Conventional Wisdom?

When it comes to painting and putting the finishing touches on a model, there are certain widely held beliefs that, despite logic or critical thinking, have become required conventions. As in, if your model does not follow one or more of these conventions, then it is somehow “wrong” or “off” and perhaps, (gasp!) un-chic!

Now some of these conventions are as old as model building itself. For example, if you have a stationary ‘in-flight’ model posed on an incredibly unrealistic stick up its backside, well, you need a pilot in the cockpit pretending to fly it. It’s hard to argue the logic of that one. But other ‘required’ conventions have lived on despite credible photographic evidence, witness statements, and historical data. This makes me think two things:

  1. Do we, as humans, come to the point where we are satisfied with the information we’ve collected and we simply reject new or contrary information; and
  2. Maybe these conventions are not really about historical accuracy… Maybe this is really about generally preferred ‘styles’.

Trigger warnings all around! I’m going to discuss three scale model conventions that may not hold up to cold hard facts.

D-Day Stripes

For those who don’t know, invasion stripes are those alternating black and white bands painted on the fuselages and wings of Allied aircraft. The idea behind the stripes was for easy identification of friendly aircraft to reduce the chance that they would be attacked by friendly forces during and soon after the Normandy landings. Given the volume of aircraft that would be shoehorned into a narrow area, it was felt that navy and ground units would need an easy method to identify airplanes.

Stripes were applied to fighters, reconnaissance planes, transports, and on medium and light bombers. After D-Day, the stripes were removed from the tops of wings (at least for France-based aircraft) and eventually removed altogether by the end of 1944. They were never applied to heavy bombers.

The Convention is Perfection

Now let’s get one thing straight: Invasion stripes are cool. I love seeing them on models and truth be told, I really want to add one to add to the collection someday. I am not the only one who thinks they are cool. Take a look at box art on the shelves at the LHS. Take a gander at the tables at a show. Some of the coolest-looking non-Corsairs have stripes. I even like the yellow and black Suez variety.

However, in our little world, if someone puts invasion stripes on their airplane, the convention is they have to be perfectly applied. And I mean PERFECT. And what’s more, if they are not perfectly uniform, aligned, and flawless, they will most definitely be “wrong” and the builder will be appropriately shamed and perhaps beaten with a steel ruler. Nope, we want to be able to shave with our invasion stripes! Perfection is godliness. Anything less than the perfect edge is an affront to history and a horrible faux pas!

But in reality….

Keep in mind that most of these stripes, especially those done for D-Day were done minutes after getting a hastily communicated order. These stripes were placed on the aircraft at the very last minute by ground crews using whatever they had on hand: brushes, sprayers and there are stories about mops being used! Now feast your eyes on these and tell me how many are “wrong”:

So, if the real thing could be an absolute mess of misaligned and alternating widths (and there is plenty of evidence to show this) then why does this convention endure? Well, I think it is simply a style that people prefer. It’s like perfect grass patterns at the ballpark or level picture frames. People just like to see pretty things. Besides, as one very astute modeler pointed out: On anything but a very large scale, trying to replicate sloppy paint using a brush is only going to make your model look sloppy.

The Eternally Perfect Hinomaru

The convention on the Hinomaru, the Japanese red circle marking, is that of eternal perfection. As in, no matter what the condition of the aircraft, from brand-spankin’ new to its last sputtering days, the ground crew kept these markings fresh and bright red. There is some debate that even as late as August 1945, when these airplanes were just barely getting enough lift from their chipped, dented, and faded wings, those red dots were kept perfectly clean as a sign of respect to the Emperor.

I am not sure this one stands up to logic:

Admittedly, some of these pictures may have been worn out rather than captured combat aircraft. But, let’s consider the historical context. After 1943, when the allied advance picked up steam and the US Navy’s submarine campaign ravaged Japanese maritime transport. Simply getting food, fuel, and munitions to outposts was extremely difficult.

Was red paint that much of a priority?

Was it that much of a priority to repaint red circles while cannibalizing other planes to keep ever diminishing returning aircraft flying? Maybe it was. However, I am not convinced this was the case for all Japanese aircraft in all theaters at all times. Besides, I have seen both ‘styles’ of Japanese weathered finishes and I have to say: the ones with the weathered meatballs look far better than the ‘convention’ of new red dots on extremely weathered airplanes.

