The Problem with Panel Line Shading – 1 Year Later


One year ago today, I hit publish on a rant against pre-shading – specifically pre-shading panel lines.

I also hit some nerves, judging by the storm and fury churned up in the post’s comments, on Facebook, and across various forums.


This hobby is about relaxation and decompression, sure, but for many of us it’s also a journey of constant improvement. Of new techniques and new understandings. It can be easy to forget that, and to fall into the complacency trap. To follow the same rote modeling cookbook over and over and over. Which is how things like pre-shading become so commonplace.

The rant bowled straight into that complacency. It knocked cobwebs loose. Even, amazingly, among the knee-jerk brigade (and there’s always a knee-jerk brigade).

And amid all the epithets hurled my way, and the admonitions of why couldn’t I have been gentler and more equivocating, something happened.

It made a fucking difference.

I’m of the opinion that views, likes and so on are the weak sauce of analytics. But they’re also among the easiest to quantify, especially with WordPress and its busted ass stats. So for the sake of expediency:

Prior to the rant, my blog would very occasionally climb past 1,000 average visits per day on a month-by-month basis. Afterward, it would never drop below that threshold. 2015 wrapped up with an average 1,234 visits per day, a 41% increase over 2014. So far, 2016 is sitting happy at well over 1,400.

Total visits jumped to 31,181 in September 2015, and have never fallen below 35,000 since.

The audience for my Facebook page has skyrocketed as well. If you look at September 2015, right in the middle, you can see a definite jump, followed by a steeper angle of growth:


Black-Basing is a Thing Now

Back in the summer of 2014, I threw up a post about what I called black-basing.

Despite some assumptions, I’ve never claimed this as my discovery. The idea of priming in black is not a new one. I may have added some twists with what happens after that, and with the rationale behind it, but I am pretty sure the only truly new thing about black-basing was the name.


For a year it kind of lurked in the shadows, picked up and played with here or there.

But after the rant, interest in black-basing exploded. More and more modelers decided to give it a shot and ended up very happy with their results. Today, not a week goes by that I don’t see some referral link leading away to some far corner of the internet where another person is giving it a go. And I’ve noticed that even my detractors have started using the term black-basing to describe the technique.

When the rant went up, I heard more than my fair share of “why couldn’t you just make a post saying here’s this technique I like”. Well, I did exactly that, and I saw where that went.

Turns out, taking a provocative stance gets people to focus their attention more! Who knew? Aside from all of recorded history?

Do I Still Hate Your Panel Lines?

Yes. Yes I do.

But maybe I’ve grown more refined in my hatred as this debate has roiled. Here’s where I stand today:

Aggressive, all-over panel line shading is still bad. I don’t care if it’s pre-shading, post-shading, or a heavy black panel line wash. It’s bad, it’s unrealistic and it’s unimaginative. Yes, some weathered aircraft do have some deep black panel lines, and even staining running along them. But even the most weathered aircraft in history doesn’t have uniform skunk stripes crisscrossing every panel like a damn tartan blanket.

Objectivity and subjectivity are different things, and many fail to appreciate that. When I say that uniform pre-shading is unrealistic, that’s not just “my opinion”. It can be checked against objective reality. There’s a lot that’s subjective in this hobby, that depends entirely on preferences, but there’s a lot that’s objective, too, especially when you’re making claims of realism.

Panel line pre-shading is good for one thing. As much as I dislike it, pre-shading does one thing very right – it gets modelers thinking in terms of layers and opacity. The “bomb it on” school doesn’t work when you’ve got pre-shade lines all over the place. If you go too heavy with your paint, you’ll just cover them up. Unfortunately a lot of modelers do get stuck here, but at least with the foundational understanding of opacity, it’s an easier springboard into much more nuanced paintwork.

It’s important to think beyond panel lines. Look at almost any military aircraft and you will see subtle variations across the entire surface of the paint. Flying through atmosphere at several hundred miles per hour, subjected to wind and bugs and dust and UV rays and salty sea air and rain takes a toll. And yet probably eight out of every ten aircraft builds I see have completely clean, uniform paint. This not only robs the paint of depth and realism, but it makes overdone panel lines stand out even more.

