Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Game Changers: My Top Ten Miniature Paintjobs That Most Inspired / Influenced Our Hobby / Art

Many of the most impressive and awe-inspiring paintjobs out there are the ones that show the most refinement... the artist takes everything that is currently known about miniature painting, and pushes the technical envelope, beyond the limits of what was possible before.  Those paintjobs represent countless hours of hard work, pain, and persistence.  The end product is something that can win competitions, drop jaws, and make other painters green with envy.

Then, there are paintjobs that aren't just more refined versions of what knowledge and techniques are already out there.  There are those painters who are more like explorers... venturing out into the unknown (at least, unknown in our hobby), and through experimentation and perseverance, bring something new into our art form.  These are the game-changers... the projects that represent some sort of revolution in painting.

There are countless awe-inspiring and inspirational miniature painting projects out there.  What I've tried to do is distill them down to what I consider the top ten most innovative (at the time) and influential paintjobs in the short history of our hobby (at least as far back as I can recall, which is the late late '80s, and beginning of the '90s).  No doubt, many people will disagree with my choices... "Top Ten" lists are rarely without controversy.  In fact, I asked for some help on the Coolminiornot forums in creating this list, and the discussion there was as heated as it gets:

One of the big reasons for starting that thread was to do my best to take my personal biases out of the equation.  In that regard, I think this top ten list is a big failure.  As Avelorn said, "To make an objective list is impossible; keep that in mind when discussing."  Many works up for consideration got discussed, and discarded on the basis that they were inspirational, but perhaps not influential.  And it wasn't just as matter of innovation... the project needed to also have gotten enough exposure, reached enough artists, to have made a decided impact on the art form as a whole.  Just because something influenced me personally, and inspired me to approach my painting differently, didn't mean it was the one piece that defined or signified an overall change in the art form.

I'd also like to mention that any list that's limited to ten selections is always going to be a grossly incomplete list.  You simply cannot cover every revolution in miniature painting with only ten picks.  Just as Maxim magazine cannot list every beautiful woman in their "Top 50" list of hottest women, there was no way I could put together a top ten list without leaving out some incredibly influential and innovative works.  I made some judgement calls as to which ones I thought best fit the "Game-Changer" title.  Not to worry, I have every intention of doing more "Top Ten" lists in the future... perhaps your favourite works will be included in one of those.

Oh, and just for the record, so long as Kate Beckinsale is included in any Top 50 hottest list, I'm okay with it.  ;)

Let me be totally open and transparent about how I'm going about this: First off, this is still kind of a work in progress.  Instead of listing all ten in one super long blog post, I'll break it up into several postings.  This gives each work it's own breathing space... this way I can do up a fairly extensive writeup on each, which is what a hugely influential work deserves.

Second of all, I plan on interjecting the occasional, "honourable mentions".  These are amazing works in their own right, and ones that almost made it onto my list.  But even though they were stellar works of art, perhaps they didn't get the exposure required to reach enough artists, or for some reason they didn't inspire enough people to try taking their own painting in a new direction.  These are also works that some others will have argued for inclusion in this list, but I disagreed with.  Like I said, it'll be hard to keep my own personal biases out of this, but I think that my influences are very similar to most painters that have been around for some time.

Lastly, I'm going to admit right now that I only have 7 works nailed down with certainty.  I still have yet to make up my mind about which ones will finish off my top ten, but hopefully I can get some suggestions from you guys.  My criteria for inclusion in the top ten is going to be very stringent... a work has to be VERY influential on the hobby as a whole.  It can't just be a gorgeous work of art (in which case, this would be a very easy list to complete), but something that many painters can point to as a turning point influence in their own painting.  And while I've been able to point to many influential painters, often it's hard to nail down just one work of theirs that has redefined miniature painting as a whole.

Regardless, I've decided to go ahead and get started writing this series of blog posts, and figure out the final 3 somewhere along the way.  So... in no particular order for now (maybe I'll order them once I've finished all ten), here's the first of my top ten picks for Game Changers: The Miniature Paintjobs That Most Inspired / Influenced our Art Form:

Unfortunately, this was the best pic I could find.  Barely captures the wonder of this work.
A better shot of the banner, and the minotaur's back-side.  That banner is easily as impressive as any recent award-winning work, and it was done back in the '80s!

