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.

2 thoughts on “Bust a move with Amy Johnson

  1. Pingback: Sword and Brush 2018 – Retrospective | Ice Axe Miniatures

  2. Pingback: Last year’s resolutions… | Ice Axe Miniatures

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