Top-Heavy, Part IV: Groundwork

datetime April 9, 2020 7:03 AM

If you’ve been following this series in order, then by this point you’ve endured the construction process for ten chibi Foreign Company models out of an army that I have explicitly mentioned is only ten models strong. Given this, you might be wondering what exactly I’m purporting to fill a fourth installment with.

A reasonable query!

In short, this post is “everything else”. I tried to keep the writeups contained to just the sculpting process for each model and some nice shots of them all painted up, but there were other elements to the project that didn’t really fit in the main installments. So for all of that stuff, we have this episode. πŸ˜€

If you haven’t seen the sculpting installments yet and that sounds interesting to you, feel free to jump back:

And if you don’t care about basing, scenic trays, or solid 6 out of 10 painting advice and just want to see a gallery of all the nice final photos and videos in one spot, you’ll want to zip forward to:

If I somehow haven’t yet convinced you to leave, then I guess you might as well scroll down and weather another rambling essay about my insecurities.


First Side-Thing: Painting!

Now, before I say anything even remotely related to anything I just said I was going to talk about, I’d first like to go on a 2,000-word tangent to recount a mildly interesting story that only loosely relates to this project.

Sound good? Great! πŸ˜€

I haven’t done the analysis, but I bet that if you did a search of my blog articles to determine the complete sentence I’ve written the most times across all of my 105 articles, it would probably be:

I don’t consider myself to be much of a painter.

It’s not that I think my painting is bad, exactly. It’s probably even above average at this point. it’s just that, I don’t consider it to be of a high enough level where I have much to say about it that would be different from the advice you would get elsewhere on the Internet. So for the most part, I usually skip the painting process in most of my articles, just as I did for this series.

With that said, if you rewind the clock a few years, my painting used to be much, much worse. Up until 6ish years ago, I was very much a “layered paint straight out of the pot” painter, and my results were about what you would expect from that technique. But after painting that way for decades, I came to the realization that my general ineptitude at painting was having a negative impact on my development as a sculptor, and that prompted me to try to improve a bit.

See, when I sculpt a model, I’m able to look at the finished product and “see” what all of the forms are supposed to represent, because I’ve spent quite a lot of time staring at monocolour dudes made of clay or putty and my brain is used to processing them. Things like blank eyes don’t bother me– my brain fills in the missing iris and pupil that I know are implied and will be painted in later.

However, over time I found that other people usually weren’t as comfortable looking at a sculpture and considering it a finished work. Their brains, less accustomed to looking at single-coloured models, fretted more about what wasn’t there (i.e., the colours and the smaller details destined to be freehanded in) than what was, and I grew frustrated over time with how difficult it was to get useful feedback on my sculptures from random people I knew.

I didn’t have the same problem when I painted the models; that filled in the gap for most people, and allowed them to see what had been there before. So, I got in the habit of always painting my sculpts, even when I was really proud of the sculpting work and preferred to leave them bare, and even though my paint regularly destroyed my work by obscuring detail work with thick applications of paint.

To cut the melodrama short, the solution for me was lessons. I know some dudes in MontrΓ©al who have cultivated a solid miniature painting community, and regularly bring in professional painters to teach them new stuff. And one year, I decided to drive down and see if I could learn anything useful to help me stop doing so much damage to my own sculpting work.

Flower Knight by Meg Maples

The first class I went to was taught by Meg Maples, who at the time was a studio painter for Privateer Press. I blogged about that class here. Meg’s class focuses on two-brush blending, which is a technique that I found challenging to pick up (and still need to concentrate to pull off), but to this day remains the method I reach for when I want to put out my absolute best work. I’ve never found another technique that blends quite so smoothly or layers on quite so vividly. The problem is, it’s just… hard. There was a two-year period after the class where I practiced it on a regular basis, and it got a lot easier for me to execute; but it never quite got to the point where I could two-brush blend without actual concerted effort, and any time I tried it while I was tired or distracted, the results kind of fell apart. The technique is solid, and Meg is great at teaching it (seriously, go find one of her classes, she’s awesome), but ultimately I just didn’t have the discipline to maintain the skill over time.

