Design and Manufacture of Fine Scale Models by John Hunter and Laurie Green


by Laurie Green


When we build a layout or a diorama they seem to swallow figures. Even a small diorama like L.F.Wills seen here, which is only 5" by 10", has six figures in it, including the two out front, two inside and two out the back. A large layout can use hundreds!

Modelling in 'O' scale, there's no easy way to populate our layout or dioramas. Buying pre-painted figures, especially in 'O' scale, is prohibitive. It's not quite so bad in 'Ho' or 'N' scales, with plenty of commercial pre-painted figure sets available. The paint work is not that highly detailed in these sets, but it's not as critical in these smaller scales. When you model in 'O' scale as I do, the details on the figures are easily seen and require good paint work. This is especially true when you can get really close to the figures.

In this article I will try to detail how I paint my figures. This is only one of many methods that work, and I am always looking for ways to improve this art form.



The vast majority of my figures are un-painted white metal casting manufactured by Phoenix Figures (England), Artista (USA) and the The Model Company (NZ), plus any that I see that are about the right scale, era and pose that I can use. Keep your eyes open, as sometimes you see useful figures in the most unusual places! I haunt toy shops and keep my eyes open when I'm doing the supermarket shopping.


1. Parting Lines

Several things have to be done before picking up a paint brush. While most of the white metal casting today is of a very high quality, there is the occasional flashing that needs removing. As well, most model figures will need to have the mould parting line down each side. While this may not look prominent in the raw metal stage, it will stand out when the figure is painted, and needs to be removed. I use old, blunt modelling blades and scrape the parting line off. Sometimes a light file over the area is needed to finish the job.

 2. Making the figure stand up

To make the figures easy to handle while painting, to store while the paint is drying and attach to the layout or diorama, I insert a 'Peco' track pin, with their heads cut off, into a hole drilled into the bottom of each leg. I have found that two pins per figure tend to hold the figure into the ground much firmer.

3.  Preparing the figure for painting

If you paint directly onto the white metal, over time chemicals and other residues in the metal will leech through and turn the figure black. As well, the paint will not adhere well to the shiny surface and will chip off. To stop this effect, and to give you a good painting surface, stand the figure(s) in a block of foam and spray with a good quality automotive undercoat. These come in either white, mid-grey or dark grey. I prefer the mid-grey because if you miss painting a spot it doesn't stand out as much as the white.

TIP: Before spraying a commercial can of spray paint, stand in a container of hot water to warm the paint. The warmer the paint, the finer the paint particles will be, and the thinner and better the coat of paint is.



Up until recently I have used thinner based 'HUMBROL' paints on my figures. They have an excellent range of colours and I had used them with good results for many years. It was convenient to use this brand because a local toy store kept the full range, especially in the matt colours which I use, and I could easily call in a buy a colour when I needed it. When they closed down, I decided to change to water based 'TAMIYA' acrylic paints, and have found them to be as good as the Humbrol paints. However, the final choice is yours. Use the paints that you feel comfortable with, and that achieve the results to your satisfaction.

2. Brushes and their care

Always use good quality brushes bought from an art supply store or from a hobby shop that carries good quality brushes - be careful as there's plenty of cheap brushes around that look good until you use them a couple of times. A good quality brush should hold its fine point after being used quite a few times. These brushes aren't cheap, so look after them. Use clean water to clean then in, and when you have finished a painting session, clean the brushes in warm water with a couple of drops of washing detergent in it. Never leave them sitting in the water as this will distort the fine bristles, and when not being used, store in a flat position where the bristles will be protected.

I normally have on hand three brush sizes - 00 (finest), 0 (middle) and 2 (the largest I use for figures). The size 2 is used for the larger areas like clothing, while the size 0 is used for smaller areas such as the face and hands, while the 00 is only used for those small details such as facial features, belts, bracers, buttons etc.

 3. Figure Holders

When painting a figure, it is far easier to hold them by the pins inserted in their feet. This allows free access to all the figure when painting, and enables the paint to dry before we have to handle it. I have two different holders and these can be seen in the photo opposite.

The top holder is a 4" length of 1/2" dowel with a hole drilled in the top (right end in photo) just bigger than the pin size. A small piece of 'BluTaK' is then stuck over the end. A figure can have one of it's pins inserted into the hole, with the 'BluTaK' gently holding the figure in place. The bottom (left hand end) has a large nail with its head cut off sticking out of it. I have a set of 8 of these, plus a length of wood with 8 holes slightly larger than the nail, so while I work on one figure, other figures can be drying. This is especially useful when painting several figures at the same time using the same coloured paint.

The bottom holder in the photo is a  'Jewellers Vice'. The figure is held in the jaws of the vice by the two pins. This tool is made from steel and is reasonably heavy. This is useful when doing the fine finishing details on a figure as the weight helps the vice remain steady in your hand. When holding the vice (and the dowel holder as well), rest your forearm, hand and the bottom of the vice on the working surface. This will ensure that the figure will not move or shake while you paint the fine details. As well, I rest the forearm of my painting arm on the work surface to make it stable as well. This will form a very stable triangle.


Note: All the paints listed here will be TAMIYA full matt paints with the colour code in brackets. If you use other brands you will have to cross reference to the nearest colour or use the colours you prefer or that suit the era and location of your modelling.

NOTE: The photos of the figures below are about twice actual size.

