Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Alfonso "Banshee" Giraldes : Vancouver, Canada Masterclass

Early this month, I had the privilege to attend Alfonso "Banshee" Giraldes' Vancouver Masterclass, his first in a series as he tours across Canada.  Alfonso is an incredibly talented painter, sculptor, sketch artist, teacher, and mini art historian from Spain.  Despite only being 32 years old (10 years my junior), this man has a resume that is absolutely astounding.  He has won a multitude of painting awards across Europe.  He has worked for Knight Models, Forgeworld, Andrea Press, Nuts Planet, and many other notable miniature companies.  He has taught some of the biggest names in our art form... people like Raffaele Picca, Ben Komets, and others.  And with Madrid, Spain being about as far away from the Wet Coast as you can get, this was a rare opportunity to learn from one of the most influential people in mini painting history.  Even Mathieu said that he had lots to learn from Alfonso... and if someone who has won 19 Golden Demon awards and taught painting all over the world is saying that, the chances were that I would likely learn something from Alfonso as well.

Now, Vancouver has only a small but dedicated mini painting community.  It's not like it is in Europe, where art appreciation is in their blood, and small kids go to art museums on their field trips to see Rembrandts, Van Goghs, and Matisses.  We do not have mini art extravaganzas like the Golden Demons, Mont San Savino, the World Expo, and Euromilitaire... where you can go hang out with the top names, and check out their works in person.  But somehow we have managed to bring people like Mathieu Fontaine and Meg Maples to inject new skills, techniques, and approaches to mini painting our damp corner of the world.  And now we have had Alfonso, and mini painting in Canada will never be the same.

Alfonso's class took place over two days, which is never enough when you have a guy with that much talent.  I'm not sure what he was expecting... he was going to be away from home for about a month and a half, going from Vancouver, then to Montreal, then over to Winnipeg, and finally Calgary.  And coming from sunny Spain, over to Canada's wet and cold Fall weather would likely take some adjusting to.

What's worse, the day before he left home, we were being warned of a big storm approaching our coast.  The media and government was warning everyone to be prepared for massive windstorms and rain that would likely knock out power to a good part of the area.  Mathieu had set up a Facebook group for all the  students, and while we were stocking up on non-perishable food and water, we were also telling each other to grab candles and headlamps in case we had to paint in the dark. 
Luckily the worst part of the storm ending up hitting a bit further south than the weatherman had predicted.  Even so, we got drenched in rain... a perfect welcome for our guest.

We all got to the venue safely, including the people that had to take a ferry over from Vancouver Island, and one gentleman that crossed the border from the US to attend.  We had been told to bring our regular hobby supplies with us, along with a few other items if possible... artist heavy body acrylics in the primary colours, plus black and white, artist quality inks (in the same colours), a really large wet palette, and a 70 or 75mm model.  The reasons behind these models would become apparent soon after we started.

Alfonso started off by introducing himself, a task that took a little while considering his extensive history in the field.  His grasp of the English language was very impressive, and we had no difficulties following anything he taught (I had watched a number of YouTube videos of Mig Jimenez the night before, and I think Alfonso's English was considerably smoother).  We then broke out our pens, notebooks, brushes, and wet palettes, and got down to business.

I'm not going to lay out Alfonso's course in a blog post, but I will tell you what to expect if you get a chance to take it.  It's radically different than any other mini painting class I've ever taken part in.

Most teachers teach technique.  They show you a few tips.  They demonstrate the use of a few new tools, and they show you how to blend, shade, highlight, and maybe weather a bit.  They talk about their preferred brushes, and answer questions along the way.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach... it's what most painters want to learn, and it produces the quickest boost to your painting skills.  As a student, you can walk away from a course like that, and start improving your painting right away.

Alfonso's class is nothing at all like that.  His is more of a thinking painter's challenge... he makes you ask why certain colour schemes seem to work better than others.  He gets you to examine each colour, and get intimate with it... learn all the nuances and personality quirks, and then discover how they like to play with other colours.  And how to bend it to your will.