Of all the miniature painters, there are very few (if any) people that have more of an influence on our art form than John Blanche.  Seriously... if there was a Godfather of miniature painting, we'd all be kissing Don Blanche's pinky ring.  He was there at pretty much the very formative stages of our hobby, and if you look at where mini-painting was at before John Blanche became the art director of Games Workshop in 1986 (thanks Wikipedia!), it was a very different beast entirely.

If you want a good read concerning his history as an artist, and his philosophy and approach to art, one excellent article is this interview:

Perhaps Mr. Blanche is better known for his 2D art than his 3D stuff.  Many of his works are instantly recognizable to anyone who's ever played a Games Workshop game, and there are many blogs and websites that have covered his work.  Two of my favourites are:

Of course, my two favourite 2D works of art by "The Man" are:

Warhammer 40,000 2nd edition box cover (1993)

Amazonia Gothique (cover of White Dwarf #79)

Which is very odd, because of all his works, they are possibly the least like his miniature painting style.

Oh, and as a Sisters of Battle player, I love this painting as well.  I even have a shirt with this work on the front.  This one is a bit more indicative of his pre-Raphaelite leanings, and his use of less saturated sepia tones and hyper detailed backgrounds.
You either love or hate the Blanche style of miniature painting (well, perhaps "hate" is too strong a word... maybe "confused by" is a better way of putting it).  It's really raw and unrefined.  Messy and chaotic.  Elemental.  Compared to other contemporary painters, it appears sloppy even.  But to many, it's simply brilliant.

There's an energy to his work that's hard to see in cleaner paintjobs.  It's precisely BECAUSE it is crazy and untamed, that he has so many "Blanche-ites".  Many works that I saw in early White Dwarf issues were very much in his style (late '80s, primarily), and there is a resurgence in Blanche-style painting and converting in the Inq28 (Inquisitor 28mm) mini-painting and gaming community.

Blanche-ites are miniature painting's counter-culture.  They have rejected the clean 'Eavy Metal style that is mainstream miniature painting by going in the exact opposite direction.  And it's a style that is unlikely to ever overtake the mainstream, as it's really unsuitable for miniature marketing purposes (you need a fairly "clean" and uncluttered paint scheme, with dramatic contrasts in highlights and shading to best showcase the sculpt itself).  Still... models painted in this manner are stylish in the extreme, and fun to look at.

For some excellent examples of "Blanche-style" (try Googling it. Not to worry, it won't turn up pages from the Kama-Sutra), check out:

The Spiky Rat Pack blog
The Legion of Plastic blog
The Officio Convertorum blog

Steve Buddle (multiple Golden Demon winner, sculptor, and associate of J.B.'s) discusses this style in length on his blog :
(Be sure to check out the comments. John posts a few as "J.B." to explain his approach to painting).

Jakob Rune Nielson (another one of the all-time "Greats" in miniature painting) is also heavily influenced by John Blanche.  This can be seen especially in his earlier works, but even now his stuff has an impression of dirt and dust and unpolished raw-ness.  His two websites / blogs are:

So we've established that John Blanche is hugely influential as an artist, and has made a huge impact over the course of his entire career.  But how did this one Minotaur in particular make an impact on miniature painting as a whole, and why would I rate it as one of the most influential paintjobs of all time?

First of all, it won the "Master Painter" award at Games Day 1987.  I'm not sure of the context of the "Master Painter" award... but I'm guessing that since Ivan Bartlett won the Slayer Sword that year, the "Master Painter" award would have been more like today's "Open Catagory" prize (a kind of "anything goes, and anyone but the judges can enter" catagory).  If you look at the time period, miniature painting as we know it was in its infancy.  There wasn't really established styles and techniques at the time.  Heck, people didn't even know what brushes and paints were best to use!

For a model painted in this hectic, cluttered, chaotic style to win a major painting award was huge.  It also helped establish John Blanche as a guiding force in miniature painting.

If you look at this model, the first thing you see is the amazing freehand painted Mona Lisa on the banner.  It pretty much grabs your eyes and won't let go.  There are many fantastic freehand painters on the scene nowadays (Karol Rudyk is the first name that pops to mind, but there are so so many others), but this rendition of Leonardo Da Vinci's masterpiece is still as good as it gets.  Consider that John picked one of THE most recognizable works of art ever.  When copying such a iconic image, there is no forgiveness for the slightest error... the viewer's eyes would pick up on any distortions or missed details right away.