Deanna by Elizabeth Beckley

A year or two later, the MontrΓ©al crew brought in another pro painter to teach a class, and I once again trundled down to attend. This time around, the teacher was Elizabeth Beckley, who was most notable at the time for her work painting Chibi miniatures.

Yeah, that’s going to be relevant here. πŸ˜›

At the time, I didn’t have a lot of interest in chibi work; I had only sculpted three chibi models in my life (including, thanks to a request through an intermediary, Elizabeth’s wedding cake toppers), and I didn’t really intend at that point to ever do much more work in that style. However, the class was still very interesting to me because I was already at that point recognizing my own inadequacies at turning Meg’s two-brush technique into an everyday workflow, and I was hoping that another teacher could show me something a bit more my speed. And thankfully, that’s exactly what happened. πŸ˜€

Now, I have been told that I have a tendency to give compliments that aren’t actually compliments. Like that time I told the kid at the burrito shop we used to eat at before D&D twice a month that his burritos used to be fairly bad but had improved a ton over the past year. I don’t care what my mortified fellow players say, that was totally an encouraging compliment!

Right, so, I mention that because every time I’ve shared my take-aways from Elizabeth’s class, people have interpreted my summary as a low-to-middling review. So, uh, please understand that when I say “Elizabeth basically only taught me one small thing, and everything else in her class was stuff I was already doing”, that is me describing the moment that I transformed as a painter. Elizabeth didn’t “only teach me one thing” because her technique is bad or she’s a bad teacher– rather, it means that painting is actually really hard, and you can hodgepodge together a lot of really great advice from different places and do 90% of the process correctly, but that last 10% that you’re missing can still utterly torpedo your results. And sometimes it takes a teacher who knows the process inside and out to look at what you’re doing and be able to say,

“That. That, right there. That’s what you’re doing wrong. Stop it.”

So, yeah. Elizabeth’s class essentially taught glazing, which is the same thing as layering, but with much thinner paint. And I had already been layering! And mixing my own colours! But as I mentioned way at the start, I tended to layer with undiluted paint straight out of the pot, which made my highlights way too stark and my messy brushstrokes extremely visible. The single piece of advice I took away from Elizabeth was, “THIN YOUR GODDAMN PAINT”. And that alone moved me from destroying my sculpts with caked-on paint to actually being able to bring out the strengths of the sculpts in a way that both allowed others to properly see what I had done, and left me satisfied with my own work.

Chibi Marie-Claude, painted by Spud! πŸ™‚

So, Elizabeth’s class was a huge turning point for me as a painter, in spite of the fact that the explicit subject matter of the class wasn’t something I cared much about. BUT, the fact remains that I sat through an entire painting class with a professional painter of chibi miniatures, learning about the specific things that separate good chibi painting from the techniques used on more traditional models. And as it happens, my brain did a pretty good job of preserving most of the information somewhere in its convoluted and bat-infested filing system.

So when I was painting my chibi Foreign Company army, I kept flashing back to tips and techniques from Elizabeth’s class that were tremendously helpful in helping me make decisions about how to colour the models. Everything from the optimal degree of highlights (answer: “extreme!”) to the method for making great giant anime eyes really pop (answer: “glossy!”) came straight from someone whose job it is to know those things, and who was gracious enough to share them with a bunch of nerds in QuΓ©bec four years ago. πŸ™‚

And THAT, dear three readers who are even bothering to read this, is why I took you all on this very long journey through history. Because invariably, when people ask me for tips on making chibi models look good, I am going to confidently reply three things:

  1. “I am not a particularly good painter.”
  2. “I am especially not a particularly good chibi painter.”
  3. “However, I know a really excellent chibi painter, who teaches painting online and in person at cons. If you like how I did any of this, do what I did– go give Elizabeth money to tell you what you’re doing wrong.”


Alright, Actually Painting Now

So, funny story: I didn’t take any pictures of the painting process for this army.

Wait, What?

Like, any. At all.

On purpose.

See, I finished sculpting the last model for this army on March 3rd, and the date that I was scheduled to drive down to Adepticon was March 26th. That gave me just over 3 weeks to paint 10 models. That may not sound like a lot to some people, but for reference: my last full army project, the pink Imperial Service I painted for last year’s Adepticon, was the fastest I have ever painted a grouping of models for a single project. And that army was 7 models, and took me just over 3 months.

