Basic Skin Making and Bare Metal Effects for IL2-FB
This tutorial covers creating bare metal effects, making weathering
effects, as well as the basis of skinning. Some parts will be more useful
to some people than others.
Skinning a plane in IL2 Forgotten Battles can be daunting. Not only in
terms of skill and know how, but also in hardware and software tools
required. I hope this tutorial can be a waypoint on both fronts. The most
important part of a first successful skin is just sticking to the project
until your happy.
I'd like to start by saying that tools should not be focussed on to
strongly. Most popular graphics packages are more than capable of fine
work. Many are avaliable for under $100 US, and there are always bundled
packages, where hardware includes a piece of software that is usable for
skinning. Photoshop Element 2.0 and Paint Shop Pro 7 are good, popular
examples. I've used a dozen similar programs in the past decade that were
nearly as good, but cost less or were free, like the GIMP. On the hardware
front, a mouse is quite useable to paint a skin. Some of the more delicate
details will require carefull overlaping of strokes to get nice feathers,
but its not as easy as using a pressure sensitive pen tablet. A few models
are around $100, with sizes generally about 4x5 inches for the working
area. More expensive models have drawing areas from 9x12 inches and up.
Smaller pads are fine for skinning.
For this tutorial I used a Wacom 4x5 (about $100) inch pressure tablet and
pen, and Photoshop LE, which came in the box with the tablet free. I've
used it for about a year, and have yet to be let down.
The skills involved in painting a skin vary with each artist. Be
meticulous, or relaxed. Its your call. I tend to work fast and a bit
sloppy, cleaning my mistakes as I go. If I can cut a corner without
sacrificing the intended project quality, I'll do it. A preject is
generally finished after about an hour of work. That's how this tutorial
is written. I hope to show you how to get an effect using the minimum
steps required. I'm aware that there are always faster and easier methods
for anything I'll show here. But old habits are hard to break, and my
relearning might take longer than making the skin!
About void files and templates
Before you begin skinning, you'll need either a void file (from the
Forgotten Battles install) or a pre-made template. This tutorial will work
with either, adjusting for what you have. I haven't used a template to
make a skin, so I can't comment to much on them. If you like them and they
work for you then use them. If you don't have (or there aren't) templates
for the plane you want to skin, it's no harder really.
Void files from the Forgotten Battles in stall are used for getting the
details onto the paint surface you make. Most of these voids are 1024x1024
pixels in size, and have a white or grey background. The biggest issue
with voids is the difficulty in determining where each part of the plane
is in the image area. Many are quite easy if you have no reference, others
are quite broken up around the image area, making for more testing. The
easiest way to figure out where the parts of the plane are is to just look
at another skin for the same plane. Whether found in the folder with the
void or on the web, you can get along way by studying the work of other
skinners. Always work from a copy of the original void file!
About plug-in filters
Using a plug in filter to get an effect is fast and easy. It's just not
very flexable. The only filter you need to do this project is "Remove
White". The version I use was made by Mr. McLaren, and is avaliable at :
This one filter makes even the less powerful software titles much easier
to work with. Why? Well, the more costly programs allow alpha channels
(white transparency) for layers, while the cheaper ones I've used don't.
With Remove White, you get the same effect as an alpha channel, with
couple of clicks. Remove White requires a special step for skinning,
though. Since the filter takes all white out of the image area, only lines
on nothing remain. Some of the solid areas of the void loose density as
well. To get the image useable and still transparent, you must place a
white backing layer underneath the void layer. You can paint on the white
backing layer, or on layers above it, just remember to have a white layer
in some form on the bottom to keep things looking right.
Lets get to work
Open your graphics software and open a copy of a void .bmp file. I'm
making the bare metal P-47 Razorback shown above. Before any layers can be
created, you'll have to convert the void to RGB color. In my Photoshop LE,
this is found at [ Image : Mode : RGB color ]. Now you can name and
arrange the layers we'll use for the skin. The layer arrangement I use to
start is pictured here.
To get to this point, you'll need to:
- Convert the void to RGB color.
- Use the Remove White filter on the void. (you need to download and
install it first)
- Rename the void from 'Background' to 'Void'. (otherwise no layer can
be behind it)
- Add a layer named Base White. (as mentioned above)
- Add a layer named Paint + Detail.
