Detailing and painting the GMM Ocean Liner Figures

By Art Braunschweiger


 (This section covers detailing procedures for the 1:350 scale photoetched brass figures
 from Gold Medal Models.  Available from GMM at







GMM’s Ocean Liner Figures are a nice option for the modeler who wants to add another level of detail  Your choice may depend in part on what type of a model you’re building, and there are a number of arguments both for and against their use.  


If you’re intending your ship to be more of a builder’s model, then adding figures may give it a diorama element that you don’t want.  On the other hand, they can add an element of depth to many models, versus having an empty ship.  The author’s ship is a waterline model, with the Titanic appearing as it did at anchor at Cherbourg.   Without any figures on deck, the model might appear lifeless and lacking an element of realism.  And for some, being able to add the human element is a big plus, especially since Titanic’s story was one of human drama. 


On the other hand,  "human life is an obvious part of anything in reality but in a model it (may) detract from the important thing at hand -the quality of an exceptionally well built model. You begin to focus on the little people -what they are doing, are they realistic, the quantity of them present, the quality of how they are made and you begin to distract away from the detail of the model itself . . . In seeing many different models in museums all over the place. the purity of a model without any people present always seemed to be a better representation than with them present.  In some of the instances where people were present, they almost gave a somewhat haunted impression that did not look too good overall”.  - TRMA member Ron Dominguez.  (Ron is quoted throughout this page from a February 2005 TRMA Forum posting on the subject.) 


In some cases, models with a large number of figures can appear cluttered. Many figures are often finished poorly, and can “detract from an otherwise well made model. Plus, getting colors ‘right’ in clothing can be very difficult too. Finally, there is always a problem with "posing" people to look natural and human. That is sometimes very hard to do. Look at old photographs where there are a lot of people standing around on a busy street. Their frozen movements are very low key and somewhat difficult to recreate.”


If you decide that the presence of scale figures would enhance your model, then the key is to have them well-modeled, which means that they have to look natural - in how they're painted and how they're posed.  Also, note that the GMM figures are manufactured flat, and need to be “fleshed out” for a more 3-D look.  They also require bending - they don't come posed, except for a few standard positions.    It should also be noted that the detailing and painting requires considerable skill with very fine detail work under magnification.  On a skill level of 1-to-5, it’s about a level 4.  (The bending and posing is relatively easy.)  But figures that are well-detailed and realistically posed can be very impressive and add a very unique element to your model. 


Still not sure?  Read on and see if it's for you.


One option the author considered was to use the GMM figures as-is, except for bending and posing, leaving them as unfinished brass.    The idea was to purposely have the figures appear abstract and ghost-like.  With every figure having the same uniform brass appearance, it might be a worthwhile alternative to consider if the use of figures appeals to you but the idea of painting and detailing does not.


As recommended by GMM, detailing and painting is best done with the figures attached to the frame.



Bending and posing the figures


The arms are the easiest parts to bend.  Most arms are attached only at the shoulder, and cut at the elbow to facilitate bending.  The figures will also bend very easily where they’re attached to the frame, so an arm can’t be bent without holding the torso.  The easiest way is to work with the sheet laying flat on the work surface, and then hold the torso down with the tip of a tweezers or knife point.  Then using another tweezers or knife point, bend the arm or forearm to its desired position.


The figures’ heads can be turned by carefully holding the torso in one set of tweezers (careful not to bend it off the sheet) and twisting the head with another.  The figures can also be twisted at the waist, but this requires more force. 


Except for the lower legs, which can’t be bent until detached from the sheet, all bending has to be done before 3-D detailing or the glue will detach from the brass.


Now a few words about giving your figures realistic poses and gestures.  As-is, from the sheet, the figures look too stiff and wooden.  That’s understandable; in order to be mass-produced, they have to have some uniformity, and they’re basically two-dimensional to start with.  But remember that people in social situations don't stand around woodenly. They're animated, they're laughing, gesturing, turning their heads, and everything else that demands that the discriminating modeler try to capture these in realistic poses. 


Too much activity can also look artificial.  To exaggerate a bit, if you have 8 deckhands coiling lines, 6 stepping through doorways, 5 starting to climb a ladder, and 7 saluting, it’s a bit much.  Same for the passengers.   All figures are etched in one of half a dozen basic poses, and these should be modified depending on the setting you have in mind.  If you’re modeling Titanic at sea, for example, no need to have 40 passengers waving with one arm.  (Who are they all waving to?)  Similarly, a large number of GMM passengers are etched with hands on their hips -- a good basic pose, but one that shouldn’t be overused.  In some cases, this may mean not using all the figures provided in a given pose. 


So consider the poses.  This may depend on your scene.  “You really have to concentrate on the "setting" in order to get the poses right. For example, if you showed people lining a deck as a ship is pulling away from the pier then you would have a lot of people waving, pointing, little groups of people turned towards each other, heads close so the other can hear amidst the turmoil and noise of the moment.”   If intended to be on the open ocean, the majority of your passengers on deck should probably be simply strolling on deck, gazing out to sea, or engaging each other in conversation.  


