I’ve always liked the three color camo scheme of the mid-war US Navy aircraft. There’s just something visually appealing to me about the white/medium blue/navy blue transition. Whenever a Hellcat comes to mind, it’s always this pattern that is on it.
It has an almost shark-like look to it in a way. Quite often in watching television shows about sharks, a clip will be shown of one of the creatures sliding through the sea, its underside white, flanks a middle-tone color, and the top will be dark. The water often makes it appear blue, and in those moments, I always wonder if the development of that scheme was influenced by a shark.
From a modeling standpoint, there’s another interesting point to ponder regarding the scheme. Generally, the demarcation is very rough compared to other fighters of the day. The P-40s with multicolor camo had fairly sharp edges, due to the use of standard patterns to mask it off. RAF aircraft had edges that were a bit softer, but were still fairly tight. It didn’t take much distance between you and the airplane for the soft edge to merge into a hard one.
But the tri-color scheme had an obvious “spray gun” look to it. No wonder really, as fast as the aircraft were coming off of the production line. One account of the Hellcat I read a few years ago said for a period during the war, one aircraft rolled off the line every hour. These were machines of war, and were needed at the front. No matter how precious a modeler’s notion of color and design is, the hard reality was they had to be built, painted, tested, and sent out to the fleet as fast as possible.
Reproducing The Shark
Translating the scheme on to plastic at first seems quite an easy task. Just do some careful spraying, stick to the simple pattern, and you’re done. Yet I think even as simple as the scheme is, it’s deceptively simple. There are nuances that should be noted.
First, though it was obviously done in freehand fashion, resulting in a very soft edge, the width of the color transition is still fairly tight. Good clear photos in large format show a definite “overspray” effect, but its actual width is only inches.
A second interesting thing I see in looking at photos is the overspray from the wings and tailplanes to the fuselage sides. Given the nature of application, this makes sense. It’s a small point of note, but something I always think is neat. It reinforces the fact that these aircraft were being built for war – not to look pristine and precise.
Third, the pattern varied from aircraft to aircraft. While the basic layout was the same, some may have the navy blue down a bit further, or the demarcation between medium blue and white could be straight or with a bit of a wave to it. And it’s no wonder – individuals applied the paint. Each would have had their own method. And knowing human nature, I’m sure there had to be a few who left little signature marks simply to mark it with pride.
There are surely more notes that could be made, but these illustrate the main factors that must be considered in reproducing the scheme.
Arming The Palette
For the scheme, I chose three lacquer colors. The indersides would get a coat of AK Interactive’s Real Color White Grey (RC003). In painting white, I rarely use pure white for the bulk of the parts. Doing so leaves no room for highlights. If you paint anything pure white, and then paint something else a slightly cold white with pure white highlights, the latter will generally have more visual impact. Our eye likes contrast and shadow. By using the white grey, I left myself some space for a few pure white highlights where they might be needed.
For the medium blue color, I opted for Mr. Color 72 Medium Blue. While I’ve never been one to compare color chips and sweat FS colors, this one had the TLAR look (That Looks About Right) straight out of the bottle. While I don’t mind mixing colors at all, I’m no Mark Carder by any stretch… if there’s a pre-made color that is close, I’ll use it. (Note: I love watching Mark Carder’s videos… loads of color theory on display!)
The navy blue chosen for the task was again from Mr. Color, this one being #14 Navy Blue. As with the medium blue, it had that TLAR look. And because it was destined to be heavily weathered, I was more concerned with a durable starting point that was close rather than a dead-on accurate. Survivability means more than accuracy when weathering.
(By the way… how many color nazis does it take to open a jar of paint to begin airbrushing? It doesn’t matter. The color isn’t right. 😉 )
Practical Application Of The Blah Blah
I started the painting with the white. The reason is simple enough – the other colors cover the white easily enough, but white will show a bit of “shift” if applied over the others. Thinning the AK paint with the same maker’s High Compatibility thinner in a 1-to-1 ratio, I applied it evenly over the undersides in a few coats.
The color was painted up the sides also, essentially in the places where the medium blue would go. If the medium blue was applied over the gray primer, it would have had a more desaturated look. As I planned to weather it heavily, I wanted it to start fairly bright.
One of the beautiful things about lacquers is how quickly they dry. When airbrushing, a second color can be applied within minutes. This is made possible because the paint never actually cures… a touch of thinner will activate it at any time. (Which also means don’t flood the surface with the next color!)
He’s Got The Blues…
Medium Blue was loaded into the airbrush – a Badger Patriot Extreme with a .3 nozzle being the tool of choice – and it was thinned with Mr. Color Leveling Thinner. I’ve found the Mr. Color paints to be a bit thick straight from the bottle, so I like to thin them a tad more, generally being closer to the 2-1 thinner to paint ratio. The “eye test” still applies, of course, so ultimately I look for a certain viscosity visually than relying on a strict ratio. That color was applied next, using the Extreme Patriot’s adjustable airflow to dial things down a bit. This allowed me to develop a very tight, thin line of demarcation which I could then fill in. I was careful to be neat, yet not overly concerned about it.
