Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bringing a New Style to the Hobby

Barry Lees, Golden Demon 1993, Veteran's Category
Here are some thoughts that have been brewing for a while, sparked more after attending Games Day North America 2010. (Baltimore)

Recently, Lauby has been talking about things that have stirred up my thoughts again and I finally think I know the direction I want to start taking things. (Read his thoughts as of this posting in Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4) Get comfortable, and if you only have a little time, please come back to this post later.

I entered two pieces into the Golden Demon painting contest (both making first cut) and was slightly disappointed to see that a majority of the other entries seemed to blend together into a single mass. They look great up close; this is not intended to be a slight against the artists. But take a few steps back and most of the models disappeared in a sea of darkness. We all get it - in the grim darkness of the future, there is only war - and if there is one thing that Ron Perlman (narrator of Fallout) has taught us, it is that "War... war never changes".

Lauby's posts made me realize I'm not the only one with woes regarding today's common style of painting. Something that came up was the idea of how human nature is to emulate until we get bored and find a new vice. I recall that when I was a kid, a lot of the great works of art I saw in miniatures were done in washed out sepia tones and lighter or brighter colours which looked great and was the reverse of today's landscape. However, much like today's work, it blended together when you put figures from different artists side by side because everyone was still painting the same style.

[Update: to reiterate and avoid confusion, this isn't about nostalgia. Some people seem to be confusing this as me saying everyone should start painting like we used to 15-20 years ago - let me point you at that last sentence: Even back then, when a whole bunch of models painted similarly are placed side by side, they still wash out and blend together. This is about adding diversity to the art. The Golden Demon photos I've included from the past are there to show that other styles have successfully competed.]

Matthew Parks - Golden Demon 1995, Slayer Sword
I'm going to point out a few pop examples as a way to help you understand what I'm talking about.
Sitcoms used to be prevalent on TV and then reality TV started taking over the airwaves. Over the last few years we have been seeing a rise in adult cartoons and low budget, amateur or specialty programming. As a long time fan of anime, I was happy when North America started airing shows like Lost to bring storylines to audiences rather than just trying to get as many episodes out of a series as possible. The TV landscape now is actually somewhat diverse.

Then there is the video game landscape, which for a while has been getting stale compared to the 80's and 90's.  Before awesome 3D graphics, all a game had to rely on was innovation, writing and game play. Designers had to work hard to carve a niche out for their styles and prove to the audience that they had something new and worthwhile - and they did, because they laid the ground work for every video game that's been created in the last decade. Then game designers began relying on pretty graphics instead of solid game play and storyline and quality dropped. They blamed pirates for low sales, making the assumption they weren't releasing garbage. A lot of what comes out these days is just rehashed from old ideas. However, there's a lot of indie developers, the "little guys", getting further into the game industry thanks to services like Steam which allows them to distribute their content and we are seeing some really innovative stuff again. (Things like Audiosurf or World of Goo)

Gary Taylor - Golden Demon
1995, Fantasy 3rd place
Neil Thomason - Golden Demon
1995, 40k 1st place
Actors already create something a little beyond reality. All those accents, dramatic pauses, exaggerated gestures and so on are exciting to watch.
A salesperson can give the perfect pitch to someone for a cheap, gas efficient vehicle and that person could still go buy the expensive, go fasta red sports car.
We read books, play video games and watch shows or movies nowhere near realistic and sometimes not even plausible because we enjoy the diversity and flight of fancy found within them.

Now, if the problem can be defined as "Everybody's art looks the same" then the question is "How do we change the current landscape of painting styles?"

We have to try something different. The longer we wait, the more stale things are going to get. I'm not saying everyone should stop painting dark and paint light, (then we still look the same, just brighter) but that we need to try our own styles rather than emulate what everyone else is doing.

The quickest method would be to have a bunch of great miniature artists switch up their style and encourage others to adapt to their own unique methods too. If a lot of us start trying new things, while it may not look great at first, it could open more eyes to the possibilities out there.

