1:35 Editorial Comment Figure Painting Kits, Reviews 'n' Builds Tamiya Tips and Techniques


Over the years I’ve built and painted hundreds of miniature figures, so why is each one more a trial of patience and endurance than the last?

Though I am predominantly known within the industry as an aircraft modeller these days, over the years and especially whilst editing Military In Scale magazine, the bulk of my modelmaking duties have centred around military vehicles. As such, not only has that meant the construction and painting of the vehicles themselves, it occasionally drove me into dioramas and inevitably, that meant that I had to deal with their population. And every time that happened, fear struck.

It’s hard to pin down why this happened and then continues to happen. No other aspect of my modelling life causes such trepidation, fear and angst than the assembly and painting of figures. When I build an aircraft for instance, unless it’s in a very complex colour scheme that requires a degree of tenacity to track down and complete, I know that all of the steps will flow like water, with very little that is likely to catch me out or give me pause along the way. Even the application of decals – often cited in some quarters as an imposition rather than a pleasure – is something that I get my teeth into, the process being one of my favourite steps in any build. I don’t really have to over think the journey at any point, knowing the path to completion well enough, with little need for detours or unnecessary stops, along the way.

That is never the case with figures.

At the moment I’m building the brand new Tamiya Kettenkrad, a wonderful kit that is as simple in its intention, as it is impressive in its realisation. Actually – and at the risk of taking too much of a detour with this article – I’m building 2 Tamiya Kettenkrads, the new kit and their very old, 1970s release. At the risk of making way more work for myself than is strictly needed, I thought it would be a good idea to build both kits, as new mirrors old, with not only the vehicle and trailer being offered, but also three figures in identical poses. Two kits released almost 50 years apart, same vehicle, same figures in the same setting. Well, two weeks ago, it seemed like a good idea!

I digress.

As part of the appraisal , I had the editor’s instructions ringing in my ears “please, make sure you build and paint the figures.” Of course. So, yesterday, that’s what I set out to do, using all of the same techniques that I had brought into play on countless other figures over the years, which, in the main, have served me well. They may not look like those painted by modellers that concentrate only on the human form in miniature, but at least I can show them off without my cheeks glowing red slightly as I try and hide their deficiencies. They are fine as they go, do a job and accompany the vehicles with little in the way of jarring differences in quality. Standalone, they are not.

The figures were assembled and then glued to their bases and then to corks, ready for painting. At this point it is worth emphasising how good these figures are. Gone are the days of Tamiya figures being less than impressive, the newer ones being created using 3D scans to allow perfect anatomy and very fine detail to be conveyed. Indeed, a number of the figures are digitised from well-known modellers, so look closely and you will see that faces on a number, are fellows that you may have seen at model shows or online…

Painting took a familiar route: black basecoat, airbrushed highlights, enamels to add shading and highlights and as I hadn’t even begun the process of painting flesh at this point, enamels once again for the details. I’ve used this system hundreds of times and every single time, it has been 50/50 as to whether it works or not. Yesterday, it didn’t work. The figures had to be stripped and everything repainted, this time with Vallejo acrylics. In total, I was sat at my bench for 10 hours, all the time trying to complete 3 figures that are for a deadlined build that is now tightening by the second. Muscle memory was noticeable by its absence, my mind went blank as I wondered what I had done with the figure on my Panther diorama that I was not doing out this time around, and all the time patience was wearing thin and the countdown clock ticking more loudly with every passing second.  Tick… TIck… TICK!!!

This experience throws up a number of questions that don’t really arise elsewhere:

1. Why do I always have to second guess my figure painting in this way, when I don’t with any other aspect of my work?

2. why over such a long period of time has there been no discernible improvement in quality of these figures, when other models such as my aircraft, improve with each subsequent build?

Both of those questions are in essence simple to answer with an overlapping response: fear.

Last night I watched the Italy/Spain Semi Final game in the Euros, a game that was decided on penalties (Italy won, for those that are interested). As the players walked that short distance to the penalty spot, you could see the fear in the eyes of some, professionals who were during moments of pressure, questioning their ability to carry out something that is fundamentally very simple: score a penalty kick. The fear translated into misses. When 99 times out of a hundred the ball would strike the back of the net, pressure had got the better of them. This is exactly what happens when I paint figures.

