Tamiya D.520 – Part II: Paint and decals

In our last article, I assembled the Tamiya D.520 with some Eduard photoetch bits. Now, it’s time to talk about painting and finishing the model, which, given my preference for paint, is surely going to be the easy part.

Yeah, about that…

The paint scheme

I chose to keep things simple and go with the box scheme. I didn’t want to ruin my model with the garish red and yellow stripes of the Vichy version, and I also didn’t feel like doing a lot of research, so box scheme seemed simple enough.

Why would you ruin a perfectly good plane like that?

The D.520 has a tritone camouflage scheme on the upper surfaces of cool grey and desaturated browns and greens. On the underside, it is a light sea grey. Fortunately, all of these are colours that can be effectively shaded with blues or blue-blacks, which would not only make the shading easier but would unify the model with consistent shadow and highlight colours.

An interlude on lighting

Speaking of shadows and highlights, I need to do a brief interlude on some stylistic choices that were influenced by my background in figures. I think this background gives me a perspective on things that most people who build aircraft don’t have. As an example, someone on facebook asked me what colour I used on the blue of the markings and how accurate it was. I didn’t really have a great answer because I used at least four different paints to highlight and shade it, and I don’t care all that much about accuracy in colours.

Consider painting red. The traditional scale model approach would be to find the red that is closest to the real thing and spray it on in a uniform, opaque coat to simulate the real thing.

Whereas, my approach is going to be very different. I’m going to use colour theory to figure out what colours I want to use to highlight and shade the model. With reds, I like to go with a coal black to start as my deepest shadow. I might undercoat from coal black to ivory, from shadow to highlight. Then from there, I’ll go from crimson in the shadows to a brighter red in the highlights, and maybe even into a desaturated orange before pulling it all back together with a glaze of red ink. This adds shadows and highlights, making the model pop, accentuating the lines, and adding visual interest.

This approach doesn’t really take accuracy into account too much, because I’m using five different shades of red to paint one red item, and the goal is to get a gradient from shadowed to highlighted surfaces and accentuate shape. Even if I knew exactly what shade of red was used on the real thing and had that exact match, I’m still going to be using other colours to shade and highlight that tone. So to me, it’s kind of absurd to try to precisely match colours when a simple red consists of paints from coal black to ivory with crimsons and bright reds and oranges in between.

I know this approach isn’t quite traditional, and I feel like it is very different from what I usually see on the tables at model shows. This is an approach more informed by artistry than pure craftsmanship and historical fidelity. That’s not to to rehash the pestilential “are models art?” debate, and definitely not to lord over mere craftsman with my artistic snobbery. After all, one can respect both artistry and craftsmanship and everything in between, and just because something is artistic doesn’t mean it is good — good craftsmanship can be more impressive than bad art.

But, I think this is an approach that gives my models a relatively unique style; I’ve had someone comment before that he could tell that my 109 was done by a figure painter. It also makes the model stand out from a distance, which I think has some advantages to it — I feel like a great model is one that can pull your attention at several feet away, and then bring you in closer to discover all the details.

Where things started to go wrong…

I primed the model, no problem. I went with a zenithal prime, as you do when you learned everything you know from painting figures, then started to paint the kit. The bottom sea grey colour went on nicely, but then it came time to get serious about the camo pattern…

Primed, and with all the little sub-assemblies ready to go

My first thought was to use silly putty for masking. After all, I’ve seen people use putty for masking soft-edged camo, they just lay it down in round snakes instead of trying to flatten it and get hard edges. Yeah, that did not turn out great. The colour transitions were an inconsistent mix of hard and soft edges, and it was just a messy paint job. Also, I varnished in between colours, but the varnish went on too thick and gave a weird texture, and there were steps along the paint lines. It was just a really crappy looking paint job, completely unsalvageable, and the sort that had me worried that it was completely ruined. But, not giving up, I bit the bullet and stripped it completely before going at it again.

Oh, and while I’m at it, I think I’m done with Vallejo varnishes. I generally use Reaper’s brush-on sealer as my varnish of choice as I find it sprays better than anything I’ve tried from Vallejo. The only downside is that nobody stocks Reaper paints locally, so I have to order it direct from the manufacturer. Fortunately, Reaper offers free shipping to Canada if you spend $75 on their website, and I’ve never ever had a problem with finding a way to spend $75 on the Reaper website.

Second time’s the charm

So, when my attempt at masking a soft-edge camo pattern went south, I remembered a saying that has helped me in times of modelling trouble, when things didn’t quite go right with the finish or when I don’t have the right decals. That saying is “fuck it, I’m painting it freehand.”

After re-priming the model in the zenithal style, I used some very thin inks to brush on some general outlines for the camo pattern, just slightly tinting it to make myself a map for airbrushing. Then, I went at it freehand with my airbrush, gradually building up the colour from dark to light. I started on the bottom, and the only things I masked were the canopy and the bottoms of the wings and horizontal stabilizer when I went to do the upper surfaces.

I generally work from dark to light when I’m doing this, working with thinner paints as I go lighter, as it’s easier to add multiple layers with an airbrush than take them off. Also, with thin paints, you get a smoother gradient and can avoid that misty, airbrushed look. To place my highlights, I followed the zenithal prime, and focused my highlights in two ways. First, on a macro level, I wanted to highlight the upper surfaces, leading edges, and other areas that are highlighted based on the shape of the plane. Within that paradigm, I also wanted to add some modulation by higlighting the middles of the panels and leaving the panel lines a little more shaded. Of course, I also intentionally worked in some stippling and tonal variation, making sure not to apply a smooth, even coat, but rather something with a bit of visual interest.

