I’ve never been a big fan of the standard pre-shading, where you trace panel lines in black and then try your damnedest to cover the gray primered areas without completely blowing away all that fine airbrush work that went into the preshade lines. It’s a very delicate balance that, for me, usually just leads to a lot of swearing.
Instead, as I got back into modeling, I picked up what I call the Three-Layer Blend technique.
This is still an awesome technique and a lot more controllable than basic pre-shading. But a few things.
- It’s a crapton of work. Work that may look gorgeous and subtle one moment, but then be completely lost when you start adding additional colors or decals (because adding wildly different colors tends to crush down tonal variation…thanks a lot, eyes).
- You still have to fight the battle to “cover the gray” of the primer.
- Did I mention it’s a crapton of work?
Over my past…I don’t know, it’s been several builds now…I’ve been refining a different technique that basically takes the entire concept of pre-shading and flips it. I call it “Black Basing”.
I’ve found Black Basing to be extremely controllable, a LOT faster than the Three-Layer Blend, and very good at introducing tonal variations, even in pretty basic monochrome schemes. And if you look at actual aircraft, that’s often exactly what you want. Yeah there’s some weathering that aligns with panel lines, but a lot of times, it’s a more random variation than that. And with Black Basing, you can still get that nice panel shading if you want it.
The First Rule of Black Basing
The first rule is simple. Use a black base. You can prime the model, and then paint it black, but I find it’s easier to just use a black primer. My go to is Gunze Mr. Finishing Surfacer 1500 Black, but your mileage may vary.
For the purposes of this post, I’m just going to focus on a current bench occupant, Freedom Models’ 1/48 X-47B.
Here’s the black going down…
And here it is fully primed…
Why Prime in Black?
First, it makes whatever you’re working on look temporarily extra mean and badass.
Second, it immediately gets rid of the “cover the gray” problem. You don’t have to worry about getting enough coverage to hide the primer, because if you don’t put the paint down as thick, instead of obvious primer peeking through, you get….SHADING!
Now that the black is down, it’s time to add color. And this is where you can really have fun with tonal variation. There are two ways you can go about this, and they can be used together.
The first is paint opacity. The heavier you put on the paint, the more it will cover the black – i.e. the more opaque it will be. Conversely, the thinner you go with the paint, the more black will show through. So just by painting as you normally would on the centers of panels and going lighter over the panel lines, you’re getting basically the same result as panel line pre-shading. But you can also do this all over the surface, for varied, weathered finishes.
The second is color variation. If you’re painting, say, olive drab as a topcoat, you can lay down various browns and greens, heavily thinned, that will subtly change up the color tones of the final coat. Just be sure to thin the olive drab down enough that it doesn’t cover over all that work! And be very mindful of “tonal crush”. A gray jet in low-viz markings will show a lot of tonal variation all the way through, but if you’re adding invasion stripes or brightly colored cowl or fuselage bands or high-viz markings, whatever tonal variation you introduce at this stage will be cut down by as much as half by the time you get to the end of the build.
My X-47 is more an exercise in opacity than color variation, so let’s see how that works in practice.
First, take your paint – in this case Gunze C13 Neutral Gray – and thin it way down. You want to build this effect in layers. Gunze thankfully dries very fast, so all this layer work can be done in a night or two. I typically thin mine about 3:1 thinner-to-paint.
For the first “layer”, I wanted to set up the opacity variation, so I went very small and random. This isn’t particularly difficult since you aren’t trying to get the pattern just so or anything. Actually it’s very good practice for other small-and-subtle jobs like Luftwaffe mottling.
The goal here isn’t to cover the whole thing, but to build in different levels of opacity.
If you were adding some color variation, this is where you would want to do so. Again following the same random distribution (unless you want to represent, say, replaced panels, in which case just focus on those panels, etc).
The Thin Top Coat
Once you have this layer (or layers) in place, using the same very thin paint mix, go wider with your spraying and build up the paint slowly.
If you think about it in opacity terms kind of like the way Photoshop works, an opacity of 0 = black and 100 = whatever your color is. On the first passes, you’re basically ratcheting up very localized opacity. Now you want to bring up overall opacity to something like, say, 70. But work slowly, and with very thin paint, because it is possible to overdo it.
Here’s what the final result looks like:
Overall, I find this to be the best, simplest, most controllable method I’ve found for adding in this variation at the painting stage. If you haven’t tried it – give it a shot!