“Thought should be given “to the ‘identity and role’ of the person at that precise moment. It is all part of the psychology of body language and it needs to be included when you make people. If one lets their imagination run away with them a little, consider all of the circumstances you might have before you in your particular model. Here are a few to consider:

-Two or three people, huddled close together by a rail. Perhaps one has an arm around the waist of another. Heads close together as one speaks about something and perhaps points to something . . . Two others look in the direction of what the speaker is pointing too.

-Two passengers, women who are close together also by a rail but their attention and heads are turned towards somebody strolling the deck nearby . . .

-The "lost in thought" loner, who stands by the railing looking down at the sea all by himself.

-The frazzled deck steward who is stopped dead in his tracks by a couple asking stupid questions. One hand is on his hip as he considers the question at hand, the other hand points to an entranceway not far down the deck. The couple, completely confused and lost, lean close together as they face him, trying to understand . . .

-One or two deck crew, on a short break, stand on one of the upper decks overlooking the unfolding circus below them with a bored body language that says: "yeah, yeah, lets get on with this . . . "

-A young lady stands by the railing, lost in thought, gazing out at sea.  A short distance away a young man stands by the railing too, gripping the railing with both hands, looking at her alone while he desperately attempts to get the courage to walk up to her . . .

In every one of the situations I have outlined above, you have a precise situation where people are acting out very natural actions. Stop and consider a situation, put yourself into that action and consider how would you stand if you were in it. If you do this, the poses will naturally come to mind. I have created some of my best people by doing this. Make the situation "real" and the rest will flow naturally.”


How many human dramas you build in, of course, are up to you.  The point, of course, is not to overdo it by creating scenes bordering on the whimsical, but to give a realistic appearance to the people on deck based on what they're supposed to be doing.  Any figures used should be an enhancement, and not an attraction that diverts attention away from them model itself.  Keeping them realistic but low-key is important.


Heads on the figures, as noted above, are easy to turn.  Even in a group of three people talking, rarely will everyone be looking straight ahead.  Turn one or two heads slightly to impart more realism.


Next, gestures.  People gesture as they talk, and when walking or even standing, don’t hold their arms woodenly at their sides.  The arms are the easiest things to bend – so take advantage of this.  Some should be pointing, but others should have one hand gesturing as they’re talking.  Some should be gesturing with both hands.  Some should have their hands clasped behind their backs.  Others should have their elbows bent with their arms straight out, so they can stand in front of the rail with their hands on the teak.  Some can be made to shake hands, with others holding hands.  Be creative and as you adjust each figure, think “what is this person doing?”


Lastly, don’t forget about your benches.  A few figures should be posed sitting down.  To do this, you’ll have to remove them from the photoetched sheet.  It will also require a small pair of jeweler’s pliers and a suitable tool to apply the force necessary to make the bends.  A little experimentation is required, as the exact technique can’t easily be explained here without benefit of demonstration.  The biggest challenge is getting the bends at the waist and the knees in exactly the right places (the figures will want to bend at the weakest points, which are not the right points.).   And be careful; bending some figures requires considerable force – depending on what tools you have in your hand, use caution not to gouge one into your finger!


For the sitting figures, a touch of CA cement (Superglue) applied to their buttocks will allow you to temporarily fasten them to a bar of plastic so you can easily paint and detail them without handling them further.



Filing off excess flashing

(applies only to skilled fine-scale modelers who demand absolute accuracy in appearance.)


Some of the GMM figures, by nature of the photoetched process, have what can be best described as flashing along some of their arms, plus a ridge along the sides of the torso and legs.  For most modelers, this isn't a problem and can't readily be noticed.  However, extremely demanding modelers who intend their figures for very close inspection and/or absolute accuracy may want to take the time to file off this excess material.  Micro files are required for this.  One source is MicroMark in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.  



3-D detailing


Elmer’s Glue or similar water-based glues work very well.  Squeeze a small drop onto a glue pad or piece of scrap plastic sheet.  Using the pointed tip of  an X-Acto or hobby knife, pick up a tiny droplet of glue on the bottom of the very tip of the knife blade.  The droplet should not be much bigger than the figures' upper torso.  Hold the photoetched sheet so that the figures’ heads are to the right if you’re righthanded, and to the left if you’re lefthanded.  Then touch the glue droplet gently to the bottom edge of the torso (bottom of the dress for the female figures) and draw it gently out to the sides and up toward the head.  You will probably need a second tiny droplet to finish out the torso, and just a light touch for the head.  Keep the glue within the outlines of the figures, being careful not to fill in areas between the arms and torso, or between the head and shoulders.   Surface tension will work to your advantage here.  For best effect on the adult female figures, don't bridge the gap across  the waist.




Don’t be afraid to apply the glue very thickly to the figures – Elmer’s Glue flattens and shrinks down significantly after drying, with the original relief detail in the figures still apparent.  You may even want to do a second application if you’re not satisfied with the relief achieved from the first application.  More experienced detailers may want to attempt filling out the arms and legs too.  Be careful though, on estimating the thickness of the coating by looking straight at them – Elmer’s Glue dries completely clear.  View the figure from the side, or better yet apply a coat of paint to check. 


