Saturday, 18 December 2010

Painting a 1/48th Pilot.

I originally wrote this article a few years ago, but hope people might find it of interest.

Before returning to aircraft modelling in the last few years, I had been a long time figure painter. It is perhaps for this reason that I enjoy tinkering with the pilot figures often found in kits, although I generally don’t place pilots in the cockpits as they hide much of the detail.

One of the big problems with figure painting is that poor painting can ruin a well sculpted figure, but an exceptional paint job will not salvage a poorly sculpted or cast figure. The reason behind this is painfully simple: We all see the human figure daily and have done so for our entire life. This means that we instantly recognise errors in anatomy, proportion, and pose, and a coat of paint cannot disguise them.

As a consequence do not use those figures that your brain tells you are somehow wrong. Also try to avoid those where the detail is either heavy or indistinct. For injection moulded figures in 1/48 this can be difficult because the figure is only some 35-40mm high when standing. However several of the figures included with current kits are of an acceptable standard, and can either be used as they are, or as the basis for a little super detailing. For the purpose of this article I will use two injection figures that I have in kits to hand.
The walking figure found in the Revell/Monogram F-5E kit. Despite the age of the kit this is a surprisingly good figure, with a natural and interesting pose.
The seated pilot found in the Hasegawa F-18 Hornet kits. Each kit provides two figures with separate arms, and usefully a separate head. The pose again looks natural to my eye, and given the requirement of fitting in the kit cockpit this figure is more than acceptable.

The walking figure could be regarded as a painters figure. A simple straightforward pose with no real work needed on the figure before painting starts. The only dodgy area is the back of the jacket, but this can be left as is without it really detracting from the rest of the figure. On the other hand the seated pilot can be significantly improved before painting if desired. To illustrate the difference this can make I will paint this figure twice, one straight out of the box, the other with detail applied.


All these figures have a casting line around them, and this is most easily removed with a sharp scalpel blade. To do this I drag the blade backwards along the seam, and one or two passes will normally suffice. The seam needs to be fully removed because, if not, in this scale it will be very noticeable on the finished figure. Gentle sanding with a fine sanding stick or paper completes the process.

At this stage, to help with the later painting of the figure, I now gently run the scalpel blade (again backwards) along all the edges of the figure. By this I mean along the edges of straps, belts, pockets etc. This gives slightly more depth to the figure when painted, and helps the straps and the like have more defined edges. (This makes painting them a lot easier).

To add detail to the seated figure I searched on the ‘net for some reference photos, although the best I could find was a page sized photo of the Dragon F-18 pilot doll. This showed a profusion of straps and survival equipment not included on the Hasegawa figure.

To recreate these additional straps I used Tamiya masking tape cut to size. This is easily applied and adjusted using a scalpel blade. In addition a torch was made from plastic rod, a small vertical pocket on the chest was made from milliput and what looks like some kind of audio switchbox, again on the chest, was made from plastic card. The cable from this was made from copper wire. I also chose to remove the plastic oxygen hose, and replace it with one made from wire wrapped around wire (no seam to remove, and much finer detail). Copper wire was also used to make the steel snaplink visible on the right shoulder. The difference between this and the standard figure can be seen here. (Note; the arms are positioned so as not to obscure the figure, rather than a correct pose)

To start painting a quick undercoat is applied using the airbrush. This only wants to be a thin coat so that no detail is lost. Remember this figure is 1/48th scale and so the photo is far larger than the actual figure.


All three figures were painted using Vallejo Model Color acrylic paints (not the Air Color range), applied with a fine paintbrush and mixed on a “stay wet” palette. Due to the fragile nature of acrylic paints I often paint figures with a base coat of enamels, seeking to find a colour that is a close match to that of the final coat. Once the base colours are dry the real painting can begin. There are probably as many ways of painting a figure with acrylics as there are painters, and I make no claim that mine is the best, however it works for me.

When using Vallejo acrylics it is very important the give the bottle a good shake before use. Failure to do so will result in a gloss finish once the paint dries, which is in contrast to the otherwise excellent matt finish that well mixed paint will produce. All three figures were painted with a Size 1 brush (Windsor & Newton Series 7), which shows that a quality paintbrush and the correct consistency paint are the secret to good paint control.

The basic principle followed by all figure painters is to create a range of shades for each base colour. This allows lighter shades or highlights to be painted in those areas that catch the light (i.e. the top of the arm), and darker shades or shadows in the areas hidden from the light (i.e. the underside of the arm and armpit). This range of colour gives a sense of depth to the figure that fools the eye and makes the figure appear more realistic and natural. (Due to the small scale of the figures natural light alone will not do this). This is why a figure (or any object) that is painted with just one shade of each colour required will look flat and lifeless, despite the fact that painting instructions may have been followed to the letter.

For 1/48 scale figures it is acceptable to work with as few as three shades: base, highlight, and shadow. These can be added to as painting progresses if required. (Larger figures will require a greater range of shades). Having said this I generally lay down a dark and light tone, and then repeat the process with different dark and light tones, which means I lay done five shades in total.

