Thursday, 6 November 2014

Game Changers: OSL and Victoria Lamb's "Rescue of Sister Joan"

Welcome back for the 2nd entry in my list of Game Changers: The Top Ten Miniature Paintjobs That Most Inspired / Influenced the Art / Hobby Forever.

OSL (for "Object Source Lighting", in case you were wondering) feels like it's been around forever in miniature painting, but in reality it hasn't.  And it's origins in miniature painting isn't something that organically grew over time, like some slow evolutionary step akin to fish growing legs and starting to walk around on earth.  Nope... OSL hit the scene like an enormous wrecking ball, and the lady at the controls was an Australian named Victoria Lamb.

First of all, what is OSL?  WAMP (one of the premier mini painting forums) has an excellent on wiki mini painting terms, and they define OSL as:

"Object-source lighting or OSL is a painting technique where the light source is a fixed point (or points) near or on the miniature. The usual light source in OSL is an object on the miniature that one would expect to be casting light, which gives the technique its name. In contrast, miniatures are often portrayed with a light source which is far away, such as a sun directly overhead in the case of zenithal lighting.

It is common to use object-source lighting when the viewer would expect part of the miniature to cast light on other parts, such as when there is a torch or campfire present, or a powerful spell effect. Object source lighting can be used alone, when the object(s) casting light are the only sources of light present, or can be combined with other light sources like zenithal lighting. It is also common for the object source lighting to represent an object casting colored light, such as a torch casting a warm glow, or an arcane spell effect casting blue or green light.

To paint OSL, the goal is to simulate the effect of a light source with paint. Objects closer to the light source should be lit more brightly than objects far from the light source, and only objects with an unobstructed line to the light source should be lit, so shadows will be cast directly away from the light source.

A classic example of object-source lighting is Victoria Lamb's diorama, The Rescue of Sister Joan."

And no, I did not add that last line.  Evidently someone else agrees with me that The Rescue of Sister Joan is possibly the most well-known example of OSL.

In any case, before I post a pic of this game changer, I should set the scene for you.  The year was 2001, and Games Workshop was perhaps at the peak of their dominance over the miniature gaming world.  Their convention, Games Day, was being held in 7 different countries at the time, and their miniature painting competition, the Golden Demons, was THE painting competition to win.  In the same way that competitors at the Olympics can forever call themselves "Olympians" afterwards, someone that competed at the Golden Demons and won one of the iconic statuettes could thereafter call themselves a "Golden Demon Winning Artist".  It was the Oscars of miniature painting (and might very well be again, but that's a whole different blog article to come).

Australia had been hosting their Games Day / Golden Demons for only 3 years prior, and from what we could tell from pics published in White Dwarf and on the Net, there was a strong group of painters down under, but it had a long way yet to go before it was considered on par with the UK, the US, or France (Canada had it's own GD as well, and while our pool of painters was still working hard to gain international recognition, the fact that many top US painters came up to Toronto to compete gave people the illusion that our pool was just as strong as anywhere else).  Now, before anyone thinks that I'm bashing on the Aussies, I'm not.  They had some crazy talent (Leigh Carpenter comes to mind, and this was before Sebastian Archer exploded onto the scene), but miniature gaming was newer there than someplace like the UK, and it had the same problem that Canada did when trying to showcase the BEST of the country... geography.  It cost me almost a month's wages (at what meager amount I was earning back then) to fly to Toronto from Vancouver (driving it would have taken me close to half a month to get there and back), including hotel stays and other expenses.  That meant that really only half the country could reasonably expect to make the trip to compete, and I expect it was much the same issue in Australia.

But I digress.  Pics of the Golden Demon winners were almost always featured in White Dwarf magazine, and were all over the Internet within hours of the event itself.  It was a huge deal, but I don't think people had the same sense of anticipation to see the latest winners of Australia more than they would of the UK or France.  There were some really impressive works that were winning down there, technically very proficient perhaps, but rarely anything that would make a person go, "Oh Snap!"

But then this came along:

Yeah, my jaw dropped when I first saw pics of this entry.

"The Rescue of Sister Joan", by Victoria Lamb, won the highest award of the day, the Slayer Sword.  More than a Golden Demon (with a bronze, silver, and gold awarded in each catagory), the Slayer Sword is awarded to the best entry of the whole competition, much like a "Best of Show" award.

First impression?  It's an amazing diorama.  There is a clear story going on here, one with plenty of drama and tension.  With the help of a little bit of conversion work, every model is dynamically (yet naturally) posed.  There is no dead space as well... it's a tightly composed set piece (helped, no doubt, by Victoria's background in production set and costume design for theatre).  

The painting itself is technically very well executed (with only one "shortcut" that I will explain later).  The style is exactly what we expected to see in Golden Demon entries of that time period... clean, uncluttered, bright, and vibrant.  A bit more use of grey than what we were accustomed to seeing in your typical 'Eavy Metal paintjob, but that was a deliberate choice that suited the mood and purpose of this piece very well.

