Airfield Models - Painting Scale Wheels

Scale Painting Techniques

May 05, 2015

What's New
Models Gallery
Model Building Safety
Mail & FAQ
Site Map
Site Feedback
Add to Favorites
Tell a Friend
Design and Build Contest
Items For Sale
Search Airfield Models

Back to Scale Painting Techniques


Airfield Models ( to Highlight Details

Dry-brushing is what makes detail become visible.  It is very easy to do and requires almost no skill.  What it really requires is a sense of where light is coming, what areas would be highlighted and what would be in shadow.  Dry brush by brushing from light to shadow.

I use oil paints for dry brushing because they work better than anything else.

The idea is to highlight edges and protrusions using a lighter shade of paint than the base colors.  If you want a painted metal part to look worn then you can dry-brush with a metallic paint but here you really have to take it easy.  A little metallic goes a long way.

Generally speaking, the smaller in scale the part is, the more inappropriate a metallic will look.  In most cases a medium gray will achieve a more realistic worn metal effect than using a metallic paint.


How to Dry-Brush

Study the part to determine what color highlights will look best.  I find that starting with the actual color of the base and then toning it down with white works well.  Color match isn't real important as long as it's in the same family.

For example, any light shade of gray works great for black parts.  Use a pink for red parts, baby blue for darker blue parts, etc.

Never thin paint used to dry-brush!

You will also need a dark piece of construction paper to wipe the brush on after you've dipped it in the paint.  Don't use white paper which will deceive you into thinking your brush is dryer than it actually is.

The brush you use depends on the effect you want to achieve.  A soft bristled brush works best for subtle shading.  A stiffer brush works best for picking out highlights.

Again, the best way to learn these techniques is on inexpensive plastic models not your scale masterpiece.

Oil paints are excellent for dry-brushing. I begin by mixing a color that is a close approximation of the original base color.  The base was mixed from Klass Kote epoxies.  The dry brushed paint is oil.

Although an exact match isn't necessary you want something reasonably close.  Some experimentation may be necessary because you probably won't have the same hues of oil paint as whatever the base paints were.

Mix a color that is a close approximation to that of the part being dry-brushed. If you are exceptionally good at dry-brushing then you can apply several coats with each coat being a lighter shade than the previous dry-brush.

The idea is to gradually change the tone from the shadow areas to the most highlighted areas.  I think that is important for figure painting and other natural subjects, but not important for most objects.

In the end it is up to your interpretation and taste.  This would be a good color to start with if you wanted to use multiple dry-brush applications.  I'm going to dry-brush only once (twice if I don't like the first application) and leave it at that.  Therefore the color should be much lighter than shown here.

Add white to lighten the color several shades. I added a small amount of the color above to the remaining white.

If you use the same technique you have to be especially careful in your application or you can easily overdo the effect.

Dip just the end of the brush in the paint. Dip just the ends of the bristles in the paint.  Don't swirl it around.  You want the smallest quantity of paint possible on the brush.
Wipe the brush on a dark piece of paper until you can't see paint coming off the brush. Now brush the paint off on something dark.  I buy packs of cheap construction paper from a craft store.

Notice the circled area.  The paint can still be seen on the paper so there is still too much on the brush.  Move to a clean area of paper and brush off more paint until the paint is difficult or impossible to see.

A dry-brushed part next to one that hasn't had the effect applied. Now brush over all the highlights.  Don't worry that you can't see it at first.  Just keep building it up until you can.

If a part has significantly different colors then you should also dry-brush different colors.  You'll have to use a smaller brush so that you avoid getting the wrong color on a part.

Only the wheel on the left has been dry-brushed.  Unfortunately, the effect is difficult to see in these photos.  I took probably 25 shots and not a single one of them showed the effect to good advantage although it's easily seen in person.  I finally gave up on trying to photograph it.

Windows 3.11 Minesweeper Game

One other thing to note is the distance the viewer will be (on average) from the model.  Weathering, shading and highlighting needs to be more subtle if the viewer is close to the model.  If the viewer will be farther away you will need to exaggerate the technique more.

Think of it as similar to the difference between a woman wearing make-up to go to work vs. an opera player.  Stage performers greatly exaggerate their make-up so people can see the effect at a greater distance.

Another thing you can look at is buttons for Windows 3.0, 95 and 98.  Apple and Microsoft undoubtedly took a lesson from model builders when they designed their OS interfaces.  I used the same techniques when designing the theme for this web site to give it a more three-dimensional look.

Note the exaggerated highlighting and shadows in the Windows 3.11 Minesweeper game to the left.

Williams Brothers 1/4 Scale Spandau Machine Gun. This is Williams Brothers 1/4 Scale Spandau Machine Gun kit.  The breech is sprayed with 80% gray.  The dry-brushing is lighter grays with a final dry-brush application of white applied very lightly.

All that's left to do is apply a protective clear coat.  The paints used are not fuel proof and will rub off with handling.  I like to use clear epoxy paint because it is extremely durable, fuel proof and it's actually clear not yellow.

Another very important purpose of the clear coat is to even the overall sheen of the part.  The clear coat can be whatever degree of gloss is appropriate.  In the case of glow-fuel powered models the clear coat should also be fuel proof.

If you are building a display model then you may want to add various ground pastel chalks to give the effect of dirt, dust, etc.  Some people put chalks on prior to the clear but the clear will diminish the effect significantly so you have to guess how much extra to add to account for it.

I add chalks after the final clear and then don't handle the model in any way that would remove them.  This won't work for a flying model aircraft as the chalks will come off in use or from cleaning the model.


Weathering with Paint

Weathering uses the same techniques as above with emphasis on aging, damage and general use.  Pay attention to the direction of flow when adding washes and when dry-brushing.  Streaks are vertical on fuselages and in the direction of airflow on wings.

Oil drips around the cowling generally flow down and back and may swirl due to the propeller blast.

Weathering is accomplished at different stages depending on the part in question.  For example, I am building a Tiger I tank for an urban setting.  It has tons of road wheels that would have rolled over a variety of debris most of it hard like broken bricks.

I used a small chisel to take random chunks out of the tires before painting them.  I also took some gouges out of the turret and hull to simulate small arms fire, collisions with buildings it ran through, etc.  I made the assumption that the crew didn't abuse their tank so I didn't damage it in any way that would give the appearance that the tank was treated recklessly.

After painting the wheels I darkened and dusted the gouges in the wheels.  I used metallic washes in the turret gouges to simulate bare metal.  Some are dirtier and rustier than others to show that this damage happened over the lifespan of the tank and not all at once.

Use your imagination, stay within the realm of reason and always strive for subtlety.



Shading Model Aircraft Using Washes
How to Paint a Scale Pilot Bust

Comments about this article


Back to Scale Painting Techniques
Airfield Models Home


Copyright 2005 Paul K. Johnson