Remember to detail the backs of the figures as well as the front, although one coat on the torsos will probably be sufficient.  Women’s dresses below the waist can be filled out very thickly on both sides . 


GMM recommends Krystal Klear as a detailing medium.  It works the same as Elmer’s Glue, and has the same drying characteristics, but Elmer’s Glue comes in a convenient squeeze bottle.  One note of caution; Elmer’s Glue dries very quickly.  You will probably not be able to detail more than 2 figures before the Elmer’s on the glue pad congeals to a point where it’s too thick to apply.  It also dries very quickly on the figures.  Also, about every 10 figures, squeeze out all the glue in the bottle tip to ensure that what’s coming out of the nozzle is always fresh.





For the most realism, figures shouldn’t be painted in bright colors.  Two factors argue against this.  The first is scale effect, which causes colors to be muted and less intense over great distances.  For more information about this, read about scale effect in “Painting Your Model for the Greatest Realism.”  


Second, the reality is that nearly all passengers on deck would have had outer coats on. (This was the Atlantic Ocean, in early April.)  And for 2/3 of the passengers – 2nd and 3rd class – the outerwear was basically all variations of the same dark color - dark brown, dark grey, and black. The passengers inside, if you have any visible, well, there you can be a bit more colorful. But since you won’t see them easily – in fact not unless you’re actually looking for them – brighter colors won’t be a problem. Of course they’ll still have to be very muted for proper scale appearance.  Some first-class passengers might have appeared on deck without benefit of outerwear; their inclusion is up to you. 


Aside from the above considerations, “a darker color scheme also allows the people to "be there" without dominating the scene.” – a definite plus for the modeler.   Unlike colors for the ship, which were very specific, the list of acceptable clothing colors is almost limitless, or can be easily made by adding black to existing colors.  For modelers in the US,  Floquil paints, available in model RR shops, cover an impressive range of colors in the shades needed.  ModelMaster also has a good range of choice.  But remember, nothing bright!  That includes even black – Floquil Weathered Black, for example, is perfect for outer coats since its muted down several degrees from pure black!


Mixing paints for clothing colors need not be complicated or costly.  A few basic colors - which you probably already have for other areas of your model - can be used as a base, and tinted darker or lighter as required.   All that's needed are a few bottle caps and toothpicks - put a few drops of the base color in the cap, add a drop or two of the tinting color, and you have enough for a half-dozen figures.  Exact measurements aren't required, since you won't ever need to replicate the exact shade, and it's better if the figures all look a little different anyway.


For those modeling figures for the interior, James Cameron's movie is an excellent guideline as he went to great lengths to ensure absolute accuracy with clothing of the period, even with extras in the background.  The book James Cameron's Titanic is a very worthwhile guide, as it has a fair amount of still photos, and can be purchased for less than a dollar as a used book through  The figures are unfortunately modeled with exterior clothing on, but with a few exceptions - the females holding on to their hats, and the gentlemen with heavy overcoats - most figures can be painted with indoor clothing.  Also remember that for evening, all the first class men wore tuxedos - never jacket-and-tie. 


Last note – the color for skin (face and hands) is an important choice.  Too light, and each figure will appear to have a bright spot where the face should be.   Testors Wood is strongly recommended for the skin.  This may seem too dark, but anything lighter on the figures looks artificial. 


A set of micro paint brushes is essential.  MicroMark also carries these.  The full set shown in the link here isn’t necessary; the smallest ones can be purchased individually further down on the page.   Only two are needed:  one longer and one shorter, each in the slimmest, sharpest shape available.  Also, with brushes this size, the paint congeals rapidly - every few minutes, you'll need to dip your brush once into brush cleaner, and gently wipe it across a paper napkin to keep the tip fresh.  Acrylic (water based) paints are not recommended for this application as they dry too quickly, and the semi-dried paint on the bristles won't dissolve in water like oil-based paint dissolves in solvent.


For those who intend to detail any of the interior areas of the ship, the ship's crew and officers on the bottom row of the GMM sheet can readily be turned into stewards and waiters by painting them in the appropriate colors.  (Even for the deck, consider having a few stewards attending to the First Class Passengers in their deck chairs.)



Detaching figures and applying to model


After each figure is detached from the sheet, it’s recommended to gently file the bottom of the feet with a very fine file to make them flat – they’re somewhat pointed after being broken off from the sheet, and won’t cement to the deck very well if  they’re left that way. 


When you’re ready to apply them, place a drop of CA cement on your glue block, lightly touch the figure to the glue, ensure that you haven’t picked up a large droplet with your figure (if you have, wick most of it away with a tip of paper), then press and hold in position for a few seconds.


It’s recommended that you place all your figures out on deck before actually cementing them down.  This will allow you to distribute them properly and make sure each is in the right or in the right group before committing them to a spot on deck.  Because they are easily knocked over in their upright positions, they should be the final additions to your model after everything else is done.


A waiter serves two ladies sitting at one of the tables for the Cafe Parisién.