Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Sources of Inspiration : Concept Art

As you know, no artist exists in a vacuum.  Only God came up with something from nothing ("Let there be LIGHT!!!"), and since then, every artist has basically been coming up with their own creative spin on things based on their own influences and experiences.  So, when you are trying to come up with something "fresh", and "original"... something to capture your audience's attention and elicit a chorus of "oohs" and "aahs", where do you go for inspiration?

Personally, I go outside the hobby for a different perspective.  Much of what we see in miniature art is recycled... painters are replicating other people's work over and over again, with only the slightest variation due to working with the same model kits, the same tools, the same techniques, the same game background, etc.  Of course each will be at least a little bit different... we all have our own unique "fingerprint" when we build and paint miniatures.  However, the most exciting moments in miniature art come from an infusion of fresh DNA... otherwise (creatively speaking) we are constantly cross-pollinating from the same gene pool.  We need to stop the cycle of interbreeding ideas, and start checking out what's going on in the wider art world.

Some go to written fiction, and try and realize a concept or scene that has never been attempted in 3D before (example: Forgeworld's Loken and Abbadon battling it out).  There are countless examples of popular characters made into miniatures.  At other times, even a short blurb or piece of inconsequential filler background can inspire someone to start a project based on that creative seed.  My own Warmachine Khador army was themed on a stray sentence in the very first Warmachine rulebook... something about The Butcher of Khardov's retinue being called "The Dragon" something-or-other (I'd have to dig up my old WM 1st ed book out of storage to recall exactly what it was).  I was compelled to work a dragon theme into the paint schemes:

Others go to 2D art published by the same manufacturer of the model range their are working with (example: Raphael Garcia's excellent Crimson Fists diorama).  Both are excellent sources and great "go-to" places when you need an idea for your next project.

The original inspiration: 40K 1st ed rulebook cover (Rogue Trader)

Which led to this more recent Dave Gallagher version

And finally realized in 3D, thanks to Raphael Garcia!

However, when I need some ideas for odd conversions, sculpting projects, terrain pieces, etc., I love to check out concept art.

Most of you are already familiar with the idea of concept art.  For those who aren't, here's a quick and dirty explanation:

When the director(s) of a movie, video game, or other visual medium need to populate their project with brand new characters, vehicles, scenery, monsters, etc., they hire concept artists.  These artists work with the description or synopsis handed to them, try and envision the context in which those things "exist", and then sketch out various versions of that idea to present to the director.  The director views them, sends some feedback back to concept artist, and they then work to fine-tune the idea into the final project (and from there it goes to the digital artists, animators, costume designers, set decorators, props builders, etc.).

Concept Artist Matt Rhodes explained the thought and creative process on his blog (http://mattrhodesart.blogspot.ca/) recently:

"The role of a Concept Artist is the role of an explorer, tasked with charting a world without sunlight. Bear with me here:

You start off with your reference and research. These are well established base camps. They’re well lit, highly populated and safe. The better your reference the better your bearings will be. The artist’s job is to start at base camp with a bag of torches and run furiously out into the darkness. Every doodle, sketch, painting and storyboard is a torch lit somewhere out in the black. You mostly find weeds and rocks out there. But if you keep pushing you sometimes find a rich landscape that can hopefully become a new basecamp"

Adam Adamowicz (one of the brilliant concept artists... possibly the main concept artist... behind the computer games Fallout 3 and Skyrim) said something very similar, but in a very different manner:

"Visualizing all of the aspects of a make believe world is quite an educational experience. On any given day I could be simultaneously learning about multiple topics, from motorcycle engines to 50’s fashion design. It’s kind of like writing and filming a National Geographic documentary film for an actual sci-fi world. For this job, I think the more you read on a wide variety of subjects, the better equipped you are to create depth and realism, especially for a fantasy setting. The fantastic that’s grounded in real world elements and then elaborated and exaggerated upon, seem to work the best, and create a solid jumping off point. This often creates fertile ground for generating additional story elements that can influence costumes, machines, and even motives for the various personalities inhabiting a made up world."

I find it amusing that these highly creative, highly intelligent people are, in essence, professional "doodlers".  I remember getting into lots of trouble from my teachers and parents for doing just that as a child.  My math, english, french, science, and social studies notebooks were full of half-realized sketches of all sorts.  However, what sets them apart from my juvenile self was their sense of purpose and direction, and just how well their "base camp" is stocked with reference and research material and knowledge.  

