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Making Waves

Some thoughts on water in scenic displays of ship models

In two-dimensional representations, such as paintings or watercolours the translucency and reflectance of water surfaces are rendered by washes, reflected hues and highlighting. The same applies to solid surfaces, where in addition cast shadows would be rendered as determined by the assumed source of lighting. In principle this can be done also on three-dimensional models or scenic representations. It would demand, however, that the model or scene is viewed and lighted always from the same point (which would be correct for true dioramas); otherwise the painted effects would be at odds with the shadows produced by real light sources or real mirror effects. Nevertheless, since in nature the light generally comes from above, surfaces pointing downwards can be painted darker and vice versa, surfaces pointing upward can be highlighted. Moderate highlighting can be also applied to points or ridges that would be 'shiny' regardless of from what direction being viewed.

Keeping these basic observations in mind, a way to represent the 'depth' and translucent qualities or water together with creating the impression of vividly changing reflectance is a challenge. Some (high quality) modellers suggest a sea carved or modelled in stucco  that then is painted and varnished appropriately. This approach can be quite satisfying, but depicting spray and the body of a ship shining through the water immediately adjacent is less easy to achieve. Some sort of transparent material is needed.

Some 25 years ago I had access to quantities of metacrylic molding resin and decided to give it a try. When the components have been mixed, the mixture has a rather low, almost water-like viscosity. After a few minutes a gelling process sets in; this is the moment when the 'sea' can be sculpted. Overall, I found the process not very controllable and quite messy and smelly. Also a considerable thickness of the material is needed in order to avoid distortion upon curing (with the ensuing problem of dissipating the reaction heat).

Once the resin had cured, wave crests and spray around the bow etc. were formed by two types of putties: a) a thick mixture of sugar (really!) and wallpaper glue, b) a thick mixture of salt (really!) and wallpaper glue. When dry, putty 'a' has more glassy appearance, while putty 'b' is opaquely white. The sugar and salt act as fillers. Wallpaper glue usually contains fungicides and biocides to combat fungal or microbial attack. To date I have not seen any deterioration. The putties where used as appropriate.

On the commercial market, particularly for railway modellers, there are various epoxy and - more recently - acrylic resin products to simulate water courses, that could be explored.

Acrylic acid emulsions or dispersions come in various guises and form the basis for various commercial products. Clear varnishes have been on the DIY-market for some years now and also have entered the realm of the average housewife in form of self-shining floorpolishes (usually with perfumes added). In more sophisticated (and more expensive) form they have also entered the market for artists' materials. A wide range of flat or glossy varnishes and 'media' are available. The term 'medium' here refers to a additive in artists' paints that give them the desired viscosity and the painting surface the desired texture. Thus, about 12 or so years ago I discovered artists' acrylic gel medium. As the name implies, this is a high-viscosity acrylic dispersion and it will set to a nearly water-clear layer without much loss of volume. Different brands with quite different price tags are available.

Based on this my discovery, I developed two techniques to represent water:

A) The 'sea' is sculpted in its major forms in , e.g. wood or plaster. After the surface has been sealed it can be painted. I used an airbrush or normal watercolour brushes for this. The selection of colours an their shades will depend on the geographical location and weather that is supposed to be represented. Careful study of photographs and the 'real' thing is recommended. For representing a rather rough and shallow North Sea around the UBII class U-boat I choose a dark blue and dark green airbrushed onto the sculpted waves with and against their main direction. This gives an interesting 'changé' effect and enlivens the sea when you view it from different directions. The whole was then sprayed with acrylic gloss varnish before the waterline model was placed into it. The narrow gap between the model and sculpted sea was filled-in with gel medium. Apart from not messing up the model with e.g. plaster this has the effect that the sea is translucent immediately to the ship's body, giving the impression that it is immersed in rather sitting on the sea. Then the bow waves and wake were modelled in gel medium. Several goes are needed because a too thick layer will run out. In the next step areas with spray or whirling water were painted in or dry-brushed using titanium white acrylic artists' paint. If you watch a water surface in nature on a day that is not completely without wind, you will notice patches that may be almost mirror-like, while others have a more rippled surface texture, which is caused by local gusts. This rippled surface texture you will also observe on a rough sea, say on the back of a wake. The final step in modelling the sea is now to stipple those areas that you want to look as affected by gusts with a bristle brush filled with gel medium. Other areas that you may want to look smoother can be worked over with gloss varnish, but spare those white wave crest, because in nature they actually look flat due to the finely dispersed droplets. It is, however, difficult to describe the procedure in detail. One has to work on it, until it seems to look 'right'.

B) A technique for comparatively calm and translucent water, such as in my tropical scenic settings, where one can actually sea or guess the seabed. For the scene with the Ellice-Island boat, the beach was sculpted in wood/plaster and then covered with pumice dust, glued on with acrylic varnish. Then man standing in the surf was fixed to the ground and layer by layer the water and surf built up from acrylic gel medium. The surface was then finished in the technique describes under (A). The Gilbert-Island boat, which is depicted sailing before a moderate breeze across one of the lagoons there is set into a groove cut into a piece of acrylic glass. It is of the fluorescent variety, which I thought might make an interesting effect. The small waves caused by the breeze were then sculpted using the acrylic medium and the whole scene finished off as described previously.

A final word:

When using different types of materials, once should keep their compatibility in mind. Thus artists work from 'fat' to 'lean', that is water-based undercoats or similar with oil-based paints on top. Or in other words: don't use acrylic varnishes on surfaces painted with e.g. modellers' enamels.


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