Not even close.

Not even close.

I’ve hammered away on the theme of deliberate practice in past blog posts but for this one I decided to lead by example.

For those new to the blog, deliberate practice is an advanced way of learning a new skill. In essence, you make an attempt with the new skill set, then stop and analyze the result, looking at what worked and what didn’t. You then repeat the process many times while incorporating the knowledge gained with each analysis. Practicing this way accelerates the learning process more efficiently than doing mindless repetitions.

For my deliberate practice exercise I focused on applying thin washes of color to styrene test pieces. For the exercise, I cut a piece of scrap styrene into several four inch squares and used burnt sienna oil paint and odorless mineral spirits for the color wash.

My objective was to build up an even wash on the test piece.

For my first attempt I placed a dap of the oil paint of a folded paper towel, dipped my brush into the undiluted color and then into the mineral spirits and blotted the brush on paper towels to remove the excess. The results were mediocre.

In my second attempt, I wet down the styrene, then dropped the color wash onto the wet surface and left ┬áit to dry completely. This produced a more satisfying outcome but still fell short of my goal. Attempts three and four were variations on the first two that incorporated the lessons learned. All four attempts fell short of my goal. Here’s why.

As a perfectly smooth, non-absorbant surface, unpainted styrene is a poor candidate for this technique. The wash will just sit on the surface until the carrier liquid evaporates, leaving the pigment behind. It doesn’t matter if the wash is oil or water based, the result will be the same.

Additionally, if there’s too much liquid, it will tend to pool near the edges of the test piece and the color will concentrate in these areas. These factors among others render this technique totally unpredictable in this application. Although I haven’t tried it yet, I suspect that a coat of primer, a fixative or a layer of paint would greatly impact the working properties of the wash by giving it something to soak into. Of course using the wrong type of thinner to create a wash on a paint layer will likely result in a disaster too.

Used under the right circumstances, many thin layers of color can be built up with this method, giving the most subtle tones and variations imaginable and this is what I want to get to with the technique as it applies to modeling railroad subjects.

In some ways I’m re-inventing the wheel in these experiments. I’m doing them to gain some insight while I’m waiting on the arrival of a new book that will answer my questions about the right approach to this technique.

A mere four attempts at something hardly constitutes an intensive learning regimen, let alone mastery, and yet I have learned a great deal from these simple practice exercises. I plan to continue with them in preparation for future weathering projects because they are a low risk, high value alternative to ruining a good model.



  1. Marz

    “A mere four attempts… hardly constitutes an intensive learning regimen.., I have learned a great deal from these simple practice exercises… because they are a low risk, high value alternative to ruining a good model.”

    Gold Mike, absolute Gold.

    Deliberate practice does not have to be a labor or time intensive activity. Just some simple refresh of techniques before you apply it to model pays dividends beyond compare.

    The Airbrush (not limited exclusively) is probably the most abused tool in the modellers arsenal, the learning curve to its proficient use is often relatively easy to achieve, but mastery is another thing altogether. We accept mediocre and substandard results with its use, but with deliberate practice, mastery and artistic effects are not too far beyond reach. But how often do we as modellers actually practice airbrush technique, none I guess, I am guilty of it myself.

    I guess as modellers, any time available for modelling is used just for that, rather then spend even a small portion of that time to reacquaint yourself with techniques not practiced over several months and dive headlong into the project. Yet as you have highlighted, “four attempts” was all it took to look at the process objectively and artistically. It is that deliberate practice that is also one of those intangible elements that we fail to perceive as an adjunct to our pleasure and endevoures of our modelling.

    There is an old saying that “practice makes perfect”, so imagine the results and standards we are all capable of with “deliberate practice”.


  2. Nigel

    Hi Mike,

    I like your approach of developing your techniques in a no risk experiment.
    The other side of the coin regarding your colour washes is that your ‘fail’ in achieving an even colour has given you a potential weathering technique for a future project. I agree that idealy you really need to have a matt surface to retain the wash. I must admit that I really like washes because of the slightly chaotic but natural weathering effect that can result.

    Following on from Marz’s comments about airbrushes. This is an area where I’ve found continual skill development is essential. I have centainly got close to ruining some models, thankfully they’ve been salvageable. I have also realised recently that being able to get going with the painting with a minimum of messing about helps me overcome some inertia and aids the skill development.


  3. mike

    Hi Marz,

    Several good points here. Yes, I agree that many people have limited snippets of time for their hobby and see anything but obvious forward progress as a waste of valuable modeling time. However, these are often the very same people who lament over a simple mistake or setback that could have been easily avoided, begging the question: what time was actually saved?

    I also tend to model in fits and spurts and after a long absence from a project, I probably spend the first 30-45 minutes just getting reacquainted with the project and my working mindset. This is why I spend much time making careful notes during a build. Looking my notes over gets me up to speed quickly and actually saves time I’d otherwise waste on re-inventing things or wondering what I did to date.