So what does that mean for us, the miniature painter?  What can we take from the realm of the concept artist?

I think the most important thing to learn from them is how they approach a project.  When they start, they have a sense of what they want (albeit a pretty vague idea sometimes).  They then educate themselves on the topic by doing some research, and collect plenty of reference materials.  Thus armed, the concept artist can then extrapolate from that... feeling out different takes on the subject in sketches, paintings, sculpts, and 3D renders.  They can then lean back, look over what they've come up with, perhaps get some feedback, discard what doesn't work, and keep repeating until they've nailed the final proposal (the blueprint with which the costume designers, set decorators, animators, sculptors, etc., will work with).

We do the same thing.  At the most basic level, even the 12 year old gamer will see something that inspires them, read up on the background and view the art related to that model or army, figure out what techniques will help them finish the project (often by trial and error), and "have-at-er" until they have something to show off.

The professionals within the miniature industry work in similar fashion as well.  For example, Matt Wilson, the founder and visionary behind the Warmachine / Hordes Iron Kingdoms world and owner of Privateer Press, turns out some astounding concept art that the PP sculptors then turn into gorgeous models, which then get painted up by their top-notch painters for use in promoting their products.  He may not know how to build a steam engine or robot by himself, but I'm pretty sure he understands the concepts.  It's my guess that he pulled together a ton of reference pics of old trains, boilers, steampunk-ish contraptions, and even early concepts of robots (anyone else remember Robbie the Robot from the 1956 movie, "The Forbidden Planet", or the robot from "Lost in Space"?  How about Ed-209 from Robocop?) before he sketched his first warjack.

In the gaming world, in addition to PP's Matt Wilson, two of GW's principal influences come to mind: John Blanche and Jes Goodwin.  Without them, the worlds of Warhammer 40,000 and Fantasy would be very different (and much blander) places.  Want proof?  Check out Jeff Vader's tributes to these artists:

Jes Goodwin : http://convertorum.blogspot.ca/p/jes-goodwin-art.html

John Blanche: http://convertorum.blogspot.ca/p/blanche-gallery.html

Some of the most influential and memorable movies of all time owe much of their success to some very talented concept artists.  Movies and entire movie franchises like Star Wars, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Alien, Hellblazer, Tron, Akira, and the like wouldn't have embedded themselves as deeply into the collective gestalt of our geekdom consciousness if not for some amazingly fresh (at the time) visual concepts.  The same goes for video games such as Mass Effect, Borderlands, Halo, etc.  Have a look at the concept art behind these movies and games if you need a nice spark of inspiration that will also be very familiar and comforting to most hobbyists.

Anyway, I've rambled on for long enough now.  I meant to write a blog article about finding inspiration for new projects, but somehow it ended up being a fanboy rant about concept art.  Sometimes it's hard to stay focused while writing late at night with a good dark beer.  If this was an essay I was submitting to one of my old English Lit professors, or an article for my university newspaper, I'd probably get kicked out of school pretty quick.  Ah well, it's a lot more fun writing for my small circle of miniature painting friends anyway.

If you guys need more links to get the creative juices flowing, and with which to build your hard drive folder of reference / inspiration pics, here is a random selection from my own bookmarked pages:

Matt Rhodes: http://mattrhodesart.blogspot.ca/
Hethe Srodawa: http://hethesrodawa.blogspot.ca/
Matt Allsop: http://mattallsopp.blogspot.ca/
Concept Ships:  http://conceptships.blogspot.ca/
Concept Robots:  http://conceptrobots.blogspot.ca/
Concept Tanks:  http://concepttanks.blogspot.ca/
Concept Vehicles:  http://conceptvehicles.blogspot.ca/
Concept Aliens:  http://conceptaliens.blogspot.ca/

Heck, if you just type, "concept art" into a Google search, you'll get more than enough juicy pics to get your creative side ticking.

Best of luck with your current and future projects!

Friday, 2 August 2013

Judging Army Painting

Way back at GottaCon in February, I was asked if I was interested in helping judge the army painting scores for the Wet Coast GT (not a typo... it rains ALOT in Vancouver).  Now, I've done army painting judging before (most notably for the GottaCon Warhammer Fantasy and 40K tournaments in 2011 and 2012), and it's a slightly different ball of wax compared to a "pure" miniature painting competition, and thus the judging is done quite differently too (for those living far far away and completely uninterested in our local gaming tournies, please bear with me... this blog post will also contain some thoughts on army painting vs single / unit painting as well).