Any time a new reality is created, it must be given a certain style. Landscapes and the objects that fill them don't have to look "real" but they must be "believable". This is true in movies, tv, games, books and anything someone has dreamed up. Even cartoons like the Ultramarines Smurfs are believable to a certain extent. Maybe when our brain sees something that does not try to look real, it relaxes and accepts what is being presented to it. This is the creation of what's known as "suspension of disbelief."

Adrian Wink - Golden Demon 1991, 40k Vehicle
Miniature gaming universes have a background and a "look", part of that being how we the painters bring the models to life. (It occurs to me that maybe there's a reason much of Games Workshop's art is in black and white or grey scale; to leave our options open.)

The great thing about trying something completely new with a hobby is that it does not cost a lot of money. A model, some paint and an idea is a lot cheaper than a car manufacturer adopting electric. I suppose there is your reputation if the idea fails, but I would hope others would at least appreciate that something new is being attempted.

Before I continue, I should point out one clarification:
At this time, I still think an army should look unified. They don't have to be painted exactly the same, but they should look uniform. (Though this general rule is sometimes bent, for example, Eldar Aspect Warriors.) What I'm trying to get at isn't "paint every model differently", it's "develop and paint in your own style and not like everyone else."

The following are some examples of what I am talking about - worlds that are believable, however unreal they appear, followed by my thoughts on other techniques we could see improve and mix up the landscape...

Doom 3
To compare where we are currently at with most miniature painting, I would point to video games like Fallout 3, Doom 3, Quake 4 and so on. These are games striving to become ultra-realistic and while creating a spookier atmosphere they have also become darker. The detail within these games is incredible, just like in Warhammer, but also masked in shadow. A lot of the detail and effort that went into these graphics is lost to that darkness.
Quake 4
These are examples of games that did it right. There are plenty of other games out there that tried to appear realistic and failed. Games like these, we criticize.
Fallout 3

Sound familiar? When looking at realistic models, we usually have two reactions - awe and critique. Not only do we see all the amazing things the artists have done, but the longer we look at it, we start seeing all the little imperfections.

If you want to go down this path, that is still fine. Ultra-realistic art does look incredible, but shouldn't be considered the only option that you can aspire to. Just because everyone else is doing it, is not a reason for you to as well.

A Whole New World [World of Warcraft]
A game with 11 million people immersed in this universe nearly 24/7 has got to be doing something right. The graphics are obviously better than The Realm or Ultima Online but WoW got a lot of criticism early on for being unrealistic and somewhat cartoon-ish. It is difficult to create a video game that looks like real life, especially one of this scale.

Instead, they have created their own style for everything that players can accept and feel part of, rather than one that's not quite right and constantly having it's flaws pointed out. Believing the world you're immersed in is extremely important. By creating your own style and placing it in the context of a whole uniform system, things look right. Not only do they flow, but they trick your mind into accepting what you are seeing, rather than criticizing it.

By pulling art just a few steps away from reality and/or putting it into a context of it's own, you create your own world and tell the viewer what they should believe. Too far though, and things may look outrageous and unbelievable.

In retrospect, the miniatures I painted after my considerable amount of time in WoW may have been influenced by that world. However, I love these miniatures because when you're looking at them on the field of war, not only do they stand out and you can see the detail, but normal indoor lighting takes over and adds the shadows for me. It's actually a nice bold effect. (and yes, that Guardian IS rocking a Lascannon)

Warp Spiders, Guardians and D-Cannon Crew painted by Me

Razzminis - Chaos Lord
Outlining [Borderlands]
Cell shading has recently become popular and it's the act of giving 3D games a "drawn" look by outlining the objects in them (from the viewer's perspective) with black, like in a cartoon. This is sometimes bold with thick black outlines but Borderlands did it subtler than other games. Instead, there's a lot of detail on the models themselves and the old cell shading techniques are used just to outline, adding emphasis to details. It could be done in black or maybe even a much darker/lighter version of the detail's colours.