I am a very slow painter, is what I’m saying.

So when I was staring down the barrel of painting my beloved bobbleheaded children, I knew that I was going to have to be smart about how I attacked the problem. First on the chopping block, I made some changes to the scope of my planned paintjob. My initial plan had been to hit the entire army with a soft coloured underlight from the front bottom left (similar to what I did last year on my speed-painted Combined Army demo army, but much less garish). However, while I’m confident that the underlight would have looked good, it would have added hours to every model that I didn’t have, so I made my peace with dropping it.

The next adjustment I made was to shift my paint style. I had initially been planning to two-brush blend some elements of the army– notably the heads, for which I had been thinking that smooth blends were going to be really crucial. However, my previously-mentioned unease with the technique meant that I would invariably burn time struggling against my own clumsiness, so I made the pragmatic decision to switch to entirely glazing for the entire project.

( Which, side note: I am now WAY better at than I was a month ago. I figured some things out on this army that I didn’t know before, and am kind of excited to try some of them out again on future models. πŸ˜€ )

Finally, and most pertinently to this article, I made the decision to not take any process photos. I have been methodically documenting my hobby life for so long that it now feels incredibly strange to work on things and not take pictures of them. However, while taking pictures of my processes is deeply ingrained in me at this point, there’s no denying that it takes time and slows things down. The actual photos don’t take that long to shoot, but I often change the order that I paint certain sections so that the resulting sequence of photos will make more sense, even if it would have been faster to jump back and forth between a few tasks at the same time.

I couldn’t afford to get lost in that trap, so I made the call to not document my painting. Which, given my belief that I’m not a great person to be teaching about painting in the first place, wasn’t really sacrificing much, as I rarely share my painting process photos in my articles anyway.

So, yeah. Someone was going to ask, so there’s why the pictures don’t exist. πŸ™‚

Okay, But Seriously, Actually Painting For Real This Time


I do actually have one thing that I thought was interesting to share, and it doesn’t require process photos to talk about. πŸ˜€

This is my recipe card for this project. I mix all of my colours on a wet palette, so when I’m working on an army project where uniformity is going to be important, I like to record the stages and components of my various blends. I don’t record absolutely every colour patch; if a colour is only going to be used on a single model, like the purples and oranges I used on Laxmee, I typically don’t bother recording them. But anywhere I mix up a gradient that I like and expect to need elsewhere in the army, I record the steps on a sheet of cardstock to help me mix them again later.

So, that part isn’t all that unique; tons of painters do that, and if you aren’t already, you should probably start. πŸ™‚ However, this recipe card in particular lets me show something that the people at my local store are absolutely sick of hearing me repeat.

“Pick a shadow colour, and blend LITERALLY EVERYTHING to that colour.”

As I have been disclaiming for over twenty five hundred words now, I don’t think I’m a good painter. But ultimately what I mean by that statement is that I am not good at putting paint on models. My best work can look quite nice, but I have absolutely no idea how to do pro-quality blends even in the best case, and the worst of my work when I’m really tired can look quite a lot like ass. Paint application takes patience, and I don’t always have that resource in abundance.

However, I do have one fairly uncommon skill among painters: I am exceptionally good at colour selection. A number of converging interests that I pursued in my late teens and early twenties– digital painting, 3D modeling and rendering, and traditional acrylic painting– trained my brain to understand light and colour on a very fundamental level, and to this day I find it quite easy to determine which colours will be useful to portray specific desired lighting effects.

Okay, so that was vague. What am I talking about specifically?

Specifically, I’m talking about how working in 3D modeling software like 3D Studio Max and Maya allowed me to play around with scene lights, and develop an appreciation for the impact that adding and removing specific types of lights from a scene had on the models. Unless you have access to tens of thousands of dollars of studio lighting equipment for some reason, it’s likely that you’ve never had the luxury of experimenting at length with a room in real life, to see what the impact is of having, say, a low red light washing over a scene that’s otherwise lit by powerful overhead white light, or what the scene looks like when you turn those white overheads way down and the dull glows of the previously subtle red light is now the primary defining illumination for the entire scene. And then, to switch back and forth between the two lighting levels to see what that red light is doing even when the main lights are ostensibly drowning it out.

