Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Art of Sculpting Miniatures

While researching a Castalia House post on gnome themed games and fantasy miniatures I came across Old School Miniatures and found someone whose fascination with one of the least known and played fantasy races exceeds mine.

This post is not a review of Old School's gnomes (though I have an order en route) but a Q&A session with Byron Harmon, a miniature sculpture for Old School Miniatures and someone, though relatively new to miniature design and sculpting, produces great work (at least good enough for someone like me with a solid collection of fantasy figures, already including gnomes, to go ahead and order his Alpine Gnomes).

The Q&A below is lengthy but filled with good information and has a couple of links new artists will find useful. The topics not only include sculpting but also the art behind figure design. My tastes in fantasy figures are old school and agree with Byron's comment on "spectacle creep".

At very end Byron has provided a link to a survey soliciting input on Kickstarters stretch goals. If you like their line of figures, they also have other surveys on their blog.

Update: Figures arrived last week, quicker than expected. They look good and once they get painted I'll post about them. Most of the gnome figures are sold "slotta tabbed" meaning that instead of a small base (as seen in the photo on top), the figure has a small tab on the bottom, designed to fit into slots on standard square bases. The foxes come with small bases as well as a few of the individual gnome figures but best to check on the Old School site first before ordering.


Scott Cole: When did you start sculpting miniatures and what prompted you to give it a go?

Byron Harmon: There are two answers to this. I had generally used green stuff as part of my wargaming hobby for years, but never really got into it. I did a few beards and fur here and there. And, one time I converted some space marines to space frogs sculpting some simple frog heads, but nothing especially complicated. Then in the spring of 2016, by girlfriend broke up with me and I found myself with a lot of free time. So I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great to sculpt my own miniatures? And I just jumped into it. Like that. My first miniature was an attempt at an old Ruglud’s armoured orc, then I tried my hand at a druid. From there, I leapt into sculpting the unit of gnome halberdiers.

The best advice I could give for sculpting is that you shouldn’t think of it as sculpting the entire mini in one go. One doesn’t master mini sculpting. Instead think incrementally as a continuous process of learning, and mastering each texture. The easiest things to sculpt are fur, beards, and rudimentary chainmail.

For beginners, a good first step is doing basic conversion work applying simple textures. Often these textures are simply permutative, that is it’s usually just one or two simple motions, and then you repeat that motion many times. I also highly recommend the YouTube videos created by Tom Mason - he gives great tutorials on sculpting faces, hands,  and other useful skills. I sat down one afternoon and sculpted 4 or 5 faces until I felt comfortable with it.

SC: Please elaborate on mastering textures.

BH: I was referring to the physical texture of the mini itself. This link contains great examples of what I am referring to and has step by steps for achieving various textures.

A brief comment on textures. If you were to sculpt models realistically, most textures would disappear and be rendered smooth if the model were only 28mm big or profusely over-textured. I think this is boring and doesn't help our painting hobbyists one bit. So, when I sculpt I exaggerate textures so that they are easily identifiable. Wood grain becomes a surface of undulating, waving forms that flow in a single direction. Fur and beards get lots of swirling hairs. But with cloth  i usually just pick out a few folds that give the right overall impression and flow of the garment. I think having the textures easily identifiable makes them come to life for the player. There are shortcomings to this. Some painters like the ambiguity so they can choose whether something is metal or cloth for example.

SC:  Looking at your workbench posts I’m wondering about the skill set required for sculpting.  Do you have a sculpting or carving  background using other mediums or maybe experience as an illustrator?

BH: My background is relatively limited. Growing up I had always done crafty things. I’m poor at drawing, but I am great at doodling. The real experience I had going into it was using putty for gap filling and minor conversion work - beards ,fur, and the like. But, miniature painting informs a lot of my sculpting. I often try to anticipate how a model will be to paint and I try to model to make them easy to paint. Some model textures are nearly impossible to paint well I wanted to avoid that.

I also played a lot of legos as a young child and took a lot of engineering courses in high school. These aren’t so much artistic skills, but I think they certainly helped me think out the process for my miniatures. I often mentally map out all of the potential layers of putty and how they will interact, well in advance. If you do the layers out of order you can quickly get into trouble.

SC:  What are the differences in producing art in two dimensions (painting, drawing) versus three dimensions.

