Paint has come a long way in the last century. The paint industry has created a radically different technology than existed a hundred or even fifty years ago. Today’s paints are less toxic, more durable, require less maintenance, look better and last longer than old-fashioned paints. Unfortunately, nothing new and better comes free of cost. New paints require new methods, and in some cases these methods are so radical and new that adopting them feels like starting over from scratch.
That’s how I felt twenty years ago, when I put down my airbrush and faced a blank wall. I admit that I was discouraged, at first. Blankness tends to feed back on itself, and I felt as hopeless as any other person when faced with the task of having to climb that faceless, unwelcoming, seemingly impossible blank wall. Fortunately, I had a secret weapon. Robert Pirsig.
I had read Pirsig’s two books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila, and I had the extraordinary wisdom of that chap to guide me as I felt my world spinning down into the basement floor drain as I sat at my workbench, wondering how to proceed. I recalled Pirsig’s description of the Indian Monkey Trap. A monkey has put his hand in the trap and grabbed a handful of rice. He can’t remove his hand until he lets go of the rice. He put his open hand easily through the bars to get the rice, but his fist won’t fit between the bars on the trap in order to remove it. But he’s not about to let go of that rice! So the villagers are approaching. He’s going to be caught. All he has to do is let go of the rice. Change his value patterns and let go.
I realized that I was caught in an Indian Monkey Trap of my own. My rigid thinking had convinced me that painting with a brush was “juvenile” and that it would not, and could not, work. I had a mind full of prejudices and pre-judgments. All I had to do to break out of that trap was to evaluate each and every one of my strongly held convictions. Did I actually “know” what I thought I did? The only way to know for sure would be to experiment in order to find the truth, and not be afraid to be proven wrong.
So, I asked myself if a “brushed on” coat of paint was really, truly the brush-marked mess that I thought it would be. I bought some Testors Model Master Acryl because it was available. I bought the Luftwaffe colors because I had a Bf-109E from the Battle of Britain to paint. So I decided that instead of just brushing it on the model and hoping for the best, I would do an experiment on some plastic parts from a kit that was simply not going to be built. A “throw away” kit. This was a breakthrough. I could do experiments. I could try out things. So I applied the paint, using different techniques, and allowed it to dry.
It was miracle. The paint did not show brush marks. I felt like Leif Erikson, standing upon the shore of a new world. “Uff Dah! Am I glad to have survived that disaster! As we say in Norway, WHEW! I wonder where I am?” So I painted that first little Messerschmitt, and the result wasn’t just encouraging, it represented a new way of thinking. I had to paint a straight line. I “knew” that I couldn’t paint a straight line because 1) I couldn’t do it when I was eight, and 2) “nobody” can do that.
Well, I turned out to be a big liar to myself. I could do it. I can paint straight lines just by trying to do so with a brush. I’m sure that some people truly cannot do this, but I believe that most of us can, we just don’t know it. The final result of my very first attempt to build a model without spraying paint or masking didn’t turn out badly at all. It wasn’t perfect, but the result was surprisingly good, compared to what I had expected. I still have that model. Here’s a photo of it.
Now that I had learned to brush on Testors version of acrylic paint, I jumped to the conclusion that all modern paint would be equally good. I bought some Polly Scale paint, which turned out to be very, very similar to the Model Master Acryl paint. Then I bought some Tamiya paint, and discovered that not all modern acrylic paints are alike. Tamiya’s paint is very different from the Testors products I had been using. I didn’t notice it at the time, but I was uncovering a very real and very important part of my reinvented hobby–the search for my kind of paint. Not the search for “the best” paint–but for paint that I happened to like. Once again, I found out that my particular success or failure would depend upon my particular tools and methods, not something found in the latest book or website. I would have to find the answer for myself, sometimes finding parts of that answer in old publications and sometimes in the newest products.
