Happy Accidents and fun with water effects

Bob Ross was known to say that in painting, we don’t make mistakes, we just have happy accidents. Recently, I had a hobby experience that really drove that point home when working on my Swamp Siren model, and that reminded me just how hard it is to actually mess something up in this hobby.

The model

The Swamp Siren was the first model from MiniCrate, Privateer Press’ monthly exclusive miniature subscription service. It is an alternate sculpt for their Swamp Horror, a Minion warbeast. Now, when one starts thinking of models that Privateer Press can do pin-up alternate sculpts of, the Swamp Horror is not one that comes to mind. However, they hit it out of the pot with this sculpt. It’s a unique twist on both the original model and a mermaid, and just looks damn cool. And the little baby swamp siren in her hand, looking up at her is just so cute.

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Painting

The model is in two parts, mostly one big chunk of resin, with the left arm below the elbow being a metal piece. I pinned mine just to be sure, because there isn’t that much surface area at the contact point, though you may not need to.

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The model itself has three or four main surfaces: The skin, the chitin, the tentacles, and perhaps the webbing between the tentacles. This means that you have multiple distinct textures to work with, and it’s worth taking some time to think about colour choices. While you want these areas to be distinct, you also don’t want them to clash. I decided to stick to mostly pink and purple, but have the skin be in a pale blue-green, similar to the studio scheme.

When it came to painting the tentacles, I decided to start with a textured pattern and paint with thin glazes to add colour. So, after priming the model white, I began by drawing in a pattern of black lines, then followed up with some pink and purple glazes until I got something that I liked. The other thing I did to show texture was adding light lines to the chitin to make it look a little more boney. While I initially did it in purple, I hit it with a blue glaze afterwards.

Water Effects

And here is where I start to get ambitious. I picked up some of the Woodland Scenics Deep Pour water as well as a bottle of tint because I had a vision for a water pour. You will note that I used a square base for her; this sort of think is probably possible with a round base and that was my first idea, however someone mentioned to me that I would have to be concerned about the refraction obscuring the underwater parts.

So, I started by doing a little test and encasing a crappy prepainted heroclix guy in the deep pour water in a McDonald’s cup. This was definitely a good idea, as it showed me how much tint to use to get the desired level of tint in the water, as well as the importance of sealing the base in order to avoid bubbles as air escapes from porous materials.

After his noble sacrifice, I began making some formwork out of plasticard and P3 blister packs. With that done, I mixed up some of the stuff and did my pour, careful to pour it to the level of her hand.

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oh god, it’s horrible

That’s where things started to go wrong.

 

I had thought that I had sealed the base sufficiently with multiple layers of gloss varnish, but evidently, I was wrong. There were some small areas near the base where bubbles started to appear, and as much as I tried to knock the base of the mini to agitate them to the surface where they could be popped, there were some that formed when the resin was sufficiently cured to the point where it was just to viscous for it to make it to the surface.

Of course, I didn’t help it by trying to poke it with a very thin brass rod to try to pop some bubbles that were still underwater. And then, on top of that, one of the corners of the forms started leaking, leaving one of the corners completely messed up.

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So, it came time to fix what I could. The bubbles were unfixable, but I could at least deal with the issues on the corners. I mixed up a little more of the water effects, and poured it into the cavity where I had my leak. After waiting for that to dry and prying the formwork off, I turned it on its side and made some smaller forms to tackle the other bubbles in the corners. I’d pour the mixture into cavities where bubbles had formed, relying on a piece of plastic to keep it from running off the side.

To get this all working together and looking good, this required a lot of elbow grease with the sandpaper, cloth, and polishing compound. Finally, I hit the whole thing with gloss varnish through the airbrush to smooth it all out and give the impression of the wet swamp siren glistening in the sunlight. I had managed to fix the bubbles on the edges, but the bubbles on the inside were still bothering me.

Miniature Paintings

IMG_0761.JPGBecause I decided that I wasn’t being ambitious enough with the goal of doing water effects for the first time on a competition and display piece, I decided to try out a whole new art form. I cut out a piece of packaging, primed it black, and decided to make a miniature painting of a swamp to go with my painted miniature.

IMG_0762.JPGFortunately, I had google image search to work off of, and I had watched enough Bob Ross over the past little while that I thought that I could do

it. I found a picture of a swamp at dusk and decided to go for it, starting with the sky and the water, then following up with the trees on the horizon and their reflection, and finally the trees in the foreground, making sure to highlight the side closer to the sun. With that done, I took bright green and carefully drew in some lettering, and glued the whole thing to the side.

