Airbrush Paint For Models

Airbrush paint for models tutorial covers information on the many different types of paints used to airbrush models, advantages and disadvantages of using each.. Written by Ken Synder brought to you by Airbrush Technique Magazine

Greetings fellow Airheads! I am going to be going over model paints as a foundation and build on it a bit. Model builders tend to be an odd lot, we will experiment like crazy, trying to figure out other ways of doing things, and we will search for cheaper things, neat tools, and bits of whatever to spruce up a model. Yet, oddly enough, we tend to not be terribly imaginative about our paints. So, I intend to break out of this mold, and mess with new paints. These experiments, I will leave for other articles. For this article, I am going to approach paints from the traditional model builders’ standpoint.

One advantage that all “model paints” have is that their pigments match paints that are used to paint the real thing that you are trying to model. By this I mean, if you want to build a model of a Russian tank from the cold war, you can get the correct color of green to do this. You don’t have to mix various colors to try to match the correct color.

I classify model paints into three categories. The first is “oil based” (or enamel). The second is “water based” (or acrylic). These names aren’t entirely accurate, but that really isn’t important, it’s mainly to keep things organized. The third category I’ll “specialty”, this is a weak name for everything else, and those that I haven’t messed with yet.

For oil based, there are a number of common manufacturers,..]Testors (Model Master) Great for MS595 colors for military stuff. They do have colors other than the MS colors also. They cover some foreign military colors, and a few other things, but they mainly aim for the military builders. Fairly easy to airbrush when thinned and brush straight out of the bottle. Disadvantage is limited variety of Gloss colors, and they all seem to serve specific purposes, like “Blue Angel Blue”, very handy if you are building a Blue Angel airplane, not so handy if you really wanted something a little brighter and more vibrant. MS595 (aka Mil-Std-595 ) is a US Military Specification for color. You can purchase a copy, (Come to think of it, I need to purchase another copy, some thieving magpie nicked my last copy from work), it was about $25 back in the 80’s. It is page after page of little 1″x1/2″ stickers of colors with a number below them. It is a 5 digit number and appears as FS12345. The first digit will be a 1, 3, or 5. 1 means Gloss, 3 means semi-gloss and 5 means flat. The next number indicates the primary color red, blue, yellow, and misc….if I remember correctly they go a little further with brown, green, etc….not that those are “Primary” colors, remember we are dealing with the military, not artists..LOL! The next three numbers are pretty random, it doesn’t go darker to lighter, or anything handy like that….I think its just a number they decide to apply, again, remember the source. Also, the spec does not have the “pet names” for the colors. Certain colors are used a lot for camouflage on US military vehicles, and they have widely accepted names such as, Gunship Gray, Armor Sand, Light Ghost Gray, Aircraft Gray, Sea Blue, Forest Green, etc. So, when building US military kits you may need to get reference material to figure out what colors you should be painting your subject. The MS colors have also been adopted by many NATO countries too.

Testors (Boyd) Brought to you by the same guys as the Model Master stuff, expect similar quality. Great gloss colors for the car guys. Even have things like Ford engine blue. Limited color selection overall…I build a lot of European race cars ( F1 and LeMans ) , the Boyds leans towards hot-rodder. Also, seeming to be harder to find of late, might have been discontinued.


Testor Model Masters Paint

Figure 1-From Left to Right; Testor’s Model Master, Testor’s Boyd, Two versions of Humbrol, Floquil.


model race car

Figure 2-This model was finished with a combination of Testor’s Model Masterand Boyd paints.


Humbrol Model Paint : Very nice paint, brushes very well. I think they are from England, and are tricky to find in the states. Lots-o-colors! The little tin they come in is a little inconvenient. This is because there is a little lip that makes it very difficult to get any quantity of paint out, without making a mess. Another thing about Humbrol is that some of there paints, the color of the lid is the color and there is no name, just a Humbrol reference color. Other tins have the name and color on a sticker in the lid, which likes to fall of, leaving you with no clue what’s inside, unless you had opened it earlier, and spilled down the side. This can be really frustrating. Another thing, and I’ll put this one down to conspiracy theories, : , is that some model manufacturers will use Humbrol color numbers in their instructions, for paint schemes. This is really fun! Since the Humbrol numbers have no rhyme or reason, you have no clue what color to paint things unless you; A) buy Humbrol paints, or B) get reference books and pictures. I generally go for B, since it is sometimes hard to find Humbrol paints.

