We have recently talked about several lighting systems for 15mm scale models (this post). One of these systems or styles is the so-called color modulation that we will discuss in further detail in this article, which was originally published in 2012 and I have just updated (2021).
When painting 15mm tanks we can simply apply the desired color, for example olive green for a Sherman, and then just paint the details. But the results will be likely very flat. Furthermore, the tank will look very dark because small objects, such as our small 1:100 models, reflect less light than bigger size objects, such as the real vehicle. Therefore, it is very important to apply some sort of lights in our tiny tanks. We can follow a simple approach such as the zenithal lighting, or something more complex such as the color modulation. In this article we will discuss in detail the color modulation applied on 15mm tanks. If you want to know more about other lighting systems, and why these are important, you can this other post.
The color modulation is a technique or lighting system developed in Mig Jimenez´s studio (AMMO) several years ago, which consists in creating very aggressive contrasts between lights and shades in different parts of the vehicle, so that the small scale models will look more interesting. It is very important to keep in mind that this technique, as many others discussed in this blog, are meant to work larger scale models than 15mm tanks. However, the process is pretty much the same.
I would like to mention that in my humble opinion we cannot talk about “the best” lighting system for 15m tanks. This is an art, and therefore it is subjective. I personally love the color modulation: I enjoy the painting process and the final results. But this does not mean that this is the best or the only way to highlight 15mm tanks. Any of the other lighting systems are fine as well and you should choose the one you like the most. But, in any case, what I do think is that we must always apply some sort of lights to compensate the small size of 15mm tanks.
Probably, the most common lighting system applied on scale models is the zenithal, where we take into account a single source of light (the sun) to create the lights. To do it we can simply place the airbrush on top of the tank in a 45 degrees angle and press the trigger. This system is also one of the most realistic. In contrast, in the color modulation we consider multiple and random sources of light, instead of only one. This means that each part of the tank will have its own set of lights and shades, independently of the rest. Somehow, the color modulation resembles a digital 3D render. As you have probably already thought, these lights are a little bit unreal. In fact, the color modulation is the least realistic lighting system we can use. However, this method creates the most interesting contrasts. And this, in my opinion, is one of the cornerstone of painting 15mm tanks. This striking dance between shades and lights will catch the attention of the viewer, and our tanks will easily stand out on the battlefield.
To apply the color modulation we normally start painting the tank with a dark color and then apply the lights, creating a color gradient from the shade to the final highlight. Of course, we can do the opposite: start with the lightest color and then create the shades. Or even we can first apply the base color (intermediate color), and then create lights and shades using lighter and darker colors respectively. Any option is fine. I personally find easier the first one: I start with the darkest color and then apply consecutively lighter layers to create the highlights.
I normally apply 4 or 5 layers using the color modulation sets by AMMO (sets of four paints ready to use, from the shade to the final highlight). To create a color modulation we need an airbrush (*), given that the idea is to create smooth transitions between shades and lights. However, the last highlight is applied with a normal brush on the small details such as hatches, rivets, etc to achieve a clear definition of the model. This last step is often ignored, but it is essential in order to make the color modulation to work.
(*) There are other options, but these are more complex and time consuming. For example, we could apply a filter -a filter is a very thin layer of diluted paint- to slightly change the color of the surface where it is applied. For example, we could use a dark filter to darken the surface.
One key concept about the modulation is the “panel”, which defines each surface or part of the vehicle that is clearly delimited. For example, if we think about the tank hull we can distinguish several panels: the frontal glacis, the upper part of the hull, the sides and the rear. Furthermore, small hatches and other details such as the engine lid can be considered as individual panels. Following this idea, when we apply the color modulation we must create a unique set of lights and shades in each panel. Or at least, in the largest ones.
The highlights are applied in a very specific way: we apply the final highlight of one panel close to the darkest shade of an adjacent panel. By doing this, we maximize the contrast between two panels. For example, in the E100 tank that you can see below we have applied the final highlight (lightest color) in the frontal part of both the upper hull and glacis, so that the darkest shade of the glacis is touching the lightest part of the hull. This creates a clean “cut” between both panels. Or in the case of the turret, we can apply the highlights in the lower part of the gun mantlet, but in the upper part of the sides. As you can see, the contrast is very striking (and exaggerated, yes. But we will talk about this later).
To easily paint each panel and prevent painting off the adjacent ones we must use masks. We can use a piece of paper, masking tape or masking putty (e.g. Blu-Tack). The paper and tape are very useful for even panels with very clear edges. Whereas we can use the putty to mask irregular or rounded panels. The idea is to cover and protect the panels that we do not want to paint. This is extremely important if we want to maximize the contrast between panels, given that we need a “clean cut” between the lights on one panel and the shades on the next one. Without masks this is impossible. The clean cut is between two different panels, not within the same panel. Often people skip this process probably because it is tedious, however it is essential for the color modulation to work.
The first highlight is the most important because we will determine where and how each panel is highlighted. And this first light will serve us as map for the next ones. I usually start painting the largest panels (normally the upper part of the hull or turret), and then try to find which is the best way to create interesting contrasts in the remaining panels. Whenever is possible, I try to apply one highlight close to the shade of another panel. Note that this does not have to be perfect in every single part of the tank. We can pay more attention to the largest panels, since these will be the more notorious anyways.
Although I have mentioned that we should aim to create “clean cuts” between shades and lights, this does not mean that we need to dramatically force it. That is, we will avoid jumping from a very dark color (almost black) to a very light one (almost white). Therefore, it is very important to chose correctly the colors for each layer. Avoid going to the extremes (black / white). In this regard, the color modulation sets by AMMO are perfect and we do not need to prepare any mix. Furthermore, it is very important to create smooth transitions between the shade and final highlight on each panel. We will do this by using intermediate color to create a transition zone. Remember that we can thin down the paint with even more thinner than usual to create thin paint layers will facilitate the creation of the color gradient.
Finally, we must talk about how unreal and exaggerated the color modulation might look. First, I completely agree: once the color modulation is applied, the result is too strident. Nevertheless, we should not forget that this is only the very first step in the painting process. Once we have painted the base color of the tank, with its lights and shades, we will apply a number of weathering effects. These effects include washes to stand out the recess, streaking effects, chipping effects, dust, etc. At the end, the sum of all of these weathering layers will partially cover the strident effect of the color modulation, resulting in a more harmonic result (see the examples below). In fact, the striking contrasts created with the color modulation are very important because they will still be slightly visible at the end. This will add another level of detail and interest to the model. If we use a simpler approach to highlight our tank, the weathering effects could darken it and generate more monotonous and boring results.
Once more, remember that we can create volumes (lights and shades) following other approaches rather than airbrushing a color modulation. For example, we can follow the oil paint rendering by Michael Rinaldi, which we have already mentioned in the blog. This artist applies a simple base color on the tank, and then plays with oils to create lighter and darker areas by using light or dark oils respectivele.
To summarize, these are the most important concepts in color modulation:
- It is unreal, but very visual.
- We work by panels or surfaces.
- We create striking contrasts between panels alternating shades and lights.
- We apply the highlights (or shades) preferentially with the airbrush, but the last highlight is applied with a normal brush only on the details.
- We use masks (paper, tape or putty) to create “clean cuts” between panels.
- Although the contrasts might look too strident, the weathering effects will attenuate them.