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Sometimes a journey of learning begins with great enthusiasm and an ambitious roadmap of goals. Sometimes it begins with faltering steps and only the vaguest idea of a direction to head. In March 2017 I began an adventure of learning in a pretty lacklustre way. The journey continued throughout 2018, but it also continued to be fairly unfocused and haphazard.
As 2019 has progressed, I found a few more pieces of a map. By sharing thoughts about learning how to paint miniatures better on this blog, I’ve also discovered ways to be a better learner myself! In hopes that it might help someone else, I thought I would share some moments from my journey, both the successes and the failures. Today I’m sharing something that was more of a failure.
How it began. Not great.
I rarely have the opportunity to choose classes I take at conventions based solely on my topic interests at the time. My interests certainly come into play, but the options available to me are limited to times when I’m not teaching classes. At AdeptiCon 2017, it worked out that I was able to take several classes with talented Spanish painters. My first class was a hands-on with Big Child Creatives. Sergio Calvo Rubio was with them then and provided the painting demonstration, and Jose Manuel Palomares Nunez provided additional explanation and translation, as well as helpful feedback on our attempts.
This was not at all a successful class for me. I struggled to understand the principles, and naturally that made it challenging to try to apply them hands-on. Jose wasn’t quite sure what to make of my attempt, and neither was I. I’m sure it didn’t help that the class started at 10pm after what was a long day for all of us, but where other students seemed energized and excited by what they were learning, I just felt lost.
The next day, I had a class with Raffaele Picca, another Spanish painter. This class was a demonstration of his painting approach. Being a demonstration, it allowed me to just focus on what he was doing to try to understand it. I’m sure it also helped that I took this class earlier in the day, before my old brain was tired out.
On the last day of the convention, I had another class with Sergio and Jose. This one was also a demonstration. So Sergio and Jose had time to demonstrate and explain the painting process much more thoroughly and cohesively than they had in the hands-on class I took first. The figure Sergio worked on was passed around at the end of each major stage, so I was able to take work-in-progress pictures of the process. People tend to have a very strong preference for hands-on classes, but there are a lot of valid reasons to consider attending demonstrations. If a painter’s process is quite different from what you normally use, it is helpful to see it in an overview before attempting to apply it yourself. I felt like I had a much better understanding of what Sergio and Jose were teaching after this class than I had managed in the hands-on one.
Sergio’s demonstration figure from one of his classes at AdeptiCon 2018.
I also lucked out in that final class. They gave the demo figure away to one of the students, and I was the lucky one! So I have been able to use it for reference as I study this approach in more detail.
While I felt I had a much better understanding of this painting approach after the two demonstration classes, it wasn’t a magic turning point where I now knew exactly what and how to proceed with studying this approach or the Spanish style in general. Mainly what I grasped was that both painters advocate working in a similar big picture first, small details later way. Many people in the miniature community have been calling this approach ‘sketching’ or similar terms. It’s also a concept that most of the traditional artists I’ve been studying advocate. Traditional artists often describe it as working from general to specific.
An example of working general to specific from an oil painting workshop I took recently.
The basic idea of working general to specific in traditional art is that in the early stages you should concentrate on getting the correct proportions and placement of the general shapes before you start refining, and definitely before you start adding any sort of detail. Look at the picture on the far left and then compare it to the others later in the process to the right. The area of light on the chin and the shape of the forehead are different in the first picture. The light area of the nose is shorter. If I had started to put in the deep shadows and bright highlights on the nose before fixing those shapes and proportions, I would have had two choices when I noticed the problem later – leave everything as it was to preserve the time I had put in but have a less correct painting, or fix it and lose all that time I had put into painting the details. It makes a lot more sense to work on getting all of the big stuff right first.
Sergio Calvo Rubio sketch stages from a class at AdeptiCon 2017.
Painting miniature figures does not involve drawing overall shapes, but the idea of working general to specific can still be applied. You can see an example in the figure above, which is the figure Sergio Calvo Rubio painted in the demonstration class I took with him and Jose Manuel Palomares. In the first step, he’s worked out the colour for all the main area of the figures, and the colours he plans to add to them to create highlights. He’s also worked out the broad area of highlight and shadow placement. This was in the first 10-15 minutes of the class. Applying all of the paint colours and working out the big picture location for shadows and highlights in this way allows him to test a lot of his concept for the figure with a pretty minimal investment of time and effort. If one of the colours doesn’t fit or something looks off about the lighting, it’s just a few minutes of time lost in fixing it.
Then he proceeded to add more highlights and refine his overall vision for the figure. This was a two hour class. Jose was providing much of the explanation, but with time taken to pass the figure around, I’d say Sergio painted for only a little more than an hour to get to the end point pictured above. (Only on the front of the figure as shown, granted.) That would be a fine stopping point for a tabletop miniature. If he intended it as a display miniature, he could spend as much time as he wanted refining the blends and textures and adding fine details. So it’s also a great system for painting within a tight time limit or to a desired level of finish.
Raffaele Picca demo figure from a class at AdeptiCon 2017. My pictures are even more terrible than the usual convention class pictures and don’t do his work justice.
The other painter I took a class with at AdeptiCon used a similar approach in terms of working out the big picture of light direction and shadow/highlight placement before refining and working on details, but Raffaele Picca used different techniques to get there. Sergio Calvo Rubio does all of the early and mid stages of sketching and refinement with a standard brush. He uses an airbrush only in the final stages of painting to smooth blending transitions and unify his lights and shadows. Raffaele used an airbrush to lay in the broad sketch of the lighting and highlights and shadows, and then refined and added detail with a brush. Sketching is an approach used to add the overall choices of colour and contrast to the figure. There isn’t just one paint application technique you can use to explore doing that.
Taking these classes did not transform my painting overnight. I didn’t fly home full of enthusiasm to start slapping paint on minis in whole new ways. These painters did expose me to new ideas, but they were planted as tiny seeds. I had to nurture them, and then once they sprouted a little, take some time to observe them to figure out how to get the most out of them with the way I paint.
This was a not particularly noteworthy beginning to understanding more of these different approaches to painting. But the fact that I initially had trouble understanding the concepts did not mean I was doomed to never grasp them or to never succeed in applying them. Learning to do something almost always involves as much failure and frustration as success and understanding! I wrote an article about another attempt to practice some of these painting principles.
Figures and Painters in this Post
The orc in the first picture is from the Storm Coast Marauders fantasy football team, but I don’t seem to be able to find it online, so I’m not sure it’s available for purchase currently.
The goblin is Bocanegra the Little Tyrant.
Big Child Creatives has lots of other cool figures for sale in their shop.
I don’t have any information on the figure from the Raffaele Picca demo. Sorry!