Before you pass over the model on the right, take a long hard look at it. There may not be the normal darkness of Chaos in there, but I guarantee you that if you're 6' away, looking down at him on a battlefield, you will see all the detail. I saw this mini while working on this article and it made me think of a practical example of how subtle outlining might look. Shading is not consistent and light does not appear to hit from the same angle. Instead there is an overall highlighting from borders and edges inward, creating a type of outline.
Sketching [Borderlands]
The other aspect of this game's art is that the open areas on the models have a bit of a rough sketched look rather than natural blending. Multiple colours and/or shades are still used, but rather than a gradual blend, there are more steps. This creates an interesting gritty / dirty / worn look.

I will admit to seeing this same technique used on TheWife's Ace of Cakes show (the same people that made the giant Squig cake for Warhammer Online) to create a life size R2D2 cake in the style of the Star Wars 3D show - shading and blending was done rough and streaked... it's just another way to do things.

Reduce Detail to Emphasize Detail
YuliaPW - Farseer Sketch
Similar to sketching, I have seen this style from time to time and Yulia just posted this art as I'm working on these thoughts, so I thought I would use this example. Basically, the act of reducing detail in less important areas causes the detail you do apply to stand out.
This could mean painting areas such as limbs out of focus, rougher, sketched, in muted (darker or lighter) colours to bring the viewer's eyes immediately to higher detail areas like faces, chests, insignias, etc.

In this example, this Farseer's face immediately jumps at you for the very reason that it's not lost among the rest of the image.

Black and White or Grey Scale with Colour [Sin City]

Sin City
Here is an idea I'd love to see en mass across an entire army. It might work better with fantasy than 40k, but I can still see it working in sci-fi. Picture an entire army done in bold black and white and/or softer grey scale. Shades of grey still leaves plenty of room for beautiful and detailed blending. Interesting, right? Some units could be painted softer greys while maybe shock troops and elites could have strong contrasting black and white.

The twist is to choose certain aspects of your models and give them colour. Eyes could be piercing greens, claws bloody red, insignias or tabards could jump right out at the viewer, heroes could be given more colours than those that surround them and so on.
Sin City

Sin City comes to mind because it plays with a lot of these contrasts. The whole movie is in black and white, but certain things are given bold colours to make them stand out.

I'm really curious to try this method out myself.
Raymond Mason - Foule Illuminée, photo by Me, Montreal Quebec
I'm guilty of not paying close attention to where the light source should be shining on my models. I've been trying to get better at this rather than just using generic highlighting techniques such as placing highlights on edges or central areas. If you consistently highlight with the same light source direction in mind, your army will appear more uniform. Usually this will mean a top-down approach. The guys over at Massive Voodoo talk a lot about Zenithal Lighting and have some great demonstrations on how it is done.

This is somewhere you could switch things up, applying highlights as if the light source was in front of your models, behind them or even off to one side.

Scrap Tower, photo by Me
In the case of direct lighting, you could paint shadows solid rather than blending. Some say this is cartoony, but try shining a light directly on an object and see how the shadows land. An intense light source creates stronger shadows with less blending. Avoiding solid shadows is actually an example of how our hobby already usually chooses what looks better over what is real.

Finally, you can also change the colour of the light on your models. In Warhammer Fantasy, perhaps some evil ritual is casting a red glow or nasty Skaven stuff has made a green luminescence. In 40k, there are plenty of alien worlds with different suns and coloured atmospheres to shine any colour from the rainbow on battlefields. For example, a light brown wash over a whole model, Snakebite Leather in particular, can actually cast a bit of a sunset sort of lighting.

Playing with Colour Theory
Complimentary Colours
From 99Solutions
Analogous Colours
From Xara Xone
This doesn't have to mean using bold options like complimentary colours. (Colours opposite each other on the colour wheel - Red-Green, Blue-Orange, Yellow-Purple.) If you want objects on your model to stand out though, take a look at a colour wheel and choose something opposite the colour it will be near.