Seeing as Wet Coast was being held only a few minutes away from where I live, and I love being a part of the miniature painting community, I agreed.  Now, Wet Coast GT has been running for a number of years now, ever since Games Workshop stopped running and supporting their own gaming tournaments hereabouts.  There's a great gaming community here in Vancouver, and a well run tournament here will draw in great gamers from the island and from the B.C. interior as well.  With Warmachine, Hordes, Flames of War, Malifaux, and other game systems now also being an integral part of Wet Coast, and with great sponsor support, this was a great opportunity to meet some new people, watch some intense competition, and see some great paintjobs.

My job was to come up with the painting scores for the Warhammer 40,000 tournament, and "WarmaHordes" tournament.  I've known for quite some time that these two gamer camps were VERY different in outlook and mentality, but Wet Coast really hammered the point home for me.  Despite similar criteria, being a judge for both was two completely separate experiences.

Let's start by explaining how painting was scored.  Painting for a gaming tournament is primarily about sweat equity, and showing your work.  Let me say that last bit again: SHOW YOUR WORK!  Getting a great score in this gaming tournament wasn't necessarily about being the best painter, but investing a good amount of time into your army and not missing any details.

To better understand how army judging differs from miniature painting contest judging, the system in place goes like this:  Your army is scored on seven catagories:

-Basic Painting
-Basic Techniques
-Advanced Techniques
-Expert Techniques
-Bonus Points

Basic Painting is worth up to 15 points.  If the majority of your army had at least 3 colours on it (and no, I didn't count PRIMER as a colour), then you would at least score 10 points.  Any army with more than 3 colours on 80% or more of the models would score 15 points.  If you fielded a primered or bare-metal / plastic army (80% or more of them) or couldn't even bother to get at least 3 colours on most of your models, then you would score a big zero.

Basic Techniques were worth up to an additional 5 points.  1 point for uniform colour scheme and painting style across the whole army.  1 point for cleanly applied basecoats.  1 point for at least some attempt at banner / unit / squad / etc markings.  1 point for details such as eyes, buckles, jewelry, etc (even bad attempts at this would get the point).  And 1 point for any attempt at highlighting and shading.

Advanced Techniques could earn you an additional 8 points.  2 points for "Beyond Basics" (ie decently applied highlights and shading, beyond that of rudimentary drybrushing and ink washes).  2 points for "clean" highlights and shading (evidence of good brush control... tight and not sloppy).  2 points for "clean" details (fine details like eyes, buckles, markings, etc done well with good brush control).  And 2 points for showing evidence of multiple layers of highlights and shading... a nice wide range of tones to lend the models a good sense of scale.

Expert Techniques were worth up to an additional 7 points.  2 points for really nice freehand detailing (patterns applied with a fine detail brush, perhaps some writing, etc.).  2 points for "Masterful Blending" (should be self explanatory).  And 3 points if the overall appearance of the army was inspiring... this was one of the only real judgement calls I had to make.  For me, if this was the kind of army that made people do a double take while walking by and come in for a closer look, then this was an inspiring army.  For a jaded old curmudgeon like myself, with pretty high standards, this was probably the hardest 3 points to grab.

Basing was worth up to 5 points.  If there was at least a rudimentary attempt at basing (even just a layer of green sponge flock), then that was worth 1 point.  Any extra materials used in basing (a clump of static grass or two, some rocks, or perhaps hand painted cracks on the base) would get you another point.  Any sort of highlighting / shading would earn one point on top of that.  And if you tried something really special with the bases, such as themed details such as decorating the bases with discarded battlefield debris, spent bolter shells, craters, tree roots, water effects, etc., then that earned a good 2 points.

Conversions were worth up to 4 points, and instead of a checklist of points to add up, we simply classified the army as "minimal", "minor", "major", or "extreme" in terms of conversions.  Minimal was worth 1 point, and was for an army with only a few head or weapon swaps, arm rotations, or anything else along those lines.  Minor was basically the equivalent of minimal, only across a sizable portion of the army.  Major was for a few fairly extensive conversions involving putty, plastic card, drilling, sawing, minor sculpts, etc.  An army that only did minimal level conversions, but applied it across the entire army, could still classify as "major".  And lastly, "Extreme" was for major level conversions, applied across a good portion of the army.

