Colour Brushulation: A Guide to Slow and Inefficient Brush Painting of Tiny Tanks (part 1)

Small scale (for example 1/100) model tanks can be painted very quickly. Usually they don't have that much surface or detail to take care of, and a couple of easy steps can result in a nice looking vehicle.

Tiny tanks can also provide concentrated scale modelling experience full of rewarding experiments and exciting transformations. Their size makes the process forgiving and, in the worst case, the result won't be that hard to hide somewhere.

In this series of posts I invite you to take it slow and see what kind of scale modelling fun tiny tanks have to offer. Today we are doing colour modulation with a brush.

Pic. 1 Three 1/100 model tanks on a palm. Hours of fun and tons of discoveries behind each of them.

I already have a somewhat established process of painting small scale soviet armour, and for this reason a 1/100 SU-100 from Zvezda is a perfect demonstration model. Of course, with some alterations in the paints used, the techniques discussed below are applicable to tanks of any nation and even time period... and frankly to almost anything. Finally, what I show here is just my findings, you are more than welcome to experiment, swap, skip and alter the steps, let me know how it went if you do!

Now on to the business, let's start with the motivation.

What Makes a Model Look Good?

Surely there is no one universal answer to this question, but, in order to make justified choices while painting our models, it's better to have some considerations about what is a good/bad looking model tank.

If we paint our tank using only one plain shade of green (as it was usually done in real life) we'll soon find out that it loses definition way to quickly when looked at from increasing distance. Meaning it becomes hard to make out the detail or even identify the vehicle. I don't like when this happens, that's why my first consideration is that the model's shape should be easily recognisable and distinguishable.

A model is a representation of a real object. While making a model of something, we usually want it to resemble the original as closely as possible, for example by recreating it up to the last rivet. But it is not the only way to get an impression of a real thing from your model. In general large number of small details makes us perceive things bigger and more complex than they actually are. I personally go with what ever feels right: even if a detail (or a technique) is not mechanically or historically accurate, but it adds to the overall impression of a lived in vehicle - I consider adding it. This way my second consideration is that small details make big impression, it's worth making sure they are visible.

Pic. 2 On this model a rivet, a hatch handle, a hinge and a fuel tank cap can look like circles of roughly the same diameter, which is not accurate at all. Still, when emphasised, together they create a believable look. The stowage, such as the jerrycan or the saw, in addition to breaking up the uniform look, make our mind come up with stories of how these ended up on the vehicle. And we, humans, love stories.

It is a rule of thumb to have three rules in every list, but I think we are good with just two:

  • emphasise the shape of the vehicle;
  • keep all the details, even the smallest, visible;
To direct our efforts in achieving these goals, I did some schemin', find the result below.

Turn On the Light

One of the reasons why a 1/100 tank painted plain green doesn't look as good as a 1/1 one does is that small surfaces reflect less light. Indeed, a front plate of 2 square meters may look as if it is 2 square centimetres from a distance (which would correspond to a 1/100 scale model). Still in reality it is bigger, which means more light is hitting it and more photons fly towards your eye from it (at least this is how I imagine it, let me know if you have a better idea).

So the first thing we might want to do to make our tank look more real is to paint it in a lighter colour to simulate more light hitting it. This is great, but the problem of shape definition still holds. For now we just achieved our tank looking like a slightly brighter spot of colour.

To define the shape and details of a vehicle, modellers came up with a number of techniques. Starting from quick and easy Drybrushing up to Color Modulation which allows to almost control the shape the model appears to have. If you want to find out more about those and get an additional view on the matter of painting 15mm tanks, please, see articles of a top guy Ruben Torregrosa aka HeresyBrush: Lighting StylesColour Modulation.

In this guide I try to paint every panel of the tank in such a way that it is lighter at the top, from where the light is cast, and darker at the bottom. In some cases I divert and rearrange the colours in such a way that every two panels are easily distinguishable from one another. I paint horizontal surfaces in the lightest colour. Later in the process I weather the model so that the higher horizontal panels (such as roof) appear lighter than the lower ones (such as engine deck). This is what it may look like:

Pic. 3 Left: four-colour modulation applied to the cabin. Every panel, including the hatch receives an individual treatment. Note how much of the surface the two mid-tones cover: the second darkest about 90% of the panel, the third darkest about 70%. Middle: the same idea applied to a horizontal cylinder. Right: hierarchy of horizontal surfaces. Making higher planes lighter we make the whole model look taller.
This approach can be seen as a hybrid between Colour Modulation and Zenithal Lighting, but I don't think terminology is important here. It is time to try this on a real model.

Painting - Shape

Colours To establish the modulation effect I painted colour transitions on every panel with four tones of green. You can buy a fitting ready modulation set for your vehicle or hand-pick four paints which nicely vary from very dark to very light from your own collection, as I did (dig through the pictures of ready sets on the internet and the Links section below for references). I used a bunch of Vallejo paints (unfortunately I have lost my notes and for this reason I am not sure about the last two colours, sorry):
  • Model Air 71.043 - US Olive Drab
  • Panzer Aces 326 - Russian Tankcrew 2
  • Model Color 70.821 - German C. Beige (~)
  • Panzer Aces 332 - Highlight Japan Tkcr. (~)
Technique The prospect of making multiple colour transitions may seem daunting to many painters. However, fear not! As you are about to see, 1/100 armour is very forgiving when it comes to the quality of your transitions, especially if you are going to use oils later in the process (which we are). The only thing you should avoid doing, if you follow this guide, is deliberately painting hard horizontal borders between every two colours. Come up with your own way to smoothen the transitions or experiment with some of these techniques:
  • Making uneven borders between colours, for example through hatching (see the image of the flat side of the cylinder on Pic. 3);
  • Painting intermediate layers between colours. Mix the two neighbouring colours in different proportions (one, two, ... as many transitional tones as you are comfortable with) and apply them one after another between the two main ones. Make sure your paint is thin and the areas of the main colours correspond to your expectations;
  • Using transparent paint and applying every new colour in multiple very thin see through layers;
As you will see below, my process is a combination of the three. I am sorry that for this guide my WIP photos are neither numerous nor of high quality. If I ever start another series I'll do my best to improve the situation.

