How to Choose, Convert, and Sculpt Balanced Figures

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I’ve been working to finish up painting this figure, and it got me thinking about symmetry versus balance in figure design.

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This Hellborn Dancer is part of the core set in the Reaper Bones 6 Kickstarter.

On initial consideration, the differences between symmetry and balance can seem pretty subtle. Understanding the difference between the two can help people design more effective conversions, and sculpt more attractive figures. It is also useful for painters to better understand figure composition, especially those who enter contests. The figure you choose is the foundation of your painting, and it factors in to the opinion of judges/voters. You can only improve your chances of positive consideration by choosing a figure that is designed and sculpted well. Better understanding symmetry versus balance is also helpful for designing dioramas and scenic bases, and can even be applied to painting.

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She was sculpted by Bobby Jackson. I will share the colours I used in a future post.

If you draw a line down the centre of something, symmetry occurs when both sides are mirror images, or very similar. Humans appreciate symmetry, especially in form. The typical design of a human is symmetrical – head, torso, and hips in the middle of the body, and an arm and a leg to each side. That symmetry is repeated in the details of the face – nose and mouth in the centre, with one eye and one ear on either side. Biologists believe that a large component of what we consider beauty relates to symmetry. People with more symmetrical bodies and faces are believed to have healthier gene expression and development, which makes them fitter reproductive partners, which we define as beauty that attracts us to those people. Many of the objects we construct are also made to be symmetrical in form, regardless of whether it is necessary for their function.

While we like symmetry in the design of objects, we also prefer variation in things we look at. Symmetrical compositions are often less engaging and interesting to viewers. Instead of symmetry, what you need is balance. If you draw a line down the centre of a composition, we feel it has balance when the visual weight of the elements on each side are equal or similar. The elements on each side may be completely asymmetrical, different shapes, different sizes, etc. But if the overall volume of the elements on each side is roughly equal in and they well composed, the viewer will perceive the whole as balanced.

The classic balancing scale is a simple illustration of these ideas:

Balance scalesPhotos from Wikimedia commons: left, centre, right

The image on the left is both symmetrical and balanced. It is also not especially interesting to look at. It feels stiff and static.

The centre image is asymmetrical, but still balanced. The pans of the scale are located at different vertical levels, but they are visually equal in weight. This image appears more dynamic and interesting to look at because there is more happening in the scene, but it’s still balanced and visually pleasing.

The diagram on the right is neither symmetrical nor balanced. The scales themselves are symmetrical and balanced in form, but all of the other objects in the image are on the left of the centre line. The left side of this image appears much heavier and busier than the right, which looks empty and almost insubstantial. It may function well as a diagram that illustrates a point, but it is not pleasing to the viewer to look at. A small amount of imbalance can add a little tension and dynamism to a figure, but too much will strike most viewers as jarring and displeasing.

Great, so what has that got to do with miniatures?

Extremely dynamic figure poses usually require sculptors to make creative use of cloak cloth or other objects to support the figure mid jump/run/flight but also ensure that the miniature is feasible to produce and can withstand gameplay. It’s just not reasonable to do with every miniature. Sculptors more often use asymmetrical and balanced composition to add dynamism to other types of poses. These are useful principles to keep in mind when you are converting or sculpting figures, or designing scenic bases and dioramas. We can compare some historical statues and contemporary miniatures for examples.

Ancient Egyptian art conformed to particular composition and poses. These appear quite stiff and static to our modern eyes. They convey a sense of solidity and stasis, but aren’t that interesting to look at. The current Reaper Kickstarter is aiming to unlock a set of Egyptian themed figures that includes avatars of several classic deities. These modern sculpts look much more alive and dynamic than the historical statues.

Tawaret

I found numerous historical depictions of Tawaret in very similar symmetrical poses. The human interpretation in the centre breaks the symmetry up a little by having one arm folded across her chest. So dynamic!! Compare that to the Tawaret avatar in the Reaper Kickstarter on the far right. The figure is in a simple standing position, but the less symmetrical posing makes it much more interesting to look at. The legs are in slightly different positions, the hips are tilted, the head is turned to one side a little, and the arms are angled. The shapes of the skirt and loincloth piece suggest cloth in motion and add a bit of dynamism. It’s still visually balanced, though.

Tawaret comboPhotos: The Met Museum, The Met Museum, Reaper Bones 6 Kickstarter Egyptian expansion

Wadjet

The seated depiction of Wadjet is almost completely symmetrical, and thus pretty static and dull. The standing statue is in a less symmetrical pose, with one foot and one arm forward, but the straight spine and weight placed equally on both feet makes the pose look stiff and unnatural. Compare that to the Reaper version of Wadjet. The weight is on the rear leg as the other foot steps forward. That tilts the hips, which curves the spine, resulting in a more fluid and natural pose. The head looks to one side, and the arms are in different positions. As with the Tawaret avatar, the way the cloth is sculpted contributes to the impression that the figure is in motion.