Crystal Clear Canopies

Now, what a pile of nonsense this convention is. I’ve seen these models everywhere: in magazines, shows, the socials, and at the LHS. All of these builds follow that impossible-to-believe convention that no matter what shape the airplane may be, canopies must remain factory fresh. There is to be no weathering of the canopy to match the condition of the aircraft!

Of course, the convention is way, way, way off. See what I mean?

Um…. well. Wow. I was really wrong about this one.

Turns out, the conventional wisdom was correct! Not to be outdone by these period photos (we all know only the best planes got their pictures printed!) I have also been all over looking for modern jet fighter canopies to dispel this convention. And all those canopies were flawless no matter what condition the plane was in.

So, um…yeah! Keep those canopies looking fresh!

I promise to never bring this up again.

Last Thing

There were a couple others that I thought up but I had some difficulty finding pictures to prove my point:

  • The convention that all panel lines on an aircraft have to be at uniform width and depth; and
  • That aircraft markings need to be perfectly symmetrical and in perfect alignment on both sides of the airplane.

Again, just like the invasion stripes, I think these are very much a pretty “style” requirement over any form of historical or prototypical orthodoxy.

If you can think of other ‘scale model conventions’ that may not be as accurate as we have been led to believe, I’d sure like to hear from you in the comments below.

Otherwise, this post might get me into some trouble, but what the hey. I’m here to make people think, spark conversations and maybe get the creative juices flowing. That said, if I spark some sort of scale model holy war, it has been really nice knowing most of you!

8 thoughts on “Conventional Wisdom?

Add yours

  1. Ah…styles and conventions. One of my favorite topics.

    Do we as humans reject information and facts that run contrary to our dearly held assumptions? Yes. CONSTANTLY. All the fornicating time. It’s a rare person who will drop their assumptions and theories in the face of PROVEN FACTS. Very rare.

    And yes. It IS all about styles. I remember when dry-brushing was the style. It finally got so overdone that finished models looked more like toys than a serious attempt to manipulate how the eye sees. Now it seems to be weathering. Things have gotten to the point where things are so weathered that they look more like an abandoned vehicle than one that’s just been parked between missions. Perfect hinomarus? Can’t speak to that because I will not build anything Axis.

    Panel lines. Another peeve of mine. As they are molded they are out-of-scale. Washes and shadings only emphasize that THEY ARE GAPS. In 1/48 scale, those gaps would probably be close to an inch wide on the real kite. I’m toying with the notion of filling them and drawing the places where panels MEET with a sharp pencil.

    I think that people aren’t interested in thinking. It requires effort to puzzle through something and though one would think puzzling through something is a builder’s metier, physical evidence indicates the contrary.

    What’s missing in both weathering and wear is subtleties. Like dry-brushing went from a handy technique to overdone and excessive, the present trend to make armor rusty and chipped all to hell seems to be following that path. Most tanks certainly didn’t last long enough to be quite that worn and weathered.

    So why are these fads so indulged in?


    Who are we modeling *for*? Judges? No thanks. Their grading is subjective and despite honest efforts to make judging more objective it’s not. I respect the hell out of those willing to stick their head over the edge of the trench and judge. I frequently question their acumen, having had models knocked out of the running when a judge adamantly states that “this is wrong” when in fact it’s not. Am I gonna argue with judging? Nope. I sincerely thank them for their time and willingness to discuss something with me…even if I KNOW they’re off the mark.

