So I’ve been asked to write about building and painting model figures. A bit of a daunting task when whole books have been dedicated to it, so I’ve decided to focus this as an overview for beginners or people who’ve thought they’d like to give it a go, but don’t know where to begin.
For a start, I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on this, far from it. It’s just a hobby I enjoy and one where I’m constantly learning, refining and hopefully getting better at. My relationship with modelling resembles most peoples. I liked to build them as a kid, starting with Airfix planes, then Tamyia vehicles with figures and then on to Historex Napoleonic figures. I loved building models so much that my first job was working in Hobbyco which at the time was a sprawling store below ground on George Street in Sydney.
As a teenager I lost interest to other pursuits and then after a 20 year absence went back to it. I don’t really know what the catalyst was, probably the desire to do something artistic. I was always good at art but had also let that lapse for a couple of decades. Anyway, whatever the reason my interest had been renewed so I headed straight to the one place I knew would be invaluable when getting started again. The Internet. While a lot of the figures, paints brushes and tools are the same as 20 years ago, there had also been a lot of advancement and for me the greatest advancement to the hobby is the Internet. The internet not only gives you access to kits and figures from all over the world but tutorials and videos, pictures of other peoples work and contacts for clubs and competitions.
That was about 10 years ago now and in that time I’ve gone from painting stock figures, to heavily converted figures to sculpting a few figures from scratch and have won a handful of medals and trophies along the way.
There are literally thousands of figures available covering just about every period of history. They come in a variety of materials, mostly white metal, resin and plastic. Each has their advantages and disadvantages. More often than not the choice of figure to buy is motivated by the period, the pose and more often than not, the cost. The metal and resin kits are the most detailed, require the least amount of clean up for assembly and are naturally more expensive. But I’ve also produced some nice results out of older cheaper kits.
These come in a variety of scales. In model figures the most common is 54mm or 1/32 scale. Kit figures that are used with armoured vehicles etc are predominantly 1/35 or 1/48 scale. Then there are larger scale figures. Historex a predominately Napoleonic range, are an anomaly at 1/30, only worth mentioning because you can’t mix and match parts with Airfix 54mm Napoleonic kits. Then there are 75mm, 120mm and 200mm and variants in between.
The different scales have advantages and disadvantages. It may seem easier to paint a larger scale figure because the elements aren’t so small, but it also means that other details like the texture of fabric or details in the eyes have to be taken into account.
Just about every kit out there will require some clean up and assembly. By clean up I mean removing the seam lines from casting or filling sink holes in mould injected plastic kits. The more expensive metal kits need less clean up, but will still need some assembly. You only need a handful of tools to get started and you can add to this kit as you go. Most of these you can get at a hobby shop, hardware store or online. A very basic kit should contain an X-Acto knife, a model cutting mat, fine wet and dry sandpaper, superglue and a solvent based glue if you’re working with plastic figures and some epoxy filler. That’s should be enough to clean up and construct a kit figure, metal, resin or plastic.
Paints are a matter of preference. Oils, acrylics, and enamels are all used by figure painters, either one medium exclusively or a combination of all three. I’ve only recently switched from Humbrol enamels to Andrea acrylics. After some initial readjustment in how to use them, I now love them and the finish they give. They dry dead flat and are easy to work with. There are hundreds of painting tutorials online that are very helpful. But be warned, like anything online, some tutorials are very useful and will help you improve your painting while some will just show you short cuts that will be quick to produce but less impressive when finished.
Before painting your figure it should be sprayed with a primer. This gives the figure a surface to adhere to and shows up any imperfections that might need to be fixed before you put all the work into the painting. There are several aerosol primers available in hobby shops. I use Citadel from Games Workshop mostly because it’s convenient and easy to use.
Good paint brushes are vital and you should buy the best you can afford. People use a variety of brushes and it all comes down to preference. I use Windsor Newton series 7 brushes that are available from art supply stores or are easy to find online. They are a sable brush that retain a fine point and leave little streaking. They are expensive but if you look after them they last forever. Ironically most brushes available from hobby stores are a bit rubbish and just end up being frustrating to use. It’s very difficult to get a good result out of a rubbish brush.
