the scale effect
by Martyn de Young
An accomplished fine scale modeller once
told me: “There is nothing that will spoil a model more than the
judicious application of the correct colours.”
In this day of ever more accurate kits and models in all scales, and the
lengths modellers go to achieve the perfect dimensions, the correct
number of rivets, accurately profiled wheels,… this may seem like a
strange comment, but a simple experiment into the Scale Colour Effect
can prove the point. The scale colour effect is the visual phenomenon of
distance effecting what the eye sees, and how the brain interprets the
Any object viewed from a distance, say 50 metres, looks a different
colour to that same object seen at two metres. This is because of the
particles in the air between your eye and the object. These particles
include dust, water, smoke, pollen. As objects get further away, this
dulling of colours becomes more pronounced.
To test this theory:
• Cut out two squares of card, one 50 x 50 mm (two inches for the
“traditionalists” among us!) and the other 300 x 300 mm. (about a foot
• Paint both squares matt black.
• Place the larger card against a light, neutral background.
• Holding the smaller card at arms length, walk backwards until both
cards appear to be the same size.
• The colours of the card will no longer be
the same. The closer card will be closer to the original colour and more
vibrant; the distant card will appear a lighter, less distinct, grey.
• Try the same with pure white.
Every model, regardless of scale, needs appropriately scaled colour. A
model – regardless of the degree of technical accuracy, is an attempt at
creating an artistic illusion, and nothing destroys that effect quicker
than poorly executed painting, or colours that are too bright. So having
researched the exact colour of an L&B Manning Wardle underframe in 1898,
how can this colour be accurately portrayed on an OO9 model?
The colour of a 1/76th scale model loco at one foot should appear the
same colour and shade as a real loco 76 feet away.
A number of different formulae have been developed to produce a more
accurate colour representation, but a simple and effective method is
A simple way to replicate this scale colour effect is to add to the
original colour. In 1/76 scale adding about 15% matt white to the
prototype colour seems to give gives a fair match. For smaller scales,
more white is generally required to give the same effect. For 1/43
scale, around 5% is required. The exact proportions are largely a matter
of personal taste, and a degree of experimentation is advised (also,
bear in mind the variety of the prototypes, both in original colours and
the degree of weathering each vehicle was subjected to over time).
The final effect should give at least a
slightly "washed-out" or "faded" look when viewed up close.
Black and white should never been used alone - always mix at least a
touch of green, brown, or other dark colour to black, and add a hint of
any surrounding colours to white.
Once the colour looks right, another factor to take into account is
gloss – a matt finish is generally preferred, as this scales down the
glow from reflections (particularly noticeable in some photographs)
which can make even the best models look like – well, models!
As well as to rolling stock, the scale colour effect can be used equally
effectively on buildings and scenery, and can transform a layout or
diorama. If a model is to be viewed mainly from one direction, applying
gradually lighter colours to objects as they appear further back can
help add apparent depth.
One further aspect to consider, and one that can make a tremendous
difference, is the lighting under which the model will be viewed –
careful addition of variations in colour can accentuate or obscure
shadows and details to make an artificial light source appear more
Modeller, David Zelly, has experimented a
great deal with lighting effects, (he is a professional stage lighting
technician, so he ought to know).
In principle, he advocates that the
lighting pelmet should always be at least 12" forward of the model so
that the fronts of buildings are correctly lit. He uses daylight
lighting in the foreground and a softer light towards the back, which
gives a better feel of depth. (see
this article about County Gate)