Simulating Realistic Aircraft “Skin”
by Walt Moore
Being a builder of model warbirds, primarily 1/48 scale plastics, I use an airbrush and spray a darker shade of the surface color narrowly along the panel lines in each major section of the aircraft “skin”, i.e., green drab over olive drab; darkened dunkelgrau over the primary shade, etc. A steady hand and a light spray (I never use air pressures exceeding 25 psi, anyway) will see you through. I will do this as subtly as possible just to suggest to the eye that there is a joint where oil, grime and fuel stains collect.
The process can also be reversed by airbrushing the lighter shade off of the seams and on to the panel surface where sun bleaching occurs. This works well on mono-color surfaces and breaks the monotone appearance of the scaled down paint jobs we have to resort to with a model.
A real aircraft in the field has innumerable variations in shading influenced by weather, field application, passage of time, et al. This application of color variation is done before overspraying the surfaces ahead of the decalling process. Over multicolor surfaces, an additional method for adding the necessary dirt and aging to the surface of a model warbird is to apply an offsetting color to the fuselage surfaces using artist chalks. The first application comes before overspraying in preparation for decalling. Regardless of the color applied, I will usually scribe recessed panel lines with a flex rule and HB drafting pencil with a sharp point.
Next, I use a Q-tip to highlight seams with artist chalks of a darker shade of the light surface color, or simply use charcoal black on surfaces where dark colors are already applied. Applying chalk over matte paint assures the effect will grab on and embed itself where applied. Water can be used over a dried paint or dried decalled surface to spread the chalk coloration and soften the effect over larger areas. using chalk over decals should be done after the sealing coat to avoid highlighting the edges around the film. I use these procedures before and after the decals are applied and before the final surface sealer is sprayed on. The airbrush and chalk processes work well with either raised or recessed panel lines
I have never seen a seam on a real aircraft that was lighter than the paint or natural metal of its surface skin, so I never highlight seams with white or light gray. An example of the result of the above description may be seen in this 1/48 diorama featuring the non-standard color Me-109G
For a realistic finish, it works in many cases to use a highlight airbrushing of the basic colors followed by accenting with artist’s chalks for the final appearance. I try to remember two things, maybe three,
1. More is less
2. I want the model to make me think of the real aircraft after it has flown in combat;
3. Everything you do will show up in the final presentation
Combat aircraft come off the line with the service-prescribed color scheme and basic insignia of the day; the rest happens at air depots or in the field. It helps to let your imagination and artistic talents free a little. Consider that you have just been handed your mission assignment from “ops”, gotten your weather briefing, and as you review your “frag order”, you go to your airplane; it’s just another mission, or is it?
Photos by Phil Novak