Basically, I use a painting method I first learned about in 1969 from a magazine called Airspace Model. The article in question was entitled “Paint that Camouflage with a Brush” by a fellow named Ben Millspaugh in the March issue. Millspaugh explained that hobby paint like Humbrol Enamel could be brushed to an “airbrush” finish if you stop trying to use the brush to smooth the paint, and just use it to “dab” the paint on, so that adjoining “dabs” would flow together and, eventually, the wet paint would “self level” as it dried and create a perfect, smooth surface. This was a pretty radical idea to me then, and it remained a radical idea until I tried it (in desperation) with acrylic paint. It requires a paint be thinned so that it is “self leveling” but does not “bead up” on the plastic surface. Only certain paints have the required qualities. Humbrol enamel had them. Fortunately, I found that Testors Model Master Acryl had them, too. Since then, my knowledge and understanding of paint has grown considerably, but I still use the same basic method.
I have tested a number of the acrylic paints over the years. Since Polly Scale paint is no longer being produced, I’ll just refer to that type of paint as MM Acryl, since Testors two acrylic model paint lines have been merged into one (I know that isn’t exactly what happened, but I don’t think I want to rant about it right now). I mix MM Acryl and Polly Scale paint and they are, for my purposes, the same stuff. They both fit my methods. Without paint that works this way, my methods do not work. I need an acrylic paint that has certain characteristics. Fortunately, I’m not entirely dependent upon just one brand of paint, but the makers of paint hear loudest and longest from the spray-painting set, and it can be very difficult to know if a brand of paint will work for me or not. So I have to test them.
To save you the trouble of having to do the testing yourself, I’m going to provide a list of paints that work for me, paints that do not work, and paints that I can make work in a pinch. I don’t accept “close” as an outcome. A paint has to level itself out, period, or I don’t use it. My criteria for judging model paint has absolutely nothing to do with airbrushing. I may recommend a paint highly that can’t be airbrushed and I don’t care (how would I know?). I don’t use an airbrush for anything, or any other kind of spray-painting equipment, so why should I be interested in whether it dries on your tip? It’s irrelevant. So if anyone condemns a paint as “worthless” because it won’t spray, I’m inclined to want to try that paint out and see if it’s good for what I do.
Here’s a list of paints that work well for me, straight out of the bottle.
Testors Model Master Acryl (MM Acryl)
This paint is widely available and easy to get in the U.S.A., but it difficult to get in the U.K. and some other countries.
Revell Aqua Color
Revell of Germany makes good paint but it’s not available in the U.S., unfortunately.
Hannant’s of England makes paint that I can use, but the paint has a gloss finish that may not appeal to everybody. It’s also difficult to get, period, unless you order it from Hannant’s.
Here are paints that can be made to work with a few additives.
Tamiya Flat (Matt) Acrylic
Grade: Very Good
Tamiya makes excellent paint. You can spray it (I’m told) if you thin it with methyl-ethyl-ketone or some other hazardous substance that should not be sold to civilians. For my needs, I just add a few drops of “retarder” to keep it from drying so fast and I’m good to go. Better yet, I can thin it with a American window cleaner called “Windex” and it brushes beautifully.
Paints that work very well but require sophisticated technique:
Vallejo Metal Color
This is a wonderful product. But the skill needed to apply it is something that has to be learned over time. Patience, Grasshopper.
Tamiya Gloss Acrylic
Needs to be thinned with Windex. Can be brushed on if the painter can avoid brushing over the same spot more than once. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but after four coats the finish would work for a highly polished show car. Flawless.
Paints that work poorly.
Grade: Fair to Poor
Brush marks. Poor adhesion. Looks bad using my methods. Others may get it to work but this isn’t their blog.
Grade: Fair to Poor
Similar to Humbrol acrylic. Just doesn’t work for me.
Vallejo Model Color
(no photo–I threw this stuff out!)
Truly disappointing. It’s useful for painters who only brush paint tiny, tiny details on miniatures or instruments in model cockpits. For me, doing what I do, it does not work. No adhesion. Brush marks. Terrible packaging, too. I STIR my paint, never shake it, to avoid introducing air into the paint.
Popular paints that I haven’t tested yet.
Vallejo Model Air
Gunze Sangyo Acrylic