trying not to cut too deeply for the moment into the foam underneath) in order to peel away a strip which is the width you want your shaped strip to be. It stands to reason that it’s going to be a lot easier to shape your strip while it’s still supported, still part of the board. I’ve found that the best sandpaper to use for easy and smooth shaping of the Kapa-line foam is a medium grit i.e. 120 and this must be backed i.e. stuck down on a small board in order to control it. It’s easy to sand the foam and it’s easy to do it smoothly and evenly with a bit of practise .. the main danger is the tendency to apply a little more pressure at either end of the piece making these more flattened.

It’s just as easy to make a strip with a concave shape, such as the curve of a cornice wall moulding between wall and ceiling, by fixing sandpaper tightly against a piece of wooden dowel and running this along the foam edge. I prepared this edge as before by first removing a strip of the paper, but then I took a long slice off the corner first to give the sander something to start on.

shaping a curved edge_2

Returning to the use of tools to break up or make impressions in the surface, two of my favourites are the small wire brush and the ‘fixative pipe’ shown below. Just pressing the wire brush into the foam will create a pitted surface ideal for weathered concrete, paving stones or tarmac, and the hollow tubes of the fixative pipe make a perfect cobblestone pattern.

texturing Kapa-line foamboard foam

Below is a convincing simulation of weathered tarmac made by a student at Rose Bruford College.

weathered tarmac effect

Even more specialised ‘impressing’ tools can be made quite easily out of Super Sculpey. I modelled the one below to create a particular kind of cobblestone and baked it for the maximum time in the oven (rather than using a hot-air gun) to ensure that it was as hard as possible. For more on this and the best ways to do it see the post Making relief patterning tools using Sculpey from January 2013.

using a modelled pressing tool

Armelle Ramage, while a 1st yr student of Design for Screen at Wimbledon College of Art, made good use of this technique to create the distinctive wall symbols for this model of an Egyptian tomb, although my quick work-in-progress photo doesn’t do it full justice.

patterns pressed in foam

Kapa-line foam compresses very well i.e. it stays put and doesn’t fill out again when it’s painted. Below, I’m using this to create the suggestion of layers of rock in this piece of foam, mainly by pressing down with a small ruler. I’ve used a sharp dental tool to slash the surface beforehand.

rock surface

Another specialised use for Kapa-line foam is the creation of curtains because, as below, it can be sanded to represent the folds of fabric. If a pattern is needed the easiest way is to print this on tissue-paper and paste it onto the surface. Printing on tissue paper is possible if this is fed through the printer attached to a regular sheet of paper (there will be more about this later).

curtains with foam and tissue paper

In his model for Paradise Lost the designer Ben Stones carved this theatre curtain in styrofoam rather than trying to make real fabric behave in a scale-friendly way. It would be difficult to arrange such purposeful folds even using a very thin fabric. curtains carved in foam

The advantages of being able to create the surfaces you want in black foamboard (as opposed to the special Kapa-line) are that it’s cheaper and obtainable almost everywhere. Another advantage is that there may be less painting involved (at least less base-coating perhaps) because the foam is dark grey to begin with. Not all black foamboard brands enable easy peeling of the paper though, so one needs to test if one can before buying. The polystyrene foam is not as fine and impressionable as the polyurethane foam in Kapa-line foamboard but it’s good for things like the brickwork below, using the same tools and paints used on the Kapa-line foam. However, being polystyrene the foam in black foamboard will be dissolved by spraypaints and solvent glues (such as UHU and superglue) so I wouldn’t advise spraying a brickwork surface you’ve spent some time on. Spraypaint doesn’t dissolve it completely though and for some things you may find it an interesting surface in itself!

using black foamboard for brickwork

In one respect the black foam gives a better result than Kapa-line foam, when a wire brush is pressed/dragged along it to suggest heavily weathered wood! I’ve written a short article Using standard black foamboard and this can be found in the Materials /- surfacing section.

old wood with wire brush

As indicated in the previous post, styrofoam can also be broken down to create a texture, though it is not quite as yielding when making impressions. The rocky surface below was made by first slashing with the back of a scalpel blade, beating with a wire brush and then scratching away with the scalpel. I’ve used thin, matt acrylic to paint this.

texturing styrofoam

painted styrofoam

Although foams like the ones featured are the most yielding materials in this context, there are some others that can be ‘broken down’ in a similar way. ‘Palight’ foamed Pvc is soft enough to make quite an impression when scraping sandpaper along the surface. For the samples below I used a coarse (60 grit) sandpaper mounted on a sanding block and dragged firmly but repeatedly in fairly straight lines to achieve the effect of wood grain. In some places I used the edge of the block to press in a deeper groove. It has to be practised to get an idea of the pressure needed, what movement works best and the range of what’s possible. A bonus is that because the plastic is sanded it will accept paint, even in thin washes, a lot better. After a number of experiments I found that the most convincing results came from undercoating first in a light wood colour (thinned System3 yellow ochre acrylic worked well) and once this dried washing over again with a much thinner, darker colour. This was because when I tried a darker wash first, the white of the Pvc was too visible in the highlights.

Pvc wood effect samples

To make the piece of panelled wall here I prepared an A4 size sheet of Palight first with the wood grain effect so that this could then be cut up into pieces and applied. I wanted rounded borders inside the panels and around the doorframe, for which I used bought strips of styrene plastic. These also had to be lightly sanded otherwise the paint treatment would not take in the same way.

panelling in Pvc before painting

One of the most important requirements of wood panelling, in terms of the right ‘look’ and whatever material is used to create it, is that it looks ‘composited’ of separate, joined pieces even if it is not. For this example I did actually do that, piecing together lots of separate bits but for example the main framework around the inset panels could be made as just two pieces here .. as long as the surface is grained in the right directions! In real panelling, whether on walls or single doors, the grain of the wood will almost always go in the direction of the longest side of the rectangle. For the painting in this case I just used a light wash of System3 yellow ochre without a second colour.

panelling in Pvc

close-up of panelling

Stencil card (also known in the UK as ‘oiled manilla’) can also take on the appearance of wood if it’s scraped with sandpaper, although for a finer scale it’s better to use a less coarse sandpaper such as 120 grit. Once it is ‘grained’ in this way it will take stain, polish or washes of acrylic well, even acrylic rubbed over using a cloth, and the colour will emphasize the surface structure. If acrylic is used it should be one with some transparency. For the various samples below I tried woodstains, liquid shoe polishes and System3 acrylics.

stencil card wood-effect samples

An advantage of using stencil card to simulate wood panelling is that, because it is relatively thin, layers can be built up without appearing too ‘heavy’. The standard thickness is 375 microns (about a 1/3 of a millimetre).

panelling in stencil card

Sealing or strengthening foam surfaces

Most foam surfaces can be just painted with acrylic and they will survive if handled carefully. They can also, of course, be undercoated with normal acrylic gesso first if you want to start from a white base. But if you’re worried about durability or want to make the surface more resilient for handling, there are a number of further options. The simplest is to coat the foam before painting with one or more layers of Pva wood glue. If you’re using a type which is easily brushable, such as one of the cheaper ‘school glue’ types this can be used as it is. The more professional wood glues such as Evo Stik Wood may need just a touch of water to help brushing them on more easily. Since Pva contracts a lot when drying there’s little danger of losing the surface detail .. but you will notice a very slight difference. An even tougher surface can be achieved using a special medium called Paverpol which is made in the US but available here. It is marketed as a medium for painting on or soaking fabric to make it tough, rigid and permanent, for example to drape it on a figure sculpture. It won’t make the surface of Kapa-line foam or styrofoam as strong as that but it makes them much stronger than painting alone. Paverpol comes in a few different base colours but includes a transparent one which accepts acrylic or powder pigment well, so one can mix up one’s own base colour. One important thing to bear in mind, as I’ve mentioned before, is that the styrene foams i.e. expanded polystyrene, styrofoam or Depron are attacked by solvents such as acetone, present in many spraypaints, or other spirit-based paints and glues. On the other hand the polyurethane foam in Kapa-line foamboard is resistant. It can even be coated with polyester resin, which gives it an even more durable surface.