Playing with *cough* legitimatelyacquired *cough* 3D software in my youth allowed me to run those experiments, and my development as a painter further into adulthood allowed me to boil all of my experiences into one incredibly useful painting strategy:

“Pick a shadow colour, and blend LITERALLY EVERYTHING to that colour.”

See, the shadows on models aren’t actually an absence of light. They aren’t just “the places that the lights didn’t hit”, because “the lights” is a failure to understand how real-world lighting works. What shadows actually are, are areas where the strongest scene spotlights have less impact. But in the real world, the strongest scene spotlights– whether they be the sun, a nearby fire, or some artificial lighting like a streetlight– are almost never the only light hitting a scene.

Here’s a street at night. You can see that the trees are green because they have artificial white streetlights illuminating them. However, in the edges of the scene where those lights drop off, note how things don’t, strictly speaking, turn black— they turn dark blue. Why? Because THAT’S THE COLOUR OF THE SKY. See that sky, there at the top? That’s almost black, but not quite black? Even though there is artificial light in the scene, that bright light is heavily localized and directional, and incapable of fully illuminating the entire scene. If you shut down all of the lights on that street, the scene would not turn black.

The entire scene would turn dark blue.

That, friends, is ambient light. Ambient light is light from a soft but huge source– like a dim skythat floods your scene with a specific colour of very dim light by bouncing off of pretty much every surface onto every other surface from every angle. Ambient light is soft enough to be drowned by almost any other lights in your scene, so it won’t have much impact at all on what painters would think of as midtones and highlights. But your shadows are that ambient light. Because shadows are the areas where your bright primary lights didn’t strike the model; but anywhere those lights didn’t hit, there is still light. And that light is one specific colour, corresponding to (in most cases) the sky.

Which means, when you’re painting naturalistic models, one of the very first decisions you make in the entire process should be: “What colour is my ambient light?” Because whatever you choose will be incorporated into literally every colour swatch you apply to literally every model in the project.

So in my case…

Check out the last line of each grouping. Notice any common themes? πŸ™‚

Hi kids, meet Sombre Grey. Sombre Grey is the best paint that has ever been invented, because Sombre Grey is the absolute best shadow colour I have ever found in any paint range. At any given moment, I have anywhere from four to eight bottles of Sombre Grey in my paint kit, and not because I go through a lot of it (though I do). No, I keep a lot of it because, that whole diatribe I’ve just gone through about ambient light and coloured shadows? Yeah, I shout that speech at someone about every month or two in real life. This rarely happens because they’ve asked me about it; usually they’ve asked one of the ACTUAL skilled painters at our store for advice picking colours, and I come screeching out of the basement to hijack the conversation and talk about realistic blue shadow colours while they look around the room with a look of growing panic across their face, pleading with their eyes as they wonder why people they trusted are allowing this to happen.

And even at the end, they’re usually still pretty skeptical. So, I give them a bottle of Sombre Grey, and suggest they try shading an entire model down to it.

And I never hear back from them, because this is a human being I do not know who had no desire to speak with me in the first place. But I’m confident that they all try it out and learn the wisdom of my words. ^_^

Spud if you don’t talk about painting your f***ing chibi models or move onto another subject I’m going to turn around and f***ing leave right now


Oh, right. The army.

So, uh, ambient lighting and coloured shadows are a really useful tool for unifying a diverse army colour palette. When every model in an army has its own unique colour scheme with minimal costume colour overlap to tie one model in with its neighbours, it’s very easy to end up with a group of models that don’t look like they belong to the same army (the Justice League Problem, as no-one has ever called it). Binding the models together by aggressively sticking to a common shadow colour– sombre grey in my case– as well as ensuring that they’re all lit from an identical angle– upper left for these particular chibis– makes the models look like they’re all standing in the same environment under the same lighting conditions. Add in a common set of bases that are also shaded to the same paint colour as the models, and you create army coherence not through common costuming, but through a believable sense that they’re standing together in one place.

That’s why my chibi mercenaries look like they match each other even though they’re all dressed differently: I picked a lighting scheme and stuck with it. Even on light colours, even on skin, even on gold. Literally everywhere.

If you do that, your armies will look better.

Thanks for coming to my TED Talk. πŸ˜€

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *