Sunday 3 May 2009

Olive Grey

The Zero colour saga rumbles on - with an understandable confusion on the part of some modellers faced with apparently two conflicting determinations, separated it seems by the Pacific Ocean, of just what the elusive "olive grey" looked like.

The current situation has not been helped by incomplete or unequivocal derivatives, which has led to the somewhat reckless bandying about of terms like "ameiro", "tsuchi iro" and "hairyokushoku" at various websites and in various publications.  A recent "summary" in a model magazine was a dog's breakfast and would have led the uninitiated straight up the garden path before you could say . . . well, . . . "ameiro".  Osprey's guide to modelling the Mitsubishi A6M Zero is slightly confusing, managing to conflate the terms "tsuchi iro" (earth colour), "grey-green", "ameiro" (amber or candy colour) and "hairyokushoku" (ash green colour) into one generic colour and providing a printed colour chip reminiscent of RAF Dark Earth - although the actual paint mix suggestions are fine. 

All of this has led to a situation where the question is still being asked reasonably and answered imperfectly, depending on the conviction of those getting involved. As usual, it is difficult to distinguish between fact, conclusion and opinion. The colour most frequently depicted by the Japanese being the "traditional" grey-green represented in several Japanese hobby paint ranges and the darker, more olive-khaki (if not tan) shade favoured in the United States. It is a generalisation of course but it seems as though the Japanese are attempting to represent the likely appearance of the paint when new whilst the Americans are replicating the current artifact colours literally. 

Even the most advanced of modern polyurethane paints intended for critical external applications are provided with warranties that guarantee no more than a Delta-E colour shift of 5.0 over a period of 40 years. That is approximately equivalent to the colour shift difference between Thorpe's N9 Medium Grey and FS 34201, which coincidentally is the closest "match" at 5.40. In the case of the artifacts we must consider 1940's nitro-cellulose paints with organic and/or synthetic constituents, which have aged 65-70 years. One of the established factors in the ageing of paint, especially nitro-cellulose derived paints, is a "brown shift". Over time the paint looks darker and browner, even if the original colour was a warm, slightly brownish grey to begin with.

It is worth a reminder that whilst we know, or think we know, the appearance of the factory paint colour on the extant relics, there is little or no evidence for what that colour was officially called, if anything

It struck me, looking at the 1970's box art for Bandai's 1/50th Aichi D3A1 (ex-Imai) that the concept of the warm or olive grey may not be just a recent product of revisionism at all. Bandai's unknown artist has recreated the 'Val' with something approaching a convincing fidelity. The warm, slightly greenish grey is much more apparent on the original than in the scan here and it is nowhere near the light, bright grey - almost off-white - that we think of as so typical of 1970's representation. OK, it is not the near-tan khaki "grey" suggested by the extant artifacts but I would not be ashamed to paint a model to imitate the box art. Bandai's artist might even have seen the aircraft in real life and he certainly captures the slightly oily-looking blue-black of the cowling paint convincingly.

The earliest LS 1/75th A6M2 kit was molded in a greenish grey plastic that is almost identical to that used in Fine Molds recent masterpiece, supposedly based on the colour of the original.

A recent "buzz-phrase" seems to be to ask for a "consensus" when determining paint colours for modelling purposes, as though there is some learned committee charged with establishing what is acceptable and what isn't. Ssssh! No-one really knows for sure and the consensus is more often than not just a flavour of the month which may be as far from the reality as Osprey's memorable hybrid. Take heart - be not afraid to plough your own furrow.

Image credit: © 1970's Bandai 


Pat Donahue said...

My compliments on a well thought out view of the subject and looking at it from a chemical/ aging/ enviormental aspect in addition to the actual "color" and how things may have changed down the time line. Consensus and fact are 2 very different things.

Mark Smith said...


You mentioned that "Bandai's artist might even have seen the aircraft in real life," and I think that contemporary art of the period is a source we might have sold short. The old Players cards, and other cigarette cards, that I have seen of English aircraft of the 20s and 30s usually showed authentic markings such as squadron markings and even serials, and reasonably faithful colors even considering printing limitations (and these are colors that most would say we can be much surer about for RAF planes)...and why not? Certainly most artists are normally at pains to present what is seen. and in two dimensions, color takes on great importance for the image to be convincing. The desire for authenticity couldn't have started with Shigeo Koike!