Recently I painted a large scale biker figure for myself. Created by Tamiya, it is going to accompany a 1/12 scale bike that I’ve built for a Simon Stälenhag inspired diorama. Being built and painted away from work, I approached the paintwork with a laissez-faire attitude of “well, if it turns out, fine. If it doesn’t, no one will, see it anyway!” As a result, I’m really happy with it. Pressure was off, paint went on and now I have a figure that I like. Fast forward a few months and I had my little Germans to paint and the fear set in. Now everyone will see them. Now they have to be perfect. Now, I simply cannot make any mistakes…

The inevitable happened and the result was a repaint. I say inevitable, but actually that really shouldn’t be the case at all. The fear is all sub-conscious and if I could get over that trepidation, I would perhaps not make the mistakes that I often do. I would also get an answer to the second question, by seeing my figures improve with each passing project. You see, the two questions are connected. The fear causes each project to be a trial and that trial removes any pleasure I get from the journey. Painting figures is a process to endure, not one to enjoy and you’ll never improve your skills if you’ve mentally decided that you would be rather doing something else, when what you are doing is supposed to be a relaxing pleasure.

This morning, I’ve looked at the three little chaps on my bench and decided that they don’t look too bad and that’s enough to carry me forward through today’s schedule and on to what will hopefully be, completion over the weekend. For this project, I unusually decided to paint the figures first so they would be out of the way before I painted the vehicle, the rest of the project being a breeze – at least, that’s the plan. The uniforms are finished, with only heads, weapons and accessories to deal with, all things that are fairly straightforward. I’ve decided that the flesh tones will be painted in a simple way, with little need to overly embellish the finish. As long as the resulting models pass muster and show what Tamiya have created for their kit that’s enough, right. RIGHT?!

I’m hoping that today is going to be a day to remember, one that will live long in the memory. I will paint these three figures satisfactorily and England will reach the Euro Final, following a win in their Semi Final game this evening. Have I just tempted fate? Oh my God, I have, have’t I..?!

I'm formerly the editor in charge of Military In Scale magazine and latterly, Model Airplane International. Editing duties to one side, I'm now a full-time modelmaker with Doolittle Media, working to supply modelling articles and material for a number of their group titles, including MAI and Tamiya Model Magazine International. I'm also an avid fan of Assassin's creed, Coventry City FC and when the mood takes me, a drummer of only passing skill. Here though, you'll find what I do best: build models and occassionally, write about them!

5 comments on “GO FIGURE!


    i have dozens of figures in my stash ,which make me nervous when i want to ad them to a model , i can turn out a decent model even if i say so myself but i am never too old to learn alas when the figures come around i get nervous that i will create something from the living dead , its the flesh ie head/eyes that give me stress ,but all you can do is your best and try and improve .


  2. Tom Murphy

    I remember the mag Spencer. I still have a few of Military in Scale in my collection.
    Two friends of mine showed off some of their work in the magazine, Mike Killen and Keith Clutton.
    One diorama Mike did was titled “The British Army on Champagne” great play on words. About 8 or 9 120mms figures showed them sitting around a campfire during a lull in fighting. Keith’s Verlinden 120mm Polish Lancer was superb.
    Great magazine with superb modelling articles. I remember Harris Ali’s biplane models which were and still are superb.
    Great days Spencer..


  3. David Mummery

    Have you got a copy of David Parker’s book Crew School? A lot of it is way too advanced for me, but an expert like yourself would probably use and adapt the techniques no problem at all. Nothing done with black & white pre-shading, all by methodically painting in a logical order the varied flesh tones. May be worth you getting a copy if you’ve not got one on the shelf.


  4. I have a few copies of Military in Scale in my collection Spencer.
    Two friends of mine showed off their work within the pages of that esteemed magazine, Mike Killen and Keith Clutton.
    Mike did a piece on a diorama he built, titled ” The British Army on Champagne ” he used 8 or 9 120mm figures sitting around a campfire during the Waterloo campaign. I
    Keith showed off his Verlinden 120mm Polish Lancer again from the battle of Waterlool, both were beautiful builds.
    There of course were many more skilful modeller show their work but one stands out for me and that is Harris Ali. His biplane’s are a work’s of art. It was a great magazine and they were great times Spencer.


  5. Blair Stewart

    So spot on re figure painting! I think part of my problem is there are some wonderful figure painters out there and I always seem to judge my own figure painting by their work. Models of aircraft, armor, etc. are not quite was difficult to paint from a “realism” standpoint. Granted, there are those who are masters at weathering models, but then one gets into the argument of “is the weathering realistic/overdone?” At any rate, there is little question that figures can add to the interest of a model project, and, for that reason, I shall plod ahead attempting to make my accompanying figures presentable!

    Liked by 1 person

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