Going for verismilitude? Then go for references. Verisimilitude is “the appearance of being real” – which I think encapsulates nicely what many of us strive for with our builds. So when going after a project, find the best references you can. Understand the way paint and weathering work on your subject. Look at the details. How is paint touched up? Is paint touched up? What do other aircraft in the same squadron look like? Are there weird details that you can pull into the build? Mismatched drop tanks?

And importantly, understand that most vehicles go through cycles of clean and dirty. If you’re lucky sometimes you can catch the same vehicle in various stages:

How? Oh...
How? Oh…

References are your friend and your support. Even if photographs cannot always be trusted (different films used in WWII interpreted different colors into black and white differently, colorized photos are dangerous etc), they can provide direct evidence of faded and degraded paint, chipping, fluid leaks, and so on.

A black or dark base is still the best way I’ve found to set up tonal variation. The problem you run into with gray or white primers is…covering the primer. Which can lead to a lot of extra paint use and ultimately leads to those swaths of uniform paint that rob a kit of depth and realism. Now, I’ve seen a few people say here and there that black is too much contrast for, say, a light gray.

Potentially. Or if you do it all wrong. But the black in black-basing is just that, a base. You can put whatever you want on top of it – even white. You aren’t fighting to fully cover the black the way you have to with gray or white, because what peeks through is just going to be a slightly darker tone of your main color. And you can control that micro-contrast in the marble coat.

I’m not the biggest fan of my 1/72 Sea King build, but it shows how a black base can benefit even a rather clean gray.

If you want, you can even bring in multiple colors at the marbling stage to change things up. Doing a faded Intermediate Blue? Marble with a full-strength Intermediate Blue and add in some lightened Intermediate Blue before blending. By the time you get to the blend coat, there really shouldn’t be any 100% black showing through anyway.

Constant experimentation is your friend. The best way I’ve found to keep growing as a modeler is to keep questioning and keep pushing your boundaries – both of understanding and of ability. Why does this work? What if you tried that thing instead? Or tweaked this approach this way? Give it a shot. Learn. Use it or discard it.

My current Dauntless build has been an experimentation boon for the paint mule.

And just as importantly, don’t just blindly follow the “leaders”. By all means, learn from them. Seek to understand not only new techniques, but why they’re used and how they work. And then switch them up. If something doesn’t work, seek to learn why.

That goes for me as well. I’m a big fan of black-basing as a foundational technique, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s the one true path. Or that it’s the end of learning. I’ve been playing a lot with what happens after the black base is down.

And a lot of it has been wasted effort, but some of it has proven super effective. I’m sure that, on my next build, I’ll be experimenting even more.




14 Comments Add yours

  1. TJ Rohyans says:

    Very well said. I don’t build plastic models as much as I intended to when I returned to them about three years ago, but I still spend quite a bit of time reading about techniques or watching build videos showcasing techniques. Even with the spattering of crude language thrown in (but hey, that’s who you are, right?), you still have a terrific way with words in your writing. And I personally, enjoy it.

  2. Dave Lindow says:

    Well said. Having returned to the hobby about 5 years ago, I felt I needed to catch up on current techniques (and still do). Every time I saw or read an article, I feel I need to give it a try. As a result I have found myself copying things others have done. It’s time to combine techniques, do what I want and to hell with the critics. Thanks!

  3. John G says:

    Could not agree more. Completed models online have become very boring – everyone (with few exceptions) uses the same techniques, same paints, same markings (did someone mention VF-84?) and the results are all the…same! “Black basing” really opened my eyes, and I think it was a game changer for my results since then. I’d like to see more modelers take chances, but I don’t think it will happen – very few people I’ve seen actually use a “paint mule” to test methods prior to painting their new kit. All I can say is that I’m still learning. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. jonsteed47 says:

    ‘fter seeing the photos & comp’re the model to them you ‘re right .

  5. Tim Wilding says:

    I have been using your black-basing for a year now and really like the shadowy effect on my armor kits. I have been adjusting it a little, but added spots of yellow and gray primer on top of the black, then layering olive drab over that. This give the plain olive brad a splotched look.

  6. Dario says:

    I think that you hit the nail right on the head.