If you don't recognize the miniatures, they come from a GW game called, "Mordheim".  Set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe, each player picked one of the various factions, then created a gang to game with.  The story behind the game was that there was a city recently ruined by a cataclysmic meteor impact, and now it was crawling with gangs of looters, monsters, and puritanical nutjobs.  The nuns in this diorama were from the "Sisters of Sigmar" faction, and their opponents here were from the "Witch Hunters".  Ms. Lamb's diorama perfectly captures what would happen if the Witch Hunters were attempting to live up to their title.

The Sisters arrive in the nick of time, in order to save their compatriot from the fire of puritanical righteousness.  They have dispatched a number of the deluded fanatics, only to be held at sword's length by the leader of the warband, who makes his last stand, ready to thrust his burning brand deep into the heart of the stacked and pitch-soaked kindling.

Not to be overlooked, the background is also simply wondrous to look at, and could be considered a character in it's own right.  The stone walls depict one of the many ruined buildings in the city of Mordheim, and the damaged outer wall lets the viewer see the pale moon partially obscured by a cloudy night sky.  Seriously... every horror movie we've ever seen has conditioned us to get in the mood for some drama.

The stepped floor is also planned out to perfection.  The different levels allow for the models to be positioned at different heights, giving us a clear view of each.  They are angled diagonally across the floor, instead of at right angles to the edges of the diorama (a classic tip from Shepard Paine's "How to Build Dioramas"... the original Bible of diorama building) in order to engage and interest the viewer's eye better.  They also draw the eye up toward the main focal point, which is the Witch Hunter's torch, and the subjects it illuminates.

Which brings us to the main reason why this work of art is an easy pick for my Top Ten Game Changers list.  The glowing Object Source Lighting effect in this diorama.

Now, I don't know if this was the first time that OSL was used in miniature painting.  Considering how long OSL has been around in 2D canvas art, I rather doubt that no one else thought to apply it to miniature art before 2001.  However, this is definitely the first time I laid eyes on it, and likely I'm not the only one.  

Before OSL, mini-painters used to paint highlights and apply shading in order to simulate an even tone of light across entire models.  Everything was painted as if the subject was a magazine fashion model standing in a photo studio, and there were photographer's assistants standing all around with big round photo light reflector discs.  Even zenithal highlighting wasn't all that common a technique to see applied to a miniature.

Is this an example of an evenly lit model, or a weak excuse to post another pic of Kate Beckinsale?

If you think about it, it makes quite a bit of sense.  Miniature painting as an art form in it's own right wasn't as big as it is now.  At the time, almost all miniatures were painted for gaming purposes, or painted as if they were going to be used for gaming.  If that's the case, then the model was going to be viewed from any angle.  Having a forced perspective wasn't going to be the case 99% of the time, so the model had to look good from all directions.

And we also followed what we saw in the gaming magazines very closely... most notably White Dwarf magazine.  Games Workshop's own in-house studio of painters was called the 'Eavy Metal team, and their sole purpose was to make their miniatures look as good as possible for marketing purposes and to drive sales of the miniatures first and foremost.  If evenly lit models sold Louis Vuitton and Gucci clothes really well, then the same could be said about Games Workshop's own Citadel brand of models too.

This is the standard of painting we all strove for, back in the day. They did look consistently good from all angles though.

But OSL is different.  Object Source Lighting is rethinking your way of highlighting and shading to imply that the model is being lit from a particular object ON the model itself, or just off to one side of the model.  It may leave the opposing side of the model in shadow.  It also may mean that the surfaces directly facing the light source are cast in a harsh reflection.  There will be extremely strong contrasts between anything facing towards the light versus facing away.

OSL isn't something you just apply like a tool or different medium.  OSL starts in the brain of the painter, and requires a carefully considered approach.  It's not just "whatever is closest to the light source is brighter, and it just gets dimmer the further away from the light source".  Yes, that's partially true, but anything facing away from the source will be in the shade no matter how close or far away, in direct relief from the light (like the underside of a sun umbrella).  That's why I shudder when people seem to think that all they need to do to get a good OSL effect is hit the area with an quick shot from an airbrush.  Yeah, that might work, but only if the cone of paint is traveling in exactly the same direction as the light would be from the light source.  Personally, my preferred tool for OSL is a regular ol' sable brush.  More control, more thought, no easy way out.

Ohmygerd, OSL!! Seriously, the Hellbrute's face looks like there's a blue spotlight on it, instead of being lit from within.

Yoda shows us how it's done.  Size matters not.

I won't turn this blog article into a "how-to" for OSL (lots of great articles and vids on the Net for that already), but it's good to have a basic understanding of the concept and application so that people can imagine how different this was for us back in 2001.  Even so, this particular piece is not necessarily the BEST application of OSL ever presented in miniature art form, but it was a huge first step towards that.