    Your other point about the standards we fall into versus those we could achieve with just a minimum of extra effort is spot on. I’m always dumbfounded by comments about how great a hobby this is; how much people love it. Oh, how much fun it is and on and on. Then in the very next breath: “Anyone know how can I do it as cheaply and with the least amount of effort possible?”

    Am I the only one who see the disconnect? What am I missing here?


  4. mike

    Hi Nigel,

    Yes, I was fighting a losing battle against physics in applying the wash on plain styrene. It was the first time I’ve tried the technique and was a total experiment with no expectations, other than to see what happened.

    My own airbrush skills are very hit and miss since I just don’t do it that often. I want to learn some of the advanced weathering techniques used by military modelers and I have lots of scrap styrene to practice on.


  5. Nigel

    Hi Mike,

    I felt my airbrush skills were very hit and miss too. I also used the airbrush fairly rarely. Out of frustration I decided to build a mobile painting bench/cabinet that could be rolled outside so that I could get stuck into some painting whenever the weather was good (which it is at the moment). The benefit has been that I’ve spent an hour airbrushing after work for the past few evenings. I’m certainly not up to advanced weathering techniques but I’m getting on top of the basics. The airbrush is blocking up less often too!


  6. chrismears

    I like the deliberate practice approach and more so, sharing how you’re doing it. What a great chance to learn from others. Reading the post, I found myself reflecting on my reactions to it and then perhaps what started as your own practising extends to a collaboration if I try something based on what you shared. That’s cool.

    What a terrific example of what a modeller can do to be productive in the hobby in a very short time. This is something a modeller could do any time. It could be done quickly and the modeller grows as a result and also gets a bit of that “…hey I did something on the layout and didn’t just waste the time in front of the TV feeling.”

  7. mike

    Hi Chris,
    Welcome to the blog. Little experiments like this are a great way to learn and build confidence. I liken it to building a small mockup of a building or track plan, in that you’ll see things that you never would in just two dimensions. Further, a piece of scrap material is the place to experiment and fail with a technique, not a model you’ve invested hours in.

    Still modelers will seldom do such exercises, seeing them as a waste of time taken from the “real” work. The reality is, the so-called real work benefits immeasurably from these time wasting little exercises.

    And, I remind everyone, please sign your comments as a courtesy to all.


  8. mike

    Hi Nigel,

    That’s a great idea Nigel. Part of my problem is the lack of a dedicated setup to safely airbrush indoor. Like you, I do such work outside when the weather is suitable, which involves getting the equipment out, setting it up, prepping the model; mixing the paint, all for five minutes or less of actually spraying paint. Then comes the clean up and putting everything away.

    I’ve always felt a more permanent arrangement might reduce the time on either end and, encourage more use of the tool with less frustration. Perhaps I need to listen to my own advice and get on with it instead of complaining.


  9. chrismears

    I’ve never understood the reluctance toward practice under the excuse, as you point out, that it takes time away from real work. It saves time.

    Sorry about the lack of signature. I’ll fix that starting now.


  10. mike

    Don’t give it a second thought Chris. You’re not the first by a long shot.


  11. Jeff Meyer

    Mike, if I’m understanding what you were attempting, you are really trying to do a “filter” and not a wash. A lot of people in model railroading just call everything a wash. Technically a wash is when you use a bit thicker mix of paint and thinner applied to a glossy surface, so the wash easily flows into recessed areas and does not stand on flat surfaces. A filter is a very thin mix, sometimes 10% paint to 90% thinner, and is applied to a matte finish. Using a matte finish, will give the model some “tooth” for the filter to soak into. It’s almost like you’re lightly staining the surface of the model. As you said, by doing this, you can build up subtle layers to give slight variations in tones. For a recent grime filter I did, I used one small drop of black oil paint, one drop of raw umber, and one drop of burnt umber. The paint is placed in a small glass dish, and then I add mineral spirits, about 1 part paint to 10 parts thinner. You’ll have to mix it up, and even when working you’ll have to continue to stir it, as the paint will settle at the bottom. It goes on very thin, but you have more control this way, as you can build up layers. Each coat will need to dry for about 10-20 minutes before you follow with the next.
    As to practicing new techniques, I agree 100%. Half the fun in this hobby is trying out new techniques. I have an old gray hopper I call my practice car, and there are probably 20 different mediums and techniques I’ve tried on it.

    Hope some of this helps you with your future weathering. – Jeff Meyer

  12. mike

    Hi Jeff,
    Welcome to the blog.

    You’re right, I was attempting a filter, not a wash. I’m just beginning to explore the different weathering techniques used by military modelers and I’m still learning the correct terms.

    I understand the need for a matte surface now after reading various resources, most notably Mike Rinaldi’s excellent Tank Art 3. It’s an outstanding guide that demonstrates there’s far more to representing a weathered paint finish than most model railroaders will ever know.

    Thanks for the tip. I’ll share further progress soon.