The period color paintings of Japanese types seen on this site are good examples; as you have pointed out, often careful attention seems to have been paid to subtleties of color. Another example you mentioned was the box art (from the same period as the Val's) on the Tamiya 1/50 Ki-43-III box...which is looking more cutting-edge all the time! Maybe I should have done as originally told, and respected my elders after all...

Another, unrelated thought I had when reading this was that when my parents first took me to what was then called "The Nimitz Museum," in its early days in the 70s, one of the exhibits was labeled "a piece of a Japanese Zero shot down at Pearl Harbor," my first exposure to any JNAF relic. Whatever it really was or wherever it came from, though the aotake color was recognizable (and intriguing) the other side of that little twisted mass had a strong caramel tint, and was dark enough that I immediately distrusted it could have been from a Zero. I may have been young, but I was an IPMS member, and I knew what color Zeros really were at Pearl Harbor!

"Consensus" has been a busy bee since then.

Thanks for this interesting post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Nick for a very thought-provoking essay!

What I have found so curious after so much passage of time and the wide-ranging discussions of this issue is that no one seems to question why the gray paint samples found on so many Japanese aircraft relics (excluding the Zero) and which are truly gray or gray-blue and still so well-preserved that they remain glossy, have continued to remained gray or blue-gray!

Apparently, the glossy gray paint color found on the metal parts of other aircraft did not age or change to that notorious olive-gray or tan-gray color found on Zero relics and other Mitsubishi and Kawasaki products.

We also see many, many examples of other colors on a host of aircraft types, both IJN and IJA, which have not changed hue ... or at least no one has challnged these colors! For example, the bright reds are still red; the dark-greens, which fall into two or three general ranges of dark green as found on IJN aircraft; and the whites which sometimes appear white or sometimes a very pale tan!

The "gray" paint color apparently only "changed" on the Zero relics!!! And the controversy continues to focus only on the illusive true color of the Zeros! It would seem that "only the paint applied to Zeros" has been affected and resulted in this huge range of hues ... from white-gray to pistachio-cream, to the warm olives and tans. I suppose this is an enigma which will never be solved to everyone's satisfaction ....

The enigma is that it appears that only the paint applied to Zeros came in so many varieties of hue and/or only this formula of paint was affected so greatly over the years by aging, UV-rays, etc.

Maybe someday a glossy-gray paint sample will also appear on a metal Zero relic.

Yes indeed ... color by consensus is the only way to go and I have now reached the stage where I urge all to follow the dictum ... "if the color looks right to you, then it is right!


Jim Lansdale

Straggler 脱走兵 said...


Forgive the awful pun but I think you may be in danger of viewing the essay in terms of black and white where there are in reality shades of grey!

Just to clarify, the two "schools" of belief I have crudely stereotyped here are not the old "blue grey/whitish grey" vs olive grey but the more modern Japanese school of interpretive grey-green (typified by Tamiya's new XF-76 paint) vs the literal acceptance of the current full-scale appearance of the olive drab/brown. The dividing lines are much narrower than before. Hopefully this will become clearer in considering the characteristics of the cited colour values in more detail.

The inevitable age related colour shifts can be subtle, acting in a colour space that is already subtle, and which do not necessarily involve a hue change. These aspects will also be addressed in more detail in the next examination of olive grey.

Colour shifts are also highly dependent upon types of pigment and particularly in combination with other constituents such as binder, additives, etc. You have touched on some of the possible variations but it can be difficult, if not impossible, to attribute these to production paint batch variation, surface variegation introduced by application methods, environmental conditions or treatment, and/or ageing considerations.

The glossy surface of stored paint samples is no indication that colour shift has not occurred. The molecular structure of the paint can alter over time and chemical interactions can occur without the surface lustre changing significantly.

For a good overview to better understanding the factors affecting paint deterioration I recommend the Canadian Conservation Institute's treatise 'Light, Ultraviolet and Infrared' by Stefan Michalski. In terms of your comments about inconsistent colour shift I can do no better than quote directly from Mr Michalski:-

"Light fades (or "bleaches") colours. Those colours that fade can disappear within as little as a few hours of direct sunshine, or just a few years at low museum lighting (e.g. some felt tip pen inks, some colour photographs). Those which do not fade may last centuries in direct sunshine (e.g. ceramics, Minoan frescoes). All coloured objects fall somewhere between these two extremes.