Why would I say that this wasn't the best application of OSL?  Well, perhaps I should say that it wasn't the most involved use of OSL... it was a half step.  Victoria explains it best on her own website:

"The rescue of Sister Joan was my first attempt at painting lit models. The scenery and figures were painted separately. I did not seriously attempt to paint reflected torchlight on the figures themselves. I simply shaded and highlighted them as normal while keeping a rough idea of where the light was coming from. I made sure that the surfaces closest to the light source were painted lighter and those in shadow were darker and heavily shaded. I did not add any orange "light" to the figures themselves."

If you think about it, the light coming from the torch is a warm reddish / orange light.  If the torch is the only light in the room (other than the weak moonlight from above), then all the surfaces catching the light should be "tinted" orange.  Instead, while she did highlight towards the torch, it didn't influence her use of colour, and the models are lit as if from a clean white light.

However, she did do this right when it comes to the stone wall behind the torch.

"The dramatic lighting in this scene was mostly achieved with the stone scenery. I started by painting it as normal, just dry brushing with progressively lighter greys to create a normal stone effect. I then temporarily placed the witch hunter figure in position and stuck a pin in the stonework directly behind the flame of the torch.

After removing the figure the pin served as a marker for the light source. Working outwards from the pin I dry brushed a large circular area of stone with a dark red, and the same in a large pool around the position of the witch hunter's feet. Orange was gradually added to the red and the process repeated in smaller circles finishing up with the brightest orange (but not as bright as the torch itself) directly behind the torch in the position marked by the pin."

So Victoria simplified the OSL process by quite a big margin, but it still worked beautifully.  By neatly side-stepping the tricky colour calculations involved in orange-tinting the figures, she can maintain the true colouration of the skin, armour, weapons, and clothing.  This allows for a more diverse range of colours to be used in the diorama as a whole.  While not as "realistic", some artistic license should always be allowed for, as this IS high-fantasy art, after all.

On simpler subject matter, however (nothing as big as this complex diorama), colour shifting can be very beautiful and impressive:

A great example of colour shifted OSL by Natalya Melnik
On a later project, Victoria once again "shortcuts" her OSL and earns a Golden Demon award with this duel:

"Fiery Angel" 2003 Bronze Demon winner
Again, the shortcut here being that all the surfaces that the OSL treatment is applied to were black and white to begin with, making it easier to bring the orange fiery tones in.  Again, this makes little difference on the overall visual impact... sometimes simplicity is best.

And the impact of "The Rescue of Sister Joan" was equally huge.  Her Slayer Sword win of 2001 was the first time a woman had ever won the most prestigious award in miniature painting (in gaming scale at least... I don't follow the historical / monster / vinyl kit / scale modeller / etc. scene as closely, so I can't comment there).  Painters like Jennifer Haley and Natalya Melnik won theirs shortly afterwards (both won a pair in the States, at Baltimore and Chicago Games Days), but Victoria was the first.  Women may represent a significant statistical minority in gaming, but the few female painters in our art form definately take home a sizable share of trophies and accolades.  People like her were an inspiration to female painters around the world.

As far as OSL was concerned, it was as if an infectious idea took hold of painters everywhere.  Suddenly everyone was giving it a try.

From the slightly subtle:

David Rodriguez's Gandalf. White light from tip of staff, against the red light coming from the lava.
An amazing mecha by "Bohun"

To the over-the-top obvious:

"Shawn R.L." did up this model titled, "FIRE!!!!!"
"Light My Fire" by "Thunderhawker"

Even GW's own 'Eavy Metal team got into it, as evidenced by this sampling of OSL paintjobs (including a nod to Victoria Lamb as well):

And they weren't the only company studio painters who used it to promote their own goods:

OSL essentially added a whole new dimension to miniature painting.  Not every miniature and paintjob benefited from it, but depending on the subject matter, and the mood you were trying to achieve, it did come in handy once in awhile.  And it was definitely one of those things you could do to help take a paintjob up a notch if you really wanted to show off your painting skills.  However, it had to be appropriate to the piece, and it had to be well done, otherwise it would detract from the quality of the model.

Another great example of Victoria Lamb OSL would be this Gen Con Indy winning diorama from 2004:

Slightly different in tone than her previous OSL dioramas, as the green glow of the auspex really gives it a sense of cold dread, rather than hot violent action.  And while she does use predominantly black areas to showcase her OSL (and simplify the process), she does have some colour shifted OSL on the face, hair, and fingers of the hunted and hounded Cadian soldier.  It's definately a step up from "The Rescue" in terms of technical mastery, but it's more intimate, and less like a theatrical set in scope and range of colour.  The main thing to remember here is that her use of OSL strengthens and enhances the story, rather than distracts from it.

And so miniature painting as we know it was changed in a very tangible way by this one work of art.  "The Rescue of Sister Joan" gave us Object Source Lighting, and now every painter trying to make a name for himself / herself would need to attempt it at least once.  The work imprinted itself on our collective consciousness, and made many of us push ourselves to master a new trick, and that's never a bad thing for the art form as a whole.

Without a doubt, this was a Game Changer, and an easy pick for my top ten list.

Any guesses as to my next pick??