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How to improve your brush painting

Tips and tricks for quality hand-painted finishes
Published: October 6, 2010
As straightforward as brush-painting is, a few tips and techniques will make things run more smoothly. If you're new to modeling or just want to improve your technique, here are a few pointers to sharpen your brush-painting skills.

The tools

A few simple tools are all you’ll need to get started. Before painting the tires on my Monogram Indianapolis Racer, I gathered a couple of medium-point paintbrushes, an artist’s mixing palette, flat-black acrylic paint, paint thinner, an eye dropper, and a piece of tempered glass, 1. The glass palette makes holding small amounts of paint and thinner much easier, and the surface is ideal for mixing them.

When painting a model, it’s best to apply light colors before darker ones. I airbrushed the wheel-and-tire assemblies with flat aluminum enamel and let them dry thoroughly. I left the parts attached to the sprues, to make them easy to handle while I painted. After stirring the Tamiya flat black (XF-1) acrylic paint thoroughly with a toothpick, I transferred a small amount to the artist’s palette using the eyedropper. Often the paint-bottle lip is covered with a gummy ring of dried paint, 2.

Resist the urge to drag the edge of the paint brush against the edge of the bottle – that crusty, dried paint can find its way to your model and ruin your finish. Transferring the paint to the palette in this manner keeps this dried paint from ending up in your brush and on your model.

A second pool of the appropriate thinner is handy for keeping things flowing smoothly. Before you start painting, dip the brush in the thinner and let it moisten the bristles, 3. This will help keep the paint flowing smoothly from the brush and make cleanup easier.

Most hobby paints are the right consistency for brush-painting right from the bottle. Thinning them will make them less opaque, and you’ll have to apply more than one coat for complete coverage.

A little thinner can be helpful, though, when you have a fine line to paint. Each one-piece wheel has only a fine raised lip separating the wheel from the tire. Before applying black paint, I filled the brush with thinner and touched it to the tire at the wheel rim. Capillary action carried the thinner around the edge of the tire, 4.

While the thinner was wet, I dipped the brush in the black paint, and touched it to the tire and the thinner. The paint mixed with the thinner almost instantly, and capillary action carried it around the molded-in rim in a perfectly sharp line, 5. With the separation line in place, all I had to do was cover the rest of the tire with paint, working outward from the inside edge.

As I continued painting, I brushed the black paint onto the tire, using as few strokes as possible. As paint dries, it becomes stiffer. The more you stroke the drying paint with the paint behind. Using fewer strokes while the paint is still fresh and wet will help avoid this discouraging problem.

I painted slowly, brushing the paint back into the area I’d painted on the last stroke. This technique kept a “wet edge” on the paint as I applied it, and helped eliminate brush strokes and overlap marks in the finish.

Right after I’d finished the tire, the still-wet paint looked splotchy and slightly uneven, 6. As it dried, however, those marks disappeared, leaving a smooth, flat black finish

Paintbrushes

You'll find a bewildering array of paintbrushes at most hobby shops and art-supply stores. Though you'll probably collect dozens of brushes over the years, you'll only need a few to get started.

I keep a couple of detail brushes; a couple of round, pointed brushes; and a couple of flat brushes handy – they're the ones I use most of the time, 7. You might look for a "value pack" of basic paint brushes to get you started, 8.

I store my brushes in an old glass, 9. They should be stored with their bristles up above the glass edge so they don't press against the side and deform.

Some fine-point brushes have clear-plastic sleeves that slip over the bristles to protect them, 10. A "flag" made from brightly colored tape will help you find the sleep when it falls onto the floor.

Cleaning

Good brushes are an investment, and good care will help them last for years. Hardware-store lacquer thinner, 11, will clean brushes thoroughly regardless of the paint used; it's inexpensive in quart-size cans.

(Always store paint and lacquer thinner carefully, and wear the proper safety equipment when handling them.)

When I'm done painting, I swish the brush around in the thinner to clean it. Although you can roll the bristles gently against the inside of the container to help remove paint, never let the bristles stand in the container or grind the bristles against the bottom – they will lose their shape and the brush will be "blown out" and useless for delicate work, 12.

In the details
As with many modeling techniques, your brush-painting skills will improve with practice. Try a few different types of paint until you find one that produces the results you want. Before you know it, you'll be adding sharply finished brush-painted parts to your models, 13, and bringing even the smallest details to life, 14.

Brush-cleaning dos and don'ts

Good tools are a good investment – particularly paintbrushes. Have a variety of good-quality paintbrushes will help you turn out more-realistic models and make the experience more enjoyable.

If you maintain your fleet of paintbrushes properly, they'll last a long time. Cleaning your brushes is the most important step toward making them last, but you'll need to remove the paint carefully so you don't damage the brushes in the process. The tips of the brush does the most work toward helping you put the paint right where you want it, so protecting it while you clean is important.

The best time to clean a brush is right after your painting session, before the paint in the bristles has a chance to dry. Swishing the brush through thinner will remove most of the paint, and gently rolling the brush against the side of the jar will help.

Don’t let brushes stand on the bottom of a thinner jar . This is extremely hard on the bristles. If they soak long enough, the bristles will deform, and the brush will be next to useless.

After the thinner has removed most of the paint, gently draw the brush backward against a clean piece of paper towel to remove the remaining thinner and paint. Gently pinch the bristles through the towel to help dry them.

Don’t stab at the paper towel with the brush. Always try to maintain the shape of the brush as you clean.

When you’re satisfied you’ve cleaned the brushes thoroughly, use your fingertips to point the bristles while they’re still slightly wet. If you have natural-fiber brushes, you can rub a little hair conditioner into the bristles to help preserve them.

After you’ve cleaned your brushes, store them properly. Place them tip-up in a glass or organizer on your workbench to help protect their points and keep them handy when you’re ready to paint.

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