  7. I fully agree mate! I’ve been a fan of black primers since I started to prime my models. I’ve tried the preshading technique and have managed very subtle results but I’m not a fan of it and I cringe whenever I see a model done so bad that the only thing you notice is the horrible preshade along the panel lines. I get to advice other modellers on what to do from time to time and one of the basic thing that I use to tell them is to try everything and then build their technique upon what suits them.

  8. Ref yr airbrush posts Matt….is this overkill?….I,m an airbrush junkie myself I guess…got 5. Just bought an Iwata HP_C Plus…’cos I like the trigger tension better than my H@S brush….tho’ it,s still a fantastic airbrush…the Infinity CR plus….both wiv 0.2mm needle/head assemblies
    On a personal note….love yr posts…..wud love to see a freehand camo demo….I,d buy a DVD too!! H

  9. Scooter says:

    Well, congrats on your “pole numbers” . I to, like so many, enjoy your “balloon bursting” rants.
    The jest of getting modelers to create their own look for their model, while not slavishly following the leaders; That’s a good thing. While I can agree with your black basing idea you may wish to give some other colors (dark blue, browns, silver, platinum, etc.) a thought as a base for some subtle variations of the top color. I know black is a universally useful base, but some times a bit of change is good too-eh?

  10. Cobrawingman says:

    The one thing I love about this hobby is; there is no right or wrong way or the only way to do something. And its more enjoyable trying new things – such as black-basing. I was first introduced to this, a few years ago by someone in the wargaming genera. It works great on figures. Using black-basing and layering works for me. I’ve tried the oil methods, etc, but could not get results … this works. People need to remember – just because you do it one way, doesn’t mean it works for another person. Then you have the reason we do something – why do wargamers blackbase ? Some say, it helps if you miss a spot – no grey or white showing through the finish like a lighthouse, others, it provides shadows without the hard work, black is easier to return back to, where are other colours need more work if you want to fix up or return to the base colour, etc etc … at the end of the day, each to their own.

  11. shane haugan says:

    hooray for you dont usually comment on blogs or whatever they are but had to congratulate u on your reply to peoples comments on your foul language you can speak however you want on your own time and if people dont like it they dont have to read it also with all the problems in the world today people choose to spend their time posting a comment about your choice of words instead of doing something actually constructive now with you being a writer maybe what i have to say is not so refined but it the straight shit

  12. David Canto says:

    I like the way you talk “and retalk” about this topic.
    I don’t call myself your follower but i agree with you about those unrealistc effects wich so many modellers like to apply… it is funny when talking with them, give them facts or showing them why i don’t like all that unreal stuff but they kept making it because “looks good”.
    Working all day with airplanes (civil) i’m able to see how real airplanes looks like, how they get dirty, weathered, decolorated, etc. so, when i tryed to explain to others (friends or just modellers) my point of view thier answer sounds like this excuse “you build models with realism, we make them in artistic way”…

  13. Scooter says:

    David Canto Good Call. You obviously have a way of seeing aircraft few of us enjoy. That said the “art for arts sake” modeler will never (probably) willingly give up his “point of view”. There is no implied “excitement” or “flair” in just being literally realistic. This drives the “realistic/minimalist” modeler nuts, as to why those guys can do all that stuff to their models. Meanwhile a minimalist approach is much more “realistic”. As in all things, Each, have their followers and each are able to ignore/disagree with the other. That’s why we build models. Besides, though I Know the “Real Truth”, I can’t tell anyone, yet.
    p.s. would love to be able to see some of your work ’cause I don’t think a inservice commercial jet engine would be dripping oil or would have Av gas streaks running down the wing. But that’s just me.

  14. Timothy Boyle says:

    This has really opened my eyes! I did preshading since I started building again, and while it does give some effects, I’ve never been truly happy with it. Stopped again with house moves a few years ago, and now picking up some unfinished projects. Was just about to preshade one that was stalled and found your utube vids and this. wow gota try it!

    I’ve have a lot of predominantly black based WW2 bombers that I’ve sot of been scared to touch as i did not think that preshading would do them justice. This really opened the door esp after seeing your black on black vid. Now just need to get a few mule runs out there to practice the technique

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