BH: A lot of my process starts in two dimensions. My law school notebooks are filled with marginal gnome doodles - poses, material culture (what types of objects populate the gnome’s world/culture), motifs, layering, expressions, lists of new ideas etc etc. Most of my poses are in a sense very 2 dimensional. In the sense that I think that every model needs  a clear line of motion. This is a great video that I routinely return to.

A line of motion is an abstract line that you can draw across an image that shows where the eye follows, the movement of the model’s mass, or the line that telegraphs the model’s action. So when I design my gnomes, most poses are the result of me studying the good poses from back in the day that worked well and stick figure poses, where I break down the essential elements of the pose (you can see examples of these doodles on many of the corks that I use for sculpting.) These 2D doodles of poses are often the basis for my armatures. As such most of my models tend to have a planar aspect to them… imagine drawing a fencer in a lunge. There is a clear line of action. It starts with the back left foot, follows up the outstretched leg, across the body, out the right arm and down to the tip of the rapier. When you translate this to sculpting, all of that is broadly going to fall on the same plane. … at least that’s how I imagine it in principle.

SC: Please give the readers a short summary of how the miniatures are produced?  I see you use a green putty and notice that even when you sculpted some swallows using sheet copper you add putty. I’m guessing the putty allows you to easily sculpt small details but does the putty have special properties needed when making a mold?

BH: All of the miniatures are sculpted using “Green Stuff” or Kneadatite. Some sculptors use milliput, prosculpt, or even oven hardening clays. My use of green stuff isn’t a principled stance or a wisened choice. There is a lot of discussion about which material is best. I use green stuff because it is what I am most familiar with and I haven’t tried other products.

What I like about the putty is that it cures on its own. So when I sculpted the feathers, I could sculpt one layer of feathers and then walk away. They would cure and then I could return and add another layer. As you saw with the pike gnomes workbench post, my models take many layers. I rarely do more than 2 layers in a day. The putty cures hard and allows me to take my time.

As for mold making, I am largely ignorant to that end of the process. I sculpt my doodads then mail them off to Jamie. I’ve seen a few videos about miniature casting, but I don’t know how the molding process works with any specificity.

SC:  I enjoyed your post on “What Makes Old School Miniatures So Good?”, especially the discussion of natural poses. You mention awkward poses occupying a box space making it difficult to paint.  Earlier you mentioned anticipating how a figure will be painted.  This question is coming from an “just OK” painter that finds my skill set limited when confronted by a “busy” figure, especially in the crowded space around the stomach area (belt, belt buckle,  dagger, sword scabbard, pouch, etc, etc.). How does anticipating how the figure will be painted translate into your designs?.

BH: I concentrate on how well a detail will respond to paint; will it be easy to dry brush or ink? So I generally try to avoid large open surfaces that invite freehanding. Sometimes my sculpted details are too tiny for me to paint well. I sculpted some shields with trees or deer on them, and they are a dickens to paint.

Regarding fiddly bits. I really don’t like fiddly bits on my miniatures. I am a bit of a lazy painter myself. I painted the gnome army that we use for our advertising, but I cut a lot of corners. And this influences my sculpting. I mostly try to avoid unnecessary pouches and nicknacks. I know that each thingamabob that a model has means more colors that you have to paint, and that bugs me too. I want my gnomes painted efficiently! I have battles to fight! But there are a few circumstances where I add bits. With the new mounted characters I mostly took the unmounted characters and sawed off their legs and plunked them atop rider legs. In a few instances I added bags to cover up where  things didn’t mesh up well. Or in the case of the Cantonal standard, I gave him a little bag on his belt since he didn’t have much else going on.

SC: I have mixed feelings about painting complexity versus historical accuracy. My intro to the hobby was with fabulous Napoleonic armies and the intense attention to historical detail those hobbyists paid right down to the correct number and placement of buttons and shades of color for regimental distinctions when painting collars, cuffs, plumes, etc.

