Scale Colour?? RUBBISH!!!
I'm sure many modellers have heard of the "scale colour" debate and probably have their own opinion on it. Pretty much anyone who mentions scale colour in magazines or on the internet is in favour of it, in fact I have yet to see anything in print that denounces it. Well then let me be the first to do so. Scale colour is a load of nonsense!! There I said it - bring on the angry emails.
I'm not sure if Ian Huntley is the instigator but he certainly went into great depth on it in his series of "Scale Aircraft Modelling" articles, even to the point of coming up with charts giving percentages that paint must be lightened or darkened as appropriate for each of the popular modelling scales. Now let me say first off that in all fairness, I haven't actually seen* those articles. I have however, been given a fairly good idea of their content by modellers who adhere to the scale colour rule in addition to their own views on the subject.
For those of you not familiar with the concept it is, in a nutshell, that the further away you get from an object the more its colour changes due to atmospheric interference; ie, darker colours become lighter and lighter colours become darker, generally speaking.
Take for example a 1/72 scale aircraft model, where 1 inch equals 6 feet on the real object. In other words, a model with an 8 inch wingspan scaled up 72 times would equate to an aircraft with a 48 foot wingspan. By this logic, viewing a model from an average distance of 12 inches would equate to looking at the real thing from a distance of 72 feet. Similarly, a 1/48 scale model viewed from the same distance would be like looking at the real thing from a distance of 48 feet. According to the scale colour rule, paint hues look significantly different from a distance than they do when seen close up. A 1/72 scale model would need to have its paint altered by a greater percentage than a 1/48 scale model because it represents a plane viewed from a greater distance.
My argument is simply this: There are far, FAR too many variables involved to say with any certainty what, if any, changes are needed to paint a model so it more closely represents the real thing viewed from a certain set distance, and the idea of actually drawing up a chart - even as a rough guide - is ludicrous. Consider these points:
  1. The original paint changed dramatically for a good many reasons. Though we rely heavily on structured paint references such as the american FS paint chips or the british Methuen standards, it is not nearly so cut and dried in the real world. Different paint manufacturers had different interpretations of the official colour charts - if there were any - and different paints weathered in different ways. Anybody who has owned a white car knows just how many variations of white there are when it came time to buy a spray can of touchup paint. And during wartime official standards sometimes went out the window due to lack of supply of the correct paint. Ground crews often painted aircraft with whatever paint they had to hand and it may or may not have been the "correct" colour.
    How can it be said that olive drab paint must be lightened with 20% white for a 1/72 scale model when the paint on full size aircraft may change that much or more from aircraft to aircraft? Which shade do you lighten, the factory fresh olive drab on a P-40B built by Curtiss in 1940, or the weathered olive drab on a P-51B built by North American in 1943?
  2. Taking samples from original paint on museum examples is also unreliable. Paint oxidizes, fades, and gets dirty over the years. Austro-Hungarian WW1 aircraft are a good example. For years it was thought that some were painted in the so-called "Autumn Leaf" camouflage - red/brown and green hexagonals painted over a mustard yellow base. Recent chemical analysis has shown that the paints used were actually three different shades of gray, and that the paint and overcoat of varnish had oxidised over the years and turned into the "Autumn Leaf" colours.
  3. I think it's safe to say that most of us work from photographs of the real object we're modelling, even with modern subjects - it's just not practical or possible to visit airfields all the time to match up paint colours, and that just isn't an option for most historic aircraft unless you have access to a time machine. If anyone out there does by the way please let me know - I'd love to borrow it someday just to see if anybody really was on that grassy knoll in 1963. But I digress....
    Photographs bring a whole new set of variables into the equation. Different film, different cameras, different lighting, different labs developing the film. Even two photos taken from different angles will show the same paint differently due to refraction. It all adds up to incredible variations in colour.
    Same DC-3, same red paint, same distance away, same camera, same roll of film developed by the same lab, two different angles. Which red are you going to use as the starting point for your scale colour? (photos by Gordon Parker)
  4. The hobby paints we are using vary immensely. When painting the cockpit of my Hasegawa Tomcat, I compared paints from Testors, Humbrol, Aeromaster and Gunze Sangyo. All purported to be FS 36320 yet they were all quite different from each other. And none of them matched any of the colour photos I had of Tomcat cockpits! In other words, why change the colour of paint by a certain pre-ordained amount simply because it's an "out of the bottle" colour? It could very well be the wrong shade to begin with and lightening it will only exacerbate the error!