Happy Little Accidents

So, at the end of the day, I wasn’t feeling great about this miniature. The bubbles were annoying the hell out of me, because they represented where I screwed up with the water effects and they were something that I couldn’t fix. However, I decided to post some pictures up on facebook anyways, and you can imagine what the response was:

“Those bubbles are so amazing!”
“How did you do the bubbles?”
“I love those bubbles!”

And so on.

It was really an interesting experience. I was very much being my own harshest critic on this, but even though I kind of started to hate it a little as I looked at all the little imperfections in the water effects, it turned out that people loved my mistake.

And, with this feedback in mind, it helped me be at peace with my work and learn to love the bubbles that had so infuriated me when I first finished it. I would say the two things I have learned from this are that first, Bob Ross was right when he said that there are no mistakes, only happy little accidents. Second, being “too ambitious” in this hobby isn’t really a thing. Now, I definitely got some benefits out of testing it out first with that little HeroClix guy in the McDonald’s cup, but it is because I pushed myself way out of my comfort zone and yes, made a couple happy little accidents along the way, that I came up with something really special.

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Bust a move with Amy Johnson

Lately, as I’ve been experimenting with larger scale pieces, I’ve been painting some busts. My Mary Read 1/12 scale bust from Scale75 was an absolute joy to paint and really came together nicely in the end, and I’ve got a lot more in my stash to start up at any time.

Busts offer some interesting advantages over full figures. They allow the modeller to focus on the most interesting and characterful parts of the model such as the face and upper torso, while not requiring them to spend a lot of time on boring parts like boots and pants. Further, a bust is to a much larger scale than a full figure of equivalent size (and, presumably, price), which allows the painter to incorporate more accurate details, especially on things like the face and the eyes. Finally, they really push the painter to get things right, especially with the skin tones. At this scale, you can’t just get away with slapping on some Citadel shades and call it a day; you need to know what you’re doing.

The model

Amy_Johnson_portraitAmy Johnson, born in 1903, was a pioneering British aviatrix from the golden age of flight. In the 1930s, she set many aviation records, including becoming the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. Sadly, her flying career was cut short during World War II. While serving with the Air Transport Auxiliary, her Airspeed Oxford went down in the Thames Estuary. There is some controversy as to the exact circumstances of her death, but that’s too much for me to get into; suffice it to say, it was a sad day for the aviation world when we lost her.

The bust itself is a 1/10 scale resin kit from Bad Squiddo Games, sculpted by Przemysław Szymczyka. Bad Squiddo is an interesting one-woman company out of Nottingham, founded by Annie Norman with the explicit goal of increasing female representation in tabletop wargaming. I ended up purchasing this bust several months ago with the goal of completing it for the local club’s “Anything British” themed contest. She didn’t quite win, however she did manage to pull a silver at the Sword and Brush competition in Toronto this past weekend, which I was quite overjoyed to receive.

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Assembly

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Head piece – note damage to rims of goggles

This kit comes in two resin pieces, with the head and neck separate from the rest of the body, so assembly was nice and simple. I chose to keep them separate for most of the painting process, as there were some areas around the neck where it would have been tricky to get a brush in there, especially as the fur would probably require some dry brushing. I mounted the head on a paper clip taped to the side of a pill bottle, and matching hole was drilled into the neck of the body (which itself was also temporarily mounted to a pill bottle) so that when I finished the head I could just snip the paper clip and drop it in.

The one other piece of assembly I had to do before painting was to repair the rims of the goggles. The detail in that area was fairly small, hard and brittle, and I suspect that it was damaged in transit as the two pieces bumped up against each other in the package. Since I didn’t feel like asking for a replacement, I simply sliced the remainder of the rims off and resculpted them with aluminum putty and milliput.

Edit: Annie confirmed after I wrote this article that there are plans to strengthen the goggles to prevent this problem from happening.

Preparing to paint

Before I put brush to model, I had a couple decisions to make. I chose to paint the jacket and the cap as leather, but decided that I wanted them to be slightly different shades as they are not necessarily part of a matching outfit. For the fur, I had a few options but I decided to do a neutral to cool grey in order to contrast all the warm tones in the leather.

However, as figure painting is often the art of placing shadows and highlights, the most important decision was light placement. I wanted to really play with directional light and play with light and shadow on this project, so I chose to have her painted as though she was lit from her top front right quarter. With the angle of the head relative to the body, I felt this would make for a good choice, as it would imply that she is turning her head towards the light.