In a few places where I had to spray at a downward angle towards the white, I either tilted the model so that its own shape would act as a mask, or I held a sticky note in place as a quick shield.
Once the medium blue was applied, I moved on to the navy blue, applying it in a similar manner to the medium blue.
Getting It Right
Quite often when I’ve looked at models using this three color scheme, I can fairly quickly pick out how it was handled by the builder.
Some are obvious freehand work, with quite a bit of overspray. This can be the result of several factors – paint that is too thick, air pressure that is too low or high, spraying from too far away, or using a large nozzle on the airbrush. Others show a “blue tack” type masking was used. This generally has a softer edge, and a nice look. However, it can be very hard to consistently spray at the best angle, and more often than not there are sections that show a variation in the angle of spray, resulting in an odd patch of softness inconsistent with the rest. Finally, a few I have seen show a hard-edged line where tape or paper masks were used.
And while all of these are valid methods – it is the individual modeler who decides what looks right to them. I’ve always thought that none of these methods as described came quite as close to the way the real aircraft looked. The real thing was painted by a person with a spray gun and bucket of paint. Get it done,
So while no method is perfect, barring being shrunk down to scale and painting it that way, I think there is a way to “tighten it up”.
Wrench On It ‘Til It Is Right (Or Close Enough)
A method I have used for years has been to go back after adding freehand camo and clean up the overspray. When adding a darker color over a lighter one, the darker overspray can be really obvious. However, if carefully applied, adding a clean-up step with the lighter doesn’t have near as much impact – the lighter one can be seen on very close examination only, if at all.
I started by cleaning up the navy to medium blue transition. I thinned more of the medium blue down, this time going quite a bit heavier on the thinner. Ratios may differ, but the goal is to not allow the paint to get to full opacity unless multiple coats are applied – somewhere in the ten coat range. This allows for fine control.
In a few areas, I applied tape or poster tack masks so that a spraying angles would not bite me. (The wing roots especially need this!) Starting a bit away from the demarcation, I slowly “walked the paint in, staying parallel to the line, and began to softly blend in the slight bit of darker overspray. Because of my vision, I actually had to wear my optivisor for this, but it did help me see things clearly. The key is to work slowly. Patience will be rewarded in this. I was shooting the paint so close at times I had to be careful not to let the tip of the needle scratch the paint.
Once the medium blue was applied, I used the white gray to clean up the white-to-medium blue demarcation, following the same routine. The final step in the cleanup was isolating the upper navy blue wing surface near the wing root. I wanted to make sure to cover all medium blue there, as the overspray visible on the real airplane was navy over medium blue just at the start of the vertical side. I’ve not seen examples of medium blue over navy on the upper wing surface.
Checking It Out And Moving On
Sometimes it can require a bit of “see-saw” work. Despite being careful in the application of one color, it’s easy to get too much on, resulting in the need to go back over it with the other color at the demarcation. Experience, thin paint, lower air pressure, and a steady hand will help reduce this. Still, it does happen. In a few areas, I had to do this.
However, always keep in mind the goal is not “how good does it look from 2 inches away when viewed with an optivisor”, but rather “how good does it look from 2 feet away. Getting it “close enough” under the microscope will result in a very good look from two feet. Plus, at some point you’ll need to eat, go to the bathroom, or sleep. Finding a satisfactory stopping point is a necessity. 🙂
Once I reached that point (I needed to eat…), a gloss coat was applied to the model to prep it for decals. The kit decals had national markings that I felt were far too light in the blue color, so I sourced some from the spares box that were darker. They are a tad bit small on the wings, but I had to make do with what was on hand. The kit decals – produced by Cartograph – behaved very nicely. I did feel that the white could have been a bit more opaque, as the darker blue definitely shows through. Prior to weathering I’ll touch them up with a bit of paint… carefully applied.
Close Enough For Government Work
The real Hellcat rolled off the production line with a single purpose. Combat. From the nature of its engineering to the way it was painted showed that it was designed to be rapidly produced, tough to shoot down, dominant in performance, and had to bring the pilot home alive. While not the fastest, most manoeuvrable, or even the sexiest fighter the US ever produced, it was in all aspects more than good enough to get the job done.
In a way, that’s how I view painting this model. A modeler could worry themself to death trying to get it perfect, yet perfection was never the goal. Getting it to a solid TLAR stage is very much in line with the real thing. By starting a bit loose, and then tightening it up a the end, a very nice, pleasing, and visually realistic look can be achieved in short fashion.
The next step will be what I’ve been looking forward to all along – weathering this Hellcat! They became exceptionally grimy and weathered, so that process should be a lot of fun!