A clear coat is a final coat of clear that goes over the nice paint job you've spent so many hours getting just right. No, you don't really have to use them, but there some good reasons why you should:
To protect and seal the paint job. Acrylic will stand up to normal handling, although greasy fingers are the bane of people showing off their models. Unless you've displayed your models in museum quality glass cases, dust and dirt will eventually settle on the model and require cleaning. Again, acrylic will stand up to a dusting with a large soft brush and a good wash using dish soap, but some added insurance wouldn't hurt.
To get a smooth look on the surface. For something like skin, layers of drybrush will sometimes look a little too gritty, a more natural look can be achieved if you finish with a coat of flat or satin clear. Most clear is "self leveling", meaning if you put it on right it will naturally dry to a smooth flat surface with no brush strokes.
To get a realistic look. In real life, different objects have different reflective values, from the flat, fuzzy look of a blanket to the high gloss of glass or water. You need to duplicate this for a natural look. Back in ye olden days, we often used gloss paint for just about everything, like Frankenstein's jacket. Paint comes in both gloss and flat varieties, but you can stick to flat paint and apply a final coat of gloss or satin clear as needed.
Working with clear
A common mistake is to reach for the bottle of clear, grab the brush you've just used for painting the model, and dip the brush into the bottle. You no longer have clear in the bottle, but a contaminated varnish from the paint left on the brush. If you want your clear paint to stay clear, always pour a little into a container and work from there and never out of the bottle!! Before you use the flat clear, shake or stir the bottle really good, the stuff is actually gloss clear with some kind of particles mixed in and those settle to the bottom. If you're applying a gloss clear and want a smooth surface, load the brush with enough to completely cover the area in one go and flow it on. Then leave it alone, if you try to go back in with the brush you'll just mess up the level shine.
Types of clear coats
Flat (also known as matte: Not shiny at all, typical items like Frankenstein's outfit, the Mummy's bandages, etc. A lot of the paint job on a figure model will need a flat look. I'm a stickler for a true flat value on the model, and I've discovered some hobby paint labeled "flat" is actually more of a satin finish. For a true flat nothing beats the craft paint like Apple Barrel, Aleene, or Delta. Once you've tried these, you won't go back to the more expensive hobby paint. Almost any brand paint offers a clear flat, but again don't believe the label and test it on a small area of the model first. I've experimented with various flat clears, right now I'm using Aleene's General Purpose Primer in thin coats, it gives the result I want.
Satin: For a realistic look to figure models, you need a value known as satin. Think of this as an in-between value, not quite gloss and not quite flat, about what you'd need for a leather saddle or oily skin. I've found one brand paint, Citadel Colour, to be a perfect satin right out of the bottle, but it's hard to find. You won't find satin clear in the normal hobby paint brands, but craft stores sell it in the acrylic section and you can use satin water based Polyurethane from the hardware and paint section of a store.
Gloss: A waxed and buffed paint job on a custom car is gloss. There's not a lot of gloss on the usual figure model, usually just the eyeballs and any water or glass objects in the scene. Gloss clear is easy to find in any brand, or you can use gloss paint to begin with. A "modeler's secret" for a nice gloss coat is Future or Mop N Glow floor polish. You can dip small objects into the stuff, and for larger surfaces I apply it with a small damp sponge. It will give you a level, smooth, gloss shine you didn't think possible without using an airbrush.
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