Wadget comboPhotos: Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons, Reaper Bones 6 Kickstarter Egyptian expansion

Anubis

The green statuette of Anubis has one leg forward, but is otherwise symmetrical and very stiff and unnatural looking. The pose of the centre historical Anubis is a little more dynamic from some angles, but is still fairly symmetrical. As with Wadjet, both historical versions have ramrod straight spines and weight distributed equally on both legs, which adds to the static feeling of the figures. The Reaper Anubis avatar on the right is much more dynamic, The entire body is posed asymmetrically, and appears caught in the midst of movement. It is still pleasingly balanced, however. The extension of the staff to the right is balanced by the opposite arm being raised and the head looking in the opposite direction.

Anubis comboPhotos: Wikimedia Commons, Met Museum, Reaper Bones 6 Kickstarter Egyptian expansion

If we instead study historical Greek and Roman statuary, we find much less of a difference between ancient and contemporary figure sculpts. In Western art, the Greeks and Romans pioneered of the idea of depicting the human figure more naturalistically. Contemporary artists are still using the same techniques for the same reasons. One method introduced in classic sculpture is the idea of the contrapposto pose. A contrapposto, or counter-poised, pose is a standing pose in which the weight of the body rests primarily on one leg. This cants the weight-bearing hip up, which as a consequence of our anatomy, tilts the opposite shoulder down, creating a graceful curve in the spine. It is a visually pleasing way to arrange the symmetrical human form into a more asymmetrical pose. It appears more dynamic, but still pleasingly balanced. 

Michelangelo’s David is perhaps the most well-known example of the contrapposto pose. You can see at a glance that all of the weight of the figure is bearing down on that left foot, and the right foot is just lightly resting on the ground. Note the way the hips and shoulders tilt as a result, and how that curves the spine. One side of the torso is compressed, and the other side is stretched. David is an idealized figure and his pose may look a little studied, but next time you see a group of people standing talking or waiting in line, study them for a minute. You’ll probably find that the majority stand with more weight on one foot, which tilts the lines of their hips and shoulders away from horizontal.

IMG 0106Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Hera

The contrapposto pose is very strong in the statue of Hera on the left. It’s a little less so in the middle one, but you can just make up the relaxed bend of the non-weight-bearing leg under her drapery. Both have head tilts and arms at different levels. They’re not symmetrically posed, but the overall result is an equal amount of visual content on each side, so they appear visually balanced. The Reaper version is sculpted to appear as a stone column rather than a person, so it is a slightly stiff pose. However, notice how much more naturalistic and varied it appears in comparison to the historic Egyptian sculptures thanks to the contrapposto leg, head tilt, and asymmetrically posed arms.

Hera comboPhotos: Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, Reaper Bones 5 Kickstarter (soon to be released in retail)

Zeus

First we have two historical depictions of Zeus. The one on the left looks naturalistic thanks to the wonderfully contrapposto legs, and asymmetrical poses of the arms. The folds of cloth sculpted on the lowered arm act as a counterweight to the lightning in the raised fist, so the overall composition remains balanced. Even the ancients didn’t get it perfect every time. The Zeus on the right doesn’t appear quite as natural, or as balanced. The legs are a the contrapposto position, but tilt of the hips is slight, and the shoulders look almost even, so the spine looks kind of stiff. There is a bird and a stump on the left. The visual weight of these is not quite balanced by the upraised arm, so the composition isn’t as pleasing. (Likely the raised arm once held lightning and did look more balanced in its original form.)

Zeus historicalPhotos: Wikimedia Commons, National Museums Liverpool

As with Hera, Reaper’s Zeus column is designed to look more like a statue than a naturalistic figure. It nonetheless has a contrapposto leg pose and a nice curve on the spine that makes it look much more natural than the stiff Egyptian figure poses. On the right is a Zeus-inspired giant. He is in a more active pose than the other figures we’ve studied so far, caught in the midst of hurling a lightning bolt. The body in motion often exhibits elements of the contrapposto standing pose, with tilts to the shoulders and hips and bends in the spine that compress one side of the torso and stretch the other. Likely this is one reason we perceive contrapposto standing poses as more lively. There are more elements to the Zeus giant sculpt than the other figures shown so far, but these have also been composed in a balanced way.

Zeus reaperBoth figures are from Reaper’s Bones 5 Kickstarter, soon to be released in retail.

In discussing balance and centre line symmetry, I’ve shown figures angles from the front or slightly to one side. Sculptors create three dimensional pieces that can be viewed in the round. An ideal composition looks pleasing when the sculpt is viewed at any angle. This can be challenging to do when your subject is the human form. There are often one or two angles that don’t look as interesting in a given pose. The constraints of miniature production add an additional wrinkle for mass market miniature sculpts. It’s not always possible to make every angle balanced and interesting, but It is very important for sculptors (and converters) to work on good composition for the main viewing angles. For many figures the main viewing angles are the front and the back, but there may be additional ones. The Zeus-inspired giant would have at least one additional angle. I think many viewers would turn it to place each arm to one side and view it from that angle.