Using polyfilla or other texturing media

I’ve tried various options over the years but none is more reliable, versatile and durable than this specific brand .. the ‘Fine Surface’ Polyfilla from Polycell. This is a standard type, found in most warehouses and DIY shops and it is not particularly more expensive but it is far superior to any others for this type of work because of certain special properties. It comes ready-mixed in tubs and has an almost solid, gel-like consistency but this will turn to a smooth ‘cream’ once you stir it thoroughly. I’d recommend you don’t try to do this with the whole tub but transfer a smaller portion to a mixing pot first.

textures using fine surface polyfilla

It is very sticky ..much stickier than others I’ve tried .. meaning that this polyfilla will stay on plastic and even metal if the surfaces are properly clean. It will keep much of its adhesive property even if thinned down with water. It is very fine-grained, almost like thick acrylic paint, meaning that it can be spread very smoothly without breaking up and can be sanded if need be to a glass-like smoothness. It hardly shrinks at all unless applied very thickly and this means it doesn’t usually crack. Added to this, it dries fairly quickly and remains slightly flexible. Here are some samples showing the effects of applying the polyfilla in different ways i.e. stippling with a brush, spreading with a palette-knife or wooden fork, pressing with a rag etc. I’ve given these a wash of thin acrylic and then sanded down a little to make the structure more visible.

polyfilla textures

Below, polyfilla can also be used in combination with Kapa-line foam, to sharpen the surface detail or give even more depth.

old plaster wall effect

combination foam and polyfilla

The distinctive, stone-like texture below was made by spreading on a thin layer then pressing in a sponge while still wet to imprint the pattern. The sponge needs to be damp to prevent the polyfilla from sticking too much.

imprinting texture from sponge

Covering with ‘ready-made’ papers

One of my favourites is vinyl-textured wallpaper, which I’m concentrating on here, but there are so many others including marbled writing-paper, sandpaper sheets, or special decorative papers.

First, a few general words about spraymounting since this is the most convenient method of gluing down any piece of paper over a certain size. The most reliable brand to use is 3M (this seems to be the most commonly available anyway) but there are different types from 3M. I use the word ‘spraymount’ like most people do as a blanket term for all of them but strictly speaking ‘Spraymount’ is the name 3M gives to its lower-tack, repositionable spray-glue and this is not the best for sticking securely down straight away. Better for this purpose are either ‘Photomount’ which is stronger and permanent; ‘Displaymount’, even stronger for heavier materials, or lastly ‘Craftmount’ which is the strongest of all. With all of these a fairly light spray will suffice. The surface needs to feel tacky to the touch, but if so much is sprayed on that the paper slides around a little when sticking it down you can be sure that it’s too much. It will stick firmly eventually, but it’s more a question of economy since these sprays are expensive! 3M’s lower-tack ‘Spraymount’ can be used though if you want the option of repositioning. If sprayed on one surface it will remain temporary for about 12 hours whereas if both surfaces are sprayed this will be reduced to 2 hours.

One of the perks of using vinyl-textured wallpaper is that small amounts can be had for free! For example B&Q usually includes an opened roll of each type on their shelves for people to take samples home. ‘Vinyl’ doesn’t sound like the kind of material which will welcome paint, but it paints up very well with acrylic. More interestingly, because the vinyl relief pattern doesn’t cover the whole surface but leaves much of the soft backing paper exposed, washing with very thin acrylic will create a varied pattern as shown below.

vinyl wallpapers

Here below, I have used strips of vinyl wallpaper to create a rough stone effect for the 1:6 scale fireplace model mentioned in the previous post.

fireplace model

There are many interesting relief patterns or textures to choose from in paintable white .. but there are usually just as many coloured ones and these often have a finer-scale surface.

vinyl wallpaper samples

Other options for ‘ready-made’ papers include using the marbled writing paper shown below to simulate marble. Covering with transparent film is often the easiest way to achieve a polished look. The other papers below are a selection from the firm E. Becker who make decorative papers used in packaging or bookbinding. Paperchase and Shepherds in London (see Suppliers) stock a number of these.

decorative paper samples

Hobby or craft shops often sell sheets of ‘velour’ paper, especially in their card-making section, and these can serve well as carpet. Almost equally convincing as carpet is painted sandpaper.

velours and sandpaper

Creating patterns and printing surfaces

Circumstances have changed a great deal since I was a student of theatre design in the mid 1980s! If we wanted to create something like scaled wallpaper in a theatre design model we would normally seek out a pattern in a book and, if we managed to find a suitable one which had been reproduced flat-on, it needed to be reduced on the photocopier and carefully pieced together on the model. Because colour copies had a shiny surface and were often unreliable in terms of colour anyway, it was often necessary to photocopy in black&white and hand-colour afterwards!