Everyone has their own style when it comes to painting, so I thought it best to just give an overview of how I approach it, which I learnt from the modellers whose work I admire.
I always start a figure with the face, the personality of the figure, and from there work down. It’s always the first thing you look at, and getting it right is a great motivator for painting the rest of the figure.
Each area of the figure is basically painted in the same steps. First a coat of the base colour, so flesh for the face, then darker tones are added under the chin, jawline, under the eyebrows, the bags under the eyes and hollows of the cheeks and then highlights of lighter flesh tones are applied to the cheekbones, temples, bridge of the nose to give dimension and character to the face.
The same then applies to the clothing etc. The base colour is painted first, then the darker recesses of the folds working out towards the highlights. Strong contrasts between the dark and light tones will make your figure stand out. Subtler contrasts, especially on small figures, can leave you with a less vibrant result.
Just a quick note, some people like to completely assemble the figure and then start painting, but in a lot of cases it can make it hard to get to certain areas with your brush. In these cases I paint those parts separately and attach them when the bulk of the figure has been painted.
Converting and Sculpting
So this isn’t really for those getting started, and there are books dedicated to sculpting figures from scratch, but I thought I’d give a brief outline of the materials I use to convert and sculpt figures.
Eventually there will come a time when you want a figure to be posed in a certain way or of a figure that isn’t commercially available. This is where you’ll need to convert stock figures or sculpt them from scratch. Most of us start converting figures by swapping out arms and legs from various kits to create different poses. This then leads to sawing limbs in half and repositioning them, or sculpting new limbs, which can then lead to sculpting a whole figure from scratch.
The first time I opened Bill Horan’s excellent book Military Modelling Masterclass and saw the 54mm figures he sculpted I just thought, ‘Give me a break, that’s impossible’, but it’s not. If you give it a go and keep working at it, each figure will get better and the process will get less frustrating because you’ve already made the mistake and learnt from it.
I’d highly recommend his book, it’s a great step by step and has some brilliant and inspiring work between the covers.
The putties I use are Green Stuff a two-part epoxy putty. The yellow and blue parts are mixed together to make a green putty that I use for fine sculpting like belt buckles, buttons, lacework, insignia, hair and moustaches.
Aves Apoxie Sculpt is also a two-part epoxy putty which when mixed has a clay like texture. It dries rock hard and can be sanded, drilled and carved when set.
For the bulk of my sculpting I like to mix the two putties together in equal portions. It has a very malleable texture without being too sticky and is easy to sculpt.
These are readily available in hobby stores and online. Be sure you buy small quantities as a little goes a long way and last a long time.
When I’m sculpting a figure I start out with a commercially sculpted head, then a roughly shaped torso, pelvis and feet. I then use paperclip wire to attach all these as well as the arms and legs and then pose the figure. I then add the Aves Apoxie to fill out the rest of the anatomy. Once that’s cured I then sculpt the uniform and equipment over the framework.
How the figure starts… And ready for painting.
So why on earth would you subject yourself to being critiqued by your peers in a competition? The assumption is that you think your work is so good it needs to be seen by others. But the truth is it’s all about seeing the work that’s been done by others. To be inspired, to learn new techniques and since modelling is something you predominantly do in isolation it’s good to see your work next to others.
The final word on participating in competitions is to remember it’s fun. Judging is subjective and different things catch their eye. Sometimes the emotion or the story of a scene or figure will be more impactful than a perfectly rendered static figure.
Last year I had a vignette entered in a competition that I thought didn’t have a chance of placing when I saw the competition… It came first. And went on to win two more firsts at other events. You just never know.
There are several competitions during the year, every major city has one, but the grandest of them all is Model Expo, held every Queen’s Birthday long weekend in Melbourne. It’s the largest collection of every type of model and well worth visiting, even if you’re not competing.
So there’s a slight insight into the world of miniature modelling. It doesn’t take much to get started, but once you do you mightn’t stop.