So, while I primed the head white to make a better undertone for the skin tones, I chose to use the zenithal priming technique on the body. This is where you initially prime in black, then spray white overtop from the direction of the light. By using your airbrush to represent a light source, the incoming white spray will approximate incoming rays of light. As such, the lighter paint will fall onto areas where the light should hit the model, which does two things. First, it naturally preshades the model, and second, it helps the painter understand which areas of the model should be lit and which areas should be shadowed.

The face

This was my first attempt at painting flesh with my airbrush; normally, I brush paint my skin tones, but I figured this would be a good time to start airbrushing. So, I began by laying down a base coat of blue. I started with blue for a few reasons, the first of which is that skin is a semi-transparent sack of meat and bone, and if you look closely, there is actually a lot of blue underneath the skin in certain areas.

The second reason why I started with blue has to do with colour theory. As I mentioned earlier, I really wanted to play with lighting and shadow with this piece. As such, I knew that blue would be the perfect shadow colour to contrast the highlights. First, it’s more or less across the colour wheel from a lot of my skin tones, so it’s going to generate some sharp contrast. Second, we also have the warm/cool contrast between the warm pinks and reds in some of the skin tones and the blue in the shadows. When you have warm colours in the highlights and cool colours in the shadows, it makes the highlights “pop” a little more.

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Why do I start with blue? Well, it worked for her…

One of my favourite examples to illustrate this principle is actually a canvas painting. Prudence Heward’s “Girl in Yellow Sweater” on display at the National Gallery of Canada is an excellent display of light and shadow. If you look carefully at it, you can see a lot of interesting colour choices the artist utilized to create the shadows and give it a three-dimensional appearance. The blues in the skin tones, the purples and greens on the yellow sweater… if you want to get better at painting figures, you would be well-served by studying this and other paintings made by artists who are clearly good enough to have their work on display in a national gallery.

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Amy, after airbrushing the first layer of skin tone

Anyways, with the blue down, I followed up with a lighter skin tone. Similar to the zenithal priming technique used on the body, I used my airbrush as a light source, focusing my fire on the areas under direct light. The end result was an interesting transition from a base flesh tone into the blue shadows.

With the airbrushing done, it was now time to do some brush painting. There were two main things that I felt I needed to do with the skin tone — bring up the highlights a little more, and make the transition between the blue and the skin tone a little better. For the highlights, I applied some very fair flesh tone on the areas where the light would hit it, blending out the edges to make a smooth transition. For this technique, a wet palette is mandatory. Also, some additives can help — I like to use my airbrush flow improver to extend the dry time of my paint and make it easier to feather the edges of the paint out or mix them together on the model.

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Highlights and glazes applied. Note the highlights on the right side of her forehead, as well as the hints of Khardic Flesh adding life to the model

In order to smooth out the transition from the blue into the skin tone, I mixed up a glaze out of P3 Khardic Flesh (a very pink skin tone) and some Vallejo Glaze Medium (though you can just use any acrylic matte artist medium from an art store as well). This medium is essentially paint without pigment, so mixing paint and medium will reduce the opacity of the paint as there is less pigment and more medium, while not breaking it down or changing some of the properties like viscosity and surface tension too much like if you thinned with too much water. As the glaze is basically just more transparent paint, it will tint the underlying layers. Glazes also can help smooth out transitions, so they are useful for either making the model have less of that airbrushed look, or smoothing out blends that aren’t quite perfect.

In this case, with a glaze of a very pinkish flesh tone, not only does it add a transition that was kind of missing before, it also adds a little more life to the model which was previously lacking some of that rosy glow. As before, I blended out the edges both into the highlight and into the shadows, ensuring a smooth transition from the blue shadows, to the pinkish midtones, to the lighter highlights.

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Some paints I used for the flesh. Soft Blue from Reaper was my undertone. The one on the right was my glaze colour. I also added a bit of white to the Fair Skin for the highest highlights.

Glazes are also useful for doing makeup or adding in shadows. In this case, I wanted to give her a little blue eyeshadow, so I mixed up a glaze out of some desaturated blue and some medium. Because the glaze is more transparent, a glaze applied over skin tones will be more of a subtle effect that doesn’t resemble Mimi from the Drew Carey show.

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No. Just… no.

The eyes have it…

Oh boy. The eyes were easily the most difficult part of this project. I had to repaint them a couple times because I just couldn’t get them lined up right; this is a larger scale than I’m used to.

Anyways, on small scales, I like to start from the eyes and work out, but in this case, the model was big enough that I could just paint the eyes directly. So, I started with a light grey, with just a hint of flesh tone mixed in to paint the whites of the eyes. It’s important here to not just paint them white; if you look closely, the whites of people’s eyes aren’t actually white, and if you do do them in white, they end up popping and the model looks surprised.

