The colour question

I’m a Scot and I learned at a young age that there are certain questions that you just don’t ask in some pubs; what football team do you support? for example. This might lead to a perfectly civilised discussion, but then it might also lead to the sort of difference of opinion that sees items of furniture wielded in ways for which they were never intended.

Now, I’d guess that, if there were such a thing as a modeller’s pub, there are also questions that it might be best to avoid for the same reasons. And judging from some of the vituperative exchanges I have seen on some model kit related forums, one of those would be about the precise shade of colour for a particular application. The precise shade of dunklekelb used as the base colour on late war German tanks, for example. Or whether North African Tigers should be painted in RAL8000 and RAL7008 or RAL8020 and RAL 7027.

I’m feeling brave so I’m going to risk mixing my own ideas into the paint pot.

Let’s start with German tanks of World War Two. Back in 1927 the German group Reichs-Ausschuß für Lieferbedingungen (RAL – National Committee for Delivery and Quality Assurance) created a scheme for specifying colours. They created a range of forty colours, each defined by a three-digit code. In the 1930s, the range was expanded and the reference code changed to four digits. The RAL colour classification system became widely used throughout Europe.

The German military rather liked the idea of uniform paint (if you’ll excuse the pun), so they began to use the RAL classification system to specify colours for just about everything that could possibly be painted, from helmets to battleships. That’s great news for modellers because, when we find out that dunklegelb was specified as RAL 7028, we know precisely what shade is meant. And manufacturers of paints for modellers commonly also use RAL specifications for their paints. So, all you have to do is buy, for example, Vallejo Model Air RAL7028 Dunkelgelb, and you’re sorted. Or RAL 7028 Dunkelgelb by MIG Jiminez.

But, here’s the thing. If you painted one half of a model tank with the Vallejo paint and the other with the MIG paint, even though both have the same RAL, you’d see the join. Because RAL is about pigments, but it doesn’t take account of things like the reflectivity or translucency of the dried paint or the effect of whatever is used for the carrier. Now, if two manufacturers that run their businesses on producing paint that matches wartime colours can’t produce something that is identical, what does that tell you? Perhaps what it ought to tell you is that this isn’t as straightforward as it may seem.

Other nations took a decidedly more casual approach to painting things like aircraft and tanks. The US Army, for example, painted just about everything olive drab. Except that, for example, the olive drab used by the USAAF was different despite having the same name. And the way the paint looked changed throughout the war as it went from being matt to a kind of semi-gloss finish which made it look darker.

British tanks were generally painted some variation of dark green but colours changed as a wartime shortage of chromium oxide green pigment made it difficult to manufacture some shades of green.

So, what we like to imagine as fixed, standard colours may actually have varied to a certain extent and these colours are further affected by fading. This is subject to a range of factors including the materials used in the paint, the amount of UV light it receives and the length of time it is exposed. All you can really say with confidence is that, if you were to park a factory-fresh tank next to one that had been exposed to the elements for six months, they probably wouldn’t look the same.

Then there’s scale colour effect. There is some debate about whether this really exists, but the theory is that, even if you were to somehow precisely match the colour from a full-size vehicle and then used that to paint a small kit, it wouldn’t look right. It seems that somehow, colours need to be scaled too, though there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on if or how this can be measured. It sort of makes sense to me; if you are looking at a 1/72 tank from three feet away, that’s the equivalent of over two hundred feet in real terms and at that distance, colour intensity would be greatly reduced. That’s kind of interesting too because it implies that precisely matching real colours to produce kit paints might not only be a waste but also that a colour that looked fine on a 1/35 scale tank might not look the same on a 1/72 model of the same tank. Look at a 1/35 model from three feet and that’s the equivalent of half the distance, so the drop in colour intensity would be less. Though I’m not at all sure that scale colour effect works as simply as that.

I am sure this is a complicated business but there are so many factors involved that I’m not certain that we can say with absolute confidence that kit model colour X is a precise match for wartime colour Y. And in the end, I’m not sure it really matters…

When we build a scale model, we’re creating a visual illusion. Good painting makes that illusion more effective but I’m not certain that having the precise shade of a particular colour is vital. If you paint your Tiger tank pink, it’s going to look a little silly. If you paint it an overall dark yellow of almost any shade and do some highlighting and shading, I think it’s going to look just fine.

For what it’s worth, I believe it’s more important to focus on making the illusion work rather than getting hung up on precise shades of colour.  

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Panzer Colours, July 1937 to July 1940

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