My father was a painter. Oils, acrylics, pastels, charcoal, pen and ink, on canvas and on paper. By trade, he was a lithographer, but at home, he was a painter, and that’s how I always thought of him: as an artist.
His basement atelier was a cluttered chaos of books and bottles, half-squeezed-out tubes of paint, papers thick and thin, stretched canvases primed stark white, and dusty pots of darkest India ink. The walls around his drafting table were festooned with French curve templates, squares, and straight edges hung on pegs. Teetering stacks of ancient boxes held rapidographs, compasses, dividers, and ruling pens. Old mugs sat here and there, bristling like ceramic porcupines with quills made of brushes, pencils, and pens. I remember clearly the sharp smells of turpentine and linseed oil, and the sound of his artist’s knife scraping against palette and canvas. Sitting with him at the table, it always amazed me how with a few strokes of a pencil he could create an image from nothing, as if he already saw it there on the blank paper, waiting to be drawn.
His was a talent I admired, and at which I occasionally tried my hand. My youthful attempts were… well …youthful, filled with dark melodrama and suffused angst. They were very carefully crafted, highly detailed, and incredibly overwrought.
They were also pretty awful.
For some time, now, my hope/plan had been to give the whole painting bit another try when I retired so, when Dad passed away a few months ago, I was honored that my sibs gave me custody of his art supplies. Thus, Dad’s paints, his brushes, a blank canvas or two, and his old art board — a stained, cracked, terribly scarred piece of hollow-core board that received many of its wounds from us kids working on it with push pins and X-Acto knives — are now in my office.
Well, most of them are in my office. Some of them have come out to play.
Recently, I purchased a board game called Blood Rage (stay with me…this will tie together in a moment). While I generally favor cooperative games, this game is not one of those. It’s a full-on Viking-themed screw-your-neighbor bloodfest served up with a triple side of Ragnarok. It’s the type of game where ties don’t go to anyone — in a tie, everyone loses — and where you can rope into battle a competitor who’s prepared for nothing except major smitage. It’s seriously cutthroat stuff.
What attracted me to such a non-cooperative game? Simple: figurines.
As one of the first adopters of Dungeons & Dragons gameplay, tabletop figurines were a mainstay. I still have some of my lead-cast figurines from those days, each painted to the best of my ability which, back then, was pretty good. So when I saw that Blood Rage came with figurines (including scale-sized giants), I saw an opportunity to pull out the paints, flex creative muscles that had lain dormant for three decades (ahem…or longer…), and see what happened.
What happened was that I fell down the rabbit hole of miniature painting. I’d forgotten nearly everything; I’d certainly forgotten how physically demanding it could be. All of my acquired knowledge from those early days had to be reacquired, and then some.
But what could be so hard? I mean, painting figurines is like the old “paint by numbers” kits, right? The sculptor has given you the shape and defined the borders. You just have to fill in the blanks.
As with any creative effort, while a certain amount of talent is a boon, there is a fair amount of skill required just to get you going. Skills of this sort naturally start out basic and ramp up from there. It’s the difference between creating a piece that looks like it came from a paint-by-numbers kit, or using the kit as a template to achieve a much higher quality result.
Blood Rage figurines come in four clans (five, now that I have the expansion set) with ten figures each, four large monsters, and five more monsters of human size. That’s fifty-nine figures — What was I thinking? — ranging in size from one or two inches tall to giants about four inches tall. That all adds up to a helluva lot of detail painting.
Over the weeks I’ve spent painting them, I have noted the progression of my skills. I’ve relearned the importance of figure preparation (clean and trim, file and smooth), experimented with both white and black primers (black…definitely black), tried working from wash to dry-brush and the reverse (best method is prime, block, wash, dry-brush, detail, finish), and learned so much about mixing colors that I’ve starting to forget some of it just to make room for more.
As with the new fad of coloring books for adults (not to be confused with adult coloring books), painting these little guys has been a meditation. It’s been a lot more meditation than I’d expected, but considering my perfectionist upbringing, this should not be a surprise. I have to say, though, I’m pretty pleased with the way the sheepskin cloaks on the Ram Clan came out.
This project wraps up soon — I have a game-night this Saturday, where these guys will get their official “reveal” — but it has given me confidence that, given time and practice, I might be able to eventually paint a picture of my own, on my own, without someone else sketching it out for me first.
Keep learning. Keep creating. Keep playing.