Additional Figures

Below are photos of some of the other figures I’ve painted that are included in the Reaper Bones 6 Kickstarter. I’ll share my comments after each photo, so you have the opportunity to look at the photos to make your own assessment of their balance and symmetry before reading mine.

Sophie18 face fullMasquerade Ball Sophie is currently available in metal, and in plastic via the Bones 6 core set. I have an article on the painting process, the challenges of matching it to the concept art, and the freehand.

Unlike many monstrous or martial themed miniatures, Masquerade Ball Sophie is pretty symmetrical in design. She has flowers on only one side of her hair, and a bracelet and skirt tassel on the other. Her pose, on the other hand, is balanced, but not at all symmetrical. Bob Ridolfi has sculpted her with a very pleasing C curve gesture. I would say there is a little more ‘weight’ of objects on the right, but I feel like it is balanced by the more active hand gesture and upraised wing on the left. (If you don’t love the wings, you can leave them off and use her as a noble or wealthy character.)

Bsoph face fullBourbon Street Sophie is currently available in metal, and in plastic via the Bones 6 core set. I have an article explaining how to paint source lighting (OSL).

If you consider just the Bourbon Street Sophie figure alone, the aspects of symmetry in design and balance in pose are pretty similar to the Masquerade Sophie. The figure itself is largely symmetrical in form. It has a C pose that is asymmetrical, but balanced and graceful. With this figure, the large flare of the skirts to the right is quite prominent, but Bob Ridolfi used the mask and a flower decoration on the left to balance it. (I think you could also expand the game play uses of this figure by leaving off the wings.)

Marchb front fullThis version of Tara the Silent was a special edition for Reaper’s 25th anniversary, and is no longer available in metal. She is available in plastic via the Bones 6 core set. I painted this before beginning this site, but you can see photos with additional angles on my Facebook page.

25th Anniversary Tara the Silent is fairly symmetrical. While the pose is not one of dynamic action, Bobby Jackson adds visual interest with subtle deviations from the symmetry. She is in a contrapposto pose, with her weight on the back leg, which leads to a pleasing S curve spine. The face is looking to the right, and the poised dagger and belt pouch are also on that side. These are balanced by objects on the left – the larger curl of cloak fold, the hand holding the pouch, the dagger hilt, and the strong shapes of the armour plates on the left hip.

Mayb frontThis version of Eli Quickknife was a special edition for Reaper’s 25th anniversary, and is no longer available in metal. He is available in plastic via the Bones 6 core set. Eli also predates this site, but I have additional photos available on my Facebook page. I have some notes on how I painted the leather available on one of the photos.

Bobby Jackson’s sculpt of 25th Anniversary Eli Quickknife is interesting to consider. It’s actually a fairly symmetrical pose, with both arms and both legs in similar positions. Despite this, it does not appear static. The deep bend and slight asymmetry of the legs is kind of like a coiled spring. There is also a lot of tension in the arms. The opposing orientation of the two daggers is just different enough from true symmetry to keep our interest. The turned head and pointed fold of the hood on the right are balanced by the corner of cloak sweeping out on the bottom left.

July blue front fullAsandris Nightbloom is currently available in metal, and in plastic via the Bones 6 core set. I have an article with information on the colour scheme and freehand used on this figure.

Asandris Nightbloom here might seem a little trickier to assess. There’s not a lot to balance that large tall staff on the left, but the figure doesn’t really feel unbalanced, does it? What makes this one a little different than the others is that the centre line of the character is not the same as the centre line of the composition of the whole scene. The centre line of a person is the centre of the body from between the eyes down through the centre of the torso. The centre line of this composition is to the left side of the head. Bob Ridolfi has also added a bit more weight to the right via the book and the larger weapon. In the diagram below the centre line of the character is in orange, and the centre line of the overall composition is in green. Note that this figure also has slight contrapposto pose – the weight is on the back leg, which tilts the hips and shoulders in opposite angles.

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I hope that gives you a few ideas for how to create visually pleasing compositions when you’re converting and sculpting figures. And tips for some things to look out for when choosing a figure to invest a lot of time in painting. These ideas of symmetry and balance are extremely important for scene and diorama composition as well, and can be something to consider in painting, but those will have to be topics for future articles.

Notes

There are multiple kinds of symmetry in nature. Humans and many other creatures exhibit bilateral symmetry. Some creatures, like starfish, have radial symmetry.

The historical Egyptian, Greek, and Roman periods cover large spans of time, and areas of geography. I’ve spoken in generalities here, but these cultures and their art is much more complex.

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