Top-Heavy, Part I: The Nobodies

datetime April 9, 2020 7:00 AM

So, what the f*** is chibi?

Chibi is a cartooning style characterized by extremely exaggerated body proportions that aims to maximize an appearance of cuteness.

Just, like… google it.

Yeah, it’s that.

Now, chibi isn’t one specific style or scale. As you can start to see above, a million different artists do chibi in a thousand different ways. Instead, if we were to draw out a continuum of proportionality ordered by head scale…

Click to embiggen

…chibi would be a general hand-wave toward “the ones on the right”. The screenshot I took above gives some good examples of the variability– the lady in the pink sweater is about 3 heads tall, the girl in the sailor dress at bottom right is about 2.5 heads tall, and the unicorn girl at top left is just about 2 heads tall. And there’s a ton of variability even beyond the head scaling– you then have variability in muscular simplification, limb thickness, eye scale, and anything else you can think of.

All of which is to say that, Just saying you’re going to do “chibi” doesn’t really tell you much. You still have to make a lot of specific decisions about the particular level of exaggeration you want across the entire frame.

Personally, I like to draw chibis at two heads tall– that is to say, with a colossal noggin that takes up fully half of the body. I find the awkwardness of this scale to be really funny to look at, as you start to have problems where the model is restricted in their arm movement because their ridiculous head keeps getting in the way. Double-handed overhead battleaxe swings are pretty much right out the window. 😛

As for the rest of the body, I basically like to increase the distortion as you travel vertically down the body. My chibi models’ hair is too big for their heads; their arms are actually pretty much the right scale for their torsos; and their legs are SUPER TINY, terminating in tiny li’l bean feet.

With my scale decided, I drew up a skeleton I was happy with at 35mm (the height of the normal Infinity model range) and laid out where the armature wires would go within that frame.

Note here the two circles for the head– the outer circle is the desired final size of the heads, and the smaller one is the size of wire loop I intended to put inside of it as support. As you’ll see a bit later on, I didn’t reduce the wire nearly enough, which caused me some problems on the first model and necessitated some emergency armature surgery afterward. But, more on that when the trouble arises…

Alrighty, so… let’s bend some wire! There are lots of different ways to build a wire armature (the skeleton that you build the model around), but I tend to build in two pieces– one piece down the middle for the head, torso, and legs, and then a second piece of wire for the arms. I then stick the two pieces together to form the final armature.

Here I form the head loop by bending the wire around the handle of a big X-Acto knife. The wire I mainly use for sculpting is 20 gauge galvanized picture wire from the hardware store.

To keep everything in scale, I hold the wire up against my skeleton drawing and bend the wire using pliers to match the limb lengths I drew.

Next, the arm wire. I add a dip down into the chest cavity in the middle of the arm wire to give me an overlapping area to connect the two halves of the armature together. Bend points are marked with a sharpie, and then bent using tiny pliers.

Rinse, repeat. I made all ten armatures for this project (plus two spares, in case of disaster) in one veeeeeeeeery booooooooring evening. 😛

To connect the two pieces of the armature together, I first attach them with super glue. This won’t be strong enough on its own, but it keeps them together long enough to do the next steps.

Next, I use much thinner wire (26 gauge copper, I believe) to lash the two pieces together more solidly. The wire goes around the chest two or three times, and then up over the shoulders once. I then slather lots of super glue over the entire knot to firm everything up.

Rinse, repeat.

An example of a finished armature. When making normal-scale 35mm miniatures, you have to be really careful about how much wire you put in the chest cavity, as an excessively thick wire knot will pop out through the model’s comparatively thin chest. However, chibi models tend to be quite fat, so you usually have enough layers of clay to bury the wires in even if the bundles end up quite messy like these.

So many skeletons!

The last steps to finish the armatures are to add putty around the torso knot (again, more reinforcement to keep the two parts together), and to fill in the head loop to make it a disc.

With those done, I was able to move onto the very first model. 🙂

The Sneakster

Alrighty, let’s get this mess properly started!

Foreign Company, like all NA2 armies, features a good selection of models borrowed from other factions. A lot of them don’t appeal to me visually (Kriza Boracs and Croc Men leap to mind), but others are longtime favourites of mine– notably the ORC troop that had been only of the only high points from my Varuna sketches, and a sneaky loan from Bakunin: the Zero.

I’ve always been a pretty big fan of the “plain white mask” look of the Observance models, and the Zero here is no exception. My planned army was going to contain two Zeroes as designated button-pushers, and I decided to work on those models first, as the plain heads and relatively simple costumes would let me get the hang of the general body proportioning without being forced to also dedicate brain cells to heavy detailing at the same time.

A big part of the fun of working in chibi scale is being able to get away with extremely exaggerated cartoon posing. Since the Zeroes are stealth troops, I opted for a cartoon sneaking pose for the first model, and a “shush!” pose for the second.

The generic armature was twisted into shape using needle-nose pliers. My armatures terminate at the tips of the toes, and then I leave a bit of extra slack to let me embed the extra wire in a wine cork, which becomes a handle I can hold onto throughout the sculpting and painting processes.

I sculpt in Fimo, which is a polymer clay available at most craft stores. Fimo doesn’t stick to metal on its own, so you need to apply a layer of Green Stuff putty over the armature as an adhesive layer. The Green Stuff is thinly applied using metal sculpting tools.

