OK, you've got your paint and brushes, your rag for wiping the brushes,
a bowl of water to clean and soak the brushes in, and a model that needs
to be painted. You've glued, sanded and puttied and primered and sanded
some more and finally it's ready. There is an important first step
that is often overlooked.
Wash the model.
Handling plastic leaves oil from your hands. The putty and sanding step leaves sludge and little particles. Even bare plastic straight out of the box can have a coating of mold release that will interfere with the paint sticking to the model. If you're trying to cover a piece in a nice even coat and the darn paint just beads up and slides off the plastic like rain on a freshly waxed car, you need to wash and maybe primer the model. Wash the model with warm water and dish soap, and use an old soft toothbrush to scrub. If you have a large surface to cover, you might also want to take some 600 wet sandpaper and frost the plastic a little, it'll help the paint to get a good grip on the plastic.
To prime or not to prime? Primer is an initial coat of paint that is usually a neutral color like gray. You can get it in a spray can or bottle, and it can be specially formulated to provide a strong bond with the plastic. Some people swear by specialized primer, but personally I don't often use a special primer. Acrylic is not watercolor or poster paint, it has a polymer base that provides "bite" and most of the time you can get by just fine. I use grey acrylic right out of the bottle. Keep the acrylic paint for the primer coat a little on the thick side, and work it around in the cracks and crevices to make sure it doesn't clog up the detail. For the times I need special primer I now use Aleene's All-purpose Primer, it comes in a plastic bottle and is in craft stores. It provides a clear flat coat that eliminates any problem. You can search around, pick what's available, cheap, and works for you.
Once you have a nice neutral primer coat of some sort on, the fun starts. The way I paint is to start with a solid base coat in whatever will be the darkest color on the area. For instance, a light brown jacket will start with a very dark brown base coat. This will be the remaining color in the folds and creases of the coat to add "depth". This is followed by progressively lighter dry-coats, layering, and washes followed by detail painting. Let's define those three terms I've just thrown at you:
Dry coating: For those of you unfamiliar with the dry-coat technique, it is used to bring out texture and add realism to the model. It gives a more 3-d effect to the model. What you do is take another color (say a lighter shade of brown for that jacket), load a flat brush then scrape it back off the brush with the edge of the container. You want to use the largest brush you can get away with, but it depends on the area. If you want just a light dusting of color, wipe the brush on a paper towel before putting it on the model. The side of this brush is then lightly dragged over the surface, so that the higher spots get the paint. Work the paint around a little, acrylic does give you a limited time to blend that should be used. Take your time, and keep applying the paint until you're satisfied with the results. This technique is great for bringing out the folds in cloth, details of the face, and texture of natural features like tree bark.
Layering: When applying paint with a brush, it's always better to apply multiple thin coats rather than try to slop on one thick layer. You eliminate brushstrokes this way, since you're using paint thinned with enough water to make it self-leveling. You might need to put on dozens of layers, and you need to let the paint dry between applications, so a hair blower becomes your favorite tool. With a little practice, a series of layers laid down with a brush can be as smooth as something done with an airbrush. This technique also allows you to use the limited coverage of each layer to create subtle shading.
A word about coverage. That's the ability of a certain layer of paint to completely hide the underlying surface and give a nice solid color. All paint is only opaque to a certain degree, meaning light will shine through it. The light then reflects off the bottom layers and exits back to your eyes. If you put on a coat of white over black, you can see the black base. You actually want this property when you're building up layers of color. The color you end up with depends on the base coat under the paint, that's why a solid grey is important to start with. Of course, if you're painting something black it doesn't really matter what's under it. If you're using yellow it's better to paint it over a base coat of white. Once you begin experimenting with layering, you have discovered one of the secret tools of the professional artist.
Washes: You thin the paint down to almost colored water, and flow it onto the surface. The liquid will pool in the cracks and low spots, and that's where the color ends up. It is most often used to either deepen the shading or soften the contrast between drybrush coats. Yes, it also does tint the rest of the paint job slightly, often you follow a wash with a final drybrush coat to restore the original shade. It's a good idea to seal the paint job with some clear acrylic before doing the wash. You can experiment with using inks, or even thinned oil paint as a wash medium over the acrylic.
These techniques are all used together, depending on the look you want for the particular part of the model. For instance, in the Tarzan model pictured, the lion was done with drybrushing from a dark brown base coat to almost yellow for the final highlights. The grass started with drybrushed green, then a dark wash repeated until the lion really stood out. The skin of Tarzan and the blue of the water hole was done in layering, giving the smooth and subtle shading required. By using a combination of techniques the model comes alive.
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