    As an interesting aside, I have several of the same shades of paint from both Aeromaster and Polly Scale. Both brands are, as you probably know, manufactured by Floquil and are, for all intents and purposes, the same paints in different bottles. Aeromaster boasts that its paints are lightened for "scale effect" while Polly Scale makes no such claims - yet they are exactly the same shades! Hmmm.... Aeromaster, I might add, annoyed me to no end with its insistance on the use of scale colour for its decal sheets. Their Japanese markings in particular were far too orange and really bore little resemblance to bright red hinomarus. Also the red in some of their british roundels looked closer to pink than a brick red. Neither of them looked "right" to my eye.
  5. Lighting and weather conditions can affect colour perception immensely. An aircraft viewed in a poorly lit hangar on a dull day will look completely different out in bright sunshine. Similarly, a model lit by a 60 watt desk lamp will appear to be a very different colour than when viewed by fluorescent light, or by natural light.
  6. If we take it to the nth degree, wouldn't 1/700 scale ships be almost white? Not to mention that all the colours would all end up the same monotone shade. Just spray the whole thing; propellers, hull, decks, superstructure, aircraft - everything - a very pale gray or off-white and be done with it. It would certainly simplify the painting process, wouldn't it?
  7. Finally, and to me the paramount reason, I don't for a second look at the models on my shelf and think of them as the real thing 72 feet away! Call it cynicism, call it a lack of imagination, but I just can't suspend my disbelief that much - nor do I particularly want to. They are miniature representations of the full size object. I try to be as accurate as I can when building and painting them, but my idea of accurate does not extend to dubious colour changes based on hypothetical atmospheric conditions and viewing distances! Models I've seen completed according to scale colour "rules" looked like nicely faded and weathered aircraft but they didn't look any more like the real thing parked 72 feet away than the rubber toy in the original "King Kong" did a giant ape. They looked like models with faded paint. Sorry....
Yes, perceived colour does change when viewed from a distance, I'm not debating that. What I am saying is that attempting to reproduce this in model form is folly. Distance is but one variable in a very long list of variables and trying to incorporate it into a model is pointless. "Scale colour" is, in my opinion, a modelling catch phrase that has been adopted because it is considered de rigueur to do so and I think many people adhere to it without actually thinking it through. But it will only ever amount to guesswork based on an ideal, and I find it ironic that the same people who so fervently worship the god of accuracy are chucking white paint willy-nilly in their finish coats just to adhere to a vague and impossible to authenticate idea.
If we are so concerned with capturing the look of the full sized article so precisely, then really one must factor in all the variables and model a very specific point in time and space, taking into consideration all of the above points - viewing distances and angles, lighting, weathering, full size paint, model paint, photographic qualities, etc., etc. In other words, your P-51 may be finished as it appeared when viewed at high noon on a sunny spring day and from a distance of exactly 72 feet and the paint should have been factory applied less than two months ago which means that it has weathered x amount since then and has been washed x amounts of times and of course you're seeing it with your own eyes and not looking at a vintage colour photo and you're starting with a model paint that has been exactly matched to the original, and, and.... Sound ridiculous? And lightening your paint to represent a set viewing distance doesn't?!? Obviously it's an impossibility and frankly, even if you could pull it off, you'd end up with a model that was no more "realistic" than one that was finished with straight-out-of-the-bottle paints. Why? Because it's a model dammit!! And furthermore, the chances of comparing your model to the real thing viewed under extremely precise conditions are about the same as your chances of winning the lottery, bedding Naomi Campbell and curing cancer all on the same day - it ain't gonna happen!!!!
It boils down to this: if you think it looks right, if you're happy with the way it turned out, then that's really all that matters. And if anyone tells you it's not "scale colour", tell them to prove it! Then tell them to go *&%$*&~@ themselves!!
* Since writing this article I discovered I actually do have the Ian Huntley articles in my possession. Reading them (and Harry Woodman's comments in his book) has not changed my opinion at all. So there.