See the subtle mottling and tonal variation on the underside

I did this one colour at a time, starting with the grey then moving into the greens and blacks. I did have to do some cleanup where the colours met, so it wasn’t quite as simple as 1-2-3, more like 1-2-3-1-3-2-1-2-1, but it eventually came out nicely. Finally, some Drakenhof Nightshade from GW was sprayed into the shadows and in the area of the panel lines to reinforce them and unify the scheme. A quick clear coat and I was in the home stretch, all I needed to do was apply some decals!

Mo’ decals, mo’ problems

The initial plan was that I would paint the stripes on the tail using a simple mask, then rely on decals for the remainder of the markings. Unfortunately, what no one told me was that the Tamiya decals from that time period were crap.

I applied the decals using all the best practices I could find online, and nothing I could do would get them to stick to the model and stay there. I had roundels coming unstuck and curling up, and my attempts to get them to stick just made things worse. And on top of everything, the roundels on the fuselage were applied over the white stripe on the arrow, but since the white wasn’t completely opaque, you could see the arrow running underneath the roundel. After struggling with it for several hours, I gave up on these craptastic decals and decided to use good old-fashioned paint instead.

Fortunately, the fact that these decals wouldn’t stick to the model meant they were easy to remove. About 95% of the decals would come off with a bit of masking tape, pressing it down over the decal and pulling it back up, and the other 5% could be removed with some gentle sanding using fine sanding pads.

The arrows and stripes were easy; they were simply a bunch of straight lines that could be easily masked. The roundels were a little harder, and I picked up a circle cutter and a template from a local art store to make a series of circular masks. As for the numbers… well, “fuck it, I’m doing it freehand” has been kind of a theme with this model, so out came the trusty Raphael 8404s.

Using liquid decals for the arrows…

Maybe it’s just that I had a bad experience, but I’m still suspicious of decals and would prefer to avoid them whenever possible. Even when they aren’t a god damn dumpster fire as in this case, it feels like there is just a lot that can go wrong even if you do everything right — they can silver, or you can get visible decal film, or they won’t settle properly. The decals could be old, or they could be crappy, or yellowed, or not quite opaque, or they could disintegrate the second they touch water. Maybe there is something I am missing, or maybe it is my inexperience with decals and strong background in painting, but it seems very much like to some extent, you are rolling the dice and taking your chances with decals while paint is more predictable.

The other thing for decals is that for all that, I’d still have to go over them to bring in highlights, shades, and tonal variations. Decals are generally flat and uniform in colour and my figure painting background means I can’t paint any single surface without using at least three different colours to highlight and shade it. It would look off to me to have all this tonal variation and weathering on everywhere on my model except for the markings, and things like white stripes are too stark for my tastes if they are pure white.

“I could just give up now and say it was captured by the Japanese…”

Weathering & Final Touches

Some light weathering was applied with the sponge technique. I did two-tone chipping, using the highlight colour of the paint (which was, of course, four different colours, depending on where on the camo the chips lay) and some grey metallic, applied mostly to areas such as the leading edge of the wings. The highlight colour chips were done first, while I saved my metallic chips for the end because, as I’ve said many times before, applying a matte varnish over a metallic paint kind of ruins the entire purpose of using a metallic paint in the first place.

To shade the panel lines, I mixed up an oil wash using white spirits and some black and blue oil paints to make it a blue-black. This was applied carefully over a coat of varnish, trying to keep it in the recesses only, then left to dry for a day before giving it another coat of varnish.

With the oil wash done and sealed in and my final coat of varnish down, I could finally pick out the metallic bits such as the exhaust, which was done with a mixture of Vallejo Metal Color and black ink. Exhaust staining was laid down with a mix of black and brown inks, ultra matte varnish, and flow improver, to create a transparent mix that avoids the glossiness and fragility sometimes associated with inks.

Finally, I could pop on the little fiddly bits like the pitot tube, antenna, and propeller, as well as remove the canopy masks. A sigh of relief was breathed as I placed it on the picture frame I made into a base — while an enjoyable exercise, there were moments of complete and utter frustration that really tested my patience.

Final thoughts

This is a great kit of a beautiful aircraft, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone, so long as you are willing to either make your own masks or get some aftermarket decals. For $20 or so, it could be a nice weekend project. As for me, I’m happy with it and I’ll probably take it to the local model shows and see how it does, whenever the hell those start happening again because 2020 sucks.

Bonus Content: Jagd Doga

I won this kit at a Gunpla contest a couple years ago. It’s an MSN-03 Jagd Doga from Bandai’s RE/100 line. RE/100 models seem like a step down from their more mainstream 1/100 Master Grade models — perhaps the equivalent of a High Grade kit blown up to Master Grade scale.

Of course, the kit went together quite nicely, as expected for Bandai. This particular kit has a lot of nicely curved surfaces in line with the Zeon aesthetic. I find I prefer the Zeon mobile suits over the Gundams, as these curved surfaces are fun to highlight with an airbrush.

It was a fun build, larger than just about anything else I’ve done. I didn’t include the shield because I couldn’t find a way to attach it in a way that I felt didn’t look awkward or detract from the pose. I also left off the beam sword and didn’t use the clear rods to represent missiles in flight because I’m not a big fan of these sort of clear parts – I find they tend to detract from the realism, and there isn’t much you can do with paint to make them look right.

Finally, I chose to go with a paint scheme inspired by Quess Paraya’s version because… well, because I looked this thing up on the Gundam wiki and I thought it looked cool. And just for shits and giggles, I took a picture of it holding my airbrush.

Incidentally, while I was looking up reference material on the Gundam wiki, I had a good laugh at this guy’s name.