- Drag the Void layer to the top of the stack.
- Drag the Base White layer to the bottom.
You'll notice in the photo that the Paint + Detail layer has two
icons. The second icon is a layer mask, that shields the parts of the
Void layer from changing tone as color is applied to layers beneath. To
add a layer mask, I select all the areas of the Void layer that I don't
want to be modified in the final skin. I use the shift key to select more
than one area at a time, until all the desired parts are selected. Now
invert the selceted areas with the command [ Select : Inverse ]. Then I
press the first left most button at the bottom of the Layers tab shown
above. In other programs, it may be slightly different. Done! Now I can
paint freely on the Paint + Detail layer and not affect the masked areas.
To make a bare metal look, I filled the Paint + Detail layer with a medium
grey. The skin now looks like this...
Now we'll move to shading the flat grey paint behind the void, to give
some basic dimension and depth to the plane. There's a couple of ways to
do this part of the project. The most common is to add a new transparent
layer above the grey layer, and use the airbrush tool to add highlights
and shadows. You can also use the airbrush directly on the Paint + Detail
layer. Some designs are best worked on by placing each section of the
plane on a separate layer (upper wings, lower wings, fuselage, etc.). Let
the design of the skin determine which method to use. If the skin has
several colors then using separate layers for each color/plane part is
best. For monochrome colors, working on one just one layer is easier.
To place a part of the plane on its own layer, just add a new layer, name
it, and select the area you want to paint with the Lasso or Marquee tools.
Then paint on the new layer. Do this for each part you wish to be
separate. You can also add a layer mask the same way mentioned above to
each of your parts layers. This can be a big time savings, and prevents
the paint from one part overflowing to others. As a note on layers, take
your time to name each layer for what it is. If you are going to place
each part of the plane on a separate layer, your layer stack can get messy
fast if you don't take care to be neat with it.
Since I'm doing a bare metal effect, I'll use just the one layer in this
tutorial. Doing this involves some risk, since any mistakes that aren't
undoable are now stuck on your only paint layer! If your software allows
multiple undo's then you're lucky and its not so bad. I don't have that
luxury, so I sit with my right hand (I'm a lefty) on the "Control Z" keys
on the keyboard. After each stroke with the pen I check to see if all is
well, control Z and retry if not, I move on if yes.
For this metal skin, I'll use the Dodge and Burn tools to shade the grey
in the Paint + Detail layer. Use a light pressure, and use a large brush
for more subtle shading. I made a custom 200 pixel feathered brush to get
a very soft effect. I worked like this:
- Select area to be shaded with Polygonal Lasso tool.
- Dodge tool set for 'highlights', use large brushes, light pressure,
to shade in large patches. (don't get detailed yet! no brush smaller
than 35 pixels!)
- Burn tool the same settings as Dodge for shadows.
- Move to next area repeating the above for each panel. (I didn't save
the mask for each part. I just reselect again with the Lasso)
This is my result...
I know it looks like a giant leap from the flat grey, but its nothing more
than dodge and burn with brushes sized 35 to 200 pixels. The detail the
Void layer adds to the appearance of extra work being done. This is what
the Paint + Detail layer looks like with the Void layer hidden. Always
amazing how simplistic it looks alone.
Metal reflectivity effects
Now for the details on the marks I made on the skin and why. Since this
skin represents bare metal, the reflectivity of the material must be
considered. Making a grey color and hoping for a shiny metal will only
look like a grey plane! If the metal is shiny, then it has several
properties that must be simulated. Glare, mirroring, and environmental
reflections are all a part of the surface we see, yet these are dynamic
components of the surface, changing with light and angle. In the numbered
picture above, each number points to an area that is explained below.
- 1> These areas are lightened to simulate light reflecting from the
- 2> These areas are lightened to simulate light reflecting from the
tail and fuselage.
- 3> This simulates light reflectivity/glare from the shiny bomb racks
that are centered in the white spots on the model.
- 4> This simulates mirroring, showing the wing's reflection in the
fuselage and tail. (This is amazingly real to my eye on the model)
- 5> Broad flat lightening to show a shallow, randomly reflecting
- 6> More intense lightening is used at the sharper edges, since
there's a tighter radius of reflecting here. (Edges are always
- 7> Along the top of the fuselage and tail, slight lightening is
used, with more intensity near the very top of the plane.