Now the method of printing out as much as one wants, in exactly the right scale and in perfect colour on suitably matt paper, couldn’t be much simpler .. and all at home! I have described the whole process of creating scaled wallpaper using digital images in my post Using digital images in ‘realspace’ models – Part 1 from January 2013. Part 2 was going to look at whether photos of surfaces could be used in the model in place of texture medium and paint, but as this hasn’t appeared yet I’ll preview it here. I was always schooled in the idea that texture intended for the set design needs to be at least approximated with a real texture in the model for at least two reasons .. firstly so that light will behave in a similar way in the model and secondly to make it clear to the scenic artists that a real texture is intended. Both are good reasons but I also feel that as even the way that full-size theatre sets are created is changing through new technologies it should open up new methods of representation in the model .. at least that’s part of my argument for it.

persian carpet

For the first example I’m showing here I used a digital representation of a carpet pattern, scaled to size and printed on matt-coated inkjet paper. I chose a patterned carpet as a subject because it’s one of the most difficult things to reproduce in a scale model. I spraymounted the print onto thin plastic to give it some strength and keep it flat .. then attacked it with a wire brush. Careful ‘scumbling’ (pressing down and rocking around) with the brush gradually makes the paper surface fuzzy .. not as much as velour but it definitely gives it a texture. Some of the definition of the pattern is lost, but not much if careful .. it’s probably more suited for conveying the look of an old, worn carpet though.

printed carpet

I’ve only tested the technique using one type of matt paper, shown below, and there may be even better ones but I’d recommend this from WHSmith because it’s also fairly cheap at around £7 for 50 sheets.

matt photo paper

For the second example here I’ve used the high-resolution photo of ‘leaking plaster’ shown earlier .. which, whatever the specific source, is such a rich surface! I’ve used it as a general source of pattern and colour and collaged it on the wall construction shown below (the pieces of this model are also shown at the beginning of this article).

photo of weathered plaster

covering surface

The technique of roughening the photo is very effective for simulating these peeling walls! The wire brush will break up the surface just enough to catch the light in places, taking us away from just the sense of a flat photo but keeping all the photorealistic nuances that would be difficult to achieve with a brush.

distressing surface

Textures can also be applied on top, reasserting the three-dimensionality. Here I’m building up fungus or moss with a mix of acrylic paint, Pva and sand.

modified photo

wall sample with moss

I feel it’s worth showing the following examples of printing on very thin tissue paper even though I’ve only ‘dabbled’ with the method so far and am not sure about its usefulness. It’s certainly effective for applying a pattern to curtain folds created in Kapa-line foam shown earlier. There’s more about this, and how to print on tissue paper, at the end of Using digital images on ‘realspace’ models – Part1 from January 2013.

prints on tissue paper

‘Gluing and scattering’

I haven’t been able to find a cleaner phrase yet for the technique of brushing on a layer of glue and scattering something granular into it to create a surface. I tend to use it a great deal for representing plant foliage, but otherwise only very occasionally when the right ‘look’ can’t be achieved by any other means. For example, I can’t imagine there’s a more effective way of achieving the surface of a sloping pebble beach than hunting down the right colour and size of mini-gravel (from a shop selling scenic model materials or a pet shop selling aquarium supplies) and using that to cover a surface you’ve carefully shaped. Those are the challenges .. the terrain shape has to be created first by another means, one can’t mound this stuff into shape and expect it to stay there; secondly success in achieving the look that you want is so dependant on managing to find the ‘right stuff’. For example, back in 1999 when I was working on part of the presentation model for one of the Millennium Dome exhibition spaces I managed, after days of looking, to find an aquarium gravel that was so perfect in every way to recreate the shingle of Brighton beach in 1:25 scale .. shortly afterwards the shop closed down and I’ve never found anything remotely like it again! Below is the only photo I have of that part of the ‘Living Island’ model.