Finally, "Bonus Points" was basically a catch-all catagory of miscellaneous items and concepts, and was worth up to 4 points.  You could get 1 point for having your own objective markers... something you made and painted up yourself, rather than die-cut plastic or wood tokens purchased off the shelf.  You could also score 1 or 2 points for a display board / carrying tray for your army.  A simple one that showed at least the same level of detail as a decent gaming base would get 1 point, whereas a stunning display board that reinforced the theme of the army and really told a story about that army would get 2 points.  Lastly, a gamer could score 2 points for having "Something Special" about their army.  This was more about leaving some sort of lasting impression on the judge... it was completely up to the judge's discretion as to who got these 2 points and who didn't.  For myself, the surest way to earn those points was to have a strong, solid theme to the army, execute it well, inject some tangible imagination into it (simply copying the studio paint scheme wouldn't cut it), and / or go way over the top with the amount of love / work invested into the army.

So what you got in the end, was a sort of checklist of points that could be earned by simply investing the time into your army, and really making it something to be proud of.  Technical proficiency was only a fraction of the points... if you had crap brush control and technique, you might lose out on a few points, but there were still plenty of other points to be scooped up.  On the other hand, you could be an elite level painter, but cut corners, didn't work on the "extras", got lazy anywhere (one reason was just not finishing your army), etc., there was no way you could earn a high score in painting.

I'm not sure how this system first got developed (I believe the Wet Coast version was borrowed from the well-known Adepticon tournaments), but I personally think it works well.  It takes a lot of the subjectivity out of the judging process, ensures consistency in scoring, while still leaving a few points for judge's interpretation.  It also encourages the average gamer / painter to put in a good effort on their army... if you knew how the points were added up, you knew what you needed to work on.

That being said, there were a few players who did ask, "Where could I have improved my army?"  My most common answers were:

-Work on "cleanliness".  Try not to slop paint around.  Keep your brushstrokes neat and tidy.  Thin down your paints a bit and use multiple layers, rather than one heavy coat of paint that was going to dry lumpy.  After a shading ink wash, go back in with your basecoat colours and clean up any tide-marks left by overuse of inks.

-Do the "extras".  A few easy head / weapon swaps could earn some extra conversion points.  Adding a few extra details to the bases (broken weapons, skulls, snow effects, etc.) makes the army more interesting, and scores a few bonus points.  And personalized objective markers and display boards really showed you viewed your army as an entire themed army, rather than just an assortment of individual miniatures that you cared very little about.

-Show off a bit.  Over the top freehand on banners, kill markings, unit insignia, realistic weathering, etc showed you had skills, and could use them.  Pure gimmicky wank like object source lighting, LEDs, NMM power weapons, etc., used appropriately here and there (rather than across the whole army), could also impress an army painting judge.  At least try and lavish extra detail and work on your character and centrepiece models, and you would be bound to earn a few extra points there.

As an army painting judge, I try my best to engage the gamer.  I ask them to point out which models they're particularly proud of.  I remark on various aspects of the army, and see if there's a story behind those decisions.  I also try and gauge the level of enthusiasm and fondness the gamer has for their army.  Stuff like that influences a judge's discretionary points, and may get them to mark down the 3 points for "Overall Appearance" and 2 points for "Something Special".  Perhaps other judges don't work along those lines, but as a former hard-core gamer (more casual gamer these days...), I get sentimental about each of my armies after I invest a ton of time and back story into them, and expect the same from other gamers.

It's also a fairly simple judging process.  However, I still expect an experienced and reasonably talented painter is still going to be a better judge for army judging for a few reasons.  First, an experienced painter with a wide repertoire of painting techniques is going to be able to recognize which techniques were used on the army, and which were more labour intensive vs easy shortcuts.  Second, I've found that players are more likely to accept a painting score (ie less likely to consider their score "unjust") when it's coming from someone they respect as a painter.  Now, I'm not the best painter in the world (far from it... that's why I'm constantly trying new tricks and techniques all the time), but I've racked up a considerable number of painting awards in my 26 years of painting miniatures, and many of them for "Best Army Appearance" (back when I used to have enough time to actually FINISH painting entire armies).