Try to imagine how lighted reflective objects behave. Like when you
place your hand in near a white wall in the bright sun, theres nearly a
reflection on the non-shiny wall. Thats the reason behind the highlights
at numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 in the skin. Look around for examples of this
and try to recreate it in your skins. I always take a camera with me when
I'm out (now a Minolta Dimage S414). Take photos of things that are useful
for visualizing these effects. Only by seeing and studying how this
happens in the real world can you simulate it well.
You should be careful when highlighting a skin. The Forgotten Battles game
engine has certain limits that it uses when determining a glare on a
surface. Once a color reaches a certain 'light point' it will be turned to
pure white when there's glare on the model. In general, I find its better
to have subtle tones leading to a narrow highlight area. This way, as
little of the paint as possible is lost in glare. Notice that at numbers 4
in the photo, the shade quickly goes pure white, since I wanted the game
engine to glare this 'simulated reflection' area earlier than the rest of
the fuselage. Remember this when placing and sizing your highlights.
Testing the skin
At this stage, Its smart to check the skin in game to see if things
are going well. Any errors are easiest to fix at this early stage. To
check the skin in game, save a copy of the skin as a .bmp file, then
open that .bmp file, reduce the color depth to indexed using the command
[ Image : Mode : Indexed Color ]. I use these settings for Indexed Color
- Palette -> Adaptive
- Color Depth -> 8 bits/pixel
- Colors -> 256
- Dither -> Diffusion.
Save and move the .bmp file to the proper directory of Forgotten
Battles, and load the game's Quick Mission Builder. Load the plane, and
then using the button at the far right, select the skin you just made.
If its not there then its either the wrong resolution, isn't 256 indexed
color, is isn't a .bmp file. Hit 'Fly' and take a few screenshots with
the 'Printscreen' button on the keyboard while the game is paused for
future reference, focussing on any mistakes you see. If you're lucky,
you can switch between the game and your graphics program using either
'Alt-Tab' or the 'Windows' key. I usually have IL2-FB open looking at
the skin, and I hit the 'Windows' key on the keyboard to return to the
desktop and correct errors. I switch back and forth between the two
programs often as I work. I have to disable antialiasing for this to
work however, and some PC's may just crash, so if you try it, keep that
Now, examining your skin, there's bound to be a problem somewhere,
whether in the shading or edges of parts. Most common is a seam error,
where a color difference is seen along the line where the skin seams
together. Its usually lighter on one side of the seam than on the other.
The quickest way to fix this is to use the airbrush tool. Get a clear
idea of where the seam is, and which side is to light/dark, using a
screenshot or from the game running in the background. You'll find the
screen shots in the Forgotten Battles root directory, named 0000.tga,
0001.tga, and so on. These are overwritten each time you restart IL2-FB,
so if you want to save one as a .jpg, do it now! Reopen your layered
file, and move the color picker tool to the part of the seam you think
is the correct color, and select that color. Now with the airbrush,
spray that color in the general area of both image areas that form the
offending seam. This may flatten the shaded effect of the skin in the
area sprayed, but it will still look better than an ugly seam. Save the
layered file, then save another .bmp copy, reduce to index color, move
it to the right directory, and retest. If IL2-FB is open in the
background you'll have to close and restart it for the newly corrected
skin file to be shown in the game.
For me this testing process is the most time consuming part of detailed
skinning. I made probably 20 checks of the skin shown in this tutorial.
Short of having an expert understanding of the void your working on,
this is the best way I've found to ensure a clean final skin. You can be
as much of a stickler here as you like, but you should realize that
there are certain things that cannot be corrected. The IL2-FB game
engine sometimes shades different panels of the plane more harshly
depending on the angle of the sun. If a particular panel looks overly
dark or bright, be sure to roll the plane over, or turn it around, and
get into a new light so you can determine if its the skin causing the
difference, or the game.
If all is well in testing, then its time to start adding the detail
shading to the paint. This process will be the same for most types of
skins, whether shiny or painted. There's two ways to do this detailing
depending on what tools you use. For using the Dodge and Burn tools to
create the silvery metal, I'll have to work on the paint job layer
itself, since you can't dodge or burn on a transparency. If you use the
airbrush to detail, then you can work on a new trasparent layer above
the paint layer.
