My latest film, Genre Neutral involved a wooden bookcase as part of my set design. I wanted to make this look as realistic as possible, but bog-standard balsa wood doesn't cut it. So, how exactly do you pimp your wood up to look like real wood but on a miniature scale?
Plain balsa vs painted balsa
Here is an example of the difference a good paint job can make to your work. The wood behind is untreated balsa, it's very pale in colour and well you can tell it is balsa wood. Sometimes that look might work for what you need, but often a more realistic finish makes your miniature piece sit more comfortably in your little stop motion world.
So, how do you paint balsa to look more realistic?
It's essentially a three-step process, beginning with the type of wood you are trying to mimic. Rosewood is different in colour to Mahogany which is different in colour to Oak. Choose your wood and look for the brightest tone within it. In my film I was going for a Beechwood look, and deep within beechwood is a sort of orangey tone.
STEP 1: I began by mixing the colour I saw with acrylic paint: yellow ochre with a touch of lemon yellow, a splash of burnt umber and a sprinkle of cadmium red added in.
Once you have the tone you are after paint your balsa all over, no need to water it down a lot at this stage, a solid even coat is perfect.
Let this layer dry for a couple of hours.
STEP 2: Next up we want to mix a darker tone, the darkest colour you see in your wood reference. For me this was a deep dark brown colour.
For this layer you want to really water down your paint. Brush it all over your wood and this dark colour will sit into any indents and wood grain that your balsa has. Dab off any excess paint with some paper towel and leave this to dry overnight for best results.
STEP 3: Finally you are looking to pick out the lightest colour in your wood, mine was a creamy off-white shade.
Mix your desired colour and don't water this down. You'll want to load up a dry brush with just a little bit of paint. Brush it onto a sheet of paper towel first to really get only the minimum amount left on the brush. Now sweep that light colour across your balsa pieces so that it catches some areas and starts to variate the colour.
Try to avoid leaving your balsa wood bare, avoid solid coats of colour if you want a natural wood look too. Follow the 3-step process outlined above to re-create your wood look on a miniature scale.
To finish things off you can add a sealant or varnish as an option extra, again this will depend on the look you are after with your specific piece of work.