The first layer of Fimo is immediately applied directly over the still-soft putty. Once again, it’s pressed into place using metal sculpting tools; clean surfaces aren’t terribly important at this point, since many layers will be going on top.

Fimo comes in a variety of hues, but I prefer to use very faint colours like off-white or light grey because I find that detail is easier to make out against those lighter shades. Note that Fimo on its own is too tough to easily work; the manufacturer intends that you’ll also buy a companion material called Fimo Mix Quick (the white block above), which is a softening agent that you mix with the Fimo to bring it to your desired level of firmness. I like a mix of roughly 60% Fimo to 40% Mix Quick.

Clay is added to the model in shreds and slabs to arrive at the desired thickness for each part. At this stage I’m still working entirely with metal tools, as the ability to quickly jam bits of clay together is far more important at this stage than getting clean surfaces. You don’t need very much clay to bulk out an arm or a leg, but the sheer size of chibi heads mean that they’ll invariably require huge amounts of clay to be stuck on.

I keep applying bits and pieces of clay and blending them into each other until the model has the general type of physique I’m after. At this point, I finally do a smoothing pass using silicone clayshapers, which are able to achieve a much smoother finish than metal tools thanks to their pliability.

Most models in the army will have bean-shaped heads, but the Zeroes’ helmets form a pretty smooth egg shape.

Once I’m happy with the basic body masses, I start adding clothes. I typically start at the model’s feet and work my way up. Thick garment breaks are added first, and then I add smaller surface details.

The Zero’s costume is mostly a tight bodysuit broken up into panels and areas of ribbing. The boots, however, are quite complex– not only are there multiple parallel bands with polygonal edges, there are also small grooves pressed into the fronts of the bands. For such a small accessory, it took quite a while to get the shape looking right.

Garment edges and fully embossed straps are both done in pretty much the same way– I roll out a very thin clay snake, and apply it either as one long piece or in smaller snippets.

The snake is then pressed flat and blended into its surroundings. You can achieve different effects depending on how you blend it; you can leave a stark ledge on both sides to make the new clay appear as an independent band of material, or you can blend one of the edges into the surrounding material to look like a garment is coming to an end– e.g., the bottom of a sleeve or a pant leg.

I don’t worry about getting the details perfectly crisp on my first pass– I typically just work in the major details, and worry about smoothing and smaller details on later passes. In this case, I was happy enough even with the slightly wobbly leg details to move up to the chest. I delineate the edge of the shirt as covered above, and then keep going up.

The Zero’s chest panels are pretty straightforward– a wide pectoral pad and a trapezoid over the abdomen. A thin bit of ribbing follows the edge of each panel.

The ribbing is a bit weird to form cleanly; the trick is to cut the edges in with a knife or the edge of a metal sculpting tool, and then to use a flat-ended metal tool to slightly press the center downward. Everything else is then smoothed with clayshapers.

To build the hands, a bit of clay is applied to form the entire block of fingers. Hands are one of the many elements that are easier to sculpt on a chibi model than on a normal-scale model. You can often get away with a more simplified grooved “mitten”, which then allows each finger to support its neighbours.

The grooves are pressed in about halfway down the mitten, and then things are smoothed out a bit. Once that’s all formed, I use a knife to separate some of the finger tips and slightly pull them away from the rest of the hand. More work would be needed to add individual finger segments on a normal model, but on chibis, a rounded finger looks just fine.

The extreme simplicity of the Zeroes’ heads makes face detailing almost a non-step; I’ll cover this in more detail on other models, but essentially I just press a circle into the head with a piece of brass tubing to set the general size of the eye, and then follow up with clayshapers to smooth out the surface and edges of the eye.

Remember earlier when I said that I messed up the armatures by making the head loops too big? This is where that error finally bit me. The hard under-structure of the head loops comes extremely close to the outer surface of the head; there’s so little clay in the way that it becomes translucent. This is problematic because the tools I pass over the head to smooth it out can’t help pinching that tiny amount of clay against the loop, which leaves a noticeable indented groove no matter how much smoothing I do. I’ll end up having to fix this with a patch of putty in a later pass after baking the model.

So, I really try to avoid steps that are just “and then draw the rest of the owl“, but like… I make the holstered gun in five minutes by applying a putty blob, smooshing it into a rectangle, and then pressing different parts of it down. It goes so fast that I didn’t even get any process shots.

Don’t worry, lots of other models will have guns on their hips, and I must have taken proper process shots for at least one of them. 😛

The knife is even faster. Same lack of process shots.

I know, I’m a terrible blogger.

So hey, fun fact: the Zeroes are the one design for which I wasn’t able to track down concept art to work from, so all of my reference came from some actual Zero models I bought for the Bakunin army I’ve been failing to assemble for like four years. The lack of art reference caused me to miss a couple of things, like when I completely forgot that Zeroes have little earmuff doohickeys until after the model was finished and baked. I had to go back in and add them afterward, then bake again.

No big deal, just kind of annoying. 😛

And with that… the first model is done! 😀

Painted pictures for all models will be on the last page of the article. For now, jump to the next page to see the process for the army’s second sneaky Nomad.

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