BH: Right. I’ve never played a traditional historical game (though, a law school friend and I are taking a stab at designing our own Red Dawn themed Cold War skirmish game set in the 60’s) but I do have a certain curiosity for it. Obviously painting accuracy doesn’t directly apply to my gnomes (there is no best way to paint my gnomes), I love seeing how my fans interpret my work. But what I can say that relates to your comment is that I sometimes feel the opposite type of pressure from folks who comment on my work. The aesthetic that I have tried to create for the gnomes is a sort of low-fantasy semi-historical realism. I often seek comments from the community about what I should add to the range next, and there are often requests for steampunk, clockwork, and other high-fantasy tropes. I feel torn. On the one hand people want that content, but on the other it would disrupt the overall aesthetic I am aiming for. I don’t know exactly what balance to strike between the two.

SC:  What are your favorite old school miniature lines?

BH: My favorite line of miniatures from back in the day? I think it’s the old citadel miniature savage orcs from 1988.  I love how gangly and characterful they are. They look very opportunistic and scheming:

BH: One thing I would add, about my attitude about sculpting is that I want to push back on spectacle creep. Sometimes it feels that we have a sort of addiction to spectacle or epicness in the nerding community and this means we have to have ever increasing spectacle to get our fix. Things have to be grimmer and darker, pauldrons have to be bigger, etc., & etc. This is often reflected in gameplay and game rules where newer models have to be better in the rules so that players will buy them. In the original 1980’s  Warhammer, humans were essentially in the middle of the spectrum. They weren’t puny relative to all of their foes, nor were they overpowered. If you look at say 40k the men of the Imperium are nearly categorically outclassed by every opponent (perhaps this is to reinforce the narrative of nihilistic struggle against cosmic forces that dwarf individual humans). I see my gnomes as pushing back against this trend. They are the opposite of spectacle creep. They are smaller, diminutive and low-fantasy. They aren’t ruthless killers like the current orcs nor graceful efficient killers like the elves. They are frumpy little gnomes, with villagers, nappers, wagons, and tiny fox pals. Nearly the opposite of grimdark epicness.

I try to play this up in the flavor text that I use to describe their forces. This is an excerpt from my version of the WHFB 4th ed Bestiary entry for foxes:

Foxes are playful woodland predators. They resemble our real-world foxes in manner, including their diminutive size. They are a great menace to farmers, snotlings and small birds.  Foxes are wily and lithe in their forest homes, easily evading the commoner, avenging his murdered fowl. Consequently, they are often hunted by human nobles with great gusto and pomp.

Foxes are not ferocious predators like giant wolves. They are comparatively small, with paw-like claws and teeth as dangerous as the tines of a table fork.

Gnomes riding foxes have an advantage over a typical gnome in both speed, and the savage nibble of the fox. However, this valiant duo is still outclassed by common cavalry of most other races. For this reason, foxes and their gnomish riders prey on skirmishers and loners while keeping to the woods where they can easily escape.

SC: What are you working on now?

BH: I just finished up the figures for our next gnome kickstarter. It includes Pikegnomes, a baggage train pulled by goats, mounted characters, swallows, sappers, and a pair of little sleeping napping gnomes. I am very excited about it! Mostly because I want some Pikegnomes for my own gnomish army. Hahaha.

Right now I am finishing up our Medieval Marginalia project. We already had a successful kickstarter and I am sculpting up the stretch goals. The gnomes won’t get mailed to Jamie until I am done with the Marginalia.

In the meantime I sent some “evil gnomes” to Jamie. I believe these will be released soon with our line of Chaos  Thugs (not sculpted by me.)

SC: I like the sleeping gnomes.  Are they for use in a diorama or is a good nap an essential part a successful campaign?

BH: The old warhammer rules encouraged players to include baggage trains. It felt natural that a baggage train would include various camp accessories, and by corollary gnomes using those facilities. Sleeping gnomes felt appropriate and adorable for that purpose. I think having a little gnome with a teddy bear really helps to demystify the army and pull it out of the grimdark genre. Many oldhammer enthusiasts make elaborate baggage trains and set up dioramas when they play their battles.

Below are some snips from the Warhammer Fantasy and some blogs where hobbyists have made wonderful baggage trains:

Also here is the link to our stretch goal survey. I have a lot of ideas for the gnomes, and I always like to hear which ideas resonate with our fans so I can start putting my mind to them. I already have lots of sketches and doodles in the works for ideas. More feedback lets me focus my ideas though or opens me up to new ideas.

SC: Thanks Byron, excellent information.

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