Living Island

Below is a piece of hedge, shaped from a piece of open-celled foam, covered with poppy seeds to create the effect of small leaves. The other materials featured include granulated cork, railway modeller’s ‘ballast’ and crushed eggshell.

surfaces made by scattering on glue

Textures can be created by ‘gluing and scattering’ and then painted to give a different appearance. Below are fine sand, sugar and ‘ballast’ compared to their painted versions underneath. Sugar can be sprinkled onto a thin layer of glue without dissolving too much but I’ve painted it with a spirit-based undercoat.

scatter texture samples

Using thin wood for panelling and floorboards

If wood is an important part of the setting you are designing, more often the case at least with the floor and the doors, it’s natural to think of using real wood in the model to convey this, although as I’ve shown the effect can be simulated with other materials. If a tight-grained, evenly coloured wood such as obeche, bass or balsa is used it just looks so right, in spite of the fact these are strictly speaking out of scale. These woods will also accept staining or varnishing in a ‘true to life’ way. As a material wood evokes a lot of sympathy .. we’re all very familiar with it, it’s sustained and supported us for many thousands of years, we’re grateful towards it .. hopefully! .. and I do think that plays a part when people say that they just like using wood in the model for whatever purpose. However, even if the wood is thin so that we don’t have to use saws to cut it, it is not as easy to work with as cardboard or plastic. When I say ‘thin wood’ I’m referring to the small sheets most commonly found in model shops measuring 100x915mm, the thinnest (and best choice) being 0.8mm thick. I’m not speaking about either wood veneer, which is most often thinner, or fine-scale modeller’s plywood. As for veneer, I found the ones I tried in the past expensive, difficult to flatten and brittle while even the thinnest modeller’s plywood was tougher to cut with a scalpel.

panelled walls and wood floors

Below is a page from one of my sample books showing swatches of (from top to bottom) walnut, the next two of obeche, followed by the paler bass, then spruce and finally modeller’s plywood. The darker walnut may be a good option to start with if you want to create dark wood panelling or a contrasting tone as in the floor above, but it costs a bit more and can be rather brittle. My favourite is obeche because it’s the most pliable, but bass is also easy to work with. Walnut, obeche and bass all have a ‘scale-

wood samples

friendly’ appearance but spruce is different and it would be a mistake to use this for fine panelling in a 1:25 scale model.

prominent resin pattern

I set up the photo below to illustrate the main stages of building up panelling, whether for doors or walls .. the base-layer, the framework and then the edging details. Since the base layer is mainly there to show what’s in the panels it’s important that the grain of the wood should run in the right direction. It’s a characteristic of almost every panelled surface that the grain of the wood follows whichever is the longer side of the rectangle. It’s also structurally ‘unsound’ (speaking of the real-life construction) if the grain of the wood goes in any other direction than the length. So the framework which I have shown on the middle example below has to be pieced together from separate strips. Unfortunately there’s no shortcut (i.e. cutting windows out of a continuous piece) because this just wouldn’t look right!

stages in making a door

Another feature of real-life construction which the model has to copy if it is to look convincing is the mitred join, that is, when two pieces connect at a 45degree angle as shown below. This is especially common on door or window frames, often because the profiled strips (i.e. having a particular, stepped shape) can only be joined this way. I describe the best methods for doing this in the post Making walls – Part 3 from February 2013 and this applies to working in wood even though there I’m using plastic.

stages in panelling_1

In the example shown here I’m gluing thin obeche wood onto Pvc plastic. Superglue has to be used for this, and it’s important to realize how little is necessary! In the first place it’s best to put the superglue on the plastic rather than the wood because it will soak in too quickly and may even infiltrate to the other side. Secondly only miniscule spots of glue are needed to secure the wood pieces to the plastic firmly .. certainly the opposite of smearing glue all over! Think of it more like using tiny nails .. only a few are needed, at the ends or corners and perhaps in the middle.

stages in panelling_2

For this piece I’m using small portions of cocktail stick inserted between the pieces of sheet wood to create rounded profiles. An important final touch, before staining or varnishing, is to take a piece of very fine sandpaper and ‘clean’ the hard edges a bit. It wipes away any loose fibres or splinters and generally softens the look a little, making it look more ‘in scale’.