"UV causes yellowing, chalking, weakening, and/or disintegration of materials. Chalking of paint media is often mistaken for pigment fading.

"There is some overlap in the forms of deterioration caused by light and UV. Light (especially violet) can cause some of the disintegration and yellowing listed under UV, but only in a few materials, and only very slowly in comparison to UV. In turn, UV does contribute to the fading of colours, but its contribution becomes dominant only for colours that are durable to light."

Mr Michalski goes on to explore controlled fading experiments which make it clear that the process is dependent upon the colour fastness (or otherwise) of individual pigments. Thus not all colours are equal in this respect.

He also explains the yellow/brown shift caused by normal or thermal ageing which is dependent not just on the type of pigment(s) but also the chemical and molecular changes brought about by interaction of materials over time. The subject of colour and paint is not a level playing field when it comes to determining all these changes and in fact the exposure = fading vs storage/thermal ageing = darkening/yellowing are paradoxical.

The starting point in this consideration is a paint which the contemporaneous evidence suggests was of a warm or slightly amber grey appearance to begin with. But it was described as a grey - not a khaki, olive drab or brown. The probably unanswerable question is how closely (or otherwise) the current appearance of the artifacts represents the colour of the original. Understanding the factors that can introduce change to their appearance is a valid aspect in the individual determination of what that answer might be. In the absence of a definitive answer that individual determination is preferable to an assumed consensus. The colour shifts involved are subtle, but because of the nature of the colour space occupied they only have to be in terms of changing (sometimes significantly) the perception of the characteristics of the colour. To a lesser extent the same considerations apply to an understanding of the nature of the Luftwaffe RLM 02 and the colour of the Israeli S-199, both of which occupy similar colour space.

The purpose is not to draw a line under the discussion but rather to open it to all the considerations necessary to assist in the informed decision making of those individuals interested in the subject. It is in that sense entirely equivocal and the only agenda is in the interests of colour science over colour opinion.


Anonymous said...

Thanks again Nick!

It is painfully obvious that no two color samples may ever be dead-on ... even when found on the same aircraft within a section a few centimeters away. As I have so often discovered when I try to paint a repaired section of a wall in my home applying the same paint from the same can I had used only three-years before!

On a related matter, which I forgot to mention before. I have now personally examined two copies of the KariKi No.117 in the U.S. ... one discovered by Bob MIKESH at NASM many years ago and one I located at NARA. I have also compared the color chips from my set of color chip samples cut from an original set of the JAPANESE aircraft color standards of 1945 (No.8609) to the studies of OWAKI-San, SUMMER-San, and WATANABE-San. All of the colors remain essentially unchanged and compare to one another fairly closely. The color shifts, if apparent, are very slight.

I find it so curious that all of the gray shades ("L" ranges) on the KariKi No.117) and the blue-gray to gray range (2-1 ~ 2-7) on the Stadards No.8609 remain the same over the years. None have shifted from gray to olive or tan!

Some folks will certainly debate this until the cows come home and hopefully, out of all the debate, some final resolution will come. However, as you know, I have become very pessimistic about such a final resolution coming about within my few remaining years.

Until then, I will continue to provide fodder for this debate by reporting on all the colors found on JAPANESE aircraft skin I am able to examine and leave the explanation as to why and how these colors have shifted over time to others more knowledgeable about such matters than I.


Jim Lansdale

Straggler 脱走兵 said...

Thanks Jim.

Olive Grey II explores the subject further and demonstrates how the current Japanese/American "divide" is actually a very narrow one.

I doubt that there will be resolution this long after the events but hopefully there will be a little more circumspection (and equivocacy) on the part of everyone about the value of the artifacts in helping us to visualise their original colours and more understanding of the possible influencing factors when attempting to draw conclusions about them.


Unknown said...

Hi Nick,

Thanks for pointing out the conflicting use of the Japanese terms. I was good and confused from reading so many different articles that used the terms differently from each other (sometimes conflicting within the same article!).