Just like the real thing…

Do you want to build a model that accurately represents reality in miniature? Then your first step is to look at the real thing!

“Attention is never paid to trends or products du jour, because that would determine the route a build would take and that’s simply not something that is of any interest to me”
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My current obsession seems to be the P-51 Mustang. I’ve built three in the last few weeks and seem set to build at least another two later this year if not before. I can’t seem to get enough of the blessed things. Along with this rather odd shift towards WWII classics (well, it’s hardly a jet, is it?) I’ve now become slightly obsessed with Dominic Salvatore Gentile, or Don as he was known to his friends.

The cause of this current obsession is the completion of his P-51B ‘Shangri-La’ in miniature and my almost obsessive desire to recreate his aircraft as closely as possible in miniature. Now, I would like to say that it was a conscious decision to build his aircraft, the result of a lifelong desire to construct a famous pilot’s aircraft in miniature, but it wasn’t. The decals in the kit I was given were shot and I had another set that featured his mount and I thought it looked rather cool. It was as simple as that, but from small acorns, large oaks grow, so now much like my love of the Sherlocks’ track “Will You Be There?” I’ve become completely obsessed and starting to be a concern to friends and family. It’s a problem.

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So, I set about building his aircraft using Tamiya’s kit and some Lifelike decals, nothing grandiose, just a simple project that I initially thought about using on here, but is now sufficiently in-depth to use in Model Airplane International magazine (despite the inherent risk that our readers might now be getting bored with Mustangs).

I digress.

Tamiya’s model being so simple to build, is a perfect canvass on which to apply a pleasing recreation of the scheme in which Gentile’s aircraft was finished. But how to do that? Well, the first stop was to look at the real machine and similarly finished P-51Bs painted in Olive Drab over Neutral grey. This is always the first step because as I will explain, accuracy of finish and the recreation of reality is my overriding goal with everything that I build: if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t build at all.

So, references are my first port of call. Always.

I never build a model without digging out as many images of the real thing as I can. I do this to not only get a sense of how the shape of an aircraft or vehicle should look, but also to reveal details and then colours and weathering that may be pertinent to the subject being built. Without those images I find it very difficult to focus on the model, unanswered questions clouding my judgement, leading to second guesses that I know will compromise the build and the completed model. If I can’t see what I need in the images that have, I will look for more until all bases are covered and only then will I begin the project.

What this means is that I end up recreating in miniature a real subject how it actually looks, not how I imagine it to be or how other modellers have interpreted it. This is a really important factor during everything that passes across my workbench because it means that the model will end up exactly how I want it to be, not how others would like to see it. Musicians often talk about not listening to music whilst recording new material for fear of that material finding its way into their own work: it’s the same with my models. Though I love to see finished models that can — and do — drive projects, they are never a direct inspiration during a build, that is the domain of the real machine.

That was exactly how I approached the completion of my P-51B, the results in monotone being seen here. I think it looks close to the real machine – what do you think?

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As I developed my own ‘style’ (how pretentious!) I dabbled with the idea of creating arty finishes that imparted a pleasing look to wow the onlooker, but as time has passed and my initial enthusiasm to create finishes that are more science fiction, than science fact, they have all dated badly. Much like the sound of an 80s LinnDrum accompanied dance track, they made me happy back then, but today seem to be more like fingers down a blackboard than a pleasing background to a day in the workshop.

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For instance, when building armour for the 15+ years I was at the helm of Military In Scale magazine I would simply build it to look cool, making up camouflage schemes, adding crew that looked nothing like the real vehicle’s personnel, stowing them with items never seen in the field and then place the results within dioramas that were based on wholly imagined locations. What I was producing were models that were a fiction, made-up recreations of non-existent machines that were there simply to satisfy my own ‘artistic’ leanings or the demands of friends and colleagues to whom I looked up and wanted to impress. It seemed odd at the time that armour was approached in this way because I would never have considered painting an aircraft in a finish that the type never carried, or fitting a weapon load it was not cleared to fly with and yet, there, was a collection of vehicles that simply didn’t exist other than within my own imagination. As a result of this, I don’t own a single one of these old models, all having been given away or smashed, only the ones that recreate reality as I see it today, remaining in my collection.