First I apply the darkest shade of green over the whole model, making sure to cover even most recessed areas. What I really don't like to discover while taking final shots of my models, is primer still showing from behind a stowage box. 

After that I apply all the other colours in order: from the darkest to the lightest. I want to keep the overall look of the model quite light, therefore the last two tones take a considerable area, see Pic. 3 and Pic. 4.
Pic. 4 Left: the second darkest colour applied to the side panel. The paint is quite thin and still wet. I use semi-transparent layers with rough edges to smoothen the transition. Note how little of the previous layer is left visible. Right: the third tone applied. Note, again, the transitions and how the model starts to come to life. I tried to make the contrast between the side and the front panels stronger by concentrating the light towards the top left angle of the former.

Pic. 5 All four tones applied, the approximate borders between them are shown with the dotted lines. Use this picture as a reference if you need some inspiration, but feel free to adapt the technique as you please.
With this we did our best to emphasise the shape of our vehicle. Now it is time to take care of all the small details, we really want them to pop!

Painting - Details

After the previous step it is much easier to make out the shape of the vehicle even from afar, however the details are still somewhat lost. To make them pop we are going to paint them in a very light colour, lighter than the one we used for the last highlight. This is where things get a little weird. 

The easiest way to get a colour for the details is to add a bit of white or light buff to your last modulation highlight. For this model I decided to conduct a small experiment and selected a lighter and colder green from my collection (it gives a good contrast because the rest of the vehicle is done in dimmer and warmer tones). Later in the process I am going to apply oil filters to the model (which is much more fun than what we are doing right now) and they will help even out all the unwanted contrast and tune the overall hue of the green (right now the model leans a little towards beige instead of green).

Now all you need to do is to paint all the small details, such as hinges, caps, handles with this new colour. On 1/100 models I also tend to paint small hatches with it. This is what my SU-100 loos like after this step.
Pic. 6 Colour Modulation done: the shape of the vehicle is clearly readable and the details pop up so much that my eyes hurt. If at this stage you think that the model is ruined -- most probably you are on the right track. Don't forget that with oil paints we will be able to tune the contrast and make the armour look the way we want.

Let's Have a Break

And we are done with the colour modulation. If you were following the tutorial -- congratulations! The most tedious part of brush painting 1/100 armour is done. From now on it is going to be more and more fun: freehanding markings, oil filters, washes, chipping and dust, so don't give up!

If you have any comments, corrections, suggestions or you just enjoyed reading this post -- let me know, it will make the next part of the tutorial appear faster and, hopefully, better! Thank you!


Here are a few links to materials that helped me work out my current way of painting 1/100 armour, check them out if you liked my post and/or want to know more:


  1. Very nice article and thoughts. I completely agree with the idea of paying special attention to the small details to bring these tiny tanks to life!

    1. Thank you Ruben, I am very glad you dropped by!

  2. Such amazing detail brought to life with your painting skills on such small vehicles
    cheers John

    1. Thank you for the kind words, John!

      cheers Oleg

  3. Now that’s a real corker Oleg! Concise and on the point. I’m never quite comfortable with my airbrush, so I might give it a try with your method. Now I’m looking forward to your next articles in the series.

    1. Cheers, Nick! I am glad you liked it!
      Painting colour modulation with a brush is a nice adventure, I recommend doing it at least once. You are either going to have a lot of fun, or new motivation to practice with your airbrush.

  4. Lovely work. I've been in the process of improving my painting during the lock-down and have taken up glazes, filters, and washes as solid techniques over a zenithal prime, which can be done without an airbrush with only a little additional fuss.

    I've found that starting with the lightest colour and modulating the tone by applying darker colours can also be useful way to approach a small model.

    Here's a link to my recent accomplishments that are not as stunning as your work, but I'm making progress:

    1. Thanks! Great to hear about people wisely using the lockdown time!

      Zenithal prime (and pre-shading in general) is a very interesting technique. I love that it makes us use natural abilities of paint (such as creating semi-transparent coats) as an artistic tool. Going beyond treating acrylic paint just as a MS Paint brush tool is amazing! I didn't work with this technique much, but I'd love to at some point.

      Starting with the lightest (or second lightest) colour for colour modulation can be indeed very useful, especially if you want to get a very bright colour in the end. Starting from the darkest shade, on the other hand, helps ensure shadows where they need be.

      Thank you for the link, very nice mechs! I like your neat application of colours. In combination with your careful washes it gives a very crisp look. The gentle tone variations of the green are also very pleasant. The glossy (satin?) finish seems to distract from them a little, but it's a matter of taste. I would probably recommend to use matt varnish on bases to create a natural contrast of different materials: soil and polished metal.

      Thanks for the input!

    2. You're right about the satin finish. I don't know why they look satin given I used Testors Dullcote over them. They look matt'ish under normal viewing, but when I light them for taking a picture the satin sheen appears.

      At some point I will have to start practicing chipping to get a more weathered look.

      Anyway, thank you for the kind feedback.


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