To give you an example, Alfonso made us understand that we associate colours with ideas.  Blue is cold, depth, calm, darkness, night, death, and humidity.  It is also the noble family of colours, with properties not associated with yellows (which is just about everything that blue is not).  Red, the last primary colour, stands apart, but while blue and yellow are rivals, red is sympathetic in its interplay with other colours.  The other colours (non-primary) also have their qualities and personality quirks, but like a biological child, they are a blending of their primary parents.

He also made us understand the relative strength of each colour.  In pigmented paint, colour has a relative strength (whereas in light, every colour is pretty much equally strong).  It's important to know just how powerful the natural tendency of a colour is, because there is also the additional factor of how strongly pigmented the particular paint or ink that you are using is.

Paints, palette, brushes, and most importantly, coffee and a muffin!

Remember how I mentioned that we were asked to bring some artist quality heavy body acrylics and inks with us?  It's because Alfonso has had the opportunity to work behind the scenes in paint development in the past, and realized that many hobby paint companies are forced to cut corners when they formulate their paints for a variety of reasons (but mostly because of cost).  High quality artist paints, on the other hand, typically have more potent pigments, and high quality artist inks are the most potent of all... sometimes adding a little ink to the paint on your palette can really add an extra punch to your colour.

The reason why this is important is to keep all this in mind when you are mixing paint.  Yellow, a typically weak colour, is easily overpowered when mixed with something like blue, which is a very potent colour.  Therefore, in order to get a "pure" green, you would need to mix several parts yellow to just a little bit of blue.  Of course, you can also try using a more weakly pigmented blue to even things out, or a more concentrated pigment strength yellow (such as in an artist quality ink).

All this is a bit moot if you rarely mix paint.  Most of us paint the easy way... when painting a green part of your mini, you might start by grabbing a pot of mid-tone green, shading with a darker version of that green from a different pot of paint, and highlighting with a pot of lighter green.  This is an easy formula for acceptable (and predictable) results, but it gets a bit boring after a while, and it certainly limits what you can do with a mini in terms of controlling atmosphere, temperature, and mood.

In order to push past "the ordinary", we need to learn how to mix paint.  We needed to learn how to dissect and deconstruct the paints that we already had, and learn how to experiment and mix with them so that we could discover how to rebuild them into completely different tools.  Concepts of colour, tone, nuance, temperature, value, brightness, and luminosity were crammed into our heads in a short amount of time.

My wet palette after a few different exercises

I felt like we were taking some sort of higher level culinary class, taught by a Michelin star chef.  We were breaking things down to a level that was beyond just refining technique.  We weren't just learning how to recreate traditional appetizers, entrees, and desserts... we were understanding our ingredients at a molecular level, in order to design brand new dishes and flavours with them. 

Alfonso had us doing one colour exercise after another.  It became readily apparent why he wanted us all to try using these giant oversized wet palettes... even though they were the size of laptops, we utilized every last inch of space while searching for the perfect blend of paint.

I have to say that it was a bit exhausting and mentally taxing.  I admit I leaned over the shoulder of my fellow classmates (especially my friends Jeremy Fleet and Matthew Beavis, who grasped these concepts much more quickly than I did) on many occasions to take a peek off their notes.  For my poor friend Steve Kemp (who sat to my left), it was his very first painting Masterclass, and he was getting a real crash course in higher conceptual painting (to his credit, he was picking up everything almost as quickly as I, and he didn't have the university art courses and decades of painting experience that I did... what Steve did have was a much bigger brain than me).

Thankfully, at the end of the first day Alfonso brought out some of his works-in-progress, and a few pics from his tablet.  This really helped crystalize the reasons why we were going through all this work, and just what it was that we were trying to accomplish.  We weren't treating our minis like 3D colouring books any more... we were working on them like 3D illustrators and artists. Alfonso defines himself as a 3D illustrator, bringing an illustrative approach to 3D models (which is actually more difficult than 2D, because you don't necessarily have a background with which you can establish mood, tone, atmosphere, and lighting).