For this skin I'll do my detail shading right on the layer with the
main paint job. Again, there's considerable risk of ruining your skin if
you make major mistakes while doing this. I usually make a copy of the
painted layer, in this case the Paint + Detail layer and put it above
the original before I start work. Work on the new copy layer, so that if
something goes wrong, you can always just delete the ruined layer and
make a new copy of the original Paint + Detail layer. Only save your
layered file when you are POSITIVE that your happy with what you've
The actual marks I make on the skin for detail lines are done with the
dodge and burn tools. If the skin is a painted color, you can't use
these tools, since they'll change the paint color. Use the airbrush
tool, and for highlights, use a slightly lighter shade of the body color,
NOT white! Use a slightly darker shade of the body color for shadows,
NOT black. For either technique, lets start by taking a look at what I
did to my skin.
I made a split screen of the same area of the skin to make it easy
to see what went on here, its not very complicated looking without
the Void layer on. Firstly, you can see the broader strokes from the
rough shading of the Paint + Detail layer painted last step, where
the top of the fuselage is lightened, and above the wing roots. The
detail marks added in this step are the small highlighs and shadows
that run beside some of the panel lines on the Void layer. Notice
that I was careful not to detail every line in the void, since a bit
of randomness is what we're looking for here. For marks that are
nearly horizontal or vertical, you can use the shift key to
constrain the brush in just one direction. Be sure not to hold down
the shift key from stroke to stroke! You've got to let off the key
between each stroke, or unwated marks may appear. You also should
practice begining to spray FIRST, then pressing the shift key.
Otherwise the different strokes you make may become linked to one
another with a diagonal line that streaks between the new mark and
your last mark. Keep a hand on 'Control Z' for undo, and look out
for this while you work.
The most important thing to get out of this is that you reall have
to go over the entire skin, massaging it here and there until a
certain 'rightness' is obtained. Experience is the best teacher
here, but you'll catch on fast with just a little practice. A few
points to remember for the best results:
- Subtle effects are best! Leave some areas with LITTLE or NO
detailing. This is crucial!
- Highlight or shade right above or below a panel line, never
directly on it.
- Be consistent with light source directions, try to keep most
hghlights on the same side of panel lines.
- For greater depth on some panels, highlight on one side of the
line, and shade on the other. This creates depth.
- Be careful to avoid a 'quilted' look. You don't want your
plane to look like a tuffted chair! Don't get carried away.
- Add extra highlighting to small details that would likely be
raised in real life. Adds depth, and rarely looks bad.
- Add extra shadow underneath parts that extend from the plane.
Exhaust ports and vents are good examples.
- Above all, make it look complex and random, even if it really
Don't feel like you have to make each side of the fuselage or
wings idential. This is a huge mistake. Greater realism and variety
are had with a more random detailing. Something like glare and sheen
is not planned in the real world, and you really shouldn't plan much
in the skin either. Just move around and work on what strikes you,
then move on.
Since the IL2-FB game engine cannot provide reflective effects on
planes, we have to simulate this in our bare metal skins. After a bit of
testing different methods for faking reflections, I've decided that less
is more. Simplistic implications of reflections are superior to detailed
approaches every time. This would not be true if the skin were going to
be used in a still image, but since we can move aroung in the game, any
detailed reflections are painfully fake looking when the viewing angles
and lighting change. To add the Environmental (EV) reflections, just add
another layer above the top Paint + Detail layer, and select each area
roughly. Lets look at what my layer looks like with the paint and void
Examining the layer above you'll see a couple of things that need
explaining. First, I used a 100 and 200 pixel airbrush to spray a
light blue color over the top of the fuselage and wings. This
represents the sky reflecting in the upper parts of the plane. Don't
use a dark blue, since it will look too obviously blue when done. I
did the same thing to the bottom of the fuselage and wings, this
time using a light brown color. If I'd used green to do this, it
looks good enough when flying normally, but if you turn sharply, or
are upside down, it looks silly to have green facing the sky on the
plane. Green also looks pretty bad flying on a winter map, or over
water. Brown is a decent compromise, and could be the reflection of
anything darker than the sky. Notice the bit of red near the rear of
the wing root? Thats a fake reflection of the red paint on the
wings, yet very near the fuselage. It looks close to real in the
When you do EV layers, the main point should be that they paint is
very undetailed, very thin, and may not even cover all of the skin.