Another option is analogous colours. (Similar colours, side by side on the colour wheel - Red-Orange, Blue-Purple, Yellow-Green.) Every model in your army could be roughly the same colour or in the same shades.

Silent Hill the Movie
You've seen plenty of examples of this in movies where the characters are dressed in clothes similar in shade, tone and/or colour of the set.

Person Unknown
Photo by Me
Similar to analogous except using a single colour, photographers will often use the sepia setting on their cameras to take pictures with that old rustic look. It is basically greyscale, except from central colour, shade to black and highlight to white. Details on models could be painted darker or lighter shades of overall colouring - a Space Marine could have blue armour, light blue trim, dark blue knees, etc.

Art Techniques
Old Radio, photo by Me, added noise (stipple-ish) effect
There are also other techniques for creating and shading art, one being stippling. This means using dots and their proximity to each other to create the image and shade. Perhaps some kind of physically rough base coat could be used on a model and go from there.

Another is using lines " // " and/or hashes " ## " to shade rather than solid shadows or blending.

I'm not schooled in art, so my knowledge on colour theory and techniques is a little limited. I'll leave you with the suggestion of doing some research into ways artists will play with colours or try to find out how pictures that stand out to you were made.

Emulation of Artists

Vincent Van Gogh - Starry Night
Speaking of researching art, there are plenty of famous artists out there who have already created plenty of painting styles that could be attempted. If you research the various periods and the big trend setters, you'll find some dramatic shifts in what was considered art. Because of all the research that's gone into them, you should even be able to get a good idea of how their works were created and the best way to recreate them.

Why not treat your minis as a pallet? I'm not talking insignias and open space pictures, I mean paint your whole model in these other styles.

I'm also particularly interested in exploring applying this kind of art to minis.

This topic has spawned a whole lot of ideas in my mind, and I expect this to be the beginning of a sporadic series where I try to explore different painting styles. Really, who says that we have to approach our miniatures and constantly try to place them in the context of our reality? Not just because we're already talking about science fiction and fantasy settings, but also because we can treat these figures as three dimensional canvases.

From a practical standpoint, you've just seen a number of options for someone who wants to try some new methods - a few that specifically interest me. I'm not entirely sure where I want to go next on the theory end, but I do intend on exploring my thoughts as well as trying some of these ideas out.

I can only hope that these thoughts get your own ideas spinning and I'd be interested in hearing what you think and seeing any models you try. Whether you want to discuss this further or have me feature your attempts in a later update, you can reach me at: npluspluswargaming [at] gmail [dot] com.

If you think I'm off my rocker, I'd also like to hear from you - you won't convince me I'm wrong, but I am honestly interested in knowing what the opinions are of others and WHY. (If you're going to tell me every time we paint a model, we should try to make it as real as possible, you had better back that statement up.)

I've tagged this post with the label "punk_art" which is how you can keep up on or reference the series.
"Punk: a style or movement characterized by the adoption of aggressively unconventional and often bizarre or shocking clothing, hairstyles, makeup, etc., and the defiance of social norms of behavior, usually associated with punk rock musicians and fans."
In the last 24 hours since posting this article, I've received over 1000 hits (Big thanks to Massive Voodoo for linking to it) and 4 people have shared their thoughts on it. I even added a large email link to my blog in hopes to receive some feedback This is a disappointing response and gives me the impression that for many people it's one more "cool" article they find online and forget about in a few days. I'm not going to walk away from this because I truly believe I'm on to something, but I think it speaks out again to the "status quo" or "routine" our hobby has settled in to.

If you are moved by what you've read here, please offer some feedback.

[Images in this post copyright their respective owners as credited in their captions and/or section headings. Golden Demon photos taken from White Dwarf Magazine.]


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