Understanding how to break down a subject into shapes, in order to determine where the shadows and highlights would form.  And how light and shadow appear differently on different kinds of textures and surfaces.

The second day, we were right into the battlefront trenches once again.  This time, we were understanding Alfonso's motto and battle cry, "Fuck Smoothness".

"Fuck Smoothness" meant learning how to apply texture.  It meant not being obsessed with achieving perfectly smooth blends.  It meant hard lines here and there, abrupt transitions with crazily contrasting colours, and bending the subject to your will, forcing it to take on aspects that you could impose on it.

"Fuck Smoothness" encapsulates his feeling that the miniature world's current obsession with perfect blends (my friend Sebastien Cormier calls it "The Smoothness Meta", or "The technician's bias toward the primacy of technique") is going to eventually lead it to an evolutionary dead end.  His illustration background (a Master's degree in the arts) has made him more open to "imperfection", so long as it's done in order to push the boundaries of mini painting.  He wants everyone to be striving and accepting and developing new styles of mini painting.

If you look at 2D art, not everyone is working in Norman Rockwell's style, or Giger, or Picasso.  All their styles are phenomenal, but if only one style was acceptable, then the other painters would be considered failures.  This is obviously not the case.  The miniature painting world should be the same... many different styles and techniques and interpretations, and any artist working in one particular style should be able to recognize and acknowledge the brilliance of a piece done well in another style. 

It got me thinking of other painters that don't necessarily work in the contemporary mini painting format / formula... John Blanche and James Wappel come to mind.  Both are from the 2D illustration world.  Both are wonderful 3D mini painters as well.  And both do NOT paint in your usual Crystal Brush or Slayer Sword winning style.

In my opinion, this is not to say that all smoothness should be devalued too... it's incredibly difficult to master, and is an easily recognizable sign of talent and dedication.  It's just that you can still achieve mind-blowing results using techniques that aren't smooth at all.

Alfonso's current favourite artists are Sang Eon Lee and Kirill Kanaev, and they are perfect examples of what I mean.  Their stuff looks smooth from a distance, but once you look VERY closely (zoom in on a pic of one of their busts), you realize that the effect is actually achieved by laying down a variety of different textures and colours (what Alfonso refers to as "noise").  Your brain blends it altogether and arranges it in your head so that it makes sense, but you don't really, truly understand all the elements that are acting to create these impressions until you understand their processes and approach.

Kirill Kanaev
Sang Eon Lee

Near the end of the 2nd day, he was able to sit down and take us through the processes and approach himself.  Using his famous "Anonymous" bust (he had sculpted this for the express purpose of using it as a teaching platform, and also as a platform for experimentation), he showed us the various stages he went through to go from primered resin, to finished bust.

It was quite marvelous to watch.  Using only the three primary colours (red, blue, and yellow), plus some black and white, he was able to create skin tones effortlessly.  He would push colours around on his palette, and apply them in rough blocks on the model (with a chisel shaped brush!).  He also pushed colours around directly on the model, mixing right on the surface of the mini itself... wet blending, only somehow more freeform and chaotic.  And speaking of chaotic, whenever he made a "mistake", he would just go with it, and make it part of the final paintjob.

He played with all the concepts he discussed earlier... value, brightness, luminosity, colour, tone, temperature, and nuance.  He played with saturation and desaturation.  He would harmonize or contrast depending on his will.  He broke down components of the model into different planes, which he would play off of in order to create artificial shadows.  And he somehow did this in about 45 minutes, completing the bust while conducting a class and answering questions at the same time.

All done with just blue, red, yellow, black, and white.

Adding detail where there was none on the model... deep scars, deeply exaggerated cheekbones, and extra creases.

\Check out the shadow under the chin.  Hard, knife-sharp transitions, showing deep undercut shadows, and highlights within shadows.

