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Color Scale Effects in Modeling

Color Scale Effects in Modeling

By Michael Benolkin

As the Cybermodeler Online color reference system continues to grow, I have uncovered a few interesting nuggets that many modelers many not realize. Many paint companies will state or imply that a given paint ‘matches’ a specified color (like RLM 70). What they don’t mention is whether that paint is directly matched to the standard or has had some degree of ‘scale effect’ applied to it. Aeromaster was one of the first companies that applied scale effect into their paint line and other companies followed suit. A more recent example is Tamiya - several of their newest RAF colors have varying degrees of scale effect applied. Since these colors were released at the same time as their 1/32 Supermarine Spitfire, some of these colors will be too light. The problem we have today is knowing which of these colors are direct matches and which have had scale effect applied. That’s where our system comes in handy.

What is scale effect?

Scale effect reduces the intensity of a color to replicate its appearance to the human eye at different distances. If you frequent airshows or outdoor air museums, you may have noticed how the colors on an aircraft fade a bit in intensity the further you get from the subject. The same applies to buildings, cars, etc. Conversely, the perceived colors intensify in hue as you get closer. There is a lot written about scale effect online but the best reference is "The IPMS Color Cross-Reference Guide" written by Dave Klaus back in 1988. Dave lays out the theory and application of scale effect in modeling quite nicely.

The scale effect theory states that viewing a 1/48 scale aircraft from 12 inches away is the same as looking at the full-scale aircraft from 48 feet away. These metrics from Dave's book still apply, though the techniques have matured a little since then. The original metrics were:

  • 1/32 - add 7% white
  • 1/48 - add 10% white
  • 1/72 - add 15% white
  • 1/144 - add 23% white

While the percentages illustrate the degree of fade that apply to darker colors, we've since learned that white usually isn't the best color for creating scale effect. If you want to fade the red in a Hinomaru using white, you'll end up with a pink Hinomaru. In fact, at certain distances, white fades as well. Rather than colors fading to white, they tend to fade toward neutral gray though they won't get there in the distances/scales we'll be working with. For a Coastal Command subject in 1/72 scale, it would be correct to add a few drops of neutral gray to the underside white to reduce the intensity of the white at scale distances.

Scale effect is a matter of personal preference. Personally, I don't believe the difference between the source color and even 10% scale effect is worth the effort. The differences are almost imperceptible once you've applied any sort of gloss coat and/or dull coat to your final paint to deal with decals or final finish. Consequently, I don't use scale effect for subjects in 1/24, 1/32, 1/35, or even 1/48 (if you use the proportions above). To put this all into perspective, take a look at the US Navy Ship Colors table with varying degrees of scale effect applied. I'd be inclined to use the 30% fade on 1/350 scale and 50% fade on 1/700 scale subjects. You can select your own preferred percentages to a given scale and we'll provide scale effect charts for most of the color standards published here to help out.

Why should you care about scale effect?

As I said above, If you model larger scale subjects like 1/24 and 1/32, I don't think that scale effect is worth the hassle. I'm not even convinced about using scale effect in 1/48th scale, but this is certainly a matter of individual preference. From 1/72nd scale onwards is the time to consider scale effect in your modeling. If you model 1/350 or 1/700 scale ships, this system really applies to the visible realism of your ship's colors. If you've been to a model contest with ship models on display, the ones that have been painted with no scale effect applied look too stark/high contrast and just don't look right.

So why should you care about scale effect? A number of paint companies apply scale effect to their paints, so if you're building a 1/24 or 1/32 aircraft, your out-of-the-bottle colors may be too faded. If you are applying scale effect to paint a smaller scale subject, once again your colors may be way off if you apply the full percentage of scale effect to the already faded colors. Since none of the paint companies indicate how much scale effect is applied to each of their colors, it is difficult to achieve an accurate rendering of your aircraft in scale. To make it more challenging, not all of the colors have scale effect applied. We'll show you what the original colors are and we'll also help match available colors to defined scale effects as well.

Another problem...

While we're helping to sort out the paints for their accuracy to standards versus "scale effect", there is another dimension to consider - decals. While the paint manufacturers are producing paints to standards and/or scale effect, most decal companies print their decals to color standards. For example, many Luftwaffe modelers really enjoy the colorful camouflage patterns on their aircraft because most of the RLM paints out there have had scale effects applied to render more color. Unfortunately, most decal companies do not apply scale effect to their markings which results in rather starkly contrasting decals. While distinctive markings should have some contrast, the same scale effect should be applied. More companies are becoming aware of the issue and some have started providing double markings on their sheets, one set to color standard, the other with scale effect applied. Does this really impact your modeling? Only if you enjoy the accurate appearance of your models.

What to do?

As I've stated in the introduction to this series, I'm providing color matches from the standards themselves with no scale effect factored into the equation. Each of the recommended paint numbers with white backgrounds in the tables fall within 2-3% of the source color in question. If there is an apostrophe next to the paint number (i.e. 7876'), then the color is within 4-5% of the source color in question. Paint numbers with yellow backgrounds are untested at present so you'll have to take the manufacturers' word that they match either the standard or have had some degree of scale effect applied.

The paints we've tested to date:

  • Testors ModelMaster/ModelMaster II
  • Testors Acryl
  • Floquil
  • Pollyscale
  • Humbrol
  • Tamiya Acrylics

Coming soon:

  • Gunze Aqueous (Acrylics)
  • Vallejo Model Air


There is no one right answer to your modeling preferences. Some modelers don't worry about scale effect, some do. Different modelers apply precise degrees of scale effect to their work, others simply paint straight out of the bottle. These references will hopefully help you find the right colors and understand which paints do have scale effect applied and how that will contrast with your decals that do not apply scale effect.

Good hunting!

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