A common technique when painting is to apply a basecoat, the color that something is supposed to be, and then apply highlights and shadows. Highlights are a lighter shade of the base color and shadows are a dark shade of the base color. Highlights are often lightened by adding white to the base color or finding a color that seems similar to the basecoat but lighter than the basecoat and shadows are often darkened by adding black or finding a darker color than the basecoat. As I grew in figure painting I came to understand and view this process differently.
I have learned to understand highlights as the addition of light and shadows as the absence of light. Since light is not composed of black or white, these colors are seldom used. Instead, a blended gradient of color that represents the influence of light on a specifically colored surface that ranges from the presence of light to the absence of light is sought. An interaction also exists between the texture of the surface and the amount of light shining on the surface. As such, light looks different on a cotton garment than the metal clasp on the garment. Instead of the basecoat/highlight/shadow perspective, I learned to view the process as highlights/midtones/shadows that form a seamless gradient of light across a surface. Notice that the process is identified in the plural form that emphases the mixing of colors to form a gradient of color from light to dark. Somewhere in between light and dark is the actual color of the object
Methods vary to achieve the end result of a seamless gradient. The highlight color can be laid down first with progressively darker shades added until the gradient is formed. Some start with the midtone color while others start with the darkest shadows and color is progressively lightened. It seems that each modeling genre uses different methods to achieve the same thing. Pre-shading and the addition of filters is one common way that is used to create the gradient of light on different models.
In figure painting size does matter and the choice of tools used to create the gradient expands as the figure increases in size. Smaller figures require the use of brushes and as the model becomes larger, there reaches a point, where an airbrush can be used. With different tools comes different techniques but the goal, regardless of tool used, is to create the color gradient.
For me, I had to change the way I was thinking about painting models. I had to stop thinking about model rendering from the perspective of procedure and technique. You know how it goes: first I paint this, then I paint that, and then I shade and highlight like this. I had to start thinking differently. I started thinking in terms of color gradients and not individual colors. That switch in thinking led me to think about model rendering from a different perspective which altered my rendering process. Instead of being defined by the “tried-and-true” process, the desired outcome now dictates the process which has a multitude of methods available.
At our model club meeting I listen to people discussing how they render their chosen subject. Their description of the process describes the way they are thinking about modeling. So people will say things like “I wanted to add dust here” or “I wanted to show some wear-and-tear there” or “look at the rust I put on here!” When I hear these descriptions I think that modelers often think about the piece in terms of “things” on the piece to make it look like the real thing. Of course we want to make something look like the real thing. But what does a real thing look like? What we “see” are the effects of light on things. Rust, for example is composed of color and texture that represents an oxidation process that leads to metal degradation depending how long the rust is present and the type of metal being oxidized. What we are really doing when we render a model is reproducing the effects of light refraction on conditions, age, and wear-and-tear which forms gradients of color. The color of rust, for example may also differ depending on where it is placed on the selected subject. Wouldn’t the color be different if a rusted muffler was on the top of the back deck of a tank as opposed to near the ground and in the back of the tank?
Changing the way we think about the rendering process directly affects the rendering process by expanding options in the techniques used. I know, some of you might be thinking “I just want to build my (name of subject) and keep it as simple as possible.” The cool thing about modeling is that we get to do it the way we want to do it. Is it possible though that thinking about and doing something differently may actually be easier and produce cooler results? When our thinking is guided by our vision of a piece, technique is automatically modified to achieve that more “natural” look that we desire. For me, the look of my models changed when I started painting with light and stopped seeing the piece as a collection of “things” and painting with color.