One bonus was that much of our class was Alfonso telling us stories and the history of mini painting, which we couldn't get enough of.  It gave context and richness to this art form, and personalized it wonderfully.  I can't say that every class that he teaches is likely like this... we were always struggling to make up time, and much of that was probably because we kept encouraging him to be a storyteller, rather than a teacher.  But it was kind of like spending time with an old war veteran or famous movie director... getting a chance to talk to someone who was actually taking part in the evolution of our hobby, working at the various companies that nudged it along, and had a personal relationship with many of the legendary names was quite special.

One personal experience I had at the end of the class was when I pulled out my copy of an old Andrea Press book, "How to Paint Fantasy Miniatures" (published 2006), and asked Alfonso to sign it for me.

He had written an article within it, all about freehand designs (the example was a mini that he had won a Golden Demon with).  Other writers within were such legends like David Rodriguez, Julio Cabos, Jose Palomares, Jeremie Bonamant, and Juan Carlos Avila Ribadas.

Alfonso's face lit up when he saw the book.  It was a huge blast from the past for him, and he got somewhat emotional as he recalled the circumstances around his contribution to the publication, that time period of his life (a very difficult and somewhat desperate time as he struggled to establish himself, and was being taken advantage of for his talent).  He had a few stories to tell, which came out as he flipped through the pages and saw the authors and their works.

He gladly signed the inside cover, and got a few selfies with the book to send to some of his friends back home.  I told him that I had found my copy in the back of a games store years and years ago during a driving trip to California.  At the end, he said that if you had told him 10 years ago that he would be one day signing a copy during a class he was teaching in Canada, he wouldn't have believed it.

Of the two people holding the book, guess which one is the Spaniard?  ;)

As a book collector (I love picking up just about anything to do with mini and scale model painting), I have to say that was one of the coolest experiences I've had in regards to a publication.  This book will definitely have a place of honour in the collection.

In the end, I can't say that this class will have as an immediate impact on my painting as the ones I took with Mathieu Fontaine or Meg Maples / Soley.  I loved those classes, and they helped me break through some significant plateaus in my painting development.  I learned a ton of new techniques that demystified many of the works I have admired in print, but could never replicate in person up until then.  Mathieu and Meg are insanely talented painters, and fantastic teachers whose courses will up your game right away.

However, that's not the intent of Alfonso's class.  He knows there are many teachers teaching techniques, so he has made the decision to take a different approach.  Instead, Alfonso is teaching us to think... to break form with everything we thought we knew about painting before, and go down the crazy unpaved paths.  Expression, not imitation.  I think his course will have a profound, long-term impact on me, and everyone he teaches.  And he is very likely one of the most passionate people in this art form that I have ever met... which is really, really awesome because just being around him fires you up and inspires you.

Mind = Normal

Mind = Blown
Oh, and I have some quick thank-you's to add.  First of all, thanks to Mathieu Fontaine for heading up the effort to bring Alfonso to the Great White North (ie Canada).  Also, thanks to Jason Dyer and Chris Jones for making the arrangements for him to come to Vancouver.  Thanks again to Matthew Beavis and Jeremy Fleet for letting me cheat off their notes, and explaining things to me when I couldn't figure out what I was doing and wanted to break my brushes.  Thanks to Stephen Kemp for carpooling with me and covering the cost of gas.  And thanks to GW Jade Green, just because I love the colour (and I may finally be able to mix it up from scratch, which is nice because GW stopped making Jade Green about a decade ago).

A big thanks to James Gates of High Calibre Miniatures, who provided some really nice models as giveaways, and who runs an amazing mail-order miniature service out of North Vancouver.  Seriously... I ordered "The Last Mercenary" model from High Calibre shortly before the class (a 75mm Nuts Planet figure that Alfonso actually sculpted!), and he responded to my emails immediately, and I received my model within days.  Crazy good service!

And finally, a big thank you to Alfonso.  Thanks for coming halfway around the world to teach us.  Thanks for challenging us.  Thanks for opening our minds.  Thanks for inspiring us. And thanks for being such a nice guy too.