Floquil Model Paint : Nice paint, but they are geared to the model railroad, so you get things like caboose red, AT&SF Blue..etc. I think they are also all flat colors. Not so handy if you need to put on water slide decals, I’ll get into that in another article though. Others:There are some other brands out there that are very esoteric for certain niches, Luftwaffe, Formula One etc. hard to find and disappear quickly too! I will cover a couple examples, but not dwell on them. Aeromaster was a wonderful paint that was geared to WWII Luftwaffe builders. Key word is “was”, they unfortunately stopped producing the paint. MisterKit is a new one to me, they also seem to cater to Luftwaffe colors. Finisher’s is a paint company the is devoted to covering F1 colors. I have not shot the paint yet, I have heard they are very good. But if you want the correct shade of blue to due a 1978 Tyrell, or are trying to capture the subtle changes in the red that Ferrari has used over the years…….these are the guys.

model paints

Figure 3-Some of the Esoteric Paints that ‘might’ be available, from left to right; Aeromaster, Misterkit, and Finishers. Thinning : For all of these I use lacquer thinner. All of them are a pain to thin just right. Batch to batch variation is common, different colors behave differently, weather plays a part too…no quick answer, I always have a piece of a junk model or styrene to test before I shoot the model.Now to the “water based”….

Tamiya and Gunze Sanyo (Also marketed as Mr. Color) Both behave pretty much the same. I thin them both with Gunze’s Mr. Thinner. There are a couple issues with these paints. They aren’t as durable as the “oil based” stuff. They are a little healthier than the “oil based”, but they are not “Non Toxic”. A couple advantages. They have an ability to, what I call, “Re-Activate”….if I get a fingerprint or a little dry spray, I have found that I can spray pure Mr. Thinner over the area and get it to flow again and smooth out. This can be done even after it has dried for weeks. Also, if you really screw up, Windex takes the stuff right off. Very handy for beginners. The “oil based” stuff is a pain to strip. Finally, the flats come out kinda’ semi-gloss, which means you can put decals on without the decal silvering. (Note to self, start a topic on decals in the modeling section)

model paints 2

Figure 4-From left to right; Tamiya, Gunze Sanyo, Mr. Color, Polly S and Polly S


model airplane

Figure 5-This kit was finished with a combination of Tamiya and Gunze paints.


Polly S These are water thinned paints, pretty wide variety of colors, haven’t used them much, they’re a little hard to find. They strip with rubbing alcohol. They have some cool weathering colors like, mud, dirt, grease, oily grime, etcTestor Acrylic : Never used the stuff, the bottles look like Testors Model Master line and I’d be afraid I’d grab one thinking it was the other, put the wrong thinner in and really have a mess. It could be the greatest stuff in the world though.Now ‘specialty’ paints: ALCLAD II THIS STUFF IS THE BOMB for simulating bare metal finishes…bare metal finishes were the bane of modelers until this stuff came out. There was nothing that had the right balance of realistic look/mask ability/durability/coverage. The ALCLAD is not hard to use, but it is tedious and expensive, but it works and that is what counts! You need an impeccable base coat of a solid gloss color. Black seems to work the best. Then you put two, what I call, dust coats of this airbrush miracle paint on and you have a beautiful metallic finish that looks like it was machined from a block of metal. What’s more, you can mask it. They have about a dozen or so colors, like Chrome, Polished Aluminum, Light Aluminum, Dark Aluminum, Duralem, Pale Gold, Burnt Metal, White Aluminum, Copper…etc. This is great for pulling off a bare metal aircraft, with a multi-metallic shade, that gives the kit realism and depth.


Alclad 2 model paint paint

Figure 6-A variety of Alclad II metal finishes.


model airplane painted

Figure 7-This kit was finished with 4 different colors of Alclad II

Oil Paints (The stuff for canvas, that gets thinned with linseed oil) I will use these for figures and have know guys to use them on armor to create realistic weathering and shading. However, I have yet to run into anyone who has had much luck thinning them and running it through an airbrush.Anything else:As I said most model builders pride themselves with being experimenters and scroungers, but for some reason we tend to go to the hobby shop for our paints, so things like Createx, House of Kolor, all these names that airbrush artists know so well and do miraculous things with are really basically unknowns to us. I am very guilty here, I have built models for 33 years, and it wasn’t until about a year ago that I started trying to find “other things” to put in my airbrush.


Createx paint

Figure 8-Unknown territory for most model builders.

I use all of the above stuff with no real preference. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but it with depend on the subject and colors available etc. Another thing common to most of the paints marketed to modelers; they are not airbrush ready (Alclad II is an exception). This is because you need to do a bit of brush work too. Most of the paints do well as both an airbrush medium and a brush paint. However, it is inevitable that some will do one better than the other.Bottom line, when you paint a model, the goal is to produce a finish, by any means necessary, which makes the model look real. The quick test is if you were to take a picture, with the right background and surroundings, would the image be difficult to tell from a picture of the real thing? There is a catch though, the paint is not the only thing involved in creating this illusion. You have very tiny surface details on the model, sometimes no larger than a hair, which can be obscured by too much paint. Additionally, beyond the primary color(s), you will probably have at least two layers of clear. These are a clear gloss before the decals, and a final clear (flat, semi, or gloss depending on the subject) over the decals. Sometimes this final clear can be omitted (future article). Thus the catch is, the paint has to gone on as thin as possible and still cover.

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