What that has helped to foster, is a resentment that I can’t get past, miniature figures that I never see as matching the standards set by my other models and a set of steps that though failing almost every time, I keep repeating, despite patently not working.
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” or so the old adage goes. And never is this more appropriate than when I approach the painting of miniature figures.
Anyone that has followed me over the years, will know that I have a very trying relationship with the assembly and painting of figures and that despite many false dawns, things have never really improved to my satisfaction. The reasons for this are simple to understand, but perhaps not so easy to deal with. Firstly, I really don’t enjoy painting figures, seeing each one as a hurdle over which I must leap on the way to the completion of a project that inevitably, needs at least one. The second, is that I’m trapped in the prison of my own techniques, using painting steps that were forged four decades ago and are now so ingrained in my muscle memory, that I cannot break free of them no matter what I do. I’m stuck and the only way to extricate myself from those shackles is to deconstruct the ideas, forget them and start again. But is it too late to do that: can you really rebuild a bank of techniques after so long in misguided and failed practice?
When I started out as a modelmaker, figures were never on the horizon. I began as an aircraft modeller, a fan of aviation that developed into a lover of the miniatures that replicated aircraft, recreations that passed time and paid homage to designs I may never see, let alone own. Other than the odd pilot figure here and there, life was a distant need amongst the hardware, little more than cursory glances being passed towards their indistinct shapes and detail as they waited a turn for attention. But when I did use them, they would be painted in the same way: green uniforms, yellow life jackets, black boots, flesh and for those that would be used in machines with holes in the back rather than spinning blades at the front, gloss white helmets. And that’s how they were painted for years, badly rendered aircrew, final thoughts hidden within the confines of cockpits covered over with cloudy and sometimes, glue smeared, canopies and glazed panels. What difference does it make if you can’t see them? Hardly an example of high art. It was not until I reached 17 that I even attempted to paint anything in 1/35, despite having built a number of military vehicles by that point. Figures, in all of their miniature forms, were just not what I wanted to do, so when need, overwhelmed desire, I didn’t really approach them with much enthusiasm. I still, don’t…
Fast forward to 2022 and very little has changed in terms of approach and ethos and certainly not my feeling that figures are a last-minute imposition that are needed, rather than wanted with open arms. You see, the painting of each one has altered very little over the decades and though I’ve attempted to modify techniques to make them better, the fundamentals, ideas that were used from day one, have remained the same. What that has helped to foster, is a resentment that I can’t get past, miniature figures that I never see as matching the standards set by my other models and a set of steps that though failing almost every time, I keep repeating, despite patently not working. If you walk though the house and keep stubbing your toe on the leg of the sofa, you would perhaps either move the sofa a little, or not walk around in stocking feet. You learn by your mistakes because, you know, if you don’t, it hurts when you stub your toe!
It was not until I reached 17 that I even attempted to paint anything in 1/35, despite having built a number of military vehicles by that point.
Despite my inability to learn by my mistakes when it comes to the art of figure painting, I’ve continuously done so in every other aspect of my hobby. At no point have I stood still, each build offering incremental changes that have either improved the work, or altered the look of the models, not always for the better, but altered them nonetheless. From assembly, through painting, weathering and on to advanced ideas such as masked markings, detailing and all manner of other supplemental ideas, my models and the techniques needed to complete each on, have developed, at least, I hope they have. Not so, figures. I may as well be 17 all over again, such is the paucity of improvements that I’ve seen over the years! And that’s a frustration and an endless conflict: ho can so much have improved over the years, when something that is fundamental to what I do, remained so tied to the past, my formative years and the start of the journey?
This week was a good example of how my figure painting keeps hitting a wall. I’m currently building the superb Tamiya 1/35 KV-2, a kit that I am really enjoying. But more than the simple pleasure I’ve gained from its construction and painting, I’ve also found some welcome time to experiment with its finish and as such, I’m really happy to have painted something that looks rather different to my usual fare. And then I started painting the figures. Flesh, uniforms, details, acrylics, airbrushed layers, micro-painting of the facial features, all done as I have in the past; all done on figures that in that past weren’t finished; all done. I’m all done.
By the end of Tuesday I was so frustrated with each one, that I dropped them in bath of Mr. Color Thinner cleaned all of the paint away and started again. And then repeated almost all of the steps that I’d used so unsuccessfully just hours earlier! This time though I was more careful, hoping that subtlety would overwhelm such shoddy ideas, working under magnification to ensure that I was neat and tidy, painting those tiny facial features to be as detailed as possible, uniform creases so that they stood out, light and shade in perfect harmony. Yeah, that didn’t work, either.
Two car crashes in one day later, I decided to leave them alone and go and do something else, in this case watching the wonderful music documentary ‘Echo In The Canyon’ about the music that emanated from Laurel Canyon, California during the late Sixties. As I was watched the show, I started to pay attention to how the characters looked on the screen, how their facial features appeared, colours, shapes, lighting. I noticed how their clothes didn’t reveal tiny creases, but larger shapes that the brain recognises as cloth and leather. Even though the figures on the screen could be seen in detail, they were not HDR, they were, shall we say: natural. And my figures, those that sat on my desk, every single detail outlined and accentuated to within an inch of their life, were anything but.
Having taken time out to enjoy the relaxing sounds of the Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas and Buffalo Springfield, I went back to the start and took another look at the standing figure that accompanies the KV. With my new Redgrass ‘Wet Palette’ and Vallejo acrylics to hand, I set about blocking out the clothes once more, this time ignoring the finer details and focussing only on the larger shapes, treating it as I would a two-dimensional image, where larger areas of light and shade took precedent over those smaller, inconsequential features that I had been focusing on without success. As layers were applied, mid-tone, highlight, shadows, the figure started to come alive and began to make sense. I was no longer looking at it as a collection of details to labour over, but a miniature to be looked at in the round. The back of the figure was no longer the same tone as the front; one side was lighter in entirety than the other; it looked all of a sudden, 3D. I was working quickly and without thought and the ensuing freedom allowed my to paint something that looked more acceptable, if not entirely what I want. Baby steps, eh?
The figure is not quite finished, but is getting there. The flesh has not been repainted, but I plan to approach that in the same way as the clothes, leaving the tiny details alone as the major shapes are focussed upon. Faces are perhaps the one area of figure painting that has seen the prison door slam shut most forcefully. My steps tend to be, in order: apply a basecoat; apply small areas of shadow, around the mouth, sides of the nose, eyes, ears, hair; add highlights on top of the nose, cheeks, chin, forehead, ears; paint lips, ignore eyes, because frankly they are far to difficult. That’s it: a prescription written in pools of paint. And that’s how it has been for years and though materials have changed over time, oils replacing enamels, acrylics replacing oils, oils replacing acrylics once more when I’ve fallen out of love with Vallejo’s finest again, the song has very much stayed the same.
I’m hoping that my new-found approach might help me get past this mental block and at least allow me to stretch out to create figures that look rather more pleasing than they do at the moment. One thing’s for sure, given the time constraints that are placed on many of these projects, I cannot continue to lose days of effort in the face of miniatures that are simply not good enough to me. When there is an obvious disparity between the vehicles that I build and the figures that accompany them, that cannot be deemed a successful conclusion to a project! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to suddenly become a master figure painter because frankly that ship of misplaced aspiration sailed long ago, I just want to be able to carry out a process that should be straightforward and fun, but at the moment, is anything but.
I am trapped in a prison on technique, but maybe, just maybe, my parole hearing is just around the corner. Time will tell if I get an early release, or if as has been the case over the years, I’m in for a longer period of hard labour.
See you soon.
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Thanks a lot – I look forward to hearing from you!