You'll notice plenty of areas in the layer above that have little or
no color on them. Doing this helps realism a good deal, since in the
real world, the reflection wouldn't be uniform over the whole plane.
When your done, and do some test flights to judge the quality of
your work, you may find that the EV colors are too strong to look
right. If they are, just increase the transparency of the EV
reflections layer until things look better. No repainting is
When planes are used, wear occurs, and we can simulate this easily on
our skins. Take a look at photos of the aircraft your skinning to get
the closest idea of where you should go with this in terms of accuracy.
For my work, I just generalize the wear into basic types.
- Smoke marks (from exhaust and weapons firings)
- Paint damage (silver flecks showing through the paint)
- Fluid drainage (from exhaust and possibly cowlings)
- Outdoor storage (runoff from fluids and such will stain over time
as they run down surfaces)
You should use your judgement in choosing what to apply to your skin,
since not every one wants every type of wear markings, and some
aircrafts may not have some types of marks. This is my weather layer
with the paint and void layers hidden.
You can clearly see the smoke marks from the guns and exhaust. There
are a few run marks on the side of the fuselage near the canopy area
as well. I placed some drainage marks beneath what ever larger items
would have extended from the plane. This is all quite easy, just
keep adding until you get what you want.
Now a note about the areas marked with the number 1 in the above
layer. These don't represent any of the wear types listed above. I
use marks like this to change the sheen on the bare metal. It's
generally uneven in the real world, and marks like this help to fake
this. A few of the marks running down the fuselage serve the same
purpose. The variety they add in terms of random shiny spots is very
Wrapping up work
All thats left are a few items that are up to the individual skinnner
to decide whether to apply. First, to get a more pronounced and
contrasty appearance for the void file, sometimes I'll copy the Void
layer, and place it above itself with no modifications. Remember that
when the remove white filter was used, that a bit of denisty was lost in
the process. For skins needing extra panel contrast, like bare metal,
doubling the Void layer is very effective.This also allows adjustment of
the contrast by adding transparency to one or both of the Void Layers.
Lastly, you will sometimes find that adjusting the levels on a finished
skin using the command [ Image : Adjust : Levels ] can improve the
overall effect, if perhaps too much or not enough contrast of brightness
were painted into the skin. Simply adjust until it looks right to you.
That completes the basic skin file for a bare metal plane. For clarity
in understanding my layer arragements, I'll show the layer stack for the
completed skin now. Note the two Void layers, and the two Paint + Detail
layers. Remember that the detail shading was done on the upper Paint +
Detail Shaders layer, and the lower is always avaliable for backup.
And finally the finished skin file with all layer visible.
In closing, I hope that this tutorial has been a help. I'm not
the best skinner in the world, but by using techniques like
these, you should be able to make just about any skin you'd like
to fly. Thanks for reading this through, and happy skinning from
Examining our final skin in game
Below: This is the bare metal P47 in flight. Notice the slight glow
under the number 23 on the tail? And just above the wing root? Those
are the highlights added to simulate light reflection from the
silver wings. Also notice the small red colored glow on the fuselage
just above the red paint on the flap. Again simulating reflection,
though this time in color. Weathering can be seen along the length
of the fuselage and under the vent behind the cockpit. See how the
very vague blue EV effect prevents the plane from looking grey? You
may not even notice the blue coloring at first glance, if it is very
Below: With the lighting from a different angle, the power of the
banded wear marks down the fuselage is evident. Again notice the
great reflection shown in the fuselage and tail, directly above the
wing and elevator roots. This looks like a photo nearly.
Below: Here I've added a new layer for a paint scheme, and selected
an area to be filled. I also added a white stripe beneath the black
upper fuselage, and around the nose. Notice how the blue EV effect
is only really visible on the silver portions of the wings. Paint
wouldn't reflect nearly as much as the metal. Notice the reflections
again, and work to achieve this look. This is a beautiful aircraft.
Below: During landing the flaps are reflecting a great deal of white
light. You can barely see the red glow in the fuselage from the red
stripe on the flap in this shot. Weather marks are also seen below
the vent behind the cockpit very clearly. Notice how the fuselage
has a sort of mottled appearance along its side? This is done on the
Weather layer to vary the 'fake' reflectivity of the metal. This is
also useful for planes with older paint, or very light colored