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Modeling Theory: The Ideal Black

August 13, 2010

YosemiteValley 4-4-0 #22
The Ideal Black isn’t black at all…

A lot of us, myself included still have plenty of models with jet-black paint of them, which at first glance may look nice, but it’s also quite incorrect. Let me explain. It’s a variety of factors that realistically prevent you from perceiving actual objects, especially large ones, as pure black. Particulate matter in the atmosphere deflects light away, making it appear lighter than black, especially on sunny days. Also, distance from the object makes everything appear more gray for the same reasons. Most of us don’t have our eyes within 200 scale feet of our models unless you comically stick your face next to the model the whole time, so why would we paint models to look as if we’re right next to them with really pure and dark colors?

Sun-fading and weathering of even the cleanest objects would also throw off the pure black. Even days old machines get dusty with use, and as the years drag on, black paint has a habit of fading to a dark gray or medium gray.

So, the key to painting models that are traditionally black is to paint them very dark gray, with a touch of dark brown in the mix. This will account for viewing distance the observer has from the model, and looks like a realistically lighter base color for weathering.
Jet Black

Even in direct sunlight, the black hides most of the detail on this model, sadly
Plus, the added benefit is that Jet Black hides all the beautiful detail that so many of us pay good money to show off, so why shouldn’t you use a dark gray to “pop” the details forward on the model, so one can truly appreciate their purchase or build?

For models already painted jet black, you can bring this effect to the model by using a wide soft-bristled brush and a mix of black and a German/ SP Dark Lark gray. Make sure it’s a consistent but thin wash, and that you use WATER based paints for easy alteration and cleanup.

IF nothing else, mask the windows off on your model and give it a liberal spraying of Testor’s “dullcote.” That should immediately improve the look of the model.
ATSF SW9
A factory painted model with a wash of dark gray pops detail and tones down the jet black, also note the trucks were painted, most diesels models have shiny unpainted black plastic trucks.

Color Theory Chart:

90% Gray is ideal replacement for new black, Sun-faded black can be anything less than 80%, and the ones with the brown mixed in are a great way to do a beautifully subtle undercoat of weathering for a black object, like an older steam locomotive.

A lot of professional modelers use this trick in the world of Armor, Sci-Fi and Figure modeling, so why should our railroad equipment be any less striking?

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