Your Pink is my Tan, and Black and White Don’t Really Exist: Getting Right With Colors

Nelson Kee and I are model making friends and practically neighbors, though we’ve never met in person, thanks to COVID-19. We met—virtually—when he sold me a Takom Gepard on the Facebook Scale Model Graveyard group at the beginning of the COVID lockdown.

In the process of arranging for my son to pick up the Gepard kit, we figured out that we both are interested in the fast jets of Operation Granby (what the British called Desert Storm). We also figured out that he regularly and I irregularly participate in the Washington DC chapter of IPMS. We never met at a meeting because I was unable to regularly attend them during the years I was consulting and on the road most week nights.

Nelson is working on Eduard’s 1/48 ‘Desert Babe’ Tornado, which, like all Granby aircraft, will wear a warm (as in reddish) shade of tan known as ‘desert pink’. He and I have been sharing reference photos of Granby Tornados, and he was puzzling over how one single aircraft could appear in different photos to be completely different shades of tan or desert pink.

That’s tan! No, it’s pink! Nelson’s confounding reference photos show how changing lighting conditions make desert pink look different from photo to photo.

Conditions outside of the lens are one of the explanations here. Diffuse lighting under overcast skies mutes colors, with the effect of sucking that warm, pinkish quality right out of desert pink, making more of a desert dull, as the photo on the left above shows. Photographs taken in direct sunlight look different than those taken in overcast conditions. Photos taken close to the beginning or end of the day, or in winter, when the sun is lower in the sky, are even brighter and more vivid. Midday and overcast photographs have a more washed out quality.

Then there are factors on the inside of the lens. Older photographs taken on film, for example, are dependent on the quality and specific color temperature of the type of film used. Kodachrome, that stuff that Paul Simon sang about, really did render nice bright colors, and not only the greens of summer, but famously made clear blue skies, reds, and yellows practically jump off the image. Ektachrome and Agfa color film had their own color-bending quirks, particularly in less than ideal lighting conditions.

Older—like WW2 and 50s era—color pictures not only show film characteristics, but variabilities in printing and digitization of images regularly distort how colors look, and deterioration of prints and negatives further take away color accuracy. Even film photos from as recently as the 80s and 90s—digital didn’t catch on with serious photographers until the 2000s—can show variability and distortions, particularly exaggerating the effects of the lighting mentioned earlier. Those vibrant Desert Storm reference photos you’re using—likely exhibit some color distortion or attenuation.

All this variability in lighting, color rendering, and film characteristics can seem hopeless and despairing. But it needn’t be so, because aiming for consistency and relativity rather than matching paint chips can will solve most tricky color dillemas. Nelson saw photos of my desert pink Buccaneer during an IPMS DC show-and-tell over zoom, and he said he thought it looked more tan than desert pink. Funny, I thought, the Buccaneer is right next to two US armored vehicles finished in CARC Tan in a display case right outside my home office, and the Buc looks pink. To make the point to Nelson, I got all three models out of the case, and snapped an iPhone photo of them on my desk in natural light. Sure enough, the Buc looked pink—relatively—next to the CARC Tan M1A2 and M1117 vehicles. See for yourselves:

CARC Tan Armor on the left, Desert Pink Buccaneer on the right. The Buc is pink, amirite? Natural midday light on an overcast day.

Scale effects—or the illusion of distance implied by models in smaller scales—are another point of controversy around color. The idea here is that things that are farther away seem to have more muted colors, and texture becomes more attenuated. In other words, a shiny black subject looks more like matt dark grey at great distance. Indeed gloss becomes indicated by glints and highlights at distance, and less because the gloss texture is discernible. This is why glossy subjects—thinking of railroad subjects here—don’t necessarily look good as glossy models, particularly in smaller scales. And black subjects, like steam locomotives, look better as small scale models in a muted dark gray rather than straight up black.

The scale effect also comes across in the qualities of color—hue, saturation, brilliance, etc. Model Railroader magazine ran a column back in the 70s and 80s called ‘Paint Shop’ that featured monthly painting and decaling projects, back when model railroaders still painted and decaled their own models. In one memorable column, a modeler of a particular niche railroad, the Detroit, Toledo, and Ironton, managed to get hold of a quart of the actual red-orange paint used by the DT&I. He figured out how to push it through his airbrush, and painted and decaled a few DT&I models with actual prototype paint. Counterintuitively, his results were disappointing: the models looked all wrong, too yellow, as I recall. The moral of the story: matching paint chips might not yield the results we need for good models.

The dark gray/black dilemma reared its head during my recent 1/144 Dora railway gun build. I primed black and then put down a coat of German gray. And it still looked black. I ended up giving it a highlight coat of German gray lightened with white. Dot filtering with blues and whites muted it into a lighter shade even further.

Black primer on 1/144 Dora subassemblies. Very, unnaturally black…
…and German gray that on the mostly finished Dora model, which looks pretty black to me. It’ll get some lightening, both from a highlighting coat of lighter gray and with some dot filtering.
Lighter and bluer, thanks to a highlight coat and oil dots.

Black and white on models is a challenge unto itself. I will actually court controversy here and actually say that straight black or straight white should never be a color on a model. White subjects ought to be a light gray, and black subjects ought to be dark gray, to give some room for tonal variation, highlights, and shadows. Straight white and black do have a role to play for effects, to create highlights and negative color. The best example I can think of regarding negative color is how Uncle Nightshift used black to add ‘detail’ to the backside of 1/100 scale tank tracks in this video.

Just to get really provocative, we all ought to be using our color wheels to introduce warmth (reds, oranges, yellows) and coolness (blues, greens, aquas) as appropriate to our blacks and whites. That’s as much as I’ll say about color theory, because I’ll admit that I’m a graduate of a state university Poli Sci and German language program, not an art conservatory. As a result, I have ‘NFI’ what I’m talking about here (to borrow the immortal words of one particularly salty Facebook Scale Modeling Critique Group commenter).

But I do know what works for me, and I strive to know what works for the modeling I like to emulate. And I know it involves introducing color into supposedly black and white subjects, and thinking carefully and consistently about how to do color on my models.

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