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Reference material, courtesy of the first result on a google image search for “blue eye”

With the whites done, I did some research to see what colour Amy’s eyes actually were, and thanks some paintings I found online, the answer was blue. However, because this is figure painting, the answer is never quite as simple as “just paint them in a uniform blue colour.”

If we look closely at a blue eye, we see some interesting things going on. While we obviously can’t show every little striation in the muscle of the iris at this scale, we can see some patterns here. First, the iris is darker near the outer edge and lighter closer to the pupil. Second, the way the light filters through the cornea, the bottom tends to appear a little lighter, similar to the sort of effect you get with things like gems on fantasy models. So, in painting my iris, I wanted to make sure to incorporate that highlight and that dark area around the outer edge of the iris.

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Note: I did touch up the eyeliner after; there was a little too much on the bottom.

Similarly, while I painted the pupils in black, if you really want to make the eyes come alive, you need to add that little tiny dot of near-white in the pupil to represent the reflection. That little point of light is really important; it’s what really makes the eye come alive at these scales.

Leather, fur and goggles

For the leather, my initial idea was to start by airbrushing on the shadows and highlights; basically redoing the zenithal priming technique but with browns and a hint of light blue in the areas where the light would be reflecting off of it. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t working out, though it did leave me with not a bad base colour. As I was looking at it, what I realized I had to do was to get the texture first, then glaze in the shadows and highlights.

With plenty of leftover pluck foam kicking around, it wasn’t hard to find an applicator. Using the spongy material, I dabbed on various shades of brown, working up from a dark Walnut Brown into some midtone and lighter browns, and occasionally adding a stroke or two with a liner brush to represent creases in the leather.

With that done, I had a nice texture, but I had lost the shadows and highlights from the airbrushing. Here is where our old friend blending comes in again. By making a blue-black glaze out of some glaze medium and a tiny amount of Scale75 black and blue inks, I can come back in and reinforce the shadows in the wrinkles and near the bottom of the model, while still maintaining some of the texture.

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A sample of paints used for the leather; inks to make the glaze in the shadows are on the right.

For the fur, I am not ashamed to say that I used Citadel shades and dry brushing to get the effect. Citadel shades are sometimes considered to be “talent in a bottle,” and some people turn their nose up at dry brushing as a technique for newbies, but it still can be a useful technique if used properly and in the right place.

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Note the texture in the leather and the fur

However, what I started with was some wet blending — placing light paint on the highlights and dark paint in the shadows, and mixing them together on the model while the paint is still wet. Opposite to how I did the leather, in this case, I did the lighting first, then added the texture later with controlled washes with Citadel shades (both Nuln Oil and Drakenhof Nightshade) and dry-brushing light grey and white onto the raised areas of the fur.

Finally, er get to the goggles, I knew I had to do something to represent the reflection. To do so, I painted the lenses of the goggles in a very dark blue, and added a diagonal line of a sky blue colour. This represents a point on the goggles where the reflection of the light source off the curved surface might catch the viewer’s eye. I did blend out the edges to get a smooth transition from dark to light, however one of the keys to painting reflective surfaces is sharp highlights, so I went from a very dark blue to a very light blue over a very small distance. I continued that technique on to the rims, using true metallic metal techniques whereby I had dark metallic paints over most of the area, and bright silver where the light is hitting it and reflecting off.

Mounting

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Hehehe… I have wood for busts…

For this project, I ended up making a plinth out of a cherry wood block that I had sourced from a fellow IPMS member. A hole was drilled in the top, and after applying some cherry stain and three coats of polyurethane varnish, I had a nice looking piece of wood to mount her on. With her head angled to her right, I intentionally positioned her on an angle such that the front of the plinth was facing somewhere between the angle of her head and the angle of her body.

 

To make the sign, I simply made up a quick little text box in Microsoft Word and printed it on plain paper. To get an aged look, I shot a few different warm off-white colours of paints and inks through my airbrush at it in a random, mottled pattern, with the paints thinned such that they are very transparent and shooting just enough to tint the white of the paper, while not appreciably affecting the black printer ink. I then used some thinned white glue to attach the paper to the wood, and laid one more coat of varnish on to protect it and give it that gloss look.

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Conclusion

This was an interesting project for a lot of reasons. First, I don’t normally do a lot of historical figures, tending to lean more to the fantasy side, but something about Amy Johnson and her story really grabbed me.

I feel like while this bust may be less flashy than a lot of fantasy figures, it posed an interesting challenge. Because there aren’t a lot of the sort of fancy accoutrements which are present in a lot of fantasy worlds, and because her hair is concealed by her flying cap, the painter is challenged to do what they can with textures and shadows to make a somewhat mundane bust look interesting.