    Because I don’t model for judges. I model for me. I start with an image in my mind if what I want to accomplish and the closer I can get to matching the model to the image the “better” *I* judge that model is.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Ah, thank you for this stimulating topic for those of us who are into the esoterica of model building! For me, the issues you raise seem to involve two crucial factors: the skill level of the modeler and the intent of the modeler. (Probably pretty obvious, but still, let me explain!)
    I imagine that for people whose skill level is really, really high (and I don’t count myself among them, though I would you, Model Airplane Maker), it simply becomes boring to build another perfect little miniature, and so one goal that spices it up is to make the miniature as historically accurate and realistic as possible — whether you’re submitting to a contest or not. That additional layer of challenge keeps the hobby interesting. I mean, surely there are no philosophical or moral imperatives — no “right” way or “wrong” way at play here. It’s all a matter of taste and choice (and, hopefully, what’s fun and satisfying to do for each person).
    Which brings me to a modeler’s intent. Yeah, some folks are striving for accuracy and realism — that’s where the fun is for them, and I totally respect and enjoy seeing that. But others (and I do count myself among these) are happy making a miniature that looks cool sitting on the table or posing in a photo… as a model, not as an exact copy of the real thing. (Admittedly, my preference probably has a lot to do with the fact that my skills and patience just aren’t quite capable of achieving a perfectly realistic replica! And maybe too that I work in the smaller 1/72 scale…)
    So what looks cool on a model that isn’t trying to be a perfect replica: realistically slopped-on invasion stripes, or crisply executed stripes? The slopped-on stripes are definitely real, as I recently just happened to be reading this week in Rick Atkinson’s book on D-Day: “On May 29, SHAEF …ordered all eleven thousand Allied planes to display three broad white stripes on each wing as recognition symbols. A frantic search for a hundred thousand gallons of whitewash and twenty thousand brushes required mobilizing the British paint industry, and workers toiled through weekends. Some aircrews slathered on the white stripes with push brooms.” (p. 39) But for me, the crisp lines — for which, by the way, there is also plenty of photographic evidence — are simply what I want to put on my model. Sloppily brushed lines would probably just look like a mistake, if I tried it.
    Anyway, I appreciate the way you put topics on the table to write about. That’s my two cents’ about this one!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The D-Day stripes are situational. D-Day plus a few days, definitely [usually] messy. But as times passes into late June the stripes get tidied up. I bet I can find plenty of photos of good/great/perfect stripes. By the way, are you sure the Tiffie’s stripes are actually D-Day Stripes and not airframe recognition stripes?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. To answer your first question, oh HELL yes.
    To get to the wordy answer to your second question…

    Yes. It’s all about styles indeed. Prior to my present involvement in this hobby, the last time I built models was 1991. Dry-brushing was all the rage and it was everywhere. (How new this technique was in ’91 I’ve less than no idea.) It became so overdone that it looked more like outlining than enhancing. Upon my return in 2014 it was panel lines, preshading, post-shading, dot filtering, weathering and wear. And as it was with dry-brushing, these techniques seem to have everything but subtlety. Sure…generic grunge is a thing. Get a tank crew out in the field and then have them spend a substantial portion of their waking in time in the field and then get into something that’s painted white and yep…grunge happens. Rusted outer hulls? I’ve seen less rust on an old Sherman that’s been sitting outside for decades than I have on supposedly operational vehicles. I’m too colorblind to comment on dot filtering and I stumbled onto preshading on my own before I discovered it’s a Thing now. Panel lines? Really?! From my (ancient) memories of what actual aircraft look like, there are no *gaps* between fuselage panels. They meet. Y’know, like, touch each other without a space between them? And in 1/48 scale (I don’t build smaller than that), that gap is what…an inch? More? Dunno…but there isn’t a GAP. They. Touch. [Sidebar. I’m SO done with panel lines…and panel line washes…that I think for my next winged build, I’m going to either sand them all off or fill them all in and DRAW the sodding things on with a VERY fine pencil. End of sidebar.]

    So yeah. Styles. Fads. Gah. And I suppose that if I want to go egalitarian and stuff, sure. Go for it. But c’mon, y’all…SHOW SOME DAMNED SUBTLETY.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Regarding the crystal clear canopies, I remember reading somewhere that the glass on bombers had to be kept very clean, because a fighter coming at you starts as a small dot, and the crew wanted to be able to see it as soon as possible.


  6. Funny thing, now that you mention it, it seems that I keep seeing messy stripe edges everywhere now! Photo of a Typhoon… Actual painting sequences in a 1944 Normandy newsreel doc on Prime… Never noticed before. The perfect stripe decals do look a bit sterile now! 😉


  7. Interesting article! I think you could probably add color, or at least the way in which many people try to precisely match the original colors used on aircraft and AFVs. Color scaling is a real thing: if you use the same color on a small-scale model as was used on the original, it will look too dark. But no-one is certain how much lighter colors on kits should be – you can even argue that different scales require different shades of the base color. In addition, all paints react to exposure to weather and sunlight over time. An aircraft that has been in service for six months just won’t look the same color as a factory-fresh example. So, if you paint your Spitfire pink with yellow spots, it will look wrong. But if you use something that even approximates the original colors, IMHO, it should look just fine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s right. And I will add on one thing. The cameras, lenses, film and processing AND the varying quality of those things can make a color image look completely different from the actual airplane. That old “references!” standby can only be an approximation as well.


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