The easiest way to create three shades is to mix a large pool of the base colour, and from this separate out two further pools. To these further colours are added to create the lighter and darker versions. When creating these shades of the same colour it is vital to ensure that each shade is sufficiently different from the colour it will be placed next to, without being so different so as to look wrong. At this point paint can now be put on the figure. Some painters work dark to light, however I apply the base colour first then add the shadow, and lastly the highlight.

On the F-5E pilot I have deliberately exaggerated the shadow and highlight to ensure that they can be seen in the photos. To tone this back down a highly thinned wash was painted over the trousers and jacket. This wash blends the base, shadow and highlights together and is a useful trick to use if the contrast created is too great.

As an example when painting a jacket the process can be as simple as

Lay down the correct base colour, and allow to dry

Create from the base colour a highlight and shadow colour.

Carefully paint in the shadows, using raised folds, edges, etc as your guide

Paint in the highlights

Touch up any sloppy paintwork

If using more than 3 shades you also need to narrow the width of each brush stroke as you approach each end of the colour range. In other words the brightest highlight, and darkest shadow are normally the thinnest brushstrokes applied. This helps to create a graduated effect through the colour from light to dark. When painting with acrylics the edge between two shades of colour is not blended, rather the closeness of colour match fools the eye into seeing a graduation across the colour range. The more shades of colour used the subtler the effect that is created. Again I cannot stress the importance of colour selection within the process to ensure that the eye is fooled.

Every High has a Low

The secret to painting light and shade is to understand the connection between the two. A shape that creates a shadow will also have a part that catches the light, and so one cannot be painted without the other. When looking at a figure to judge what areas are in shadow and what areas create a shadow imagine a light source directly above the figure. This will mean all upper surfaces catch (and reflect) light and so need to be highlighted, while all lower surfaces will be in shade, and need to be darkened.

So every highlight has a shadow and vice versa. The eye expects to see this, so make sure you painting reflects’ it. When painting these highlights and shadows ensure your brush strokes are controlled and in the right place.

Another trick when painting figures in this scale is to exaggerate the contrast between similar colours, or select differing colours. An example of this is the blue flight suits of the two F-18 pilots. Blue was chosen not only because Top Gun crews wear them, but also because it prevents the figures from being green all over. (Green flight suit, G-suit and combat vest). For the same reason the jacket colour of the F-5E pilot is a different green from the trousers. As a consequence the figures are more interesting to the eye..

Where I wish to hint at a gloss or shiny surface I carefully paint the appropriate area with a light coat of Future. This produces, in this scale, a satin effect. I have done this on all three helmets, as well as the visors on the seated figures.

Painting Flesh

I mix my own flesh, using a mixture of white, red and yellow, together with a touch of brown to give colour. This is good practice and helps allow me find the light and shade tones. Due to the large amount of white in flesh you cannot darken it by adding black rather you must make a mix using less white.

I tend to make the light tone first and undercoat all the flesh areas of the figure. While this is drying I then add further red, yellow and if necessary more brown to create the darker tone. This is then carefully painted around the hairline, under the chin, cheekbones and other areas where appropriate. When painting a face in this scale there is no need to try and recreate the detail of eyes, mouth etc, rather you only need to hint at it. Look at a real person at a distance of 20 feet as that equates to a 30mm figure held about 5 inches from the eye, and see how much detail you can see.

The detail that is needed is best added by using the light and shade tones. Underline with the shade tone the mouth to give it definition, while applying the highlight tone (this may be almost pure white) to the bridge of the nose etc. These and the other contrasts on the face will give it depth and provide enough detail for the brain to feel in the gaps. (In other words you again fool the eye). I’ll cover the painting of faces in more detail in the article on painting a 1/32 pilot.


Washes are easy to do when using acrylics due to the high level to which they can be thinned. They are best used to bring out scribed or recessed detail, as the thinned colour will run into recesses and remain there. For this reason most washes either add to the shade tones, or are used to provide a contrast to a lighter colour and so reveal detail. The two oxygen hoses received washes to allow the ribbing detail to be seen. A wash will not change the level of detail, but you can see the difference between the kit hose and the wire one.

As mentioned earlier an overall wash can also be used to blend colours together. Not only was this done on the F-5E figure, but also on both helmets for the seated figures to create a subtler effect after the detail of each had been outlined (see below).


This technique also allows detail to be more easily seen, in this case by simply painting a darker outline around all or some of the features of the figure. The seated figures have had the details of the oxygen masks and helmets outlined, so bringing out the detail of the various straps etc. Choice of which colour to outline with is important, and I would suggest black never be used, rather a darker tone of the base colour.

…and finally
While the F-5E figure paints up nicely with just simple preparation, I think it is fair to say that the additional work on the detailed F-18 pilot makes a significant improvement over the Out of thebox figure.
Completed F-5E pilot

Completed Out of the box F-18 pilot

The super detailed F-18 pilot

So don’t sell yourself short, a little work (and practice) on a pilot figure will pay great dividends.

Pete Wenman 2010

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