I think it’s fair to say that I rose to those challenges, and that this bust does represent progression on my hobby journey. Between the techniques that I used to create the leather texture, the glistening light on the goggles and the eyeballs, and the use of directional lighting, I really pushed myself on this model. Not to mention the work that went into the plinth, as woodworking is far outside the realm of my usual hobby work.

This was a fun project, and will go in a place of pride on my shelf, which, at the end of the day, is really all one can ask for in any modelling and painting endeavour.

One year – retrospective

So, it’s been almost a year of writing this blog, and the anniversary has happened at kind of an awkward time. I’m currently taking a break from Warmachine, my primary miniatures game, partly over some frustrations with certain aspects of tournament play that have been festering for a little while, but partly also because of some of the reactions to some of my recent content. Additionally, I’m deep in preparations for the Sword and Brush figure show, and have a few half-finished articles in the can that I should probably get out sometime. But, I suppose it’s as good of a time as any…

Being a content creator

Being a content creator can be a little tricky. This blog has been one of my longest-standing writing projects, and it has emphasized how challenging it can be to create content. Sometimes, you just don’t know what to write, and sometimes you get bored with a topic before you finish an article and move on to the next half-finished thing. Finally, the act of taking pictures of your minis and documenting your work can be difficult. It’s pretty common for me to take an in-progress photo, tell myself that I’m going to document my work in detail for the blog, then completely forget to take any more photos until I’m basically done.

The other thing I’ve learned is that if you want to do something, it’s also important to make it a part of your routine. I think one of my new year’s resolutions was to try to put out an article a week, but there have been a couple months, July in particular, where that kind of fell off.

Self-promotion can be a tricky thing as well. I mean, we all get nice and fuzzy feelings when we check the stats and see that a lot of people are reading your stuff. But getting it out there can be difficult. There are often a lot of unwritten or otherwise vague rules about when it’s appropriate to post a link to your articles, and it can be hard to navigate the etiquette online. I don’t want to spam pages, but if I write something good, I want people to see it and I feel like in some way, it’s doing them a favour to point them towards free content they may like. It’s one of the things that I think a lot of people struggle with; we feel awkward really trying to sell ourselves.

Finally, it can be difficult to keep things in perspective when you get negative responses, especially if you are the sort of person who has any sort of anxiety issue. On the internet, it’s easy for a few negative comments to get overwhelming. But for everyone who says, in the words of an anonymous redditor, that your article is the stupidest thing he’s ever seen and that you should fuck off to Games Workshop games, there are at least ten people who either like the article or at least think it is interesting, even if they disagree with some of it.

At least, I hope so…

Content review

Speaking about how my content has been received, I think some of the most well-received articles I’ve written had to do with dice math, which is a series that I could pick up again to address some of the more interesting things about probability and dice math.

Definitely the articles that got the most negative reaction were some of the ones where I talked about the importance of painting in wargaming, and advocated more of an emphasis on playing it painted. This is an issue that I tend to think a lot about, as someone who is a hobby gamer at heart and who has no ambition to compete at the world championships of Warmachine. But it’s hard to talk about in the Warmachine community, because it feels very much like it is basically heresy for some people.

In terms of engagement, I feel like I’ve gotten the most out of documenting my visits to various model shows. I think people like it when they see something they worked on pop up, and I’ve met a couple people from them recognizing me because I posted a picture of their model on the blog.

One other thing I would like to focus on is on content like tutorials. Part of my motivation for this blog was to share knowledge, and I feel like tutorials are a little more evergreen content than some of the other things I post. I could do a write-up on some new release from Privateer Press, or the latest #fakerules out of CID, but that stuff changes and gets stale. On the other hand, articles about how to do NMM say relevant for a long time.

I think it is safe to say that over the past year, I have grown as a painter. Sometimes I get a little impatient with my progress as a miniature painter, especially when I see awesome stuff that other people painted and get a little jealous. However, I feel that looking back on my previous work is a great way to put things in perspective.

One other thing where I have definitely improved is in miniature photography. If I look back at some of my old articles, the models in question look kinda bad. But over the past year, I feel like I’ve really learned to get more out of my iPhone camera, what with buying a light box and using some of the settings.

Future plans?

I’m not sure exactly where I will take this. I’ve been thinking of getting an actual domain name, rather than a .wordpress.com address, in the hopes that that may help grow my audience. The other thing I’ve discussed is doing some twitch streaming of my painting, but that’s going to be down the road as there is some technical knowledge and equipment that is necessary for that.

So… here’s to another year.