stages in panelling_3

If for any reason you prefer to make up lengths of profiled strips separately, rather than building them up bit-by-bit as above, it makes more sense to assemble these together using the edge of a sheet. Below I’m making a profile strip composed of three separate pieces but gluing the top two on the edge of the sheet first before I cut the larger bottom one. This just makes the strips easier to handle.

making profile strips_1

I’m also using the clean side of a sanding block as a guide to glue up against.

making profile strips_2

More about stains and varnishes will be included in the next post on Painting. It’s important however to be aware beforehand how certain woods will react to staining and it may affect the choice of wood you use. As an example, the lighter strips of bass wood included below have become much darker than the others when stained.

floorboards in the model

Below is a different method of creating the look of elegant wood panelling using plastic or thin card and adding thin, round brass rod. Normally it’s difficult to glue metal securely in place but it works if the rod is rubbed with fine sandpaper or Emery paper, fixed in place with Pva glue and, once this has set, given another coat of Pva glue on top to seal it in.

using brass rod for panelling

Earth, grass, plants and tree foliage

This is why the article has become so long! .. there are so many different surfaces to be catered for, let alone the variety of materials and methods that can be utilized to represent them! For example, earth alone takes so many different forms .. dry, cracked, dusty, loose, moist, chunky, caked, muddy .. and research is important because it is likely to have a special appearance according to each geographical region. Moreover, whatever physical form it takes it is rarely one material of one colour, but composed of a number of things like the sample to the right below for which I added finely crushed eggshell, crushed brick and coarse sand to the mixture. In other words earth is predominantly granular, so just mixing a lot of colour into polyfilla and spreading it onto a baseboard will just look like Nutella!

earth effects

I usually have to create a mixture of Polycell ‘Fine Surface’ Polyfilla, with a little water to thin it; something granular such as sand, used t-bag tea, granulated cork, coarse sawdust or those mentioned above; and enough paint .. either strong acrylic, water-based paint toner, tempera or wetted powder pigment .. to turn it the right colour. This can then be spread onto the surface and left to dry. The addition of the granular fillers also means that the mixture can be applied, even shaped, quite thickly, and it will still dry within a reasonable amount of time. Moreover if the fillers used are partly absorbent, such as t-bag tea, cork or sawdust, they will speed up the drying time more and cause a similar pattern of cracks to real earth when it dries. If I’ve used coloured fillers such as the crushed brick and want to expose the colour of these more I brush the surface carefully with water to remove some of the acrylic before the mixture has fully dried.

used tea

Above, the contents of used t-bags can make a fairly convincing soil on its own, if Pva glue is added as a binder and with some water-based stain or colourant if it needs to be darker.

There are almost as many different ways of simulating grass in the model, though it’s much more difficult to achieve a convincing appearance or a particular type of grass than earth. Below is a photo of real grass. You’ll see that it’s really very different from a Wimbledon lawn or AstroTurf .. there’s much more soil visible and it often includes many other leaf shapes.

real grass

I developed a method which I felt reflected this more, principally using dyed sisal. Sisal is a natural plant fibre, like hemp, and a convenient source can be found in garden stores. Loosely compacted sisal is used to make the liners for hanging plant baskets and luckily the sisal is usually dyed green already! I make up a soil mixture using polyfilla, colourant etc. as previously described and press clumps of this sisal into it. When the polyfilla has completely set (it’s best to wait a day or so) most of the sisal has stuck firmly but can be teased up for long grass or cut down for shorter grass. I’ve added some dyed sawdust to the pieces below to give some variety.

model grass samples

Below is a close-up, followed by a fuller looking version for which I clumped the sisal more tightly together and then enhanced the green a little using some spraypaint.

model grass detail

thick model grass

Other materials which can be used to simulate vegetation include various types of the open-celled foam already mentioned. The proper name for this is reticulated foam and it is manufactured as an industrial filter material. Green-coloured versions can often be found in model supply shops, such as the hedge strip on top of the pile below.

reticulated foams for scenic models

This makes a very useful ‘scatter material’ when pulled apart into little bits.