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Today, all projects are treated with equal care, be it an aircraft or vehicle. What that means is that the kit is only the start; from there, images are collected so that the colours found on the chosen subject, the markings, the way the weathering looks, weapon load-outs and details are all as accurate as possible. Colours are a particular fascination and an area that I spend time trying to get right. Though variations in shade and tone can be seen in images of the same machine, the jump-off point is always the correct FS number; if an aircraft is painted Dark Green, Dark Sea Grey and Light Aircraft Grey, that’s what will be used in miniature, not replacements that look close. If an anti-glare panel should be Olive Drab, it is painted in Olive Drab, not Olive Green simply because the latter looks prettier. The same points apply to weathering and wear and tear. If the aircraft I’m modelling is glossy and clean, that’s how it is finished, not in a scheme that looks like it has been on an aircraft found in a field after ten years of rotting away. And finally, if the patina should be gloss, it is painted to recreate that surface finish, not sprayed with matt varnish. Call a glossy finish toy-like and I’ll call it what it is: an accurate representation of reality.

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We all approach a build differently and rightly so, but to me the desire to build a subject as closely as possible to the way it looks, overwhelms all other considerations. Attention is never paid to trends or products du jour, because that would determine the route a build would take and that’s simply not something that is of any interest to me. I’ll continue to love the work of others, the excellence of the art that highly talented individuals create day in day out, but will always consider that a distant second to why I build models: to capture for my own little world the aircraft and vehicles that I adore, not in a way that is imagined, but in a way that can be seen.

See you next time…

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6 thoughts on “Just like the real thing…

  1. David Robbins Sr March 23, 2017 / 11:55 am

    “So, references are my first port of call. Always”.Same here. A good reference library is essential! That is why l like the hobby and modern media. If you do not have it you either go out and buy it,pdf or otherwise or one of your modeling buddies has what you need and sends you the information. But please lets not rivet count as you can only get so accurate with a model

  2. D. Mac March 23, 2017 / 12:14 pm

    That’s precisely my point when arguing about greasy Shermans and Tigers and greasy planes with too many panel and preshading lines showing through – it was never there in the first place!

  3. Alan Firbank March 23, 2017 / 4:05 pm

    Well said, Spencer, I couldn’t agree more.
    Those who think that fine panel lines are there to be turned into rivers of dark grey or black and those who pre-shade may consider that weathering takes place from the outside of the real aircraft, not the inside. They are entitled to their opinion but I do not share it.
    You can’t beat taking a long look at photos of the machine you are about to build or better still, the real thing, then my aim is to replicate that finish in miniature. Weathered bombs and missiles do not happen in the real world nor do muddy tyres on a modern jet so why put them on your model?

    • Calum March 23, 2017 / 9:53 pm

      Weathered bombs and missiles do not happen in the real world? Sorry you’re dead wrong there. Even a quick google will show you that.

      Missiles on combat aircraft are rarely fired and often fly 100’s of hours on aircraft accumulating dirt/dust. And I’ve seen plenty of bombs that weren’t pristine.. even bombs that have been stored in bomb dumps for year accumulate dust and dirt.

      As Spencer pointed out references are key…

    • John Loughman March 24, 2017 / 8:20 am

      Agreed, it boils down to “Really Pretty (Artistic and unrealistic )” or “Pretty Real”(close as possible to the original as practical and based on references where available.)
      How long before the current enormous range of acrylic and oil based paints are replaced by large sheets of laser cut decals with a choice of factory finish or,weathered finishes placed carefully on a primed surface.? Rivets and panel lines incorporated as a separate set of optional decals>?

  4. Russell April 15, 2017 / 2:03 am

    Wonderful blog! Do you have any helpful hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you advise starting with a free platform like
    Wordpress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that
    I’m completely overwhelmed .. Any ideas? Cheers!

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