John seems to really like the Mona Lisa, as also evidenced by this 2D work of his.
Jeff Vader's twisted take on the same theme.

The ogre face sun shield atop the banner was a very common theme at the time... or did it become a common theme only AFTER John painted this miniature?  I didn't follow the UK painting scene very closely back then (being a 12 or 13 year old kid in western Canada would have made that difficult, and we had nothing even close to today's Internet), so I can only conjecture based off of my collection of vintage White Dwarf magazines.  It seemed like every miniature carrying a shield has some sort of "evil sun"... which perhaps led to the image becoming the mascot and theme for an entire clan of Warhammer 40K orks.  In any case, it's undeniable that John Blanche had a huge role in popularizing the use of freehand wavy sunbeams and saber-toothed mascots.

Unfortunately, this is what comes up when you enter "Painted ogre face" into Google.  Proof that the Internet is NOT infallible.
Ah, much better.  THIS is the way we used to paint shields way back in the day!!

Every square millimeter of the model is crammed with detail, which is a fashion that got lost sometime in the nineties, and didn't really come back in vogue until this decade.  Of course, there were many examples of exceptions, but bases in particular were very minimalist in general for a number of years (Eavy Metal set the trend for this, and it's my understanding that the corporate execs at GW had given them a set of rules governing how they could paint at the time... hence the bright green grassy bases on the studio Necromunda models).  That being said, I don't think anyone would expect a John Blanche model to be clean and simple... just look at the example of the Warhammer 40K 2nd edition box cover to see how he never seems to stop cramming detail in his art until there isn't a clean spot left.

This means the model is layered in detail... your eye can keep wandering around and finding little stories in every corner.  There are mouths here and there, random eyes, more than one head, pustules, fungus, etc.  And that visual journey around the whole miniature brings me to another characteristic Blanche detail that we all seem to take for granted.

Notice the checker pattern just under the head of the axe.  On this particular model, it's an almost insignificant detail.  However, just like the wavy sunbeam and the evil sun, it's a freehand detail that has insinuated its way into becoming a cornerstone of Warhammer imagery.  When someone thinks "Warhammer / Warhammer 40K", you can't help but think of skulls, checker patterns, and wavy sunbeams.  All three themes are in this one model, which helped push them into the forefront of gamer consciousness.  And it's stuck there to this very day.

Look familiar?

You could practically play Chess on this guy.

Confrontation goblins by Rackham.  A great example of the far reaching influence of John Blanche's utterly pointless but very stylistic use of checker patterns.  When competing miniature company studios are unashamed to borrow style elements from you, you know you've got influence!

I dunno... in the end, maybe this model DIDN'T start all these trends, but it definitely is the one model that I think best exemplified the dawn of this style of painting.  Whereas most paintjobs of this era do not hold up well to the test of time (when compared to the "modern masters"), John's stuff is still very compelling.  It kind of reminds me of something Brian Froud (concept artist for Jim Hensen) would have done for "Labyrinth"... if he was on a very bad LSD trip.

John Blanche's style of painting is not for everyone, and will NEVER be for everyone.  You either love it or hate it.  Blanchites are always going to be the creepy goth punk kid in the corner of the classroom, but that's okay by them.  Even though it'll never be mainstream, we can't help but be influenced by them, and elements of that style will percolate into our unconsciousness.  Just as my generation looked askew at guys with bright coloured mohawks back in the '80s, we can't help but see uncoloured faux-hawks everywhere these days.  Every time someone paints an evil sun on their ork buggy, they are unconsciously channeling John Blanche, and this model.  Every time someone paints a checker pattern on a model whose subject character probably couldn't paint a straight line, they are being influenced by John Blanche, and this model.  And everyone who juxtaposes a finely detailed piece of classic art atop a contrasting piece of a chaotic painting or conversion, it's very possible that they may have been influenced by John Blanche and this model.

John Blanche's Chaos Minotaur from 1987 was the "Typhoid Mary", or "Patient Zero" of the Blanche school of miniature painting.  And that makes it one of the most influential and inspiring pieces of miniature art ever. my opinion.  And that's all this list is... various somewhat-researched, highly nostalgia-based, well-considered but very biased picks of just one guy who has been painting miniatures for a reasonable length of time.  :)

Oh, and just because I did say that no list was complete without Kate Beckinsale:

Hopefully this pic is a nice palate cleanser after seeing the one of the Shrek wedding.  Yikes.