shredded foam mix

Below I have shaped a surface using a sheet of reticulated foam (pulling bits out or snipping with scissors), dabbed this with Pva glue, sprinkled on a mixture of poppy seeds and coarse-ground black pepper, then painted this with thinned acrylic. The advantage of using the reticulated foam as a base is that it doesn’t look too solid .. there’s some ‘see through’, some depth seen underneath .. and the mixture of granules stops the coverage from looking too regular.

painted scatter on foam

I often use reticulated foam to build up some mass on model trees (see the previous post in this series on Modelling and shaping) and another favourite for suggesting the appearance of leaves is crushed eggshell.

tree foliage

painted eggshell foliage

Making latex ‘skins’

Methods borrowed from the domain of mouldmaking&casting tend to creep in everywhere in these articles but the following one is not solely due to my special interest in it .. I was shown this a long time ago when I was studying to be a theatre designer. Liquid latex will dry as a thin and durable skin, so if it’s applied in a suitable mould, structured surfaces can easily be cast. On its own latex will dry out to a translucent pale-amber colour but because it is water-based it will accept small amounts of acrylic, tempera or powder pigment mixed in to give it a base colour. Below is the representation of a flint wall surface and the ‘skin’ casts I’ve used to piece this together. I modelled the original for this (I usually use the word ‘prototype’) as a flat rectangle in plasticine, then made the negative .. the mould .. from it using plaster.

cast latex flint surface

Once the plaster is dry the mould can be covered with latex but this is difficult using a brush (as the latex congeals very quickly on it) so it needs to be poured in, rocked around to cover the surface and then any excess drained away. This is important because latex must be allowed to dry out in thin layers, otherwise this can take a very long time. Plaster is ideal for making the mould because a good one (i.e. a fine, quick-setting, durable casting plaster) will reproduce every detail of the prototype and the plaster mould will quickly absorb much of the water from the latex, speeding up the drying process.

making latex skins

As another example .. for an animation project I needed to create the effect of a large mound of coiled chain in the model, but using that amount of fine-scale chain would have cost far too much so I decided to try faking it using latex. It was a little more involved than I’d anticipated because I had to start by making impressions of real chain in plasticine but making a plaster mould from this would just give me negative impressions again in the latex.

making fake chain surface_1

So I had to make another ‘cast’ on top of this using silicone rubber .. all the stages are shown above .. which could then be covered in plaster to make the correct mould. I wouldn’t have been able to simply cover the original plasticine with latex because it doesn’t dry on it. I then cut the latex skins up into jagged strips, which was necessary to confuse the joins, and stick them onto the base I’d made for the mound form. The only type of glue which works properly for this is a rubber contact adhesive such as Evo Stik Impact or Dunlop Thixofix.

making fake chain surface_2

Below is the finished result which I had to select just a detail from because of copyright. There are only a few strands of real chain used here .. the rest I’ve dry-brushed with enamel paint and ‘Treasure Silver’ which is a wax-based, metallic paste applied with the finger or a cloth. Latex is not easy to paint fully, which is why it’s always better to mix in colour first. Enamel paints (the small tins from Humbrol or Revell which I’ll say more about in the final post on Painting) grab onto latex very well, but standard acrylic may not stay. There is a special medium called Prosaide, used as a glue for sticking latex prosthetics to the skin, which can be mixed with standard acrylic to make it paintable on latex.

making fake chain surface_3

There is a much quicker and simpler method you can try if you’re not planning on using the mould a lot. I made the sample skins below using moulds made by directly pressing tools into Kapa-line foam.

latex 'skin' samples

These moulds are shown below, and I’ve made impressions in the foam using the ends of paintbrushes, a small metal ruler and the rounded end of a jigsaw blade. There’s little difference between this and the foam texturing described earlier .. except that this is working ‘in negative’. It’s difficult to predict exactly how the latex ‘skin’ casts will look .. but sometimes the results are very .. positive! The most important practical part to remember is that the foam surface needs to be sealed properly before latex can be applied, otherwise it will stick. Here I’ve used a grey wall emulsion paint but cheap tempera, gesso or any water-based undercoat should work. I also dusted the moulds with talc before using them.

casting latex surfaces in Kapa-line foam