I think we are now ready to paint a figure. We are settled in our comfortable modelling chair with a cup of coffee handy. The figures are prepared, the paints are laid out and our brushes are ready to go.

I have a fairly set sequence in which I paint my figures. I normally have up to 20 figures to paint at the same time. I have gone through and fitted the pins, cleaned up the parting seams and any flashing, undercoated the figures and they are sitting in a block of foam ready to go.

Step 1. The Eyes (for larger scales like 'G' scale)

The eyes are the most critical area on a figure and I always do them first using the 00 sized brush. The main reason for this is the white of the eye can be applied in a rough area, and a black area for the pupil - a sharpened tooth pick is great for doing this. The flesh paint can then be applied, painting over the white to form an eye opening (see diagram right).

Step 2. Faces, Hands and other fleshy areas

I normally paint all the flesh areas, such as the face, hands, legs (if bare) etc. on all the figures at the same time using the 0 sized brush. This saves time as they are small areas and I can mix up enough flesh colour to do all the areas. It also allows time for the paint to dry before going to the next stage. I also think that finishing these areas first gives you enthusiasm to keep going.

I think most of the commercial flesh coloured paints are too pink, so I mix Flat Flesh (XF-15) with a small amount of Flat Earth (XF-52) and a bit of White (XF-2) to get a more normal base flesh colour. Keep mixing until the colour is about the same as the back of your hand (assuming you are white and healthy!). With this base flesh colour, paint all the flesh areas on the figures. When the paint is dry, and using the 00 brush, I start to apply the shadows on the face, such as under the chin, under the eyebrows and down one side and under the nose. I do this by adding a little brown to the base flesh tone, then thinning the mixture and washing the colour on these areas. Again using the 00 brush, and using the original flesh tone with white added, I dry brush this colour onto the cheeks, the chin, and down the nose. These shadows and highlights give the face a three dimensional effect, much like make-up does to an actor. On the hands and arms I highlight the back of the hand and the front of the forearm. To complete the face, using the 00 brush, and some brown paint with a little water added, paint on the eyebrows (and a moustache ), and a wash across the lips. The hair can now be painted to the desired colour. Again when this is dry, I dry brush a lighter shade of the hair colour to highlight the hair.

Step 3. The Clothes

Now that all the figures have their faces and other flesh areas completed we can make a start on the clothes. The colours you choose for the clothes will very much depend on what era and location you model. I model the central (Colorado) and western (logging in Oregon) U.S.A. in the late 1930's to the mid 1940's, where most of the clothes were working types such as denim and other strong working class materials ,which were mostly blues, browns and greys. Greens are also handy colours to have available. Thus that is where most of my palette is.

I now divide my figures into four groups - those with mostly blue colours, which includes most of the railroad workers , those with mostly brown colours, those with mostly grey colours and those that don't fall into the first three sections. These could be women in different coloured dresses etc.


 Paint the clothes in the order that you would normally get dressed in.

This is done for the same reason as painting the eyes was done above. It's easier to paint the top layer of paint up to the previous layer. Thus, I start painting all the shirts on the figures. These are mostly White (XF-2), Light Blue (XF-18) with white added, and Grey (XF-12) with white added to suit. There is the occasional muted red, green or darker blues. The example here will have a white shirt. This figure's shirt is easy as the waist coat covers most of it.


Paint the shirt area with the white paint being careful to achieve a nice clean edge with the neck. Don't worry about getting paint on the waist coat and jacket area. We will paint over this area with the next layer. If the figure wasn't wearing a waist coat and more or all of the shirt is seen we need to do a little more work. I will mix a little of the grey into the white and thin with water, to make a thin wash of off-white. I then wash a thin line down the shirt join, under the arm pits and in any folds in the shirt. By doing this, the shirt starts to take on a three dimensional look. Soften any hard edges to achieve the soft material look.


Most waist coats in the era that I model were black, often with brass buttons. If you can see the back of the waist coat, they were normally a silver material. For this area I use Flat Aluminum (XF-16) in the folds and down the join to give the coat some shape. A tooth pick dipped into a drop of Gold Leaf (X-12) paint  will highlight the buttons on the waist coat.


This figure looks more like a normal worker rather than a railroad worker, so I will use brown colours for his jacket and pants. These don't look like a suit so I will vary the colours used. Flat Brown (XF-10) with an addition of a small amount of the German Grey (XF-63) will be a good base for the pants. After painting the pants and allowing it to dry, mix more German Grey (XF-63) to darken the base coat further and paint into the folds and shadows, like under the coat bottom edge. Dry brushing some of the straight Flat Brown (XF-10) onto the highlighted areas like on the thighs, knees and fly will complete the pants. While the pants are being painted I will paint the cap in the same colours.

The jacket can be treated in the same manner with a slightly lighter brown like Flat Earth (XF-52) with some Flat Brown (XF-10) added, remembering to add the highlights and low lights in the shadows.



As you can see from the article, I follow a set sequence when painting figures. It can be summarized as follows:

  • Paint the flesh areas such as faces, arms and legs on all the figures to be painted

  • Paint the shirts and other details on the shirts on all the figures being painted.

  • Divide the figures into their basic clothes colours.

  • Select one of these colour sections and paint the clothes and boots. Repeat for each section.

  • Select each figure individually and complete the final details and touch ups where required.


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