On that note, I do have a few heroes in terms of astounding ability to paint and convert gorgeous armies.  These people do NOT get the same kind of fame and credit that Slayer Sword winners get, despite the fact that their armies have consumed just as much time and devotion as any Golden Demon award winning entry ever has.  Back in the day, however, the major painting competitions were dominated by people who were gamers who just so happened to be fantastic painters as well.  Nowadays, that rarely happens, as they are typically dominated by people who couldn't care less about gaming, and solely focus on miniature painting by itself.  While we have these dedicated painter-only types to thank for really pushing the boundaries of what's possible in 28-32mm scale miniatures, there's a part of me who thinks it's sad to see such specialization in our hobby... it's just as sad to see people who just focus on competitive gaming, and don't give a crap that they are fielding bare metal or primered models on the tabletop.  This hobby was born from marrying miniature modelling with miniature gaming, and separating the two into separate camps is a bit of a shame.

In my next blog post, I'll show you guys some pics I took during the Wet Coast GT, and give you some of my thoughts regarding them.  In the meantime, I'm posting up a few blog links to some of the people I really admire as "all-around" fantastic hobbyists.  These are the people who can not only produce amazing single miniature paintjobs, but can do it across entire armies, and then actually game with them!  As I said before, these guys don't get nearly the level of recognition they deserve, and I would feel very privileged to sit down and game with them and their gorgeous armies.

James Wappel is a fantastic painter... this man's armies are produced to such a high standard, he can actually pluck random miniatures from them, enter them in to a dedicated miniature painting competition, and come away with handfuls of prizes (beating a good number of the painting-only specialists).  His "toolbox" of techniques is so wide ranging, his armies really stand out as textbook examples of just about every trick in the trade.

I've mentioned Mike Butcher before, but it bears repeating: this man DOMINATED the Best Army Appearance and Player's Choice awards during the Games Workshop Grand Tournament hey-days of a decade ago.  Mike really gets into the character of his armies, reinforces them with a healthy dose of greenstuff sculpting medium and copious bits swapping, and backs it all up with some solid painting skills.  I was lucky enough to be one of the Brushworks painters alongside people like Mike and various others, but I could never match his level of army dedication and dominance.

Cameron's a Vancouverite like myself, yet I don't know him personally.  I came across his blog some time ago, and was blown away by his Warhammer 40K stuff.  He has since moved on (mainly) to the much smaller scale game of Flames of War (WWII historical), and the stuff he's producing at that scale is mind-blowing.  He is taking the realistic weathering, camouflage, and colour modulation techniques developed for much larger Tamiya, Airfix, etc kits and applying them to tank models that are no longer than my thumb.  Fantastic stuff, and while I typically avoid smaller scale miniatures like the plague (too many Epic 40K and Warmaster models painted during my time as a professional painter really burned me out on that scale), his paintjobs are slowly tempting me back to the dark side...

Arthur is another fellow Vancouverite who is really making a name for himself.  A relative newcomer to the hobby (of course, I say that about anyone who wasn't painting back when miniatures were mostly offered in lead), Arthur's command of the painting fundamentals is astounding.  His blending, shading, and brushwork puts mine to absolute shame.  Not only that, but he loves gaming too!  Portions of his Skorne army have picked up various miniature painting awards here in Vancouver, and just across the border in Washington State.  He's also tackling some Warhammer Fantasy armies as well, and has been commissioned to paint the studio Timor army for the Drake: The Dragon Wargame for Action Games Miniatures.

Dave Taylor is a longtime fixture in the North American gaming scene, and every year he seems to come up with some fabulously weird and eccentric concept armies.  Nothing is stock, everything has been converted or resculpted in some way.  And he's a pretty darn good painter as well.  His insights into miniature army building and painting are invaluable reading, in my opinion.  He's like the grizzled old sergeant major, veteran of many wars.  Fresh faced young privates in the miniature painting world should heed his words ("This is my paintbrush, this is my gun...").

Now, I've missed a TON of people who also deserve mention, and are worth checking out.  If you know of any, please leave them in the comments section.

Again, my next blog post or two will showcase a few armies from the 2013 Wet Coast GT, and I'll leave some thoughts alongside each one.  I'll also give you my impressions on the differences between Warhammer 40K gamers and WarmaHordes ones (and probably piss off more than a few people from both camps while I'm at it).  And I'm sure other random thoughts will pop up and be typed into my blog along with the more coherent ones (mental diarrhea, of a sort).  It might be worth checking back and reading, I hope.